Freaks of Nature

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The giant sequoias inhabited me, and I don’t want them to leave. These mutants — with their fire scars and boils protruding unapologetically on their red skin; with their unreachable branches, their impossible girth and height — are the impenetrable towers in command of the Giant Forest located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. One could only dream of climbing them. One could only dream of owning them, too. Many entranced settlers have tried, but have ultimately failed to claim ownership over the goliaths that long ago claimed themselves along with their mesmerizing, green kingdom.

To get to the big trees, we had to twist up the Generals Highway with its endless hairpin turns and rolling foothills covered in playful poppies and gangly lupines, which look like cornhusks with bright purple bulbs. The highway runs alongside the Central Valley, climbing toward the Sierra’s snowy peaks. We drove slow enough (or else!) to notice what was buried in some of the tight curves — slender streams of water spilling alongside jagged cliffs. Sean pointed out pine trees on some of the highest cliffs with tips slipping into the clouds. Once we had reached an elevation of 6,000 feet, I had to remind myself to exhale the large gulps of the thin mountain air I held in my lungs. I tried to read what I brought for the long drive (Patti Smith’s newest book, “M Train”) and managed to take in no more than two pages in my wordless marveling.

I remember the first one I spotted. Even in a forest filled to the brim with firs and pines, the Sierra giants are easily identifiable. I let out a big eek, like a child laying eyes on the Disney World castle for the first time. As trite as this sounds, seeing that first sequoia was a fairytale come true. It was enchanting, yet at the same time I invited its freakishness into my heart immediately, accepting its enormity. I grabbed for my phone and recorded the drive through the Giant Forest, trying to still the view, instead of shaking with excitement.

When we arrived at the Giant Forest Museum parking, I rocketed out of the rental car, but froze in my footsteps. There were three massive trees congregated together beside the lot. I stood there with my mouth hanging open. Sean urged me to hurry up so we could start a trail, as there would be plenty more trees to see. I couldn’t help but want to greet and study every single one, which was just as hideously beautiful as the next.

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Just outside the museum stands the ginormous Sentinel tree, which is “average” in height compared to others. The Sentinel is covered in barky boils. Carved into the right side of it, is a scar shaped like a church steeple.

The Giant Forest was named by John Muir, the famous Scottish-American explorer, writer, engineer, environmental philosopher, and early advocate of the American wilderness. He is known for his preservation efforts of Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other areas. Muir along with others, such as George Stewart, the editor of the Visalia Delta newspaper, who led the movement to create the national park — hell even the U.S. Calvary — have worked hard to protect the sequoias and the land they stand on.

I learned that many people have been bewitched by these beasts. Settlers into the 1890s set up shop and built hotels, stores, gas stations, among other facilities. Finally, the Sequoia National Park was created to protect the giants, ending all Sequoia logging activities. Still, it wasn’t until the 1970s people began to truly realize that their presence was affecting the trees’ ecology and beauty.

So many of the trees have names. Let’s see. There’s Clara Barton with her numerous craters. Presidents Lincoln and Washington. And the fallen Michigan tree.

And let’s not forget, General Sherman, the largest tree ON EARTH. General Sherman is estimated to be somewhere around 2,200 years old with a height of 279 feet and a weight of 2.7 million pounds. I couldn’t wrap my mind around General Sherman.

The giants have that way about them — of boggling minds. The first people to stumble across (and keep stumbling) the giant sequoias had to prove to the skeptics that these things actually existed. A number of trees were sacrificed, chopped into bits, and sent overseas to museums who even with proof had deemed them a “hoax.” What oddballs. What freaks.

Many of the trees in the Giant Forest as well as the 75 groves in total have sequoias with shimmering black bark and hollowed out trunks damaged by fire. General Grant is a tree with a massive fire scar. Sean took a picture of the pine tree located next to General Grant to reference just how large the scar is, and how staggering it is for something with that much damage to live on. However, I learned natural fires occur in national parks all the time, and actually, the giant sequoias depend on these fires. Like phoenixes, the sequoias that actually fall (more likely to fall from toppling as opposed to fire) recreate new life and live on through their offspring.

The museum offered a lot of information on the giant sequoias’ impenetrability. There was a John Muir quote on a wall near the exit that particularly stuck with me. “Everything in nature called destruction must be a creation — a change from beauty to beauty.”

I felt an electric surge down my spine as the trees’ profundity washed over me. Feelings of awe and respect called to all the little hairs on my arms. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my cheeks. Sean squeezed my shoulder. I cried the entire way from the museum to the car. I couldn’t stop.

