Saturday, March 31, 2007

Overload and Paralysis

I left home Saturday morning at about 9:15. It was clear, sunny, calm, about 45 degrees and warming rapidly in the spring sun. I decided to walk to Moose Hill rather than taking the bike because, I thought, a brisk walk up the hill would be more exercise. This is where my troubles began.

To make things more interesting, I took as many trails as I could, staying off the road as much as possible. I took a shortcut through the train station parking lot that leads down a dirt road, past some little-known tennis courts and eventually to the dam that forms the cedar swamp where the redwings were back and calling and the geese and mallards were pairing up. As soon as I left the parking lot, I started to see birds. I’d walk for a minute or two, see a bird flash by and have to pause to see what it was. Naturally, where there is one, there may be a half dozen or more. Sure, they were mostly the usual suspects – a small flock of chickadees with the titmouse, nuthatch and downy woodpecker hangers-on – but I have little trouble finding joy in watching even these common denizens of these woods. Also, I am often rewarded with a glimpse of something special among these little troops of small birds.

About half way up the hill along the Ovenbird Trail, I stopped for a minute to watch a pair of titmice – clearly with spring on their minds – exploring a hole in an oak branch. Suddenly, a red squirrel in a big white pine overhead started scolding me. Eventually, she was so overcome with anger or curiosity, she had to climb down to get a closer look and tell me to keep moving. Just then, there was a clattering of hooves on rocks as four deer - unseen until they moved – vacated the area. I wondered if they were the same four I saw sitting and watching me a couple of months ago. Then, too, they got up and moved only after I stopped walking.

It seems some creatures react when confronted with silence, the way some people can’t stand a pause in conversation. I remember a time in Maine when smallmouth bass would hit a plug only when it was floating still and never when it was swimming. I recall grouse busting out of cover only when the hunter stopped walking. The animals on Moose Hill may be accustomed to walkers moving steadily along well-used paths, but get nervous then the regular rhythm of footsteps stops.

A little further along, I stopped and looked up through the leafless trees as a great blue heron – my first of the year - flew by overhead. He was rowing lazily through the clear air, and in the bright light I could see him flying straight but turning his long-beaked head from side to side on his long neck as if sightseeing while driving down the interstate.

By the time I stopped a few minutes later to watch and listen as a Carolina wren made a ruckus, I acknowledged that I wasn’t going to get a great workout on this day. It’s hard to keep the heart rate up when every turn in the path reveals a new treat to savor; a new bird or mammal to study.

At the top of the hill, I broke out of the woods and into the big field where – in season -the tree swallows and monarchs fly. I heard a junco trilling in a way that made me think a chipping sparrow had made an early return. A small flock of robins seemed happy to be hopping around on the snow-matted grass. Blue jays worked along the edges of the field. I scanned the nesting boxes with my binoculars to find my first two tree swallows of the year! I was happy to see their crisp white bellies and glistening blue-purple backs. I wondered if they were tired after a long journey. I was thrilled to hear their twinkling calls as I left the field.

Out on the road, I heard the loud trilling and heavy machine gun of a red-bellied woodpecker. This was no tapping for breakfast. He was making a vernal statement.

I left the street again and turned down the dirt road that leads to the old Billings farm where I planned to sit in my favorite field for breakfast. There was still some snow in the piney areas or in the shadow of a stone wall, but it was rapidly melting. There were still chunks of ice in the swamp, but I knew the peepers would soon be singing. A few galvanized buckets still hung from taps in the sugar maples. I tasted sweet drops of sap, but the season was all but over.

I finally made it to my spot in the sun where I could sit with my back to the stone wall and look out over the small meadow with its bird houses and bee hives. It had already reached the time when I said I would be home and I just sat down to my coffee and sandwich. Spring is a time when there can be too much to see. From the bluebird eyeing the nest box to the chipmunk rising from her winter sleep, there is always something to arrest the attention. Sometimes, I’m not sure where to look first. It is a happy overload; a pleasant paralysis.

