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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At 10:36 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

Oh my, Mojoman, you touched on so many things that made me think. We have become such a throw-away society. You brought to mind the days my siblings and I cleaned out my Mother's apartment after she had died. We all found ourselves making comments about why she had kept so many old and worn clothing items, dishes, etc. My brother reminded us of her saying many times "There's still life in it". One of the tougher issues for us in raising teens is the media's push of consumerism. My being a stay-home mom for the first ten years of our kids' lives required a frugal lifestyle. We did much of our shopping at children's used clothing stores. Once the clothes were out-grown they went back to those stores to be resold. Recycling is what we told the kids. Today they both have a pretty good sense of caring for what they have. It's been really interesting and gratifying to watch them both develop their own world views over the last few years. We all need to define the things we believe in and then live our lives reflecting those beliefs. Maybe I'm naive, but I don't believe that living by your personal ethic is ever pointless. It's not always bad when the devil whispers over our shoulder. It can help us define and refine our thoughts.

My Mom had a button tin too. I loved it as a girl and I treasure it now.

The rock reminds me of the Star Trek episode when Kirk gets stuck in the obelisk.

A rambling comment, I know.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger nina said...

I can remember when I was much younger, wondering why my parents reused aluminum foil pieces, washed plastic bags, and kept beaten up old shoes--we could've easily thrown them away and bought new, though I chalked it up to their depression-era upbringing--a wisdom sprung from having little.
Now, much older (and wiser) I see that it came in fact from a wisdom that they had enough.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Penelope said...

A beautiful piece of writing and a theme that resonates strongly with me. It made me think of my mother, who asks when she buys new sneakers how best to clean them; the (usually young) salesperson looks at her blankly: when your sneakers get dirty, you throw them away and buy new ones, of course. I remember also my former husband assuming that shoe repair was expensive and only rich people could afford to have their shoes resoled. There's something wrong with that picture.

My mother had a button tin, too, and I still vividly remember the color and texture of some of the distinctive ones that she used in making my dresses. When my daughters were little girls, she thought about making them some dresses, but it was cheaper to buy them. So the sewing machine is used no more.

Not so many things come in nice tins anymore, do they? Now I suppose we'd keep buttons (if we used them) in a ziplock bag.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Sometimes our conservation efforts do seem so paltry and minimal in the face of such huge and monumental waste, but we do it. If not us, then who? I've started patching my old jeans, sewing back missing buttons, and handstitching frayed seams. I love doing it; it feels very meditative. Some friends have given me yards and yards of material for my patching projects. I hope to extend the life of old jeans by years!

One of the reasons Roger and I want to sell our place in Washington is to significantly downsize our footprint. Off the grid and only what we need. I sense that someday you may do the same. Maybe we'll be neighbors.

Robins are back here too. Ah spring.

At 7:22 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I have felt that trying to lessen my footprint was sort of a waste of time.-To me, it seems that the problem is that the world is just too populated.-That is going to cause problems no matter what.-The way I see it is that what we do personally may set an example for another person and hopefully it will lead to a bigger impact.-Interesting post.-My Mom used to collect political buttons as well as regular buttons-had hundreds of both.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Carolyn H said...


This is a great post. Less really is more, I believe, no matter if I also feel like Sisyphus trying to push that rock up the mountain.

Just because "most people" throw out a shirt because it needs a button or leave their giant flat screen TVs on all night because they're afraid of the dark doesn't mean it's right or that I'm going to do it.

I only wish I could teach people why living simply is no sacrifice and there's more to life than the latest I-phone or I-pod.

Thanks for your thoughtful post today.
Carolyn H.

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Crayons said...

Hi MoJo Man,

This is a really full and good piece of writing. I like seeing the world through your eyes. My parents and grandparents were so mindful of waste. We always thought they were kind of going too far.

I believe that walking the walk is so much more important and convincing than talking the talk.

At 1:49 AM, Blogger T.R. said...

You have a remarkable sensibility and this piece of writing provides a great perspective. Random acts of kindness - token acts of conservation -- I think we just have to believe that millimeter by millimeter, inch by inch, change is going to come if we keep persisting, walking the walk.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Lynne: Cleaning out the parent's house is a real eye-opener. Let's all pledge to spare our kids that misery! Ramble on!

Nina: How true! I saw a TV show that described Denmark as the happiest place on Earth because they are a "post-consumer society" where they understand that they have enough and can simply enjoy life.

Penelope: Thanks so much for stopping by! I have a fantasy about learning how to sew so I can make a few simple garments by hand. You're right, nobody fixes anything anymore. Every week I see big TV's dumped along side the road because nobody fixes them and the owners don't want to pay a modest disposal fee.

Robin Andrea: I so hope more and more folks will see the light, but right now, I'd put more faith in a high gas tax with the funds devoted to development of renewable energy. I confess to a bad attitude about human nature.

Larry: You are right about the population issue. I imagine what will happen as the populations of India and China struggle to achieve a lifestyle like ours.

Carolyn: I sometimes wonder if I don't care too much about things like plasma TVs and iPhones because I can't really afford them, or if I can't afford them because I don't really care. Maybe a little deprivation is good for everybody.

Caroline: Yeah, it's easy to go too far. How much hot water can we waste while washing a salad dressing jar for recycling? It's important to walk the walk, but we have to use our heads about it.

Oh, T.R., change is certainly coming, but let's hope inch by inch, row by row, together we make the garden grow.


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