Welcome to Love of Place

I'll be posting here essays and articles about recent adventures in the field of citizen science where I am studying the charismatic Western Red-Bellied Tiger Beetle and participating in projects like Nature Notebook and Celebrate Urban Birds. My Facebook page--Sharman Apt Russell, Author--has regular weekly photos and posts.

Here's a recent short piece in High Country News on coatis...https://www.hcn.org/issues/45.20/on-not-being-jane-goodall and another in Onearth Magazine on Mexican spotted owls...http://issuu.com/onearth/docs/onearth_14wtr/66.

"Icarus" is a flash nonfiction about my father, a test pilot in the 1950s. http://baltimorereview.org/index.php/fall_2013/contributor/sharman-apt-russell

For an essay on Spinoza and stinkbugs, look at "The Body of Being" in High Country News at
http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.8/walking-in-the-body-of-being
and if you like the poetry of Walt Whitman, read "All You Need is Love" in Onearth Magazine at
http://www.onearth.org/article/all-you-need-is-love


As well as citizen science, I have an abiding interest in the issues of hunger. This article is a great overview of hunger strikes in 2013, with some quotes from my book Hunger: An Unnatural History...http://www.thenation.com/article/177464/starving-justice

For students in my writing classes, scroll all the way down to the July, 2010 entry "Radical Renaissance: Writing in the 21rst Century." This speech is something of a “snap shot” of a writer in the middle of the current publishing crisis, as well as a personal statement about writing. Remember that this is a speech with a somewhat different rhythm than a written essay—more colloquialisms, fragments, etc. I also give short readings from my books.

For students in Writing for Children's Literature, please read http://www.onearth.org/article/born-to-be-wild

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com/.


Thursday, January 28, 2010


Kate Haake's excerpt from The Origin of Stars and Other Stories




From Kate: "The book is a collection of interstitial eco-fables, and this one tells the story of a dapper square-headed astronomer who finds his true calling in college when, by chance, he discovers a star. Hubert, now convinced that great things are his destiny, accepts a post-graduate fellowship at an important research center in the rugged outback of a distant continent where the only thing he manages to discover is a small aboriginal girl who lurks at the edges of the compound and watches the scientists watching the sky until finally Hubert follows her out into as a rocky world much like another planet as the planet Hubert has been hoping to discover."
"
And this is what happens when he does:

Hubert lay staring upward from a flat mud-colored rock and felt himself oddly pleased by the blue blur of sky above. Of course he hadn’t been so sanguine when he first lost his glasses, some time, he thought—before…— had in fact let out a little cry of hopelessness the very moment they had slipped from his nose and disappeared into a narrow crevasse. Momentarily, their loss had given rise to a tug of something potent out of Hubert’s past, some half-remembered panic or feeling of regret. The sensation had been very strong—for how in the world was he going to see now? Then, like a wave, it had passed, and the girl had reached up to touch his eyes, and Hubert had just barely been able to make out the traces of what might have been tenderness, or maybe relief, in her gaze.

By the time she took to wearing them, Hubert’s own lost glasses, cracked and askew on her face, he would have long since ceased to miss them, for now the sky had grown soft and close as a blanket, and with many of the stars he had loved his whole life simply missing from it—poof—into a blankness or an absence every bit as absolute as the way back to the telescope and his prior life, Hubert would have it no other way. For other stars seemed nearer, almost as if he could grasp them in his hands, and others had turned fat and furry and embarrassingly intimate. Even the moon was rounder and more three-dimensional, not flat in the sky like a math equation.

Now, as he lay beneath the blueness of that sky, Hubert considered the seamlessness with which his square head met the rock’s plane and, serene as destiny itself, determined to stay as long (if that’s what it took) as the rock itself to figure out why he was here.

