Saturday, September 30, 2006


I was dozing fitfully this morning, waiting for the dawn. I was eager to get to Moose Hill. If I got an early start, I could have time for two hours in the woods this morning and, as I learned last week, even a short visit can provide enough time for some satisfying meditation. Finally, just around sunrise, our local Carolina wren told me it was time to get up.

This last morning of September was likely the coolest since last spring. I could see my breath as I stepped out onto the deck. I wore four layers including a vest and light jacket to keep me warm on what I hoped would be a peaceful period of sitting quietly in the woods. I was wishing for gloves as I coasted on my bicycle down the hill from home over the train tracks to the base of Moose Hill, but once I started my climb up the parkway, concerns about the cold dissipated.

I headed for a destination just off the Vernal Pool Loop known as “The Boulders.” I discovered this place back in July (See “Hope,” July 22, 2006.). It offers a great spot just off the trail to climb above the surrounding landscape and see a good distance through the trees while sitting on huge bedrock outcrops. As I left the trail to start my climb I could see what looked like camping gear on top of the rocks. As unlikely as it seemed, I considered the possibility that some one had spent the night there. Certainly, a stealth camper could pick worse spots. I would love to visit the campsites on this spot from centuries or even millennia ago. I was preparing to turn around a look for another breakfast spot, but curiosity kept me moving upward. I soon discovered that what I had seen was the result of a more likely scenario: A bunch of kids had been partying there and left behind several lawn chairs, broken pine boughs, beer bottles and other trash.

Feeling that this spot had been somewhat violated by these thoughtless intruders, I again thought about moving on, but I had my heart set on sitting there so I moved along the ridge a bit where their detritus was more or less out of sight. The sky was crystal clear, and there was only the slightest hint of a breeze. Even the insects were silent. This quietude allowed the sound of the expressway to the north to reach me like cataracts on a large river in the distance. Thoughts of fossil fuel consumption intruded on my search for peaceful contemplation.

I had some coffee, ate my sandwich and took some notes. I got out my compass and began to study the boulders. I’ve been reading The Path by Chet Raymo, a local college professor/ renaissance man who writes beautifully about the natural and human history of neighboring Easton, Massachusetts. He was describing the scoring by glaciers that can be seen in local rocks. I was going to use my compass to look for north-south streaks in the stone when I heard loud voices approaching.

A couple with two large dogs was coming up the trail, talking loudly. In the six months I’ve been taking these little expeditions I’ve seen very few people, so I was surprised at my bad luck to have this noisy quartet heading my way. Just as I thought they would pass by without even seeing me peering down at them from my lofty perch, I realized that the woman, being towed by the two big rottweilers, was climbing right up to me. When she saw me, she turned around and went back down to her husband. At about that point I understood that they had come to collect the trash left by the partiers. They had discovered it a few weeks before and had come back to haul it to the jeep trail so it could be collected by the sanctuary staff. I volunteered to help and tossed the junk off the rocky ledge to the man waiting below.

It was hard to get upset by these generous and thoughtful intruders, but my time was running short and I wasn’t finding the peace and quiet I was seeking, so I packed my bag and moved down the trail. I soon walked into an opening marked on the map as the “Old Field.” It wasn’t supposed to be this way, because it is pretty clear that this field was supposed to be a red pine (Pinus resinosa) plantation. Massachusetts is pretty much outside the native range of this hard-needled pine, but it was widely planted across eastern North America after the depression in an effort to get some kind of productivity out of abandoned farm fields. This planting was largely a failure with limby open-grown specimens scattered about the middle of the field, but there are some places along the edge of the field where enough trees survived to form stands of tall, straight pines. I paused for a few moments of nostalgia as I recalled my forestry days in upstate New York where red pine plantations were very common.

With my time just about up, I left the pines to find the trail through the native white pines and oaks back to my bike. I walked with the purposeful gait of someone with a physical destination, not a mental one.

