If I were to plot my watershed moments on a graph of my life, and draw lines from point to point, the result would not seem to show progress. The inner lessons learned would not plot out like formal accomplishments would: there would be very few straight strokes, and no clear pattern of upward or even forward momentum. Most of the graph would be a scribble of overlapping swoops, back and forth and up and down and around. Frankly, my growth chart would look like a loopy mess.
But the longer I live, the less chaos I see in the tangle. Standing back, days or decades later, I see where seemingly small, unconnected events--a chat with a driver, the gift of a ring, a misdirected email or text--ended up criss-crossing in zig-zaggy, who'd-have-guessed ways. I see astoundingly meaningful patterns, unbound by our notion of time, unlimited by any linear sense of order. I see the proof that what goes around comes around, yet never in one perfect circle. The swirl of synchronicities that says every little thing matters.
This swirling mass of small "insignificant" things forming astounding patterns is an opening image in my friend Julian Hoffman's new book, Irreplaceable. He's describing a murmuration of starlings from underneath a pier, a rise of a thousand-plus birds into a shape-shifting form: "The starlings spiralled, ribboned and wavered, a vast tremulous cloud of intelligence, each curvature and warp in the air a response to their dynamic but precise volatility"--and a stunning show of collaboration and beauty. But the birds aren't performing for humans; none of them is trying to astound. As Julian says:
Each and every starling in the shifting body of birds is constantly moving in relation to its closest companions, regardless of the flock's size. According to an Italian study, orientation and velocity are precisely calibrated to a starling's seven nearest neighbours, so that the orchestral swing of a murmuration is governed by tiny deviations almost instantaneously transmitted by way of a ripple effect through the entire assembly.
The first time I read this scene I was at the beach in Santa Cruz, where ripple effects were at my feet in glittery residue of rocks, and in surging waves from faraway continents. It brought to mind my belief in the connectedness of all things, not only spiritually but elementally, not only laterally but deeply through eons. We are all acting in concert with our neighbors, intentionally or not; every action has repercussive effects. And as that thought arose, so did a murmuration, right in front of me, out of a half-sunken ship.
Awed by the synchrony, I thought of the swirls that my friendship with Julian had created. We had first connected in 2011, when he responded warmly to my comment on his gorgeous, prize-winning essay on Terrain.org--I quickly learned that's who he is, gracious and thoughtful and kind to everyone. Two years later our paths crossed in person at the AWP conference in Seattle, which had awarded his new book The Small Heart of Things their coveted nonfiction award. And the year after that, I had the honor of hosting him during his Bay Area book tour, and of introducing him to the California redwoods and elephant seals.
Three connecting loops in three years--three memorable days in 2014 that got me wondering who and what I needed to be. Three days that lit a fire under me, as a writer, an MFA student, an environmentalist, and so much more, as I wrote about here. Julian's brief visit changed the shape of my life across the next six years, from inspiration to action. The new shape was dynamic, shifting from one role or goal into another, transforming through myriad small deviations, as in Julian's description of the murmuration's flow:
Together they shape-shifted into mystifying forms as evening fell around us--the black coil of a sinuous snake at sea, a bowl set spinning through salt air, a wine glass brimming with the last of the drained light. No sooner had a shape been perceived than it had already morphed into something radically unrelated, as if a sequence of ethereal phantoms, fugitive and fantastic in their unfolding.
In 2019, my year of not-so-tiny deviations, Julian released Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, honoring the efforts of devoted individuals to protect certain at-risk land. His much-lauded, lyrical writing brings to light their network effect on the world, the interconnectedness of all species, the nonlinear consequences of our actions. His timely book makes it clear that everything we do, as individuals and as a species, matters, and our actions have repercussive effects in all directions,
Those effects may not chart out right away; we might feel like we're on our own and going nowhere for a while. But if we do our own small part in the moment, without worrying about "measurable success" or immediate outcomes, it will all add up. This truth pervades all arenas, from external activism to personal choices. When we do what we must to be who we are, we contribute to a greater whole. And when we step back someday, we'll see a meaningful murmuration of collaboration, beauty, and progress.
To purchase Irreplaceable, please consider supporting your local independent bookshop. It's also available on Amazon in hardback and paperback.
I'm ambling around the local park, where the grass is sparkling with dandelion blooms that bring my Audrey to mind. I used to call her my "dandelion daughter" when she was little, because she was such a bright, strong-rooted girl who couldn't be repressed -- and yet could be delicate, too. Sometimes, like now, I selfishly wish she hadn't moved to Hawaii.
There's a team of girls practicing soccer in the field, just like she used to do. They're all dressed in different bold colors, making me think of a tumble of Skittles -- Audrey loved those candies. She loved playing soccer, too. I'm remembering how hard she'd run for the ball, how her face would light up and she'd follow her kick with a laugh.
I've walked fifty yards farther when I see something red in the grass, the only piece of litter in sight. It's a Skittles wrapper next to a dandelion bloom -- no, I'm not making this up. And as I'm trying to put that coincidence together, the coach on the field yells "You got this, Audrey!" -- and I just have to smile and think, oh yes you do, and I'm so happy for you. Stay where you are and bloom with all your might.
