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The Hugo Hat Trick: Thoughts Prompted by The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel:

2016  The Fifth Season

2017  The Obelisk Gate

2018  The Stone Sky

**Although to date I’ve written about Hugo-winning novels in chronological order, I’ve also read a few recent winners (some before they won) and rather than waiting years to get around to them, I will occasionally jump ahead.**

Far more often than not, I discover a new-to-me author through recommendations from acquaintances who are fellow readers. In fact, this process so dominates book selection that I can’t remember the last time I bought one just because it looked interesting.

The Broken Earth trilogy stands as a curious exception to that rule. I picked up the first book, The Fifth Season, because someone disliked it. It was the manner in which that reader expressed his dislike – in phrases that I frankly found offensive – that prompted me to take a look. It was only then that I discovered it was a Hugo winner, having lost track of the winners in recent years. Also that it was the first of three successive winners of the award. That a trilogy could achieve such success while prompting someone to treat it so harshly only increased my curiosity. By the time I finished The Fifth Season I owned copies of The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky. In due time I read them all. To say I do not share that reviewer’s opinion of the trilogy would be an understatement.

The story is set in a world prone to repeated, violent seismic upheavals. So frequent are these events – called “Seasons” by the inhabitants of this world – that everything about their civilization is geared toward preparation for the next inevitable occurrence. Some people have special abilities that allow them to influence such things as earthquakes using inherited psychic powers, and although you might think that would make them highly valued members of a society built on shaky ground, you would be wrong. They are called orogenes, a term that is used in ways that bring to mind cruel words in our own world, used to insult and belittle those who are different. Orogenes are instead, and ironically, feared for their abilities, discriminated against and often murdered without consequence to their killers. The fear that drives the hatred behind such acts is rooted in a time long past, and is a matter of belief, not of reason. Some members of this marginalized group are taken away by an agency known as the Fulcrum. In its hands they are trained and used for their abilities, but while they are protected and usually well cared for, they are little better than slaves. They are also entirely expendable.

The story blends science fiction and fantasy in a way I’ve rarely seen done, and even more rarely done so well. Many of the magical elements (not sure what else to call them) seem to be expressions of one of Clarke’s Laws, the one stating that any technology, sufficiently advanced, would be indistinguishable from magic. In the distant past of this world there existed a form of technology that might as well be magical. The present day events and troubles are the legacy of questionable use of that technology.

The heart of the story deals with the trials one orogene, who has for many years managed to conceal her true nature. The start of a new Season comes on, just in time for her family to self-destruct when her husband discovers that their son is an orogene – resulting in the boy’s murder. What follows is a backstory and history told in flashbacks, and a present time quest to rescue her remaining child, a daughter. The girl is also an orogene, but one of particular strength and power. The quest to rescue this girl takes place in a time of complexity and chaos, during which an already dysfunctional society is coming unraveled.  N.K. Jemisin writes some strong stuff, spinning this intricate tale, and pulls no punches. For me as a reader it was absolutely compelling. As a writer, I can’t help admiring – among other aspects – her ability to weave all the disparate threads of this tale together in the end.

The trilogy is unconventional in storytelling style, switching back and forth from first person present tense to a more ordinary narrative point of view as things unfold. Many readers find this not to their taste, which is quite all right. No writing style will ever have universal appeal. But the criticisms that led me to take a closer look at The Broken Earth trilogy were not confined to expressions of dislike regarding the narrative structure, although such are regularly seen in reviews.

The world built by N.K. Jemisin to hold this story could be our own Earth in a distant future, a thing not explicitly stated, although it’s all too easy to imagine it evolving from our real one. I say this because the people in it, especially their attitudes toward others who are not acceptable to the mainstream, are all too real. Change and crisis so often bring out the worst in people, especially when a marginalized population such as the orogenes is available as a target to be blamed, and punished. Our own very real history is filled with such tragedies, as are current events.

It’s this theme that that I believe triggers a negative reaction in some readers. They resent the mirror these stories seem to hold up, uncomfortable with what is reflected there. They react badly to a story that doesn’t shy away from depicting bigotry for the evil it truly is, and it seems to me they resent being reminded of its painful reality. They complain, as did the reviewer I recall being the most spiteful, that they want to read fiction, and not be “preached at.” For the record, saying that these books are at all preachy in the way they employ certain themes about inequality and prejudice goes beyond overstatement. It’s dishonest. Yes, the themes are there, and as I said earlier, the author pulls no punches. And I have no trouble believing that these themes are informed by the life of the author. How could it be otherwise? We all write from where we are, informed by our own life experiences. That’s simply how it works. That how it should work.

