Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Waiting for the Light

I knew there would be times like these, when time or inspiration would be in short supply, or when my thoughts were so scattered that I couldn’t draw them together into a coherent whole. I’m not worried, though. I made no firm commitment to a blog schedule. I know how things are, both in my world and in my brain. I want to write when I feel something there. So far, it’s worked as well as I could have hoped, especially when I have the opportunity to spend a little time quietly in the woods. I don’t want to feel forced to write, although it is natural to want to be consistent, just in case there are actual readers out there.

It seems commonplace for bloggers to announce their intentions to call it quits, take a break or change directions. Self doubt and second thoughts run rampant. Other writers simply stop and disappear, taking the road to blogger hell paved with good intentions. I was instinctively aware of these pitfalls. So, from the start, I made no promises to myself about how often or how much I would write. And besides, being a guy, commitment is scary.

Travel and other commitments have kept me from spending a morning on Moose Hill for a few weeks now, and it’s not looking much better for the next couple of weeks. It’s getting to be like missing a run or bike ride with feelings of withdrawal symptoms. I want to get back. The best I could do was take my bike to run a business errand last week, and on the way home take the long way around up and over Moose Hill.

It was a wonderfully clear and dry late summer morning. The cool wind felt good on my face and the exertion of standing on the pedals to climb the hill was invigorating. Just as the blood was rushing through my head and taking my mind to that dreamy place, I heard – or thought I heard - my peewee. This little flycatcher has been calling to me all summer. I haven’t heard him for a while, and I figured he was done calling for the season, or maybe, he had even started moving south. But there he was, calling to me.

That’s the way it was this summer. I’d find myself alone in the silent woods, or even half asleep at dawn in my bed and a bird would talk to me. First it was the wood thrush, and then the peewee started in. Now, I heard dozens of bird calls and songs, most familiar, some bringing back old memories, some prompting me to search through guidebooks to identify them. These sounds were lovely, exciting, stimulating , or even comforting. But the thrush and peewee seemed to be carrying a message.

The flute-like song of the thrush and the message he carried seemed easy to understand. It was a prompt to reflect fondly, but with the tinge of melancholy. I imagined him calling to remind me that time is short. Youth is fleeting; I had mine, it’s gone, and all I can do is hope I used it as wisely as I was able. Life is ephemeral. Times past and lives past are gone and will not be coming back. Loved ones and friends were lost, either through mortality or stupidity. Mistakes were made and it’s OK to feel sad about them. He would warble his invitation at dawn to seek him out and then again at sunset as I thought about these things, allowing me to simply feel the emotions that come with the growing knowledge that the hour is getting late.

The eastern wood peewee’s call is more enigmatic. If I could choose, this bird would not be at the top of my list of potential mystical messengers, with his cartoon-character name, small size and child-like call. But there he was, first as I ran through a warm summer rain, later as I walked through the quiet forest, and even as I bicycled up the hill. Is it a language barrier? Is he speaking clearly, but I just can’t interpret? Or, is he calling from a plane of understanding I simply cannot reach?

Sometimes on a winter Friday night with the week drawing to a close and the period of rest beginning, I’ll sit reading by the fire. With the warmth of the blaze in the stove, it’s not long before the book droops to my chest and I start to doze off. I’m reminded of the story of Kekule discovering the structure of the benzene ring while dreaming about snakes dancing head-to-tail as he slept by the fire. I sense something out there, or in this case, in here. Something nags from the back of my mind. Do I feel it, or can I hear it? Lacking the intellect of a Kekule, I can’t decode the signal. Something, someone is trying to communicate, but beyond that, I cannot grasp the message. At this point, I don’t even know if it’s a statement, a question, or a command. Maybe it’s feelings like this that turn people into seekers and wanderers. Maybe I’m on a quest and I don’t even know it yet. Maybe I’m hearing voices, and we all know exactly what that means!

The peewee gives me the same feeling. Claude Lacombe says in one of my all-time favorite movies, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when referring to those risking their lives to climb Devils Tower: “They were invited.” My peewee in no Francois Truffaut, and Moose Hill is no nerve gas-shrouded national monument, but I feel an undecipherable invitation to climb and explore, both the outer and inner world.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Could I Live Here?

I have been far from home. As I like to say, I never get to go on vacation, but I have a daughter who goes to really cool places, and I get to go visit. We just got back from what is - or at least was - one of the great places.

When I travel, I always play the “Could I Live Here?” game. I wrote about the relocations that may occur as the Boomers retire (Boomers on the Move), and that’s one way to look at new places. But, since I don’t see myself as ever actually retired, I tend to look at places as a potential home for living, working people; not just as playgrounds for golden-agers who collect Social Security and pension checks.

In this age of globalization, this thinking need not be limited to the United States, but I don’t see myself as an ex-pat anytime soon. But, if I find myself in, say, Israel, Canada, Aruba, Britain, St. Martin, New Jersey, or some other foreign land, I play the same game.

Then, there are the current hot places to live. These can be identified as the fastest growing cities or counties and include places like Las Vegas and Scottsdale. They seem to be characterized by warm winters and seemingly vast room for expansion. I can never get excited about the thought of living in these places because of the blazing hot summers and the cookie-cutter sameness that seems inevitable when explosive growth occurs.

Another thing I like to think about is: where have the truly great places to live been, how did they get that way, and where will the next great places be? These places include the big, famous metropolitan areas like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These places have long and rich histories, diverse economies and great variety in communities within their respective metropolitan areas. I imagine the excitement of the New York cafes and clubs of the 1950’s or the campuses and coffee houses of San Francisco in the 1960’s. Perhaps others will look back fondly at Silicon Valley in the 1980’s. There were – and I hope there always will be – places where history, current events, creativity and genius came together to create special places and times. Naturally, I probably wouldn’t recognize such a place in the making if I stumbled upon it, but I like to think they are still being created.

I just spent a week in Berkeley, California. I don’t know much about the specific facts of its history, but I know enough to recognize Berkeley as one of the special places in America’s collective consciousness. It’s the site of the original University of California, the home of some of the early research leading to the development of the atom bomb, and the location of some of the most dramatic anti-war protests of the 1960’s. Nowadays, it is fondly referred to as “Bezerkeley” and “The Peoples Republic of Berkeley.” One of the guidebooks calls one of the areas near campus a “theme park without a theme.”

Berkeley is still a special place and likely will be for some time to come, but no place is immune to the pressures of American society in the 21st Century. The shopping areas around campus seem refreshingly free of big-chain stores and restaurants. Most establishments appear pretty unique and locally owned. Strong Asian and Indian influences lend an international feel. On the lookout for Hippies and their influence, I was pleased to see lots of internet cafes, organic and vegan eateries, and grocery stores with tremendous selections of vegetarian and organic foods. Signs of the counter-culture were also evident on cars (many of them hybrids) with bumper stickers saying things like “Fermez La Bush,” “Pace,” “Support Our Troops – Bring Them Home,” and “Powered By Biodiesel – No War Required.”

Much of my time there was spent in the residential neighborhood in the hills inland and to the east of campus. This is still a very interesting area, but must have been great fun thirty or forty years ago. The first and most striking characteristic is the topography. These hills are steep and the streets wind up them like twisting goat paths with steep curves and switchbacks. The homes are perched precariously on these hillsides, for the most part only eight feet apart, taking advantage of the four-foot minimum side-lot set-back. The engineering that must go into some of these structures is amazing, especially the carports and garages which are often located over the residence. One must wonder, however, what might happen when the next big quake hits. A fundamental difference between homes separates those above the street from those below. Downhill homes usually have parking and entries at or near the main living level, while uphill homes usually present long climbs up stairs to get to the house.

