Monday, May 29, 2006

Dreams and Regrets

Warning! This post contains obscene amounts of whining and self-indulgent navel-gazing.

We just spent the weekend retrieving our son from college in Rochester, New York. One thing that makes the 800-mile round trip from Boston a bit more enjoyable is stopping over in Syracuse. Now, as far as I know, Syracuse, being something of a northern rust belt city, isn't in the book A Thousand Places to See Before You Die. But, it's where I went to college, met my wife-to-be, bought my first house and had some of the best times of my life. My college campus has changed remarkably little in the three decades since I graduated. Visiting there brings back many fond memories, but can also be the source of deep melancholy. As I think about my short visit to my alma mater this weekend, I realize this month marks 30 years since I graduated and 20 years since the dream died.

To paraphrase a quote I heard on the radio last week: You know you're getting older when your dreams are replaced by regrets. Another favorite quote of mine is from Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone: "Be true to the dreams of your youth." I was always a daydreamer. In grade school, my teachers would always scold me for daydreaming in class. Even today, I can find myself lost in extended and detailed reveries.

I coasted through high school, showing the occasional spark of potential, but never excelling overall and really struggling in some subjects like math. In junior year, while most of my boomer friends were taking advanced placement tests and SAT achievement exams in preparation for application to multiple colleges and universities, I had no real goal. I knew I was supposed to go to college, but had no clue as to where I wanted to go. My passions were backpacking, fishing and just being outside, but what good was that when one had to get an education and make a living?

I can still remember the moment in 1971 when I was sitting in my English classroom and my buddy showed me a catalog from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (A school name my father could never mange to even say.) in Syracuse, New York. It was more popularly know as "the forestry school' or "ESF." It was one of those rare moments in life, not unlike love at first sight, when destiny flashes before the eyes. As I recall, it was the only school where I filed a complete application. I had no need or desire to go anywhere else. My ultimate dream was becoming clear. I would get a good education at a great school and find a good job where I could do good things for the Earth. Luckily, I was accepted.

To say I was an enthusiastic student would be an understatement. I studied hard, participated in numerous campus organizations and activities, and even dressed the part. I always wore blue jeans, flannel shirts and hiking boots hoping I would be readily identified as a "stumpy." I was in a pretty serious program with challenging subjects like calculus, organic chemistry and genetics, but I lived for and aced the forestry subjects like botany, dendrology and silviculture. I could identify and recite the scientific names of scores of trees. I graduated magna cum laude and because I couldn't find a job in the field, I stayed on for a Masters in forest soil science. As I finished my MS, jobs were still elusive, so I stayed in Syracuse working on a couple of temporary research projects. After about nine years studying and working at ESF, I finally landed something close to a real job with a well-respected forestry research program at the University of Florida. The position I held had a reputation for being a stepping-stone to good jobs in the forest products corporate sector. Well, (By now you can see where this is going.) after over five years of doing a respectable job managing numerous university/industry cooperative forest fertilization experiments, it became clear that I was at a dead end and that my industry career was not going to happen.

I've heard that if you destroy a spider's web, she will rebuild it. Destroy it again and it will be rebuilt, but not quite to its original grandeur. Continue this a few more times, and eventually the spider will sit in a corner with a pathetic little tangle of web, its will to try again crushed.

I can still recall the moment in 1986 when, after I made the official notification that I would be leaving my job, I went back to my office and was overcome by emotion. Tears ran down my face as I was hit by the full weight of the fact that all my enthusiasm, work, struggle and love that had been focused on nurturing the 15-year dream of a life working in forestry were not enough. I couldn't make it happen. I was defeated.

Twenty years later this still makes me sad. Destroy an idealist and you're left with a cynic. I try not to dwell on the past, but things like news from a successful friend from the old days or a visit to my old campus can trigger unhappy reflection and regret. I prefer to think my failure was caused by bad timing or bad luck. I came up in a time when state and federal jobs - long the source of employment for many in land management fields - were drying up. I had some key professors die suddenly or leave and there always seemed to be a recession going on just as I was job-hunting. Maybe if I had just had a mentor that would have taught me how to make the transition from good student to productive professional. Perhaps, even though I was paranoid, they were out to get me.

At some level, I know it was my own fault. There had to be something about my intelligence, imagination, personality or attitude that held me back. Clearly, I wasn't smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall sooner and re-direct my efforts into a career with more potential and possibilities before it was too late. Too long I held stubbornly onto the belief that if I worked hard and did well in school, anything was possible. I did learn that having limited options sucks. In things like careers and relationships, when we never seem to have more than one option, it's hard to make the right choices. Failure to find meaningful work in a chosen field might be like watching a soulmate slip away.

All of this whining can seem silly and selfish now when I consider that I am pretty healthy, am married to a truly wonderful woman, have two fantastic kids, own a home in a great community and have a few good friends. I have had other disappointments and setbacks along the way but I know that, in life, those things happen. While it's not much fun admitting that I seem to be unemployable, I can enjoy the freedom that self-employment affords. And, when I take a walk in the woods, I can tell a Liriodendron tulipifera from a Liquidambar styraciflua.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Back to the Hill

I was finally able to repeat the trip that initially inspired this blog. A combination of work, personal commitments and about 10 inches of rain in the past few weeks has kept me from visiting Moose Hill aside from the usual drive-throughs, jogs and bike rides. I went to bed early last night thinking that if I got up early enough and the sun was shining, I'd bike back up there for breakfast. I was up in the middle of the night for an hour or so for no apparent reason, so I thought that once I finally fell back to sleep, I would sleep too late for breakfast on the hill. Thanks to a squirrel helpfully chewing on my house at 6:15 AM, I was indeed up early enough and the sky was beautifully clear.

At the top of the paved road, I continued onto the gravel road, past the 'no bikes' sign, and rode to the first meadow. As I hoped, a bluebird was there, warbling away at the tip of a tall dead pine. I found a sunny spot at the edge of the field and settled down with my back to the old stone wall. The bluebird flew off, but a pair of tree swallows was busily flying in and out of one of the two nesting boxes set up in this small clearing in the woods.

I was relaxing, having coffee, enjoying the warming early-morning sun glistening off the dew on the meadow plants and enjoying the show provided by the swallows. I was surprised to see the birds repeatedly landing on the ground, picking something up and flying back to the box. I was a little surprised, because I assumed swallows fed primarily on the wing. I was probably on my second cup when it dawned on me that they were not busily feeding a hungry brood, but were building a nest. For the most part, it looked like the female flying regular sorties from the box to a spot about 30 feet in front of me. She would select a short segment of bracken fern stem that had been chopped by the mower and ferry it back to the birdhouse. The male was supervising the proceedings from his perch atop the box. It was fun to simply sit there and enjoy the moment.

Breakfast over and with a few minutes to spare, I walked up the road a bit to another clearing. I saw a few birds moving about and heard a few others, but things were quieter than I expected in mid-May. I saw chipping sparrows and phoebes and heard several red-eyed vireos. Deeper in the forest, I heard the eerily mysterious melody of the wood thrush. I'm not sure if I missed the peak of the migration while I was huddled inside to escape the rain, or if many birds were simply too busy nesting to make a lot of noise.

It was also great to see a few other birders. As long as there a people who appreciate these woods, they may be safe for future generations.

Just as I was getting ready to head home, I saw a small bird land among the electric-green leaves of a small birch at the edge of the small field. As I studied the picture-perfect scene of the fresh Spring leaves weeping over the lush green of the grass, backed by the bright white bark of the birch, I noticed the bird had landed on a nest. Fumbling for my binoculars, I was a little surprised to spy a vireo nesting only about 8 feet above the ground. It seemed to be putting the finishing touches on a nest that looked like an old gray sock dangling from the twigs.

With that, I hopped on the bike to coast down the hill toward home. In no more than 90 minutes, I had enjoyed an invigorating bike ride, had breakfast in the sun, and witnessed miracles of life. How cool is that?

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Boomers on the Move

They say the sense of smell, being a very primitive sense, can evoke memories from deep in the mind. It sometimes happens to me unexpectedly when I smell something I haven't smelled in years and I can clearly remember the last time I detected that scent. Other aromas I encounter more frequently, but they always bring back memories. It happened to me today.

Even though we are thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest, western red cedar is commonly used here on the east coast for shingles, shakes and siding. Now, I am aware of what is happening to the old growth forests of the West and I might be reluctant to start a major siding project with this wonderful material, but when making repairs on houses already sided in cedar, I use it regularly. I was replacing some damaged shingles today and, as I so often do, I made a point of inhaling deeply after making my first cut to allow the sweet scent of cedar transport me to other times and places.

