Sunday, April 17, 2011

Place/Prompt Blog 8

Blog #8
I don’t think my relationship to my place has changed at all. The only difference I’ve encountered is that I know what my backyard looks like now, and I can imagine different sections of it without having to double check. But it’s still foreign. I didn’t achieve that level of intimacy I was looking for in the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t feel the same sense of security I get in my room. But I’ve learned how much more difficult it is to go out into nature than it was just a year ago. Before, I could walk out my front door, and I would have to physically leave my driveway in order to leave the expanse of nature. Even then, with the small town of Prospect located in the middle of the countryside, most of the lawns opened into fields no matter how close or distant the houses were from each other—the backyards all connected into the fields. Now, I step out my front door and the only nature I experience is the sky, the weather, and the front yard.
Yesterday, I opened my window and crawled onto the slanted roof, leaving my temporary screen wedged between the window and the frame so I could easily open the window again from the outside. I waited until the wind had died down enough so I wouldn’t feel that I was about to fly off. The grass still had spots of brown and dingy green, but it was still fresher than it was because of the rain we’ve gotten over the past few days. As I surveyed the lawns, I was reminded of how green the grass is in Ireland. Western PA looks like Ireland after it rains, because the daily rains are the main reason Ireland is so green.
Standing on the roof seems appropriate for me now. I certainly don’t consider myself above nature, but detached from the nature in New Castle. Standing on the roof, I’m still in nature, still part of it, but separated. The barking of the same hidden big dog still reaches me the same as if I stood on the grass. The same birds flit by, singing. When I turn around, Ember is staring at me from inside.
“Mom? Mom! What are you doing out there! Why are you out there! You’re outside! I don’t like you outside! I can’t get to you! I want to be outside, can I be outside, you’re where the birds are, Mom, Mom!” she seems to say in just a look, her wide eyes, her desperate meow as she paws without claws at the glass.
And I find it interesting that the nature outside doesn’t compel me to visit it nearly as much as my bundle of nature inside.
Behind her sits my computer desk, atop of which is printouts of PDFs and the nature anthology we read for class. Some of what I’ve read for this course I encountered in my previous Literature of the Environment class from SRU. But in that class, we concentrated on the reverence of nature. In this class, we shifted back and forth between reverence, irony, annoyance, subtle pleas, and personal experiences. The range in this class has been much broader and served to reinforce my appreciation for it. Some of the assignments were a bit dull or dry, but others were highly entertaining or profound. I think that if ever I choose to approach nature writing in my own works, I’ll probably include some bits of research or information, in order to not make the piece just about me. I think that’s the point of nature writing: not just to say, “Look at what I think, look at what I’ve experienced,” but to inform as well in such a way that, sometimes, the readers may not be aware that they’re learning anything at all.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Place Blog 7

The moment I stepped outside, I walked through a curtain of warmth. That curtain I haven’t felt in two seasons, in six months. It was 77 degrees with a warm wind that smelled of flowers. All the trees had budded seemingly overnight. I like to think that I’m observant, that I’d notice the gradual changes to the color of grass, the size of buds, the green shoots of new flowers, but somehow nature always one-ups me in the end. I’m waiting for spring to arrive and buds to appear one day, and the next day it’s near 80 degrees and the buds on the trees area already spreading and blooming and readying for leaves. It was wonderful to dress in a t-shirt, gray cotton pants, and tennis shoes. Aside from storms, warm, clear days like this are my favorite weather. The only thing to make it better would be a night storm, but apparently that’s not supposed to arrive until tomorrow.
To get to the backyard, I crossed the front lawn to discover it littered with hundreds of cigarette butts. They won’t degrade. Another pet peeve added against one of the male housemates. My neighbors had strung small wind chimes along their overhang that bordered my land bridge. They tinkled in the constant breeze that, this time, did not prelude another blizzard and instead proclaimed that we should go fly a kite.
Walking back there in the bright afternoon when everything was turning fresh and clean made me see all the sections of the house that were peeling in off-white strips from under eaves or windowsills. Yet just like spring, it showcases slow decay with bright youth, because just above the peeling eaves, out of view, sat a singing robin atop the sunroom’s slanted roof. If I had walked onto the roof from my room instead of across the long, tangled grass, I might have seen him.
The neighbor girl was out as well cleaning her bicycle with her younger brother, and across the alley, two men laid new wood and reshingled their own slanted roof. I know I’m situated in the middle of a dense neighborhood, and people are as drawn to spring as I am. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit violated or observed. Like reverse, unwanted voyeurism. I felt exposed, like my own scrutiny of my place was being scrutinized, like walking into class to find that the seat I’ve always sat in was occupied. To make matters worse, that seat was covered in sharpie and gum and chipped away by a pocket knife that engraved initials and space guns. All that took the form of various little I-don’t-know-what’s, a pink-rimmed sock, a thick emerald sock, an black upside down knee or shoulder pad, broken green crayons, chipped edges of Styrofoam, felt, a white garden tab that would have displayed the species of a vegetable or flower, those black egg cartons that were once filled with new flowers to pot.  Did the wind drift the junk into the yard? Had an ashtray upturned and caused dozens of crumpled cigarette butts to fall on the grass?
The ground was just as uneven as before, but the tall grass accentuated the mounds. I walked to the bricked off rectangle of uncultivated and pebbley soil where the garden is to be and tried to find evidence of any wild flowers, but there was none.  With each step, little white gnats rose and spread. I walked into the junk-filled garage for the first time and called for the house’s missing cat, Mastadon. He didn’t answer, but I noticed that the large rolling door was half open. Who knows who’s been going in and out, if they’ve taken anything (not that there was much to take), if they’ve walked up the side staircase to the upper floor and watched me undress.
I walked back out and stood listening. A large dog harroofed from a few houses down. Motorcycles grumbled from every direction. The men across the alleyway echoed hammering. Spring is so loud compared to winter. In winter, people only drive if they have to, they avoid going outside, birds are quiet or gone, and animals sleep. Today, the loud neighbors are outside, dogs are left out longer to bark at people or strange noises, and shadows glide across the lawn as birds flit by. I appreciate the warmth and getting overheated just by standing in full sunlight without a jacket. I’ve missed that. But I haven’t missed the noise.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pompt Blog 7

