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Category: Big Picture

Low and Slow
It is certainly an animal to be reckoned with. It is among the largest of its kind. It boasts a prodigious libido and glorious coloration. Yes, truly a magnificent beast. For a slug. And even if you don’t particularly like slugs, you have to give it up for Ariolimax californicus, the one and only banana slug.

That said, it’s a hard animal to cozy up to. I’m used to my furry friends being furry. And warm. A lump of slimy, room-temperature squrmishness is not my idea of man’s best friend. It looks like an internal organ that has somehow escaped the body of a larger animal, a raccoon gizzard that decided to strike out on its own. How could such a creature even manage to exist so naked and exposed to the world?

I saw one on my front porch today, and he/she (they can switch) did nothing to calm my concern for these gastropods. (Yes, concern. I am not heartless, you know.) It seemed to be making a beeline (a very, very slow beeline) for the doorknob side of my front door. I passed the slug several times during the morning, each time noting that the trail of slime had lengthened slightly, all the while remaining true to its course.

I’m not sure what mission the creature was on. The two main categories, I am told, are food and sex. There is food in my house, but not too much of the dead organic matter slugs are so fond of. I suppose my entire home might represent a possible meal to the slug, once the nails, resins, and plastics were removed, but it didn’t seem as appetizing as the leaves, moss, and animal droppings that were so abundant on the nearby forest floor. And if this slug had notions of a possible mating opportunity within my walls, I could have assured it that I do not run that kind of establishment.

It is possible, I suppose, that it harbored some other motivation. Perhaps it longed for a life with more meaning, or it had set itself to discover the purpose of its own existence, or it simply had a wild hair up its tentacle. Still, there was nothing inside my house (even if it did manage to open the door) that would be of much help with any of these goals.

No, it was on a fool’s errand. At these speeds, the whole project seemed like a huge waste of the slug’s time. It was taking forever, it seemed, to slide across my porch on a mission clearly doomed to fail. That was the root of my concern — the sadness of time and opportunities lost. That, and a return trip across the porch filled with regret and self-recrimination. I could have intervened and spared it all of that heartache. I could have picked it up (perhaps rolling it onto my handy copy of Field and Stream) and transported it to a more promising environment. But that seemed wrong. The slug had taken great pains to climb the stairs of my porch, and it clearly had a vision of where it wanted to go. Who was I to second guess its sluggish heart?

So I let it be. I had to leave eventually, so I never witnessed the outcome of the drama. If it reached my front door, it either turned back or continued its quest by climbing the wall of my house. Perhaps, finding its dream thwarted, it returned to the raccoon it had left behind and resumed its life as a gizzard. I will never know.

I am comforted by the knowledge, however, that whatever its destiny was, the banana slug had fulfilled it. With patience and determination. And very, very slowly.
Crobes, Big and Small
Microbes have a pretty bad reputation… and with good reason. They cause everything from colds and athlete’s foot to TB and the bubonic plague. Their Facebook friends include viruses, fungi, bacteria, algae, and a bunch of other menacing pathogens. They are particularly insidious because they’re invisible. They might be lurking anywhere in your environment, just waiting for the chance to take you down.

Macrobes pose a similar danger, except they are too big to see. In fact, they are so big we can’t even be sure that they exist. God, for example, would be a macrobe. If God even exists, that is.

Not all microbes are bad, by the way. Some have beneficial effects on the world around them. They can aid digestion, for example. In some cases they can help fight the bad microbes. The same is probably true of macrobes. They can be good, bad, and everything in between. I’m thinking that the macrobe we’ve got in this universe is in that last group.

Oh, I know what you‘re saying: God moves in mysterious ways. Well, excuse me, but that is a very convenient excuse for all the awful stuff that happens. I’ve never had any experience as a god, but it isn’t very hard for me to imagine a more user-friendly universe than this one. You know, where there are a lot more good things happening and a lot less ugliness. Why do we need all the damn suffering? If there really is a head macrobe, then the buck stops right there at Its feet.

I don’t hate microbes. After all, they’re just doing their jobs. There’s probably no sense in hating macrobes, either, even if they’re screwing things up the way ours is. Our macrobe may not be a friendly probiotic, but It isn’t the bubonic plague or leprosy either. More like plantar’s warts or some kind of incurable creeping crud.

