Category: Nature

Walking Among the Jacarandas With John Fowles

Jacaranda trees with purple flowers in Queensland, Australia

Thoughts on the well-regarded British author

For the privilege of sharing a common favorite book and an interest in natural history with the noted British author John Fowles, I earned a book hurled at my head.

Not by Fowles!

It began with Wiwaxia and ended with the jacarandas and a cup of tea.

My aunt, I told Fowles as we walked among the beautiful jacarandas in bloom on the Chapman University campus, always had loved these trees. Although their purple flowers always draw comment and interest, their pods were what she had loved so.

The pods are like purses, or perhaps herbaceous oysters. They’re strong and durable.

Fowles’ voice was soft and he spoke carefully, with a bit of sibilant whistle with some of his “esses.” I’m sure this is a British mark of something … but he wasn’t the least bit “crusty” (as in upper-crust). He was down-to-earth and courteous.

He was curious, almost relentlessly so.

He asked about the many rabbits on campus — escaped from labs ages before.

He asked about the large flock of green parrots — escaped pets, now breeding in large numbers (as did the rabbits).

He asked about the jacarandas. I had always thought this tree was from Australia, as were the many varieties of gum and eucalyptus we see everywhere around Southern California. But it turns out that jacarandas are from Argentina and in the wild, they are regarded as a threatened species.

But they are planted as landscape trees around the world and their purple flowers rival cherry blossoms for beauty.

I’ve been going over my work today and thinking, “Fowles treated me as an equal.”

Because he was egalitarian? Perhaps. Fowles is the author of one of the least-objectionable of the “man kidnaps, rapes, and tortures young woman” books, his first bestseller, The Collector. At the time I was walking with this man on the Chapman University campus, it hadn’t yet dawned on me that this type of literary subject might represent an extreme form of toxic patriarchy and that sane people might not regard such a tale as a subject for light reading prior to bedtime.

That issue was never raised at the time, not in any seminar where I was present, and not between Fowles and me.

We talked about Wonderful Life, a mutual book favorite of ours, written by the late (both men dead, now) Stephen Jay Gould. This book tells the story of the discovery and interpretation of the Burgess Shale animals, and Fowles had just returned from a trip to Canada to see the Burgess Shale with his own eyes. He wrote about other fossils, those found on the beach at Lyme-Regis. Collecting and studying these fossils formed a significant part of the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was made into a well-received film in the 80s starting Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.

I insisted that Hallucigenia was groovier than Wiwaxia, although now, I’m no longer sure. What do you think?

Hallucigenia (l) Wiwaxia (r)

Fowles read some of my work and pronounced it good.

He spoke with me some about being a writer.

He said, “You must always do what you do for yourself first and only. Never do what others want or demand.”

He signed one of several of his first editions, and a few not-first, to me. I took those with me in my single box of books when we moved to Florida.

I’m reading something of mine today, preparing it for publication.

In book form.

And I saw something else, as well.

Via social media, a young woman asked, “Are you proud of your skin color?”

I understand the reason why the question was asked, and though my answer to that question is “No,” I ask myself the question, “Are you proud of your work?”

The work I’ve done for a lifetime.

And to this, my answer, is “Yes.”

And I think, now that I am ten years younger than the 70-year-old Fowles was when he walked with me on that long-ago day on that far-away campus,

He was right.

I’ll never know why Fowles wrote The Collector. I see some material online that says he wrote it to “Fulfill a boyish fantasy of imprisoning a woman.” I hope that’s not really the case; certainly there was little to nothing of this left in the kind, thoughtful, gentle older man I walked and talked with.

He seemed to me to have been a man who had grown tremendously throughout his life. A thoughtful man, interested in the world around him and all of its creatures. All of life.

“You must always do what you do for yourself first and only. Never do what others want or demand.”

It seems like such simple, easy advice to follow.

So it seems.

The truth, would be quite the opposite.

The Crossing

Image of Gulf of Mexico/Gasparilla Island July 2022 by author

The Crossing

For some weeks, I would lie alone in the quiet night, imagining what it would be to take all my walls down. So long they had been up, so tall, broad and strong. Brutal and jagged, as thick as the Berlin Wall. I’d seen a piece of the wall, put up in the center of the Chapman campus like a hideous sculpture. It’s not far from Adam Smith’s bronze head.

Students pass by this monument every day and don’t know what the ugly sculpture is, just as they do not know Adam Smith. It’s a tall hunk of dirty white concrete topped with twisted rebar, splattered with graffiti, some written in foreign tongues, most written in no language save agony.

As Temple Grandin sees her life as a series of doors that she opens and walks through, so too have I seen my life as a series of bridges. One crossed with a path to follow, and then another, and another, and another.

And this bridge, the highest, like looking down from the Golden Gate Bridge to the chill gray water below. The drop is some 270 feet, 27 storeys. Of the 2,000 people who’ve jumped off the bridge since it was built, only 33 have survived, and of those, only a handful have recovered from their injuries.

One of the survivors said, “the second my hands and feet left the rail I realized I had made a mistake, I realized how much I needed to live, or didn’t want to die.”

For me, it is not to jump off the bridge, it is to cross it without falling.

And I am so afraid.

Once when I was young, my grandmother was in a rare contemplative mood and wished to tell me of the days before my mother died. She often spoke of driving to Los Angeles from Redlands each day to see her. Well now I know such trips; when I was young I could not imagine them. But I was eager for any word about my mother.

Nana said she went in one day to find my mother out of bed and lying on the floor beside the window, unable to stand.

I immediately saw her, slim, pale arms and legs tangled, fingers reaching for the sunlight.

“I was dreaming, mother,” she said. “I dreamt I saw the most beautiful color, and I was trying to reach it. But I fell.”

I asked what the color was, though I already knew. I had dreamt of this color my entire life.

Before I could really write, I wrote about it. I told all of our stories mixed into one. Nana pointed out the old copper pot on the patio, and its patina. That was the color. It was, it is, the color of time.

These newborn eyes, the color of old copper pots which have been left in the sun. The color of a nugget of turquoise taken straight from the earth, of the sea off Laguna at sunset, of what you are moving toward, of what will be as well as what was. Your eyes. Your child’s eyes. Your mother’s eyes. Shot with time’s arrow, melted, forged into a pot.

To say that this is my favorite color is to say that I like to breathe air. It is as much a part of me as my blood, the muscles in my legs, my fingers.

I think often of the choice my mother made. I would have made the same choice. Rather than grasp for a few more miserable sick months, just let go. Give my life to my baby.

That baby was me.

I did make the same choice as was given to me and would make it ten thousand times over. But I had no real risk to my life, and instead it was the baby’s life that was taken. In terms of his eyes, they were blue. So blue.

Grief is like biting into a crab apple, over and over. Regret is a bittersweet orange bad at the heart. Loneliness the comfort of a rotten, threadbare sheet.

And how I have loved such things. My daily bread and meat. They have the comfortable familiarity of Poe lifting Virginia’s dusty white bones from her grave, gathering the bone and mold and death in a mad embrace.

And ahead, I see the color of time.

Yet I remain fearful to leave these things behind. Reluctant to cross the bridge and step into the clear blue sky. I do not wish to fall. But around me, the bridge is crumbling. The walls are cracked.

I must cross now; I have no real choice.

If I stay on the bridge, I will surely fall, and if I go back, behind the walls, I will die.

For some weeks I have been feeling the world around me more than I feel myself. First, while swimming, I felt the water about my body more than I did myself, and for the first time, swam with it. I went fast. Then walking with Gambit, his eager body pulling forth, I felt the world about my face and arms and hands, the warm sun on my cheeks.

Dancing on the patio after Jay Lake died, I said a prayer for his soul and felt the world about my hands, and I let it lift them, then felt it holding my muscles as I danced to the music of the air. The wind rushed through the trees. A bird sang, and then took flight.

Then came a bear, his black eyes flashing. A buck chasing a doe through the forest. A doe and her fawn eating calmly, no fear at all.

The sun on a high mountain rock, above the world and all its cares.

Gently, the sun touches my face, my shoulders, my back, my belly, my breasts. I am as God made me.

I already know that I will never truly live if I do not cross these steps. If I do not take his hand, if I do not truly kiss his lips, feel his blood rushing, feel his heart beating, feel his love through his hands. If I do not let this thing happen, if I do not let him feel me –

I will be ashes, clay, dust, mold, bones in a grave.

And like all things we think to be so difficult at first, the doing is as easy as slipping into warm water.

I slip from my skin into his, and he into mine.

We are the buck and the doe. We are one under the crystal blue sky. The sun is like fire; our shadows meet. My breasts reach up to meet his hungry lips.

We are as beautiful as the buck and doe. The forest is alive, and so are we. This savage black image, raw as hell, naked on the flat gray rock, is who we are.

I have crossed the great divide and have not fallen; he fell a short way, but got up again.

Yes, I have been afraid. I have shivered alone in the cold night.

But now I am warm and unafraid.

And on my finger, because we are people, and people make such things and do such things to remind themselves of eternal truth, things of which the buck and doe and bear have no need, for they never forget how to live, I wear a stone that is, improbably, impossibly, inevitably — the perfect, exact color of time.

Marine Life Thrives at Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, FL

Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about wildlife and nature. I don’t support old-fashioned zoos that keep animals in cages, but I do support wildlife conservation efforts and study. I completely support organizations like the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. The Mote says,

We are guardians of the sea and all living things that depend upon it

It’s a wonderful place, and they’ve put good procedures in place to ensure that visitors, staff, and resident sealife can continue safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors are allowed as long as they wear masks and follow safety procedures. Many “hands on” experiences are not possible at this time, but as Dr. Oliver Sacks pointed out to his friend Shane Fistell in one of the videos we used to watch in class, “We see with the eyes, but sometimes we see with the hands.” Right now for everyone’s safety, it’s important to keep “seeing with the eyes,” especially when we’re near living creatures who might get sick if we touch them.

