Knowing Your Nature

Branches whip madly above my head as we walk along a mountainside that’s alternately damp, earthy forest and golden-haired meadows. With his growth potion (aka me – he’s on my shoulders) my young friend Kylan is among the trees. Kylan, when not making the most of his childhood, is an alchemist, who happens to make magic potions in lieu of gold. Today, he and I are working on a growth potion, presumably so he can be tall even without me around, which I guess means I’m making my replacement. Regardless, after seeing the results of his speed potion, which left me realizing how badly I’ve let myself go, I asked Kylan to teach me some alchemy. In the meantime, newly an apprentice, I scoured the forest floor for duckweed and pine needles and mysterious white berries.

As I worked, shuffling along the damp ground, I found out how much I normally missed, little duckweed (which I found out later wasn’t really duck weed) hid below shrubs and among moss, wolf lichen clung desperately to trees, and frail spiderwebs tied themselves to fragrant pine. This newfound attention to nature intrigued me and, eager to learn more about the alchemy that inspired this attentiveness, I checked out Gillot de Givry’s tome about the science called the Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy. Upon leafing through musty pages right out of a Harry Potter movie, I was surprised to find a science deeply respectful of nature, a science which echoed my lessons from Kylan. The goal of alchemy was, “to penetrate the mystery of life” by looking to nature and imitating (De Givry 1973). What I learned from De Givry sounded more mystical than I’d previously imagined, not at all what usually comes to mind when I think of alchemy: “man’s vain endeavor to make artificial gold” (De Givry 1973). Alchemy of old, respected nature as teacher: “all the alchemists stubbornly repeat so often that their sole master is Nature,” says De Givry (De Givry 1973). Alchemists even went so far as to say that books aren’t necessary for learning from alchemy, one merely needs an upright soul and ears open to nature (De Givry 1973). Far from hermits crouched over bubbling pots with dreams of riches beyond belief, it seems alchemists respected and knew nature in a deep, almost spiritual way. After my time as an apprentice alchemist, I started asking this question over and over again: How can I get to know nature? What follows are a collection of stories that attempt to answer that question.

Back in the day, alchemists claimed to use ‘A single substance, a single vase’ to plumb the secrets of the natural world. In my time as a computer “alchemist”, things were a tad more extravagant. As modern-day Puffers (alchemists name for chemists), we used supercomputers and the buzzword of all buzzwords ‘machine learning’ to pick at the secrets held so jealously by the material world. The goal of our project was to predict what material combos were most promising for research, saving material scientists the work (and cost) of getting to know nature’s materials first hand. That was the goal. The reality was that we were a bunch of undergrads who barely knew what machine learning was and ran random models with data we didn’t collect about materials we’d never seen. Our models appeared to be predictive of something in the end, but none of us knew what, other than the fact a line followed a curve pretty damn well. We thought that computers could make our work fast and “know” nature for us, but it turns out they only disconnected us from the nature the alchemists imitated.

My experience as a computer alchemist shouldn’t be surprising. In our culture we glorify experimentation as the way of all ways and machine learning is the holy grail of experimentation. Computers can try so many hypotheses so fast, they guarantee a golden ticket to understanding. After all, the scientific method can solve everything right? I don’t think we verbalize this belief – nor the underlying belief that all our experimentation comes without consequences. The great experiments of our time – social media, cell phones, fossil fuels – have bit us hard and it makes me wonder whether the scientific method couldn’t use some of the funky reverence of the alchemists. If alchemists were lovers of nature, us Puffers were creepy weirdos who watched her from a distance with a calculator, converting our “love” into numbers we could easily understand from behind the safety of a screen. In our disconnection from nature, we hurt ourselves. In my case, we not only wasted time staring at screens and crunching numbers, we missed out on what Kylan and I discovered in the forest that day: a sense of wonder and the care that is listening. After all this, I can’t help but think our time wouldn’t have been better spent out picking what we thought was duckweed to make a fragrant potion, whose magic would teach us to notice the world around us. In that class we might have discovered less, but more worthwhile things.