The universe has many voices, and sometimes it talks to me in several of them at a time.
I awaken at five to a window-framed sky the color of a chalkboard erased. A current of the wild night sifts through the screen, leaving only the finest scent-grains of dampened pine. The stuttering howls of coyotes tear at the dark. Nearby, a bird’s cha CHEE, CHA chee repeats incessantly.
In just a few hours, I will make my way back to the Geography of Hope conference in Point Reyes, where environmentalist writers have gathered this weekend to inspire and inform one another. The panelists are from the pantheon of the preservation movement: Gretel Ehrlich, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Hass, Ann Pancake, Rebecca Solnit, and dozens more. I have been awed by the discoveries of writing that moved me to tears. I have been inspired to write with a clearer intent to effect progressive change. I have also felt ashamed for not putting my words to more preventive, restorative, salvaging use long ago.
For most of my life I have cringed and averted my eyes from damage done by humans to our fellow animals, especially through hunting and habitat destruction. Graphics and facts disturb me to the point of sickness, and leave me with the despair of unfixable violence. Yes, I have donated dollars and written occasional letters to save whales and wolves, but in general I have settled for picking up litter and shopping with care, and for aiding individual creatures in my path. What real difference have I made in the problems that trouble me most – all of which center on creatures' suffering? Have I ever believed it was enough to have adopted some dogs, saved a few trees, and helped care for some injured birds? I am 52 years old, and I have been painfully passionate about animals' demise for at least five decades now.
Where have I been all my life?
My shame was deepened yesterday by the indignation of a self-proclaimed “warrior” for The Cause, a fellow attendee who declared she had found us all wanting. “I look around and feel no affinity, no connection to any of you,” she had said peremptorily, the back of her hand flipping toward us in a dismissive wave. I wanted to point out that the topic here was Hope, not War, but I knew that it was the war that had given such hope, and that there were endless battles yet to be fought. The rest of us sat quietly, absorbing her judgment, wondering where we fell short. It was the only negative remark I had heard all day, and that isolation had charged it with extra power.
I get up, restless now with two kinds of inaction, and go to the window that faces the eastern hills. The sky is becoming a swath of bleached gray flannel, the tips of the pines poking through its fraying edge. A crow beats overhead in silhouette, its wings pushing down on the air like a pair of bellows. The bright cha CHEE of the pre-dawn bird has ended suddenly, as if Pan has pressed the snooze button on nature’s alarm. I can no longer hear the coyotes’ wails and barks. The earth’s creatures are changing behaviors in tune with its light, contributing to the movement and sounds of the planet according to its natural order. No words can cause the crow to soar at night, or make coyotes howl throughout the day.
Or make political warriors of introverts. An army relies on its journalists, artists, medics, mechanics, cooks, and photographers, too.
I rest my elbows on the windowsill. A pale peach sunrise burns between the bare lower trunks of the pines. Yesterday’s sunrise was a vibrant chorus of high-volume, oil-based art. Today shows up quietly, as a whisper of watercolor, equally beautiful, and just as much of a gift.
In mid-March I had the honor of hosting Julian Hoffman, author of The Small Heart of Things, during his book tour along the Pacific coast. Julian was visiting from the remote Prespa region of Greece, to which he and his wife had moved from London fourteen years ago – inspired by a beautiful book and a bottle of wine. There he writes essays of place, wherein stories emerge coaxed by traces of movement, odd objects found, or unexpected encounters. Each essay is a lyrical weave of observations, a detailed examination of “the small heart of things” that conveys a significant truth. Even his salaried work takes this form; he details the behavior of birds for a cause, for the big-picture planning of Grecian windmill farms.
Spending time with Julian, whose writing and other work emanate from noticing, was a quiet lesson in just that– in being present and appreciating what is here right now. Strolling through the Santa Cruz redwoods I had always loved, his enthusiasm for overlooked life forms gave me pause. His pace and mindful presence brought small things into awareness, and his appreciation revealed them as the works of art they are. In doing and protecting I had nearly forgotten the reassuring perfection of nature, the order and beauty in every living thing – not just the grand. I was reminded more by Julian’s delight over banana slugs, miniscule mushrooms beneath dead leaves, and lavender lichen encrusting the end of a log than by his more tenable awe at the trees themselves.
At home, in the woods, and at Julian’s readings it was clear that his genuine interest in living things extends to his fellow man – that it doubtless originates there. As he spoke with my friends and family, fellow hikers, and numerous fans, I could tell he was sharing from the same heart that once attended to a winter moth, a half-drowned salamander, and a pod of dolphins stitching across the sea. In his attentive connections I could see the source of his personal peace and the basis for his warm relationships. It is a kind of noticing that exceeds observation, an awareness that goes beyond making elaborate notes, a knowledge that paying attention is a gift to one’s self and to all; for, as the poet Rilke says, and Julian reverently quotes, “everything beckons to us to perceive it.”
I am grateful for the rich gifts of Julian’s book, time, conversation, writing advice, and kindness to my family. But it is the gift of attentiveness that has already changed “the small heart of things” for me.