Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

I went trespassing last night. Just before dark, I snuck out to walk the half mile to the scene of an atrocity. It was a cloudy evening and the moon was only a sliver. If needed, I wanted darkness to be on my side as I attempted this dangerous mission. I was going where I was not - and would never want to be - welcome.

In reality, I knew this war was lost months or years ago, the decisive battles fought by expensive lawyers charging through town offices and meeting rooms. The defenses were weak, as many citizens collaborated with the enemy, hoping to save their own skins.

The scene of the conflict was once a beautiful hardwood forest. Right near the heart of our town, only a mile or two from Moose Hill, was about 12 acres (roughly estimated using Google Maps.) of rich woodland of oak, ash, birch and maple with scattered white pine and hemlock. Somehow, it had escaped development and it was sandwiched between two older residential neighborhoods. This was what would be known in forestry as a “good site;” the trees grew tall, straight and fast. Countless woodland animals made their homes here. Hundreds of birds nested there. In times now past, generations of neighborhood kids, no doubt, snuck in there to play in the woods. In November a couple of years ago, when I went to the fringe of this forest to empty a bucket of leaves I had cleaned from someone’s gutters, I was greeted by a majestic six-point whitetail buck.

This land will soon be the site of a brand new “Over-55” community. Our town is terrified of large new residential developments because our schools are always over budget and our real estate taxes are already very high because we have little commercial property to share the burden. The only thing scarier than a few new McMansions with two or four kids per household would be a low-income development with scores of common kids. The developer, no doubt, threatened the use of that option when seeking approval for this massive development. Because children would be excluded from this new community, with the exception of a localized NIMBY fight, no voice of protest was raised.

Last fall, in only about three days, the entire property was stripped of every standing tree. I won’t say “clear-cut” because, as a former forestry student, I know that clearcutting, when prescribed by a knowledgeable forest manager, is a valid silvicultural technique that leads to the regeneration of a healthy and valuable even-aged forest. No, this forest was stripped and decimated with no plans to re-grow any living thing. It looked like the assault was made as quickly as possible so no defense could be organized. They need not have worried; no whimper was heard.

This spring, the earth-moving began. My objective last night was to see what was left of the woodlot. I walked down a street paralleling the lot and started from the back, working my way out to the main road. It seems the plan is to level the property in preparation for a new road and sites for the buildings. This is land sculpting on a geologic scale. Not since the Pleistocene when the glaciers last plowed this area has this ground been more raw and disturbed. This looked more like a lunar landscape than New England. As I navigated the quarter mile from the back of the property to the front, I discovered a large field of boulders that had been set aside. There were mounds of earth as tall as houses. Many, many truckloads of fill will be removed. As I slogged through the slimy mud from recent rains, I saw no signs of life. I saw, in fact, no organic matter at all. From boundary to boundary the ground is scraped clean. As this development is assembled, every green thing and everything it grows in will have to be imported, absolutely from scratch. Even a big old house and barn are gone without a trace.

I went to that place last night hoping to see some remainder of that lovely, old wooded glade, but all I found was greed. Not only the body, not only the soul, but the graves and the ghosts of that forest are gone. The affluent retirees that move in there will never know what was destroyed for their comfort. Who would want to live in such a soulless place? Clearly, the developer cared nothing for the ecosystem he was ravaging. How can a man crave profits so much that he would so hungrily and totally obliterate such a lovely place? Our town has set aside some wonderful conservation land, and we can’t save everything, but this sort of exploitation, with such total disregard for the natural world should never be tolerated. My heart was heavy as I walked back onto the hard, busy street and headed for home.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Running to Another Place

Warm summer rain run.

Endorphins bathe open mind.

Pewee calls from woods.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Running to the Sun

Well, another year passes without making it to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. I did actually visit that ancient site a few years ago, so some progress has been made. That was in November, 2003 so the public was kept some distance from the stones. I’d love to be there for the solstice, the one day when common people are permitted to approach. What primeval pulsing they must feel, watching the sun rise along the path marked by those ancient rocks and dancing barefoot with the Pagans.

Yesterday was the longest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere with summer arriving at 8:26 AM. I wanted to celebrate this special moment in the solar system and I thought it would be fitting to watch the first sunset of summer from atop Moose Hill. At breakfast, I checked the paper to learn that sunset was at 8:15. I hurried through a busy day, hoping to have enough time to hike to the top of the hill and find a spot with a clear view of the western horizon.

