Something There Is That Does So Love a Cocklebur


You’d think ‘bur’ would have two r’s, the hooks on the letter resembling those on the prickles. Our dogs do not love the cocklebur’s almond-sized fruit, especially Fern, whose fur is the consistency of bad wig hair. The burs cling to Fern like Velcro, using her beard, her tail, her fuzzy pantaloons to disperse to new locations, determined to survive. A member of the daisy family, the cocklebur grows in waste places, places to which its prickly seeds can be blown or washed in, places like the lakebed trails where my husband Marc and I walk our dogs several times a week. As the Kern River and Lake Isabella’s waters recede with the Sierra’s diminishing snowmelt, bottles and driftwood and sunglass frames deposit themselves on the freshly formed beaches. Cocklebur plants, too.

And shoes. Hundreds of them. Once, when we were hiking with the dogs, we happened upon a pile of 50 or so mismatched sandals at the high-water mark. Yet the pile in front of us was not the shoes’ natural rest stop. Someone had curated this collection, matching like sandal to sandal, neoprene moccasin to neoprene moccasin, flip-flop to flip-flop. In bringing them together in a space the length and width of a swimming pool, rather than leaving them scattered and stranded, this curator had created art, both beautiful and horrible. And as with any piece of art, this heap of summer footwear incited questions. What happened to the people on whose feet these sandals belonged? Were the sandal-bearers pulled from the overflowing river by their loved ones, only to realize they’d lost a shoe? Better to sacrifice a shoe to the frigid floodwaters than a person. My photo series of the high-water shoe-pile: I call it “The saga of flip-flops.” Imagine if, like cockleburs, the shoes took root and flourished.

Any farmer with burs in his pasture will tell you, though the seedlings are tenacious, the roots are not difficult to pull. Get them when they’re young.

Twenty years ago, Marc and I rendezvoused in campgrounds on this river. I’d coast in from L.A., where I worked in a magazine office, while he meandered south from the Eastern Sierra, where he worked as a backcountry guide. We’d cook one-pot noodle dinners over a Primus camp stove, share a bottle of wine, and recount our Saturday whitewater kayaking the Kern’s rapids. An hour after the sunset, the campground boulders still retained their heat. Cloaked by darkness, we’d shed every stitch of clothing. Lolling in the rock’s ambient heat, each on our own individual boulder, we’d talk about everything, and nothing. Then one warmed body would cross over to share the other’s boulder, and conversation hushed. Back then, I was in over my head when it came to whitewater rapids. Time after time, I would emerge for air after flipping, failing to Eskimo roll, and slithering out of my boat. I’m swimming again, damn it, I thought, while water flowed literally over my head. I worried I might be in over my head with Marc, that we were just playing at romance, enchanted by the river’s rapids and pools, by the mountains’ granite, and by the impossible array of stars above us, but I was wrong about that. Despite our youth, the seedlings of our relationship weren’t drowned. All these years later, here we are. We’ve traded tents and camp stoves for a house and a five-burner range. We floated in and we’ve taken root.

Strolling in the sandy soil of the lakebed, we spot all manner of tracks—from pickup trucks, birds, boots, tennis shoes, dogs. Eventually we’ll even recognize our own footprints. “Huh,” we’ll say. “So those are the patterns we make.”

On one particular hike, a blur of corgi-terrier sprays my ankles with sand. I follow Keji through a screen of willowy shrubs to the river, where something unnaturally white contrasts with the dark blue meandering water. An ancient washing machine’s four rusting claw feet dig into the bank. The washtub is white—super white—thanks to the sun. It’s a top-loading machine, lid long-gone. The wash basin has a flat bottom, maybe a 2-foot radius. A finned pillar rises from smack-center of the basin—the agitator. Later I will look this word up and I will confirm that an agitator is a device to stir or shake things up. People can be agitators, as can geological faults. This will strike me as a funny coincidence since the 65-year-old earthen Isabella dams—known as Main Dam and Auxiliary Dam—are in the process of being rebuilt. The active Kern Canyon fault beneath the dams threatens to agitate the earthen structures to the point of catastrophic failure.

Meanwhile, beneath the sun-bleached washbasin, a brown, cloth-wrapped electrical cord snakes around its rusty feet, which support a corroded base in which a motor once rumbled. I imagine the machine once rumbled on someone’s back porch, under an eave. Or perhaps in a corner of a ranch house kitchen. But why is it here, a half mile or more through sand and shrub from town? Why isn’t this aged contraption convalescing with other rusting, rustic devices in one of the many local antique shops? I imagine the claw-footed old-timer sandwiched between record player console and telephone table, a quiver of catgut tennis rackets propped in a corner, near a pair of wooden skis partnered with poles, their snowflake-shaped baskets big as diner pancakes. Nostalgia is one of the Kern River Valley’s most lucrative industries.