The girl and her clan lived in a small camp below, mostly rocky overhangs and caves, and though Hubert had never paid any attention before, it suddenly struck him that these people made love, slept, and went about the business of their lives so remote from the business of what had once been his life that the worlds seemed mere shadows of each other. This interested Hubert. And like another light bulb in his head, he now surmised that where he’d ended up had turned out to be every bit as good as another planet, perhaps the very one he’d been hoping to discover.
The next thought Hubert had was one he wished he didn’t, for now he wondered if this new condition might be permanent, if he’d somehow slipped between the two worlds and would remain completely stuck there, as incapable of returning to his as he was of entering the girl’s.
At first, it had just been him and the girl, walking and walking. Then there had been the days of delirium, during which his dead parents hovered and scolded.

“Now you’ve done it,” his father said.

“Oh go away,” his mother said, “you’re not even ours.”

“But Mama,” Hubert said, “I’ll eat my peas—I promise!”

Afterwards, there were more days of walking, with little rest, until at last they stopped.

Within moments, Hubert found himself surrounded by a small group of people—a few men and women, a smaller scattering of children—who, though delicate and furtive, like the girl, seemed otherwise clear-eyed and well fed, and they welcomed Hubert and the girl with a good deal of food and drunkenness, and then, for several days, sleep.

When Hubert finally awoke and took stock of his surroundings, he lay in narrow hollow surrounded by rocks the color of sand and smooth-skinned and curved, like giant eggs. There was water, but he did not know where it came from. The food was mostly dried, mostly meat, but there were also grubs and occasional slender greens. Scarred and gentle, the girl and her people almost never spoke, and though at first Hubert waited patiently for someone to tell him OK, now what? they went about their business of survival utterly oblivious of him, taking stock of his presence only by such considerations as delivering food when it came time to eat or bringing him bundles of grass to sleep on. Hubert did not know quite what to think at first, and even if he did, the way he thought, these days, was more like a dream than a concept.
Not that what was happening to Hubert felt like a dream (or even was a dream), for Hubert was certainly there. Already his skin had turned brown and tough, and the ruined tatters of his shorts and shirt were all that remained of his prior self. If only he had a mirror or a pool of limpid water, anything to show him his reflection. But of course Hubert, by this time, would have recognized nothing of himself except the squareness of his head, and even that was so obscured by wild blooms of hair and beard it was no longer as pronounced, not so severe, as it once had been. And who was he trying to convince anyway?

So, no, Hubert wasn’t dreaming. The dreaming, instead, was going on around him.

The girl was a dreamer all right—and how good she was at it! She could close her eyes and summon up visions at will (just as she had summoned up Hubert himself), and the longer he lived among her and her people, the more he understood they were all like that, waking dreamers, who lived among only stones and the mysterious water, and who were silent, but not, Hubert knew, dumb. If Hubert had been an ordinary hiker, moving quickly through this barren land toward some famous rock or vista, he’d never even have noticed them—no one would. Each member of the girl’s clan lived in a private cave, which Hubert only knew because he watched them disappear into the earth, but he could never find their entrances, their little nooks or crannies, nor could he anticipate when they might reemerge to refresh themselves with bits of food and water, or some small communion with others.

Hubert could never have imagined that human beings could spend so much time alone in dark places, but then neither could he have imagined that the business they were hard at work on in their caves was the fundamental business of dreaming the world into being. It was hard work, and there were not very many of them left to do it. Hubert didn’t know this, but the girl who had fetched him did, for she alone remained awake to keep an eye on him, waiting for the light bulb to pop on in his square head (the only thought that mattered anymore) so that she (and thinking this, the girl let her face go dim with pleasure) could get back to her own cave and her dreams.
Of course this was turning out to be harder than expected, for despite his whole childhood fraught with ideas that rattled around in his square head like—Hubert thought for no apparent reason, acorns!—Hubert’s thinking had gone strangely muddled. Language itself seemed to have detached itself from him, as week after week, he squatted in his overhang and watched the nearby rocks for any sign that might yield an answer to a question he no longer knew. Well, at least the girl was patient, and as long as the thread of dreaming continued unbroken around her, she also was hopeful, convinced that Hubert would come through in the end.

It took him a long time—years, maybe—to realize he was going about this all wrong. Whatever the girl and her clan were doing in their caves, they weren’t going to just hand it over to him, no strings attached; and although Hubert knew he was beginning to resemble them more than the astronomers he’d left behind, he also knew he wasn’t really like them. His own cave was cool, if not exactly homey, but if he didn’t want to end there, he was going to have to come up with a better plan than just sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. What he needed was a system, something controlled, the way back to thinking in words

Also, as a scientist, Hubert needed data.

