Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Ecstasy of Teaching

There are rare times when the joy and excitement of teaching swells to ecstasy.  When the world of tangibles mutes and fades into the background for a short time, giving way to a world of ideas, and, as in a dream, new rules seem to apply.  It is a confounding experience and difficult to describe.  I found myself today standing outside my classroom, on the steps in the sun, just catching my breath and trying to maintain my composure, and wondering what just happened.

In these glowing moments after things have gone so well in class, the world looks different.  Literally.  I know it is all about perception, but that doesn’t dim the experience of it.  It is as if the world sparkles, like I am seeing it for the first time.  Like things lack names.  New.  Unidentifiable in reference to anything that came before.  Like an infant’s gaze.  I have walked out of my classroom on only a handful of occasions in my 13 years of teaching and wondered, “What has changed in the world?  Why does it look so different?”  Or is it me?

This morning I was standing outside my classroom, sort of panting, looking again at a sparkling world for the first time.  I had just contrived a short, reflective writing assignment as an personal escape plan.  In order to give myself the chance to breathe, I had breathlessly recapped some of the intellectual and emotional territory we had just traversed and asked my students to write down what they remember of the 45-minute discussion we had just experienced together.  It was a fine thing for a teacher to ask of students, certainly pedagogically supportable, but it was an escape for me, nonetheless.  I had reached for the ripcord and deployed the parachute.

I wondered if my students knew, in some way, that I had bailed out.  Had the moment become awkward in class?  Did they wonder?  Did they ask themselves, “What’s up with him?  Why is he so into it?”  I trusted that they did not.  I trusted that they had by now come to expect my intensity around ideas.  But you can’t ever be sure – and I heard myself saying, “Pull it together.  Breathe.  Take it down.  You have to go back in there and wrap things up for next class.”

This class I teach is called Why War? and I am happy to tell you what we talked about, how it went, all the details – I know you are wondering.  But for now that isn’t my point.  What we talked about is almost irrelevant.  I am trying to write about why I teach (in fact, I have been trying for years), about moments of connection with ideas in the company of young people striving to develop their powers.  Moments of transcendence when being in the presence of grace and great things shines a light on you that you know you can’t endure but you want never to go out.

Swarm Season

It is swarm season for honey bees – a time when queens and ten or twenty thousand loyal daughters leave their hive in search of a new home, abandoning the rest of their colony to rear new queen and carry on by themselves.   Actually, bees can and will swarm anytime their hive becomes too crowded – it is the main way wild hives propagate – but the early spring is the time when colonies have just come out of their winter torpor and bee populations explode.  The advent of the swarms in the spring coincides, not accidentally, I believe, with the first real nectar flows of the year.  Many types of flowers are in bloom – or coming into bloom – and the bees can find plenty of sweet and nutritious forage.

I have seen only four swarms in my life.  I haven’t been looking long, you understand, at least not until recently.  My senses are attuned now, and in the interests of housing homeless honey bees I search for swarms these days.  It should not surprise then that two of my four swarms I have experienced in the last year.

All of them, though, I heard before I saw.  A swarm, like a hive itself, has a sound you can’t ignore.  It is amazing.  Indescribable.  It is the sound of many, many  individuals engaged in common endeavor.  A deep, rich thrum, it is one of the many voices of nature itself.  People (I may or may not be one of them) say the same thing about rattlesnakes.  Even if you have never heard one before, the buzzing alarm of a rattlesnake is unmistakeable.  You know what it is the very first time.  It is hard wired – so to speak -into our brains as snake sound.  The sound of bees is the same.

I remember vividly the first swarm I saw.  It was in the air.  I was 10 or so outside the house where I grew up.  Something in my father’s elaborate gardens had my attention, I don’t know what.  But a sound came up rather quickly.  I didn’t hear it so much as I became aware that I had been hearing it, like it had been there, audible, and I only just then became aware of what I had been experiencing.  The difference between hearing and listening, perhaps.  The sound seemed to come from the whole sky, and it was moving, coming from no where in particular and everywhere above me.  I looked up and it was immediately recognizable as a cloud of insects that swept right up our little valley, and up and over our house.  It was gone as fast as it had come and when it was gone it was as if nothing had happened.  I sort of went back to whatever it was that I had been doing, but I remember the feeling that something rare had happened.  I remember feeling at the epicenter of something big.