Grounded   1 comment

In a previous essay, I told of a friend who asked how I was coping with the sense of isolation experienced by so many, while trying to stay safe from the Covid-19 virus. My flippant response at the time was to remind her that I’m a writer. Isolation is just part of the job. It was said in jest, but this is a case where the thing is funny because it’s true.

The idea that isolation is just part of my job description reflects a fundamental truth of my profession. Writing is a thing generally done alone. The focus required to turn ideas and, sometimes, dream images into strings of words can be pretty intense. It’s no small thing to arrange words in such a way that they convey not only mental images and information, but also feelings. Sometimes powerful emotions, indeed. Interruptions are not in the writer’s best interest. For most of us, such focus can only be achieved in isolation – although in my case that isolation merely involves listening to epic music through a pair of headphones. Necessary as isolation may be for most writers, it can be costly in terms of mental stamina, and mental health. That stamina will at times need restoration; the mental health must, of course, be preserved.

How? By not writing.

In December of 2021, just days after releasing my most recent novel – Variation on a Theme – I found myself entirely lacking in motivation for writing. Variation on a Theme had been a challenging project, one that wore me out, and the last thing I wanted to do was launch into the next story I had in mind. Although this is the first time in ten years it happened with writing, I’ve experienced such a loss of motivation in other contexts in the past, and recognized that I needed a break if I wanted to avoid full-blown burnout. So I shifted my attention for a time to other things, activities for which isolation is not required.

There are plenty of ways to spend time away from writing, and any writer will tell you that one of the challenges we face is to keep these things from feeding the natural tendency to procrastinate that bedevils many storytellers. As dominant as the need to create is, I’ve always known that I need a diversity of interests to properly feed that creativity. And so, when it came time to take a break, I was anything but at a loss for things to do.

In general, when I’m not writing, I’m gardening, reading, studying natural history, stargazing, or cooking, to name a few prominent uses of my time. Of these, gardening filled the most time during this mini-vacation in which I indulged. Over the ten years during which I’ve pursued the indie publishing option, few activities have kept me more firmly connected to the real world. Grounded, in other words. And yes, there’s the possibility here for a lame pun, but I’m going to exercise uncharacteristic restraint and leave it to your imagination.

In terms of day-to-day activities, cooking comes in at a solid second place to gardening. Talk about a creative activity! (It helps that I’m pretty good at it, or so says my ever-supportive wife.) While cooking is about as real-world as it gets, gardening still beats it as a means to stand completely in the real world, while feeling rested and relaxed. Mentally relaxed, at any rate. Gardening does often involve hard work, but that’s something that I find actually enhances the restorative power of the garden. The experience of gardening produces such a powerful here-and-now state of mind for me that the stories in my head – very few of which involve the here-and-now – leave me in peace, without being lost entirely.

In December of 2021, I set those stories aside for a good three weeks. I worked in the garden. There were other things done, of course, but it was mostly the garden. By the time the New Year was at hand, I was back at the keyboard and ready to work. The garden was, and still is, out there when I need it, a need I know from experience to be inevitable.

Posted April 18, 2022 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing, Essays, Gardening, Life, writing

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Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre   Leave a comment

Winner of the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel

I’ve read Hugo Award-winning novels that I greatly enjoyed, and in a few cases, changed the way I see the genre. I’ve read others that left me frowning, wondering how the book could have risen to such prominence. (Very few of these, I’m happy to report.) Until now, there’s never been anything in the flatland known as “Meh.” If asked before now, I’d have maintained that such a reaction was highly unlikely. So imagine my surprise to find that the winner of the 1979 Hugo for best novel – Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre – left me without a strong reaction one way of the other.

The story takes place on a future Earth that, at an unspecified time in the past, was ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. The event is recent enough that spending time in a still radioactive crater can have lethal consequences. The descendants of the war’s survivors have adapted to a changed world, splintering into well-defined groups: desert nomads in the arid lowlands, clannish scavengers, scattered communities of town folk in the hills and mountain valleys, and a single city of high-tech xenophobes who have maintained a tenuous connection with an off-world civilization. (Whether or not these “off-worlders” are human was never clear to me.) One splinter of the human population is made up of Healers, who travel the region providing health care. Each of them is a sort of medical knight-errant. In addition to mundane healing skills, these Healers carry with them genetically engineered venomous snakes – an albino cobra, a diamondback rattlesnake, and the eponymous dreamsnake in this case – that are living pharmaceutical factories. These altered snakes can be used to provide anything from vaccines to cures for cancer. The dreamsnakes, one of which is assigned to each Healer, have a more specific purpose. They are alien creatures with a venom that has mind-altering properties, used to ease the ending of a life when death cannot be averted. The dreamsnakes came to Earth from that off-world civilization. They are difficult to breed and are therefore scarce and greatly valued. Without one, a Healer isn’t really a Healer.

