A father to daughter narrative: philosophy and articulation of nature
We were talking about one of my friends whose children my daughter had grown up with. Bart had a fine sense of humor and he and I were creatively articulate. We often communicated in funny and poetic and usually off-color messages to commemorate a birthday, Mothers Day, St. Valentine’s Day, or whatever. The point I was making was that he had died at her soon-to-be age of forty, his death triggered by alcoholic excesses that destroyed his heart muscle. It shocked her to realize how young he was at death.
One thing led to another as we discussed the potentially unstable path of the “back forty” in life. We appreciated Bart’s power of articulation, and mine – and hers. Mine, as a physician and non-medical writer and hers as a writer of children’s’ books and poetry. Writing and putting ideas together came easily and smoothly for us but not for most of our friends and peers.
I explained a probable strong genetic factor. For example, my father was a preacher and his parents were teachers in an age when teachers needed to be and were articulate. Additionally, her older brother is hard-wired for science with a great ability to comprehend and explain. He is capable of brilliant poetry with a one-of-a-kind blend of science and art. Her younger brother is hard-wired for things social and for self-reliant adventure. He is able to articulate well, forcefully and philosophically. Her mother is a science teacher and a learned naturalist.
I told her a story about the time I first fully understood that my articulation abilities were exceptional. It was during an adventure in the Marble Mountains eighteen years previously. A group of physicians met there, camping for two days, trying to increase our understanding of medical ethics, buoyed by beautiful natural surroundings. My naturalist wife was with our group. I dug up the notes I made on that trip.
Marble Mountains Diary Notes:
“July 1984. The Pacific Crest Trail passes nearby. Almost no one here except for our group.
Still some snow patches in the higher country with yellow Tennessee and McGilvery’s warblers flitting through the tops of fir trees.
A single Townsend’s solitaire, with its distinctive body shape, including a long tail and bright black eyes, indeed solitary in fact and mood. I’m sorry that those without binoculars are unable to really see a bird’s beauty and be intrigued by their identification and habits.
Juncos, wild cherry, flattened pine-mat manzanita, cedar, occasional pine. Higher elevation – hemlock with its star-like, multicolored needle whorls.
An osprey, at the end of the day, not fishing. Instead, up and down, riding the thermals with wide circling over the ridges. Ospreys usually only look for food but he seems to be playing – much deserved after a hard day’s work providing for his family. Earlier he dropped a shimmering, too-heavy trout he couldn’t get airborne.
Deer, just losing their velvet. Coming close to camp at dusk, then spooking, then cautiously returning. Probably salt-starved in their natural environment and attracted to human leavings. They may not fare so well eight weeks from now when hunting season starts.
Cliff Lake. Rimmed two thirds by cliffs with one marvelous scree slide and another much broader talus slide along my early morning’s path to the high ridges almost 1,000 feet above.
Thin creeks full of small brook and rainbow trout – easy to take on a fly but more wary than their kin in the Marble Mountains’ less accessible and less fished lakes and streams.
Bear scat on the trail. A mountain lion track in the wet earth by the talus slope. The early morning flat lake, dimpled by rising trout. Unlike yesterday afternoon’s lake, wind-ruffled until quieted by an overpowering, star-drenched night.
I’m writing this while lounging against a rock – the sun suddenly in view over a peak to the east. The immediate warmth is welcomed on this cool morning, but the illumination of the surrounding rocks and trees removes some of the soft mystery and makes the scene more brazen and less seductive and cozy.
Last night there was no moon, except for two belonging to Jupiter, both clearly visible through binoculars. As we all sat together, a spectacular falling star shot across the whole sky in line with our lake. In its afterglow, the milky way looked as if it extended forever. Each of the tiny millions of dots coming from bodies bigger than our earth. Of what real, lasting significance are we – or these lakes and mountains? I thought about Mark Twain’s comment in Huckleberry Finn, “We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
The coming of the sun does not silence the bird life. The warblers and finches and juncos continue their chatter. The sound of a woodpecker’s gentle tapping on a dead tree is soul-soothing, especially when I consider the alternative of my son’s raucous music – or even some parts of my wife’s favorite music. With that type of unnatural rhythm, my pulse quickens and my personal pace and natural flow changes without realization – unless I stop to think that it’s happening.
Back to the woodpecker. I know this woodland drummer. His is only the briefest of beats, a short roll, perhaps intended to bring his mate to heel. It’s a male red-bellied sapsucker. I watched one earlier, on a large dead tree below my hillside perch. His mate responded and the handsome and attentive pair went through a ritual of two or three hops then a short flight to a nearby branch, the other delightedly following. This play went on for almost five minutes, the epitome of innocent love and joy.
Now I’m listening for sounds. There’s a faraway, repetitive, off-key note. A red-breasted nuthatch. It seems as if all my birds suddenly have red breasts or bellies. Although I always enjoy hearing the nuthatcher’s call, it’s sufficiently strident that too much of it would be like over-applying sauerkraut on mashed potatoes. Yesterday my wife had one of these usually shy creatures all but walk on her as it begged for campsite crumbs.
As I stand to stretch, a chickaree becomes alarmed and scolds me, each squirrel-sized bark shaking its whole indignant body. A nearby junco joins in with sharp, repeated chips. After a moment of silence, a chipmunk calls – its long, trilling sound answered by a faraway friend in an adjacent meadow.
