Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Surfing the Web of Life

Are you ever late for work? Why is that? Did you oversleep? Get stuck in traffic? Spend too much time on the computer?

Since I’m unemployable, I don’t have a commute. I go about my own business in the morning and must answer – for the most part – only to myself if I’m running late. When running one of my regular errands, I usually take a route that goes over Moose Hill. We’ve been having unseasonably warm weather this week that is very welcome after the cold wet spell we just went through. Since I missed my trip to the Hill this weekend, I planned to play hooky for an hour or so and stop at Moose Hill for breakfast while running the errand to enjoy the warmth and see if I could find any new spring arrivals.

I parked the car and got out. It didn’t take long to find two new birds for the season. I heard the trill of the chipping sparrows right away. I happily remembered how they would lead the way as I rode my bike up the hill last summer and I was glad to see they are back. Then, as I walked up the gravel road to the Billings Farm area, I could hear that the towhee tea party was already cranking up. Spring is in full swing now!

There’s a big old dead white pine on the edge of the lower meadow where I so often love to sit. It’s ugly to the human eye, but the birds love it, possibly for the great view across the open field it affords. As I passed this time, a male cardinal – brilliantly illuminated by the morning sun – sat singing at the tip-top while a mourning dove and flicker sat nearby.

On my way up to the old barn, I paused to watch a chickadee checking out one of the nesting boxes in the upper meadow. I guess he didn’t get the memo that those are reserved for bluebirds.

I found a nice flat rock near the barn and tractor shed and sat down to breakfast. I pondered how, as the falling tree does make noise even when there’s no one there to hear it, life on Moose Hill goes on even on weekdays when there are few hikers and birdwatchers to see it. Life goes on at all hours of the night and day and during all seasons of the year, too, if only we would pay attention.

A small cloud of blackflies behaved as if they wanted me for breakfast. Luckily, the flies here are more annoying than painful with their tendency to fly into the eyes and mouth but they don’t bite as much as the infamous pests of the North Country.

From my perch on the rock, I could watch the barnyard regulars. I can usually count on seeing a phoebe there, and there are often goldfinches, and both were present on this day. Blue jays and robins also paid a visit. I was thinking about the brilliant colors of cardinals, goldfinches and blue jays. Perhaps because these birds are so common around here we might make the mistake of taking their spectacular colors for granted. A bird-watching visitor from elsewhere might be thrilled to see such bright red, yellow and blue birds.

The old barnyard apple was leafing out, and forsythias were blooming. Even the non-native grasses were greening up. Red maple flower buds were starting to pop, but the other native trees are still bare. It’s interesting to see how introduced plants retain a seasonal schedule inherited from Europe or Asia that makes them bloom earlier in spring and lose their leaves later in the fall. Maybe that’s one reason some imports do so well here and become pests.

It was time to get back to work, so I roused myself from my daydreams and headed back down the old road. In the lower meadow a beautiful male bluebird was guarding his box and flying down to the closely-mown meadow to pounce on insects. I wondered if he won his battle with the swallows. This is one bird whose color will not soon be taken for granted.

I was soon back at the car and on my way. I was only a little late, not that anyone would notice. If someone did ask, I’d just tell them I was lost in a dream, stuck in the traffic of nature and surfing the web of life.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Calm Before The Storm

Moose Hill beckoned. Between a trip to Arizona and general busyness, I hadn’t been able to spend much time on Moose Hill lately. It’s been unseasonably cool and wet recently and a big storm is headed our way. This morning was cool and windy but sunny and I craved some time in my special place before the rains start again. I brewed a fresh pot of coffee, packed my bag and pulled the single speed out of the shed.

Inspired by Julie Zickefoose with her NPR commentary and Laura of Somewhere In New Jersey (See sidebar) I did sneak up there on one of the few warm, calm evenings a couple of weeks ago to look for dancing woodcock. Once again, the Hill did not disappoint and I found these funny birds right where I hoped to find them. But that is another story.

