Sunday, January 6, 2008

Of hydrangeas and predators

With Matt in Chicago overnight again, I'm reminded of the fact that our inevitable move will just as inevitably mean relinquishing our patio garden. Even in San Diego, the hydrangea enters dormancy in the winter. According to the helpful little chart in Sunset, more northerly latitudes will kill it if we leave it outside, which bodes ill for the miniature orange and lemon trees, and the bougainvillea.

Which reminds me of one of the few reasons I like San Diego. If you can manage to overlook the provinciality of the suburbanites and the rows of Hummer strollers in every public place, and can make your peace with the sight of 40 Canyoneros bearing down on you should you possess the effrontery to cross a street on foot, you'll find yourself living in the world's largest botanical garden. Weird and lovely things grow here, even in the most improbable places (the side of the highway, the middle of the desert) and until I lived here, I'd never seen a bird of paradise anywhere but in a greenhouse.

My attention to the natural world is brought to you today by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Old Way: The Story of the First People, my current audiobook and new favorite anthropology. Thomas's father, one of the founders of Raytheon, got it into his head one day that it might be fun to go seek out the Bushmen of the Kalahari and drag a small party along with him, including his wife and two teenaged children. So off they went, and became famous anthropologists of advocates for what evolutionary biologists believe to be the closest living ancestors of the first humans, residing in the then-unmapped Kalahari in something resembling the Paleolithic way. If Thomas's vivid prose and density of closely-observed details can be summarized at all, it's in the idea that modern society has lost its knowledge of the flora and fauna of our world. The Kalahari people of the 1950s could track prey based on the kind of beetle prints they saw superimposed on its tracks, and what time of day that beetle was known to appear aboveground. I think most of us (myself included) would have difficulty naming the kind of trees that grow on our own streets, if trees grow at all. It reminds me of one of Nabokov's characterizations of Kinbote in Pale Fire: unlike Shade, he has no interest in the natural world; in fact, his entire character is turned inward, towards his own paranoid and self-created universe. It reminds me to spend less time on graduate school messageboards in feverish comparison of my own vital stats to the vital stats of other applicants to the same schools (all of which I know aren't all that important anyway) and more time in the seat of my shiny red bicycle, which I purchased just before the fires here and haven't had much of a chance to ride.

So I guess that's as close as I come to a New Year's resolution. Alas, it's raining here, but I have a big stack of books to read and two little predators curled up next to me. Thomas's chapter on the Kalahari lions makes me see them in an entirely new way.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 2:42 PM