Sunday, September 28, 2008

Nut Case

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saturday dawned clear, cloudless, calm and cool. It was 45 degrees when I left home, so I layered on a few old shirts and wore wool gloves for the first time this season. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I planned a quick trip to Hobbs Hill for breakfast. I pedaled the single speed up to the Kettle Trail near the intersection of Moose Hill Parkway and Upland Road. This wide, inviting trail had been beckoning to me for the past few weeks every time I drove over the hill. As I would drive by, I’d think of the quiet times I’d spent sitting and thinking and I yearned to go back. I wanted to enjoy a few minutes of peaceful reflection away from the worries of the world.

I pushed the bike far enough down the trail to be invisible from the street and headed down the trail. I paused at the yellow birch that drops its golden leaves before all the other trees, scattering a golden throw-rug across the footpath and noticed it was already starting to change color.

Crossing the boardwalk across the swamp that is the source of one of the headwater streams of Beaver Brook, I looked at the tall, green ferns that carpet the muck. I’m still not sure if they’re cinnamon ferns or ostrich ferns and I thought about how much easier it is to learn how to identify things in the natural world from a knowledgeable companion than it is struggling alone with a field guide. The Audubon sanctuary offered a fern walk last year, but it was canceled for lack of interest. I know a few people had signed up, but I guess they have a rather rigorous way of gauging interest.

On the other side of the swamp I went right on the Hobbs Hill Loop, heading for my usual breakfast spot. There is a flat-topped granite erratic poised on the brink of the steep easterly slope of the hill that affords nice views of a flat area in the forest below and treetops of oaks and hickories that rise from there. I like to sit there and gaze down through the forest, waiting for the small dramas that Moose Hill so often provides. While waiting for the show to begin I try to open my mind to thoughts that drift up through the trees.

On this morning the woods were quiet and still. Sunshine hitting the hillside warmed the air just enough so that gently rising currents caused fine strands of spider silk suspended between the trees - and illuminated by the same clean light - to flex and wave. I thought about how this energy from the sun flows through our world and gives us everything, really, from the water cycle, to weather, to erosion and deposition, to life itself. I pondered how fossil fuel is also solar energy that has been stored away for eons. I started thinking about how the energy we release from this storehouse of power also flows through our world, bringing us many things as well, both good and bad. I told myself to stop thinking about that. Friends and family tell me I’ve become boring and depressing with all this talk of collapse and long emergencies. They’re right, of course. No one else wonders why NASCAR drivers race on in the name of Jesus Christ while the greatest transfer of wealth in history in the form of oil money flows from America to countries that hate us. Why should these things bother me?

Just as I was starting to consider how the sun is really a giant nuclear reactor and maybe nuclear energy was really a way to tap into the energy of the cosmos without the carbon middleman, a shadow flashed across the forest floor. Working upward and backward from shadow to sunshine, I found first one, and then a small flock of blue jays high in the oak trees. Never silent for long, these birds soon started squabbling over acorns. Chipmunks started up a rhythmic clucking, a red squirrel chattered in the distance, and gray squirrels did some squabbling of their own. This was becoming the morning of the acorn eaters.

Somewhere from the little flat at the base of the hill, I heard a steady clacking of large nuts hitting limbs as they fell to the ground, thudding on the forest floor. I could see gray squirrels working high in the branches and I wondered if they were smart enough to be cutting hickory nuts loose and picking them up from the ground later. Recent battles with these critters around the house taught me not to underestimate their capabilities. I started thinking think about what would happen if some clever squirrel invented sub-prime acorn mortgages that could be securitized, chopped up and sold so he wouldn’t have to deal with all this bothersome collecting and hoarding and leave all that to squirrel litters yet to be born, but I reminded myself to stop thinking that way.

It was time to get moving, anyway, so I packed my bag and took the trail around and down the back side of Hobbs Hill and started looking for that big hickory. I didn’t find it, but noticed a concentration of deer droppings and an area of disturbed forest floor under a white oak. Red and black oaks predominate on Moose Hill but we do have a smattering of white oaks. I imagine that deer and other mast eaters seek these out for the sweeter acorns they produce. I found one on the ground, peeled off the shell and ate it. It was nutty and entirely palatable. I recalled that natives collected white oak acorns, boiled them and ground them into flour. I thought about how hard life could be without the benefits of modern civilization and wondered why we couldn’t enjoy those benefits without the accompanying burdens until I reminded myself that there were more fun things to think about, like the up-coming fall TV schedule or the brand new NFL season. If someone would just invite me to an f-ing tailgate party, I too could be a care-free shit-faced Pats fan and stop thinking about all this depressing crap that’s making me crazy.