While tending to a cancer-stricken child of desert nomads, a Healer named Snake – a name that is rarely bestowed upon one of her calling – badly misjudges the people she is helping. This results in the death of her dreamsnake, a gentle creature named Grass. The loss of her dreamsnake is devastating, leaving Snake unable to perform one of her most important functions. Snake’s quiet confidence runs headlong into her overwhelming guilt over the death of Grass, leading to a complicated combination of self-doubts and determination. What follows is a quest for redemption and understanding, as Snake seeks to replace Grass. Along the way she must endure a stalking lunatic, and comes to the rescue of an abused child.

Meanwhile, a young desert nomad, guilt-stricken over the crime his people committed in killing the dreamsnake, follows Snake with the intention of defending her reputation when the Healer community learns of the loss of Grass. The handling of this character weakened the story for me. He appears too seldom to make for an effective subplot, and the relationship between the two characters is rather sketchy, based essentially on a single scene at the beginning of the book. As he follows Snake, she goes on a quest to seek aid from the high-tech City, where she and her adopted daughter – the child she rescues – are coldly rebuffed. By pure chance, that event, and an encounter with the “crazy” who is following her, leads Snake to a very dangerous solution for her problem. The young nomad never really figures into any of her darker adventures, so until the very end I was never quite sure why he was in the story at all. How he does fit in at the end, I’ll leave readers to discover and judge for themselves.

All of this takes place in a landscape that came across to me as little more than stage dressing. Much of the setting is described only in broad strokes, with a sprinkling of details. As a result, for me the setting never really develops a life of its own. It’s just there, decorated with such exotica as tiger-striped horses, otherworldly seasonal storms in the desert, and – of course – dreamsnakes. The story seems to drift through this imagined landscape without the two really coming together as parts of the whole.

Fiction that works best for me balances world building with character development and plot. When this doesn’t happen, I find the story overall just sort of slips by me. I never fully engage. And that’s what happened when I read Dreamsnake. There were moments of interest and a lot of intriguing concepts – such as the ability of people, through training, to control their own fertility – but the balance of character, plot (the young nomad was a sporadic distraction that never quite gelled as a subplot), and world building wasn’t there for me. I don’t regret reading the story – it was an unusual tale and otherwise well-written – but I’m afraid that Dreamsnake goes on that list of books for which a single reading was quite enough. As for winning the award, this is a novel that would have stood out in the late 1970s on the strength of its unusual concepts, and the main character Snake. I’m not too surprised that it won. And so my recommendation is to read it for yourself, and see what you think.

The Latest – Variation on a Theme: A Fantasy in Four Moments   Leave a comment

When I decided to self-publish fiction a little over nine years ago, I started with a space opera that turned into the five book series War of the Second Iteration. Science fiction was already my default setting, so I led off with the sort of fiction I know best. This was followed by The Gryphon Stone, a story that blends science fiction and fantasy. From the very beginning, I knew I would not limit myself to space opera style sci-fi. How far from this default setting I might stray wasn’t clear even to me until I published Toby, a story that has nothing of fantasy or science fiction in it at all. That project made it very clear to me that I should stop referring to myself as a science fiction writer and simply think of myself as a storyteller, one not overly concerned with genre constraints. It’s a more comfortable and, I believe, more honest assessment.

My newest book clearly reflects that decision. It’s not science fiction by any stretch, although two of the main characters are serious fans of that genre. Variation on a Theme is a fantasy, one set in the real world of the late 1970s. The fantasy element has nothing to do with any epic themes. There are no sword-swinging heroes, axe-wielding dwarves, or ancient wizards. It’s more of a metaphysical fantasy, one built around a very old idea. What would you do differently, given the chance to relive part of your life? What would you be willing to give up, to take that chance?

An old theme to be sure, and here is yet another variation on it.

Comfort Reads   Leave a comment

Recent troubled times – pandemic and politics – have tested the mettle and coping methods of us all. Although writing (see previous entry) provided me with a measure of escape, I remained anything but an exception to the rule. In some ways the pandemic, in its early stay-home-stay-safe phase, was less of a hardship for me than for so many others. I did miss gathering with friends, but as a writer, spending time alone is simply the way of things. You might say self-isolation was part of my job description. It certainly didn’t hurt that my wife retired just as the pandemic fell on us like a collapsing building. Being in the mess together offered a considerable advantage. Even the sporadic shortages, including food items, fall into the “It could be worse” category for us. Flexible menu planning – my wife and I both like to cook and have between us a respectable repertoire – prevented a major problem in that regard. And in that collection of recipes we have many that make you feel better about life just by cooking and eating them. They may not always be the healthiest eating, but some days it doesn’t pay to worry too much about that. You’re eating to relax and feel better about life, something that surely has therapeutic benefits, if not taken to extremes. Comfort food, in other words.