More likely, the elderly beast drowned, bound by sand for decades. This section of riverbank is normally submerged by the dammed waters. Isabella’s earthworks were under construction from 1950 to 1953, while the washing machine itself was manufactured in the 40s. This was right around the time the federal government condemned Old Kernville and the town of Isabella in order to build the dam and reservoir. But the local townsfolk didn’t quietly away. Instead, they moved 120 of the old houses and buildings to new sites, such as the vacant land that would become today’s Kernville. What they couldn’t move, they dynamited. Foundations, ruins, and oddities such as this flood-battered washing machine become exposed and then vanish at the whim of the lake level.

Marc and I live on a lot where an Old Kernville house had been relocated. Around 2001, the relocated building was razed but for one wall, the wall containing the fireplace. Over that hearth, on the rebricked mantel, we’ve lined up framed photos. In them, we’re hiking, we’re camping, we’re canoeing. It’s funny, but all the photos cut us off at the feet. You can’t see whether we’re shod or barefoot or wearing mismatched flip-flops. You can see that we’re happy, though, that we’re flourishing in this place. Years before we bought the property, I remember walking past it on the way to the Kernville Post Office. The old green shanty with its screened-in porch listed slightly, weighed askew by time and gravity. The new house—our salmon-hued stucco job—will someday do the same. And a river shall take it, not unlike a cocklebur.


Image at the top of the page: “Cockleburs” by CAJC: in the PNW is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fear Fact(or), Fear Fiction

If, one day while watching TV on the couch, your wife offhandedly mentions she went to college with the tall, dark-haired guy in the Bud Light commercial, under no circumstances should you…

  1. Suspect that “went to college with” is code for “once had amazing sex with” (Good luck with that…);

  2. Notice that when she tells you his name, she does it in a way that seems like she’s only pretending to have to think about it;

  3. Read anything into the way she remains outwardly neutral when his commercials come on, and my god are on all the fucking time (Her neutrality, you surmise, has to be some kind of affected disinterest to mask the way she’s fantasizing about him);

  4. Ruminate, while being intimate with your wife, about how, though you’ve had more sex with your wife than any other man has, he’s probably a kind of high-water mark for her that you’ll never reach;

  5. Look him up on IMDB and find that he’s acted in or produced movies with direct-to-DVD titles like Sidewalk Blondes, Hollywood Escapades, and All American Zombie Drugs (you didn’t even have to make that last one up) where he played characters with names like Dougie, Judd, and Colt;

  6. Care enough to note that he’s appeared in commercials for both Bud Light and Miller Lite, Burger King and Carl’s Jr., Honda and Chevrolet, and DirecTV and DISH, and then use this observation to judge him for being nothing more than a corporate whore without a shred of loyalty (I mean, what kind of guy does that?);

  7. Compare yourself to him because in nearly every measurable way—height (definitely), looks (likely, if we’re talking industry standards), sexual aptitude (probably, ‘cause let’s be honest…), creative output (sure, they’re mostly commercials, but there are so many of them), finances (ha!)—you fall short;

  8. Comment to your wife that you saw “Commercial Man” or “That Guy” (as you’ve taken to calling him, breezily, of course, because hey, you’re cool about all this…) had a small recurring role on a wildly popular—but you both agree a very unfunny—TV show as a kind of test to see if her opinion of the show begins to change;

  9. Reveal that you saw the above info on his Twitter profile (“I act in stuff”) that you are now following;

  10. Construe, a couple days later when she changes the channel as you enter the room, that you’ve caught her in the act of watching said unfunny show;

  11. Work into causal conversation with your wife after yet another one of his commercials, that previous to his “big break” on The Amazing Race, he appeared as a contestant on a Christmas episode in season four of Fear Factor where his listed occupation was “dog walker” (Highlight of the customary banter with Joe Rogan prior to his competing in the first challenge: Rogan: “What are you going to do with the fifty thousand if you win?” That Guy: “Turn my garage into a mind and body relaxation studio”);

  12. Find it gratifying watching him whine and complain to Joe Rogan for being eliminated (“It’s not fair, man!”) after eating, but failing to swallow, the ant-covered cod egg sack in the allotted 20 minutes because he was cracking a bunch of smartass jokes the entire time;

  13. Fill pages in your notebook with Roger Ebert-like screeds on his acting abilities after you watch the “acting reel” his agent posted to YouTube;

  14. Go on the Message Boards on his IMDB page and write anonymous threads where you refer to him as “Hollywood,” criticizing him for getting his teeth capped after his reality show “career” took off, and start a rumor about a certain sexual fetish that involves a harness;