I’m checking over the gray, cold body when I see he has a tiny penis, I think. I’m serious, it’s like the size of my thumb. Which I guess might actually be big for a poor little squirrel. Right above his tiny appendage, I grab a chunk of skin and saw away with my knife. This little dude’s life left him just a few hours ago. A big truck clocked him and his friend as they tried to cross the road. My friend here came out ok other than his head, which suffice to say, did not come out ok. His bushy tail jitters with false life as I slice up his gray abdomen to slip still warm organs out. With them gone, I start skinning him, laboriously pulling pelt away from muscle and bone. As his skin slips off like a well fit suit, I see an eerie resemblance between myself and him. We both have puny biceps and are sewn together with tendons and muscles which cover lungs and a heart, which precariously beats along. With the skin nearly off now I have to break off hands and feet and head and again I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu. My fingers search along the knee for tendons, tendons I later absentmindedly touch on my own leg, that is until I remember his. With all his appendages gone and clean, the pink headless squirrel does not look so different than I. I’m chilled by how accurate a picture of my own body I see below me. In this little life there is an odd resonance between my mortality and his. Annie Dillard once said, “You see the creatures die, and you know you will die.” I didn’t see this guy die, but I saw him dead and I knew him. More, I saw me in him. I am spooked.

Later I’m in the woods again, trying to wrap my head around another way of knowing nature, this time in the “sit and observe” way Dillard is so fond of. I try to sit and observe, I really do, but shortly after the sitting part begins an uprooted tree catches my eye and I’m drawn to it like a moth. The upturned roots speak of a hidden world below, a dark mirror of the one above. Tendrils of wood grasp vainly at the sky and a mass of little roots tumble from the tendrils like thick hair. I step into the hollow below and look up. I’m not used to looking up, being 6’ 4’’. It always comes as a shock, but here it’s extra bizarre because I’m used to looking up to tree tops, not tree bottoms. These roots feel like the underwear of trees, they tell you tons about them but it’s really not your business to know what goes on down there. I just kind of stare at the roots for a while, lost in wonder and feeling lucky and sad the tree had to fall.

Then I ask a rather obvious question: What the hell could topple a tree like this? Whatever it was I’m glad it’s gone. In another part of the forest I saw trees missing tops and imagined an immature giant running around with a sword, leveling trees in a tantrum. In reality, it was probably the wind, but that’s rather boring. Being a bit bored myself, I climb out of the hollow and onto the trunk of the tree where I decide to meditate. I slow my breathing and feel foolish for doing this standing up, but that thought flees in the fright of another one. I can feel breath on my face, though I’m alone. A breeze from roots long dead, cold and moist, mirrors my own breath. I know it’s probably just old wind at it once again, but I can’t help but feel spooked. As is usually the case when I try to meditate, I’m quickly bored, and the tree changes tones and beckons me down its length, which hangs suspended above the ground. With a shoelace hanging precariously untied, I make my way across in fits and starts. My terrible balance feeds grotesque visions of impalement on the many branches shooting up from below. Mercifully, I forgot these visions as I begin to bounce. Well, not at first do I forget. My first reaction is cold fear as I think the tree is trying to throw me off to be stabbed by his friends below. After I realize this isn’t what’s happening, I start to lean into this bounce. Slowly, a rhythm begins to reverberate between me and the tree. Before long the tree and I are in sync and what looked long dead seems to have new life. It’s like my bounces are a CPR that animates the tree for a moment, returning it to vibrant, exuberant life. It’s whole hundred-foot length is vibrating now, looking like a plucked string. My friend comes over and joins the rhythm and now we are really bouncing, shivering up and down with this tree we thought was dead but was actually slumbering, waiting to be awoken. The soles of my feet seemed to connect with that tree and I felt sure it was having fun, too. Life multiplied between us in a beautiful resonance. Here, with this tree, I felt a sense of life, even in death.

A day after my time as an apprentice to Kylan and a few days before I met my tree friend, our potion had sat overnight and finished. Walking to the back porch where it lay, Kylan was a wonderful mix of excited and serious and I was just plain curious. I’m shocked back into the childhood wonder I lost when I grew tall after I get a whiff of the pungent lemony potion. All those ingredients distilled into a smell to savor. It’s not gold, but it’s still remarkable. These plants, a random mishmash of things incorrectly named or nameless, came together to form an experience I will treasure. I can never look at the forest floor the same and while that also isn’t gold, it is priceless. Just as valuable are the lessons I learned: to listen and keep it simple. Through said lessons I heard a lively dead tree with fun on offer, a deadly resonance in roadkill, and the true sound of that artificial buzz of screens. Knowing nature is not easy, but important. Now I ask you: How do you get to know nature? I hope for your sake it doesn’t involve male roadkill.

 

Nature at Home

Today I’m sharing a piece written by my good friend Will Lake who’s also here at the Oregon Extension. Earlier in the semester we read Annie Dillard, a nature writer, and were asked to copy her style of writing and observation. We each trundled outside and found a spot to sit as still as possible (not very still in my case) for an hour. Then we trundled on back and wrote about our experience.

