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Time's Passage

Recent family events have made me relentlessly aware of time's passage. In Illinois one Sunday we gathered with family and friends to recall our son-in-law's late father, hear brief comments from his children, and share unconcealed sorrow. Over the past two decades he and I had spent some time together at family events. Back in Wisconsin we heard reports about the declining health of my stepdaughter's grandmother in Michigan, who had been a widow for a decade or more, and within days, she too died. Granddaughter and her husband both wrestled with their own and with each another's grief.


That Sunday Sue and I left for Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, crossing Lake Michigan by car ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon. Over the past several years we had vacationed in Leland with Sue's siblings and their families and our Florida grandchildren and their parents. My wife and her siblings had grown up on the southern portion of that shoreline, the connection that had led to the annual northern outings in Leland. Sue's twin brother had spilled his wife's ashes into Lake Michigan there a few years earlier, as they had released their younger sister's ashes into the lake long before, and now his siblings, his children, and his grandchildren had gathered one last time to free his ashes there. This was likely a final physical visit to that past.


My brother-in-law had been in his late 70s. In recent years he had tended to his daughters and their daughters—all five between mid-teens and pre-school—and to his son and daughter-in-law. They all were close to him, their grief sincere and deep. I'd known him for forty-two years, but the youngest granddaughter had known him much more intimately. The dispersal of his ashes was a highly charged event.


Two days later we drove and sailed back home, each constantly reminded of family losses over our lifetimes. Memories resurfaced of past funerals and past burials and lost presences in our lives. I kept comparing the grief of the youngest granddaughters I'd witnessed on the lake with what I could remember of my own reactions to family losses.


My family has long been depleted. I have no memory of my father's mother, who died just after I turned five, but I do recall his father, who lived into my teens, and his siblings, whose families we visited annually—his older brother predeceased my father by many years, his younger sister outlived him by a decade and a half. My mother's family had mostly lived in the county we did, her father dying first, then my mother dying long before her mother, before my father, and before her three brothers. I knew my grandmother's siblings too and believe I spent some time with her parents and others in both generations, though my great-grandparents made little impression on me.


Some images arise as I write this—a farmhouse in the countryside with a woodstove in its center; a small church on a back-country road and my memory of attending a funeral there in a summer sportcoat and tie (undoubtedly tied by my clothing-salesman father); my mother's funeral, my grandmother's, my father's, my aunt's. I remember cousins, all younger than me, and know that in each family I'm related to by blood at least one cousin has died, sometimes two. There are later generations, of course, and thanks to Facebook I am often aware of those generations, can recognize them from their on-screen images, and vaguely know how my widowed aunts and step-grandmother are faring. We are now all widely scattered, and I physically see only my own children and grandchildren occasionally.


So, what am I doing here? The one constant in my existence—in everyone's—is the persistence of change across the passage of time. No matter who you are, no matter how interactive, how social, how engaged you might be with others, the heart of your circumstance is always solitary. The people who brought you into the world, the people who helped you adjust to living in it, the people you yourself brought into the world and the people they later brought into the world, the persons you may have partnered with throughout the passage of time—at base each and everyone of them is a single entity, a solitary being adjusting to who they are and to the constantly changing presence and/or absence of each entity they once interacted with.


Appreciating what you've gained across your time here is rewarding; accepting what you've lost is always challenging; recognizing the inevitability of losing everything you've gained, including yourself, is—eventually—unavoidable. Helping those who followed you to appreciate what they've gained and could still gain might help them better accept what they've lost when you and the generations before you are gone.


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Cave Tour


I was born and grew up in Lockport, New York, in the northwest corner of the state, a short distance from Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and Niagara Falls. The town is named for the locks built along the Erie Canal to aid shipping and boat travel across the state to the Hudson River. When my father sometimes on Sunday took my sister, my brother, and me to a newsstand and cigar store on Main Street, he would let us cross to the Big Bridge to look down on the locks in hopes someone would be using them to raise or lower a vessel from one level of the canal to another. On the far side there was a pathway that would let people descend to the locks for a closer view.


There are caves underneath Lockport. In childhood my friends found an opening in the wall across the towpath from the Locks, but none of us were brave enough to go deeply into it. We suspected it was man-made, not natural, and someone claimed rattlesnakes lived in it. Rattlesnakes were more believable than alligators under the Big Bridge, and we only peeked into it. Other caves were said to exist under streets elsewhere in town and someone tried to open one up for tourists. From what I now know about the formation of caves and sinkholes in the cuesta, I imagine the escarpment here has many hidden caves. One prominent and accessible cave near the canal is the site of the Lockport Caves Tour, its office above the canal, its entrance off the Erie Canal Heritage Trail. Some years ago, I took that tour.


At noon, Ken, our guide, led me and a dozen others to the top of the trail. We descended with intermittent pauses as he filled us in about the history of Lockport, the locks, and the canal. He was polished, knowledgeable, and entertaining, explaining that scenes in the movie Sharknado 2 were filmed in the Lockport Cave. Past the Locks and remnant stone wall ruins Ken unlocked the entrance door to a large lighted metal tube and then ushered us into a well-constructed, dimly lighted room that would lead us into the tunnel proper and the stone interior of the escarpment.


The New York State Legislature first authorized the construction of a tunnel on the north side of the canal in 1839, to provide waterpower for a mill. Eventually Birdsall Holly, an entrepreneur and hydraulic engineer, expanded the excavation into a 1600-foot-long downward sloping tunnel for hydromechanical power. He constructed a seven-story factory and devised a water distribution system giving firefighters a more powerful and effective way of fighting fires—ironically, one night a worker in the fire hydrants building knocked over a lantern and the factory burned down.


We passed through a stone arch doorway into a lower, narrower passage. The walls were rough and uneven and the lighting minimal. We carefully walked single file on a narrow gravel path alongside a continuous pool of water, pausing sometimes to consider the limestone walls. As in any limestone cave water seeps through the rock and forms small stalactites and traces of flowstone. Irish laborers worked eight years to complete the tunnel in tight, dark, enclosed underground space.


At the far end of the cave the tunnel floor was completely flooded. We boarded a long flat boat lined with benches to float deeper into the escarpment, almost up to the top end of the cave but not as far as the water channel went. In the dank semi-darkness, we sensed the weight of the dolostone strata above us and in the uneven walls understood the challenge of chipping away all that subterranean stone by hand. When we returned to the dock, everyone seemed relieved to be shown a nearby exit—we wouldn't have to retrace our footsteps back to where we started. Outside, in daylight, we started a steep climb up to the escarpment's edge. It felt good to be in the open.


These memories of the canal arose when I encountered recent online news items about that flat-bottomed tour boat capsizing in the tunnel, spilling out 29 passengers and drowning an older man by trapping him under the overturned boat for an hour. Rescue workers soon broke through a wall of the cave. Eleven passengers were taken to a hospital, several suffering from hypothermia, the worst injury a broken arm. Most could wade out. They were all event planners visiting the cave to consider possible tours. None had been required to wear life vests. It was the first such accident since the tourist attraction opened in the 1970s.


If I ever visit Lockport again, I'll likely stand above the locks inviting memory, though my sense of being deep in the cave may have altered.

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Practicing Writing

Although I had enjoyed several of Ann Patchett's novels, I ignored her nonfiction, assuming This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage would simply be a cheerful memoir. But when, online, I happened upon "The Getaway Car," her essay about writing, tried to find a physical copy in my local library, and discovered it was available only in that essay collection I'd deliberately overlooked. I immediately checked out the book and have since renewed it four times. It's a good collection and "The Getaway Car" is a good, long article about writing, centered on her fiction ("consolidating the bulk of what I know about the work I do in one place") but applicable to creative nonfiction as well.


 "Every writer approaches writing in a different way," Patchett declares, contrasting approaches between "people who write in order to find out where the story goes" ("if they know the ending of the book there would be no point in writing it)" and people, including herself, "who map out everything in advance," (like John Irving, who "can't start writing his books until he thinks up the last sentence"). I haven't written fiction for decades, but I identify more with her first group than with the group she identifies with. I usually have the urge to write about something but need to write about it to discover why I want to write about it.


Asserting that "to get to the art you must master the craft," she advises, "If you want to write, practice writing." She believes, "I get better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages." She emphasizes self-forgiveness as key: "I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself." When people ask her if writing can be taught, she claims, "I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say." Her observation reminds me of the challenge in teaching writing to students. Textbooks often center on grammatical correctness or, in subject matter courses, on approved interpretations of subject matter, both easier to evaluate than comprehension and individual understanding. Sounding like you know what you're talking about is different from actually having something to say.


Patchett also suggests that the influence of reading other writers is often unpredictable, because a particular work can somehow impact you "in moments when you are especially open." She was influenced by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, reminding me of how idiosyncratic responses to writing usually are. I remember college professors who completely dismissed writers I found inspiring, like Kurt Vonnegut, Wallace Stegner, and Ivan Doig. Feeling her two years at the University of Iowa (where I spent six years) was "an imperfect experience," she claims, "An essential element of being a writer is learning whom to listen to and whom to ignore where your work is concerned." (Once, in William deBuys' writing course, I listened to a discussion of one of my drafts and remember feeling only one classmate had actually read it. I followed her advice and ignored other remarks.)


Patchett's advice about writing fiction usually draws on experience. One example: "If you decide to work completely from your imagination, you will find yourself shocked by all the autobiographical elements that make their way into the text. If, on the other hand, you go the path of the roman à clef, you'll wind up changing the details of your life that are dull." Another example: "ranking everything in my life that needs doing," writing fiction always number one, then zooming through "a whole host of unpleasant tasks to avoid item number one." (I've operated that way myself.) She also recommends "picking an amount of time to sit your desk every day. . . without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. . .. Sooner or later, you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or" you'll give up altogether.


 "If I'm writing a book," Patchett claims, "I'm racing to be finished; if I'm finished, I feel aimless and wish that I were writing a book." One January, daily for thirty-one days, she spent at least one hour composing and usually wrote for more than an hour. When it produced "some of the best writing I'd done in a long time," she continued through the year. She concludes, "Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world." She's right. I really ought to follow Ann Patchett's example.


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Haunting Perspectives


Finding a recent essay by Terry Tempest Williams online in The New York Times' opinion section, I not only copied it—in case I can't find it again on the Internet or in my public library—but also browsed the collection of her books in my study. I'd begun reading her among other western nature writers—memoirists and essayists modeling how to engage terrain unfamiliar to a Great Lakes boy like me—when I served two weeks as an artist-in-residence at Rocky Mountain National Park and later attended writing workshops in Montana and Idaho. Like Gretel Ehrlich, Kim Barnes, and Reg Saner, Terry Tempest Williams became one of the most reliable western writers I continually sought.


The first book of hers I read was Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, a multi-faceted book, thoroughly informative about the history and climate of Great Salt Lake. Williams grew up near Salt Lake City, her Mormon family residing there for generations. When she wrote Refuge, she was partly concerned about the effect of nuclear testing on people in Utah. Her closing chapter, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," deals with health issues—including cancer and death—due to radiation. A parallel narrative running throughout, ostensibly centered on birds, focuses on her mother's death. It's both a significant family memoir and a powerful narrative of place.


In the thirty years since Refuge appeared, Williams has published a number of books I considered essential reading. For example, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks takes her to twelve different parks. To each she brings her own individual perspective. I've visited eight of them, a couple for the first time after reading her book. Erosion: Essays of Undoing, grounded in landscape, is one of her more forthright argumentative collections, examining issues of place that call for remedying.


In Spring 2017, while teaching graduate writing at Ashland University, I assigned students to read Williams' Leap and respond online to each other's reviews of it. It generated a lively discussion among my students about her reflections on Hieronymous Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (El Jardín de las Delicias). Williams had visited the painting at the Prado in Spain several times, her reaction to it initiated by having reproductions of the two end panels depicting Paradise and Hell posted above her childhood bed while the central panel displaying a garden of earthly delights was deliberately kept hidden. Leap follows Williams into that central panel at considerable imaginative length, reflecting on its Christian commentary and her Mormon education. I found it to be a powerful book on every level and my students' readings of it were rich and insightful.


Williams' New York Times opinion piece, "I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake," is an intense essay. Describing her visit to Great Salt Lake with the photographer Fazal Sheikh to examine drought conditions that had lowered the lake, she mentions how construction had divided the lake into north and south arms and cut off the flow between them, which "could be a terminal decision for a terminal lake." Images supported information about the shrinkage of six major salt lakes around the world, illustrating how Great Salt Lake, once 100% full in 1872, has declined to 29% in 2023, having "lost almost two-thirds of its total volume since 1985" due to industrialization and agricultural consumption. "Two-thirds of the natural flow going into the lake is currently being diverted: 80 percent of that diversion by agriculture, 10 percent by industries and 10 percent by municipalities." Politicians claim melting snowpack will replenish the lake, but Williams points out that "very little if any of that runoff will find its way" there and that "one high water year does not solve decades of overconsumption."


The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources reports that "[b]ecause the Great Salt Lake is terminal (i.e., with no water outlet), large amounts of minerals have built up in the lakebed, including heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic." Lakebed exposure allows dust particles to enter the air and "pose a significant concern to public health." Williams identifies several: "cardiovascular events from strokes to heart attacks to respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia and lung cancer." She emphasizes: "The laws of nature do not negotiate with generations of abusive behavior. Our needs are overtaking the needs of Great Salt Lake at our own peril."


Reading Terry Tempest Williams' reliably observant books, you come away feeling as enriched as if you yourself have been to the place she's recreated on the page. Especially with her Great Salt Lake books, you become aware of the effects of the passage of time not only on her thoughtful perspective but also, memorably, on your own sense of place. It haunts you.





Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights"



Terry Tempest Williams, "Opinion: I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake". Photographs by Fazal Sheikh. The New York Times, March 25, 2023: 25.



Nathan Rott, "More than half of the world's largest lakes are shrinking. Here's why that matters." NPR, May 20, 2023: 5:30 AM.


Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "Great Salt Lake water levels," April 13, 2023. https://wildlife.utah.gov/gslep/about/water-levels.html


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Finding Memory


Somehow Bill Bryson's early book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, published over thirty years ago, showed up on my Kindle, apparently unread. I'd read some of his other travel memoirs, like A Walk in the Woods, but I couldn't remember uploading this one and started reading it. Bryson, then long resident in Great Britain, recounts touring parts of the United States that he'd visited in his youth, traveling south from Iowa through states east of the Mississippi and then north through states on the Atlantic coast. His recollections of family trips with parents and siblings sparked vague memories in me, and eventually mention of specific sites made me recall my own travels in them as a teenager. Those memories ended up being more vivid than what I was reading,


I grew up near Niagara Falls. In the summer of 1955, my traveling salesman father and I drove through central New York and Pennsylvania bound for Washington, DC, the southern limit of his route for Lockport Mills. I wrote about those travels in a section of my family memoir, Happenstance, where episodes about my parents' divorce and its aftermath alternate with episodes about being a 13-year-old alone on the road with my father for a week. Our journey together was perhaps generated by someone thinking I needed either to get closer to him or get more distant from my home life. My memoir was published ten years ago; reading Bryson's account of his travels sent me back into my book and the memories recorded there.


My father wanted me to see monuments and historic sites in Washington and Philadelphia. I kept a travel journal of sorts, and later pasted many photographs, some postcards, and scribbles of identification in a cheap binder. We toured the White House and some of the Capitol. When we climbed the Washington Monument, I raced ahead up the staircase, occasionally waiting for Dad to catch up. We circled the tower, squeezed among tourists lining the railings, and in the distance saw the White House across the Ellipse, the Capitol past the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial off near the Potomac River. I thought the view inspiring. In the Smithsonian, gawking at Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers' first plane, and objects from various presidents, I began to appreciate the preservation of historical objects. At both the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, we stared at presidential statues and read some of the inscriptions on the walls.


We crossed the Potomac to visit Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the Memorial Amphitheatre Dad took the only photo of me on the trip, sitting in a stone chair in a very Lincolnesque pose. Remembering John Wayne's film, Sands of Iwo Jima, I snapped a picture of the U. S. Marine Memorial statue of soldiers raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi. My father wandered around the statue—he and his brother had both fought there during World War II. He didn't mention whether the memorial affected him, although he'd visited it before. Books and movies influenced my sense of history a lot back then. When we toured Gettsyburg on our way back north—I'd read The Red Badge of Courage and seen the movie with Audie Murphy—I thought again about Iwo Jima.


In Philadelphia, after visiting Independence Hall, site of the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution, Dad took me to the restored home of American flag seamstress Betsy Ross, to whom he believed we were distantly related—his mother, born Delia Lathrop Ross, was always called Betsy. Then we wound our way into an affluent suburban neighborhood, where his cousin—son of an older brother of my grandfather—and his family lived, all of them lively and gracious. We spent the night, extending my awareness of my father's side of the family, which I rarely encountered, and I couldn't help comparing their lifestyle to my family's circumstances.


In the morning Dad drove through rows of brownstone row houses, pointing out the architecture, but soon moved into downtown Philly, through narrow, cramped, littered city streets in heavy traffic, unnervingly crowded with jaywalkers and a ghetto population. On one busy street corner, an old black man staggered to the curb and pissed into the gutter, people constantly bustling around him. I thought later that driving down that street might have been my father's way of broadening my awareness of the world, making me compare his cousin's prosperous community with the abundant urban squalor here. I doubt that he pointed out the differences, but the contrast stayed with me. Cultural history, family history, personal history. The past I enjoyed touring. The present I needed to recognize as where I really lived.



Notes: Bryson, Bill. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.


Root, Robert. Happenstance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013.


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Home Ground Revisited


Expecting to read aloud from Walking Home Ground soon, I re-familiarize myself with it and notice connections to what I've posted online since it was published. The work came together slowly, first as personal journal entries before expanding into a book manuscript. I read the Wisconsin writing of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth, walked where they'd walked and journaled about it, and reread Thoreau, as all those writers had done. Eventually, the manuscript followed the trajectory of those influences, from Thoreau to me, quoting them abundantly.


Those writers celebrated their time in nature. Thoreau expressed alarm at thinking of work while he walked in the woods: "In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?" Muir exuberantly described arriving at his new home as "This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature's warm heart" and recorded seeing passenger pigeons "flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, like a mighty river in the sky." Leopold wondered, while "watching the green fire die in a wolf's eyes," about "Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the preservation of the world." Derleth told how "long walks into the countryside around Sac Prairie disclosed it as nothing else could have done," listing sightings of whippoorwills, woodcocks, "blue racers in the ecstasy of mating," and more. Readers experience natural surroundings deeply in these works.


I completed and published Walking Home Ground roughly six years ago. Since then, I've read more recent, truly terrific nature books, like Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Barbara Hurd's The Epilogues, Leila Philip's Beaverland, and Ed Yong's An Immense World, all solidly literary and ecologically learned. They tell me things that enrich my understanding of the way the elements of the world we live in work. I gain a deeper understanding of unique qualities of whatever life form or locale they focused on, all far more complicated in their existence than we once knew. They also reveal troubling knowledge about their futures on our planet—as well the future of our species. The nature books of the 21st Century provide urgent warnings and dire speculations about the direction the creatures and creations on the planet are heading.


Reviewing my observations about writers walking their home grounds, I feel unsettled by not having stressed implications for the future in what they examined. In The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Muir was disturbed by the changes wrought in the landscape, prairie and savanna turned into farmland, the health of the environment endangered. Unable to convince new owners to preserve Fountain Lake, his awareness of what could be lost in the natural world sent him exploring and recording as much as he could.


Muir saw things as they were and tried to preserve them; Leopold saw things as they had become and tried to restore them. In A Sand County Almanac, he wrote of his own efforts at the Shack: "On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society, we try to rebuild, by shovel and ax, what we are losing elsewhere." Time and change are a constant awareness in Leopold's writing; the elegiac is always an undercurrent in what he writes, as well as a sharp observant presence. The monument to the extinct passenger pigeon "commemorates the funeral of a species," he reflected, "Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know. To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons."


In Return to Walden West, Derleth recognized the changes occurring in his familiar landscape, and sought solace there. "I never found that nature failed me," he wrote. "While the condition of man on his planet slowly worsens, the pattern of the seasons changes not at all, however much nature's aspects reflect the damage wrought by man in his avarice and his devotion to false, unnatural values." He laments the "unceasing change" of the social world, the way most people

"never see themselves as integral to nature." He ends his Sac Prairie nonfiction series with a mixture of resignation and acceptance, letting him come to terms with his experience walking his home ground.


Retreat and withdrawal seem acceptable, even justified in those earlier nature writers; broader knowledge and deeper understanding are vitally convincing and necessary in the current ones. They are also disturbing if we're actually learning vital truths too late.



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Umwelten and Beyond


Catching up on unread articles in The New York Times Book Review's year-end issue, I opened to the section on what they judge to be the ten best books of 2022 and realized that I'd been reading one nonfiction choice nightly, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong, for a week or so. They provided a cover image, a capsule review rich with merited praise, and a short excerpt, part of a paragraph about the speed and power of a striking rattlesnake that I'd already read and remembered well. Upstairs at my nightstand, I leafed through the book, pausing at each dogeared page where scenes or observations had caught my attention on various nights. Rich in vivid description and significant information about the animals it discusses, the book continually expands the reader's awareness of how all kinds of creatures operate in the world.


Yong draws on an amazing range of research—most pages throughout the book include footnotes adding to the informative paragraphs above and his extensive bibliography runs 45 pages—sharing not only abundant scientific reading but also onsite conversations with various researchers to learn what distinguishes the sensory ranges of all kinds of creatures. Chapters center on smells and tastes, light and ways of seeing, color, pain, heat, sound, and contact, as well as sensory powers humans might not know they themselves have or once had, powers other very different creatures consistently rely on.


Yong begins the book demonstrating how seven creatures in the same physical space might "experience it in wildly and wondrously different ways." As the book will show us, "every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality's fullness," because each creature is "enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world." He introduces the key term Umwelt: "the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience—its perceptual world," and uses the term Umwelten throughout the book to distinguish different ways that different creatures discern their world. For example, the chapter on electric fields examines such creatures as knifefishes and elephantfishes that "use their electric fields to sense their surroundings, and . . . communicate with each other. Electricity is to them what echoes are to bats, smells are to dogs, and light is to humans—the core of their Umwelt." Yong makes a good case for his assertion that "[t]o stand a chance of knowing what it is like to be another animal, we need to know almost everything about that animal': its senses, nervous system, needs, environment, "evolutionary past and its ecological present."


Examples abound throughout the book, encompassing an almost encyclopedic range of creatures. For example, observing heat-sensitive pits behind a rattlesnake's nostrils, Yong tells us they evolved among three groups of snakes, "two non-venomous constrictors, pythons and boas," and "the highly venomous and aptly named pit vipers—cottonmouths, copperheads, moccasins, and rattlesnakes." He points out that "a pit viper can detect the warmth of a rodent from up to a meter away. A blindfolded rattlesnake that's sitting on your head could sense the warmth of a mouse on the tip of your outstretched finger."


Such facts surface about other creatures throughout the book. For example: "Around 350 species of fish can produce their own electricity, and humans have known about their ability since long before anyone knew what electricity was." And: "After a busy night of insect-catching, big brown bats use a compass sense to return to their home roosts. After an early life in the open ocean, baby cardinal fish use a compass sense to swim back to the coral reefs where they were born. Mole-rats use their compass to find their way through their dark underground tunnels."


As exhilarating as his revelations about all kinds of creatures are, there's a darker aspect to what we learn. In his final chapter Yong details the ways humans have profoundly altered the Umwelten of Earth's other creatures. "We are closer than ever to understanding what it is like to be another animal, but we have made it harder than ever for other animals to be."


He heightens our awareness of where our world is now: "We normalize the abnormal, and accept the unacceptable. Remember that more than 80 percent of people live under light-polluted skies, and that two-thirds of Europeans are immersed in noise equivalent to constant rainfall. Many people have no idea what true darkness or quiet feels like . . . . As the problem of sensory pollution grows, our willingness to address it subsides." He asks, "How do we solve a problem that we don't realize exists." This book makes us more profoundly aware and gives us hope that we'll find a way to address it.



Notes: Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

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I just happened upon an old photo of Leila Philip and me standing on either side of a graduate student whose master's committee we served on years ago. It was a timely glance—I'd just read Leila's most recent book, Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, and put it on a bookshelf alongside her two earlier works. Teaching in that graduate program for several years, we spent two summer weeks on campus, where I bought one of her books when she joined the faculty.


I expected A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family to resonate with my memories. Not only had I written a book on family and place set in western New York, but I also had researched the Hudson River for a potential travel memoir (never completed) comparing it with the Rhine. Here she records the challenges and the processes of researching family history "in search of the story or stories that could set the record straight," discovering "who these people were who had kept these files, those unsmiling faces on the walls, this place that always whispered, 'This is who you are.'" Her book is both conscientious and thorough.


Her earlier book, The Road Through Miyama, is an account of the two years she worked as a potterer's apprentice in the southern Japanese village of Miyama. I had become familiar with Japanese wood block prints from exhibits in the Art Institute of Chicago and owned guides to early 19th century works by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The black and white reproductions of such art in Philip's book, together with my appreciation of A Family Place, spurred me to acquire this book. In retrospect, I imagine it prompting her family memoir of place, as if her thorough blending of research and narrative experience in foreign surroundings innately modeled an application of that skill to a more personal enterprise. I envied her experience in Japan and valued her recording of her time there.


It had been years since I'd seen her, but those two books still anchored one end of a bookshelf mostly filled with work by Scott Russell Sanders, Patricia Hampl, and Joan Didion, essayists and memoirists who also modeled intimate examinations of particular places. I'll admit to being initially hesitant about acquiring a book about beavers—my biases tended toward birds and trees—but other recent texts had shifted my perspectives not only on other creatures but also on many elements of the natural world to which I'd given little attention. Day by day accounts of weather and climate—shrinking rivers and drying lakes, melting glaciers, rising seacoasts, habitat losses, species extinctions—made me more cognizant of how important it was to acknowledge what was happening to our world and to consider how little we'd invested in trying to preserve it.


And Leila Philip's first two books had been pretty absorbing reading. The depth and range of her research combined with her artful narrative skills promised a rewarding read with Beaverland that was quickly confirmed from the start. She's a writer you want to wander with, whose conversations with ecologists and environmental researchers you appreciate overhearing, whose discoveries of unexpected landscapes makes you more alert to the ones around you. The scale of her research into the history of the beaver in North America is impressive, and the book opens with a description of the beaver's surprisingly varied features and the assertion that "one million years ago, beavers the size of bears roamed North America."