You can only eat so much, and stay healthy. When immersed in the writing process, I can ignore what’s going on, but I can’t write 24/7, and sooner or later I am out in the real world, coping. It wears you out. I doubt anyone reading this would argue that point. And so when I’m not writing, I seek other things to distract me without undue effort, and early in the pandemic one of those comfortable distractions was rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Returning to Middle Earth was a thing I did in my teens, when life challenged me in ways that made escape desirable. An old habit, then, brought forward to the present day. The feeling of comfortable familiarity provided enough relief that, when I turned the last page of The Return of the King, I found myself scanning the bookshelves, thinking of other works that had, in my teens and early adulthood, taken me from my troubles. I found myself making quite a list, and committing to rereading other old favorites while the troubled world continued to lurch awkwardly around me.

Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy was next up, a work that seemed to age better as the reread moved from Foundation, to Foundation and Empire, and finally to Second Foundation. Asimov was learning and growing as a writer as these stories evolved, and you can see things progress in that regard. That’s probably why the last book seemed less naïve than the first. Not that the first wasn’t a fine example of comfort reading, of course. It was simply an interesting progression, one that didn’t register during earlier reads and rereads.

As the year 2020 went on, adding wildfires and continent-spanning plumes of smoke to our woes, I indulged in more comfort reads. Cities in Flight by James Blish, The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, City by Clifford D. Simak, and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, among others, all passed under my gaze for the first time in decades. 2020 ended, but 2021 seemed to look back and say, “Here, hold my beer.” So I kept reading – and writing.

Although some of the worst-case scenarios have not played out as we feared, the world seems inclined to remain a thing that challenges sanity, so this habit of pulling old favorites from the shelf and indulging in comfort reads is likely to continue. And if things ever settle down? To be honest, I’ll probably keep reading those old favorites. It’s been a fine thing to revisit these books that meant so much to me, once upon a time, and there’s no shortage of such books in this household. It will surely be a habit that endures past the pandemic’s end.

Posted September 5, 2021 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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A Way of Coping   Leave a comment

When lockdowns and “stay safe, stay at home” admonitions became newsworthy last year, a friend asked how I was handling the enforced isolation. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I pointed out that as a writer, isolation was part of my job description. Less facetiously, I reminded him that I was stuck at home with the right person, my wife of more than thirty years, and the two of us were coping pretty well.

But in truth, the comment about writing and isolation was all in jest. It wasn’t that I got through the disruptions of 2020 because I was accustomed to spending my time alone with the words that I write. Last year, the process of writing Variation on a Theme helped keep me sane. Pandemic and politics, along with a seemingly endless wildfire on the mountains that dominate the local landscape, provided reasons aplenty to be depressed. Writing that book gave me a way out for a few hours each day. The positive effect on mental health and morale was enormous. I’ve used the way I immerse myself in the writing process to ward off the stress of the real world at other times in the recent past. In the years since I launched this indie author career, I’ve lost two brothers, my father, and my father-in-law. Writing my War of the Second Iteration series, The Gryphon Stone, All That Bedevils Us, and Toby as all these calamities unfolded, being able to fully engage my mind with the process of creating these worlds and the people within them, made a very real difference.

Part of the reason this works so well for me is that, as an indie, I’m free to write what I want. While marketing of the work I produce is an important related activity, I don’t write with the market in mind. I don’t write a book wondering how well it will sell. Commercial success is a goal, and a worthy one, but if mine remains a modest success, I can live with that. I didn’t go into this with the idea that it would be easy money, much less with the expectation that I would make a living at it. I tell the stories that excite me and hope they interest others sufficiently that they’re willing to pay for the opportunity to read them. If that doesn’t happen it’s certainly disappointing, but I’m free to move on to the next story without the concern that my publisher will dump me because sales are low. I’m therefore fully engaged with these stories I decide to tell, not distracted by more mundane concerns such as marketability, and can escape into the process of bringing them to life. It can be an enormous relief to do so, and last year was yet another example of how that escape has kept me from needing mental health care.

Because I’m free to do so, I don’t write in the same market niche all of the time. That’s how Toby came into being. My next book – Variation on a Theme – also speaks of this freedom. It’s nothing like anything I’ve tried to do before. I enjoyed the challenge of making it work, vexing as it often was, and more often than not was able to focus my full attention on the first draft and the revisions necessary before beta readers could take their turn. (Did it work? Well, in the near future, you’ll tell me.) While it was being beta read, I was free to turn my attention to new stories in the Second Iteration universe – making a strong start on a four-book series. A literary agent would go nuts trying to deal with the way I slip from one market niche to another – assuming she lasted past the first two such books. A traditional publisher would show me to the door and lock it behind me.