I used to be terrified of storms. They’re not really part of the landscape, but they cause it to shift, they rumble in from the horizon, and the sky is as much a part of my environment as the land. Even heat lightning sent me on edge. When I was young, I would hide underneath a quilted baby blanket, hug the raggedy blanket that I carried everywhere, and curl up beneath a window or atop a recliner. Then I would stay there, cringing at the booms and shrinking from the lightning, listening carefully to detect when the storm drifted away. The day I sat cowering beneath the kitchen window, my grandmother taught me how to anticipate thunder by counting.
“When you see lightning, start counting. Whatever number you get to, that’s how far away the storm is. If the thunder hits before you start counting, that means the storm is right above us.”
I remember thinking that counting was crazy. It didn’t help me anticipate a storm, just tell how far away it was. But fine, I was a dutiful granddaughter.
FLASH, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, BOOOM!
Three miles away and getting closer. Oh no!
Knowing how close the storm was actually enhanced my fear. The closer it got, the stronger it got. What if the house was hit by lightning? What if the house burned down? What if a tree fell on the room, or flew through the window? What if the wind knocked the house down? What if we lost electricity? What if it brought a tornado! Not a tornado!

Living in western Pennsylvania my entire life, I shouldn’t fear tornados. It’s an irrational fear because I’ve never encountered one, just seen its damage on the Weather Channel. For some reason, when I was about five or six years old, I would sit in my finished basement and watch the Weather Channel for hours at night when nothing else was on TV.
I kept this fear of storms through middle school. Then one day, after some sort of after school activity. like a PTA meeting I sang at or a poetry group I was part of, Mom and I stood underneath an awning in front of the school and watched a storm. I gripped her tight around her waist as we watched it rage, my hand clenching her shirt behind her back. It must’ve lasted only fifteen minutes, but in that time I realized how absurd it all was. Really, the pale yellow or white lightning bolts were beautiful against the dark blue clouds. And nothing was happening to us; we were safe.
From that point on, my fear slowly abated. No longer would my heart pound with the thunder. No longer would I dive underneath my covers. I left my quilted blanket where it was. My raggedy blanket went untwisted.
By high school, I began to love storms. Around that same time, I was introduced to Wicca and energy. I started watching the pattern of birds before and after storms. I started to stare at the horizon as a storm rolled in and the clouds shifted darker or lighter. I stood still as the precursor wind brushed my hair from my face and wrapped around me as it changed directions, not knowing which way to go. I started opening myself to the storm, taking the tumultuous, powerful energy into me like taking that first inhale of sweet, fresh wind in the spring. I would grin as strobe lightning took a hundred pictures of my spinning ceiling fan. I’d laugh as the thunder spit and growled overhead like a giant pissed off panther.
It’s interesting to note that my love for storms grew as my family life deteriorated. My life inverted. I embraced the outer chaos while I strove to deny the household’s. I would lie in bed and imagine flying through the storm. Nobody bothered me when it was storming. While my parents hunkered down, I lived. I was free. I could control the energy roiling around me, control whether it affected me. I would bring it around me, bring it into me, and breathe. They could take away my walks, take away my music, but they couldn’t take away my storms.
To this day, when a storm arrives, it’s like a lost lover coming home. I look forward to spring and summer storms. I consider December storms and thundersnow to be Nature’s gift to me. If it storms after a bad day, it’s Nature consoling me, making me smile. If it storms after a really bad event that left me crying, it’s Nature’s way of providing a soothing embrace. The rain hushes, the wind wraps, the lightning is Nature’s anger on my behalf, and the thunder is Nature’s voice as it tells me that Karma will do its work in time and I needn’t worry.
Every so often, I try to physically personify storms. If they were a character, what would they manifest as? Or, would the character of storms be like the character of place, and I don’t need to change a thing? I’ve always given them an autonomous consciousness, would I need to give them anything else? If they were a human, would they be male or female? I haven’t decided. Both work just as well. If a character associated him or herself with storms, what gender would they be? Would it have to matter? Certainly I would incorporate scientific research into the character, make the personalities match, make them have tumultuous emotions before they explode in passion. Make them change colors, make their eyes flash, give them a stronger electromagnetic field, make them able to conjure other forces or other characters around them. For nature writing, I could make a creative nonfiction piece about my childhood and the growing mental and emotional abuse I received, research storms to explain how they work, and then explain how I would draw them around me.
One day I may incorporate storms as a sentient being into my stories. But right now, I’m comfortable enough just exploring them in my own time, in my own way. When the day comes that I make them a character, then that’s when it was supposed to happen.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Place Blog 6