These days, there are times when I wander down to the apiary, cup in hand, coffee if it is morning, something stronger if it is evening, and sit.  I sit as close as I can – I try not to be noticed too much – and I listen and I watch.  There is so much to see.

But like all careful observation it takes patience and time.  The gifts of watching are there for free but they are not gained immediately.  I find it takes time for the noise and distraction in my head to calm and fall silent.  And that is when I might see something.

I once watched a single bee in a flower.  I watched her poke her head into the blossom, probing for nectar.  Then she pulled back and brushed her head with her forelegs, collecting a dusting of yellow pollen.  With her forelegs she deftly transferred a small quantity of protein-rich pollen to the sticky patches on her hips.  And then she she flew away.  I was amazed, breathless again.  I knew I had once again seen something rare.  If you ask, “Do you know how a bee gets her pollen onto her hips?” you will find that almost no one knows.

This last Saturday the bees were gathering in clusters and balls all over Marin County.  I don’t know what spurs them to swarm, but I know they respond to a common sign.  Over the local beekeeper’s email list there came one after the other all morning long news of swarm after swarm in local towns and neighborhoods.  My wife and I, eager to add to our apiary, were tempted by each one.  But you have to tread carefully in seeking to hive a swarm at a stranger’s house.  It almost always involves a certain degree of invasion and you never know how people are feeling about bees.  Bees, like snakes, elicit strong and deeply felt emotions.

Nonetheless, when word of this one came across the wire, we jumped.  The message gave an address, a phone number, and this: “Swarm 1′ off the ground.”  It isn’t much information to go on, but it sounded promising.  So, we called.

“Are you my savior?” said a giddy voice on the other end of the phone.

“Well, I don’t know,” I said.  “I called to ask some questions.”  In a short chat the man with whom I spoke seemed reasonable, phobic but reasonable.

“Oh!” he said.  “Bees!  Bees are my only phobia.  I don’t have a problem with snakes or spiders.  Scorpions.  Nothing.  Except bees.  I can’t deal with bees.”

“I’ll be right over.”

Swarming bees rarely sting, and there are a couple of explanations for that.  Even so, it runs counter to what people think they know about bees.  The thinking is that because bees preparing to swarm gorge themselves on honey for the long, uncertain trip, they have a tough time bending their abdomens to sting.  (There is a lot you hear about bees that strains credibility.)  A more believable theory to me states that bees sting out of selfless defense of their hive.  Without a hive, they don’t get defensive.

What ever the reason, I have experienced the phenomenon: swarming bees don’t sting.  I am hesitant to say they can’t.  I think that would take some committed testing to verify.  It is true, though, that they tend to be docile, unconcerned, and appreciative of human efforts to house them.

This cluster, as usual, was audible before it was visible.  We could hear it from the back porch.  It was about the size of a regulation soccer ball, and solid.  Swarm clusters aren’t hollow.  They were all clinging to a thick branch of a bush in this phobic man’s back yard.  He said when he first got home the air was filled with bees and then over the course of a calming hour, they settled into the bush.  When my wife and I got there, the situation seemed well under control.

Hiving them was a relatively straightforward affair, really.  The bees are all in one place, they are calm, and they are looking for a home.  We simply gave them one.

Hiving the swarm involved providing a sealable box in which to transport them to our own apiary, cutting the branch on the bush to which they clung, and laying the branch carefully into the box.

After we closed the top of the box, we opened the small entrance on one end, and the bees, sensing their queen was inside, slowing marched in formation right into the box.  It took about an hour, but the entire swarm was hived and at home of their own accord.  We had only to stopper the entrance and carry them off, listening to their thrum.

