Week 37. Northern lights

I grew up in a wooded area in northern Minnesota at the southern tip of the Iron Range. Our well water turned my hair coppery, and I tracked seasons by the dark sky: Orion on his back, standing and aiming, falling forward.

My dog stared at the aurora when they appeared in the southwest, the way my dog now stares at heat lightning, dead to everything but the flashes at the horizon. Messages from his world, maybe. The aurora dog looked like he was listening, and, even now, when I read the word “aurora,” I heard the northern lights. A low whining magnetic hum. Though this, like many of people’s felt experiences with atmospheric phenomena, is as impossible as the Norse belief that the aurora was light reflected off the Valkyries’ breastplates. Which is to say, perhaps there’s still hope.

The North American iron formations – and consequent magnetic anomalies like the one made the Biwabik formation near my home – helped to form the Earth’s magnetosphere, molecules jittering away after they’d fallen from some dead star’s heart. Now we only talk of solar storms and atmospheric gas, forgetting the many pulsing ancestors under our feet. How many of their voices might we hear without realizing it?

Materials: India ink, watercolor. I have never been able to draw a dog! But…one time, there was an aurora dog named Murphy with a fantastic tail and very pointy ears, and he was the best dog there ever was.

When I went to Alaska in college I fell in love, Alaska was a second skin. I called my Dad from a phone booth to tell him I had found my place. I found it!  He told me the winters were bad.  I got a summer job the next year where you could hitchhike 300 miles to town with truckers. But then a city job with benefits called.

We slept out at night to watch the lights that summer, waking up to find ourselves way down the slope. It was a 1980s roller rink light show. In the sensory deprivation of an ice sheet I could conjure up the electronic keyboard music playing along to the collisions between electrons flying off the sun with Earth’s atmosphere. Oxygen and nitrogen, what we breathe, colliding with energy and emitting light.

Oxygen emits green or red light and nitrogen emits more blue to purple light. These colors are at the limits of the wavelengths we see, making it easier to capture with a camera – the way you take a suspicious person’s picture and if they dont show up you know they are a ghost.

Materials: Marker, watercolor, salt, masking tape, Aurora forecast


Week 36. Seasons

These small points of return: crickets in the third week of July, grass spiders and a strange fatigue in the last part of August. Shadows on the lampposts, changing light and new illusions. When you see someone all the time, you only notice them age and change in day-to-day increments. Which is to say, not really at all. Which is to say, in a felt, fleshy way. Habit or habitual face returned to after distance or time is a shock, or a scrabbling to retrieve what was left and lost.

I’m shy of anecdote, especially when lives can be ruined so easily by half-truths and permutations of grey and blurry fact. Shy of righteousness, contempt, romanticism, the digital sneer. Anecdote isn’t evidence, but there are spaces where it must be: the Mayo Clinic’s forums for girls with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome  (POTS) and women who have had spontaneous coronary artery dissections (SCADs). They share stories because the research hasn’t been done. Databases where clinicians can list observations – psychosis, hives – long after trials have determined a drug’s safety.

I spend so much time online. When I go outside, everything is the same and rapidly changing. It makes me sad and lonely like lavender sky in winter; I cultivate it. Everyone here is so nice.

Fall: a tilting, shortening of light, preparation for frost. But also: the big, shy spiders with pedipalps like catchers’ mitts, burned wind, the veil starting to thin until All Souls’ rends it completely if it ever existed, bull with the angry orange eye falling to the hunter now rising in the east.

Materials: gouache

It’s the uneven character of light outdoors.

Inside; bedrooms, malls, office spaces, the overhead lights take away perspective, depth, and the significance of shadows.

I saw in the Grand Canyon how whole mountain opened and closed as if on hinges over the course of the day. The pine trees on the peninsulas in Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior appear as dollhouse miniatures in the day and collapse into the silhouettes of hills at night.

Twenty-three point four degrees is the tilt of Earth’s axis. Another word for it, obliquity. Obliquity is what drives the seasons, the angle at which we pass by the sun. This angle changes over time moderated by the moon (preventing violent changes), oscillating on a 41,000 year cycle. This cycle appears in ocean sediment cores and ice records of Earth’s climate. Everything has its season, but imagine those seasons aren’t constant.

