On Seeing Things

When is the last time you stretched out on your back under a sky full of clouds?

Your mind literally cannot help but make sense of the seemingly random balloonings or smears or pulled threads of clouds. It is what minds do—create order from patterns that our eye and mind can’t help but look for.

Seeing shapes in billowing clouds or ceiling tiles was once thought to be a kind of madness.

But on looking again at pareidolia, it just may have something to teach us about creativity.

See faces in the clouds? It might be a sign of your creativity

I was reminded of this a few days back (before the near-strike of lightning at the house) when we saw a series of towering “cumulonimbus incus” clouds commonly known as Anvil Clouds of anvil-tops—a name derived from the flattened upper reaches where the air has hit the “cap” of the atmosphere and goes OUT instead of UP.

In the coming weeks, I will try to post some cloud pix, and you can import them and show us the things you see. We can compare notes, and see which one of us is the craziest. I did this to a cloud shot in the first year of blogging (2002) and titled it “The Hand of God reaches down and touches the face of….a poodle.” Guess you had to be there.

About anvil clouds so you can be alert that these things can cause mischief:

A cumulonimbus incus is a mature thunderstorm cloud generating many dangerous elements.

  • Lightning; this storm cloud is capable of producing bursts of cloud to ground lightning.
  • Hail; hailstones may fall from this cloud if it’s a highly unstable environment (which favors a more vigorous storm updraft).
  • Heavy rain; this cloud may drop several inches of rain in a short amount of time. This can cause flash flooding.
  • Strong wind; gale-force winds from a downburst may occur under this cloud.
  • Tornadoes; in severe cases (most commonly with supercells), it can produce tornadoes.

Moving Day: the Debacle

Screwup #3: They did not plan for moving boxes. “You didn’t tell us you had boxes.”

Maybe today, finally, I am calmed down enough to tell the story in broad strokes–the tale of how our moving day fell apart and then came together. Sort of.

I will save my most strongly worded language and the most agonizing detail for the site review I will write later today on the moving company’s web site, and perhaps in a letter to the BBB.

Matter of fact, I’ll just keep it short, because my coffee cup is empty and the moon is about to dip below the western horizon, behind Panther Knob, and I want to see that sight through the telescope, since by tomorrow night, the track would have moved enough to miss this twice a conjunction of heaven and our new vantage point from Earth. So out to the porch in my underwear to the telescope to hunker and squint.

So let me sweep the first four human errors under the rug in our dealings with a certain number of hominids and a truck. I’ll just jump right to their Magnum Dopus: they didn’t show up.

The reason: “I’m sorry we can’t reach your house from either end of your road.”

I had told the office person at least a week before that rains had washed out the approach from Terry’s Fork. They tried that way nevertheless, and (DUH) couldn’t reach the house. But the road from Shawsville Pike is way less steep and not in bad shape.

“Why could you not get here from Shawsville Pike” I asked, as the adrenalin surged and my temples throbbed.

“We’re sorry, our trucks (they were bringing two, and five men–despite their name) couldn’t get across the bridge.”

“Wait. You’re telling me you don’t scout the route to your destination for the width and carrying capacity of bridges on the route?”

“No sir, we don’t have that information.”

“You’re a moving company and you don’t have that information!!?”

Deleting a lot of expletives beginning when she told me they would be happy to move us 6 days later instead, I made the remark that I was a forgiving person and a reasonable person, but this was the FIFTH screw-up with this outfit, and I was going to let the public know of my horrible, no good, very bad experience with this Roanoke-based moving company.

And I will do so, hopefully later today, now that I am securely rooted at the new location, no thanks to said company, and cooled off sufficiently to delete subsequent expletives and be as dispassionately accurate, thorough and objective as possible describing the worst single job I have ever experienced by a company that advertises themselves as “professionals.”

I have since found out from several neighbors on Goose Creek that they have driven the largest rental trucks available across that bridge or have had items delivered by similarly large trucks. So we are at a loss to explain why, though we planned everything so carefully, things fell apart.

And to put a happy spin on the story, with the help of our son from Knoxville, my daughter and her husband and two daughters from near Wilmington, and two valiant and uncomplaining neighbors working in the rain all day Saturday, Sunday and half of Monday, with several trips between houses by a U-Haul trailer and a U-Haul 10 foot panel truck (from two disparate locations) we got under roof.

We are still moving in.

