Saturday, March 15, 2008

Just Over the Horizon

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The bluebirds must have been feeling pretty cocky. The pair sat atop nesting boxes in the middle of the big hayfield near the top of Moose Hill Street. They had their pick of over a dozen boxes and were hawking down into the stubble to pick up morsels I could not see. As I pushed my bicycle along the edge of the field heading for home, I imagined that they were dreaming of a happy and productive season as they perched in the bright spring sunshine. They selected just the right home, and thought of the limitless supply of insects that would soon be hopping around in the fresh grass. The small flock of robins that probed for earthworms in the soft soil along the edges of rainwater puddles presented no threat. They paid no attention to the loving pair of doves flying overhead. Could it be that they didn’t know what was approaching just over the horizon? At that very moment, millions of tree swallows were winging their way north like squadrons of dive-bombers, and soon dozens would descend on this field to swoop and squabble over nesting sites. Bluebird heaven would be transformed into a world of constant vigilance and stress.

I ride my bicycle because I can, not because I have to. Of course there were times when simply jumping in the car to run an errand was not an option. Simply traveling to work or to secure the things needed to survive was a chore, if not an ordeal. But in this age of wealth and luxury, biking and walking are things some of us do because we think them fun or good for us. Most adults who ride bicycles today, do so solely for recreation, exercise or sport. I suspect most of us, upon seeing a grownup riding a bike simply to get from point A to point B, wonder what’s wrong with them. Homeless? DUI? Broke? Unstable? I sometimes wonder if people seeing me returning from Moose Hill with my tattered clothing and backpack hanging from my shoulders as I struggle up Depot Street to the center of town might think perhaps I have a few loose screws, too. Surely, no middle-class, middle-aged American would ride a bicycle because they have no other choice. Well, the day may be coming when bicycling looks like the best choice of all.

One of my regular business chores involves a five-mile round-trip commute. Most days, I’m carrying tools, bundles or supplies, so I drive. I’m trying to arrange things so once or twice a week I can make the trip on foot or by bicycle. Sunday was one of those days.

I rode the touring bike to do my work and then took the long, scenic route home. This involved mostly climbing through the cool, very windy air to get to, and then over, Moose Hill. This was no race; I was just enjoying the feeling of the wind and sun on my face and the pulsing of blood through my body. I passed the Audubon visitor’s center where groups of young families were gathering to go see the maple sugaring demonstration. I coasted down the south side of Moose Hill and pedaled over to our local farm stand where I bought a muffin and had my vacuum bottle filled with fresh coffee. I packed these in my bag and headed back to the woods. I had a few things on my mind and wanted to sit and think for a few minutes.

I found the abandoned and barely noticeable old trail that leads to The Mikveh. This is the old stone-lined springhole I stumbled on early last winter when I was thinking about my recently-deceased high school buddy, Martin. (See “Living Waters,” December 17, 2006.) I guess returning to this spot was my way of acknowledging the 20-year anniversary of the tragic passing of another high school friend, Marcie. No new insights rose out of the crystal depths of that pool; only that even the most gifted, kind, talented and beautiful of us can stumble upon unimaginable misfortune. For the rest of us, life goes on and we should try to be better people in the time we have left.

Just beyond The Mikveh a bedrock outcrop rises above the surrounding forest and this is enhanced by a couple of granite boulders stacked on top in a way that makes me think of an alter. In the event I need to offer up any sacrifices, I’ll know just where to go. On this day, the only thing I was offering up was coffee and a muffin. I put on my fleece hat and jacket and put my little foam pad on the outcrop so I could sit in the warming sun and lean against the alter to get a little protection from the wind.

I shuffled through my thoughts and tried to pick one to focus on. My thinking sometimes gets stuck on a theme and recently that theme has been the grim prospects for our future as prophesized by James Howard Kunstler (See sidebar), with thanks to Eleutheros at “How Many Miles from Babylon” (Sidebar) for pointing me in that direction. I was even lucky enough to score Kunstler’s new novel, World Made By Hand, at the library and read it in a few short days. Kunstler has been preaching for years that, in a nutshell, the age of cheap oil and cheap credit that has made the unsustainable expansion of the suburban way of life possible is just about over. Recent events on the nightly news make it hard to dismiss his claims. He marvels at our collective ability to suspend belief about the impending collapse of business as usual and at our willingness to think that technology and casinos will save us.

The prospect of life without fossil fuels can lead to endless daydreams. Will we plan a wise and orderly transition to conservation and renewable sources of energy, or will we descend into chaos as we squabble over the last few drops of petroleum. In the future, after the oil fields have gone dry, perhaps every one of us will have fantasies about what we could have done with the gasoline burned at just one NASCAR race. Just the night before, I was listening to a friend describe his one- to two-hour (each way!) daily automobile commute to a new job. Maybe he is among those who think we will soon discover more oil and more hours in a lifetime buried under distant blood-soaked desert sands.

It was time to go, so I packed up and headed for the trail. I paused one more time at the springhole just in case there was new wisdom to be found there, but I saw only the same old bewildered face staring back at me from the smooth surface. I was worried about the troubles that may lie just over the horizon but I was also optimistic about the approach of Spring so I pedaled back up Moose Hill to see what was new in the big meadow.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Un-American Activities

Sunday March 2, 2008

I had to stop by a house I’m watching for an out-of-town neighbor this morning and it was on the way to some town-owned conservation land, so I abandoned my plans to go to Moose Hill and opted for a different route today. I packed my bag and when I left home it was cold and windy, but crystal clear and sunny. Friday night’s snow became Saturday’s rain and slush that set the stage for Sunday’s crunchy snow and ice. Walking through the neighborhood, I heard the cardinals staking out their territories and the singing of one of the song sparrows that have been back for a week or so. Woodpeckers were tapping out their staccato love messages. The 27-degree temperature could not completely hide the fact that we had entered March and spring was rapping gently on the door.

I walked down Brook Road and found the Town right-of-way that passes between two typical suburban houses. A public pathway passing through private back yards is unusual around here, to say the least. I always get a happy feeling when I take this path, similar to the way I feel when walking up and down the Berkeley Hills Paths. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it has something to do with the legal recognition that people traveling on foot have rights, too; something we tend to forget in this age of the automobile.

I took the trail – blazed with the blue marks of a side trail – into the woods and down to Massapoag Brook where I crossed the rain-swollen stream on a make-shift bridge of boards nailed to a couple of downed trees. A few more minutes of crunching through the snow brought me to Devil’s Rock. This is a huge granite glacial erratic that is 20 or so feet tall at its triangular peak. Its shape reminds me of a tiny Yosemite Half Dome. Nearby is another big stone, possibly the sheared-off half of Devil’s Rock, that has split yet again to form a cozy – if narrow - shelter. Like just about any big rock around here, this one has a stone-ringed fire pit. These fireplaces are used mostly by beer-drinking teenagers these days, but I have little trouble imagining that these big boulders were something of a Stonehenge to natives long ago.

I found a sunny snow-free spot against a white pine where I could gaze at the Rock while I had breakfast. The woods were quiet. The singing birds up among the houses were absent here. I looked down at my shirt cuffs and my mind drifted back to the day before when I sat quietly in the house with needle and thread sewing buttons on some old shirts. I hate to throw things away if I think I might be able to fix them and use them some day. Besides, one of the shirts was from L.L. Bean in the days when they actually sold things made in the U.S.A. But, of course, I never get around to fixing anything and stuff just piles up and clutters the house. I’m still on my New Year’s de-cluttering kick, however, and I’ve been wanting to fix these so I could clean up another corner of the house. I’m also growing increasingly disgusted with our inclination to just toss stuff and buy more cheap imports.

