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Category: Humans

Big Doug
There is no denying that the Douglas fir can be a beautiful tree. It grows tall and straight and reassuringly symmetrical like any good conifer. It grows fast, too, making it a favored source of building materials. Truckloads of doug fir studs and joists and beams pour out of the Pacific Northwest to building sites around the country.

It supplies the bone structure for my own home as well, and its strong silhouette joins the local redwoods and oaks to form the woody horizons around my mountain community. It is a familiar and plentiful cohabitant of my world. But the Douglas fir is no friend to me. Indeed, by some measures it is my mortal enemy. Or more precisely, my nemesis.

Still, I have no choice but to coexist with it. Doug fir is everywhere, and there are many more of it than there are of me. There is one growing in my front yard now that is thirty feet tall. It appears to be healthy and well on its way to 200’ or more…if it is allowed to live.

Its future was not always so promising. During its early life, it lived in the shadows of several large tan oaks, and had a spare, spindly look that seemed to foretell a short stay here. But through the years, the tan oaks came down one by one, succumbing to to the ravages of sudden oak death and infestations of bark beetles. Their passing let the sun shine in fullness on the fir, and it responded vigorously. The trunk is now quite thick and it has branches and needles in abundance. It will be a shame to cut it down.

I had chosen to let it grow because I was charmed by how it responded to its sudden change of fortune — struggling against the odds in its early years then seizing the opportunity fate had given it. And, as I have said, I had already decided to live peacefully alongside its species when at all possible.

But it would be foolish to ignore our history with the Douglas fir here on the mountain. It has proven to be an unpredictable and dangerous neighbor — like the time thirty years ago when a big one tried to kill my wife.

We had been hit by a particularly strong storm that spring night, one that carried lots of water and the high winds that can whip up to 60 mph or more along our ridge tops. This Douglas fir snapped very close to ground level, at a place where the tree was nearly five feet across, so it must have made a terrific noise. The wind and rain were making a racket of their own, however, so I never heard it.

I could not miss, however, the blow it struck across our roof. The whole house shuddered. The door to our second floor master bedroom flew open, and my wide-eyed wife charged out and down the stairs. “What the hell was that?”

We tentatively ventured out into the storm and found a tangle of limbs and a cracked tree trunk wedged against the house. “A doug fir,” I said. “Where did that come from?” I didn’t recognize the tree. Not from our property, anyway.

By morning, the storm had passed, and the sobering truth was revealed. The 120-foot-tall fir had stood up the slope from our home. When the high winds struck, its rotted bole had split, hurling the massive tree toward us. As it fell, gravity kicked in, accelerating the fall. If it had struck unimpeded, it would have made short work of the doug fir skeleton of the house, even the big four-bys. At the very least, it would have blown through the rafters above the top floor and demolished the entire second story bedroom. Right where Jane had been sleeping.

There had been only one object in the path of the falling fir. A mature madrone, perhaps twenty inches in diameter, grew at a slight tilt at the edge of our property. Its hardwood trunk t-boned the fir as it fell, taking on a big part of its momentum and slowing it enough to save our home…and the life of my beloved.

Now, all these years later, we still have reminders around us of this event. There is a long, straight dent across the ribs of our steel roofing., The carcass of the fir itself still lies in the woods, finding its way back to the earth. And the madrone — whose mighty trunk had been flattened in its heroic effort — now sends up a host of saplings from its root ball.

As if I needed a reminder. The Douglas fir is my nemesis. Its soft, pitchy wood is a worst-case wildfire waiting to happen. Its straight, healthy appearance can be a lie, concealing a rotten core. It is a killer, lying in wait to crush unwary humans or assist in their incineration. Let it flourish along a distant skyline. Let it provide the framework of my home. But it should not grow here.

So, this plucky survivor growing in my front yard — so blessed by fate and my own forbearance — will fall soon. There will be no remorse, no wistful remembrance. Just a pile of chips and another rotting carcass on the forest floor. Good riddance.
Come Fly With Me
He’s in here now. I can hear him buzzing. It’s the deep, lazy sound that only a big, old fly makes. I’ve seen him a number of times around the house, sometimes hidden from view, sometimes right in my face. He doesn’t do it taunt me, I know, so I don’t take our interaction personally.

Buzzing, landing, taking off again. Some time soon, I know, he will land and wait just a little too long. When that happens, I must try to remain calm. The swatter must come down forcefully, but I need to maintain the icy resolve of a killer so that the death stroke will be both swift and sure.

He will probably die soon of natural causes, but I can’t wait that long. I keep picturing him walking all over my kitchen surfaces, including on my food. And on my butter…my butter! Who knows what else those filthy feet have walked on? He’s probably been up to his ankles, or his knees, or even his hairy thorax in all kinds of unsavory muck — and then tracked it through my precious butter.

This is unacceptable. I could, I suppose, open the doors and windows and trust that the big buzzer could find his way out. He thumps against the windows again and again and again, so I assume that he yearns to go outside. On the other hand, he is a housefly… musca domestica. Maybe he’s right where he's supposed to be: in housefly heaven, where it’s warm and windless and there’s butter aplenty for food or frolicking.

