Thursday, April 10, 2008

Doodling in the Gloam

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

From pearls before breakfast to peents before dinner.

It felt like the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the local yokels are waiting along a mountaintop roadside for the flying saucers to arrive. I had stationed myself below a clump of young white ash trees in the old field near the Billings barn. I had arrived by bicycle after taking the long, hilly way around on an after-work ride. I was relaxing with some cheese and crackers and a vacuum bottle of Earl Grey tea, waiting for the show to begin.

I had just heard the story of how Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post had arranged for Joshua Bell – perhaps America’s finest concert violinist – to play incognito in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station during morning rush hour to see how many people would stop to listen. Wearing a baseball cap and casual clothes with the case for his multi-million dollar Stradivarius open at his feet for tips, Bell played a series of difficult and dramatic classical pieces for nearly 45 minutes. In that time, hundreds of people passed by, most not even glancing in his direction. Here was a musician who regularly plays at packed concert halls for adoring fans who pay hundreds for tickets and no more than a handful of harried commuters paused for even a minute to listen. Only one person recognized him and he collected a mere $32.17 in tips.

Now, I’m no classical music fan - about the closest I get is when I enjoy Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring - but when I read the Post article online and watched the hidden-camera videos, I felt my eyes welling up. What has America become? What are we doing to ourselves? Do we appreciate greatness only when we have to pay for it or when some anointed expert points it out for us? Has our popular culture dumbed us down so much that we are unfamiliar with true genius? Is our work so important that we can’t take a minute from our hectic schedule to bask in beauty? Are we so burdened by debt and taxes that we can’t afford to pause for a moment? Do our profit-hungry employers push us so hard that we dare not take a breath?

On this cool, early-April Moose Hill evening, I was pausing. There was no wind, but I could feel the cool air draining off the hill so I pulled on my fleece hat and draped my blanket over my shoulders. The peepers were singing loudly in the maple swamp and I strained to hear the calls of other frog species amid the din. I thought I heard a few different calls, but didn’t know any of them well enough to give them names. A robin chuckled in the swamp and a dove cooed gently down at the other end of the field. A cardinal stopped by to give a few chips before heading off to his roost. I was waiting for my vernal virtuoso.

Sunset was at about 7:20 and by 7:30 I could see my own tea-warmed breath in the air. It was getting late and I was starting to worry about biking home in the dark. I wondered if it might be too cold, but the peepers reassured me. At 7:35 I heard the first call from the shelter of a big mass of forsythia up the hill behind me. My maestro was warming up. The calling was followed in a few minutes by a twittering sound as the bird flew behind me and circled the perimeter of the field, spiraling upward. I watched his dark silhouette against the lighter sky until he rose out of sight as if in slow motion. A period of silence was followed by what I can only describe as a random chirping similar to the sound that comes from one of those little wooden Audubon bird calls that is held between the thumb and forefinger while twisting the metal thumbscrew with the other hand. A couple of minutes later, the ground calls – known as peents – began again and the entire performance was repeated.

The woodcock is a funny little bird. With his long beak that is used to probe the mud for earthworms, he looks like a shore bird that took an evolutionary wrong turn to wind up in the uplands. The timberdoodle has a long history as a game bird and as a target for pot hunters. This heritage may contribute to the fascination many have for this rich brown bird with big eyes and bigger feet that make me think of E.T. His ground call is a funny little squeak that Julie Zickefoose might say sounds like an accident, but his song as he falls from the sky is almost other-worldly.

The show was just starting but I had to go and I heard more peents behind me as I pushed my bike down the old gravel road. The upturned crescent of the moon did little to light the way. When I got to the pavement I turned on my blinking red taillight and plunged down the hill into the deepening darkness. A lone car passed and I chased it down the steepest part of the hill at about 30 miles an hour letting his headlights light the way. As the road flattened out, I could no longer keep up, so I pedaled happily from one pool of streetlamp light to the next.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Who Knew?

Moose Hill Journal is two years old!

I just read the first post on the Moose Hill Journal written two years ago and I am quite surprised that this effort has turned out much the way I had imagined it on that early spring day in 2006. I still can’t explain exactly why I felt a need to walk and sit in the open to explore nature and explore my thoughts. Most likely, it was just my version of a mid-life crisis; another case of Boomer navel-gazing. I had recently passed 50 and my wife and I were rather new empty-nesters. I felt an urge to reflect on my life – what it was supposed to be, what it had become, and where it might be headed. I wanted to reconnect with the outdoors. Life in the woods had been such a vital part of my identity as a youth and I had let that part of my life slip away. I wanted that part of me back.

I can thank Julie Zickefoose (See sidebar.) for a big part of the inspiration. I heard her NPR commentary on blogging just a few days before I had that first breakfast on the hill. I found her blog and a whole new world was opened to me. Not only was I moved by her stories, photos and art, but by following her links I discovered a web of connections among dozens of thoughtful and talented souls. When I was thinking about how I should record my Moose Hill observations, a blog seemed like the perfect medium.

I am surprised that I’ve kept at it this long. I suspect that one day I’ll just stop. Perhaps I’ll simply exhaust the supply of things I feel like talking about. Maybe all the walks will start feeling the same and offer no new surprises. Or, maybe I’ll wake up one day and ask: What’s the point? For now, a new season is arriving and I want to be there to watch.

I’m also surprised at how quickly and thoroughly this blogging experience has become an important part of my life. I spend a lot of time thinking about my time in the woods and about things I might want to write about. I’m constantly scanning my thoughts and experiences for post topics. I think of it as exercise for an ageing brain. My wife likes to do sudoku puzzles. I ponder essay topics. I’m always thinking about my next trip to the Hill; where I might go and what I might see. In a way, for me, Moose Hill has become more than a geographic location. It has become something of a state of mind. Maybe if I keep this up for a few more years, I’ll be able to explain what that means.

Finally, I want to thank my readers. These days, I get about ten hits a day and most of those are click-throughs of people searching for something like information on “cheap tequila.” A typical post might attract five comments. About ten is the most I can hope for. I benefit from low expectations so I have learned not to dwell on or obsess about these things, but I value readers and their input. To the handful of readers who read and comment regularly: Thank you. Knowing that you read my posts helps keep me going. I try to return the favor and I truly enjoy the windows into your world that you open with blogs of your own. To those who may read but don’t comment: Don’t be shy! I want to know who you are, where you are, and what’s on your mind.

Well, the sap has been rising, the peepers are peeping and the timberdoodles are peenting. It’s time to go for a walk. Won’t you come along?