Just like people, animals have personalities, and the personalities at Mote Aquarium are remarkable. One of the first animals I met while visiting there was a sprightly small turtle.

Very calm and interested, he swam for a bit, then settled back on a rock to watch the interesting, strange creatures peering into his home.

Here’s a link to the Manatee Cam so you can see what a great environment the Mote provides.

I’ve seen several manatee since we moved to Florida, but the Mote manatee, Hugh and Buffett, are “movie stars” compared to wild manatee. Their skin and tails are spotless and perfect. In the wild, manatee are covered by all manner of sea creatures and usually as well as sadly, many scars. Despite laws to protect them and lots of education, they are still injured by boating mishaps. They still suffer because of boating destruction of the sea grass they eat.

This is my best manatee picture from the aquarium – is it Hugh or Buffett – I don’t know!

I also had an interesting visit with one of the sea turtles that lives at the aquarium. They care for several sea turtles, all of which are rescues and which have different injuries or other circumstances that mean they won’t be able to safely return to the wild. Again, as everyone who knows me knows, sea turtles are among my favorite living creatures. One of the high points of my life was swimming alongside of one while snorkeling in Kauai.

So, here are two of the sea turtles at the Mote Aquarium, and the one on the right took an interest in me. Shortly after I took this picture, she took a swim around the tank, fixed me in her gaze, and swam swiftly back in my direction, at the last moment slapping the water with her right fin. Not only did she achieve a mighty splash, getting me and my phone wet, I’m certain she was laughing heartily in her turtle way at her excellent trick.

I understand that some people won’t like this picture, but I also have some friends who will love it. These are three Southern toads, who should be distinguished from the cane toad, which is an invasive species in South Florida. These three pals were just hanging out taking it easy when we walked by.

Have you ever seen such a large hermit crab? I haven’t, either, but a note – I’ve seen “adopt a hermit crab” displays in tourist areas recently and a word – just don’t. Leave them on the beach or in a facility like Mote Aquarium. Don’t try to take animals like this home and force them to live in painted shells.

This is a really nice, curious, and friendly cuttlefish. Not only does he share his ability to change his skin color and patterns instantly, he seems as curious about human onlookers as we are about him.

The Mote has a number of active, friendly pufferfish, so here’s a tip. YES, they can be poisonous. Do not touch them if you see them washed up on the beach. I’ve seen several and fortunately, what little common sense I have told me “Don’t touch it,” because they do contain toxins. Pufferfish can be blown ashore during storms and this just a sad fact of life.

So, of course they also have axolotls at the Mote Aquarium. And this delightful snapping turtle, ready to catch me with the lure inside his mouth.

As I was warned as a child, don’t play around with these snapping turtles: they can take your finger off.

I was talking to a native Floridian the other day and told her how sad it was the environment in California had deteriorated so much, even with so many environmental efforts and so much education. She said that Florida had also experienced severe environmental degradation, and that in recent years, things had been improving because people recognized the problems and made changes on their own. So, the beautiful environment that we enjoy so much today is the product of immense efforts on the part of many people. I think institutions like the Mote Aquarium are vital. The Aquarium educates everyone who goes, and they haven’t stopped with the COVID pandemic. They’ve added many virtual programs for all ages. They also have eco tours on the “Mote Boat.”

I’m poor at describing the deep emotion that washes over me when I’m in nature or around a large number of animals that are – for lack of a better word – happy. I know it’s not particularly sophisticated, but I have a measure to judge if a place like Mote Aquarium is “good” or “not so good.”

A couple of years ago when I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they have an exhibit which includes hundreds of sardines swimming in a tank that encircles the viewer at eye level. The environment isn’t constructed to force the fish to confront human visitors, it’s shaped in a way that allows you to stand amid the fish in their normal behavior without disturbing them. Anyway, these hundreds of fish were doing their thing and as I stood there, I felt this overwhelming joy emanating from the hundreds and hundreds of silver, flashing, slender sardines.

I felt similar feelings from nearly all the animals at the Mote Aquarium. The Mote, and a place I’ll write about soon, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, primarily have animals that cannot survive in the wild. They are teaching, conservation, and education institutions. They do not engage in capturing animals in the wild to force them to perform for paying customers like a sea park I won’t name. They take injured animals, rescued animals, abandoned animals, or orphaned animals and care for them. So, the animals are happy because they are cared for by people who care about them, and because they are living their lives — if not for the Mote, they would probably not survive. They also live in environments that are made as healthy as possible for them, and human visitors are constantly cautioned not to harass, bother, and certainly not harm them.

I was feeling “the feeling” of well-being at the Mote long before I met the saucy, mischievous sea turtle. When she splashed me, I knew she was living in a safe place where she could, as much as possible, be herself. There are many more special turtles that I met at Theater of the Sea — I’ll write more about them soon.

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