I am told that the lifespan of your average housefly is about 28 days. This one, though, is the size of an Atlas Airbus. He’s two months old if he’s a day. And that buzz…he is an old lowrider of an insect in need of a tune-up…a tune-up that will never come.

For now it is his time to go. My guess is that flies are not the smartest of animals, but I can’t help thinking that he knows the end is near. Perhaps he even welcomes it. And perhaps, at some level, he realizes that it is I who will be cast in the role of Death in his life’s final drama.

It is in both of our interests that I make this quick. He doesn’t want to suffer needlessly, and I don’t want bug guts smeared all over my stuff. But neither of those things will happen. He is nearby now, circling lazily by the big window in the living room. If he lands, I know he will be too slow to lift off in time. And when he does land on the window, on the sill, on the countertop — anyplace, lord, but on the butter itself! — I will have him, and this show will be over.

But he does not land. He is drawing out the last few moments of his life on Earth. That, of course, is his privilege. If he chooses to gaze wistfully out of my window at the sunny summer day, those few moments are his to spend. But I am not beholden to his schedule. I am Death, and I have other appointments to keep. A full calendar of duties, in fact. I cannot wait for a convenient landing. I must act, all the while remembering that I must take no pleasure in this duty. The fly and I are as one, partners in the cycle of life. Well, his cycle of life anyway.

The swatter flashes, almost imperceptibly to the human eye, catching the big bug midflight and full-on. There is no squirming, no unseemly entrails to wipe up. I swaddle him in his Kleenex shroud and honor his passing with a solemn burial in the place he loved so much in life — the garbage.

But our bond has not been broken. The fly and I are brothers, joined by death and a deep love of fine, Grade A butter. I think of him even now as I stand by the same window where he breathed his last. It’s almost as if he’s still right here with me.

What’s that buzzing sound?
Think Again
If asked, most of us would say we have common sense. Some of us might even be a little insulted by the question. These people might assume that only very stupid people don’t have common sense.

That, however, would be a silly assumption — as those of us who have at least some common sense could have told them. Common sense isn’t about brains. Or cunning, or verbal alacrity, or even logic. It is connected to experience, though…and human wisdom at its most fundamental level.

The term “common sense” has no particular academic meaning. It’s nothing more than vernacular for sound judgment when it comes to basic, practical matters. It appears to be activated on an almost intuitive level, as if analytical thought does not participate at all. The mind considers its own life experience holistically in reaching quick, reliable conclusions. We might even view it as a natural survival mechanism.

Or so it seems. None of us can be sure of exactly how the human mind functions. What we can see, however, is that such subliminal judgments are sometimes overridden by our analytical self. In such cases it doesn’t seem to matter whether common sense has produced a sound judgment or not. The rational mind just can’t leave it alone. Instead, it moves to replace perfectly good conclusions with more intricate explanations of reality. “Overthink” is the popular term.

Not that common sense always gets it right. Sometimes the complex, laborious thinking of science can step in and cancel good old common sense with irrefutable proof. Thanks to that kind of thinking, we no longer entertain the common sensical belief that the Sun revolves around the Earth. What once seemed obvious is now seen as a quaint foolishness.

Outside of the rigors of the scientific method, however, such appropriate cancellations are rare. Take the Deep State, for instance. Those who believe there is such a thing defy the common sense conclusion that nothing so huge and so secret could last for more than a day or two. Such folk do not rely, however, on anything like the scientific method for their proof. Most of their “evidence” (if you dare to trace it at all) is composed of dark suspicions. Those suspicions, in turn, are supported by well-documented coincidences that spiral off into infinity. None of this evidence would be admissible in a court of law, much less as part of a careful scientific inquiry. Classic overthink.

But that doesn’t stop the conspiracy buffs. It is my belief that everyone has common sense. In fact, day-to-day life could be very difficult if we didn’t have some semi-automatic system for assessing situations and moving on quickly. Other animals (who do not have our analytical capacity) seem to use something like common sense in order to facilitate their quick decisions…and so survive. They do not, so far as I can tell, subscribe to conspiracy theories.

Perhaps we should admit that our human intellect, for all its impressive accomplishments, has a few weaknesses. Unlike common sense, it shows a susceptibility to emotion and other non-rational motivations. As a licensed armchair psychologist, let me name a few. Wish-fulfillment is certainly one, though I can only guess why someone would wish for the existence of the Deep State. Maybe folks are desperate for any explanation of events, no matter how unlikely, if the alternative is a world filled with uncertainty. Or perhaps they want to be hip and in-the-know. Or maybe they’re just wrapped too tight for the real world.

Or it could be laziness. People often resort to cynicism as a way of dealing with a chaotic world. “It’s all rigged anyway” is a great cop-out if you’re looking to avoid responsibility. If everything is controlled by unseen, all-powerful forces, then you are off the hook for doing anything about it. These people are not conspiracy buffs, however. They just want a convenient excuse not to be bothered — which is a perfectly good survival mechanism in itself. And way preferable to overthink.
Asking for a Friend
I have a puzzler for you science buffs: when you stand in front of the fridge and squirt yourself a big mouthful of Reddi Whip*, why is that fluffy dollop of aerated whipped cream not cold?

*Not that I, personally, have ever done such a thing over and over until the can is empty.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon