Pheasants, labradoodles, and, eventually, pot-bellied pigs

I’ve spent the last week in the wilds of Barcombe Mills, England with my husband.  It’s been a sort of writing retreat slash dog sitting gig with lots of rain and mud and quiet and several little tasks to clear off my calendar.  As I look out the window, a large pheasant is running up the garden path toward the house and the bird feeder.  There is something comical in the way it runs — rude of me to notice. There is probably something comical in the way I run as well. Let’s assume as much.

It’s lovely to be here.  There is a river to the front of the house and two beautiful swans on the green.  Out the back is a pond the shape of Africa, a metal ostrich, a wooden warthog. The birds at the feeder are all exotic to me, even the ones I know must be ordinary — the wood pigeons, blue tits, wrens and wagtails.  There has been copious rain, which I’ve enjoyed since we are getting so little of it back home.  I am trying to send it in the direction of California with only the power of my thoughts. Let me know how that works out.

It’s wonderful to have dogs again, even temporarily, even when I have to walk them in a blistering gale.  We’re sharing the house with two labradoodles, one large, one small, one light, one dark.  They are sweet-tempered, well-behaved dogs and they have the good life a dog has when there are no children in the house to eat up everyone’s time and attention.  Two walks a day, treats, and attention.  They are well-behaved, as I said, thoroughly lovely, and yet it has been a full dog experience – muddy paws, grass and horse-dung eating, humping, farting, snoring, barking in the night. But also the snuggling, the licking, the moment to moment concern for my well-being.

There is a horse barn next door, loads of rabbits.  I’ve seen no foxes, but of course they are here, and one night there was a tremendous row, both dogs carrying on, and in the morning a sad pile of wood pigeon feathers in the back. This is England the way I picture it, not what I see when I’m in London, but the green fields, the public pathways, muddy streams, the stiles I climb through, just like Elizabeth Bennet, my petticoat, six inches deep in mud.

And then this over my email!  I’m thrilled to direct you this morning to an article written by a brilliant member of my Santa Cruz writing group.  The topic is pot-bellied pigs.  Find it here:


I’m clearing up the Christmas debris and bracing for New Year’s. Hoping for more rain. Hoping for more time. Hoping for more words, more pages, more posts.
In the meantime, please notice the following: Researcher Matt McLennan is trying to raise $30,000 by January 5th on IndieGogo for his project to save chimps and help Ugandan children.  He has less than a week and about 20,000 dollars still to go.  If you can help out, please do so. The campaign is here:


Second, and more self-servingly — the application period for the Clarion writing workshop, San Diego version, is currently open and I will be teaching there this summer along with Christopher Barzak, Saladin Ahmed, Jim Kelly, Maureen McHugh, and Margo Lanagan.  Details to be found at

sprucing up the spruces

September 26, 2014

I have finally come to rest for a bit back home — long enough to resume my usual cliff-top walk in Santa Cruz. To my surprise and sorrow, the Monterey pine I have long used as a ballet barre for stretching out my legs and a monkey-bar for hanging out my back, and an easy climb into a better view has been pruned of all its lower branches. It has a new sleek silhouette and is now unclimbable. Not only that, but the removed branches appear to have been put through the chipper, which has raised the ground around Kyushiro Mine’s bench in ways that also Do Not Work For Me.
I am consoling myself that probably the pruning was essential to the health of the tree — not something I know for a fact, but it could be true. In the meantime, I am reposting here a report that first appeared on the bookanisata site last March, an account of how my walk used to go before these shocking events.

I live in Santa Cruz, California, on the very edge of the continent and one of the most beautiful places on planet Earth. Most mornings I take a walk along West Cliff Drive, where I am joined by joggers, strollers, dogs, bicyclists, and tourists. The ocean is below us; the path winds along the cliffs above.
I do this walk largely for the exercise it provides, so I push my pace with music or I listen to the news on the radio and when I get home, I turn on the computer and read more of the news and when I brush my teeth, rather than be alone with my own thoughts for the two minutes that takes, I read a book. It’s possible that I have a bit of an addiction to the internet or at least to the constant possibility of distraction it provides.
Because none of this (except the book) is entirely pleasant. In fact, it leaves me jangled, as if I have a head full of noise. And I try, from time to time, to withdraw, to take what my friend Ruth Ozeki calls, the backward step. And, specifically, to at least do my morning walk, as god intended, without earbuds.
So this is a diary of a few days in which I managed to be quiet in the head. I know that sounds unexciting, but believe me, it was hard won.

