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Walking in a Pandemic

by Char Miller on

I walk. A lot. I've always done so but now with a different kind of energy, an unsettling drive. Restless.

Clocking more miles due to the quarantine, its prohibitions have altered some of my normal routes through Claremont, this college town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. No longer possible are morning treks up into the chaparral-studded foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains or along dusty Thompson Creek Trail, which demarcates hill from dale. So I have been hugging closer to interior neighborhoods, from dawn to dusk, dry or wet, and one consequence has been to become more sharply attuned to small moments.

Like walking the chain-link perimeter of the Bernard Field Station and following behind a chattering convoy of Lesser Goldfinch. They flit through the diamond-shaped openings in the fence, a structure designed to keep us out: Private Property the signs read. For these avian acrobats, it is portal and playground and perch.

Daybreak at a Metrolink crossing: my eyes are struck not by the sun as it rises above snow-wreathed Mount San Gorgornio well to the east, but by the first rays as they slide along the curving steel rails turning them gold. Solar alchemy. 

Or, at walk's end, to spot a pair of Western Fence lizards stretched out on the drive, luxuriating in the morning’s warmth. The second my sneaker touches down, they dart under thick mounds of baccharis, showy penstemon, or buckwheat—indigenous plants we dug into the alluvial soil for our pleasure but which they turned into habitat, home.

By narrowing the range of my roaming, COVID-19 has widened my perceptions; crimped by where I can wander, I’ve found myself listening more carefully, looking more closely, and smelling more discriminatingly (or, to be honest, actually thinking about what I am inhaling).

On rainy mornings—and we have had many this spring—I have mapped my path so as to brush by the California Botanical Garden and its heaven-scent coastal sage biota. Transporting.

From there, a paradoxical quick-time veer north along rain-splatted macadam (while leaping over dimpled puddles) toward the nearest gash in the landscape: a hard-edged, straight-walled flood-control channel. Bandana mask on, glasses fogged: the ripple, wash, and sluice of water bring a clatter of pebbles.

That noon, the skies clear, the heat spikes, and steam drifts from dark bark and grey shingle. The thin, razor-thin yucca, silhouetted against a pitted concrete-block wall, offers a stiff shadow.

Pushing east, my slipstream rustles a cotton-candy lantana, and startlingly the bush seems to rise upward, till, Escher-like, it dissolves into a kaleidoscope of painted ladies; one butterfly lands on my brim, its wings pulsing.

Still.

Then lift off, its jittery dance disappearing to the brightening day, though perhaps I’m just distracted by another set of aerial maneuvers, this time taking place above a friend’s mid-century ranch. Slowly gaining elevation via a kettle of warm air, 10, maybe 12, no 17 turkey vultures lazily wheel. As they feel the lip of its apex, one by one feathered black wings tilt and glide away to the south.

By then I’m at the rounded corner where Stephens and Santa Clara intersect. Scrawled in rainbow-hued chalk, smudged but legible, the words of poet Ross Gay bend with the sidewalk like the curve of apian wings: “thank you to the bee’s shadow, perusing these words as I write them.”

This beguiling, humbling vision begs another. But first, look up. A rare admonition, because in Southern California, as elsewhere, that very possibility has been so clouded by the toxic emissions we daily have pumped into the air from tailpipes and smokestacks. Now, with many working from home, with cars parked, and trains, planes, and trucks idled, the sky has dazzled. By day, it’s azure. By night, ebony. 

So dark, that my evening stroll is more of a stumble, trying to put one foot in front of the other while craning my neck to pan the star-lit world above, anchored by a waxing moon and Venus bright.

Somewhere to my west, perhaps roosting in the upper story of the sentinel-like stone pine at the end of the block, a Great Horned Owl calls. Grounded.

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Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. His recent books include Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream, Hetch Hetchy: A History in Documents, and Theodore Roosevelt: Naturalist in the Arena. This is an expanded version of article published in the Claremont Courier.

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