I know what it’s like to have a piece of me destroyed by fire. Little do most people know, I lived in Southern California for a couple of years, and in 2003 my family’s home was taken from us in a wildfire. I remember the flames licking the mountains, the cold sweat that clung to my forehead. I remember shaking my mother awake, tearing through my clothes, grabbing for my photo albums. After weeks of living in Ramada hotels and camping on friends’ couches, we drove back. Trees with chard limbs haunted the landscape. When we sifted through our home in the dust and rubble, nothing stirred, and no one said a word.

We think clothes, pictures, cars, items of sentimental value define us. But in the end fire burns everything like it’s made of paper — scrolls unfurling and curling into themselves. And even though I knew this, I was still left reassessing who I was and what I was made of without my beloved earthly possessions.

These sequoias are naked to me. They’re defiant. I hardly know these trees, and I love them. And my love for them inspires me to be open and bruised and big.

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Mary Ann

The gas station attendant wasn’t moving fast enough. A man in front of me huffed as the attendant scurried about the store fixing things, moving with a slight limp on her left side. She was all of sudden aware that there were people at her door, so she started rushing to please us guests. The man was irritated in an airy, hot headed in summer way. He left with a half-grunt when she told him to enjoy the rest of his day.

When it was my turn at the register, I asked why she apologized so much, and she said it’s something she does (and she was sorry that she was sorry). I do it a lot too, and I tried to tell her with my face and leaning in language. She wore glasses, gray, stringy hair that hung in her face, and heavy wrinkles that sagged on her cheeks. She had to be at least in her 60s. I don’t know; I can only really tell age by how worn-in a soul is. Hers was a broken in mitt, an old tune that everyone remembers the words to when the melody starts to really pick up.

My eyes were hungry for her smile. And then it happened, proud and tooth-heavy. I asked if she could break a five-dollar bill for me, and she made a ripping movement with her hands. I cackled at her joke.

We held up the line talking. Five people were soon standing behind me as I asked her questions about her life, which seemed to revolve around being a gas station attendant. I joked about rushing and time. With a crooked smile, I glanced at the fake watch wrapped around my wrist. She laughed. When she laughed it wasn’t scratchy. It was gurgly and girlish in the way that girls get when they think no one is looking.

Her name is Mary Ann, and she’s alive and limping but well in Empire, Michigan. If you run into to her, hold up the line and make each other laugh. It will carve out the browning parts of your insides.

Quiet discoveries: Visiting Navajo National Monument

My partner and I were the only ones on the desolate Betatakin hike, one half of the Navajo National Monument in Arizona. I learned Betatakin translates in the Navajo (or Diné) language to “house built on a ledge.”

One of my first observations in my travels through Navajo Nation was that most of the homes were underneath, on top of, or near massive rock formations and hills as opposed to in the open fields and on flat stretches of land. The proximity to the mountains and formations is important. According to traditions, the mountains were placed here by the Holy People, and the Earth People were to live in a way that achieves harmony and balance. I have gathered that positioning is everything to the Navajo, which always was and remains relevant to this country’s history.

The Betatakin trail has three routes. It was one of the quietest hikes I’ve ever been on. We could hear the whiney flies and this elusive insect that sounded like maracas, and that’s pretty much it. I forget how deafening silence can be. The sand was a redish powder that’s soft to the step.

The information distributed throughout the trail was high quality even in comparison to other botanical gardens I have frequented—recently being the Phoenix Botanical Garden and the Chicago Botanical Garden (both great places). My reasoning here is because not only were the plants and shrubbery named, but they were described in great detail for their livelihood and usage. For example, the Hesperaloe, an aloe plant with scraggly hairs, was used by Natives in shampoos. The plethora of information makes sense, given that the Navajo and Hopi peoples were some of the earliest pioneers of natural ointments and medicines. I regret not partaking in a guided tour, which I wasn’t aware of until later.

And I don’t know if this was a feeling that I had but every plant, branch, tree, and bush on the trail seemed to have a place. I felt a little like I was walking into an exhibit or a store, where everything was specifically arranged. And I felt a little like Abu from Aladdin about to disturb the sand gods from their slumber after I pocketed a small stone that was layered like Neapolitan ice cream.