  15. Imagine a fantasy scenario where you and your wife encounter him at her college reunion (do they even have those?), and when she sees him, it becomes clear from the smitten look on her face that they did, in fact, have wild, animalistic sex, (probably in his dorm room under some fucking Bob Marley poster), but when she approaches him, he doesn’t appear to remember her, which for some reason pisses you off even more than the porn-loop images burned into your brain of your wife fucking him do;

  16. Be as bothered as you are that by some cruel twist of fate, he shares the same birthday as your son;

  17. Observe that in his 30 commercials he delivers what would amount to less words than you’ve written here up to this point;

  18. Study his commercial “work” deeply enough to realize he’s got a pretty shallow bag of tricks as an actor: a charming, slight head tilt, smile, and eyebrow raise; a kind of wide-eyed, chicken-necked look of surprise; and a twist-of-the-mouth-plus-shoulder-shrug good for an everyman “huh?” gesture;

  19. Waste precious time trying to understand his appeal—what is it, exactly? He’s handsome, sure, but in the totally normal way your neighbor or the teller at the drive-thru window at your bank is handsome; he’s unremarkable, is the point;

  20. Conclude that since he plays an Average Bro just-cooking-some-burgers-on-the-grill-sitting-across-from-a-date-at-Applebees-looking-for-cell-phone-reception-having-some-beers-with-buddies-kind of character, it must be his very ordinariness that makes him appealing;

  21. Wonder if, at this point, he simply keeps getting commercials because he’s gotten them before…he’s recognizable as “that guy from that one commercial,” so casting agents get him more work;

  22. Attempt the (for you) very complicated math to understand how it is that That Guy’s commercials air, seemingly, every goddamn commercial break, but soon realize you need help and so craft a bit of a fiction in order to get a math instructor you work with to help you (you tell him you are working on a “story” and provide him with a mostly contextless word problem featuring your best Google-aided approximation of the number of commercials that air each hour, the number of hours of commercials that air each day, the average number of channels, and the number of commercials an actor has appeared in), but he points out that because there are too many variables—how many distinct commercials air each day, how many of the actor’s commercials are currently airing, how often do they repeat, etc., etc.—he needs more context and so you don’t reply to his email;

  23. Tell your wife that once, when she and your son were out of town, you tried to stay up for 24 hours to count how many times you saw him on TV (you fell asleep, but not before making 9 tallies in your notebook, which seems, somehow, mathematically impossible…);

  24. Disclose that you found a streaming-service-only show where he’s the male lead; the show is about a couple who meet at a bar and it follows them through their relationship, and that—goddammit—the show actually looks decent;

  25. Concede, even to yourself, that as you’ve immersed yourself in his work, you started to kinda understand his appeal, and, well, sorta like him (Don’t think of telling anyone);

  26. Ask your wife, straightaway, if she ever slept with him; instead, stew over it long enough—several years or so, but who’s counting?—that you feel compelled to write some kind of hybrid-story-essay-list thing in the hopes of somehow working through your, admittedly, petty insecurities (Good luck with that…).


Elena Passarello Reads at American University

On March 27, 2019, Elena Passarello closed out a stellar 2018-19 Visiting Writers Series at American University.  Co-panelists, our own Rae Bryant and fellow MFA candidate, Akash Vasishtha, led a discussion of Passarello’s most recent collection of essays, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande), a smart, lyrical and innovative bestiary of famous animals. This year’s Visiting Writers Series was led by AU MFA Faculty members, Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Rachel Louise Snyder

“[No other book] ever made me think, and feel, as much as this one . . . a devastating meditation . . .” (New York Times Book Review)

From Animals Strike Curious Poses,  “Lancelot (Capra aegagrus hircus) 1985”:

Most of the animal world held for me this incorrect magic, which spurred me toward an impasse—an inability to note the contextual divide between the animals that shared our world and the ones that were invented to please me. At whatever moment of a child’s development that she learns to separate national wonder and wondrous tale, something inside me misfired. Only from the distance of adulthood can I even see the disconnect . . . . (171)

Elena Passarello is an actor, writer, and recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award. Her first collection Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande, 2012), won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards and was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Award. Her essays on performance, pop culture, and the natural world have been published in Oxford American, SlateCreative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review, among other publications, as well as in the 2015 anthologies Cat is Art Spelled Wrong and After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essay.

Passarello has performed in several regional theaters in the East and Midwest, originating roles in the premieres of Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge and David Turkel’s Wild Signs and Holler. In 2011, she became the first woman winner of the annual Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon and teaches at Oregon State University.