So like everyone else caught up in the events of the year 2020, I coped. My wife and I stayed home, kept our heads down – literally and figuratively – and I wrote. All the while, pandemic and politics raged around us. I was aware of events, and of course I was worried, often deeply so. Writing isn’t a perfect escape from the real world, just a chance to let the worries slip away for a while. A chance to let the stress fade while I catch my breath and move on with life. In the process, a story that insisted on being written became a collection of well-ordered words. With any luck, distracted as I sometimes was – okay, make that frequently distracted – I got all those words in the right order, and created something people can relate to and enjoy. And just maybe it will give someone else, someone in need of a little escape, the means to get away from it all for a while.

Posted June 9, 2021 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

Remembering Gateway by Frederik Pohl   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1978

I went through a phase as a reader when short fiction – science fiction specifically – was my thing. Publications such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy, made up the bulk of my reading. For reasons I’ve now forgotten (this was at least forty years ago), I’d become fascinated by science fiction in its short form. Because of that fixation (one that I’ve never entirely lost) I came to read a serialized novel in Galaxy entitled “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl, one of the masters of the genre. I’m no longer sure what sort of impression the serialized version of what became an award-winning novel left on me, but it was strong enough that I recognized the title on the list of Hugo Award nominations when I started receiving material from the 36th World Science Fiction Convention.

I had such literature showing up in the mail because I’d acquired a membership and intended to attend. How could I not? It was being held in Phoenix, Arizona, the city to which my entire family had relocated two years before. No travel needed; even a hotel room was unnecessary. I’d read so much about WorldCon, as it’s generally known, mostly through the Hugo Award short-story anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov. I wanted to see one for myself. I stumbled over the fact that the WorldCon was happening in Phoenix when I start patronized a bookstore devoted to the genre (that, in itself, being a mind-blowing novelty for a small town guy). Long story short, when the Hugo Award for Best Novel was bestowed, I was there to watch it happen.

Though I read it as a serial, the version of Gateway that I now remember is the book, recently reread for this essay. If there were changes from magazine to book forms, they are lost to me. Picking it up again after so many years, all I could recall was that it had something to do with abandoned alien starships, a guy with serious issues, and a black hole. That proved accurate, as far as it went, though the novel turns out to be considerably more complex than those vague memories gave me to believe.

In a nutshell, Gateway takes place on a near future, somewhat dystopic Earth, that at the time I read it surely seemed a plausible extrapolation of the late 1970s. Human society is even more stratified than we see today, and poverty is an all-too-common way of life. The main character, Robinette Broadhead (who regularly reminds the reader that he is male, name notwithstanding) is a man from such a background who gets lucky in a lottery. He uses the money to buy his way into a place called Gateway, an asteroid full of alien technology left behind by a race humans have decided to call the Heechee. Among the artifacts, and central to the story, are hundreds of preprogrammed starships. People try their luck making voyages on these ships, hoping to return with artifacts or knowledge worth significant sums of money. And a great deal of luck is involved. Very few strike it rich, missions frequently return empty-handed, and death is an all-too-common fate for those who take the risk. In spite of the danger, there’s no shortage of volunteer “prospectors,” and Broadhead decides to be one of them. That is, until he arrives and finds out just how dangerous being a prospector can be.

The structure of the novel alternates chapters of Broadhead’s life after his Gateway experience, during which he is undergoing serious psychotherapy, and the events that took place while he was aboard the asteroid. (Sprinkled through the tale are “sidebars” made up of mission reports and personal ads from Gateway that add significantly to the world building.) It’s obvious from the start that Broadhead is a mess, and as the halves of the story, present and past, alternate, the reader gradually comes to understand the mental health issues he brought with him, to which Gateway added a massive burden of guilt.

Robinette Broadhead comes across, to me at least, as something of an anti-hero in spite of himself. He has the best of intentions, but his courage almost always hangs by a thread, and when the tension causes him to snap, he proves to be a danger to himself and others. He is also a man of considerable compassion, and has a capacity for love that is often at odds with his insecurities. All of this conspires to lead him into some poor decisions, and therein lies the tale. He does eventually take flights aboard three Heechee spacecraft. The first is a bust, he succeeds in spite of himself on another, and on the last – well, that’s where the black hole comes into it. It seems a standard of science fiction that black holes almost never do anyone any favors. And this one, while it leaves Broadhead a wealthy man after all, also bestows that burden of guilt I mentioned earlier. A burden that leads to the therapy that makes up half the story.

The story ends with Broadhead finally accepting an unpleasant truth, even as he manages to hold it all at arm’s length, ambivalent to the end. It feels as if the story dangles somewhat loosely instead of coming to a firm conclusion, but as this turned out to be the first book of a series, that’s understandable. The story doesn’t really end here. I’ve read the others, and if you like this one, they’re definitely worth your time.