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Overall, I’m honored to have had this experience on a landmark that will hopefully continue to shape the history of a land that never really belonged to anyone expect for the Native peoples. Looking over the multi-layered cliffs, sifting my shoes through the soft sand, and marveling at the forest sitting in the bowl of the canyon filled me with a profound appreciation. I bow my head in humility to this experience. And not because I think any Navajo person is better than me or I feel personally indebted, but because these are the voices of history’s most spiritual and land loving people who deserve the respect and recognition.

My partner and I enjoyed the bramble trees, rabbit brush, Douglas fir and the whole host of other named and unnamed plant life. I was intrigued by the four or five different lizards poking out of the rocks and sand. I tried to record a lizard who kept extending and collapsing his limbs, making it look like he was doing push-ups. Silly buggers.

The trail was a steep one that winded downward. We were careful with our footing and obeyed the signs warning against venturing off the path. The trip was worth it for what was waiting for us at the bottom. Not only was there a full, green forest sitting in the middle of the 560-foot deep canyon, but there were cliff dwellings, left by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, in the alcove above it. I could feel my heart rocketing around inside my chest at the sight of such a small village. My eyes roamed the sandstone blocks and climbed the ladders from room to room. Seeing a piece of history locked behind a glass box in a museum is one thing, but venturing down a trail to find discover it is an entirely new experience for me. There’s not much left for me to say except for that it was truly breath-taking, a phrase that I try not to use often.

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It was an hour before we came across another group, two older women who were following a Navajo guide. I overheard the women talk about my partner and I who walked up the steep rock steps with ease. One woman huffed her exhaustion and said, “Climbing is a young man’s sport.” And the guide goes, “I don’t know, but I feel like some women can do it better.” I smiled at him and telepathically gave his heart a little squeeze for that sentence.

On our way out we stopped by the visitor’s center. There was an elderly woman decked out in her most intricate patterned tribal gear. She was sitting in a chair, carefully working on a rug. She stared up at me with these big, earthy brown eyes, and I suddenly felt awkward and stupid standing there, not saying anything. I wanted to ask her questions and complement her art. I don’t know, I guess I didn’t want to feel like a bumbling tourist.

By the entryway, there was a man who was painting. On the table were small paintings on scraps of canvas. He had painted red rock formations, hogans, buttes, among other natural scenes on the Navajo land. Some were in front of sunsets; others were cast against a sky dripping with stars. His name is John Bahe Smith. Again, I wished I would have asked him questions about himself. What is it with people too afraid to ask questions about human experience? I regret my silence. But he seemed pretty happy about the sale, and I was happy to give a talented artist my money. I can’t wait to frame my new treasure.

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On the back of the piece John wrote:

Fork Stick Hogan
The Holy People made the first hogan—from the beginning of the world—and faced it to the East.

The bonobo and the blues: Couple finds lost mojo in Memphis

I came home from work one rare day in a swimmingly good mood, instead of my usual wanting to box the imaginary bag hanging above my welcome mat. (I hope to get a real one installed soon, but I’m not sure the crackling plaster can handle it).

It’s not that I dislike what I do. Sure, it’s draining and tedious correcting grammar all day, but that’s not the rub. Keep in mind I’m also new to the whole 9-5, growing older in a computer chair gig. And then I’m hyper and miserable at time management. But pathetically enough, one of the biggest factors is how long it takes me to get to and from my job.

I am one of those people who tends to take traffic too seriously and personally, inviting it destroy my dwindling energy and rest of my day. That damn road. I tell people all the time that I will most likely die on Palatine Road. Yup, that’s how I’m going to go—probably something self-induced while staring at someone’s back bumper, who has a license plate that reads “MY BONUS.”

The good mood came from a particularly awesome interview I had at work. I write for a trade magazine, so the writing I do is about plumbing and other like trades – not the sexiest and sometimes very complex for someone who has only been in the industry for as little as I have been. But still, the occasional intriguing story does fall into my lap.

The reason for my cheer was Audrey, the 100 year old woman who works for a company in Colorado that specializes in plumbing equipment.  Yes, I said “works” as in she still currently works. Only two days a week, but still. Oh, and her 100th year of life is the year she chose to let someone live with her and not renew her license.

Audrey isn’t the kind of living fossil I could poke and inspect for secrets and philosophies. For the most part, she is a normal person with an average amount of knowledge. What is unique about her is that she is a regular person with an irregular attitude—meaning she LOVES work. And she loves people of all substance. Everyone is her family. She’s the kind of person you don’t know, would like to know, and have somehow known all along.