My father was a builder and carpenter his whole life. The term "old school" was developed to describe guys like him. He learned much of what he knew from his father and was slow to change. When I was very young, I loved to hang around his job sites, getting in the way, losing tools and being a pest. He would also take me on trips to the lumber yard. Of the memories that stuck with me from those days decades ago, some of the fondest are the smells of fresh lumber. While eastern white pine isn't bad, for some reason the sweetness of Douglas fir and red cedar are my favorites. Every time I smell those great western species I remember the simple innocence of a carefree childhood when fathers were competent and work of the hands was respected.

These woody fragrances also transport me to other places. I've only been to Washington and British Columbia a couple of times, but I love the big woods and big trees. I love the way you can be in Seattle and see huge conical snow-capped mountains in the distance. I love the idea of great coffee and progressive thinking. I like the idea of building a rustic home with wonderful natural materials. I think of totem poles and the fantastic legends they tell. I like to think about what it would be like to live in such a place.

I've been doing a lot of that lately. Although it's highly unlikely I'll ever get to retire in the usual sense of the word, it's fun to think about where we might move to spend our golden years if we could. The problem is, millions of other Boomers are doing the same thing, and a big heap of demographic you-know-what is going to hit the fan. The first Boomers hit 60 this year and lots of them have big 401K's and tremendous home equity. Many of them will soon be retiring and/or down-sizing. I know several who plan to cash it in early. Where will the Boomers go?

Conventional wisdom says they will retire to places that are warm and on the water. Florida is so last generation, although the real estate bubble there shows there's still plenty of interest. Thanks to a daughter who has been living in California for a couple of years, I can attest to the appeal of parts of that state, but who the hell can afford to live there? Many will probably head for Arizona and Nevada, and they're great if you want to bulldoze the desert and bake in cities without souls.

Those places are all too conventional, anyway. We're Boomers and we don't do anything in a small way. If we're going to kick back and sip our pinot noir in the sun, why not Costa Rica or Belize? The South of France? What's the exchange rate this month? Hey, if all the Mexicans want to come to America, why don't we just buy Mexico?

I don't know where we will all go, but I feel sure we'll be on the move and it's gonna be big. Some will trade the suburban spread for a condo in the city, and I think that makes a lot of sense. I see new "over 55" comunities going up. Co-housing seems interesting. I read several blogs by retirees who live in the country, and the lifestyle sounds great, but I shudder to think what will happen to the countryside if millions of affluent Americans all start carving up chunks of it to build American Dream II. If millions more move to the desert, imagine the impacts on water supplies and the impacts of all that air conditioning. One silver lining in this demographic storm cloud may be that when housing prices plunge because we're all selling at the same time, our kids might have a prayer of buying a real place to live.

So, look out, world. The Boomers are coming! I just hope we don't screw it up.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hornets from Hell

Sorry, insect lovers. This post is not about vespids.

We are addicted to fossil fuels in ways that we might not think about. I paid three dollars a gallon for gas for the first time yesterday ($2.999), but when I drive by the local McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts in the morning, I still see cars lined up at the drive-up window, engines idling, up to 12 deep, because folks just won't park and walk a few yards. Next time I drive on the highway, I have little doubt I'll see some guy - all alone - in his big Yukon, Excursion or Escalade going 75 miles per hour in the left-hand lane. I'm with Tom Friedman: gas is not yet expensive enough. I feel bad for those people at the lower end of the economic scale, who are trapped between affordable housing and a long commute to work, but we will never see low gas prices again, and we, as a nation, need to start re-thinking the American dream.

I also wonder about other manifestations of our addiction. Many suburban homes here in the Northeast have long driveways, often leading to two- and three-car garages. Many of us affluent but aging Boomers have better wallets than backs and we rely on snowplowing services to clear our driveways after every significant snowfall. More energetic motorists might go so far as to use a gas-powered snow blower, but the days of paying the neighbor-kid to shovel the drive are over. And, this is just to get the cars on the road. Imagine the fuel that must be used to clear our streets and highways! Not only are vast energy resources used to power our cars, but we are helpless without powerful machines to clear the way for our driving every time it snows.

My work often affords me the chance to work outside here in town. On the rare good day, I can clear away the clutter of life and settle down to work on an outdoor job. My favorite times are when the weather is good, NPR is on the radio, and I can work peacefully on an interesting carpentry project. Very often, however, just as I get things set up and begin to enter 'the zone,' the hornets from hell arrive. They descend from their big green trucks with gasoline engines screeching. The landscape service has come to manicure the property. With a crew of guys with their stand-up riding mowers, weed-whackers and blowers, they make enough noise to drown out thought, let alone hearing. When the leaves fall in the autumn, I get to listen to more blowers plus the roar of giant vacuum-cleaners.