My plan was to climb to the summit where an old fire watchtower is located. I hadn’t been there in several years and I didn’t remember any great views since the hilltop is heavily wooded, but time was limited and the tower is only a short hike from the road and, since it’s on the actual summit of Moose Hill (Elev. 534’), it seemed appropriate for this new adventure of observation and imagination I’m exploring.

Luck and help sometimes arrive unexpectedly. Our son asked if he could tag along on my climb to the sun and that turned out to be, in more ways than one, a good thing. Home from college for the summer, David has recently taken a surprising level of interest in my cycling and hiking activities. I’m sure he’ll get over it, but I’ll cherish it while it lasts. This was a big day for David. We had just returned from a car dealer where he placed a deposit on his first truck. He was excited as any young man would be upon passing that milestone, and I was happy for him.

Time being short, we drove to a parking lot at the top of Moose Hill Parkway and headed into the woods on foot. My fears were soon confirmed and there was no view from the top of the hill and a fence prevents climbing the tower itself.

With only 20 minutes to sunset, I was ready to explore the immediate area, looking for a spot to get a peek at the sun through the trees and, failing that, chalk one up for learning experiences. David said he thought he knew the way to some open ledges where the view to the south was unobstructed. I had been there once before, that time with the guidance of our daughter, but it had been a couple of years and with darkness approaching there was little room for error. Dave said that if we move it, we can make it.

As parents with young children, we get into the habit of thinking our kids need pampering and protection. We get into the routine of planning around the limitations created when young ones are with us. Well, kids grow up, and eventually get stronger than us. We have to look at them in new ways. Sometimes it takes effort to understand that we have been eclipsed by the power and beauty of their youth and what they now need is not coddling but the kind of encouragement and support that can allow them to go beyond us.

Well, I’m happy to report that in at least one respect, I have not yet been eclipsed. Once the decision was made to go for the ledges, we took off. A fast hike soon turned into a jog. A jog turned into the run. I can still run at least as fast as my young companion, but it was deeply satisfying to know we were now running as equals.

The trail was fairly flat and smooth for much of the way and it felt great to be flying through the woods on this warm evening, the sweat a reminder that the solstice we were celebrating was that of the summer. Maybe it was the natural feel of the trail as compared to the hard roads I usually run, but my stride felt smooth and strong. More importantly, I was running with a new confidence, knowing that the child behind me could keep up because he was now a man.

We made it to the bluff with 10 minutes to spare. The views are mostly to the south and in the distance we could see - for the football fans out there – the monstrosity that is Gillette Stadium, home of the sometimes-world champion New England Patriots. A little exploration took us to a rocky ledge that allowed us to see off to the west just enough to see the sun setting between some eastern red cedars that cling bravely to the rocks. The wood thrush provided his musical accompaniment for our modest celestial celebration.

We snapped a few photos, enjoyed the scenery for a few more minutes as the sun slipped below the horizon, and then headed back onto the trail to race the deepening darkness back to the road. When we emerged from the woods into some open old fields we were greeted by the twinkling of fireflies. They seemed to be welcoming us with flashes of joy for a new season for the year and a new season in the life of a young man.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

For Julia, June 19, 1999

It was sunny and warm this morning, so I decided to have breakfast on the deck. As I sat there with my coffee and the Globe, listening to the catbird chatter away and watching the robin patiently and stoically sitting on her new nest, I remembered another warm June 19th when I sat on the deck to write down some thoughts about my mother who died that day. When her time came, Julia was at home in New York, comforted by the loving care of my sisters. We knew the end was near but, as luck would have it, I was with my own family in Massachusetts when I got the phone call. I spent a few moments that day recording these thoughts that I shared with those assembled for her funeral a few days later. Few mother-son relationships are perfect, and we certainly had our issues, but I thank my mom for helping to teach me love for the natural world and how to find pleasure in the simple things in life.

For Mom June 19, 1999

Julia was my mother and I hope that I, and all who knew and loved her, can help ensure her immortality by remembering her good qualities and emulating them in our own lives and passing them on to others.

My mother lived a full life, and was witness to so many changes. She was born during the First World War, helped scratch a living from the dirt and lived to see a time when people can cross oceans in hours, and communicate around the world at the speed of light.