Morning Pages 18 March 20

And even now, there are moments that seem pleasant, hopeful, when I am excited to complete something, to start some new thing. The world feels familiar. Comfortable. Briefly ordinary.

But like waking from one dream into another, it washes over me that this is not the world I live in now. I might never live in that once-upon-a-time again. No one will.

BC: Before COVID AD: After Dystopia

We are protected here in rural Floyd County to some degree by our long-standing propensity to shelter in place. Houses are, for the most part, at some distance apart. A person can go days without seeing anybody but the mailman go by at noon.

And when we gather, it is rarely in groups of more than 200–other than the high school gym, the highest capacity in Floyd County for holding a group.

Even the county seat is low-density by big-city standards. The town of Floyd holds some 450 people on almost 300 acres, twenty miles from the nearest interstate. Isolated. Remote. Backwaters. And yet…

We are not free of risk in the current crisis. All it will take is Patient Zero, who visited a Virginia Tech world traveler or just returned from a conference in California. That unknowingly infected person sheds virus at the grocery store. Patient Two carries it to church the next day.

We need not be needlessly paranoid. Many of us might not need change our day-to-day at-home lifestyle much at all for a while. I guess not knowing how long that while might last makes me anxious. When will we see our friends again? And my mom in assisted living: we may never meet again in this life. It’s possible.

Patient Three is my age. Healthy. Active. I probably know them. They get tested (this is in June when tests are finally available, and that is when Patients One and Two are deduced, well after the fact.) They have COVID19, are quarantined at home at first, then admitted to Lewis Gale Montgomery–a crow mile from mom; near the center of a major university of tens of thousands of students and faculty and facility workers.

Those early admits are among the more fortunate who require hospital space, equipment and professional care. If you have to be hospitalized, be in the first wave before the upturn in the hockey stick of logarithmic increase in full-blown cases.

And so in my ordinary, solitary, bucolic retired life, I get up in the morning and make the coffee. I spread out the things I want to explore, think, or write about. I make and prioritize my list of tasks by the usual categories. I am pulled into a thread about some part of the world where a new reptile has been discovered. I am momentarily absorbed into that realm of life, that culture, those people and creatures in far-away villages in Indonesia. Fascinating.

And then it invades my reverie and fragile focus: where ever that place is in the world, their lives are no longer ordinary, casual or in their control. The shadow of pandemic darkens all their lives, too. And they will never be the same on the other side.

It will come –The Other Side. What will it be like? How will it be different from the world, BC? It could be better. The world system is having a Dope Slap event; a come-to-Jesus moment. We can’t go on the way we were going, BC.

We can’t treat the planet and each other that way, so very very many of us, so very very acquisitive and indifferent and selfish. We can’t put people in power who don’t respect people and planet more than profit. We can’t defy science, thinking humans are somehow less animal flesh than bats or mosquitos.

In my hopeful moments of temporary oblivion, I know there will be a few changes that put band-aids on severed limbs of civilization. But mostly when the shareholders are happy again, human enterprise will pick up just where it left off, save for the millions who died, and the hundreds of thousands of businesses that went extinct, AD, never to rise again.

And so these fleeting moments of blissful ignorance, of flow, of the joy in the moments of immutable beauty of earth and sky just out my door–that will be where I try to live. As much as possible. I will seek solace in the knowing we have never been eternal in this life. We live in a world of material consequences. Things fall apart. But life in this body is a vapor. And there is eternity built into us.

And I will think on these things.

This Old House

Click the black banner to see our place at Circa

Patina: a surface-film or polish of wood or leather and the like that shows age and use.

I am both comfortable with the not-new-and-shiny and also prefer it. Maybe that is just a sign of my age. Long-loved things around me have co-evolved (or worn out) in sync with my own surfing through time.

Despite the love-hate relationship we have had with old houses in the past, we willingly undertook the chance to save this one from the “practice for the fire department” that the first contractor recommended in the spring of 1999. We gambled that it would come some day to be to us like a favorite pair of slippers that we would wear long enough to fit us–that we would grow, if not old, at least older in.

Now we’ve added the same two decades of wear that the house has weathered, and I have to say it seems to be holding up better than we have. We could add a coat of paint, a new heat pump and move the furniture where we wanted to suit our fancy in the house. But in our own mortal edifice, there is only so much repair, redecorating and painting that can be done.