It was great fun walking around the neighborhood in the quiet of the morning with a pre-breakfast cup of coffee taking in the sights. Every home is unique and they are built on a human scale. From the street, they look small, even tiny by today’s standards, but because most have multiple levels stacked on the hills, they may be larger than they appear. They are built and decorated with great creativity and individuality. Stucco and – very appropriately for the California coast – redwood are common exterior finishes. Many yards have hedges and fences. Many entries have very artistic gates with wood carvings or rusty steel or copper panels set in wood frames. Gateways and yards have pergolas and trellises festooned with vines and showing an Asian influence. There are lots of retaining walls and exterior stairways. At every opportunity, decks and patios are situated to take advantage of the wonderful views to Oakland, San Francisco Bay and the city beyond.

Another remarkable feature of this neighborhood is the plant life. Every yard presents a cacophony of growing things. An old photo from the 1920’s shows largely bare hills. Now, huge redwoods, cedars, live oaks, pines, sweet gums and eucalyptus dwarf the small houses. Yards with mown lawns stand out as oddballs. Most yards are planted with all manner of ornamentals, foreign and domestic. The same climate that allows giant redwoods to grow allows oranges, lemons, loquats, oleanders, Japanese maples, big leaf maples, magnolias and hollies to thrive. Any soil not supporting a tree or shrub is covered with perennial flowers or mulch. These are low-maintenances landscapes, prompted in part by the steep terrain and, I imagine, the laid-back attitude of the locals. Even though the houses a very close to each other, the fences, gates and greenery lend a sense of privacy, almost to the point of being isolationist.

Certainly the climate here is an important part of the region’s character making life here seem easy. Although winters can be foggy and wet, there is no frost, as evidenced by the outdoor plants that exist in New England only as houseplants. This lack of frost allows home and landscape building techniques that would crumble with the freeze-thaw cycles of colder places. The summer heat is moderated by cooling breezes and fog from the nearby Pacific. Most homes don’t have air conditioning and only small space-heaters to remove the occasional chill. It’s always interesting to observe how climate influences the building styles of a region.

I like to imagine what this area must have been like in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, with the artists, academics, bomb scientists, Nobel laureates and free-thinkers that built this neighborhood. That seems to be changing now. The average home price here is now about a million dollars. There are no sidewalks. The feeling of privacy in the small yards seems extreme with ‘no trespassing’ and security company signs sprouting everywhere. The few new homes seem much larger, fancier and more imposing than their predecessors, and construction starts with scraping the lots clean.

There is a system of old footpath rights-of way that were originally built to encourage walking and community, but in recent years they have become neglected and overgrown. A civic group (Berkeley Path Wanderers Association) is trying to reclaim them, and they are great fun to explore, like secret passageways between private backyards, but I sense that property owners abutting the paths wish they would disappear forever. There are no cafes, coffee shops or newsstands within easy walking distance. Even though bustling downtown Berkeley is only a mile or two away, like so many places today, most people drive to get anywhere.

Travel can be inspiring and rejuvenating. It can launch me on flights of fantasy. I might dream about a life in the new places I visit. I might wish to copy or emulate things I see. These thoughts are fun, but I always try to remind myself that the best – at least the most realistic – response to the stimulation of travel is to take a closer look at home. One shouldn’t obsess about the details of a new place, but rather, look for the spirit of a place. Then, back home, think about what makes home special and then try to be true to that spirit. What is the local architecture? What are the native plants? What are logical responses to the local climate? What is the soul of home, and how can we touch that? The tricky part is maintaining the stimulation and enthusiasm that travel provides and putting them into some tangible action back home before the burdens of mundane reality bleed them away.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


After a week of extraordinarily hot weather and a major wind storm, I was up early this morning hoping to head out into the woods and take advantage of a break in the weather. Other than the weather – or maybe because of it - no subject settled on my mind this week. As I studied a Moose Hill trail map last night trying to decide where I might want to go today, I found a destination but no goal. I set out this morning for a place known as Hobbs Hill (Elevation 342’). The map showed an interesting-looking trail circling a summit that offered the potential for a breakfast spot with relatively few mosquitoes. Even though I had nothing special on my mind, I set out with faith that I would find something to write about.

I knew exactly where the trailhead was even though I had never followed the path. After only about 10 minutes of cycling, I was there. I walked the bike down the trail, flicked the kickstand, and continued on foot. The trail went downhill and soon crossed a swamp on a very impressive boardwalk. The walkway seemed like an expensive and ambitious project for a trail that seemed to get so little use, but I was glad it was there. It is a broad and beautiful swamp and I penciled it onto my mental map for future visits. Today, however, I was seeking higher ground.

On the other side of the swamp, the trail soon turned uphill through oak, white pine and huckleberries. In a short while a faint, informal trail branched off to what I took to be the top of the hill. As I climbed higher, the oaks gave way to short hickories and the Vaccinium surrendered to grass. The forest here was almost park-like with good views through the woods and scattered boulders to sit on. In the understory were a few eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), a dwindling reminder of the pastureland this once was. In contrast to the rich, moist maple forest of last week, the soils here were rocky, thin and dry. I assumed the hickories were bitternut hickories (Carya cordifirmis), but I need to double-check on my next visit to make sure they are not shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), too small yet to be shaggy. One of the goals of my Moose Hill explorations is to refresh my fading dendrology skills. The grassy forest floor on this rocky hilltop made me wonder if I was seeing the effects of fire, or hungry deer reducing competition from woody plants.

Looking for a spot to eat breakfast, I selected a flat-topped rock on the edge of the hilltop rather than the summit itself. Almost instinctively, I wanted a vantage point where I could survey a small valley below with eyes peeled for any wildlife. In the primitive parts of my brain, was I a predator on the lookout for game, or was I probing deeper to the primordial recesses where I was prey on the lookout for carnivores that might be stalking me? If I were to observe a real-life struggle between hunter and hunted – say, a hawk pouncing on a squirrel – could I be a neutral observer, or would I have to take sides?

I sat there taking a few notes and eating my PBJ and drinking my coffee; one making me want more of the other until I didn’t have enough of either. I marveled at how quiet the woods were. After the long heat wave, everything seemed suppressed and I knew why Rachel Carson didn’t write Silent Summer. I heard a few goldfinches tootling by overhead and a blue jay squawking in the distance, but otherwise, the forest was quiet. The only birds I saw were a small flock of robins working in the leaves and grass. I wondered if these woods robins could be the same birds seen nesting in dooryards and bopping around on freshly-mown lawns, or were these characters cousins from the other side of the tracks, picking through the leaves to get at the moist earth below?

The woods were quiet, but the air was full of the drone of cicadas, their sound swelling and throbbing, and then subsiding. This reminded me that I noticed my first katydid of the summer Wednesday night, making me think that despite the oppressive heat of the moment, the season would soon be slipping away. I can still remember my mother teaching me the song of this green cricket-like insect: “Katy did, Katy didn’t,” starting in mid-summer and croaking ever more slowly as summer gave way to fall. I didn’t know about that, but this Katy sounded like someone I might like to meet.

I was enjoying the warm, but dry, morning with a gentle breeze and a blue sky above my umbrella of hickory leaves, but it was time to go. I found my way back to the main trail and followed it as it continued around the shoulders of the hill and dropped back down into the oaks and pine. I spotted a young deer streaking through the woods and then spooked what may have been its mother. I regularly see whitetails as I drive or bike by the fields, but less frequently do I see them deep in the forest where they usually move quietly and inconspicuously.

The trail took me along the edge of a mature pine plantation on a sandy slope. I heard an avian ruckus up ahead that I thought might have been prompted by my intrusion until I heard the shriek of a hawk. There were calls of more jays, a nuthatch and another unfamiliar sound. There was a sort of mewing sound and some chucks or clucks. A catbird? A towhee? Then I saw my wood thrush fly over to pose politely on some nearby dead pine branches. It was as if he had come to say goodbye; as if his flute was packed away for the season and he was making plans to head south. I’ll be sad to see him go.

No particular issues were burning in my brain this morning. No rant was raging; demanding a voice. No thoughts from the depths came welling to the surface. No moody musings were longing to be shared. I left home with faith that I would be struck by a topic. I felt sure I would stumble on a few slender threads that could be braided into a line of thought. None of these things happened. My faith went unrewarded, but as coasted down the hill on my way home, somehow, I was not disappointed.

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