Saturday night was a night of almost. That night, after spending the evening at Cranberry Township at Ichiban and Barnes and Nobles, I went into the backyard with my boyfriend. It was in the upper 40s throughout the day, but around 10:30 p.m. it was right at freezing, and my blue fall/spring jacket wasn’t enough to block the cold. Very quickly, my fingers started to become uncomfortably cold, and I knew they were probably starting to turn red from the first stages of frostbite, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see the moon.
According to a couple articles I saw online, Saturday night showcased the moon at its closest to the Earth in 18 years. And it was noticeable. Thankfully, the night was clear and I could even make out a few stars from ground level. The moon was incredibly bright and almost double the size it would’ve normally been at its zenith and fullest. It shown behind the garage like a still slumbering  sunrise behind a hill, and rivaled the streetlight that is stationed in my neighbor’s yard. I never before described the moon’s light as golden, but that’s what it was tonight compared to the street light next to it. That would make sense, considering the moon has no light of its own; it simply reflects our yellow sun’s light.
As we stood there, shivering, I looked around and noticed that, as expected, nothing had changed. The door was shut again, everything was where it had been before. The only thing out of place was a random green wooden lawn chair that was placed on the land bridge, causing me to blink at it in confusion and step onto my other neighbor’s driveway just to walk around it.
I looked at my boyfriend and said, “So, this is my backyard.”
“I know. I’ve been back here before.”
“You have? When??”
“I don’t know, at some point. I’ve been in the garage, too.”
“You have?? When??!”
“I don’t know!” he whined. “When there was a lot of stuff in it.”
Which narrows it down to at least before winter. I still can’t remember when or under what conditions he had been back there, and certainly can’t remember any moment during my moving into the house that might’ve caused him to walk into the back yard, much less into the garage.
We didn’t stay in the yard for too long. Just long enough for me to soak in the moonlight like the rejuvenating grass and trees around me. Like them, I was waking up and welcoming spring. It wasn’t until the nice weather lasted for a couple days that I realized how much I had missed it. I have no problem with winter, and this one was no different, and usually the turn of the seasons doesn’t affect me too much. But this year, spring is a relief.
Standing on the yard, knowing my boyfriend was fidgeting in anticipation of going inside where it was warmer, I felt as if I was also standing in the space of waiting—waiting for warmth, be it going inside or soaking in the sunlight. Waiting for the movement that would bring warmth. And maybe the moon being closer and golden bright was a sort of like it was saying, “Don’t worry. Almost.”  
Almost there.
On the point of being almost there, I feel I must mention my boyfriend’s birthday. All the talk about spring and warmer weather actually coincides with it because his birthday is on Monday. When we first met and mentioned birthdays, I said, “Oh! It must be great having your birthday on the first day of spring!” Because, when averaging the dates, it usually falls around the 21st. However, lately it’s been the day before or the day after. He mentioned this by saying, “Yeah! It was great! Until the science and the calendar companies took spring away from me.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Prompt Blog 6

During my high school years and throughout my undergraduate years, my grandparents’ farmhouse became a place of sanctuary. I lived there for about six and a half years. It was the typical two-story, 200-year-old white house that happened to be situated on a potato farm in the Butler County countryside. The foundation bowed, the house was heated by hot water pipes that banged and creaked every night, there were two doors (we rarely used the nicer front-facing one adjacent to a busy route, opting inside for the smaller mudroom entrance beside the driveway), its well water smelled like rotten eggs, its paint peeled, and it was slightly haunted.  During high school, my sanctuary started in a large room my grandparents designated for me on the second floor above a long set of steep stairs. Friends and family experiencing the stairs for the first time would look up in wonder and slight fear, and I’d always remember the first feeling I got when going up those stairs: slight panic that I would tip backwards and fall to my doom.
In that room, I could curl up, secure in the knowledge that I was away from my home troubles, that my grandparents respected me (what a novel concept) enough to knock and wait for permission to enter because they knew that space was mine, and that I was trusted to be on the computer as late as I wanted and not download porn or viruses. They let me sleep in as late as I wanted without yelling at me or making me feel guilty. Winter always came with a natural guilt when I’d sleep til 2 p.m. and only have two hours of daylight remaining. The room became a place of significant paranormal activity. I saw many things while there: shadowy men, red electric faeries, orbs, demons, animals, ect. They always traveled diagonally from the corner of my room past the tv toward the head of my bed. For a long time I thought the house was situation on a pathway, and it wasn't until I moved in with my best friend in New Castle and still experienced oddities that I began to consider that maybe it wasn't the house that was haunted, so much as me. The activity that happens now only occurs in my room. But my grandparents experienced a number of situations at the farmhouse: shadowy, hooded figures like grim reapers that watched from corners; a wafting scent of peanutbutter toast at 2 a.m.; and cigar and cigarette smoke when none of us smoked. Even if I'm haunted, there were still presences in that house.
A unique marker of the place was its Y-shaped driveway--a paved U-driveway with a curving tail. That tail was a miniature valley, and even the farmer landlord didn’t mind that I rollerbladed along it during every visit. Rollerblading there was like the walks I would take at home. I put on headphones that covered my ears, and--rain or snow or shine--I would fall into my own world as I surged up and down along the cracked pavement, swerving out of the way to avoid incoming cars or farming equipment and stepping to the side when people needed the driveway. There was an unspoken boundary and etiquette on that driveway. As long as I stayed out of the way, and got out of the way, I was free to come and go.
The driveway was flanked by a single-car garage, next to which was an equipment garage with rolling doors in the front and back. From the tail’s connection point was a steep offshoot that lead to a white barn. Cattycorner from the house was the large red shed and office. I could never understand why it was called a storage shed because it stretched the length of the house, two garages and barn combined, including all the spaces between. Everything else was farmland, from the small field/back yard beside the house and shed, to the rolling fields of hay  (or straw, still haven’t learned which it was) and potatoes. Behind the barn and clearly visible from the tail, like looking out a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows, was a small pond with two giant trees beside it. I ended up painting a winter scene of that for my senior project.
I experienced many weather conditions on that driveway and, between it and walking around my home’s neighborhood, I learned to gauge when a storm would break or the incremental strength of the rain. I would stand in my rollerblades with my back to the wind and let it push me around the driveway or give helpful boosts to make me go faster. I also learned about black ice there, and willingly shoveled when my legs screamed to rollerblade. Back with my parents, I couldn’t stand to shovel, but had no problem doing it at my grandparents’ house.
I moved in with them halfway through my senior year of high school. Finally my sanctuary was complete because I didn’t have to leave it anymore. It steadily became the closest thing I’ve had to a home. I was welcome there, because the farm was so open to nature that I could marvel at it from the side yards or driveway. I could walk around the equipment garage, away from the light pole, and see the sky open above me. A few times, we saw satellites floating past on very clear nights. For a couple years, my best friend and I would take fresh fruit, fresh bread, and sparkling grape juice during our walks along the fields in order to celebrate Midsummer. And every night, my grandfather would take his cocker spaniel for a walk in the same area, and I would watch them from where I stood on the driveway in my rollerblades—watching his stride, watching the dog’s energy or lack thereof, watching him stumble or pause to regard something or wait for his dog. It still felt slightly voyeuristic even in such an open place.
My grandfather taught me how to drive along those fields. He took me back to the picnic area behind a line of trees in order to teach me about parallel parking, how to make three-point turns, and how to anticipate and adjust to shifting terrains. He also asked me to mow the side field for him when he was too tired. When he returned from work every day, he was usually too tired to mow the lawn, let alone mow it and the small field next to it. And I wasn’t doing any chores during the day (an agreement my grandparents suggested), so I had the time. A filial duty was awakened in me then and I wanted to help, so I would don my bathing suit during the summer and ride around in rectangular patterns until the lines overlapped and I went in circles.
From watching him, feeling the acceptance from my grandmother, and being able to stand on the driveway with open nature in full force all around me, I matured, gained a sense of decency and responsibility that my parents could never teach me by forcing it upon me and screaming at me when I did something wrong. My grandparents and their house provided a quiet support system, first to help me heal, and then to guide me. Thinking about various places along the farm pulls forth different memories and all the emotions that went with those times. And now that I’m away from it, my heart twinges with each memory. The side field is gilded with a summer glitter, the pond is steeped in the deep blue of midnight with a silvery sheen from the moon. The rolling fields are auburn from the setting sun, pink from the rising sun, and waving green during late spring. I never had to worry about working in the suburbs or being indoors at school all the time, because I could come home to nature and loving grandparents.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Prompt Blog 5