We hope that the next occupants will share the same appreciation for the history of this house, this land, this neighborhood and larger community that we have come to know. The patina of constant occupancy can be a beautiful thing–in a home or on a familiar face and pair of well-used hands.

Our property-for-sale now is being offered to potential new owners via Circa who, by definition, seek out historical architecture where structure and story have grown older and richer, together.

Please share this with the right new owners, who will know when they see it that this is their future pair of comfortable slippers.

If you have not visited the image gallery (mine is some different from the MLS version) then you might enjoy taking a look at SmugMug.

1020 Goose Creek Run ~ Historical home and 80 acres on two creeks

Teacher as StoryTeller

It had not occurred to him at all that his dozen years in the classroom, he had been, all along, a storyteller. Once upon a time, there was a leaf; a pancreas; a salamander; a mountain bog. Every lecture was a kind of narrative–even Human Anatomy and Physiology–but especially in freshman survey-of-bio classes.

There were characters, settings, plots and outcomes. Not all of them were cliff-hangers, but many–if the listener had any curiosity at all about the living world around them–had a point and a relevance in the real world: Out there where a student would spend their days; their lives.

Perhaps this equivalence between learner and learned would not hold as well in an algebra class, but he was convinced that, where living things (from cells on up) were involved, subjects inhabited and enlivened objects. We are matter that lives, and that matters, he used to say.

In every instance, his stories of living things from organelles to biomes consisted of two intersecting and complementary storylines: the truth; and the consequences. Someone had once said that, in establishing the validity of any story there are two important elements: Oh Yeah? and So What? What are the facts? And why does it matter–what is the moral of the story?

The matter of the story is that a pancreas and a salamander do what WE do: they live and they die. And they are made out of the very same matter and energy on the very same Spaceship Earth. They breathe the same air, swim in the same water our cells swim in, and partake of the state of incredible order we call LIFE. Such stories were easy for him to teach with enthusiasm and joy because being alive was eternally and bewilderingly wonder-ful. And his enviable job was to tell others.

It is a shared and eternal epic, a grand tale that we live in together with all these groups of creatures he covered so briefly in a survey class–creatures by the millions with their own personalities, strangeness and superpowers. How could a student NOT be drawn into such a story? And yet, of course, most are not.

Maybe his failures to engage so many freshmen desk-occupants stemmed from the fact that he was providing answers to questions they had not yet asked. There was not much perceived “need to know” the world beyond the weekend party details. He once said of the frustration of his obligatory faculty advising that “you can’t steer a parked car.” A discouraging number of students came to college with no forward motion to shepherd and direct.

And it was also true that, in a freshman-level course, there could be an awful lot of “oh yeah” jargon and facts that would be on the test. You have to be able to handle brick by brick of fact if you are, some day, to assemble an edifice of knowledge. And bricks aren’t sexy.

But the end point of a practical and aesthetic comprehension of the ways the living world works–in an organ system, a broad-leaved forest, or the human brain–certainly makes it worth the learning of some terminology. The so-what is to have become an informed inhabitant and steward of one’s own body, of their water and soil and forest; of the planet–but also it is worth the work to not be blind every day of their young lives to the fragile beauty and poetry of the whole of life on the Blue Marble where their futures would unfold.

The end point of a full education–and especially for him, a biology education–had always been more about gaining wisdom–the Great So-What–than about accumulating more and more facts. There would always be a bigger, more universal, not-quite-graspable “so what” just beyond the edge of his comprehension, earnestly if imperfectly pieced together year by year from all the bricks he handled over a lifetime of biology watching.

Out of the incremental bricks of biological process (a realm mostly still not fully grasped even as we do the biosphere potentially terminal harm) has emerged over the millennia the unfolding Grand Ecology of a working Earth. From those building blocks of atoms and organelles arises an elegance of form fashioned from living tissue, a “poem in protoplasm” he once called the living world–the ultimate PLACE whose goodness and beauty of form and function he sought each day to more fully know.

The quest would last until the end for him, he knew, and this was perhaps one of the most satisfying assurances in an uncertain lifetime. The ring would always be just beyond reach. The mountains and their creatures were more than enough to keep him curious, eager and immersed in wonder, even when his students were not.

But there came a time when it became too painful any longer to be immersed in the realities of a beleaguered world become mere economic engine. And so in 1987 he left teaching. He left biology watching. He buried his head in the sand–for 17 years. But he never –at least in the closed room of his own mind–stopped being a storyteller.