I went to the woods this morning to cultivate some thoughts, but my plantation did not thrive. Like nature, the mind can be fickle. Like a weak seedling overcome by weeds, my mood was fragile and easily disturbed by intrusions. As a young pupil in school, I was repeatedly told to stop daydreaming. It was so easy to gaze out the classroom window and get lost in a detailed reverie. Now, I go to the forest to daydream intentionally and with impunity; hoping, perhaps, that my thoughts will lead me to some new kind of inner peace and understanding. I didn’t have much luck today, but no morning in the woods is completely wasted and I trust I’ll have other chances to return and continue my search.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


As the year goes on, I find myself looking forward to my Moose Hill visits with increasing eagerness. I truly crave a little time alone with nature and alone with my thoughts. I’m beginning to wonder if this meditative activity could be a bit like exercise: The more we do it, the better we get at it. I am finding that once I decide where I want to go, and then find a place to sit, it doesn’t take long for my mind to relax and for interesting thoughts to begin to flow. As I discovered today, even if I only have an hour or so, it can be worthwhile to pull the bike from the shed and head up the hill for breakfast.

I live right in the older heart of a rather typical suburb in the northeastern U.S. My town is primarily a bedroom community for Boston and Providence. Perhaps I’m luckier than most in that I have a great place to find solitude so close to home. With just ten minutes on the bike, I can be completely alone in a mature forest. I think most towns like mine have some open space. Cities have parks. Those who live in the country are surrounded by nature. But I sense that fewer and fewer people seek the solace that time alone in the open can provide. People are busy. There are many sources of comfort, entertainment and distraction in our modern lives. On the one hand, it’s sad that more folks don’t take advantage of the beautiful places around us, but on the other hand, I like having these woods to myself. Maybe people are simply content and don’t hear voices from the depths telling them that there is something unexamined, something unexplored.

With limited time today, I went back to the Kettle Trail. This is the trail that I’ve taken a few times before on my way to Hobbs Hill. I chose it because it is so easy to get to, and on both my earlier visits I saw several small birds on my way out of the woods but I didn’t have time to stop and watch them. I was curious to see if these were residents that could be visited on a regular basis.

I selected a small, rounded hill far enough into the woods that I couldn’t see the road, but not so close to the swamp that I would have too many mosquitoes. I sat in the soft duff at the base of a tree and set up camp with my bagel, coffee, binoculars and notebook at the ready.

It was warm, windy and muggy for the first weekend of autumn, almost like a tropical storm was heading up the coast. The light in the forest was not good, thanks to a heavy overcast. A few mosquitoes found me, but not so many that I needed any spray. I’ve heard that even the Dali Lama would swat a mosquito if provoked, so the self-defense plea would also work for me. Our first frost may be just a few weeks away, and then I won’t have to grapple with this dilemma for a while.

Noisy gusts of wind alternated with periods of quiet. There was the base layer of sound from the crickets. A jay was squawking in the distance. Periodically, like a spent rifle shots, falling heavy acorns could be heard slapping through the leathery oak leaves. The little gang of chickadees, nuthatches and titmice I came to see were absent or silent. There was plenty of deer sign, but no animals were seen or heard. There was a persistent but unfamiliar bird-like chirping in the direction of the swamp. After a while, I decided it could be the last hurrah of some frog species, but I didn’t have the time to seek them out. Any movement that caught my eye turned out to be a leaf drifting quietly to earth.

Most of the trees were still green, but the witch hazels, red maples and birches were starting to change. The yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), is not abundant here, but there are enough to remind me of more northern places. One in particular was littering the trail with its yellow leaves as if putting out a welcome mat, inviting me deeper into the forest.

Where I sat, most of the dominant trees were white pines and red oaks, with the witch hazel, maple, birch and a few dying chestnut sprouts scattered about in the understory. The most common understory trees, however, were young white pines. Perhaps it is wrong to call these small pines young. I examined one nearby. It was only a little taller than my six feet, but I counted about 20 whorls of branches, telling me it had been waiting patiently on the forest floor for two decades, growing only about three to five inches a year. It stands at the ready, waiting for its opportunity. It clings to life, barely getting by. If it is lucky enough to survive long enough, maybe a bolt of lightning, a big wind or a logger’s saw will create an opening in the canopy and its wait will be rewarded with a chance to leap toward the light.

I was struck with the thought that a human life can be like that, too. Patience is a virtue, we are told. But can one be too patient? Can one have too much faith? In a recent early-morning meditation, I was dwelling on the difference between pro-activity and re-activity. So much of my life has been driven by reaction. In the past, a boss would decide and I would respond. More recently, the phone rings, and I react. Something breaks and I have to fix it. My wife or a child asks for help or a favor and I am there. Many hours are spent attending to the needs and activities of others.