She came from such humble beginnings. She was born to newly-immigrated parents, and spent her early years on a farm where they were so poor they didn’t notice the depression.

She was truly representative of the Greatest Generation and even in adulthood faced challenges that most of us in my pampered generation can only imagine. She buried her first still-born child at home. Her second child, Lynn, was born when our father was thousands of miles away in the Pacific and my mother raised Lynn alone for two years burdened with the knowledge that her husband may never return. She raised two more children and worked side-by-side with Al to build two houses and renovate another. I recently heard the story of how Julia went up on the roof to hold an umbrella over Al’s head to keep off the rain as he nailed the final few shingles onto their Ayer Lane home. She pursued a passion for travel - even literally around the world - and visited places I can only hope to see.

Through it all she was a faithful companion to her husband and a devoted nurturer of her children. Even though the three of us grew up in tumultuous times and found ourselves in lives that she may have found truly bewildering, she was always remarkably non-judgmental, accepting and supportive. I will always remember how she sat in the synagogue for Jackie’s Bat Mitzvah and David’s Bar Mitzvah with comfort and pride as if she had spent may days there. She often came to watch - and in her motherly way, worry - as Nancy and I suffered through one of our triathlons.

She gave us all she could to get us off to a good start. There were the big things: She saw to it that I was able to go to the college of my choice. When I wanted to buy my first house at what now seems such a young age, she was there enthusiastically to be sure I was making a good choice and to make it possible. And the little things: (It’s funny what things stick in your mind.) I can still remember when - in the midst of my early obsession for backpacking - my mother and father drove me to the bus station to see me off on one of my solo hikes. She had packed me a dinner - the last real meal I would see for days. That night when I finally found the trail head alone and in darkness, I settled in for the night looking forward to dinner. Only then did I discover that I had left the bag on the bus and wondered who would find the bag with the neatly-wrapped sandwiches, juicy fruit and special treat. (She even packed a napkin.) I remember feeling sad - not that I was going to be hungry - but that I had lost something she had made just for me in her special, loving way. All in all, she was always there to help me do the things I most wanted to do.

Her humble beginnings taught her to appreciate the simple pleasures: the comfort of a good cup of coffee, the escape of a good mystery novel, the beauty of a spring flower, or the satisfaction of a good meal. I think she remembered the entire menu of every restaurant she ever dined at.

My mother was frugal but not cheap. She always ate the broken cookies in a new package first and always ate the heel of bread herself…because she wanted to save the best for someone else. She had a waste-not-want-not attitude that I like to think would make her proud every time I re-use a tea bag or when Nancy turns the ketchup bottle upside-down to get the last few drops. But she also knew when it was time to enjoy herself…whether it was getting a good deal on a set of fine crystal or enjoying herself to the fullest on her latest travel adventure.

My mother never got old. Yes - her body may have failed her, but her mind and spirit never did. She fought the good fight with unflagging courage and without complaint. And right up to the end she was dreaming of one more trip with her unique youthful enthusiasm.

In the end - the true measure of a person may be in how much they are loved. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank Vicky and Penny, Donna and Lynn for loving my mother enough to make her final wishes come true and send her on her final Bon Voyage with comfort, dignity and grace.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Stolen Moments

We can’t always control our moods. Sometimes we head out with every good intention to have some fun, but the mind turns to melancholy thoughts instead.

I knew today wasn’t going to be very productive from the start. Most of the morning was committed to taking my wife for a routine medical checkup that requires a companion to drive the patient home. (Most of you 50-somethings may know what I’m talking about!) The late afternoon was promised to my son for the continuing search for his first car. So, I figured there would be no harm in stealing a few minutes to stop on Moose Hill for some exploration and bird watching as I drove through on my way back from a small item of business.

Sometimes, thoughts have a way of sneaking up, assembling and attacking when we least expect it. I guess it started in the doctor’s waiting room. The exam took an especially long time. For the first hour or so, I was enjoying the chance to sit quietly and read. I had my new copy of John McPhee’s Founding Fish. After a while, as I saw the nurses calling the other companions into the back for reports, it began to sink in that, although these procedures are considered routine, for some people they do present bad news. Just a few weeks ago, our good friend and neighbor passed away, at the age of 56, only 69 days after diagnosis. Only a few months before that, another friend, in her early 50’s, died of breast cancer. Another neighbor up the street is ill. When my turn finally came to go into the back to see my wife, I didn’t take it for granted that everything would be fine and was very happy to learn that everything was.