Audrey told me that I gave a great interview and had wonderful questions, something none of my previous interviewees have ever done. She said when she was 24 she didn’t know what the hell she was going to do. She told me I was sweet and asked for my home address to send me things. I told her she should could have my social security number if she liked. I think we’re pen pals now.

My new pen pal put me in a good mood. So when my boyfriend saw me soaring through the front door, he thought something might be seriously wrong. When he found out there wasn’t he began to nonchalantly slip his hand down my blouse and press little kisses into my neck. I giggled, but shimmied away.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Eh, I don’t know. Because I’m just not in the mood.”

“But you’re in a good mood.”

There’s nothing wrong with him trying to capitalize off my good mood. It’s true, I tend to want sex more when I’m feeling jolly or adventurous. But even then, lately, I’ve just been a little off. And my boyfriend, who owns a penis, started to notice that.

There comes a point in every long-term relationship when the so-called kids slow down. We are at that point. Well I am. My boyfriend told me that I only like to have sex with him on Saturdays, and that was beginning to feel like a schedule to him. He was honest about something that has been bugging him. He wasn’t pointing his finger in my face.

I opened up, too. I told him I’m not as interested and slightly bored at the thought of having sex in the same bed in the same few positions in the same way. Then I told him I wanted to connect with him more intimately during sex. Maybe I’m just getting to that point where I want to crack open a hot and heavy pulp romance novel. No, but seriously, I want more slow touching and soft talking instead of the pornographic acrobatics. Or lazy bantering over who’s on top this time. Finally, I just don’t always feel sexy, leaning too heavily on my physical appearance. The thought of my stomach jiggling around just kind of turns me off.

And he was okay with that, actually relieved that it wasn’t because I didn’t like him anymore. So after talking it out, we came up with a compromise because the physical part of our relationship is very important to us, not the most, but still essential. I would break the work like sex schedule. And we would to work on being more spontaneous and focus on our intimacy.

I understand that this sort of compromise is harder than it sounds. Luckily though, Sean and I had a vacation coming up, so that would be a perfect opportunity to re-establish our mojo, something that was quite impressive long ago. We’re the couple who have had sex in a stairwell under a towel. In the woods pressed up against a sappy tree. In a children’s park (at night with no children around, don’t worry, folks). One summer we jumped a fence while drunk and went skinny dipping in some poor soul’s heated pool. We easily forget how sexy (slightly creepy) we used to be, how electric we felt about each other.

So, we saved and planned for a road trip to Orlando with stops in Memphis, Gatlinburg, and then Atlanta on the way home. Illinois, the majority of it being rural (easily forgotten in Chicago or the suburbs), is a tough state to drive through. It’s basically one long, gaping scar of corn. Driving through, I found myself still clinging to my busy, stressed life back home. Sean would grab my hand every now and then, but instead of concentrating on the pressure of his hand on mine, I was distracted with the overwhelming undertones of worry, of which I feel I have little control.

And Sean too is busy. He is one of the go-to dudes at his job and works harder than anyone I know. Needless to say, we warily pulled into our hotel in Memphis around 12:00 a.m. Bug guts were splattered all over our windshield, and exhaustion clouded our eyes.

A rock like sleep in Memphis was all it took to jump start our eagerness to enjoy our vacation and each other, and most importantly—to freaking RELAX.

Our first excursion began with the Memphis Zoo. A little on the Memphis Zoo: though it’s a small zoo, it has hands down some of the best exhibits and most interesting animals. Brookfield Zoo is the rave in Illinois, but especially on weekends during the summer, it’s swimming with kids with sticky fingers pressed up or knocking on the glass of each exhibit, and generally people who shove past you to get a closer view than you.

We went to the Memphis Zoo on a Saturday at noon. No big crowds, no rude elbows. Everyone was polite. I didn’t feel like punching anyone in the face. Not to mention the zoo had pandas, panthers, and a bunch of other animals I have never seen up close.

The bonobo monkey was one of the animals I have never seen. It’s basically like any other chimpanzee I have seen— cocoa bean brown and mid-sized (compared to other primates) with stringy arms and big, pink gums. Except there was one crucial difference—its private parts.

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The two female bonobos we saw wore their coconut sized, pink, spongy-looking vaginas on the outside of their bodies. And it was as if these parts were turned inside out. Sean and I exchanged awkward glances and tried to not to look the bonobos’ appendages directly head-on.