Sure, we all have responsibilities to those around us, but for some of us, maybe it’s too easy, too comfortable to squat in the shade of others. If a tree waits too long in the shadows, will it be too weak to respond when finally struck by the light? Can that happen to people, too? We serve others for so long that we forget how to satisfy ourselves. How does one choose a personal goal and proactively strive for it without seeming selfish? I know people who are almost entirely focused on their own comfort and happiness while some give themselves almost completely to others. How does one find a balance?

What happens if that hole in the canopy never opens up? Too often, I use phrases like “some day,” or “one of these days.” Some day we’ll take that bike ride. One of these days I’ll clean the basement. Sooner or later someone will notice what a great job I’m doing and give me that big break. It’s too easy to waste time waiting patiently for a moment that never comes. Some of us need to learn that we have to make things happen on our own. Faith can be misplaced and chances are no one is looking out for us. We have to do it for ourselves.

A little pine tree had me asking a lot of questions today. Answers didn’t come easily. I pushed my bike back to the road, and just as I started to coast down the hill on my way home, I heard a chickadee. I knew I would be back, looking for that little black-capped sprite and his band of cousins, and looking for some answers to questions that came to me from the pines.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rattlesnakes, Raptors and Robbers

People head into the wilds for all sorts of reasons. Some search for birds, some hunt, some fish, some bag peaks. I’m sure there are those who feel their time was wasted if they come home with an empty creel or no new checks on their life list. Some of us are content with a day afield even if we come home empty-handed. A few people I know have seen me on my bike riding to or from Moose Hill. I hesitate to explain the true nature of my visits. It’s so much easier to say I’m going bird watching or that I went hiking rather than to try to explain that I was going to sit or wander alone in the woods to allow natural wonders and random thoughts come to me. In this age of goals, priorities and multitasking, wandering aimlessly might seem a bit wasteful or odd. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have a tangible objective as an excuse to get out.

When I know ahead of time that I will be able to spend a few hours on Moose Hill, I try to plan where I want to spend that precious time. So, even though I try to remain as flexible as possible so I can respond to mood and opportunity, I usually prefer to start with at least an outline for the visit. Three sources of inspiration converged to send me to the rocky cliffs know as Bluff Head and Allens Ledge on Saturday morning. Bluff Head is where my son and I watched the summer solstice sunset (See “Running to the Sun,” June 22, 2006.).

A couple of weeks ago, Greenman Tim posted at “Walking the Berkshires” (See sidebar.) about the decline of one of the few remaining timber rattlesnake dens in New England. Then, a reader interested in Massachusetts geology and caves e-mailed asking if I knew anything about a “Robber’s Cave” on Moose Hill. Finally, Lene of “counting petals” (See sidebar.) suggested that I keep my eyes open for migrating hawks. Usually, I require only the flimsiest of reasons to head to a particular place on Moose Hill, but here were three very good ones to head for the rocky outcrops.

I rode over the hill and down the back side to sneak in the back way from Walpole Street. Even though the trail here is part of the Bay Circuit Trail and the Warner Trail, it is far removed from the parking areas and sanctuary buildings, so it doesn’t get much traffic. Part of the beauty of using a bicycle to get around is that I am not limited by the need to park a car. I can slip into the woods at almost any point, unseen.

The forecast of a cloudy, rainy morning was fabulously incorrect and I was thrilled by the clear air and blue skies. Sunbeams piercing the pines and oaks overhead caused the water droplets from the night’s rain and fog to glisten and sparkle on the ferns and young pines along the path. My footsteps were quiet on the moist duff of the little-used trail.

I climbed through the quiet woods to the first rock outcrop, Allens Ledge. I left the trail to follow an informal path along the base of this small cliff to see if I could find any caves or remnants of historic quarrying activity that could have been the basis of robber legends. I didn’t spot any caves at all, but I did see some amazing lichens growing on the well-shaded rocks. One type looked like someone had thrown big pieces of limp, green seaweed against the stone wall. Some were about as large as my hand. Indeed, in the course of the morning, I saw several varieties of lichens and mosses growing on the rocks. The abundance and variety of these fascinating non-vascular plants made me wish I had an expert along with me, or at least a hand lens and good field guide.

I made another discovery at the base of the ledge that made me wonder if maybe the bird messengers who were talking to me all summer were truly trying to tell me something important and that I was on a very unusual quest. I found an old galvanized steel trash can, upright and partially filled with water. In the putrid swill at the bottom of the barrel, along with leaves, twigs and acorns was a drowned baby squirrel. I have no idea how or why this can was in the middle of the woods, but as I turned it over to eliminate this death trap, I thought of another barrel I emptied this summer that had claimed a baby robin (See “That One May Live,” June 7, 2006.). Maybe my place in the world is to become “He who Dumps Trash Cans.” That would be my kind of luck.

I worked my way along the base of Allens Ledge and then climbed up on top. There is an old, rough, stone chimney standing on a flat spot on the ledge, built from local stone that probably came from the ledge itself. If there was ever a building attached to this chimney, the traces of it are long gone. There is an “eat locally” movement afoot these days. People try to eat food produced by local farmers so they can enjoy the freshness, know that they are supporting local growers, are helping to preserve open space and know that vast amounts of energy were not consumed transporting their strawberries across the continent. I wonder if anyone is trying to launch a “build locally” movement. Many homes around here have Douglas fir beams and cedar siding from the Pacific Northwest, granite countertops from Brazil and marble bathrooms from Italy. Perhaps it makes sense to try to focus more on using local materials or locally recycled materials. Not only would transportation costs be reduced, this might help preserve and enhance local architectures that help make places unique.

Getting hungry, I moved up the trail to find a spot to sit on the higher and larger Bluff Head (Elev. 491). I found a spot offering great views to the south, hoping to spot some migrating hawks. I sat there on that massive rock with miles of landscape stretched before me. If I could ignore the power lines, cell towers and water tanks sticking up, most of the many highways, roads, buildings and other works of humans were hidden by forest. The world looked large and I was, as an individual, feeling small and insignificant. Directly overhead was the white crescent of the moon. In the distance was the humongous Gillette Stadium. I thought how, when united in a common purpose, many individuals could pool their energies and resources to do impressive things like fly to the moon or build a giant sports arena. Now, I’m not a big fan of paving miles of landscape to build stadiums out in the country or cold wars that lead to space races, but I thought of the wonderful things we could do if only we were united in our efforts to build a better world. I wish we had found something better to do with our peace dividend.

Scanning the open air before me, I saw a lone swallow fly by. Soon, like my swifts, the swallow will be gone for the winter. A hawk flew by, low over the trees. I didn’t see any migrants soaring overhead. Maybe there would be some later in the day as the sun warmed the earth and rising cushions of thermals provided a south-bound magic carpet. A tiny, silent greenish bird with a yellow breast was working the branches inside the dense foliage of some redcedars not ten feet away. At first I thought it must be one of the notorious confusing fall warblers, but now I think it might have been a kinglet since it was so small.

Breakfast finished, I got up to explore the rocks. I had a fantasy of discovering an unknown den of rattlers. I had visions of a fat, gravid female warming herself on the rocks in the bright September sun. The slimness of the odds kept me from searching too hard, but I did notice a number of bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) growing in the small pockets of soil in fissures in the stone. This scrub oak is a tree of the hard places, and this place is about as hard as it gets around here with its thin soil and exposure to hot summer sun and cold winter blasts.

Although the cycling shoes I was wearing are fine for walking, they are not well suited to rock climbing, so I quickly gave up on any search for hidden caves that sheltered bandits. I did notice potential loot for amateur archeologists where generations of hikers tossed their trash off the cliff after snacking on the ledge. There must be a veritable midden heap of old cans and bottles buried in the forest floor at the base of the rocks.

A power mower and string trimmer started to roar and whine in the valley below, so it was time to go. I found the trail off the rocks and back into the forest. I heard other hikers coming as I left the main trail to take the less-used trail back to my bike. I watched them pause at the intersection to check their map and then continue on to the ledge. I wondered how many unseen silent eyes watched me as I moved through the woods.

As I slowly approached my bike, I was looking for any excuse to linger a bit longer. I wanted to surrender to serendipity. Just then, off the trail in a pool of sunlight hitting the ground through a hole in the canopy, I saw a movement. Binoculars at the ready, I crept closer and sat down at the base of a tree in a bed of pine needles. I was looking for what I thought would be a titmouse or chickadee, when I saw a heavily streaked breast. Then I saw a second bird. I almost laughed out loud when I saw the light eye-rings and tawny caps with black borders. These were ovenbirds! All summer I heard these naughty pupils screaming for the teacher but I never got to see one. Finally, here at the end of their school year when they are silent, I found them. With some soft ‘pishing’ I lured this curious duo to within about eight feet of me. After about five minutes of mutual inspections, they moved on, perhaps on their way to winter vacation.

I went to the woods with the excuse of looking for raptors, robbers and rattlesnakes. That was my cover story. I knew I wasn’t going to find snakes or caves. I thought my chances of seeing migrating hawks were reasonable, but not great. I didn’t get to put any checks on my to-do list, but that was fine with me.

With that, thinking I had more than my share of discoveries for a day, I pushed my bike to the road and headed for home. Along the way, I encountered some snapping turtles, and that, is another story.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Two Little, Too Late

Are you an animal killer? No matter how green you may consider yourself, even if you’re a card-carrying member of PETA, if you drive a car, you kill wildlife. Get used to it.

I was cycling down Moose Hill Parkway from another wonderful Saturday morning in the woods (A post about that part of my day resides, at this point, only in my notebook and mind.) when, on a lower stretch of the road near the swamp where I searched for my thrush this spring (Dreams and Reality, June 2, 2006), I happened to spot a black spot on the road. Just as it registered in my mind what it was, I saw another. Now sure, I slowed and turned back, saddened by what I saw. On the road, squished to varying degrees of unrecognizability were baby snapping turtles.

Clearly, a female had climbed out of the swamp this spring, made it across the road and laid her eggs in the sandy slope above the street. Now, the eggs were hatching. As I counted the remains of five or six tiny terrors with their serrated tails, little shells and big heads, some leaving little spots of blood, I saw one, and then another live turtle! I quickly picked them up. Before I moved them off the road and down the slope to the edge of the swamp, I remembered I had one of these new-fangled portable telephones with a camera built right into it! I held the two little survivors in my hand and snapped a picture, wondering if one of them might try to cross this same road 50 years from now, when my own babies are old.

It’s no surprise that so many had died. They are so small; not much bigger than a quarter. Their gray shells are exactly the color of the pavement. Even on my bike, I barely saw them. Even careful, considerate drivers would smash them under their wheels without the slightest hint of the carnage below. I drove over this exact spot just yesterday. Did I kill snapping turtles along with the frogs that died with them?

As I climbed on my bike to continue riding home, I remembered another snapper I had seen. In mid-June I stopped traffic on a local street to pick up a medium-large snapping turtle heading back to a pond, I assume, after laying her eggs. I am happy to report that the drivers who had to wait didn't seem to mind at all. This snapper had a shell about 14" long and I grabbed her by the back edge of the shell with two hands. She was so intent on getting across the street and back to the pond that she never even looked back at me. She must have thought she was morphing into a bird as I picked her up and carried her right in the direction she was pointing.

Before going home, I rode across town to check that spot. Sure enough, I saw three or four reptilian grease spots, along with a dead garter snake, its hind quarter crushed into the asphalt. I wondered how long its head had lived as its tail was dying.

Later in the afternoon, on a bike ride with my wife through a neighboring town, I found another baby snapper in the road. It was intact but showed little or no sign of life. I placed it at the edge of a pond, just in case.

Even those of us who love wild places and wild creatures, unwillingly or unknowingly, take our own toll. From the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to the houses we live in, we have an impact. I may have saved two little turtles today, but I was too late for the others. Ironically, I may have killed them myself. We may hope to tread gently, but tread we do.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hidden Treasures

A short visit to Moose Hill Saturday morning and an interesting discovery got me thinking about things we take from the woods and things we leave.

I only had time for a quick breakfast visit, so I headed back to my rock on Hobbs Hill. The trail to this nice spot is only about half way up Moose Hill Parkway and since I was there not too long ago (See “Faith,” August 5, 2006.), I knew I could get there and back quickly. I parked the bike, headed down the trail, went over the boardwalk and up the trail to the hilltop. Just as I approached the summit, something unusual caught my eye. In a space under a big, flat rock was a plastic food storage container. At first I thought it was trash, or that perhaps someone had stashed a lunch there. Examining the box, I quickly realized it contained some kind of log book with a rubber stamp. It was a letterbox.

I was only vaguely aware of the sport of letterboxing. I guess it’s a little like treasure hunting or geocaching. People hide these boxes in the woods, publish clues as to their locations, and folks go hunting for them. A little web searching tells me that this hobby may be quite popular, but I knew almost nothing about it. It reminded me of the log books placed at the summits of some mountain tops in the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York that I used to sign on my hikes back in the 1970’s. Peak-bagging was a serious sport for some people who, for example, would try to climb all the Adirondack peaks over 4000 feet in elevation. They called themselves, I think, “Forty-sixers.” The letterbox also made me think that we might be making progress. Where people once left their mark in the woods by carving hearts and initials in the bark of beech trees, now they can leave a stamp and a note in a sketchbook.

I guess any sport or activity that gets people outside, exercising and into the woods in a non-consumptive, low-impact way is a good thing. It’s good for the participants and, ultimately, good for the woods if it inspires people to appreciate and protect our wild places. I imagine there are those who would be so focused on finding their treasure, letterbox or peak that they might miss the wondrous details of the forest they travel through, but I would hope most take the time to look around and absorb the beauty.

I sealed the letterbox back up and put it back under the rock. It seems it has been there for several years and many people have singed the logbook, but I missed it completely on my last visit.

I walked among the hickories on the hilltop and found my breakfast rock overlooking the little valley. The morning was cool and dry enough that there were only a few not-very-aggressive mosquitoes. Crickets provided a steady background sound, but the cicadas of my last visit were quiet. I saw one chipmunk moving silently among some rocks nearby, while another was clucking in the distance. A lone robin was picking through the brown oak leaves on the ground. The soft sounds of the forest and the quiet activities of my woodland hosts helped me to ignore the human noises of voices and machinery in the far distance.

Suddenly, a new movement caught my eye. Along the draw below my vantage point, a brown bird flew among the trees, close to the ground near where I had just seen the robin. At first, I thought it was the robin, but quickly realized it was about twice as large and must be a hawk. This silent, graceful bird landed on a low-hanging oak branch, pausing long enough to give me an obstructed view with my binoculars. Based on its habitat, small size, streaked breast and banded tail, I’m pretty sure it was an immature sharp-shinned hawk. I imagine the robin was as pleased as I was disappointed when this bird-eater moved along. I see red-tailed hawks soaring overhead in the open or sitting by the roadside all the time, but these small woodland hawks are harder to spot and identify. I love seeing them, but always wish I knew more about them.

People go to the woods for all kinds of reasons. Some might leave hidden treasures and take letterbox scorecard checkmarks. Others might leave footprints and take photos and life bird lists. On one late summer morning, I was content to leave my mark in a little log book and take away a sense of peacefulness that a few moments of quiet and solitude in the forest can provide.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Silent Skies of September

Well, my swifts are gone. I wrote about how the chimney swifts arrive over my house every year on or about May 1 and brighten my summer sky with their happy chittering and zooming (“Magic in the Air,” May 5, 2006). I’m always so happy when they show up, taking their arrival as a signal that another long, warm, happy summer lies ahead. As suddenly as they arrive on the first of May, they leave on the first of September. They slipped away this year, right on schedule, but I wasn’t looking.

We were out of town on the first of September, taking our son back to school, but really, I just wasn’t paying attention. I noticed the silent sky a few days later, and realized that I had missed one of the important little events of my year. Around Labor Day, I try to pay attention and notice how one day I can spot them flying high overhead; sometimes alone, often in formations of twos and threes; and then the next day, they are gone. I wish them well, look forward to their return next year, and try not to dwell on the fact that their departure is one more sign that the season is also slipping away. This year, my friends slipped away, and I didn’t even say goodbye.

How often does that happen in life? One day, we have a relationship with a friend or loved one, and the next day, when we aren’t paying attention, they are gone. September 1 was my father’s birthday, so on that day I often think about how he slipped away forever in 1990. I missed that departure, too, being hundreds of miles away and busy with my own life and family. My thirtieth college reunion is coming up this fall and I was thinking about going, but even with all the good times I had and all the good people I knew back then, I’m not in touch with any of my classmates anymore. I let them slip away. I thought about e-mailing a few, but they might not write back.

The silent skies of September also have a new meaning. I love peering into the deep blue infinity of a clear September sky, but that joy is sometimes now tempered by what happened on one of those clear days in September, 2001. I think the pilots call it “severe clear,” when the visibility is unlimited and the flying is wonderful. I still remember looking up as I worked outside for a few days after September 11 when all air traffic was grounded. Probably for the only time in my life, I could look at the sky all day and see or hear no planes, see no contrails. The blue dome was quiet and beautiful. As wonderful as it was, I hope never to see it like that again for the same reason.

We’re all slipping away. Vivian at “Off the Grid” (See link in sidebar) asks, “Why do you blog?” It’s a good question. She says that blogs are forever. While I’m skeptical about that – all some corporation needs to do is decide to pull the plug on some servers – she has a point. In this age of e-mail, instant messaging and cheap phone calls, we’re leaving a pretty lean written record of our individual personal lives. Children won’t have dusty steamer trunks to dig through. Lovers won’t have ribbon-tied bundles of perfumed letters. If blogging prompts people to write, maybe some of these posts will be the best clues we leave behind about who we were.

I know, in my own life, it often seems I can’t get a word in edgewise. My mind works slowly. My thoughts don’t come in soundbites. Nobody wants to listen to me long enough to let me form my ideas. I can do that here, as I like to say, with impunity. Maybe, someday, some curious descendant will wonder who that guy was.

Another little tradition I have around Labor Day, is to look at John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. It seems I’ve always had a fantasy about wandering around the country. If I couldn’t do it on a bicycle, I’d do it like Steinbeck, in a small camper. He planned to leave on his cross-country journey with his dog Charley and his camper truck, Rocinante, soon after Labor Day (1960, I think). I like to pick this book up around this time and read a few paragraphs. While writing his explanation about his irresistible urge to travel and roam, he said: “I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.” Maybe that’s the main reason I’m writing this blog. This might be the September of my life. This might be a good time to inform myself about who I am, where I’ve been, where I am and where I might be going.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Last Firefly

Insects were a big part of my summer on Moose Hill. The mosquitoes welcomed me in June, and remain faithful companions even until now. Cicadas, crickets and katydids provided a sonic canvas for the lyrical paintings of the birds. Butterflies and bumblebees entertained the eye. Fireflies signaled high summer on a solstice ramble.

Children of all ages are thrilled to see the bright yellow flash of a firefly. So many of us fondly remember running through the green grass of childhood summer evenings to capture lightning bugs, keeping them in mayonnaise jars by the bedside, watching the powdery flashes before drifting off to dreamy sleep. Imagine the wonder of early humans, peering into the utter darkness of a mysterious world and suddenly seeing spots of otherworldly brightness moving through the brush. Imagine how it would feel to kill the last firefly.

Stephen M. Meyer is a professor at MIT and is dying of cancer. Meyer, 54, had four to eight weeks to live when the Boston Globe Magazine asked him to write an article. It is likely the last article he will write. Using speech recognition software because his hands are paralyzed, he wanted to leave the world a message about how, by killing the small creatures among us, we - as individuals - may be destroying the world as we know it.

His article, “A Misguided Zap,” appeared in the September 3, 2006 edition of The Boston Globe Magazine. He points out that, in our zeal to avoid a few mosquito bites, we set out bug zappers to lure insects with light only to fry them on a grid of high voltage. In a summer, one of these deathtraps may kill 10,000 insects, but only a couple of dozen of them would be biting insects. The vast majority of the incinerated beings are harmless, maybe beautiful, even beneficial, rare or endangered.

I’ve always considered automatic lawn sprinklers to be somewhat wasteful and decadent. Now, Meyer warns of a new convenience for those with equally abundant money and self-interest: Automatic insecticides sprayers. Like clockwork, plastic dispensers will pop up to emit mists of pyrethroids. One wonders if the sales pitch focuses on the collateral damage to harmless insects, fish, amphibians and other animals up the food chain.

About 10 years ago, one of my home improvement customers asked me to hang a bug zapper in her backyard. Even then I suspected that these contraptions did more with their satisfying sound of crisply frying bugs to make us feel protected than they did in actually ridding the yard of the target enemy. Like using a cluster bomb in a crowded neighborhood to kill a single terrorist, their murder seemed indiscriminant. Even this ostensibly educated, aware, sensitive, progressive homeowner was not interested in my gentle suggestion to consider the consequences of living with this device. I will never hang another, no matter what the pay. At this point, the idea of a monkey wrench in the zapper is feeling pretty good.

As heroic as Meyer’s last message may be, the timing is unfortunate indeed. Just this weekend, a local nine-year-old boy died of mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis. Surely, his warnings will fall on mostly deaf ears. As in the war on terror, in our rush to protect ourselves and our loved ones, we will pull out the big guns first and ask questions later. When the dust and fog settle, I only hope we pause to consider what we have done.