One night, he awoke with the word in his mouth: data.

“Data,” he said, the word feeling clumsy and unfamiliar on his tongue, like fur.

And though he was asleep again almost at once, the word hung around in the cave, sounding—had there been anyone to listen—more and more like, like something else, like: dada.
Hubert arose the next morning determined to get to the bottom of things.

Hubert’s throat was sore from talking in his sleep.

“Girl,” he bellowed. Then, more softly, more like a lover, he called out, “Oh, girl.”

Hubert looked, for all intents and purposes, like a wild man.

Oh, Hubert.

That very day Hubert went out and began to explore, and the girl, excited, followed. But of course Hubert bumbled even this, becoming agitated by and interested in all the wrong things. First, he wasted time on insects larger and more colorful than any he had ever seen, desperately wishing for his childhood killing jar so he might keep them as proof.

Later, on plants hidden in the cool undersides of stones, which certainly must have been what he was eating, though in their natural environment they looked so delicate and insubstantial: how could they keep a whole, gross body alive?

Behind him, only partially hidden by a ragged outcropping, the girl was thinking: rocks, Hubert, rocks. Think rocks.

But Hubert, so precocious and filled with such alacrity as a child, was going to have to do this, the girl saw now, in his own way.

One day Hubert found a lizard sunning on a rock, its blue tongue flitting in and out of its widely angled mouth. Brown and hard, Hubert looked a little like a lizard himself, and for some time—oh, about a week—he squatted beside it, absorbed in a kind of inter-species communion until finally the lizard climbed to his knee, where it would remain for another week or two, gazing eye to eye with Hubert, flitting tongue to tongue.

Behind them, tears traced dirty trails down the girl’s cheeks—oh, wretched, lost time. Although she did not know what this might mean, she did know that one her uncles was passing in his cave, and that the thread of dreams was weakening all around.

Rocks, Hubert, rocks, she would think.

Then one day, as gently as humanly possible, Hubert eased the lizard down, stood to shake his stiffness out, and looked about him at the sea of rocks that stretched as far as he could see and above that, only sky. This was not a light bulb and not lightning either—something else. For truly it was as if Hubert had never seen before what he’d been looking at all this time, moving through, living among—the planet itself, his own, a rock, rocks! And as Hubert remembered now, but with a difference, the way the flat back of his head had fit to the plane of the rock where he slept, finally he began to explore in earnest, walking out beyond the place where the girl and her clan lived just a little bit each day in a new direction and never going far enough to get lost or run out of time to get back before dark, but always, each day, closer, ever closer (the girl began to feel hopeful again) to where she had been leading him since they first started out.

So this is how it happens that Hubert discovers the origin of stars in a small stone basin in the outback of a distant continent among a sea of rocks as vast as sky itself, the small girl watching behind him. But of course he doesn’t know this at first. At first Hubert thinks he’s somehow stumbled on a bed of ancient meteorites (his great discovery at last!) that, in a stunning reversal of everything known about the universe itself, somehow have not gone out. And they are beautiful, pooled together in their basin, primeval constellations of lambent luminescence that, even in the bright glare of day, give off so pure a light you could almost touch it, or hold it in your hands, or drink it.

Hubert is suddenly thirsty, but as he runs toward the bed of glowing stones, he is momentarily blinded and falls to his knees, covering his eyes. Then he is very tired—hugely so—and for a long time, he sleeps.

Hubert will return to this site, followed by the girl, many times before he sees again and for the final time that he is wrong, sees that the still glowing meteorites have not fallen there, but instead—and this is something he can never quite get into words but nonetheless knows with an astonishing certitude that will persist his whole life—somehow originate there. This knowledge is the part of his experience that will leave him altered, and it will come to him the day he sees a star being launched by a young man from the girl’s clan who heaves it up into the heavens and then turns back to his cave where the rest of his dreams lie waiting for him. Hubert does not need to link this extravagant discovery to the origin of everything. For Hubert, it is enough, finally, to go out into the small stone basin, to stand there in the light, to reach down and pick up an egg-shaped glowing orb that shimmers almost greenly closer up, and hold it in his hands, knowing that several hundred billion years from now it will be shining down on some small earthly boy (like Hubert once!) from high above and unimaginably far away.