I loved Will’s piece especially because he connected the idea of nature as home to our family homes. We forgot how well taken care of we are, how much nature does for us. Will’s piece captures well the guilt and remorse I think we should feel for ignoring the nature that takes such good care of us. Without further adieu, here it is:

I come down the valley on the path to the creek. I feel foreign here, alien, in a sense. I feel like a stranger coming into a house at dark, or better, like coming back home after too long away. I stumble, rumble, bumble and fall. I break bushes, I have no heading, I see no path, I make a ruckus. I fall into the creek. My pants are wet, and I sit up on a mossy rock while my socks dry.

It feels like coming home, sort of. Yet, I feel like I never quite lived here. It’s almost like I’m coming to visit my grandma after much time has passed. If I see it in this way, nature is my grandma and her house is wilderness, and today, I am visiting gram at her house: I’ve been away for too long; it’s probably been years. I overlook her house, passing it twice on the street. The lights are on, and the door is always unlocked. I walk right in like I own the place – I mean, I certainly wouldn’t think to knock. I stumble in, bumbling, tripping, slipping on knick-knacks and ancient rugs, knocking a glass bell off the bell shelf on the way in. It shatters, but I don’t care. Besides, there’s a million of them. I sit down at the table on her hard-wooden chair. I find tremendous comfort in the steadfastness of my grandma’s house, like I want to roll in the nostalgia that surrounds me, breathing in the comforts of old – the things here that always have been and probably always will be: the box of toys my mom had, the same kitchen table with water bottles filled with rocks so the dog wouldn’t jump. Don’t forget the smell, oh the smell! Had she bought the same air freshener for 70 years? I find it all deeply familiar. Yet, it is heartbreaking to see the things that have changed and died. No more laughing of grandchildren, no more Christmas mornings with the whole family, no more pierogi from the polish deli down the street. I find joy and sadness all the while. I realize how deeply my life is intertwined IN this very house. My mother, after all, was born here. Half of my genetic being lived here, toiled here, cried here, and yet, I am removed from it. Just a few, small memories are what have connecting me to this place, the place of my ancestry. Soon, grandma will move from the house, and when she does, we will sell it, her grandkids, that is. We will justify it for our college tuition, our needs unmet, and because that’s “the way of life”. After all, nothing lasts forever, not even grandma’s house.

Gram is at the table with all her wisdom and ancient beauty. I feel good here, full. I feel for a moment like I am a good grandson (for I have visited her, listened to her stories, acknowledged her teachings, and tried to preserve her in this way). And yet, my belly aches, and I know she has not a crumb I won’t have to rummage for. I start to feel like this is not my home. I feel separate. I get restless after an hour of pinochle. “This was fun,” I say. The sun is setting out her window and I feel even more uncomfortable now in her home. I long to leave. I love her, truly, I do, but night time here depresses me and chills me to my bone. At night mysteries fill her creaky corridors. I tell her I had a great time, and that I’ll be back again soon as I make up an excuse to leave. I stumble, again, towards the door, breaking more bells as I leave. “Never mind it,” she says. She is always giving. I leave with another “grandma check”. She has filled me up, sustained me. She does it, I suppose, because she wants to, or maybe because she wants me to come back. I feel guilty now. I stumble to my car and drive away in silence. I take for granted that she will be there next time I come, whenever I choose to return. I am comfortable again: my feet off the itchy shag, my butt off her hard, wooden chairs, and done tirelessly playing pinochle. I eat. I cash my check. Satisfied, I think of when I might go back.

I see the sun set over the creek. It is cold now, and I put on my jacket. I pick up my bag, put on my stiff-dried socks, and limp my way up the valley towards my cabin. I eat a warm dinner and crawl into bed. I am home.

What a Wadi

The day after the desert, we woke up in time for a 7:00am breakfast and an 8:00am departure to Wadi Bani Awf. A wadi is a valley or channel that is dry until the rainy season, and when it is full of water is a perfect swimming hole for relief from the heat. This wadi was in the middle of a collection of mountains that used to be seafloor just like those in Ibri. We had to travel through the rock before finding the little haven. Then, we followed an old falaj* until we found its source of water.

I saw glitter before I realized that there was a pool of water expanding through the landscape. Lush, vivid, paradise. By the main pool, a restaurant was open for visitors and we used the bathroom to change into our swimsuits and cover-ups. Signs requested guests to cover up and be mindful of cultural guidelines. Translation: no bikinis, keep the hips covered and feel free to sunbathe with your shirts on. Other signs warned to be careful of slick rocks and not to jump in certain parts. My favorite sign boasted about creation:

“secret of universe and creativity of God shows the beauty of nature and its charm. Nature is a mirror with which you harmonize your essence and expand your imagination, so take care of its elements because there you find yours”

I smiled seeing that because it reminded me how faithful many people in this country are and how Muslims too share the care for nature just as Christians do.