My present observation post is a junction area between a mountainside forest and meadow valley. Such areas of side-by-side different habitats always have richer concentrations of wildlife. Around me are pretty meadow wildflowers, magnificent granite boulders of every shape, stately firs, hemlocks and cedars – all close by. The plants and wildflowers include lupine, astor, yarrow, Siskiyu penstamine, Indian paintbrush, d-y-c’s (these initials stand for similar-looking and unidentifiable “damn yellow composites”) and many tall, white, primitive-looking, multiple-branched and umbrella-like cow parsnip.
The display here is nothing like that seen earlier, one thousand feet above, where everything is two weeks behind and much fresher looking than the partially finished display at this lower elevation. Some petals have already been shed and everything here is more ragged. Up high there were abundant Washington lilies and scarlet gilia – also even the elusive, Siskiyu lewisia, placed as usual on the edge of a cliff where one can’t get close enough to touch the hard, succulent leaves.
Earlier, some of the higher slopes seemed a pandemonium of muted colors of all varieties – blues, greens, yellows, reds, purples. Almost like a symphonic orchestration of color – done by a nonpareil artist. A reminder that truth is better than fiction and reality better than abstraction. Or is it? Our minds often carry us to heights beyond the natural. Is that better – or the same – or worse?
I see a hummingbird spiral up and down and around – a gyro of controlled activity. It rockets to a pause in front of my face, attracted by the bright blue of my hat visor. It’s probably a she. No real distinguishing marks, just small and slender and greenish-yellow all over. I make a mental note to try to identify it later in my bird book. Just then it alights on a close branch of chaparral shad, a relative of the choke-cherry, so named for its unpleasant astringent effect on the throat when its berry-juice is swallowed. The little hummer watches me intently – for almost a minute – as if trying to figure out whether or not my blue hat is a flower. I can now see a straighter, higher, neck-line than in the larger look-alike Anna’s species. It has to be a black-chinned hummingbird. It’s in the right place since they are always found near water.
My wrist-watch’s on-the-hour ping brings me out of my nature-rhapsody. Without thinking, I disconnect and wander back to camp for a cup of coffee.”
Marble Mountains – Physician Peers;
I explained to my daughter that on the last day, each of us gave a talk on what we’d learned. I spoke from my notes, stressing our ethical bonds to nature. There was silence when I finished, then, in a few seconds, unexpected applause. “So poetic and moving!”, someone commented. I retorted that anybody that was properly focused and knowledgeable could give such a talk. “No Way!” they said. “You have a special talent. It’s not just a physician talking!”.
Not Just a Physician:
I further explained that on the way home from the trip I thought about the remarks of my peers. It was a personal awakening for them to tell me – and for me to suddenly realize – how much beyond my peers I was in my knowledge of philosophy, ability to contemplate and articulate and my appreciation of nature. Why had I seen and understood so much more than the others? And what drove my kinship to nature? My daughter and I talked about the Indians who once called those mountains their home. Compared to their soul-immersion in nature, we were novices.
I discussed my youth, raised as a suburban boy, yet lucky to spend summers with my many farmer-relatives who gave me a love of the land and its plants and creatures. But, I asked, how could we ever come close to the magical and mystical that must have engulfed those Marble Mountain Indians? A hopeful answer comes with recollection of a Victor Hugo quote, “In the relations of man with the animals, with the flowers, with the objects of creation, there is a great ethic, scarcely perceived as yet, which will at length break forth into light”.
A Different Path:
I explained how a brave decision made early in my career had paid off handsomely. The decision was to henceforth work only three weeks out of four, thus having time to be more than a doctor for myself and my family. I explained that, as a skilled surgical specialist, I was surprised to find that my efficient style allowed me to be more productive in those three weeks than before, when I worked full time. I told my daughter that I was energized by the time taken off or the soon-to-be time off and that during that amazing extra available week, I had time to think about non-medical things, time for my wife and children, time to search for meaning – and time for life-enriching activities. With this time, I was able to better see and appreciate what the Spanish physician and writer, Felix Marti Ibanez, called “the romance that dwells in everything”.
I explained that the lesson I learned from my Marble Mountain peers gave me a new strength and focus as we talked about how she and her brothers and her mother and I had shaped the forty acres of land we live on – and how it had shaped us – this land my wife and I bought many years ago, the land we call Savanna Hills – the land that reminds us of the African Savanna where man was born, this land lying in the western foothills of the Sacramento Valley. None of this would have worked without the support and comfort and help from my creative, loving, knowledgeable, hard working wife. I discussed how my boyhood dreams were fulfilled by the diverse abundance of our wildlife paradise with its water, trees, grasslands, wildflowers, rolling hills, water, frogs, snakes, quail, deer, pheasant, rabbits, turkeys, doves and over a hundred species of birds.
We discussed our land stewardship, wherein Savanna Hills’ animals and grasses and trees and plants all exist on a higher level, from our efforts, and that the same can be said of the higher level our land has given our existence.
These philosophical ideas and others will be included in my forthcoming book, Reckless But Lucky (2018). Powerful philosophy requires a powerful understanding of nature.