At some point during the day, I remembered that next week, June 19th, marks the seventh anniversary of my mother’s passing. Perhaps it was a blog entry I read just yesterday about a recently-departed father enjoying one of his favorite beers for the last time that had me thinking about my parents and the way simple things could bring them happiness. Just before I headed out on my errand, I read an e-mail notification that another acquaintance of ours, not much older than us, had also succumbed not long after receiving a bone marrow transplant that was meant to give new hope.

Considering the thoughts that snuck into my mind, perhaps I can be forgiven if, as I approached Moose Hill, I stopped at what looks like a small family burial plot along the edge of the street. There are about five marked graves and all of the headstones are damaged. Perhaps time has taken its toll since the two dates I could read were from the 1820’s and 1830’s, but some of the damage looked like vandalism. The one name I could see was a prominent name in our old town and a few fresh flowers marked the graves, so I know these graves, while looking rather forlorn, are not totally forgotten.

After driving slowly up the hill to the sanctuary parking lot, I decided to visit a pine grove that is nearby. I remember watching a flock of turkeys scratching through a light snow under these pines while pausing during a winter jog, but this mid-afternoon in June it was sunny, warm and still. High in the trees, a tiger swallowtail butterfly flitted through the sunbeams and a few small birds worked quietly among the soft white pine foliage. The tall trees and soft, brown forest floor reminded me of a place called “Cathedral Pines” along the Appalachian Trail that I hiked though many years ago. I wasn’t standing in a cathedral, but I could imagine a chapel; a place suited to quiet contemplation about those who are gone and those we would leave behind.

I have respect for traditional customs surrounding death and burial. I figure most of them have evolved because they work for the societies that embrace them. I am also increasingly aware that new approaches are taking root. Last year, I heard a piece on the radio about burial grounds where the natural beauty of the cemetery is maintained and disturbance is minimized. Graves might be dug by hand by family members. Headstones might be made from native rocks, or burial locations marked only by GPS coordinates.

Standing in the quiet forest today, alone with my mood, I hoped I would have many happy healthy and productive years left. I hope I can do some good things in this world, and when my time comes, I hope I’m placed in a quiet natural place where those who knew me can sit and enjoy the breeze through the pines.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

That One May Live

The death of one baby robin may have saved the life of another.

I was working on an indoor carpentry project in the neighborhood yesterday. When I went to open a window, I saw a newly-fledged robin floating, dead, in a barrel of rainwater. The little bird looked very dead, but I promptly fished it out of the water just in case. It was stiff, so I took a little comfort in knowing it probably died before I had arrived, and even if I had been more observant, there was nothing I could have done.

I examined a nearby rhododendron, looking for the nest, but instead found another baby robin silently gripping a twig. I spotted what must have been the parents nervously watching the area and busily looking for worms.

I imagined the pathetic scene that must have ensued as this baby, possibly on its maiden flight, clumsily tried to land on the edge of the trash can, but tumbled into the water instead. The water level was about four or five inches below the rim of the barrel, so there was no way it could have climbed the wall of slippery plastic. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize as I picture the frantic parents watching the baby struggle to climb from the water and the confused sibling looking on in fright. What did they feel as the thrashing gradually weakened until, finally, the little bird could no longer hold its head out of the water.

Naturally, the homeowner could not have foreseen how a neglected trash can could become a deathtrap. She had no objection when I told her what happened and asked permission to empty the water. I neglected to tell her how lucky we were that it was a fledgling robin and not her toddler that had plunged into the barrel.

My thoughts were on robins when I got home so I decided to check in on the ones nesting in my backyard. The nest was empty and I saw one of the adults perched overhead, its beak full of worms. I went around to the back of the shed to see if I could observe the adults feeding the hungry youngsters. I heard the loud chirp of a fledgling, but immediately knew tragedy was stalking one of my babies. The chirp was echoing from inside the shed.