While in Arizona, we spent a day visiting Sedona. This beautiful part of the Southwest is famous for not only for its spectacular red rocks and sunsets but for its vortexes (vortices?) as well. Apparently, a vortex is a mystical place where some form of mysterious cosmic energy flows in or out (depending, it seems, on whether the energy is male or female) of the Earth. We climbed to one of these spots and I was happy and a little amused to see a woman sitting in a yoga pose. I don’t know if she was feeling anything or if she was hoping for male or female energy, but I wished her luck. I wasn’t feeling anything. That’s probably because I’m a skeptic about such things, but it may have had something to do with the fact that there was a small crowd of people there, one kid was sitting on the apex of the vortex trying to do homework and two cell phones went off. Or, maybe it was Bill McKibben’s new book that I was reading about the grim prospects for our future if we don’t wake up that had me too unsettled to find inner peace.

I was thinking about mystical forces this morning as I sat in one of my favorite spots on Moose Hill. My initial plan was to explore an unfamiliar part of the woods, but as I climbed the hill I was reflecting back on the year since I started this blog and decided to go back to where it started and just sit and think about stuff.

I took a quick walk around the upper Billings meadow where I watched the woodcocks, hoping to flush a bird or see some whitewash but did neither. I went back to the lower meadow, planning to sit in my favorite spot by the old stone wall.

Before I sat down, I walked around the field to check on the four beehives there. I’ve been hearing about a mysterious malady that has been wiping out honeybees. I was hoping that these isolated hives, away from pesticides and other bees, might escape the disaster. I saw activity at the one Styrofoam hive, but the three wooden ones were silent. I think there was more activity three weeks ago, but I’m not sure. Maybe this place is not as magical for bees as it is for me.

I went back to my spot and set up shop. I got out my binoculars, notebook, coffee and bagel and waited for the show to begin. It didn’t take long. A pair of bluebirds – a bright blue male and browner female – came by to check out the two post-mounted nesting boxes in the meadow. Then, a pair of tree swallows zoomed in from above and a few skirmishes ensued. I remembered that it was the swallows nesting here last spring, and I wondered who would win this time. A little later, I was especially thrilled when my first phoebe of the year flew in, perched, and wagged a greeting. In all, I saw and/or heard just over a dozen bird species from that spot with only the most casual observation. As the sun shone brightly, frogs started croaking in the swamp.

Once again, Moose Hill in general, and this spot in particular filled me with joy. I thought about how this little meadow brought me to tears with its beauty in October. Maybe this is my vortex. I can go there and sit in the sun, sheltered from the wind by the old stones, and for a few moments forget about the world outside.

Too soon, the coffee was gone and the clouds started to build. The wind turned colder and the frogs went silent. Like the irresistible force of fate, the monstrous storm pressed from the south. I momentarily drifted off into a reverie. I wished I had the power to take a long nap and wake when everyone is healthy, the world is at peace and the air is pure. I thought how this meadow may not have looked much different a hundred years ago, but I dreamt I woke up to find it just like this a hundred years in the future.

So, should you ever find yourself walking on Moose Hill and you come upon an old man with a long white beard in tattered clothing dozing by an old rock wall, look around before you wake him up. If a warm sun is shining in a cool blue sky, the bees are in their hives, the bluebirds are happy in one box and the swallows are content in the other, please wake him up.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Wandering in the Desert

Vacations can be wonderful things. Life on vacation can seem so simple, with the world reduced to the few objects along for the trip and even fewer worries. A vacation can be a time for extended daydreaming and fantasy. Being away makes it easier to get lost in an alternate reality.

When I visit a new place, I like to think about how it would be to live there (See “Could I Live Here?”, August 26, 2006). I also wonder where all of us middle-agers might go when we retire (See “Boomers on the Move”, May 18, 2006). When on vacation, I also like to pick up a good book that will help set the tone for my noodlings. Often, it seems, something from a newspaper or magazine will help assemble pieces of the mental framework. All these things came together for me last week.