The 1978 WorldCon, known also as IguanaCon II (even though there’s only ever been one of them – go figure) remains the only WorldCon I’ve ever attended. It represented a turning point in my life. Through it, I made a connection with the science fiction fan community in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, resulting in friendships that have endured to this day. Many memories from that event are held dear, and among them stands the one and only time I watched a book I’d read and enjoyed win one of these Hugo Awards.

The Successfully Unsuccessful Garden   Leave a comment

Gardening is one of those things in my life that keeps me grounded, no pun intended. The garden is always out there, even when I don’t make complete use of it. There have been years recently during which little was planted, and less harvested, due to unfortunate circumstances, some of them beyond my control. And then there are years like this one, when the motivation was there, the soil was turned, and the seeds were planted. All else being equal, it then comes down to the weather. The weather came down hard in 2020.

Our 2020 garden started well enough. My wife and I replaced yet another raised bed frame, work that brought the entire garden back into production for the first time in far too long. We started three varieties of basil, two of tomatoes, and three types of bell pepper, and an assortment of flowers suitable for warmer weather. We set out these transplants a little later than usual, but not so late that it should have brought a disaster down upon the garden. Unfortunately, the summer of 2020 decided to take over from spring ahead of schedule, and seriously overstayed its welcome. April was as hot as we would have expected from June, and May followed suit. As June melted into July, we waited for the temperature-moderating influence of the summer thunderstorm season, the so-called desert monsoon. It quite literally did not happen, and we endured one of the hottest and driest summers on record. The ridge of high atmospheric pressure responsible for the heat, as well as suppression of storm development even when the moisture was present, persisted. August became September, and we stayed “unseasonably” hot; the previous record for days with triple digit temperatures in a single year was broken on September 30th.

The garden baked. The drip irrigation system kept the plants alive, but the heat stress prevented them from being productive. On hot and breezy days, the plants simply couldn’t take up water fast enough to offset losses through their leaves. It was all they could do merely to survive. Tomato and pepper plants can’t produce viable pollen under such conditions, so no fruit was set. The flowers struggled and either bloomed sporadically, or not at all. Only the heat-loving basil did at all well, becoming the single success in the 2020 garden.

Sounds pretty hopeless, and from a certain perspective, it surely was. And yet the garden succeeded on a level that had nothing to do with our intentions or expectations.

If my wife and I were still part of the workaday world, the full success of this year’s garden would have been missed. But now we’re both done working for a living, and with the Covid-19 pandemic a clear and present danger, we stayed home. One of the things that has helped keep us from going completely crazy during this episode of isolation has been the natural history in our suburban lot. We have several very large mesquite trees on the property, and that well-watered vegetable garden. We put water and seed out for the birds, and hummingbird feeders are maintained that also attract Gila Woodpeckers and fledgling Verdins in addition to the Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds we had in mind. So, we live in an oasis centered on a garden. Being home all the time, we were given the opportunity to watch how this oasis, while not forthcoming in terms of tomatoes, made this hellish summer a little easier for local birds, reptiles, and insects.

Resident creatures that eat insects found plenty to work with. For them, the garden was amazingly productive. Lucy’s Warblers, Verdins, and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers foraged in the tomatoes, which were lush even if they didn’t set fruit. Abert’s Towhees and Curve-billed Thrashers scratched and shuffled through the mulch, seeking grubs – and finding them. When, during a “cold snap” (quotes denote sarcasm here) the tomatoes set a few fruit, a Phainopepla and a young Northern Cardinal took advantage. The Verdins apparent appreciated those tiny tomatoes as well, especially when damaged fruit attracted insects. The fruit being abnormally small and few in number, we left them for the birds.

When flowers did manage to bloom, they attracted and fed the few butterflies we saw this year. More common visitors were honeybees, solitary bees, and flies. Some of the tiny dipterid insects drawn to the flowers, gnats to you and me, were small enough to be caught and eaten by the Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds that were drawn to our feeders. Bug snacks for everyone.

No matter what I intend, I rarely harvest basil often enough to prevent flowers from appearing. Common garden knowledge holds that allowing basil to bloom ruins the quality of the herb. I’ve never found that to be particularly true, but usually remove flowers anyway to encourage new leaves. Even with that motive, I don’t always keep up with this chore. I was especially lazy about flower removal this summer. It was so hot all the time that I had little interest in being out in the garden working, even early in the morning. This suited numerous insect species, including honeybees and ants, that found in the basil flowers a source of much-needed nourishment. When I fully realized the resource I was removing, I stopped snipping basil flowers altogether, and let the ants and the bees take full advantage. And when the plants set seed, the Lesser Goldfinches came in to feast. At times, so of these small yellow, green, and black birds were working the basil patch that it would seem a tiny wind storm was taking place in that garden bed.

