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Creek Running North

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April 11, 2005

Vanessa cardui

For discrete entities to exist, borders must also exist. How else to bound the entity, to determine where self diverges from other? Twilight makes the line between day and night. That band of cattails has dry land on one side, open water on the other.

But borders themselves are entities, and in the natural world at least they are themselves fuzzy, bounded by indistinct borders that are themselves discrete entities. There are no sharp lines in the world, other than those cartographers draw on pieces of paper. In the real world borders are filters, softening the lap of wave against bank, allowing passage to moving entities with their own porous borders; nutrients, weather, ideas, guys from Oaxaca with mouths to feed back home.

If it were not for border crossers, borders would cease to exist.

I am not exactly a border crosser on this hike. I walk nearly to the edge of my home territory, here on the eastern fringes of the Coast Ranges in Morgan Territory Regional Park, but I stay in the hills. Below me and to the east is the California Delta, confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which ooze greenly past leveed islands of farmland. Past it, the Great Central Valley’s haze obscures the snowy wall of the Sierra Nevada. Beyond be dragons.

From my comfortable refuge here, on a sliver of rock overhanging a 100-foot cliff, I watch the painted ladies flying north.

Hundreds of the butterflies pass me in any five-minute period. They’ve been headed north for some weeks, nourished by a spectacular growth of annual flowers in the Mojave and deserts south, and those that linger near me for a moment show signs of wear. They have tattered tails, and holes have been worn in their fragile wings. They do not falter, flying toward the Sacramento in pairs and threes.

It's really rather impressive. This blizzard of orange and black crepe crossing mountains, desert valleys, going from country to country, no luggage nor passport, orange and black wings thinner than crepe and fueled by tiny sips of flower, and they're moving faster than I can run. Each is just slightly more substantial than a thought, maybe a tenth of a gram of chitin and water and light. But probably ten thousand butterflies will pass me on my hike, a kilogram of flying stained glass shards. My hike covers five and a half miles. Extrapolate from there: many tons of butterflies are moving north in California today.

Butterflies hate cameras, I find. With the lens stowed safely in my pack the painted ladies linger in my gaze, slowly, languorously opening and closing their wings like long mascaraed lashes, almost allowing me to stroke them. But if I hold my camera I become a paparazzo, and they flee when I get within thirty feet.

When stealth and slyness fail, a cheating hunter uses bait. I park myself near a black sage in flower, ready to shoot should a butterfly feed on its resiny nectar. I waste a dozen shots on orange blurs.

Sitting on a precipice usually makes me think the big thoughts, and watching once-in-a-decade wildlife migrations does the same. Combine the two and I become a great big maudlin ball of triteness. I distract myself with attention to the camera, fiddling with the focus ring and puzzling at the newness and opacity of the buttons. A hundred thousand slips of tattered crepe speed through this park on their way to mate and die. Black sage pushes out flower after flower. Larkspur and shooting star and goldfields dot the meadows. A turkey vulture soars high above the tops of the trees in the canyon through which flows Marsh Creek: I can just make out the feathers on its back fifty feet below me. The breeze does little to cool my sunburned skin. Discrete entity though I may be, this reddening border between me and not-me is less distinct than I would like. For a moment I forget exactly where I end and the lichen-covered rock on which I lean begins. Did I drive here past the swell of fake winery homes and vanity ranches - none of which were there on my last visit - or have I always been here, clasped by the rock from which I've grown? I am forty-five years old, and my life seems to be changing in ways I've long desired but which, now, are a little frightening.

Is the aperture set right for the depth of field I want?

A butterfly lands to feed on the sage. I snap three shots of it, each sharp enough to identify the species but not particularly pretty. After the third shot it stirs and flies away.

Satisfied, I relax a bit. The view of Diablo is really quite nice from this spot. It's a vantage point I don't often have, here all the way across the mountain from my usual haunts. It's odd, looking at the mountain, to realize I've walked from peak to peak a dozen times, that I climbed the long west slope of the mountain once a quarter century ago, and the far, north side twice in the last six months. If I had to grow out of rock and spend my life affixed to any one spot, this might me the one I'd pick. I raise the camera, lock my elbows against my knees to steady myself, and shoot.

Posted by Chris Clarke at April 11, 2005 07:42 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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What a gorgeous shot. I hope you don't mind, but I've snagged it for my desktop.

When the boy and I were in San Diego 2 weeks ago, there were hundreds and hundreds of these butterflies probably just getting started on their trip.

Posted by: Kathy at April 11, 2005 11:27 AM
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yeah,, I know that feeling of being roughly 45, having your life go in a direction you could only dream of at particuarly painful and frightening times......and having the feeling, the accomplishment, be, nonetheless, disconcerting. To say the least...

I don't know about you...with me, it just came with the territory. And stays with the territory, at 55. Be that as it may....I still keep moving in the same direction. I deal with the fear.