Behind him, the girl is not smiling, but she’s not weeping either, as the anticipation she has had for some time now has been replaced by something like a righteous vindication. But no, the girl keeps both feet planted firmly on the ground, and it’s a good thing too, because Hubert is going to turn around soon, and when he does, he’s going to recognize that look on her face, its meaning every bit as clear to him as if they shared a common language at last: now will you take your telescope and other scientists and big machines, and go away, and leave the stars and the rest of the dreaming to us, to whom they most properly belong and on which you most assuredly depend.

And this is what breaks Hubert’s heart, because after all that she has done for him, he knows he cannot do even this one small thing for her.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Walt Whitman, Chapter Eight

Of all the Transcendentalists in the nineteeth century, Walt Whitman stated his pantheism most clearly and is the one I blame the most for who I am. Whitman proposed to write an “indigenous” or uniquely American poetry that reflected the country’s abundance of resources, energy, ambition, and political idealism. He brought together mysticism and scientific theory and fused them in a fiery circle. He would allow for no separation, certainly not the separation of humanity from the natural world. He infected me when I was young and impressionable with his dreams of democracy and his cries of celebration. His “barbaric yawp” proclaimed that this was our job--to celebrate and be joyous.

I read his long poem “Song of Myself” like the Book of Psalms. We were all meant to be Walt Whitman, children of the cosmos, male and female, young and old, plantation owner and slave. Like him, our bodies are made of earth and sidewalk. We spread sideways into nature. We burrow into people. Animals adorn us. Plants grow in our ears. We have lived a trillion summers and will live a trillion more. Unlock the doors, unscrew the door jambs, take down the walls! We experience everything. We are everyone. We go naked and undisguised to the river bank, mad to be in contact with the air which is for our mouth forever. Logic will never convince. Sermons do not convince. The damp of the night drives deeper.

Walt Whitman urged me to connect with the world, and in 1975, a college student at the University of California at Berkeley, I thought I could do it standing on a street corner--behind me a shop that sold falafels in hot pita bread, the taste peppery and exotic, before me a traffic light blinking green and red. Just past the light, I could see the papery trunks of the eucalyptus trees on campus, their sharp medicinal smell, the life of the mind, the life of the senses, people jostling by. I could make contact, naked and undisguised, and I didn’t have to go to parties and talk awkwardly with other college students or go on dates and find a boyfriend. I could do it much more easily through the cadence of Whitman’s poetry. I am the old artillerist. I am the mashed fireman. I am the captain on deck. I am the mother of captains. The language was a little archaic, but still, it seemed that I was all those things. And that the bigger questions about life were answered here or would be answered:

And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God;
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God, and about death.)

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then;
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropt in the street--and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.


Today, re-reading “Song of Myself,” (which was originally titled “Walt Whitman” in 1855 and which turns out to be the only poem I really read in that famous collection of poems Leaves of Grass) I am still struck by how well Whitman held the enormity of it in his mind and body, in his hand and words. He saw God everyday. He understood God not at all. Does he contradict himself? Very well, he contradicts himself. We are large and contain multitudes. Joy and pain are braided. With broken breast-bone, the mashed fireman lies on the cold earth. The voices of his comrades hush. Elsewhere, the judge also proclaims the death sentence in a hushed voice. Elsewhere, stevedores shout heavy-e-yo and strong men laugh and homely girls croon to babies. Agonies. Good times. The procreant urge.

Elsewhere--everywhere--birds, wheat, whales, cows, and blackberries. A leaf of grass, the egg of a wren. We could live with these cows all day long. We are staggered and triumphant. We are braided into nature. We are reflected there. Celebrate every part, mollusk and hat.

Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sunrise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.

We also ascend, dazzling and tremendous as the sun;
We found our own, my Soul, in the calm and cool of the daybreak.