The bonobos turned out to be an entertaining lot. At first they were lazing around and uninterested in anything aside from picking bugs out of their fur. And then, one of them, stuck her whole fist into her mouth until she vomited.

Everyone watching – Sean and I, as well as a mother and her two kids – was horrified when the bonobo sat unfazed cupping her leftovers in her hand. She used her unoccupied hand to knuckle over to her pal who was splayed out on a pile of hay fondling her brain of a vagina. The bulimic monkey reached her long arm out and handed the other one half of her handful. They both began to happily munch on puke chunks that looked like cornmeal.

This was probably one of the top 3 most nauseating things I have ever seen. I can safely say the others’ stomachs were churning away too. We stood with our ruined eyes unable to look away. I was the first to start dry heaving, something I willed myself to stop immediately.

We were about to call it quits when the bonobos suddenly dropped their lunch and lunged at each other. The bulimic monkey straddled her friend and began to thrust manically, and they both began to rub their big parts together. The poor, red-faced mother we were standing next to turned and shielded her laughing children. And the bonobos had no care in the world. Once they detached themselves, they sidled over to their food, picked it up, and resumed their munching.

It took a while to get over the nausea, but eventually Sean and I were stomach stable enough to talk about what had occurred. We were left in wonder about these monkeys. What the hell were these things? What was with their weird parts and peculiar sexual behavior? We wanted to know more about these freaks. We decided to hit up the old Wikipedia. See full info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo

The bonobo, or the pygmy chimpanzee, is an endangered ape. It is popularly known for its overly interested nature in sex. As it turns out, the bonobo uses sex to satisfy arousal and affection needs, resolve conflict and reduce stress, and for social status.

Bonobos like to get in on in a variety of positions and with different combinations of partners—male and female. This explains the female on female clit rubbing we witnessed. They are the only non-human animal to do it missionary style, French kiss, and perform oral sex.

Oh, and the bonobo has a clitoris that is three times bigger than a human’s. That’s a lot of surface area to stimulate. The clitoral grinding happens about “once every two hours on average.” And this behavior is not just exclusive to the ladies. The male bonobos have a “penis fencing” ritual that they partake in as well.

That’s a lot of sex, Sean and I thought. (Side note: If this isn’t prime proof we evolved from monkeys and are meant to be homosexual, heterosexual, or anything in between, I don’t know what is). We read on to find out they are one of the least aggressive breeds of monkey. That means that sex chills these guys the hell out.

Sean and took a leaf from the bonobos’ page and enjoyed the rest of our night together in Memphis. We sauntered around lazily on Beale Street, soaking in the city’s deep love of music. Sipping vodka concoctions out of orange swirly straws and fishbowls, we listened to the feel-good grooves oozing from every pore in the street.

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Local musicians exposed their souls. We saw a 300 pound man in overalls play harmonica and barrel through bluegrass songs; a woman with a large fro and no bra belt out blues like it was everyone’s business to know what she was feeling in that moment; a scrawny 20-something sail through Free Bird on guitar like he was strolling through a park. In any case, I’d take any of their layers and raw musical talent over American Idol any day.

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Memphis, one of the birth cities of blues, was buzzing, no gyrating, inside Sean and me. We realized how caged we both were and began rattling the bars of monotony. How were we living like this? What was stopping us from experiencing each other?

We could barely keep our hands off each other by the time we reached our hotel. Sean kept losing his hands in my hair. In the elevator, his eyes roamed my body. I felt my face heat up with an electric smile as I eyeballed his button down shirt, plucking them open one by one in my brain.

I didn’t think it was possible for a couple that has been together for nearly 7 years, but we explored each other like it was the first time. When it was over, our souls belched like they just had a meal of a lifetime. How do we keep this going when we get home? we asked.

Maybe next time I come home with my hands balled up in tight fists, I can remember how good it feels to let go, to forget the day’s past, and to simply fall into Sean’s arms since I know he’s there to catch me. And I’m here to catch him. And we could fix the kinks and tighten the loosening screws of each other. When it’s all over, we can feel a little more like the unique, separate selves we are meant to be together.

I have someone who accepts me for who I am—who loves me enough to let me broadcast our sex life all over the internet, I remind myself. I need to stop acting like my life is miserable because it’s not. I just need to let go of pointless bouts of road rage and other useless bits of anxiety over things I can’t control. All that meaningless stuff should be just as funny to me as it used to be. Then maybe, just maybe I can finally unbutton my pants and enjoy my sex, too.