The nest was built on the roof of a wren box that is mounted up under the eaves of the shed. The space above the wall and between the rafters is open, so when this baby clambered out of the nest, it apparently fell into the shed rather than out into the open. The bird would surly die if it was not reunited with its parents. I propped the shed door open and eventually found the baby perched, all head and legs, in a jumble of bicycle parts. As I reached for it, it flew out the door, evidently unharmed by its mishap. The ever-watchful parents saw the whole thing and the father was with his offspring in a moment.

I spent the next half hour watching through the kitchen window as the male urgently collected worms to bring to the newly-liberated baby. The female, although she did check in from time to time, seemed preoccupied with the rest of the little family. As I watched this miraculous striving against the odds presented by all the hazards out there for young birds, I found it amazing that they survive at all. While I was saddened by the drowning of one fledgling, I took some comfort in knowing that the death of one bird had lead to the rescue of another.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Dreams and Reality

Was I dreaming or was it reality? Like Kokopelli the water sprinkler with his flute, the wood thrush came to me before dawn, calling to me with his sweet melody.

I had been thinking about wood thrushes. I had been hearing them calling from deep in the woods as I rode my bike on Moose Hill. I had also been hearing the eager “teacher, Teacher, TEACHER!” of the ovenbird, another species I associate with deep forest. For the past couple of weeks, I had been thinking I should slip into the darkness of the hardwoods to look for these two favorites that I hear quite often but see so rarely.

Then, a few days ago, he came to me. In the twilight just before dawn, I was awakened from a sound sleep by the unmistakable song of the thrush outside my window. In my dreamlike state, I imagined he knew what I was thinking and in the darkness he dared to venture from the protection of the forest to fly through the sleeping town to tell me my visit was overdue.

I was up early this morning and had an hour to spare, so I hopped on my single speed and rode to a spot near the beginning of Moose Hill Parkway where I had been hearing a thrush. I wasn’t off the bike and down the trail more than a minute when I flushed a big great blue heron from the shallows of a marshy pond. Not long after I was beyond the noise of the water cascading over the small dam that forms the pond, I heard the thrush.

As I hunted for the bird along some unfamiliar trails and woods roads, I noticed that birding in June was going to be a bit harder. On this morning, the sky was overcast and the light was not good. The trees are in full leaf, so any bird high in the treetops would be difficult to spot as I discovered with the orioles and vireos I could hear but not see. The warm, humid weather was ideal for the mosquitoes that were benefiting from our wet spring and rising from the ostrich ferns to greet me.

As it turns out, what I had imagined as something of an epic quest was little more than a walk in the park. After following thrush songs for only a half hour or so, I spotted one calmly and cooperatively sitting on a dead branch 20 or so feet above a gravel road, singing away. Even in the low light, I could plainly see his rusty back and spotted breast. I watched him for a few minutes, happy to hear him play his flute for me, and happy to know he was here at all. These birds struggle to survive because they nest in large, unbroken tracts of forest. As the woods are chopped up into smaller parcels by farming or development, their nests are more easily found by parasitic cowbirds that love to lay their eggs in thrush nests.

Many birding trips are planned to visit one or more habitats in the hope of finding as many species as possible. This trip was a little different in that I was looking for a specific species. Luckily for me, I was focused on a fairly common bird. Mission accomplished, I had a little time to wander around to see what else I could find. Since I wasn’t having much luck seeing the tree-top dwellers, I concentrated on the brushy thickets between the road and the pond. I soon heard the “whichety-whichety” of a warbler and saw my first yellowthroat of the year; a bird I prefer to think of as the burglar bird with his black mask.

I stepped off the road to look for the catbird I heard chattering away. I soon spotted not one, but two catbirds. When they saw me approach, they went quiet. To me, catbirds always seem to be making noise, so it gradually dawned on me that the silence of this pair might mean something. As I felt with the tom turkey in my post “Windshielding”, this behavior must have been significant. I realized there must be nest nearby and these parents were trying to keep a very low profile as they watched my every move. It took only a few moments to spot the nest not 15 feet away, right in front of me, about four feet off the ground. It was, appropriately enough, in a tangle of cat briar. I approached just close enough to see that it was neatly woven and inside, so naked and exposed, there were three glossy, greenish-blue eggs.

So, my goal of seeing a wood thrush took me to the woods this morning and serendipity brought me to a catbird nest. It’s remarkable how much there is to see when we take the initiative to get out of the house, and then open ourselves to the possibilities of new discoveries.

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