How much time would you like to spend outdoors? I have this dream of spending a year living only outside. Sleeping under the stars once the bugs die off in fall, an igloo once it snows, a tent in summer. I would come to the city to visit and drink coffee on patios, camp out in yards.

Materials: Micron pens.

Week 35. Pollinators

We ate sitting cross legged on the floor, the lentils on a metal plate and the fresh bread handed out from giant wicker baskets.  We were in long rows; 40,000 people pass through on a normal day, 100,000 on a holiday. I had spent the morning circumnavigating the Golden Temple and being pulled into photos with Sikh family groups of 20 or more. The temple sits in the middle of a pool of water. It’s in northern India, near the Pakistan border and has been there since before India and Pakistan were designated as such.

Part of a pilgrimage is the faith that while you seek, food and shelter present themselves.  The Camino De Santiago, The Kumano Kudo, trails we make up and find ourselves. A friend biked across America collecting jokes and camping in people’s yards.  I went on a date with a boy in college who had hitchhiked home and bivouacked in elementary school yards. 

Monarchs migrate up and down the Americas, traveling 50 – 100 miles a day. They use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, they rely on certain ecosystems. The larvae only eat milkweed, they winter in the Oyamel forests of Mexico. Pilgrims with faith. 

Interstate 35 runs from Duluth, Minnesota to Texas along a monarch path – or it is the path that the government can regulate.  The transect of states have agreed to grow butterfly friendly plants alongside the racing cars and trucks.

For a pilgrimage, part is what is provided by safe spaces, part is faith or what we imagine. Isn’t our greatest fear that faith is nothing but imagination?

Materials: Milkweed from by the Mississippi River and Golden matte medium

When I’m used to the same environment, living in it, walking through it, over time, I start to notice small responses. After rainfall: communities of mushrooms, a transformer blown and never replaced, striated mud, false widows (S grossa – my favorite) suspended blind and upside down.

I like to look at the mushrooms, their gills, color, presence of annulus or volva. They’re so connected to rot that I think many people find them distasteful; they’re symbols of the world seeping, liquescing, going under.

Fungi watch and wait in their way, form a vast communicative web beneath the soil’s surface, and when they emerge, offer nourishment to the pollinators that girds their immunity to toxins, furthers life and decay at once.

It’s all in the form, the response: mushrooms on rotting wood for bees so they can withstand all that’s against them. I once heard a pharmacist say that medicine is just enough poison to coax the body into doing what it ought.

At night, the white and sweetly smelling flowers shaped like sherry glasses bloom. Many, like the starkly white mushroom Amanita bisporigera (or destroying angel), are poisonous, though their scents, intended to draw bats and moths in the dark of night and poor vision, are said to be aphrodisiacs. I love that sometimes we forget what we are.

Materials: Pigma Micron .01 black and watered-down gouache

Week 34. Under the microscope

Over the course of our courtship, engagement, pregnant with our first child, the first year of sleepless baby care, Steven and I each studied ancient global phenomenon through the eye piece of microscopes. Him, mountain building and earthquakes. Me, ice sheets and the migration of ecosystems.

We didn’t go on vacation, we didn’t watch the progress of bills through the legislature, we didn’t plan for retirement or worry about lack of finances to plan for.

Under a microscope I oriented myself on a grid of North, South, East, West. The forest of eight thousand years ago, pollen of oak, pine, fir. I looked through the scope and my hand drew on paper as if it were reaching through a portal from one world to another. Five hundred years later: pollen of grasses, ragweed, sagebrush – an open prairie that corresponded with drought.

I pulled out my scope this morning, touched it like I would a lover. I introduced it to the boys like it was an old friend. I felt the urge to dive in, leave off.  But what we had to look at was bits of our neighborhood: oak leaf, dirt, kale, onion skin.  I could see without looking the cell walls, reaching vein structures. As if once you see, you cannot forget the level of detail in each bit of life.

Materials: Silver metallic sharpie, pencil, Micron 01, grass pollen grain from my lab notes.