Having seen a beaver in a nearby pond with a beaver dam and then not seeing it anymore, Philip makes up her mind to learn whatever she can about beavers and visit sites where her understanding of their habits and history will be enhanced. She will learn of beavers' relationship with Indigenous peoples across the continent, their eventual extinction through European alteration of the landscape and exploitation through voluminous fur trading, their eventual return thanks to conservation advocacy. She will visit sites in the Northeast, the Northwest, and the Midwest and learn about sites in Alaska and Europe. She will attend fur trade auctions and beaver sanctuaries. She will report on ways to manage beaver-caused flooding problems through nonlethal methods (like installing pond-levelers and culvert fencing). In one photograph of 64,000 charred acres from an Idaho wildfire, she calls our attention to one large green patch which has been preserved by the lifestyle of beavers.


Beaverland is richly informative, thoroughly thoughtful, and convincingly argues our need to value beavers and their lifestyle. While enlarging our understanding of our continental past, she expands our sense of what we might need to do for our future. Each of her books enriches its readers, just as the writing of it has enriched her own understanding of what she experiences.


Notes: Philip, Leila. The Road Through Miyama. New York: Random House, 1989.


Philip, Leila. A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.


Philip, Leila. Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America. New York: Twelve, 2022.


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Birgit Schössow's cover image for The New Yorker's November 28, 2022, issue imitates an 1831 Japanese woodblock print (ukiyo-e). It's partly an homage to Hokusai's "The Great Wave" (or "Under the Wave off Kanagawa") in which, beyond barely visible manned wasen (traditional boats), a small distant image of Mount Fuji stands in a trough below the towering crest of the wave. It may be the best-known image from Hokusai's "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji." Schössow renders the arc of the waves as more advanced and ominous and, in place of Fuji, she's substituted the distant, darkened outline of Manhattan. It isn't a random alteration of Hokusai's scene—his vessels may make it through the waves; Schössow's shadowy city seems more vulnerable, more menaced.


The major articles in what The New Yorker designates as "The Climate Issue" focus on that theme. David W. Brown's "Journey to Doomsday" recounts an expedition to Antarctica's "Florida-sized" bowl-shaped Thwaites Glacier to estimate its likelihood of collapsing as warm waters eat away ice supporting it. He narrates efforts to determine "whether Thwaites has fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years left" before it slides into the sea. Readers gain a detailed appreciation of the challenges that researchers face at the South Pole—their ship can't reach the glacier and flown-in teams trying to explore a variety of sites wrestle with high seas, high winds, loss of visibility, extreme cold, difficulty with communication, and shifting levels of uncertainty.


Emily Witt's article "The Coming Storm," enhanced by a sprawling photo by Ace Adams of the barrier island of Kivalina and the low, vast Alaskan coast beyond, examines the challenge to Inupiat villagers as Arctic Ocean waters rise. Witt's visits to both the island and the mainland provide a thorough understanding of the history of the region in terms of the changes Indigenous people have undergone culturally from their residence prior to the invasive influx of European development and politics beginning centuries ago and, despite changes in the 21st Century, still affecting them today as their climate changes and their financial situation limits their ability to counteract its effects. Witt's report on global warming's impact on the Arctic as the result of of industrial commerce imposed upon the region by Canada and the United States gives readers a deeper appreciation of the complexity of dealing with climate change issues.


The longest article in the issue is by Elizabeth Kolbert, who gives us a disturbing follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize winning earlier book The Sixth Extinction in "A Vast Experiment." Both book and article ought to be required reading for all of us. Here, she explores "stories we tell ourselves about the Earth's future" by following "The Climate Crisis from A to Z." Sixteen drawings by Wesley Allbrook illustrate many of the items she will highlight along the way. In the alphabetically opening section, she reports on Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius' early 20th century speculation that increases in carbon dioxide would affect a rise in global temperature in roughly 3000 years and points out that actually the "threshold could be reached within decades." She doesn't fault Arrhenius for getting it wrong: "Here we all are, watching things fall apart. And yet, deep down, we don't believe it." Her second section recounts the instances of agreement since world leaders at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero (1992) claimed that "radical change was needed" to avert global disaster and then centers on Greta Thunberg's 2021 account of all those decades of proposals as "blah, blah, blah"—a great many pompous promises followed by overwhelming inactivity.