Once I was lathered heavily with sunscreen, I got a spark of confidence and slid right into the blue. Beautiful. It felt beautiful. I paddled about, absorbing every touch of fish nibbling my toes (free pedicure!), every splash and every polished rock. The water lead through tunnels and walls of rock and I found myself wedged between dry, harsh boulders but yet still there was a lush, living stream.

After a while, I carefully pulled myself up and out of the water onto a slippery rock. I needed sun, so I headed up the wall by intentionally placing my toes in holes narrowed by years of water erosion. My wet clothes turned sticky, but I continued in my bare feet until I reached the top of the mountain. Across the cavern on the other side of the wadi, an Omani family sat down for a picnic while little girls pranced about in their traditional, colorful dresses. I watch for a while, then climbed back down for lunch.

With about 45 minutes left, my friend David and I realized we had not seen the cave at the end of the wadi. So, we set off on a mission to find it before we had to pack up the bus. We followed a trail through pebble bottom creeks, under and through sweating boulders, and barely stayed on our feet—I won’t tell you who took the first tumble, but it wasn’t me.

When we found the steps to the cave, David borrowed a phone for a flashlight from some Omani boys next to the entrance and we headed in. We crawled through damp, muddy gaps and I scrapped my knees and knuckles. I could feel my hair matted on my forehead and under my hat.  My cheeks were red and sweaty and puffy. But we kept going and found a pool of water in the bottom of the cave. In the process of one hour, we had gone to the highest point of the wadi and perhaps the lowest. We rushed back to the restaurant and made it just in time for me to change before heading to another city.

In the bathroom after changing back into my dry clothes, I caught myself in the mirror and laughed at my beet cheeks and crunchy hay-looking hair. I was a mess, but my wild green eyes were joyful.  Little places like the wadi show light in the midst of darkness. Life, where there seemed to be only dead, dry things. Coming into contact with the Lord in this way fills my heart and was an important reminder before heading back to school the next day.

I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”  (Psalm 27:13)

*ancient water channels and a system of irrigation using gravity to pull water all over the region — I could write an entire blog about the Afalaj systems in Oman

The Flora & Fauna of Ecuador

Why did you choose to study abroad in Ecuador? Why didn’t you pick some tropical place like Costa Rica? Before I came to Ecuador, I knew that it was a tropical country because of its location on the equator, but I never expected it to be as diverse as it is.

Ecuador is ranked as one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, and because of its small size it is probably one of the most diverse relative to size. So to that person who asked me why I picked Ecuador over Costa Rica: that is the reason why.

ecuador_nature_map
Image Source (The Galapagos Islands have been enlarged to show the shapes of the islands)

The country is divided into 4 different environmental regions: The Galapagos Islands (Galápagos), the Coast (La Costa), the Mountains (La Sierra), and the Amazon (El Oriente / Amazonía).

Because the climates in these environments are very different, there are tons of different species unique to each area. The mountains act as a barrier between the coast and the Amazon, making isolation of these species easier. The isolated species reproduce over and over again throughout generations which makes the species vary from a similar species found elsewhere in the country. Great examples of these evolutionary changes are found on the Galapagos Islands where the species have evolved to adapt to their environment over several hundred years.

I had the opportunity to visit the Guayllabamba Zoo just north of Quito. This zoo is unique in that most of the animals found there are actually animals of Ecuador. A few exceptions would be the African lion and the ostrich. There are many species of birds there that would typically be found in the Amazon.

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Other animals I saw included monkeys, bears, wild cats, and the famous Galapagos tortoises.

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Besides its wide array of species, Ecuador also has a variety of different plants. Because of it’s different types of ecosystems like the páramotropical rain-forest (the Amazon), cloud-forests, dry-forests of the coast, and Galapagos, to name a few, there are thousands of different plant species all over the country.

Going to the botanical gardens of Quito is a great way to become introduced to a variety of the plant species in Ecuador. I have taken two trips there and both times I was introduced to different types of plants; there are just too many to show in one day. Our guide showed us the different medicinal plants that some indigenous communities of Ecuador still use. She also showed us which plants were edible and which were definitely not. As a part of the tour, we explored the orchid exhibit which housed hundreds of orchid species native to Ecuador. Along with that, we were able to enter the carnivorous greenhouse where we were introduced to the carnivorous plants one could find in the tropical rain-forest.

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I had a fun time exploring the different flora and fauna of this country and I hope you do too with these pictures! ¡Hasta luego, amigos! Stay tuned for other study abroad tips with me 🙂