Day 1
It is not really quiet. The first things I notice are the sounds I miss on other days – waves, birds, sea lions, bits of conversation I hear as people pass. More waves. I start off at Lighthouse Field State Park where the first person I see is the woman who drives up periodically to feed the large population of feral cats there. Today she has sprung for the canned food so they are all over her and an embarrassment to the very word feral. They love her, but like an Austen character, only for her estate.
We are deep into drought here in California and the park has a parched look. I remember how, at this time of year, I used to hear frogs, but I can’t remember how long ago that was. I think it’s been a long time. My first year here, there was a storm that uprooted trees and sent the waves crashing all the way up the cliffs and onto the path. My late dog and I went out in that storm for the sheer drama of it. Now I do this walk with the ghost of my beloved dog beside me, and the storms, too, seem a thing of the past.
The sun is just coming up when I reach the sea. I like the color of the water at all times of day, but the early morning is especially beautiful – a color I have no name for, but is overlaid with silver, glints of light in a surface of sharply defined waves.
The benches along West Cliff are memorials, inscribed like tombs and sometimes quite sad to contemplate, but I have a favorite that carries no such sadness. It commemorates Kyushiro Mine, 1897-1993 and has the words “After a Long Journey, Peace” inscribed under his name. If no one has grabbed it for the selfish purpose of rest and contemplation, it is the perfect height for me to do some stretching on.
All trees are equally lovable and one shouldn’t have favorites, but I do. Spreading over the Kyushiro bench is a large Monterey Pine, very climbable, and so filled with invisible blackbirds that it seems the tree itself is singing above me. I have a branch I hang from to rid myself of the kinks in my back and I would resemble the beautiful cover of my own book if its dangling figure were a sexagenarian in an idiotic hat.

My favorite bit of overheard dialogue today – “I am a great fan of germs.”
Me, too! Some of them, anyway. The best of them.

Day 2:
Today all my sea creatures are coming in pairs, straight off the Ark if the sea creatures had needed an Ark, which clearly they didn’t. World domination was right within their grasp until Noah snatched it away.
They need one now.
It’s hard to look out to sea and get that old reliable sense of peace. A few days ago, I saw in an article online that pinpointed the death of the ocean to 2048. That date is very possibly within my children’s lifetimes, and certainly within my grandchildren’s. I think about my grandson who has already loved sharks for his whole ten years and is a fountain of arcane shark lore. He will not like a world without sharks.
Meanwhile, all unaware of the impending apocalypse, two sea lions bob just offshore, watching the dogs chase balls and waves on the dog beach. Two porpoises are arching through the water although maybe they are dolphins – I cannot tell. It matters, because here in Santa Cruz we have the occasional porpicide – porpoise murder perpetrated by bottlenose dolphins – because Mother Nature really does not care if you love her or not. Maybe if you had behaved better. But now, she just sees you as something to be eaten.
Yet I myself am feeling all charitable toward the particular humans I meet today, who, whatever their complicities, are picking someone else’s trash up as they walk along, or adding their own art to the already beautiful vista. I am particularly grateful to:
The skateboarder who has made a Goldsworthy-like sculpture garden of intricately stacked stones and stops daily to repair or revise it.
The unknown and unseen hands that cut empty beer cans into pelicans, wings spread, and perch them on the ledge above the trashcans
The man who stands on the edge of the cliff, looking out to sea and playing marvelous loopy riffs on his trumpet
The woman who took my arm as I passed to make sure I didn’t miss the two sea otters floating on their backs in the surf.

Favorite thing overheard today – a man singing Dock of a Bay quietly to himself as he walked.

Day 3:
My last day at home before I catch a plane and start to book-tour again. The plane is early enough that the only way I can manage my usual walk is to start in the dark. I have the streetlights until I hit the park and then only the light of a very round moon and my familiarity with the paths to see me through to the ocean. My grandsons and I play Hobbit in this park. I know every goblin-filled inch of it.
Now it is quiet. The sea lions cavorted late into the night – I can hear them from my bedroom – and are presumably filled with silent regret this morning. The birds are not yet up. The cliffside walk is deserted except for one man trying to get a picture of the moon and its reflection in the black water on his cellphone.
Because Santa Cruz is on a bay that, in disorienting fashion, faces south, the sun is rising behind me as I walk west. The transformation from night to day is a fast one. The tide is high and the waves are crashing whitely on the rocks below me. Other people start to arrive. A young boy is out jogging with his mother and she is telling him some story that begins “when I was your age,” and then they are past before I can hear the rest, but what remains with me was the interest with which her son seemed to be listening. When I was his age, I don’t think I ever listened past the words “when I was your age” to anything.
When I was your age, children, there was no music in the elevators, airports, restaurants. Nobody thought the ocean could be killed. For most of the games we played, another actual person had to show up, I mean physically, right there in the room, and play with you. It was all pretty weird.
Today’s bird sightings include one gray heron, one snowy egret, two brown pelicans that apparently weren’t invited on the winter migration, a line of scoters washing about in the surf, a rock of cormorants, a fence of red-winged blackbirds, a scurry of sandpipers.
I don’t have time today to stop at Kyushiro’s bench, dangle from my tree, watch the sun rising. The waves are coming in sets and the surfers are doing the same. The moon is still up when I leave and the sun, too. I have noisier places to go, noisier things to do.