Now, any good American would toss a shirt with a missing button in the trash and drive down to Mega Mart to buy a new one from China. Obviously, in today’s economy, the time I spent fixing four shirts was easily worth more than the cost of a couple of new cheap ones, so my efforts were clearly silly. That was time I could have spent watching commercials on TV or driving to the mall rather than sitting in quietude stitching together clothing and memories.

I remember my mother had an old tin candy box full of hundreds of buttons of all kinds. As a little kid, I loved to dig through the wild assortment and pick out the most unusual ones. Later, in high school, I would repair the worn-out stitching on the fly of my blue jeans with big loops of white thread. As an idealistic and enthusiastic college freshman I proudly sewed my forestry school patch on my green and black checkered wool jac-shirt. I thought it was good for an independent man to have skills – even if rudimentary – like that.

I was getting cold just sitting there, so I packed up my stuff and headed for home. I retraced my steps on the blue side trail to join the main orange-blazed Massapoag Trail. As I understand it, this trail was created by the Sharon Friends of Conservation in about 1966 to traverse a green belt that runs through the center of town, but it was soon neglected. About a dozen years ago I tried to carefully locate the entire length of the original trail and refresh the orange blazes. Here I was, over a decade later, following my own paint. The paint was visible enough, but the trail was in tough shape. We had a tornado-like microburst a few summers ago and a nasty ice storm a few weeks ago so many large trees and branches are blocking the trail and making a general mess of the woods.

Maybe it was the torn-up nature of the forest, or maybe the Devil still lurks among the rocks and was following me out of the woods. He began to insinuate himself into my thoughts and my mood changed. They say the Devil is in the details, and that may be true, but at that moment I was thinking that the Devil is really in the big choices we make. I looked at the devastation around me and knew there were no Town resources to clean up this public land. The scale of the damage is much greater than any Cub Scout troop could ever make a dent in. I understand that the woods and wildlife don’t care and may even benefit from the disturbance, but to this human eye, the place is a mess and not much fun to visit. The forester in me hates to see all that timber going to waste.

My mood continued to darken. How many shirts could I buy with my share of the Iraq War? How many buttons could I sew in the time it takes me to earn enough to pay my share of the obscenely wasteful Massachusetts highway projects? How many compact fluorescent bulbs would I have to put in my house to save as much energy as it takes to light Gillette Stadium for one second? Why should I bother to save my cans and bottles and carefully bag my newspapers when my neighbor just chucks it all in plastic a trash bag? I was beginning to understand what our Vice President meant when he said conservation is nothing more than a personal virtue. It seemed that any effort I might make to lighten my impact on the world was pointless tokenism.

As I neared Billings Street, I left the woods to head home on the pavement and sidewalk to avoid the downed trees and mud. Near Mann’s Pond a flock of two dozen robins flew in waves into a tree bearing a bittersweet vine where they snacked on the red-orange fruits. I wondered if they were hungry after a long north-bound flight. I was happy to see these harbingers of spring and had the audacity to hope that a fresh new season would soon be upon us.

I can’t help it if I worry about things like squandered resources and pointless consumerism. That’s just the way I am and I’ve always been that way. Maybe it was the influence of my mother who suffered through poverty as a child. Maybe evening walks along county lanes with my father when I was very young taught me a love of nature. Perhaps I just understand that if we use things up now, they won’t be there for our grandchildren. Maybe I’m just easily amused and don’t need a constant stream of new stuff to make me feel good.

On the other hand, I know I’m no monk. I live in a single family home that uses natural gas and electricity from the grid. And, as I am growing all too aware, that house is full of stuff. I drive fossil fuel vehicles. My footprint is much larger than that of the average global citizen. I try not to be ignorant of my impact on the world and I try to be realistic about the positive effect my modest conservation efforts can have. It may be simplistic, but I think there is a deep wisdom in the belief that less is more and I want to live a life that seeks that wisdom.

My mood was lifting already. Who can stay depressed when cardinals are calling, woodpeckers are drumming and robins will soon be hopping across the lawn, pausing to cock their heads sideways and peer from one eye at fat worms below?

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