Anyway, enough of that. Great writing. Images come alive in that short essay. Or whatever you call it. Keep it up if you can and desire to do so. Thank you.

Posted by: jon stanley at April 11, 2005 01:08 PM
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They're still streaming by past my office window. They've become part of our world, here, part of Davis-in-the-spring, and it will seem very strange when they've all come through.

Posted by: Pica at April 11, 2005 01:41 PM
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You are making me homesick. Stop it right now.

Posted by: Roxanne at April 11, 2005 01:57 PM
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Me too, if by homesick you mean unclesick.

Posted by: Allison at April 11, 2005 02:56 PM
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These must be the butterflies I mentioned on my blog last week. Michael K. Willis commented that San Diego had been full of them on their way north.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at April 11, 2005 03:14 PM
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Oh, yes, and every time I see Mt. Diablo, I remember the day we hiked back and forth between peaks. I couldn't do that now, I think. I would be gasping.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at April 11, 2005 03:18 PM
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I've noticed that camera avoidance thing, too. It also afflicts cats.

Posted by: Rana at April 11, 2005 03:23 PM
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The first two paragraphs may be the best I've read at this site. Which is saying quite a bit. And the rest of it is far from shabby, showing the deft touch of a person moving toward real awareness. Extremely well done. One question, though. How do we know that the borders aren't illusory?

Then there's this:

"Did I drive here past the swell of fake winery homes and vanity ranches - none of which were there on my last visit - or have I always been here, clasped by the rock from which I've grown? I am forty-five years old, and my life seems to be changing in ways I've long desired but which, now, are a little frightening."

Honest. Perfect. Outstanding.

Posted by: tost at April 11, 2005 03:53 PM
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One question, though. How do we know that the borders aren't illusory?

Illusory is one part of it. Arbitrary is another. Some of the boundaries rely entirely on our definitions of the things contained by the boundaries.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at April 11, 2005 08:32 PM
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I guess the way I look at it, "arbitrary" is a given. After all, we're human beings, and that makes us subjective, imperfect and, well, arbitrary. Especially when it comes to things like definitions.

Posted by: tost at April 12, 2005 11:38 AM
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I wonder if you're familiar with the work of Peter Handke, a marvelously lyrical German writer, probably best known for his work with director, Wim Wenders (e.g. Wings of Desire). Your talk of borders reminded me specifically of an extended meditation in one of his novels about the nature of portals. You both have a remarkable habit of wedding the ephemeral with the concrete in a way that stints neither and makes the connection seem so natural that your readers are left wondering how they could have gone so long without seeing it for themselves.

Posted by: Beth at April 12, 2005 10:57 PM
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Thank you for a wonderful musing, Chris. You evoked several pleasant memories. One of them was of a visit to an East Bay park (in Northern California "East Bay" is in reference to San Francisco) where the rows of eucalytus trees were covered with migrating Monarch butterflies. Some of the others of boyhood butterfly chasing.

Your Buddha-minding consideration of the evanescent nature of boundaries reminded me (for reasons that may become clear) of scientific studies I have found on lipid rafts. Cells have membranes, both a boundary and gatekeeper, and sub-cellular organelles such as nuclei, endoplasmic membranses (ER) and Golgi bodies also have these marvelous, edgey, flexible, selective structures. Membranes are mostly fat and fats don't attract each other as much as water molecules, so they layer out into thermodynamically mandated boundaries.

So how do you get your newly forged and folded membrane protein (very hydrophilic) from the Golgi bodies and ER out through millions of water molecules that are aggresively hydrogen bonding to each other much more so than your newly minted membrane protein can get to the cell membrane? You wrap it up into a lipid raft, embed some proteins that can bond to microfibrils and harness some energetic molecules to row your way over to the nearest membrane docking pier. Amazing stuff.

I just thought that the idea of creating a portable boundary in order to pass through an unwelcoming environment (water) was one of those strategies that both Charles Darwin and J. Willard Gibbs would have found intensely satisfying.
As I said, Chris, Thanks.

Posted by: David Winsemius at April 17, 2005 07:45 PM
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A reflection on borders and thus life, an endlessly paradoxical subject that always fascinates me.

Posted by: Karlo at April 21, 2005 02:41 PM
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I agree about the camera thing with butterflies, they have an awareness that we just don't recognize. my theory is that they can see some sort of change in our movement or spirit or aura, they see farther into the infra red and uv than mammals. When you have no utilities in your hands, you pose no threat. it's not just the visual BIG EYE of the camera, try sneaking up on them holding a butterfly net behind your back. They know individuals and they can appraise strangers. I've raised them and the ones that know & trust me will come up close and fly within an arms length. I pulled one out of an orb spiders web once, it hung around for days (yes it was the same one). This isn't just anthropomorphizing, it's swear to god real.

Posted by: Bill at May 1, 2005 08:02 PM
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