Last Chance to See

Douglas Adams is known and loved for the satirical and insane stories that make up the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I loved reading that “trilogy in four parts” during my high school and college years, but didn’t wonder until much later about what other books Adams had written in his short life, or indeed what his interests were.

Around the year 2005, a dear friend talked to me about one such “other book”, a strange travelogue called Last Chance to See. That seed took a long time to germinate, and it would be a decade before I got around to reading this book. It is a series of essays about trips that Adams made to exotic places in the world, along with the zoologist Mark Carwardine. Their goal was to seek out and document some of the most endangered animal and bird species in the world.

Hilarious and sad at the same time, the essays make you smile in surprise at the strange ways of nearly extinct animals. They make you wince at how thoroughly human beings have wrecked the planet and made it very difficult for other creatures. Do you recall the ironic episode in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, in which a cow serenades the restaurant patrons and offers its body parts as delectable menu items? It was something like that, but the difference was that these were real situations about real animals on the brink of extinction.

One essay in the book describes the trip that Carwardine and Adams undertook to see aye-aye lemurs in Nosy Mangabe, an island off the coast of the much bigger island of Madagascar. For millions of years, plate tectonics protected Madagascar’s smaller lemurs by isolating them from larger African primates. But these primates, eventually, (as men) succeeded in invading Madagascar and destroying the habitat of the lemurs. The recursion and its irony is not lost on Adams:

Madagascar had been a monkey-free refuge for the lemurs off the coast of mainland Africa, and now, Nosy Mangabe had to be a monkey-free refuge off the coast of mainland Madagascar. The refuges were getting smaller and smaller and the monkeys were already here on this one, sitting, making notes about it.

My favorite chapter in the book is about their journey to New Zealand to see the habitat of a flightless parrot called the kakapo. Adams describes in hilarious detail the mating ritual of this strange bird. The male digs a shallow depression in the ground at an acoustically appropriate spot, close to a valley, for example. Then he sits in his bowl and booms, his low throbbing sounds like “an immense heart beating in the night”, a soulful telegraph to potentially interested females. This presents a small problem. The booming appears to have been evolutionarily selected for carrying over vast distances, much like the sound of a sub-woofer, but like the sub-woofer, it is very difficult to pinpoint where the booming is coming from. Females — who are flightless, remember — are known to walk as many as twenty miles before they find a booming male ready to copulate. It is actually much more complicated than that, as Adams writes:

The males […] get extremely overwrought sitting in their bowls making noises for months on end, waiting for their mates, who are waiting for a particular type of tree to fruit. When one of the rangers who was working in an area where kakapos were booming happened to leave his hat on the ground, he came back later to find a kakapo attempting to ravish it. On another occasion, the discovery of some ruffled possum fur in the mating area suggested that a kakapo had made another alarming mistake, an experience which is unlikely to have been satisfying to either party.


The net result of all these months of excavating and booming and walking and scrarking and being fussy about fruit is that once every three or four years, the female kakapo lays one single egg, which promptly gets eaten by a stoat.

I view the book as a time capsule of sorts. While the essays are often ridiculously funny, there is also a depth of feeling that comes from the knowledge that the long-lived species being described have but a few years left on earth. Adams and Carwardine made most of their trips around 1988. Almost three decades hence, nearly all the species that they documented on that trip remain critically endangered. Many are being bred in captivity, or in closely monitored habitats to avoid total extinction. The kakapo is still around, but only just. The baiji — or the Yangtze river dolphin — has been extinct since 2007.

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A big difference between birds and people is that birds enjoy facing into the wind. “Enjoy” is probably not the right word, but facing into the wind certainly comes naturally to them. It ruffles their feathers the least and protects them from hypothermia. I was reminded of this on the three days that I toured by bike, covering parts of the San Francisco Bay Trail. Almost from beginning to end, I was beset by a constant headwind. It didn’t matter whether I was going north, south, east or west; the wind altered course to oppose my direction.

I have wondered about a meteorological explanation, but winds are not easy to explain, and even less easy to predict. They are, however, very amenable to tired metaphors, in which I am told, I am quite the expert. There were long stretches on those three days, however, when no metaphors presented themselves. I felt a welcome blankness that permits only an awareness of the inputs of the senses, an occasional stray thought, but little judgement or feeling. It was a strange sort of meditation.

There was neither frustration, nor fear, nor happiness, as I lumbered heavily across empty stretches of Pinole, San Pablo, Richmond and Selby, passing broken warehouse after broken garage after smashed window, often without sighting another human being for miles on end. Thoughts came and went with the sight of an abandoned post-industrial landscape, the taste of the California dust, the hot whiteness of the afternoon sky, and always, the persistent, low groaning of the wind. There were parked cars from the eighties, and corrugated iron sheets covered by a thick layer of rust. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be so different from a wild west movie if someone stepped out from behind a warehouse and fancied a pistol shot at a slow-moving bicycle tourist. It was a narcissistic,  morbid and wholly unnecessary thought, and it didn’t stick. I didn’t wonder too long about what it would be like to die on a bicycle.

Long-distance cycling, whether slow or fast, competitive or solitary, provides you with something to work with, to keep going in spite of the wind and heat and dust. When you’ve gone through it long enough, you stop cursing the conditions, or wondering when they will improve, or when you’ll have a cold relaxing bath. Little by little, the vanity seems to wear away; the thought that you are soldiering through adversity begins to appear more and more ridiculous. You’re merely doing what needs to be done, and not doing much else. I feel strangely attracted to that state of mind. You are like one of the hunter-gatherer clans that roamed the earth thirty or forty thousand years ago before civilization arose – moving from one grassland to the next, one storm to the next, one flooded river crossing to the next, one wild hunt to the next, doing what needed to be done.

I have not had many long conversations with people who have toured long distances, traversed the length and breadth of the country, for example. These people are rare, and generally not the demonstrative type. People tour, so that they can experience the country from outside the cabin of a car, so that they can discover new friends and new experiences, so that they can find themselves; the motivations vary. Even with all the risks and hardship, there appear to be many advantages to touring on a bicycle. You are not constantly beholden to other people’s schedules, their rituals, their orders, and their personalities. It is just you and the bike, and either out of some sort of empathy for the weather-beaten traveler or because of the relative novelty of a long-distance bicycle traveler, the people you do meet from time to time, tend to behave rather nicely with you. But, if there is one thing that really makes me crave for long bike journeys, it is the mysterious meditative state that I thought I reached in that seemingly endless headwind.


The Point Reyes Lighthouse


The ranger is pulling the circular curtain
The demonstration is at an end
Beam by beam, the lighthouse begins
To swallow shafts of light,
24, 23, 22 …
Until only a couple remain.

Beyond a window of the illuminated cylinder
The ranger lingers awhile
Pronouncing the sentence
Of a once-lighthouse, now a museum piece
With but a few moments
Of phosphorescent mist.

All is dark again and cold and damp
But I am glad of the thick fog,
Glad of light and of planar geometry
Glad of Fresnel; lens tinkerer
Of whales a-bellow, gliding under
A vague hint of moon.

The visible world is shrinking to ten feet
Mist rains silently on the cliff
The ocean rumbles no more, not much is discernible
Beside me, the earnest gloved hand
Shivers a little
On our way to the car.

[I wrote the poem below after visiting the Point Reyes Lighthouse for the first time in 2009. It has remained in draft form ever since, shared only with the person who appears in the final few lines. Until now.]


Feeder Tales, Part 3: Species

Our feeder has now been up for about a year, and while the sweet sound of finches never grows old, the feeder itself is now a more natural and unsurprising item in our home, much like our plants. Many more birds have discovered it by now, and they join the chickadees, juncos, and finches in a feeding frenzy that occurs soon after dawn, and continues through the morning hours when the days are cloudy.

A few California towhees visit the feeder from time to time. Often, they come in pairs, with a parent shepherding a younger bird. They make a faint, periodic “chip” sound  (an assurance of each others presence), as they hop about on the tarp. These are humble brown birds, with slightly orange nether parts, who prefer to forage for fallen seed, rather than perching on the feeder itself. Like the juncos, they are our waste control system; they ensure that the seed spilling out of the feeder is not wasted.

This is no easy task because, lately, we have had to contend with a pest who appears to take devilish pleasure in strewing un-eaten seed out of the feeder. I refer to the scrub jays who visit every morning, announcing their presence with a loud shriek, effectively terrorizing any other bird within jumping distance of the feeder. Heavy, blue and quite shameless about their mannerisms, the jays perch on the feeder, take large amounts of bird seed in their corvid beaks, and scatter it out of the feeder.

We would have loved it if the jays had been eating the seed, but this appears not to have been the case. Their beaks are not adapted for eating tiny seeds. Their primary interest appears to be in emptying out the feeder as quickly as possible, by throwing as much seed onto the ground as they can. The frequency with which we replenish the birdseed has increased to once a week now, but it is difficult to keep up with the profligate jays. Replacing the original seed – a combination of corn bits, sunflower seed, millets – with Nijer seed appears to have helped a little; the jays are either less interested or less capable of scattering the smaller, black seeds.

cropped-nuthatchheader.pngA few tiny birds came in during the winter, but they’ve been gone since spring and for much of the early summer. On December mornings, oak titmice and white-breasted nuthatches would share time with the finches and chickadees. They’re both good citizens, and don’t make too much of a mess. I like the nuthatches in particular, as they perch on the feeder in their trademark upside down way. They are very frisky, and even a finch is enough to scare them away. I hope that these little visitors come back in Fall, and that they figure out a way to get some food when the jays are not looking.

Also in winter, we were visited by groups of golden-crowned sparrows, who spent equal time on the feeder and on the tarp. When they first appeared in January, their crowns were brown, with minuscule flecks of gold, and you could be forgiven for confusing them for other large sparrows. They disappeared for a few weeks, and returned in spring, looking rather different – I even wondered if we were seeing a new species of visitors, but the field guide confirmed that these were golden crowns too. Only now, each one had a certifiable crown, a bright yellow band, bordered with jet black that distinguished them from drabber sparrows. Clearly, the mating season was on.

Now, in the middle of a dry, drought-prone summer, we have mostly finches and juncos who come to eat the seed, and jays who come to scatter them. The birds also spend time at a concrete bird bath that we put below the feeder. This is a constant source of embarrassment for me, because I broke a piece of the concrete while carrying the ridiculously heavy thing onto our balcony. P has been more diligent than I at keeping the bath filled with fresh water. The birds not only drink from it, but occasionally also flutter about in the water, enjoying some respite from the heat of the past few weeks.

Farewell, Leonard Nimoy.

I am what I am, Leila. And if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s. [Mr. Spock, This Side of Paradise]

Being someone who grew up wanting to be a pilot and astronomer before reality intervened, Star Trek was never just another TV series to me. And Spock was never just another character. Thank you Leonard, for embodying the Vulcan quest for logic, rationality, and (above all), for stoicism.