Thursday, August 30, 2007

Know Your Place

Berkeley, California, Sunday, August 19.

It was two hours before the warm sun finally rose above the Berkeley Hills. It is my habit when visiting our daughter in the Bay Area to rise about dawn (It helps to have lingering Eastern Time in the blood.), brew a strong pot of Peet’s coffee (A Berkeley original.) and stroll around the funky neighborhoods on the slopes above the University of California campus. On this morning, I was up around 6:00, walked for about an hour before stopping back at the apartment for more coffee and to pack a PBJ to take to a neighborhood park for breakfast. At the edge of La Loma Park, past the ball field, there are a few picnic tables and a small stone wall that affords a nice place to sit and gaze out over Berkeley to Oakland and the San Francisco Bay below. This view is often foggy in the morning, but on this day the air was clear.

As I sat quietly in solitude, I felt a little like I was perched on one of my favorite rocks on Moose Hill. At the edge of the flat park the slope drops away steeply to the west. Trees growing from the hillside – thus putting their tops closer to eye level – attracted a good variety of birds that came by as I sat, ate and daydreamed. I found it a little hard to believe that some of them weren’t coming by just to see me.

Many of the birds were familiar, but different. There were juncos, phoebes, chickadees, creepers and towhees. There were also some sparrows and tiny kinglet-like birds. Since I tried to pack light for this trip, I didn’t have my binoculars or field guide. So, while I felt sure some of the species I was seeing, like the robins, were the same as back East, I knew others, like the towhees and chickadees were different species even if their behavior seemed much like that of those back home. The hummingbirds of California are most striking. In Massachusetts, we have only the ruby-throated hummer and they are uncommon enough that I always pause to watch when I spot one buzzing from flower to flower. In California, hummingbirds are everywhere and they seem more robust and they seem to perch a lot more. I can’t begin to separate the species, but I know there are a few.

On this dry mid-August morning, the birds were mostly quiet. There may have been a soft call or chirp or even the occasional scold, but no songs. Summer was drawing to a close.

Even though it was a summer Sunday in a college town, I was surprised at how quiet it was. Berkeley is not a morning town. Here was a beautiful, dry, clear, cool Sunday morning but no one was up. In over two hours of walking around I saw one walker, one cyclist, two or three cars, and one of those was the paper guy. I didn’t even see anyone sitting on a deck reading the Sunday paper. Maybe they were all waiting for the sun to rise above those steep hills.

One thing I like to do when I travel is to lose myself in a good book, preferably one that is connected – even if only peripherally – to the place I’m visiting. Somehow I got it in my head that I wanted to read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums while I was recovering from my surgery. Maybe it was a California tourist guide book that recommended it as a quintessential California story. Or maybe it was a favorite blog with that name. Whatever the reason, I’d never read it and figured it was about time. I found myself wishing I’d read it 30 years ago and wondering if my life would have been different if I had. Probably not. Seeds need to be planted in fertile ground.

I often find myself amazed at how writers in the post-war years like Jack Kerouac and Edward Abbey foresaw bad things happening in our society and wonder how they would feel today if they could see their worst nightmares realized ten times over. I love the idea that a book like Dharma Bums could launch a generation of “rucksack revolutionaries,” and hope that at least a few of them didn’t wind up driving SUVs to their McMansions in the suburbs.

The main character in Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder. It turns out that Ryder, like many of the characters in Kerouac’s books, is based on a real person: the poet, Asian scholar, essayist and environmental activist Gary Snyder. (I even found a typo (?) where Kerouac refers to Japhy as Gary.) Unlike Kerouac, Snyder survived the 50’s and 60’s and went on to enjoy a long and productive career. Thanks to our hometown library and some of the great used bookstores in Berkeley and Walnut Creek, I was able to get my hands on some of Snyder’s poetry and essays. I’m not much of a poetry reader, but plenty of Snyder’s poems speak to me, and it is through his essays that I learn more about his way of thinking. That is what I was pondering as I waited for the sunrise.

He teaches that people should learn to know and love the place where they live, and we should live in it without subduing it. We should learn its geology, weather, plants, animals, and history. We should think about how people can live in a place and make it their own without destroying it. We need to understand that humans are a part of nature and that humans inhabited and adapted to the places we live long before any of our non-North American ancestors arrived and that those people had ancient biological and mystical connections to our lands that go back for millennia. We should try to feel, appreciate and respect those connections in the ways we live today.

Most of Snyder’s writings that I had were from the 60’s and 70’s. Many of his contemporaries didn’t make it to the Twenty-first Century, but Snyder did, and I wondered how he feels about how things are going today.

A few days later, as we flew east, leaving our carbon footprints along the way, I looked forward to a walk on Moose Hill. I was hoping thoughts I had on a stone wall in California among redwoods and eucalyptus would help me learn more about my woods of oak and pine back home. For now, southern New England is my place, and I feel obligated to try to know it.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

A Beating Heart

Like a long-neglected lover, my heart responded eagerly to the attention I was finally giving it. It beat with a happy thump as I pushed up the trail through the thick August air to Moose Hill. Just 15 days ago I was lying, unconscious, on an operating table. A giant machine, like an inquisitive alien, was scoping, probing and snipping inside my body through five punctures in my abdomen. Only four days ago I was still carrying tubes and bags. The technology and surgical skill that would ultimately save my life was also changing me in ways I will fully understand only in time. I was returning to Moose Hill on a quest to begin to understand this new me.

My throbbing heart was part of the old me. Through my surgery and early recovery, my heart served me well, repaying me for years of cycling and running. Several times in the hospital when a nurse would stop by to take my vital signs, she would not trust the high-tech device that recorded my temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation and heart rate. She would take my wrist and read her analog watch the old fashioned way to verify that my resting heart rate was indeed as low as 48 beats per minute. I was happy with my heart even as other body parts let me down.

It was warm - in the high 80’s (F) – as I climbed Moose Hill last Saturday, but I don’t think it could have been too warm. I wanted to sweat and feel the blood flowing through every vein. I wanted my heart to bring life-giving oxygen to every cell and to wash away the poisons that made me feel weak. I wanted the warmth to penetrate to my very core and depths to bring life and healing.

Like those recovering from traumatic injury, I would have to learn new ways to do things I’d been doing quite well all my life, thank you. When in a good mood, this need for new discoveries could seem interesting, if challenging. When less upbeat, the doubt and uncertainly about my future could be depressing. In every mood, the preoccupation with my disease and the resulting surgery and their impact on the rest of my life put me in a strange state of mind. The things that used to hold my attention held little interest. I wasn’t listening to the radio or even music. The TV sat silent (One thing I hope I grow to like!). I couldn’t focus on the newspaper. Early efforts to get back to work, even if only for a couple of hours, were, at best, endured. I didn’t even want to think about blogging. The world was passing me by, and I didn’t care. I was beginning to wonder if the anesthesia had poisoned my brain.

This walk was about me. I needed to take a long hike to reassure myself that my past self was not completely erased and that I had hope for a happy and healthy future. After about four miles of brisk walking a good kind of fatigue began to set in. My heart and legs were telling me I had done the right thing but it was time for rest. As I began the final descent out of the woods my spirit bird the pee wee called, as if reminding me that he would be there and ready to teach me the deep secrets when I was ready, once again, to listen.

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