Birds weren’t the only backyard residents sustained by the insects calling the garden home. The resident lizards (four species) were also in good shape. The dominant species in our yard is the collared lizard, some of which grow to be eight inches or so long, and of respectable girth. These lizards are territorial, and the back yard around the garden was divided into four small kingdoms that I was aware of. The biggest of the bunch lived on the back porch, adjacent to the garden. Most mornings we found this lizard foraging for insects in the loose mulch on the tomato bed. He was an accomplished climber, and many times a rustling heard high in the vegetation would turn out to be George, and not a bird looking for a six-legged snack. George? It just seemed like a good name for him. I may have been suffering from a bit of cabin fever at the time, but the name stuck. He became quite fearless, showing no real concern when I went around in the early morning, watering things that weren’t on the drip system. Unless he thought I was about to douse him. George hated being wet.

All the bird life in and around the garden, along with the birdbath, attracted the attention of the resident Cooper’s Hawks. Of course, the hawks sometimes made kills during their visits, feasting on the other birds in the yard while also raising three hungry offspring. This wasn’t always the most entertaining aspect of our little desert oasis, but that’s nature for you. Always beautiful in its way, but not always pretty.

We spent the summer from hell stuck at home, watching the garden of 2020 fail and succeed, depending on how you decide to look at it. In years past a garden this unsuccessful would have been a source of great disappointment, and nothing more. Wrapped up in day jobs, we would have, at best, glimpsed the full story during an evening, or on a weekend. And to be honest, we were aware that much was going on in the garden that had nothing to do with us picking peppers. Being here full time made it possible to deepen that awareness. The garden failed as far as our direct intentions were concerned but sustained a kaleidoscope of life that enriched our lives and provided distraction when it was sorely needed.

Posted December 9, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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Stories Along The Way   Leave a comment

From late summer of 2002 through autumn of 2018 I worked in various capacities for the University of Arizona. Since I lived all of four miles from campus, I avoided the hassles and expense of parking there by making the daily commute via bicycle. It was more than a merely financial decision. The ride each morning worked with the first cup of coffee to put me in a relaxed mood, awake and alert without any edginess. It was a ride through quiet neighborhoods, just long enough to make it feel like I’d gotten some exercise, but not so long that I started the morning tired. I almost always arrived in a calm enough mood to handle those days that make you doubt the wisdom of working for a living. And although the return trip in the afternoon or evening could be on the warm side in the summer, the return trip often – though not always – made it easier to leave the job behind for the night or the weekend.

I followed the same route to work every morning for almost all of those years, minus a nine-month episode that encompassed the last laboratory work I ever did. Even then, I merely turned westward half a mile earlier than usual. It comes as no surprise, then, that I became very well acquainted with the neighborhoods through which I traveled. Streets, houses, and landscapes all became as familiar as the street on which I lived, recognizable aspects of my work week world. Some of what I encountered was ephemeral. A particular vehicle would overtake me at about the same time each morning, and do so for weeks or months. A cyclist, usually a college student headed to campus, would pass me on the way for a semester or two. Then they wouldn’t, and I’d realize one morning that this particular bit of familiarity was gone. Sometimes the absence was temporary, more often it was permanent.

There were people I saw every morning for much longer periods of time, in some cases many years: joggers, dog walkers, and drivers backing out of driveways to start their own commutes. Those with regular morning routines left the clearest impressions on me. Those who walked or rode past me for years at a time waved or said good morning. We didn’t know each other, and yet in a small way we did, being part of each other’s daily routine. The near ritualistic “good morning” and “have a good one” as you pass each other by.

As I write these words it’s been almost two years since I last made that commute, but some of those faces have remained in my memory. A man and a woman and their dogs stand out most clearly, because of the way they inadvertently connected with the storyteller in me.

For several years I found myself headed toward campus in the morning, passing a middle-aged couple and their dogs. There was nothing outstanding about them, just a couple walking happy brown and white dogs that looked so much alike I assumed them to be littermates. Some mornings I exchanged cheery good mornings with the four of them. Now and then it would be either the man or the woman, walking both dogs. The dogs always led the way with that restrained pace dogs have when they wish their humans would walk faster. I rode past this couple and their lookalike dogs on a regular basis for years, long enough to see the dogs slow down and, in one case, develop a limp.

Came the morning there was a couple with one dog. That arrangement persisted for a year or two, then it was just a man with a dog. Neither seemed especially cheery, and the morning greeting was returned with a distracted nod. And then, after seeing none of them for a while, I said good morning to the man, who walked alone. He returned the greeting politely and walked on. That was the last I saw of him.

There is a story implicit in what I saw over the years. A melancholy tale of lives lived and seen by me only in passing. But there they were. The storyteller added it up to something plausible, if sad, and filed it away in memory for safe keeping.