What wonderful drugs were coursing through my veins! I sat in the warm sun after an hour and a half of springtime walking and discovery, and let the coffee bathe my brain. It felt great to be back on the hill, knowing that a new season was about to unfold. There was no green yet other than the pines and moss, but I heard my first chipmunk cluck and a big, sleepy-looking fly landed on my backpack.

After breakfast, I headed for home. Before I left the woods, I saw my first butterfly of the season. It was large and brown with blue spots and a creamy fringe on its wings. It’s called a mourning cloak, but I saw only joy in its springtime flight.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Your Content Has Been Deleted

Nearly ten years ago, I was warned that the real troubles in my life would blindside me at 4:00 PM on some idle Tuesday. Strangely, I never forgot the warning, but little did I know how true it would be.

In the late Nineties I would carpool my son to middle school. I liked to play music on cassette tapes during the trip. I am prone to playing a tape I like over and over for a long time. One of my favorites was “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” by Baz Luhrmann. This was a reading, set to music, of an imaginary commencement speech by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune published June 1, 1997 that became famous on the Internet as the speech that was never delivered at a graduation by Kurt Vonnegut. (A quick web search will yield both versions.) The speech is full of all sorts of memorable lines like: “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth,” “Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone,” and “Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.” The relevant chestnut here is;

“Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”

In my case, it was 4:10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and while I wasn’t being idle, I was distracted, knowing that I was expecting my ever-vigilant urologist to call with the results of my second biopsy in less than two years. My cell phone went off. “One of your samples shows a malignancy.” I wasn’t exactly blindsided, either, because I had a gut feeling that my luck had run out. Somehow, out of the depths of my memory that line from a song I hadn’t thought about in years bubbled to the surface.

After the call, I went through the motions of working for a little while longer, went home, changed plans and walked to Moose Hill. I wanted to be alone and I knew where I wanted to go. I walked up Moose Hill Parkway and took one of my favorite trails, the one that goes over Hobbs Hill. Early spring was in the air. It was cloudy and cool, but the recent snow was wet and melting fast. I tried to look around; to spot changes in the woods. We didn’t have much snow this winter so the many deer tracks in the slush reminded me of the tales a little snow cover could tell. Looking up through the oaks, I saw a pair of newly-returning turkey vultures teeter-tottering in the wind. It wasn’t easy to concentrate, though.

I thought about how spring would come and other seasons would pass, no matter what happened to me. I walked by my favorite breakfast rock, reluctant to look at it for fear that I would feel like I was looking at it for the last time. Look, I knew I was over-reacting. My cancer is common among aging (Ouch!) men. It is in the very early stages, probably as early as it’s possible to detect, and it’s very curable. But I figure everybody is entitled to a little moodiness after such a diagnosis, no matter how good the prognosis. Between thoughts of fear, uncertainty, self-pity – even guilt and failure – I moved along the trail and also thought about the hours I’d spent here over the past year and knew I would be back many more times. As I walked, I started to come to my senses. I am fortunate to live in a time and place where state-of-the-art medical care is available. I have a loving and supportive family. My health is otherwise good and I’m young and strong enough to recover quickly from surgery.

Just as I was feeling good enough to head back home, my cell phone went off again. This time, it was a text message from my phone company. The only time I had ever used my phone to upload photos was when I took two pictures of baby snapping turtles crossing Moose Hill Parkway in September (See “Two Little, Too Late,” September 16, 2006.). The account had been inactive since then and they wanted to clear out the old files, I guess. The message informed me: “Your Content Has Been Deleted.”

Oh, great, I thought. I only got my diagnosis a couple of hours ago and already they’re getting rid of my stuff, cleaning up after me, erasing traces of my existence, deleting the content of my soul. Before long, I’ll only be a memory, and that too will fade.