No, don’t be mad at our macrobe. That would be like hating the universe itself. Best to just take the prescription of your choice and try not to scratch.
Half and Half and Half
A while back, I wrote about an event that struck a deep chord inside me. My essay centered on a news story about a toxic spill. 900,000 gallons of treated sewage, it seems, was inadvertently released into San Francisco Bay.

What was striking about the story was its cosmic balance. The downside was exactly the same as the upside: the 900,000 gallons of spilled sewage was partially treated. At the time, I thought that such occurrences must be truly rare.

I was mistaken. In today’s paper came the story of Michael Orchard, LSD enthusiast and animal lover. While far away on one of his acid trips, Michael was alarmed to see that his neighbor’s residence in Halfmoon, New York was on fire. Summoning his courage, he crashed through a fence in his BMW, broke into the house, and rescued the occupant’s bewildered family dog.

Fido had good reason to be puzzled by this turn of events. There was no fire, and he had not been in any danger. Instead, the inferno inside the house existed only within the borders of Mr. Orchard’s altered state.

“Man Rescues Dog from Fire that Isn’t There.” Like the story of the toxic spill, this one is positive and negative at the same time. Sure, Michael Orchard trashed his neighbor’s property…but at least he saved the dog! Hallucinatory and a hero.

These two reports have inspired me. They have re-awakened my desire to find an all-encompassing explanation for the universe’s capacity for both desirable and undesirable outcomes. Call it a unified field theory of up, down, and sideways. If events can be all three at the same time, there may be a way for me to untangle this timeless mystery.

I’m not there yet. There are still mountains of numbers to be crunched and mind-bending conceptual breakthroughs to be broken through. But hope springs eternal. And that’s a good thing. I think.
Dumb Luck and Wonder
It surprises me a little, looking back, that my parents let me go. I was only twelve, and Hood Mountain was on private land at the time. We didn’t have permission to hike there, much less stay overnight on the peak. But we got the go-ahead anyway.

By some standards, the adventure wasn’t a very big deal, but it has proven to be a turning point for me. The climb itself certainly wasn’t anything special. Hood is 2733 feet above sea level, but it’s a nice, steady grade to the top. Sustained exertion is actually one of the chief rewards of hiking, especially once it’s over. It brings a sense of mastery, even triumph, that comes with the completion of any physical test. There is also the thrill of exploration, of picking your way, pursuing those choices, and ending up in a place very few have had the luck to find. These are among the highest joys that climbing and backpacking have to offer.

But not the highest. The morning after our climb, while my best pals Andy and Walt slept on the hard ground in their flannel-lined sleeping bags, I got up to watch the sunrise. Hood is one of the tallest peaks in the Mayacamas Mountains. It commands a view along the soft outcroppings of the range as it diminishes southward toward San Francisco Bay. On this morning, the coastal fog had flowed up the Valley of the Moon to press against the hills on their west side — just as the first light of dawn touched them from the east. There was a breathless, windless silence, punctuated only by a few tentative birdcalls. Below me the shadows on the hills were blue, shading to earthy purple. The eastern sky was aglow, and the rising sun frosted the rumpled cloud tops with a rosey warmth that receded southward as far as I could see. It was the most beauty I have ever taken in, before or since.

That moment, which seemed to have been created especially for me, has proven to be a seminal experience in my life. Two years later, the three of us (along with Andy’s dad) were standing outside the stone hut on top of Mt. Whitney. We had put in the effort once again (to 14,496 feet this time), we had come to terms with the mountain, and it had revealed its wonders.

Since then, I have spent parts of almost every summer searching for the same kind of awe I felt that morning as a youth. I found it coming in the high back door of the Pioneer Basin, in descending between Scylla and Charybdis into the Enchanted Gorge, and in hunkering down among the Ram Lakes as lightning and thunder resounded along the jagged eastern crest of the Sierra. On one trip I was hiking alone, lost and exhausted, trying to find a way over the White Divide that wasn’t there. By dumb luck, I stumbled on a rock and water dreamscape atop the ridge that I doubt anyone had ever been stupid enough to discover. I am moved even now thinking of the stark, otherworldly beauty I came upon that day.

I think those kinds of extreme experiences are behind me now, even though they are still vivid in my mind. But I know that the beauty and the remoteness are always there. The circumstances might be more modest, as they were on Hood Mountain, but I think I will always be receptive whenever a moment and nature intersect to summon those feelings of awe. Maybe I have my parents to thank for that, and maybe dumb luck, too. I’ll always be grateful for both.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee