Category Archives: Nature

A Wayward Penguin

It was a simple quip at a company holiday party that started me on the topic of penguins. More specifically, partygoers were questioning a co-worker who had recently returned from a trip to South Africa, during which she had occasion to be in close proximity to a colony of Black-footed Penguins, whether they were “nice” or not. Without waiting to hear the answer, another opined that the myth of cute, cuddly penguins is merely a human construct, made to fulfill our own fragile emotional needs. I replied that I had heard they were known to be curious, but that this wasn’t exactly the same as being nice. A number of others, with the certainty that always seems to accompany the consumption of adult beverages, chimed in with their own additions to the now spirited “Penguins: Nice or Not?” debate.

It was at that moment that another reveler, who had sidled up silently to the group, shared his own tidbit of penguin-related knowledge:

“I heard that they sometimes go crazy. Seriously, I saw it on a documentary. Every now and then, one of them will just wander off and never come back.”

As you can imagine, the conversation pretty much ended right there with people nodding uncomfortably, murmuring their “hmms” and “huhs” and hastily shuffling away, myself included. But, in fact, this is exactly the kind of dark, quirky fact that tends to stick with me – and stick it has – for the three days since I heard it. Not surprising to those of you who know me, I’ve spent some of those three days trying to verify if penguins really do lose their minds and waddle off into the abyss alone.

It turns out that this puzzling assertion comes from a 2009 Werner Herzog documentary entitled “Encounters at the End of the World” which chronicles the work of scientists and researchers living at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In one scene, while Herzog is interviewing one of the researchers about the dynamics of the adjacent colony, the camera cuts away to footage of a group of penguins heading for the open water. As they begin their long and arduous march, one turns back and returns to the nesting area. Another, however, stops in his tracks and looks back and forth between the two directions – one leading to the oceanic feeding grounds and one back to the collective safety of the colony. He seems, from all outward appearances, unable to decide what to do until he finally turns in a third direction, toward the mountains, and begins walking alone toward an almost certain death. Upon further questioning, the researcher insists that, even if the penguin had been placed back in the colony, he still would have wandered off again, on his own, in the same manner.

Apparently this happens with some regularity.

A penguin goes crazy.

I know what you’re thinking, you astute and skeptical readers. Surely there is some sound biological rationale for this strange and disturbing phenomenon. I will tell you that scientific explanations are hard to come by, but the sparse sampling of hypotheses I have found suggest that penguins possibly exhibit this behavior when they sense that they are about to die, just as many other species of animals are known to do. There is also a rigid line of thinking in the traditional psychological disciplines, of course, that humans are the only species with adequate consciousness to experience and act on things like depression and anxiety, and that we superimpose these feelings onto animals when, in reality, they are only capable of acting on basic stimulus and instinct. The case of the wayward penguin, in this vein of thought, is nothing more than a sentient creature getting its instinctive wires crossed and following a false impulse in the wrong direction. Any emotional implications we experience from witnessing such an act in nature, then, are entirely of our own conjuring.

I’m not going to try to settle the debate about whether animals have human-like emotions here in this brief and woefully under-researched blog post. I’m content to leave it to the scientists stationed at McMurdo to figure out the mystery of why, every now and then, a penguin will stop dead in his tracks, take one last look back at everything he has ever known, turn toward the mountains, and set off alone into the unknown.

It really doesn’t matter to me, in the end, whether he was driven by instinct or emotion, impulse or purpose, confusion or resolution.

It’s just that there are some days I feel a lot like that penguin.

 

A Different Kind of Life

I was going to wait until I was feeling better to write this, but here I am anyway… writing on one of those days when something feels profoundly wrong in the universe or in the world or maybe just in me. I should have written a few days ago when I emerged from the blissful beauty and solitude of the woods where the big oaks still grow and the flowing water trickles like a meditation foundation and roars like a symphony. It always seems so clear to me, after a few solid hours of trudging down muddy trails and plunging my face into icy forest streams, what I’m supposed to be doing in this life, the things I need to let go, the precious few I’m supposed to keep and hold close. It seems so simple out there to just breathe the animate air, close my eyes, and let the sunlit autumn leaves paint my eyelids with the answers to all of my questions. It seems so easy to be free.

But this week has been a week like so many others, when my mind has become clouded with habitual worries and anxieties and it won’t let me sleep at all. I can feel it pushing at the back of my eyeballs and tensing all of my muscles. My words feel too clumsy and too numerous, my perception of safety limited to the walls of my own house. The world outside seems way too loud and far too fast – over-stimulated, overmedicated, over-processed and overwhelmed. It is at times like these I always return to the same question:

If this is the world we’ve built for ourselves, why are we so often unhappy living in it?

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that progress has now become synonymous with commodification to the point that even personal growth and transformation seem to require a vast array of products in order to be fomented in our lives. Our brand preferences have become our identities and we’ve been thoroughly convinced that changing them somehow changes us, too. From fashion to pharmaceuticals, we’re not just being sold products anymore; we’re trying to buy our own redemption.