Favorite thing overheard today – “I probably would have liked it better if I’d known it was funny.” Words to live by. A very sound philosophy of life.

Hannah Stein, elephants

The great poet Hannah Stein has sent me a poem!



We dream jungle, we dream veld.  Where
elephants go to die:  bare ground
fenced between calligraphied giraffes
and the tender-eyed okapi.  An elephant

lies in state: a kind of earthen wake for
the living, who lumber in needful ritual,
knowledge flickering in their silent feet,
their arcane, undomesticated bones.
They grieve in a dusty oval,
touch their comrade again and again,

to make sure he is dead, to lay
their peace upon him, gather his peace
unto themselves.  Hour upon hour
they circle him and touch him,
the friable ground wreathing up all

that can shade eternity back to them,
whatever more than dust
may spread safekeeping.
—Hannah Stein


(First published in And We The Creatures, C.J. Sage, editor)

Tegan Moore, gerbils

Tegan Moore lets me know she has been thinking a lot about gerbils lately.  Read this wonderful post and you will be thinking about them, too.



“And what’s your gerbil’s name?” asked the receptionist.

“Starsong the Unicorn,” I said. “She’s not my gerbil. She’s a work gerbil.”

“Sorry,” the receptionist said, her brows hugged together. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Right. We just have a couple of gerbils at work. They don’t really belong to anyone. They’re all of ours, I guess.” I paused. She was writing something on the entry form. “The person who normally takes care of them is out of town, and she asked me to check on them today, and of course…”

She looked up, her sympathy well-practiced. “We’ll make Starsong comfortable and the doctor will call you once she’s done the exam.”

The bill for this yet-unaccomplished exam was $75. I left Starsong the Unicorn the gerbil and drove back to the office, unable to pinpoint my emotions.


When I was five we had two gerbils in a big tank in our basement. The were disappointingly named, though I can’t remember the names themselves, and one was brown and one was black and they were very cute and fond of each other. I wasn’t supposed to take them out of their tank unsupervised because of a previous hour-long gerbil manhunt, but rules about animals were the easiest ones to ignore.

The husband-gerbil, the black one, was my favorite, and I was only playing with him on the old couch for a few moments before he escaped me and scurried beneath it. He easily evaded my short arms, and no amount of waiting (ten seconds? Twenty?) convinced him that I was gone and the coast was clear. The last thing I wanted was to solicit adult help, because that would just prove that the rule I’d broken was there for a reason.

Maybe I could lure him out. The gerbil-kibble proved ineffective, and any interesting snacks were all the way upstairs, in the kitchen with my mom and her questions, and if I actually left the room the gerbil might slip out from under the couch and go truly missing.

The only other thing I had that the husband-gerbil might want was his wife.

I climbed onto the couch with her, so he couldn’t see my feet, and held her by her tail. He could see her, but not me, but I also couldn’t see him to tell if it was working. I gave the wife-gerbil a little alluring shake.

Her tail came off. About halfway down. It tore right in half. The wife-gerbil hit the cement floor and her husband came out to meet her. They both stood, wide-eyed, waiting for me. I put them back in their tank.

I hid the half of the tail, the little wormy bit of rope, in a pile of lumber in the storage room. I don’t remember anyone every saying anything about it, though someone must have noticed. They must have.


Starsong’s exam revealed a mass in her abdomen: a tumor, possibly, or an enlarged organ. She would need tests to determine what to do next.

“They want to do diagnostics,” I told my coworker over the phone. “It could be cancer or diabetes or even pneumonia. The X-rays are a hundred-fifty, and that’s not even treatment.” I paused. “Do you want to do it?”

We do all kinds of backbends and contortions around the mortality of pets.