My childhood microscope was red with a rubber base that could be removed. The slides it came with fixed protozoa, springtails, fungi, pollen at their centers, but in the spring, there was swamp water, and once, my dad cut his thumb open onto a bare slide so I’d have something interesting to look at.

Knowing the world is composed of layers each more bizarre than the last, unseen but also open to gaze, is some kind of savior. Conjuring the integrity offered by cells and calling out their parts – dark planets: lamina propria, zona pellucida, corona radiata.

I’ve been reading about geophagy (eating dirt). It can be a cultural and/or desired practice, often used to gird a tender stomach.

I ate dirt once at El Santuario de Chimayó, a Catholic shrine in the Sangre de Cristos. The tierra bendita – holy dirt- fills a well in the floor and is replenished with soil from mountaints. Pocito bendito then perhaps. I got horribly ill, whether from helminth or amoeba I don’t know. I’m still amazed that microscopic beings can take you over, render you a constellation of battling organisms.

Gerald Callahan, in a report for Emerging Infectious Diseases, writes that the dirt at Chimayó is in fact sacred, just like that sitting under floorboards and in gardens and graveyards the world over.

Materials: Pigma Micron .005 and .01 and gouache.

“Eating Dirt” by Gerald Callahan in Emerging Infectious Diseases

Week 33. Reading the landscape

I’ve been listening to Invisibilia a lot. I heard one about a man, Jim Verhagen, a non-nature-y guy who becomes obsessed with wildlife on North Beach, New Jersey. He has neglected his family to pursue an obsession with the birds and now has a cult blog following. He reads the behavior of the birds, their interactions. It’s not that he finds nature peaceful, it’s frenzied and stressful, and it is this that he finds comfort in. Seeing stressed birds makes him feel that this is the normal state of living. He has found an ecosystem that reflects his own chaotic interior. I find it comforting that he finds this comforting.

I read the landscape in fossil dirt, fossil seeds, fossil plants, fossil teeth. I read ancient landscapes that are no more. I read for ghosts, for ancient catastrophe. It is this puzzle that drew me in.

I equally like the idea of finding peace or chaos in the landscape and melting into it. But that is not what I find. Instead I lose myself so that I’m not a character. And it is this disappearance I find soothing. My escape from ego.

Materials: Cotton wood seeds collected along the Mississippi River in June, elmers glue, Krylon  Matte Finish spray.

When I was 15, I wanted to be a forensic scientist like my dad’s cousin, who won an award for solving a massacre with then-new DNA technology (saliva on a chicken bone).

Forensics meant that you could know a thing’s past, trajectory, and reason for being just by looking at the signs it left. It meant that all landscapes are layered, and you could never disappear.

Re-creation, antidote to boredom: constant destruction and re-building. Friction ridges, or dermal papillae, in areas where dermal tissue enters epidermis, ridges that merge worlds, a structure that begets, or is, a language, a way of communicating across what might be a fictional border. Whorl, arch, loop. Chance impression on glass or steel.

It’s said that the more full circles in a fingerprint, the more past lives you’ve lived. A bird dies on the sidewalk, and soon, the pattern of its decomposition resembles a bird in flight, medieval herald, though it died huddled and small.

It’s hard to separate superstition from pattern, beauty. From the fact that everything is surprising, secretive and never truly itself. From languages that disappear and emerge, changed, without warning.

Materials: Pigma Micron pen .01 (black) and watercolors.

Week 32. Ancestry

I recently got over an ear infection I’ve had for six months. Ever since I had meningitis, I’ve had weird and capricious ears, but I’m happy (and a little consistently startled) to be able now to hear.

I’ve been thinking about acoustics, and ghosts, because everything turns into a ghost story for me lately. I’ve been clutching at ancestry even though there’s nothing there. Once you lose the people who gave you your long and bumpy nose, you begin to love your nose excessively.

This past winter, I walked so much, up and down St. Paul’s hills. I thought of my grandma, who I missed, how she was so small when she died, how my legs were strong and butter-thighed. I started to compile my library of snow sounds, all the conversations between frozen earth and feet.