Not yet, you bastards. Not yet.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Precious Message You Bring Me

There have been places so beautiful and vast that my senses and mind have been overwhelmed, unable to absorb all the grandeur. One place that struck me this way most strongly was the Canadian Rockies. We were there fifteen or so years ago, and I can still remember standing at a scenic overlook, gazing at the miles of unbroken forest, deep valleys and mountain peaks and getting the feeling that I was looking at a photograph or nature documentary, and not something real. Oh, the view was beautiful and awe-inspiring to be sure, but there was also something unsettling about it. Perhaps, because I’ve spent my whole life living in the East, near sea level, I lack a frame of reference sufficient to place such vast landscapes in a context that I can truly understand and feel comfortable with. I don’t know if it’s innate, or learned, but perhaps some of us just feel more at home in a landscape that shows the hand of man. I can still remember a certain feeling of relief when we left the mountains and drove through gentler lower valleys that offered lovely rural scenes with pastures, fences, simple homes and country roads.

A few weeks ago we were visiting our daughter in Berkeley, California and we made a short visit to Yosemite National Park. After a lifetime of Walt Disney specials and Ansel Adams photographs, I was eager to go there at the first opportunity.

We drove inland from the Bay Area, passing through Altamont Pass. The name “Altamont” bounced around inside my slow, leaky brain. When I saw the magnificent wind farm on the hills around the pass (See “Hope Persists,” March 10, 2007), I thought that was the memory I was seeking. Some time later, I unearthed the deeper memory. Altamont was the place the Sixties died. At the close of the decade in December of 1969, the Rolling Stones played a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California that turned into a deadly disaster. The decade of peace and love dissolved into a riotous scene of brutality and murder. Some of us who thought the world was on a better path were slow to acknowledge the truth.

Perhaps it is with some small cosmic irony that my little journey from Altamont to Yosemite, in a way, skipped over a century from 1969 to 1869. For one brief moment, it felt as if I stepped into the nineteenth century to discover a spirit bird.

We enjoyed a wonderful visit to the park, acting like typical tourists, driving to all the famous attractions in Yosemite Valley like the Arch Rock Entrance, Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls. We were suitably awed by the towering granite monoliths of Half Dome and El Capitan. We basked vicariously in the wealth and elegance of Ahwahnee Lodge. My suspicions were confirmed when only a short hike from the road up to Inspiration Point left all but two other tourists behind. Most Americans hate to walk. There we drank in a view that has been made famous by countless photographs.

I knew I would never be able to comprehend such vast and intense beauty on a short two-day visit. Even those who experience love at first sight long to spend a lifetime with their new lovers. I knew this quick trip could be little more than a brief encounter.

While the grand mountains clamored for attention, I kept hearing a soft serenade from the small river that meandered through the valley. The Merced River tumbled over the rocks, alternately forming pools and riffles. Pictures of dry flies and rising rainbow trout drifted before my minds eye. I imagined bathing in summertime where the river formed low falls as it cascaded between boulders. Perhaps this river reminded me of the streams I visited in the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York in my youth. I was comfortable with the scale.

The road we traveled shared the valley with the Merced and for two days the river called to me. As we left the park for the last time, I wanted to spend a few minutes close to the water. We paused at a wonderful spot that afforded easy access to the water and a spectacular view of Bridalveil Falls across the valley. At the water’s edge, I hopped from rock to rock, pausing to watch the crystal liquid flow over the stones on the creek bed. I watched the swirls and eddies and saw a leaf drift by. A bird song came to me from across the river. Above a high cut in the opposite bank was a grassy meadow and I thought the unfamiliar call must be coming from there. I scanned the brush and grass with my binoculars expecting to find perhaps a finch or other enthusiastic singer but I couldn’t find anything.

Then, a movement caught my eye out in the river itself. A small, dull gray bird was sitting on a rock in mid-stream. Surely, this plain-looking creature couldn’t possess such a melodious voice! As soon as the bird flashed his white eyelids, raised and lowered his stubby wings and bobbed up and down in place, I knew what it was. I had seen an American dipper once before in the Canadian Rockies and I was thrilled to see one again in a mountain stream of the West. These birds are known for their unique habit of walking and flying underwater in search of food. Another name for this bird is “water ouzel” and I prefer this unusual name as it seems more appropriate for a bird that exhibits such exotic behavior in such wonderful places.

Balancing with binoculars on a boulder, I watched for about a minute until the bird buzzed downstream. Even though I slipped off the darn rock a moment later, slamming my shin into the stone, leaving a gash that is still scabbed-over weeks later, I felt the invigoration that comes from those magical moments when nature provides an experience that seem mystical. It was almost as if the spirit of the ouzel was saying goodbye and inviting me to someday return to Yosemite. I limped back to the car happy that my short visit had such a satisfying and memorable ending.

The next morning, I was enjoying my morning coffee, some bright sunshine, and a few peaceful moments outside our motel in Mariposa before heading back to the coast. I was reading a used paperback copy of John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra that I picked up in one of Berkeley’s great bookstores. I was reading about one of his explorations from his sheep camp along the north fork of the Merced River in 1869. I felt a tingling in my spine when I read that on July 29th he saw this:

It is about the size of a robin, has short crisp wings serviceable for flying either in water or air, and a tail of moderate size slanted upward, giving it, with its nodding, bobbing manners, a wrennish look. Its color is plain bluish ash, with a tinge of brown on the head and shoulders. It flies from fall to fall, rapid to rapid, with a solid whir of wing-beats like those of a quail, follows the windings of the stream, and usually alights on some rock jutting up out of the current…

What a romantic life this little bird leads on the most beautiful portions of the streams, in a genial climate with shade and cool water and spray to temper the summer heat. No wonder it is a fine singer, considering the stream songs it hears day and night. Every breath the little poet draws is part of a song, for all the air about the rapids and falls is beaten into music, and its first lessons must begin before it is born by the thrilling and quivering of the eggs in unison with the tones of the falls.

Then, on July 12th while camping higher up along Cascade Creek, he noted this:

Here I find the little water ouzel as much at home as any linnet in a leafy grove, seeming to take the greater delight the more boisterous the stream. The dizzy precipices, the swift dashing energy displayed, and the thunder tones of the sheer falls are awe-inspiring, but there is nothing awful about this little bird. Its song is sweet and low, and all its gestures, as it flits about amid the loud uproar, bespeak strength and peace and joy. Contemplating these darlings of Nature coming forth from spray-sprinkled nests on the brink of savage streams, Samson’s riddle comes to mind, “Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness.” A yet finer bloom is this little bird than the foam-bells in eddying pools. Gentle bird, a precious message you bring me. We may miss the meaning of the torrent, but thy sweet voice, only love is in it.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hope Persists

Sometimes just a moment of eye contact can tell a long story. The tale may be entirely imagined, but it seems real enough.

I was in the supermarket last week when a woman walking by looked my way. I looked into her eyes and in an instant saw a world of mingled happiness, hope and fear. This woman was about my age, or maybe a little younger. She walked close beside her husband as they shared cart-pushing duty. As I passed, I noticed that she was breathing with the help of a small, clear oxygen tube under her nose.

She appeared happy in a way that one gets when they can do some mundane everyday thing after thinking they might not ever be able to do it again; the way you might feel when finally bending to tie a shoe without pain for the first time after a back injury. In my mind, this woman was taking a shopping trip out of the house for the first time after a serious lung illness, an illness that may well turn out to be terminal. She was delighted to be out with her spouse and was taking pleasure in the simple joys of being alive and able to move through this wonderful world. At the same time, she feared that this might be one of the last times she could enjoy such freedom from sickness and pain. She was at a crossroads. After a surprise diagnosis and emergency surgery she didn’t know which path she was on. Was she on the road to health and the rest of her life, or would the illness persist and her life be taken from her sooner than she had ever imagined?