Around Pittsburgh, PA, we get strong winters. The average rainfall from January through March is anywhere between 6.48 cm and 9.5 cm., with a yearly rainfall around 8.75 cm. Ironically, the rainy season seems to occur between May and September. The average low between January through March is 22 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit, with the average highs between 37 to 50 degrees. The rainfall, of course, doesn’t take into account the snowfall, which can range anywhere between a couple inches to nearly a foot. Some winters we get hardly anything—they’re mild with little snowfall or ice, just blistering cold. Other winters have massive snowstorms. There is something sublime when you look up and realize that the cloud cover you’re seeing stretches undisturbed from Maine to Texas. But this wide variation of weather patterns causes people to forget the trials of winter, and so they don’t prepare for it as well as they should.
But economy has a lot to do with how we interact with winter. If the city or county doesn’t have enough money to invest in salt, or enough workers to man the salt trucks, then back roads are typically left for last with the main thoroughfares, routes, and highways being plowed or salted first. This is what happened in New Castle this year. Often, accidents don’t occur on the major highways, but on the side streets when trying to get to or from the highways. Many times, people come in late to work because they’ve offered to help plow roads with their own pickup trucks that have plows attached to them.
This year in particular was horrible because of the lack of salt and manpower for the salt trucks and snow plows. I have great respect for the drivers now, because they’re out all night in every weather condition that we hate. They have to go slowly in order to not get into accidents themselves, and they have to maneuver those huge trucks around cars parked along side streets or abandoned on roads and highways. New York had a problem with this when that monstrous snow storm hit, because people abandoned their cars and the snow trucks couldn’t get through without colliding with the cars, so they weren’t sent through and the streets went unplowed for hours, or even days. Luckily, New Castle and Butler County didn’t have that problem. But many of the side roads went untouched for a long time, and I learned the meaning of the word “treacherous.”
People cannot predict what the weather will do a fiscal year in advance, but I’m amazed that state and local officials don’t better prepare themselves for inclement weather if they’re located in northern states. It seems to me that hiring seasonal drivers for salt trucks and snowplows would help people find jobs, especially if those people are allowed to use their own pickup trucks. I’ve seen a number of pickups with a strange contraption in their beds that hangs over the end of the truck. The first time I saw it, it took a few minutes for me to realize that the contraption was a salt dispenser. There are many people in an area who are willing to step up and help for the good of the community, and I have no idea if they’re financially compensated, especially if their work interferes with getting to their everyday job on time. It’s a shame that officials can’t receive a higher budget for inclement weather, or that more people don’t step up to help communities when the back roads aren’t yet plowed, or won’t be because of lack of salt, trucks, and/or manpower.

Place Blog 5

Saturday evening I was finally able to walk into the backyard. I had wanted to go out during midnight to explore the darkest time of my place, to close my eyes and immerse myself in total darkness as I listened to the rain. Instead, I went out during twilight, with my hood up in order to keep the rain off my freshly showered head. I was happy that it was still light out around 6:30 p.m, but that happiness was short lived as the emotional chaos that haunted me all week washed over me again. I walked into the Blue Hour, a photographer’s dream time when the last few rays of sunlight bend through the atmosphere and turn everything blue. It causes structures in the distance to appear like silhouettes, even trees that are seven houses down. All the streetlights, house lights, and car headlights glow like candles and bonfires while the sky still illuminates the world enough to see clearly. The pictures taken during this hour are beautiful, and it’s a fitting world to walk into after a rough week.
When I stepped into the yard, it felt soggier than the land bridge. My boots sunk into the ground with each step. I looked around and noticed two long wooden beams that were discarded after the fence had been built last summer. The poles were laying in wait for when the project was to be taken up again. The garden beside them was a miniature swamp. I continued to scan the periphery and noticed that this time the garage door was wide open. It was windy, and perhaps the door played to the wind’s fancy. As I continued to turn, I was struck by the brilliancy of a single streetlight that burned like fire in the middle of the church’s parking lot and glistened like sparks frozen in time off my house that was seven lawns down. After I made my full circle, I lowered my furry hood and closed my eyes.
To either side of me, the rain pattered against tiles of the garage and the house, and when I opened my eyes to find where a trickle of a waterfall was located, the dim light wouldn’t reveal it to me. And all around me was a rushing sound of water like I was standing next to a stream or river. Except nothing like that was nearby. Instead, what I was hearing was the sound of tires rolling over wet roads. The wind picked up and wrapped about my shoulders like a shawl. Every once in a while, it seemed to put its arms around me; as if nature was soothing my troubles away and hushing me with the rain. Even standing there, I thought back to Abbey’s self-inflicted predicament of anthropomorphizing nature, and I realized that sometimes we might need to give nature a human’s touch. Sometimes our emotions may pull from nature what we aren’t receiving otherwise. Sure, it may be temporary, and we know there isn’t a spirit going out of its way just to lend a hug as it sweeps past. But sometimes it’s nice to imagine, and it helps.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Prompt Blog 4