I just got back from an extended stay in Scottsdale, Arizona. Yes, many Boomers will likely move there, and no, I could not live there. The book was Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, and the newspaper article was a piece on cohousing in the New York Times.

Scottsdale and Phoenix, for me, typify what seems so common in the New West. Everywhere one looks there is mile after mile of bulldozed desert with acre after acre of new subdivisions and strip after strip of malls and big box stores. The beautiful, smooth, efficient highways carry big, shiny, new SUV’s, many of them touting “Flexfuel” labels. The sun beats down and there is not a solar panel in sight. The desert is parched, and yet and canals carry water from miles away and the golf courses are green.

One of my favorite places to make pilgrimage in Scottsdale is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. On a tour I took there I saw a photo of the compound taken from the nearby McDowell Mountains. Taliesin stood alone in miles of unbroken desert. Way off in the distance was Old Scottsdale. Now, development presses in from every side and off in every direction. Gated compounds even push up into the mountains themselves. I was shocked to notice that the photo was taken in 1970. In less than forty years, well within the span of my own memory, Scottsdale has exploded from a sleepy little town in the hot, dusty desert to a vast, sprawling modern suburb.

I think of Scottsdale as a town with no soul. There are no neighborhoods, only alternating subdivisions and shopping centers that all look the same. There are bike lanes and sidewalks along most of the wide boulevards, but no one uses them, even in the beautiful spring weather. Walking through a development, there is nowhere to go on foot. There are no community stores or coffee shops. Want a newspaper? Hop in the car, turn on the AC, and drive. For the life of me, I can’t imagine where all the water, electricity and gasoline to support this mirage in the desert will come from.

Scottsdale is a great place to read a book like Deep Economy. Bill McKibben paints a grim picture indeed about how we are running out of money, energy, water and atmosphere. He argues that in our zeal to grow and become ever more efficient by concentrating everything – from water, to agriculture, to power production - in the hands of big producers, we have come to rely on the slave of fossil fuel. That fuel is running out and the carbon dioxide released by burning it is changing the atmosphere in ways that are accelerating and may well be irreversible. Moreover, he argues that our unending quest for personal wealth is not making us happier.

He suggests that by living more cooperatively and trying to live together in tight-knit communities, we can decentralize the production of food, water, energy and many other things we need. As key examples, he offers the local food movement and solar and wind power.

McKibben is a dreamer, but acknowledges the challenges. It is inherent in the American dream that we all want our own piece of the pie to eat as we choose. He calls it “hyper individualism.” He has a tough row to hoe. In this one trip I saw three little examples of behavior and human nature that lead me to believe we have little basis for hope.

At the airport baggage carousel, everyone rushes forward to stand next to the moving belt, blocking the view and way for everyone else. If we all stood back and waited, everyone could clearly see their bags emerge and calmly walk forward to pick them up.

At the resort, people rise early in the morning to place towels and magazines on prime poolside chairs to stake a claim, even if they don’t plan to sit in the sun until after lunch. If sunbathers only sat when they wanted to and cleaned up after themselves when they were done, there would be chairs for everybody.

In a busy parking lot, drivers circled for several minutes waiting for a space to become available. Even though spaces were clearly rare and in demand, a driver in a big new gas hog had no compunctions about perfectly straddling a line to take up two spaces for himself.

Just as I was thinking about what it might be like to live in a community of like-minded souls who want to respect the Earth and cooperate to make life better for everyone I came upon an article in the New York Times that described a variety cohousing projects. (See I don’t know much about cohousing yet, but imagine it as something like forming a commune or kibbutz for the twenty-first century. Some resources are private, some are shared, and all members are drawn together by common interests and worldviews.

I used to wonder where all the Boomers would retire to. I may have been asking the wrong question. What may be more important for our generation is who we retire with. I hope enough of us find creative ways to live together in sustainable communities that leave something for future generations. And soon.

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