I was on a road three weeks ago, but a much happier one. My wife and I were visiting our wonderful daughter in Berkeley, California and the three of us were taking a couple of days to drive over to Yosemite National Park. As we traveled east on Interstate 580 from the Bay Area, we were amazed by the size and number of wind turbines at Altamont Pass in the Diablo Range between Livermore and Tracy. I’m sure I’ve seen photographs of this amazing sight, but being among these huge windmills was a real thrill. Apparently, warm air rising from the hot Central Valley sucks cooler air from San Francisco through the pass, providing the potential for clean, renewable energy. I imagined how far this environment-friendly power could go in a place like Berkeley where temperatures are so moderate that homes are not air conditioned and little heat is required. Many forward-thinking residents of that city are installing solar-electric panels on the roofs of their homes to help further reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

A short while after descending from Altamont Pass, we drove through Tracy, California and I was struck by the reality that all the power that could ever be generated by those windmills wouldn’t get very far. Here, in the Central Valley, home to some of the most productive farm land in America, were acre after acre of tract homes. In places, it seemed like these walled, gated, cookie-cutter communities stretched as far as the eye could see across the flat, fertile land. I don’t recall seeing any solar panels on these dark, heat- absorbing roofs. I thought of the hot summer sun beating down on these houses and the demand for electricity their air conditioners would create. I thought about the energy use and smog that would result as all these new residents drove on their long commutes and drove to all the strip malls and big-box stores that followed them to these brand new towns. I wondered where our food would be grown as more and more farmers sold out to the big developers.

Even hope stirred by something as exciting as a wind farm with its tall, graceful towers and slowly-spinning blades, can be fleeting. A quick search on the Web after I got home taught me that these windmills can be devastating to birds of prey. It turns out that many raptors are drawn to the grassy slopes of the Diablo Range to hunt for ground squirrels and thousands of these hawks are killed by the windmills that now tower over their traditional hunting grounds.

Hope persists. These windmills are old, part of a pioneering effort. It has been learned that taller towers and slower-spinning blades may be less dangerous to birds. I hope we quickly climb such learning curves that allow us to find the energy we need without destroying our planet. I hope we learn to see the folly in building new lifestyles on the shaky foundations of fossil fuel.

Our short visit to Yosemite was wonderful, even though we didn’t have the time or equipment to get into the back country. The weather was unseasonably warm and there was no snow in Yosemite Valley. There were few tourists by Yosemite standards and we were able to enjoy magnificent views and walk among the stately ponderosa pines, Douglas fir and incense cedars. I was moved by the work of Ansel Adams on display in the gallery there and was inspired by the way a gifted artist could follow his own vision and move the souls of millions. Just before we left the park after our second day, I found myself drawn to a special spot. Maybe the ghost of John Muir was leading me, but I found a new spirit bird. I hope to find the words to tell that story soon.

After we flew back to the East Coast, I was eager to get back to the modest but comforting landscapes of Moose Hill and seek signs of spring. I didn’t find any. The trails were coated in a treacherous combination of ice and snow. At one point I came upon a pair of deer, just where I hoped to find them under the hemlocks and among the rhododendrons in a kettle hole, when I started slipping and falling on the ice, making much noise – verbal and otherwise - and scaring them away. The few birds I saw that day were all winter residents.

The next day, Sunday, it was warmer and I saw sap running from the recently-cut branch stubs on a Norway maple. Monday morning, a male cardinal was warming up his spring song in our backyard. Tuesday morning, a mourning dove was cooing longingly from the peak of our neighbor’s roof. Last Sunday morning, I heard my first song sparrow while on our regular group bike ride. Monday morning, I saw my first redwing blackbird of the season. Sadly, he flew many miles only to wind up dead in a gutter where I found him, but I knew there were thousands more where he came from.

The hope raised by these early signs of spring were dashed when we were plunged into an early-March deep freeze, but I know the tumblers of the great cosmic clock are turning and that life will not be denied.