If she’s in pain…

She wouldn’t understand that what they were doing was supposed to help.

And there’s no guarantee she’ll recover.

She’s already pretty old. I think we need to just let her go.

She lived a good life, as though that’s justification for cutting it short. If anything, She was happy should make death all the more tragic.

It’s not that any of these thoughts are wrong, that they’re lies we say to make what we do okay. But when it comes to animals, especially little things like gerbils, we have such complete power. We get to decide how and even if they live. Nobody’s fighting for them. It becomes painfully clear: when the pauses in the conversations where the defenses might go remain unfilled, when both people are holding their breath hoping that the other one doesn’t say, “let’s do this, let’s get the quote for gerbil chemo.” Because nobody really wants to do that. It’s just a gerbil.


If there’s any animal whose suffering and death I should be hardened toward it’s domestic rodents. Obsessed with farming as a child, I bred, raised and sold hamsters. At one point there were fifty-two of them, a number I was intensely proud of. I thought of them as stock animals, but small and disposable enough that if one or two died nobody noticed besides me.

The summer was an explosion of hamster babies, the now-murderous fathers removed to improvised cages and tanks. The mothers were hardly any less bloodthirsty. Hamsters eat their young at the slightest provocation, and being in the sole care of a ten-year-old with attention deficit disorder is a powerful stressor. Cannibalism was disappointing but common. The hamsters went, forgotten about, for days without water or food. They didn’t really get held or played with; my fantasy wasn’t about having animals to love (already had those), it was about volume. Raising stock. Farming can be merciless and mercenary, even when practiced by a child.

The hamsters wintered in our basement where they were even easier to ignore. One weekend, reminded by my mother and with guilt already heavy in my guts, I went down to check on them and found that one, an adult now, had escaped and fallen into her mother’s cage. Battle ensued, and, starving and stir-crazy, the mother ate the daughter. This was too much for me, even after all the infanticide I’d cleaned up after. I cried; I told my parents. My father emerged from his office to insist, solemnly, that once a hamster tastes blood, they’re done, set irrevocably on a downward slope towards sociopathy, mayhem and violence. He said this with a straight face, and fetched the shotgun he’d gotten for Christmas a few weeks earlier. It had never been shot at anything but hay bales. He brought the offending hamster—her name was Squeak, until now a peaceful animal and not even a frequent baby-eater—outside into the snow. I hid in the basement where I couldn’t hear the shot.

The hamster farm lost a lot of its appeal after that.


“Just come get us when you’re done saying goodbye,” said the vet tech, and I almost stopped him then. I didn’t need to say goodbye; this wasn’t my pet, it was just a gerbil. But I didn’t stop him.

Starsong was ragged, weak and breathing hard. She’d never been a cuddly personality but she was too tired to escape me now, and so I pet her soft head with my finger as she waddled in laborious circles on a towel. After a respectful few minutes, the tech came back with a syringe.

I remembered the process from my childhood dog: first a sedative, and then the killing dose. The needle seemed absurdly large for tiny Starsong, but she was too sick or too stoic to react. The tech left again for the few minutes the drug needed to take effect.

There’s not much difference between a sedated gerbil and a dead gerbil. After a moment I picked her up to see if I could still feel a pulse, or breathing. If there was anything, it was too faint to detect. She didn’t blink.

I thought, this is the first time she’s ever let me hold her.

She’s really pretty.

This is her last time. Her last moment. I’m holding the last minute of this animal’s entire existence.

Is she dead?

I could still change my mind.

The tech came back.

“I think she’s under,” I said. “She’s stopped moving.”

The tech gave me a tight-lipped smile as I handed Starsong over for the final drug. Was he judging me for not being more upset?

Probably not. He saw this sort of thing all the time.


We buried Starsong on the office patio in an iPhone 5 box. I could have had her cremated but that was another $45. It was the end of the day, and so afterward I washed the dirt off of my hands and went down to my car and thought, should I be sad?

I cried for a few seconds instead about my fourteen-year-old cat, who’s still in good health, and my husband, who is young and fit. It was just a couple of tears. I wanted this to matter. Life was all that Starsong had, and I took it from her because it was inconvenient not to, and because I felt bad for her, and because I could. It was the right choice, I think, but still: I took from that creature of her one possession. I took everything she had.

Me, cats again, more cats

I saw something when I was a girl that disturbed me greatly. I was in our front yard, on my way to a neighbor’s house, looking for a good time, a game of Rummy or Cootie or Uncle Wiggily. I stopped to wait for a car to pass. Meanwhile, across the street, a dog was chasing a cat. I hadn’t seen the dog before, but it was a beautiful white and brown Pointer. When I was a child, dog breeds for a hundred was my jeopardy category.


