God’s gonna trouble the waters.
After two weeks of benign winds, the heavy trades are back, and last night, after they troubled my sleep and needled me awake, I slept on the futon couch in my writing room, which is on the leeward side of the house. The angle of the futon couch (I didn’t bother to flatten it into a bed) is a wide “V” and gravity pulls me into the crease, so it’s a little like a hammock, but rigid. Lying here, I can see the sky now, at 6:00 am, the ironwoods tossing against a strange purplish gray dawn. The air is filled with mist. I know because I wandered outside a few minutes ago to make sure someone had remembered to close the chicken’s coop door last night. The wind did. The chickens were locked out. The old rooster Wally’s been crowing for an hour, distressed, and the geese have been shrieking all night, lined up below the grass clump where one of the females has taken to nesting, clamoring as if their noise could bring her out. But once a bird gets broody, nothing, not hunger or thirst, will dislodge her.
If the trade winds are gods (and there are many arguments I can put forth that they are), then when they wake me, perhaps it is because I am made of mostly water. I lie there, listening, anxiety building, like pressure in my kombucha bottles. Bubbles from deep below the god-troubled surface. A therapist would say I take on the troubles of others. My high school chemistry teacher wrote in my senior yearbook: Some people were born to bear the trouble of others on their shoulders; may your shoulders be strong. When the wind blows strong, I am water reflecting one of those plants bending low on its slender stalk, leaves ripped off my branchlets. I am the beet seedling whipped one way, then the other, as the wind clocks around, until the stem just snaps. And I am the lamb.
The lamb our young friend Jess brought down finally rests quietly in the pasture, a little apart from the others. Jess nursed the orphan at her house for months. It slept in Jess’s bed sometimes, but mostly in a dog kennel in a little fenced paddock in her backyard. It was a rough day for the lamb yesterday, suddenly confronted with a flock of sheep, a field of tall grass, and no bottle. She kept looking for her fellow humans. The lamb had never looked into a mirror. It must have felt brutal, sudden. Trouble befallen her. She kept escaping through the de-activated electric fence all afternoon, running toward whoever was crossing the lawn. I’d go to her, hug her, rub her down, and guide her back under the wire. She seemed briefly appeased, and would run back to the flock, only to escape again. Farmer Ralph scolded me. “She’ll never learn she’s a sheep if you keep coddling her.” He even tried to drive her off the lawn with the riding mower, which might have been comical were I a different person, if I didn’t identify with that lamb’s need (I know, I’m supposed to be a biologist). I screamed at him until he stopped.
The trade wind screams over the land, bangs against the house walls, whistles through the windows, blows placemats off the table on the lanai, knocks down the candlestick and salt shaker. There’s a song Craig likes, about autumn’s “bully winds,” how they “did rub their faces in the snow.” That sounds gentle, like shaggy horses burying their muzzles in a drift, but this wind is not gentle; gusting at nearly 40, it’s trouble.
Remember that song “Trouble” by Cat Stevens? I woke up on the futon couch thinking about it. I like the irrational things the song asks of trouble: “Trouble please be kind.” And “Trouble, won’t you be fair.” The song was written, apparently, when Stevens was struggling to survive from tuberculosis. He thought he would die, so he addressed his disease directly. Did it listen and back off?
I know the futility and yet the drive to talk to the wind, to a disease, to trouble. Last night, in our weekly poem exchange, my friend Erin wrote of learning about the suicide of a former student. “Take a moment to send me some peace,” she asked. And Jess dropped off that orphan lamb because she was flying out today to see her grandmother, who’s very ill. “Take care of my lamb,” she asked. Her grandma had breast cancer years ago, and it came back. Of course that kind of news always troubles my waters.
And today, I am thinking about even larger troubles, the troubled earth itself. I am preparing to talk to someone at Canadian broadcasting about my book, which in part recounts the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which troubled the waters in a big and lasting way almost 25 years ago. It killed nearly half of the small population of orcas I was studying back then. The book is their story. Now, the oil industry is proposing to build a pipeline to the BC coast to unload dirty tar sands oil into tankers twice the size of the Exxon Valdez, to ply this toxic cargo up and down Queen Charlotte strait, home to orcas, and salmon, and jellyfish, and seals, and hundreds of other creatures. As I think about this, I suddenly feel the place within my own body, which itself is scarred and compromised by a form of clean-up called chemotherapy and radiation. A place I love still and call home despite its grave injuries, its altered face.
I wrote this poem about the lamb, and I don’t know, maybe it says something about all of these troubles, and the impulse to take them in (not on). Poet Mary Ruefle writes that “poetry happens when one lowers their voice.” Or raises it. “But the prayer of the lowered register no longer has a chance of being heard, has abandoned that chance – ‘given up,’ we say – yet retains the desire to speak, and I think these are the prayers addressed to god, who has become a singular absence; there is no one in the next seat; the ether becomes an ear.” We become ears and bodies to one another. We listen. We embody. We bear. We pray to a god called trade wind, or scar, or as Erin’s poem title puts it “up there toward a winter sky.”
May our shoulders be strong. But may our hearts be stronger.
Jess brought down the lamb
this morning, the orphan, she’d
shorn, shampooed her white coat
so it bristled away from her skin
like an old marine’s brush-cut,
spruced as though for church, and
it’s true, it was Sunday. Pink showed
through the sparse hairs at her ears
and underbelly, at the nascent
udder, nipples, she was used to
the bottle, the nuzzle against
Jess’s neck, now she nibbles
the kamani, dead electric fence
wire, testing everything for a live
current. She lingered, Jess, reluctant
to leave the lamb she’d nursed,
half-orphan herself, father found
dead in his truck at his favorite haunt,
old sugar cane railbed along the coast
at Mahukona last fall, his heart
given out, given over. He wanted to be
tossed into the ocean. Jess put up
a cross on the cliff edge and someone
pushed it off, and now, she says,
you see it bumping into the stones,
in and out of sight, an apparition,
just like he wanted. She lives in
his house, painted the kitchen plum,
works at Holy Bakery rolling out
pie crusts. She brought down the lamb,
collared, leashed, and now she bleats,
bumping into the other sheep, the fence,
perplexed. What am I? With the yearlings,
she ducks the wire, wanders on the lawn,
and the farmer smacks her rump, yells, go on,
you’re a sheep. The flock grazes in
the lower pasture, sometimes nickering
to call her down, but she won’t come,
she lies alone under the ironwood.
And I sit here listening to her incessant
keening, but doing nothing because
they don’t understand trouble, do they,
not like us, they are only animals.