The world is a kaleidoscope of stories, happening all around us. All you need to do is look away from yourself and be properly attentive. Some of these stories will involve you. Others will merely unfold in your sight, and of these there will be many seen in passing. Storytellers can’t help but notice the stories around them. They notice, and they remember.

I commuted to and from campus along that route for sixteen years. I rode through stories, some merely glimpsed in passing, one that quietly haunts me. I can’t help wondering if any of the long-time walkers, joggers, or cyclists ever pause to consider, from time to time, whatever became of me.

Posted October 15, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

Cooper’s Hawks Come and Go   Leave a comment

Once upon a time, we had a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks in our neighborhood. My wife and I were sure of this identification because, for a brief time, we also had a pair of Cooper’s Hawks hanging around. It’s much easier to identify very similar species when you see them together, even if you need to look quickly to catch sight of both species during a hot pursuit. And when I said that this overlap was for a brief time, I meant that quite literally. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks occupy such similar ecological niches that competition between them is pretty fierce. The Cooper’s Hawk is the larger of these dueling species, and so it’s no wonder that the smaller sharpies – as bird watchers often call them – came out on the short end. They were displaced. Or eaten. It could have gone either way.

And so, for several years now, there’s been a pair of Cooper’s Hawks nesting in our neighborhood. They are magnificent birds, but also a mixed blessing. These are one of two species of avian predators in our habitat, the resident Great Horned Owls being the other. (It’s a day shift, night shift sort of thing.) The hawks are strongly attracted to our mesquite-filled suburban yard, and hunt here on a regular basis. Their preferred prey items are other birds, which are also drawn to our yard in respectable numbers for the food, water, and shelter to be found here. Without intending to, really, our place is something of a buffet for hawks. I know they need to eat, but finding scattered feathers, wings, and heads in the yard does get old after a while.

Life is a chancy business in the natural world, even in places where the concept of ‘natural’ can become somewhat strained, as I believe it to be in the suburbs. As proof of this, late one evening in January (2020), just as the sun was setting, we heard the piercing screams of a hawk, sounds that went off the scale and raised gooseflesh as we listened. There was no doubt that we heard an animal in great distress. You didn’t need to anthropomorphize at all to hear pain and fear in those raptor cries. There was no knowing which hawk we’d heard screaming; we could only be sure it was a Cooper’s Hawk. Not long after, as night began to fall, I heard the hooting of a Great Horned Owl, a hunter that is known to sometimes kill and eat other predatory birds.

We feared the worst for the resident hawks, and in fact, after that evening there was no sign of the male half of the pair. Whatever actually happened to the male – distinguished by being smaller that his mate – all we saw for several weeks afterward was the larger female. She continued to hunt in the neighborhood, but was uncharacteristically quiet.

As spring approached, while on one of my morning walks, I saw her in conflict with a smaller Cooper’s hawk. This conflict repeated a few times over the following days, with the smaller bird – presumably a male – really getting the worst of it. At one point, half his tail feathers were missing. But his persistence paid off. One morning I saw both birds gathering sticks for a nest and carrying them up into a large Aleppo pine tree along my walking route. And in the last couple of weeks, a trio of apparently healthy and hungry young hawks fledged. They’ve been ranging around the neighborhood, not yet capable of hunting on their own. They often give high-pitched, plaintive cries to let their parents know where they are, and to remind them of their hunger. The adult birds have been so busy filling this need that, for a while, we thought something had happened to the female, we saw her so seldom. But she was just busy, apparently hunting over a wider territory to fill this sudden need.

One morning, about two weeks after the young hawks fledged, I witnessed hawk behavior of a sort I’ve never seen, or even guessed that I might. I was on yet another morning walk when the three young hawks flashed across the street ahead of me, chasing each other, zooming into and out of trees and sending frantic mourning doves fleeing in all directions. Suddenly, there were five hawks; the parents had launched themselves from a tall tree nearby and scattered the three youngsters, who quickly regrouped and gave chase. There followed a great deal of diving in and out of trees, in what appeared the be an aerial game of “tag,” a game the adults had clearly mastered. At some point the adults headed east and disappeared from view, their offspring trailing along behind, one by one.

I’ve seen young hawks play before. This is normal, expected behavior. Many species of animal use play as a way to work various instincts into skills for daily use. For these hawks this morning, it was all about flying and maneuvering, abilities they will need to refine, and refine quickly, if they are to be successful hunters. And to evade the occasional Great Horned Owl. What surprised me on that morning was the parental involvement. They joined the game, mixed things up, and effectively made the offspring work harder. All of it was surely good experience for the youngsters. It’s a display of behavior I’d never seen before, although in hindsight, it makes perfect sense that the parents would join their offspring in such an important game.

Posted July 29, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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