I grew up with wolves. Nothing so glamorous as Julie or living in the countryside of northwestern states. The only place I’d ever seen a wolf in real life was the zoo. But wolves are my mother’s favorite animal and she had adopted one through the World Wildlife Federation. Her house is filled with mugs, throw blankets, wall hangings of stone or fabric, statues, CDs, framed pictures, and stuffed animals. Some of them showcase her wolf, Matzi.

Although I am a cat person, I can understand a wolf’s allure. The main difference between a wolf and a dog is weight (average being 99 lbs), longer limbs, larger paws, greater height and bulk, stronger jaws, and a pre-caudal gland on the base of its tail. The gland is used by the alpha male to release a pheromone to mark another wolf as a member of a particular pack. Dogs have this, but it tends to be vestigial depending on the breed. It also explains why wolves and dogs sniff each other’s tails: to identify who they are by their individual musk. But what drew me to wolves were their eerily beautiful and harmonized howls that are haunting and emotional. Wolves howl, bark in a soft woof, whimper, and growl. Howling is the most familiar to humans and is used to assemble the pack before and after a hunt; pass alarm, especially at the den site; locate each other in a storm or in unfamiliar territory; communicate across great distances; and to create an impression of more animals. Wolves can howl while lying or sitting and they don’t howl at the full moon.  

They also have other unique aspects. Their coats are diverse, making it easy to identify one from the other. They are social creatures with a chain of command, loving parents, loyal pack members, and fierce hunters with amazing stamina. It made me sad every time someone referenced how they were evil just because people had grown up with condemning fairy tales, stories, and movies. Somewhere along the line, the Big Bad Wolf symbolized evil and loomed in Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Bugs Bunny and Tex Avery cartoons. It’s hard to argue with classmates when you’re in elementary school and the nerdy outcast. What could you possibly know that the others didn’t? How could you possibly be right? You’re probably lying for attention. We don’t care.
I wanted to show them videos of pack life. I wanted to show them how gentle a wolf babysitter could be to cubs that weren’t his or her own. I wanted them to listen to the yips, barks, and howls that were used as fluid and effective communication that humans couldn’t understand. But what child wants to learn more outside of class?

Eventually, I became that child. It took me reaching college to do it, but I blossomed in my nerdy ways and researched wolves for a story in order to discover whether they could see the stars. They can, but the light would be extremely blurry. Because they are predators, their eyes are located at the front of their skulls for depth perception and focus. However, they lack a foveal pit, which is used to sharply focus at greater distances. Without it, wolves cannot distinguish much beyond 100 to 150 feet except for shapes and movement. Despite this, their peripheral vision is extremely accurate and they are able to detect slight movement from very small animals (think mosquito) at close ranges of about 10 feet or more, and movement from larger animals at considerable distances. Wolves can probably see color, but their spectrum is limited because of their enhanced night vision, which is usually black and white because of the rods used to see in dim light.

But a wolf’s vision is almost irrelevant (currently) for my thesis next year. I need to research wolves again. There isn’t much I don’t already know, but there are subtle nuances that will crop up throughout the story. I’ll probably research as I go, which is what my current mentor prefers. In that research, I’ll need only what is relevant to the story: general descriptions, coat variances, voices, habits, prowess, etc. For instance, a wolf’s sense of smell is about 100 times more powerful than a human’s, so my wolf character could easily react to something my main character hasn’t yet noticed. In addition to smelling prey a mile away on windy days and smelling another animal three days after it had left, a wolf can detect scents that a human cannot. Odorless poison, perhaps? Wolves also have a broader hearing spectrum, with the upper range reaching 80 kHz compared with a human’s 20, allowing wolves to hear up to 6 miles away in a forest and 10 miles over open land. I’ll have to research how a blind person’s hearing changes, though.  And when a wolf sleeps, its ears are always upright so it can detect sounds from other animals at all times, which the character could remark about if he always pats the wolf’s head throughout the night and notices the ears are up.

All this is a start, at least. And I’m sure I’ll delve into nonfiction and documentaries as I go. But I’m looking forward to writing about this character, and then handing it off to Mom for her approval.


Place Blog 4

This morning I managed to leave for work somewhat on time around 7:15. I walked to my car; opened the driver’s side door; and set my bag, mug, and shawl on the passenger seat. Then I sat there with my door open and legs dangling to the sidewalk, pondering. The air was wet but not humid, and my skin was tantalized by interchanging warm and cool air streams. It was 45 degrees and one of those partly cloudy mornings that hid the sun, making it a candle flame in with clouds breaking in such a way that the sun’s backlight looked like smoke rising and catching on the wind in an upside down checkmark. The eastern horizon glowed with gentle pink and orange while the rest of the sky was still a dusty, pale violet. This cast a twilight blue over the earth, like I was looking through a blue tinted camera lens.
It was the air that pulled me out of the car. I locked my door and walked up the lawn. The snow was gone. The ground was firmer, though the grass was still brown. When I reached the backyard, two dark-breasted birds fluttered away from the corner gutter. Here, too, the snow was gone except for a small line near a forgotten garden. The lawn was bumpy, which startled me because I had grown used to the flat landscape that snow and ice created. I could feel small mounds through the inch-to-inch-and-a-half rubber soles of my snow boots.
The lawn was quieter despite twittering from nearby—though hidden—birds. Snow may lie as a blanket, but its bright white also lifts the world. Without it, the earth sinks to its former level, pushed further by the weight of rain and ice. My backyard looked crumpled but resting, waiting for warmer spring temperatures that would allow grass to grow and lift once more.
As I walked around, I noticed changes and details that had been buried. Bricks trailed in two small mounds across the garage’s little wooden doorframe. The door had somehow shut. And beside me lay a small half-rotten pumpkin—probably from Halloween or Thanksgiving—preserved in its decay beneath the snow.
I wasn’t there long, just enough to soak it in like desert lizards soak in moisture through their skin. Then I walked back to the car and drove to work, expecting rain in the afternoon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Prompt Blog 3