The problem is that with each new product we buy, we become increasingly comfortable with the notion that the cures for our unhappiness exist somewhere outside of ourselves and that, by obtaining them, we no longer have use for the much tougher internal processes of reckoning and discernment. As I’m sitting here trying to write this, I’m fighting nearly constant urges to check my email, scroll through Facebook posts, turn on the TV, see what there is to buy on Amazon… anything to distract me from feeling how I’m feeling right now. With everything at my fingertips, I could easily stay distracted and detached until the discomfort passes. In fact, I could easily stay distracted and detached for my entire life. We all could. And sadly, many of us will.

Which is why I chose to write today, dear friends, even though I feel like such a mess. Tonight I’m hiding in my house, but tomorrow I’m going to try again – not to go out and buy things but to do things to get me just a little bit closer to where I want to be. Tomorrow I’m going to try to live a little more openhearted and a little less distracted. I’m going to try to pay attention to all of the beauty and the pain around me and not bury my face in my iPhone. I’m going to try to hold a few precious things close and let the rest go. I’m not going to run back into the woods this time. I’m going to stay right here.

I’m going to keep trying to live a different kind of life.

Aflame

Over the past few weeks, the maple down the street has changed from dingy, faded summer’s-end green to splendorous burnt orange and crimson, like blood and fire against the azure autumn sky. Every year it sparks in me a memory, or maybe something deeper than a memory; an image emblazoned in the archives of my past, filed away but far from forgotten.

There was a massive maple tree just like this one on the winding avenue that led up the hill to the house where I grew up. Every year it would ignite with the same impossible colors before yielding its leaves to the unrelenting autumn winds. I biked past it hundreds of times as a kid, returning from some friend’s house or some adventure deep in the woods, then drove past it hundreds more as a teenager, coming back from some keg-strewn bonfire in some gravel pit outside the city limits, racing to get home before curfew.

It isn’t just the image that has lingered with me, though, but all of the longing and turmoil spilling over at every moment in those days. I used to wear an old canvas army surplus jacket in the fall, full of rips and bloodstains and cigarette burns – each one hard-earned. I walked its threads like tightropes, dancing while they frayed beneath my feet. We were all so close to the edge back then and we wanted to be – to see just how close we could come, how much we could feel, how much beauty and pain and inspiration and heartbreak we could take.

I always felt those things the most in the fall, when somehow the world dying all around made me feel like I was being reborn.

But those flames have turned to embers now, glowing faintly beneath the years and layers of habit and routine. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever feel anything as intensely as we do when we’re young – or if we do, maybe it’s us who can’t last. After all, we’ve already said goodbye to some friends who tried to walk that edge for too long.

Last time I was back in the old neighborhood, I saw that they had chopped that old maple down, removing the last landmark by which I had tried to navigate my way back to the wild heart that used to beat in my chest. I sat at the stop sign blinking slowly, trying to make it reappear, until the honking of the cars behind me tore me from my reverie. For a split second, I swear I could see its jagged outline in the rear view mirror as I drove away.

This autumn is warmer and later than it should be, with the leaves in my neighborhood just starting to change and clinging tenaciously to the trees. All except the maple down the block, that is. It hasn’t been willing to wait for the colder weather to set itself aflame. It glows and burns like a personal protest against the slow death of winter it knows will come far too soon.

Though I know it, too, I just can’t seem to burn like that anymore. But I’ve still got those embers glowing somewhere inside of me, and I’ve still got a chance…

Dreams of Sleeping Gardens

I pulled the dead tomato vines today,
Once taut with life and thirsting,
Swollen, drinking ferric water from the hose,
Droplets and insects dancing amidst delicate, silken hairs,
Now starved and anemic, brittle and broken,
Petrified in positions of grasping and reaching,
Intertwined and frozen in final embraces,
Sculptures of what life was before the killing frost came.

I tugged them by their shallow roots and shook the soil loose,
Then the pepper plants,
Dropping the last of their clinging fruit
onto a blanket of tawny leaves,
Like Christmas ornaments laid out
on the frowzy brown plaid of my parents’ old couch,
Waiting for tattered tissue paper wrappings,
Returned to back of the closet boxes for another year.

The work was not easy,
Vines and tendrils hopelessly tangled,
Through trellises and cages,
Woven into the chain link fence,
Invading the house’s crumbling rubble stone foundation,
Knotted up with each other and themselves,
I couldn’t tell where one ended
and another began.

In the hazy evening half light,
My friend the rabbit emerged,
Out from underneath my trusty, dusty truck,
A place he goes each time I return home,
Seeking residual warmth from the cooling engine.
I worry about him with his crippled hind leg,
An easy target for the prowling neighborhood dogs
and the hawks hungrily circling, searching, overhead.
I’ve thought of bringing him into the house,
But I know a house is no place for a creature like him.

I think I’ll let the yard grow wild next year,
And let my heart grow wild, too.

I think I’ll get rid of the cages.

I think I’ll seek warmer places.

Free and bending toward the light.