Because my ear was so inflamed, I could hear my pulse – vessel against eardrum – like a dog’s panting. It only became less maddening to hear it described as “snowshoes through deep snow,” and I remembered how I felt closest to my ancestors, how I would talk to them, when walking through the woods in winter.

Snow, like anything porous, absorbs sound, and when it’s falling, and the earth is warmer than air, diverts sound into the atmosphere where it becomes ghost sound. And then there’s the styrofoam sound as your boots grind apart ice matrix in very cold, dense snow.

Ghosts and snow have something in common: they create a silence that’s somehow perceptible, a held breath or the sense of a question.

Materials: Faber Castell Pitt artist pen in sanguine, sizes fine and super fine. The image is of a deconstructed snowshoe.

My grandpa was a traveling salesman in Canada, going as far north as Inuvik by the Beaufort Sea. On the Queen Charlotte Islands he made friends with a Haida carver, and though he died before I was born I saw the stacks of storage bags filling my Grandma’s second bathroom shower stall. It was a hiding place no thief would ever think to go and the argillite carvings safely made it to a museum where I eventually saw them in 2000.

Sicily is littered with ancient bones. The Greeks found cyclops’ skulls with big holes in the middle of the forehead. Cyclops crafted Zeus’ thunderbolts, they ate Odysseus’ men. Bones to story, from one generation to another. This is our wealth. 

I’m mapping letters of my grandfather’s. The letterhead is the best part:

Vanderhoof Hotel

Hot and Cold Water Bath, Inside Toilet

Sample Room

I want to follow this map. The handwriting is the most intimate contact I will ever have with him.  This is my wealth, a collection of thin letters from which I can build the skeleton of any mythological creature. A series of towns where I can put flesh onto bone by seeing the way the mountains cut the sky.

The cyclops’ skulls were dwarf elephants, the giant hole where the trunk comes out of the bone.

Materials: Pigma Micron 05, Sharpie, pencil

Week 31: Rain

When I landed in Athens, a storm came in from the Algerian Sahara and rained great slashes of ferrous mud. Does baptism mean being in two places at once, one against your skin always, the other raining down on you? From the Acropolis: a mountain where St. Paul preached to the Greeks. I despise him for his prejudices, his loud-mouthedness and contempt; I love him whole-heartedly.

The air is soup, bathwater, before rain. Baroreceptors in my cerebral vessels get confused. A storm over the Dakotas: they think my pressure is dropping. Not inside but outside, dears, not shock but storm. They dilate away, then headache, then coffee or stormfall to remedy.

With more rain, more cyanobacteria. Their movements: filamentous, oscillatory, hollowed and spherical. They birthed all life when their photosynthesis gave us oxygen in the atmosphere, rusted the earth. Minnesota, when it was only seabed, was built by them, bacteria cementing the great banded iron cliffs from sediment.

I forget St. Paul’s hills until it rains, until I slip where the mud has collected. Striated flows (I keep thinking “lahars”) as it moves downhill. White streaks from bare limestone draw chalky lines through the alleys.

I like to live in a city by imagining how many different places and layers it bears, bacteria building houses and preparing us a home, the shadow of a cephalopod just overhead.

Materials: Gouache. The image is of patterns in a post-rain mud flow on the north side of Portland Ave in St. Paul.

I fact check my poetry and fiction.  Say a character has stolen the ashes of a friend’s mother and it’s staring to rain.  I look up why rain smells, I must understand the physical world and facts to fly when I write.

Science has a lot of rules – a field scientist doesn’t change plans with the weather.  Rain or shine or snow or blazing hot or below zero. This rule is layered over the rule that you start early and don’t stop until you’re done. I’ve worked well past dark, past feeling in my fingers, past soaking wet, past clarity of thought.

The smell of rain comes from plant oils and chemicals in the soil that are released.  The word for this is Petrichor. Petra means stone in Greek, Ichor blood of the gods. 

The rules to being a scientist were all about giving the self over, as if the lakes and mud I studied were gods with blood running through their veins.

Materials: “Rite in the Rain” All-Weather Field Book paper. Pencil and water color.

Note: This postcard is water (rain) proof.