My backyard is still foreign and new to me. It was the last area I investigated after moving to New Castle. In fact, I never set foot there until these blog entries started. I would watch my housemates come around the house from the back yard, telling me they were putting up a tall wooden fence or pulling up weeds and bricks from the patio in order to make a garden. But the only times I ever saw the area was from my room, a small strip from the kitchen window, and when I would look out the half-wall windows of the sun room.

But the back yard is very much like moving into a new, cramped place. When I moved into the house that already had five other people living there, the dynamic changed. The atmosphere grew tense and uncertain and someone else's rhythms, habits, and schedules were added with the rest of the tenants' already coordinating lifestyles. It took months to feel comfortable with everyone there, but by that point they were having their own problems. We all kept to ourselves and stayed within our own confined quarters, rarely using the living room and kitchen as community areas. There was nowhere to go without first making sure no one else was there. We became tense or surprised when we would walk into a room and discover someone else already there, or go to use the bathroom and find it occupied while the other bathroom lacked toilet paper. We had to adjust and accept what was there (another person, a new lifestyle) and what wasn't there (comfort, trust, confidentiality).

When walking out to the backyard, it's like meeting a new tenant again. I psychologically explore, observe events and details, and slowly shift into the changing environment. I walk slowly, watch my back, and look for aspects that would welcome difference or deny them. And the back yard is still like my tiny room. I'm surrounded by walls with very few openings. People are coming and going constantly. The entrances aren't well protected so there is no sense of safety. But, like rooms and new tenants, it takes time until they become acceptable and normal. A room becomes one's own, tenants come and go, and a backyard can go through seasons and change with the house's internal atmosphere. It just takes time, and I haven't had enough time to discern whether the backyard will sync properly or I'll avoid it after these blogs are done.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

Place Blog 3

Place Blog #3
I walked into my back yard on Monday around 2 p.m. so I could see it in full daylight. I had the day off from work because the office switched its February holiday from President’s Day to the day after the Super Bowl. Many people had asked HR for that day off once they learned that Pittsburgh was going, so HR sent out a mass email explaining the change. I don’t care about football, but having the day off was nice.
The way to and from my place was a bit dangerous. I’d chosen to walk over the tracks that two young girls had created when they trudged through my then untouched front yard just to ask if I wanted my sidewalk or driveway shoveled. I had told them no because I didn’t have any extra spare cash, but that resulted in the driveway and sidewalk being covered in three inches of ice. Walking to and from the car is always an ordeal, and avoiding it this time was a smart move. Luckily, when I reached my bridge, I discovered that it was bare of snow, so I was able to stay completely on my lawn instead of walking over my neighbor’s driveway.
When I arrived at my place, I was struck by the monochromatic world. The sky and snow matched perfectly—a dingy white. Little did I know that it was raining—the small invisible rain that can’t be seen through windows. It turned the snow and ice into slush, but my land bridge and bits of the back yard were soggy grass. I could hear the rain patter against my neighbor’s gutters, along their house’s siding, and against the back of my hood as it gradually turned to freezing rain. An hour later, it would turn into an icy mixture and by evening, it would be a solid snowy drizzle, like the world was placed under and open packet of powdered sugar. But at that moment, I could also hear the rain splattering onto rocks and wood from where the neighbor’s gutters ended their downward route to allow a miniature waterfall to travel the rest of the way to earth. Nearby, my own gutters were leaking from the very top, and great drops of water like translucent bombs spattered the brown and pale green grass a few feet away.
Toward the actual back yard, the snow had melted away from the black Craftsman wheelbarrow, leaving it exposed, alone, and—because it was no longer under something as all encompassing as the snow—dejected. The color of the red bricks against the garage that matched the world’s dingy white had deepened and was stark against the snow. I looked for the cat tracks I had seen before and found them as large indents from where they had melted and then been covered over with new layers of snow and ice. But there were at least five or six fresh tracks, some that intersected with the original ones, and others that went off in seemingly random directions. Yet each one led to the open garage door.
As I stood there, the back yard was filled with the scent of wood smoke. I tried to locate its origin, but couldn’t find any plumes to guide me. It wasn’t until I reached my car that the scent turned from wood to steak, and I wondered who in their right mind would grill steaks outside in that weather.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Prompt Blog 2