The impact of these approaches to snow and landscape management on water, air, flora, fauna and quietude might be the topic of another post. Here, I wonder about fossil fuel. Not only are we slaves to gasoline-powered machines for transportation, we have built homes that cannot be maintained without them. We all want big homes and big yards, but who wants to spend hours shoveling, mowing and raking any more? How many pause to ponder the wisdom and sustainability of these mini-estates.

Last year, I read Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. It inspired me to buy a push mower. It's taking a little attitude adjustment to get used to this new/old approach to lawn care, but at least I'm thinking about it.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Magic in the Air

I love May Day! (No, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the communist party...) May first is the day the chimney swifts return. These 'cigars with wings' are my own Swallows of Capistrano: I could almost set the calendar by their Spring return.

Every year, starting a few days before the first of May, I start watching the sky over my house. Weather permitting, I'll first see my little friends on the first of the month. They were 5 days late this year, but I imagine the delay was caused by a rather unusual three-day rain event bucking the usual trend and coming in off the Atlantic from the East. It rained pretty much all day Tuesday and Wednesday, but Thursday was beautifully warm and clear. I knew it would be only a matter of hours. Sure enough, when I went out to get the paper this morning, I saw my first swift of the year streaking high overhead. A little later, with sun streaming through the bathroom skylight as I showered, I was thrilled to see a group of three shoot by.

Like tree swallows, these birds are fun to watch as they move through the air with apparent glee. I have a recurring flying dream, but even on my best nights, I can never soar with such confidence and ease. Where tree swallows look a bit like playful kids, swifts seem almost military as they zoom in tight formations high over my deck, chattering orders as they go. I sometimes imagine they are little jets flying combat air patrol over my roof.

I do wonder, though. There is a trend these days for people to install chimney caps to keep rain, squirrels, birds and other foreign matter out of the flue. I often think I should put one on our chimney. In the past I have seen swifts tumble from the air into chimneys on the houses on both sides of ours, and both these chimneys are now capped. Like the bluebirds who declined when wood fence posts became obsolete, could the swifts suffer from good house-keeping?

But for now, my swifts are back, and their regular- if not constant- chipping and chattering will be background music on the soundtrack of my summer. Then, just as suddenly as they arrive on May first, the door will close on September first. They disappear with a predictability and totality that is truly amazing, leaving behind only fond memories of warm days and blue skies.

Other friends also return at almost exactly the same time. Every year, catbirds nest in a huge clump of forsythia that dominates a good chunk of the yard near the deck, and I spotted the first one just a day before the arrival of the swifts. These are handsome birds with their trim gray coats and stylish black caps. They seem particularly intelligent and friendly, pausing in their nest-building to look at me and mew as I have my morning coffee on the deck. I can't help but wonder if these are the same individuals who were here last year and if those were offspring of previous generations, like salmon, returning to the exact spot of their birth.

I am a man of simple pleasures. While I take great joy from the companionship of common birds like my swifts and catbirds, the enjoyment I get from robins in the Spring is almost primordial. In all likelihood, the robin was the first bird I could identify as a small child. Their happy caroling in April as the earthworms begin to arise from the warming moist soil has always been a sign of re-birth. They have always signaled swelling tree buds and children laughing outside after a long winter.

A pair of robins have been bobbing around the back lawn for a week or two now. I assumed they were nesting in the area, and that made me happy because it's been a few years since we've had a nest. Like the catbirds, these robins make we wonder if this DNA has been here before. Like our last resident robins, this pair has built their nest on top of one of my bird houses. One of the first things I did when we moved here nearly 20 years ago was put up nesting boxes. We live in a classic established suburban neighborhood, and I hoped I could enjoy the company of house wrens. While I sometimes hear house wrens, and often hear the over-sized songs of Carolina wrens, I've never had anything but false nests in my boxes. At least the robins are willing to accept my hospitality, and I'm delighted to have them. Maybe I should put up nesting shelves instead.

So, even with all the troubles in our world today, life struggles on. I find it truly miraculous that these small creatures can navigate hundreds and even thousands of miles every year to return to my small back yard. Even though I hope to spend an hour or two up on Moose Hill this weekend searching for more exotic birds, it's my everyday friends that really tell me that Spring is really here.

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