The final step was to transfer the colony from the catch box into their more permanent home – a deep hive body with 5 frames in which to drawn comb – in our own apiary.  A week has elapsed since then and our newest colony seems very happy with its new digs.  The queen is furiously laying eggs, the workers are tending house, the foragers are stocking up on nectar and pollen, and the drones, as usual, aren’t doing anything.

Swarm season is on!

No Time to Stand and Stare

There had been rumors circulating in the neighborhood for some time.  “Have you seen the owls?”  There is a core of us up on the ridge who are fairly nature-oriented.  You know how that is.  I mean, who isn’t nature-oriented?  And yet, some just aren’t.  But for a few of us working the land and raising animals and insects in the open space, news of a nest and a clutch of owlets is enough to mobilize.  Not necessarily strict bird watchers, not one of us, and yet visions of nature and views of the truly wild promise a deep-seated thrill and a sense of connection we can’t get any other way.  So, when word got around of a mated pair of Great Horned Owls with a nest, we organized for an outing to see them.  My daughter had been to see them before with neighbors so she was our guide.  She knew where to stop, where to stand, and where the communal binoculars were hidden for any and all in-the-know to use and to replace, camouflaged with some sticks and grasses.

There were others there, stopped by the trail when we arrived after a mile’s hike on the fire road.  We weren’t the only ones to come in search of young owls.  My daughter slipped right into her appointed role, producing the binoculars and directing people she had never met to the best vantages for viewing.

The owlets were bigger than I expected, like fully grown owls, only fuzzy.  The nest was large and haphazardly constructed, not something I would expect to last the season.  My daughter, she is ten, informed me that these owls have been returning year after year but they make a new nest each year.  (How does she know this, I wonder?  And yet, it is time for me to stop asking that question.  She knows what she knows.  That, now, has to be enough.)

There seemed to be two birds occupying the nest (reports were that there were three), but one young owl, completely shrouded in pale lanugo fuzz, stood vigilant watch.  Our dog, a large, Landseer Newfoundland, was clearly a most curious sight as the owlet watched the dog wherever it wandered.

I knew the mama wouldn’t be far – these owls hunt and fly at night, sleep and roost during the day – but she wasn’t in evidence, not near the nest, anyway.  And then, as an apparition, there all the time, she was there.  She was perched not far away, and yet far enough to survey the scene from an appropriate vantage.  She watched her nest and her young, maybe hoping to gain some sleep in quiet moments – who knows? – but vigilant to the goings on of her brood.

It was unexpected to see her there, perched on her branch, just watching.  I thought the chances remote.  And yet, when my eyes lighted on her, it was sudden and unmistakeable.  Her tall tall, stately bird form, perfectly placed, seemed inevitable.  Where else would she be?  She belongs.

We live in Marin County.  We live in San Anselmo.  We live in a neighborhood in which houses occupy quarter-acre lots and power polls run wires that hover over the roads, blotting the sky.  But nature is here, not far, nesting and perching in the open spaces that surround our neighborhoods.  It is there and it waits and watches.  Most of the time we don’t see it.  Our attention is drawn elsewhere by other things, things we consider more urgent if not more important, and so we manufacture the illusion of separation.  But it is just an illusion.

I amused myself thinking of, perhaps, not having seen that mother owl.  She was watching, her nest and us.  How often does that happen?  I thought of a poem I had read recently and taught to my students.

Leisure by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep and cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


What We Can Learn From the Death on Mt Shasta

A couple of young climbers recently got into trouble on Mt Shasta.  Big trouble.  Two went up one of the northside routes intending an early spring summit on the less-frequently climbed slope of the mountain.  Five days later one of them staggered, alone, back into their basecamp.  Siskiyou County Sheriffs and Search and Rescue climbers had set up an incident command at the trailhead and were on their way up to find the imperiled climbers.

The story is here for the time being.

There are some notable oddities to the reporting and to the story that is emerging about what happened up there – severe inconsistencies that don’t allow a gracious or even dignified coherency – but as a friend and climbing partner said to me recently, “First, the press never gets the facts straight, so any commentary from me is completely meaningless, which it was anyway, as you knew already.”  Word to the wise.

Even so, I find myself pondering the ordeal, wondering, supposing, and asking questions about similar situations.  I have no need to cast aspersions on a death in the mountains – not to bolster my own sense of competence or the endeavor of climbing or the climbing community.  Rather, I believe that for all of us who spend time on the mountain, this is important processing.  We can learn from other people’s experiences, if we try, if we intend to.  And even if we can’t or won’t know just what happened or why a climber did what he did, there are insights that we can glean from the story of this event.  The particulars and specifics are in doubt – in part because the press chooses which facts to include in order to tell the story it wants to tell and in part because the surviving climber chose not to grant an interview in the early days after the event – but the truth of the matter is not in the details.  It never is.  When people say, “Every situation is different,” they mean because of the specifics.  A million tiny decisions make up any trip up the mountain, but the tiny decisions don’t get you into trouble – the big ones do.

1.  These two climbers had no climbing permit.  And they did not check in at the ranger station in Mt Shasta City or on the south side.  Securing a climbing permit serves many purposes, some are obvious and some are really subtle.  But this one large decision to forego the permit had implications for their entire climb.  Getting a climbing permit alerts the rangers that you are there, logs your plan, and is one more opportunity to get important route and weather information about the climb.

It doesn’t even bug me that they didn’t have a permit, per se.  I have made that decision in the past, just shown up a the trailhead and signed the register at the kiosk.  But it isn’t the failure to get the permit that is important.  It is what not getting a permit indicates about the the underlying orientation to safety, risk management, immortality, you name it.  The decision not the get a permit to climb Shasta is a sign, an indication of an orientation, an inclination, an attitude.  And it is not a small oversight, like not having all the gear you need.  It is a huge, grand, significant gesture in which their fate was already written.  Maybe not on this trip, not on this mountain, maybe not even in the outdoors, but written nonetheless.

2.  These climbers were unaware of the weather report or didn’t heed it.  They arrived on the northside on Thursday, and there was a severe weather alert predicting a storm on Saturday.  The surviving climber said they checked the weather report before the trip, but on Thursday the rangers were already advising people not to climb that weekend.  One of those pieces that just doesn’t quite add up.  Bottom line: don’t climb into weather.

Again, it doesn’t bother me particularly that they were on the mountain with weather coming in.  You can’t let your trip be tyrannized by the weather report.  But these climbers made a dash for the summit.  The surviving climber said they intended to be up and down before the weather came in – which is not a bad plan if all goes well.  The troubling piece is the underlying attitude that this decision indicates.  There is a discernible sort of pseudo-hard man, it won’t happen to us, we can get up and down before it breaks attitude, and that is the biggest factor in what eventually proved fatal.

3.  These climbers did not acclimate.  I can’t tell why they chose to climb so fast, although there is a noticeable tough-guy trend out there in the climbing community that mistakenly over-values exploits and stunts over experience.  I am not saying that being hard as a rock hasn’t always been a piece of climbing, it has.  But there is also a mania attached to it, a blindness.  Maybe that is new and maybe it isn’t.  I mostly know what I have experienced in my 4o or so years.  These climbers arrived at the northside road on Thursday morning and summitted sometime Friday afternoon.  That appears to be 6000 to 14000 feet in 36 hours.  Too high too fast.  No time to acclimate.  Climb high and sleep low, folks.

At the end of the day, a climber didn’t die because they didn’t have a permit, and not because they got hammered by the weather.  A climber died from AMS, probably HACE, because they didn’t acclimate.  And my reading of the failure to acclimate is the same: in and of itself, not a big deal.  I have had AMS – mild, thankfully – and many climbers climb fast and survive.  The underlying inclinations that led these climbers to choose this as a path and make these decisions, very big deal.

I strongly encourage all of us who go outside in pursuit of experience to strive to understand what happened on Shasta, to learn from it, and not to accept the slacker’s interpretation: shit happens, it was unavoidable, a freak accident.  That is just so much intellectual cowardice.  And it belittles the experience these climbers had.

My heart goes out to the surviving climber who will now live with what happened and to the family of the deceased who will ask why.