The chase was on, full speed, much barking, considerable commotion. The cat ran alongside the road for a minute or so. Then it turned, streaked my way, the dog close behind. The cat got faster. The car hit and killed the dog.


I went crying to my mother. When my father got home that night, I told him what I’d seen, my clear and terrible sense that the cat had planned it just the way it happened. He asked me why I thought that. The cat had run alongside the road first, I said, and only crossed when the car was close. The cat had stopped running the minute the car hit the dog. It had come into our yard, sat unconcernedly on our sidewalk, cleaning its face with its paw. It looked at me afterwards, I said. It gave me a look.


My case was not a strong one. Dad attacked at my weakest point: the look. A cat can look at a king. Doesn’t mean it knows he’s royalty.


My father and I had a long-running argument on the subject of animals and their brains. I grew up surrounded by cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, turtles, rats and a snake named Melpotamus Jones. I believed, based on my own observations, that some of these animals, the dogs and cats, at least, could think.


My father was a behavioral psychologist. (Another child might have realized that this was his area of expertise and she was just a six-year-old, seven-year-old, eight-year-old child, but that’s not the kind of child I was.) He believed animals acted in response to changes in their environment. Through conditioning and reinforcement, he believed animals could learn. But he did not believe they could think. Or at least he felt it was a hypothesis not proven, which was his way of not believing. He was always cautioning me against the sins of anthropomorphism.


But it now seems to me that the refusal to anthropomorphize is not the value-neutral stance that it appears to be. You can demand that something be proved or you can demand that it be disproved; either choice has implications.


Weeks later I saw that same cat behave in that same way. On this occasion, its timing was off – the car braked; the dog, a mix of various Terriers, made it safely across the street. They were both still running when I last saw them.


Extreme cold on the east coast. Extreme heat in Australia. Here in California we are seeing how bad news can come wrapped in one beautiful day after another. We drove to the wine country yesterday and saw the hills in all their parchedness. The plants are wondering whether to bloom or not to bloom. The butterflies are back or else a new group is arriving. This morning a hummingbird circled my head as if I were Snow White. Or Bugs Bunny post-punch in the face. There is confusion in the garden.

Me, Cats, Tunch in particular

I spent the morning thinking about cats.  Cats in general, cats in particular, my life as a series of cats.  In chronological order, here they are, my personal cats:  Whiskers, Pepper, Salt, Chimera, Max (short for Maximum Cat), and Ollie.  Also many kittens, who came into my life briefly and went when they were weaned and whose names I no longer remember.


When I was a girl in Bloomington, I remember witnessing the delivery of two of Pepper’s three litters.  The first time, she had two kittens, but only one of them was alive despite her desperate licking.  She had three, all fit and kicking, in her second litter, five in her third, and then my parents, who could see the trend, finally had her spayed – over my protests, I imagine, but do not remember.  I loved having kittens underfoot and we never had any trouble finding homes for them.  Perhaps taking in a cat seemed like less of a commitment then, when they all spent most of their time outdoors, entertaining themselves in nefarious cat ways.  Pepper often didn’t come home for days and she was always in fine fettle when she did return from her merry old time.


(I am a big proponent now of the spaying of cats, having watched from the front row as my friend Debbie, cat rescuer extraordinaire, all around cat hero, dealt year after year with the inexhaustible flood of kittens.)


Our house is catless at the moment, which means birds and squirrels are free to frolic at the feeder, which I like, though the neighborhood cats – one white, one black – are beginning to show up with some regularity.  My vegetable beds are apparently ideal as litter boxes (why are they called litter boxes when they are not for litters?) – so we are engaged in permanent, but friendly disputation concerning them.


But the cat most on my mind this morning never lived with us.  In fact, over the last several years, I’d grown attached to a cat I never met – Tunch, the guiding spirit, the enormous heart of the political blog Balloon Juice.


I was so deep in travel and book promotion last summer that I spent little time on the internet, which had its own rewards, all that time spent in the actual world, but caused enormous shock when I learned, long after the fact, that Tunch had died untimely.  He was, as John Cole continually reminded us, a very large, very fat cat, but he cast a truly gigantic shadow, reaching all the way to me here in California.  I woke up this morning and realized I was missing Tunch, which seems a very odd fact, one odd data point in the virtual world of my virtual cats.