I’ve never had a place I’ve called home. I’ve lived in houses with immediate family for a number of years that would constitute as a home, but the title never felt right. Perhaps it was because I didn’t feel secure. My room wasn’t my room, it wasn’t recognized wholly as such until I moved in with my grandparents. While I lived with my parents, they would walk in without knocking, knock but walk in without permission, open the door while I’m changing just to flick the lights off in order to force me to bed at 9 p.m., and barge in to continue an argument after it had seemingly ended and I went to my room to hide. Everything I had there was a privilege. Even going out for walks around the neighborhood—along the same path and the same speed, so much so that one could time each loop—was only allowed despite my age. In most of my homes, I had escapes, and most of the time that was my room. Only when I lived with my grandparents did I stop trying to escape.
Still, even there I didn’t feel like it was home. My grandparents showed me respect by knocking on the door and waiting for permission. They even asked permission just to go in to gather laundry. The arguments were very rare and I felt welcome and appreciated. But it didn’t feel like home, though it came the closest.
When I went to Ireland in the fall of 2006, I felt a connection with the land that there was only whispers of in the states. My portals fear (open or ajar doors, windows without the blinds or curtains drawn, and mirrors) disappeared entirely and my tension eased. But my friends and family weren’t there, nor was my cat or even a job. If everything in the states had been transferred to Ireland, it would’ve been home.
I don’t think I’ll find home until I choose it for myself. For me, it might be something I establish myself instead of being plopping into. It’s a place where I can feel secure, like at my grandparents’ house, where things are wholly mine, where I can feel responsible and at ease, where I can make memories and not worry about one day losing the objects or places that are tied to them. It’s probably also a place that has a strong connection to nature.
Each place I’ve lived at was by nature. The house on Briarwood Lane when I was 7-11 years old had a large back yard that connected to surrounding back yards, proving an undulating field of climbing trees and swing sets. The next house on Joan Street was in a neighborhood with hilly streets and two parks. I lived there when I was 11-17 years old, walked an average of three miles a day (between 3-13 times around), and used my walking as an escape. Sometimes I would deviate from my route to explore the trails of a nearby forest patch, or walk down a slope next to a stream to enjoy the sounds and open grassy lawns. My grandparents’ house on Route 528 came next when I was 17-23 years old. They rented large white house on a potato farm with rolling fields of hay (I think) and potatoes, tree lines at the edge of the property, a shed around the tree bend where the landlord would hold parties, and a small pond with two large trees by the barn. There I would rollerblade along the Y-shaped driveway, stopping frequently to stare at the sunset, at the pond, at the fields and tree lines. I would watch the skies shift and learn to gauge the rain not by how quickly the clouds rolled in, but by their heaviness. A rainbow landed in the fields at least twice in the six years I lived there.
Now that I’m on my own, I live in a room that has been established as mine, in a house that holds five other people and four other pets. It’s not home yet and it probably never will be for two reasons: I don’t feel secure at all, and it’s so packed into the suburbs that I could hang from my roof and touch the neighbor’s house (we can see into their kitchens or living rooms to either side if we’re in our own kitchen or living room). There’s little to no nature here aside from our own back yards. There is a park where my housemates go to jog, but it’s a few miles down the road and rather dangerous during the winter. Just a few weeks ago, one of my housemates was mugged at the gas station across from that park.
Our readings have talked about people returning “home” and matching a tree or seeds to their late parents. They’ve asked whether the nature of nature writing is tied directly with travel writing in order to understand a place. They’ve told about growing up for generations on the same track of land and feeling an intrinsic connection to even the underground water systems. I envy the author who was able to return to a plot of land despite not living there anymore. He spoke of it as if he was coming home, and I wonder how he feels about the place he lives now. He makes me wonder whether home is something that’s built, or something that builds us? What does it mean that I haven’t found home yet? I still haven’t figured that out.

Place Blog 2

I look at my backyard every day, so why is it so hard to walk into it? So many other priorities hold precedent that I keep telling myself, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” “I’ll get up earlier to walk out in the morning instead of evening,” “I’ll walk into the backyard immediately after work instead of walking into the house to put my bag and mug down,” or “I’ll go out tomorrow around noon to see it in the full light of day.” But soon “I’ll do it tomorrow” turns into “I’ll do it tomorrow” again and again as I work my 8-4:30 job, commute the round trip hour and a half, and struggle to get all of my other homework turned in. Suddenly the deadline is looming without anything to show for it. All because I couldn’t push myself to go outside longer than it takes to walk from the front door to the car and back. I could force my broken window open to walk onto the sloping roof above the sunroom and achieve a bird’s eye view of the place, but I face the danger of slipping along the inches of snow and ice and falling off the roof.
But sunny days provide an interesting view. The house’s sunroom is leaking. Three splotches of snow indents are steadily seeping through the shingles, along the beams, to finally drip onto cardboard boxes and storage. Even if I find it difficult to go outside into nature, nature finds a slick way inside to visit me. The splotches usually look like an invisible entity dropped a glop of white paint and smeared it in random directions with their fingers. But today, they’re tracks made from a giant three-legged rabbit.
Another way nature finds its way to me is through my cat. Ember perches on a wooden stool by my window at the right height to watch the birds on nearby trees and gutters and roofs. She’ll make her clicking sounds as her head jerks back and forth, watching the birds fly and land and twitter about. I can hear them from my computer desk and can gauge where she’s looking. After a while, she comes to me and rears up to place her front paws on my chair. She’ll reach out and pat at me on my hip or thigh, meowing like she’s saying, “Mom! Mom! There are birds! There are birds in the back yard!” Then after I give her attention and pet her, she’ll head back to her stool to sit for the afternoon until she gets tired. She’ll then curl up on her stool to sleep, or she’ll come back to curl beneath my swivel chair.
For class this week, we read about the question of whether a nature writer must scour every inch of his or her place in order to write about it, if he or she has have to make it his or her home. Or, are writers required to travel and return in order to recognize it. Last week, we asked the question of whether we have to be in a place in order to write about it.
I ask: Do we have to be physically in a place in order to write about it? When I was inducted into Pi Sigma Tau, the philosophy honor society at my undergrad university, we listened to a speaker talk about the concept of memory. The gist of the paper was that a person is transported back in time to when he or she remembers. It’s a way to be in two places at once. Suddenly we’re back standing where we were, or sitting or laying. We’re seeing whatever it was we saw as we stare into space at a dust mote, a pattern on a wall, a friend’s earlobe. Why, then, can’t we mentally step back into our place as we sit safe at our computers?
In a private back yard that one sees every day, not much would change. But I can’t see from the roof if the cat tracks from before have been covered in at least three inches of fresh snow, or if new ones have been pressed beside the covered indents. But the upturned wheelbarrow and chair are still there, the icicles are still jutting down from gutters, some broken along slanted faults to lay haphazardly in a pile below. The garage door is still hanging open. And soon the bright yellow and white of day turns into vivid oranges and reds, then to duller violets and blues as night settles in, and suddenly another day has passed.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Prompt Blog #1

The landscape that I grew up around was always forests and streams at the edges of housing developments. Only in a state park could I walk into a patch of forest and not come out the other side in a manner of fifteen minutes of steady walking. Around my various neighborhoods, there were always a handful trees to climb in every yard. The backyards were spacious enough for tumbling across and the streets wound and dipped along with natural rises and falls of the land. Many of the children I played with were pushed to be outside much like my mom had pushed me. However, they always seemed better off than I was and were allowed more luxuries like having friends over, owning gaming systems, always having snacks available, owning small battery-operated jeeps or cars that were specifically designed for a child’s body. Our time seemed to be separated evenly between the inside and the outside. At least, that was my childhood. Throughout my teenage years, my peers seemed to migrate inside while I craved my daily walks around a new neighborhood in order to escape the emotional trials of home. Soon, gaming systems became more and more popular, but bike riding and playing tennis fell to bright sunny days only, and only when there was nothing else to do as opposed to something creative to do. Soon people began worrying about relationships and drama and cars and jobs instead going outside. I managed to keep my time evenly separated between the partial safety of my room, and the safety of my chosen “path” along the sidewalks and neighborhood parks of my walking route.
When I hit college, the reliance upon gaming systems seemed to become absolute. But I managed to form friendships with people who were from the county side. Ours was a friendship of nostalgia and self-reliance. We would discover little tricks we’d picked up along the way: smelling water on the air, judging the timing of storm clouds rolling in, lying on hillsides to gaze at the stars and do nothing else, actually enjoying the walk over campus to get from one class to another, not arguing when a full parking lot made us walk five minutes to class because it provided decent exercise. We’d discover that we were more independent than the students who had dived into societal problems like what fashion trend to follow, what or how many cars to buy, what alcohol to drink on which nights, and how many times one could get laid.
It seemed that the older one got, the further away nature became. Where were the streams and trees of childhood? A few were still there, but new tenants might cut the grass of an old house’s backyard too short, and disease might have gripped a favorite tree and caused another tenant to cut it down (or cut it down because it was becoming bothersome to them for whatever cosmetic reason). The streams and small parks were still there, but other groves had been mowed down to make way for new shopping districts; no more hearing the tall pines creek and groan as they tilted in the wind, no more shelter during a rainy day. As I grew older, people seemed to have forgotten the nature they came from. I remember, but had to let the current of life take me far from my beloved countryside and tree-filled suburbs to neighborhoods of concrete and traffic.
One day I’ll own a large house that can hold many friends who need a place to stay—to give back what was given to me during my time of need. The place will have a spacious yard and, hopefully, be next to a forest line. One day I’ll find the time to get away from an 8-5 cubical job and walk through nature like I used to—go bike riding again, swim in state parks, head to beaches far away, finally see the giant redwoods, possibly see actual mountains instead of just driving down them on the way to visit family. I would love to take my friends and family by the hand and go, “Stop, a moment, and remember how it was. What you have now is nothing like that.”

Place Blog #1

I walked into the backyard for the first time the other day. It was in the evening, and I had planned to drive down the block (I wasn’t walking in the snow and slush along a busy route in 10-degree weather) to Giant Eagle for a few groceries before coming back to explore the back yard. But when I walked outside and looked at the sun, I changed plans. In the winter, the sun goes down faster than in the summer. It was behind a cloud, spreading orange and pink light like watercolors along the western sky. In less than an hour, it would’ve set fully and been too dark for me to walk over unknown terrain. So instead of walking around the car to get into the driver’s seat, I walked past it, up my neighbor’s driveway onto a raised bit of land that was the only boundary line between our yards.

The way into the back yard was like a tunnel bridge. The space between my house and the neighbor’s overhang garage and house wall was about five feet, and the houses seemed to rise forever on either side. My yard was at least a foot or two higher than my neighbor’s driveway. Walking along that stretch of land was almost like a gateway into a different world. But when I reached the end, it was just a back yard.

My yard isn’t very large—just a plot of land barely wider than my house. To the left side, a housemate had erected a tall, pointed wooden fence that leveled off in segments going down to the garage. There was an overturned wheelbarrow and an overturned white plastic lawn chair. Nothing spectacular there. To the right, however, the yard opened into many other yards, displaying swing sets, garages and sheds that all ran parallel with a graveled back lane. This stretch ended with a tall church steeple of the brick Presbyterian church and house that my housemate came from. The sky, too, opened before me. Instead of the dusty blue and purple hues of twilight, I encounter a bright splash of orange, pink, and yellow from the sunset. In the few moments, it took me to traverse the tunnel bridge, though, the sun and clouds had each shifted enough to produce a light ray that rose straight upward from the middle of the cloud. One column of pure light amongst color.

But I knew my blog couldn’t be about the sky from the view of my place, it had to be about my place, so I turned back around. This time, I noticed tracks. Three distinct trails of what I assume to be cat tracks lead from where I stood to the garage, then angled away like a billiard ball rebound, then a random one leading toward the house. The garage itself is more like a two-storied barn or workman’s garage. Painted with peeling, fading white, the garage is covered with many windows through which I could see mounds of junk. I still have no idea what is in there, I only know that another housemate (the first’s wife and my best friend, who both own the house) went in there with her grandmother to rummage through the junk in order to find anything valuable to sell. The door is broken and hanging ajar, and that is where the cat tracts converge.

When I turned to leave, I noticed that my own tracks had crossed with the cat’s, and I wondered if our paths would ever cross in the future.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Course shift

Thus ends the blogging assignments for the Memoir course and begins the ones for Environmental and Nature Writing. Titles shall follow accordingly, but this stands as a makeshift divider.