In subsequent sections Kolbert is fairly specific about the kind of problematic changes the planet faces and the challenges human populations must overcome should they truly engage them. She quotes Vaclav Smil's observation that "the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast" and his reference to studies that "rely on a variety of unreliable assumptions—that existing technology will be deployed at fantastic rates, or that nonexistent technologies will be deployed at fantastic rates, or that humanity's ever-growing appetite for energy will suddenly be curbed, or some combination of all three." Kolbert then explores problems that will arise whenever any attempts to act on climate change occur. The essay ends at Lake Mead, comparing the optimistic voice on an old tour tape with a disturbing view of Hoover Dam's depleted lake environment and deepening aridity. She concludes, "Whatever we want to believe about our future, there are limits, and we are up against them."


Elsewhere, Philip Montgomery's photographs of wind turbines rising three hundred feet along "the spine of the Appalachians" and Robin Coste Lewis's powerful poem "To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness" further broaden readers' perspectives. This issue is compellingly rich and necessary, one everyone ought to know about and read.


Note: The New Yorker, November 28, 2022


Depenbrock, Julie. "This is what's at risk from climate change in Alaska," Morning Edition, NPR (December 22, 2022)


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Art and Memory


In our two-story condo, the first floor encompasses three adjoining open spaces. I'd come downstairs for a break from accomplishing nothing on my laptop, crossed the kitchen and entered the living-dining area, when I noticed the painting perched on our small upright piano. The table where I scribble this in one corner of the condo's back wall provides a straight-ahead view of piano, living room furniture, seldom-used gas fireplace, coat closet, and front wall with two tall windows and matching entranceway. To the right is our kitchen counter-breakfast area, kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, and hallway leading to the garage and the stairway to our second floor. It's pretty compact but not a particularly crowded space.


Almost every wall displays images in various sizes and varying media, some random purchases, some gifts, all having hung in those spaces for years. Only the small landscape painting propped on the piano keyboard is a new acquisition—it will likely adorn a different space elsewhere in the condo before long. Even as I crossed over to study it more closely again, memories began opening up about the scene in the painting and also about the painter, and then memories started spreading around the room.


The painting is a watercolor that depicts a cluster of buildings and boats along a riverbank below a distant church spire and empty pale blue sky. It's a scene set in St. Joseph, Michigan, where the artist, my mother-in-law, lived most of her life and where my wife and her siblings grew up. We have other paintings by her, one hanging behind our dining table. That one, one of her most accomplished paintings, larger and more colorful, portrays sand dunes, beach, cloud-filled sky, lake shoreline, dark clumps of beach grass and weathered trees. We'd passed the setting often when we visited St. Joe and strolled along the Lake Michigan shore. It has a prominent spot in our home.


Kitty-corner from that picture is another personally connected one, a large bright painting by our friend Carole Steinberg Berk of a cluster of buildings on a Greek island where she and her husband Mike once vacationed—other images by her hang upstairs in our bedroom. The island image is a vivid balance of white buildings and blue sea and sky. When you enter our front door, you immediately have the clearest view of those shoreline paintings, suggesting that we are fond of landscapes and also fond of those artists. That they simultaneously commemorate losses in family and friendship will not be obvious.


Other artworks upon our walls have personal links for us: our daughter's close-up photograph of a leaf; a former student's photograph from above the Mackinac Bridge; a picture of three white horses sharing a quilt and bed pillows for the essayist Kathleen Stocking's book The Long Arc of the Universe; landscape photos from Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail and Door Peninsula. For the most part, every time I pause again to study one of these pictures, I open a door to memories of the artist and/or the donor and/or the locale.


Unlike the sand dune shoreline painting, which we received after my mother-in-law's death several decades ago, we only recently acquired the picture of the riverbank, though we'd seen it long before. For all those years, my brother-in-law—my wife's twin—possessed it. She received it a few months ago, after her brother's unexpected death. Looking at that painting, I can't help shifting my gaze to those by my mother-in-law and my friend's widow. A wave of melancholy arises from them all.


Eventually, inevitably, all these paintings and other artwork will be passed on—hopefully not soon—most likely to our heirs, who will decide whether to keep them or donate them elsewhere. As we look at them and recognize their sources, abundant images arise—of conversations, games, rooms and residences, holiday gatherings, emotions deep in memory. Our children will have some similar recollections of their grandparents and their uncle and places they once visited—the family home in St. Joe, recent summer gatherings on the Leelanau Peninsula—but it's unlikely that the artifacts I survey here will trigger the same specific thoughts.


And then the images will stand on their own. For other, unrelated casual viewers they may provoke responses to composition quality, memories of other images, or ideas about how to render such a scene, but those viewers will likely have little sense of who the artist was or what compelled the creation of the scene. Whatever the art inspires in them will not be what surfaces in those of us who stand before it now, making connections only the artist's family can make. We consider our losses a lot these days. It's good to be reminded, while we can be, of what we deeply valued—and value still.


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