There may be real things to worry about in this troubled world of ours. Just this week after speech by our President reassuring us that his administration was busily preventing the collapse of our entire economy, a TV commentator felt moved to refer to the leader of the free world as a “high-functioning moron.” (You can find that on YouTube.) But who am I to worry that our next Vice President seems reasonably well suited to be the leader of a community college pep squad? Clearly, there’s nothing I can do or say that would change anything, so why not accept my true role as happy idiot. Simpletons, after all, never get ulcers.

No, perhaps next time I go to Moose Hill, I should eat some mushrooms. After all, Timothy Leary wrote that the peace and wisdom of the universe can be found among those who look at sunsets, those who walk in the woods, and people who sit by the fire. That’s all I really want to do anyway. Maybe I’ll stick with things like that.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Missing the Target

Saturday, August 23, 2008

With a string of cool, dry, fall-like days recently, I overcame my lingering fear of deer ticks and gave in to my desire to get back to Moose Hill. I slept in a little in the wonderful sleeping weather so I didn’t leave home until nearly 9:00 AM. I made my usual PBJ and brewed a pot of Green Mountain coffee, a fresh souvenir from our recent trip to Vermont. I pulled the single speed out of the shed and headed to Moose Hill for the first time in many weeks.

Instead of my usual plunge down the hill toward the train station, I headed down South Main Street to South Walpole Street. I wanted to witness the destruction perpetrated in the name of our proposed so-called “lifestyle” mall. Maybe it’s me, but I just can’t quite grasp the idea that one can buy a lifestyle. Our town has given the green light to the developers to strip away scores of acres of forest in a desperate bid to buy a break from high residential property taxes. This town has little commercial tax base, so the ever-increasing burden of taxes for ever-decreasing services falls heavily on the homeowner. Like all good Americans, we can’t live within our means and we don’t mind throwing a little of our natural heritage into the furnace of greed in a futile attempt to make up the difference.

The future home of our mall butts up against South Walpole Street right across from some Audubon land and right near some brand new mini-mansions. Something tells me the owners of these houses feel differently about the destruction caused by the mall than they did about the carving of their own lots from the woods.

At this time, the construction site looked like a large clearcut with an orange plastic fence around the entire perimeter. Unlike a silvicultural clearcut, no forest trees will ever grow here again. Developers just love to hop on their machines and strip a site bare to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Potential mall tenants will not sign up unless they can see progress on the future mall, and they can’t giddily visualize the flat-topped big-box stores and acres of hot black petroleum sludge asphalt parking lots with all those damn trees in the way. So, they denude a site as quickly as possible – stripping it absolutely bare - to attract tenants and to get it done as quickly as possible before the locals realize the magnitude of what they’ve done and raise a cry of protest.

I’m sure there are places - and I’m sure there will be many more – where the rape went ahead and no tenants signed on or they backed out, and a community was left with a vast, empty wasteland. I continue to believe this will happen here. The developers recently proudly announced the commitment by a major national big box retailer, but this same company already has a new store just a few miles to the south and will soon be opening another a few miles to the east. Not only is the local market already saturated, but the economy and the future of gasoline prices can’t bode well for retailing.

And for what? Do we really need more places to buy cheap, disposable plastic crap from China? How much are we willing to sacrifice in the name of more shopping? Will one teenager buying the latest sweat-shop fashions ever mourn the loss of yet another woodland? Did the heavy machinery operator say a prayer as he drove his behemoth over the spot where generations of oven birds made their nests? As they ripped the oaks and pines from the earth and pushed them into massive heaps, did anyone ponder how no trees would ever grow there again?

The loss of this forest is not the only thing that saddens me. Sure, as a homeowner, I’d like a break from taxes. Our governments take more and more of our wealth and squander it in so many wasteful and destructive ways. What depresses me is the unimaginative, formulaic ways that we develop places. When it’s built, this mall will look just like every other lifestyle mall that has popped up across America in the last few years. Another mall – lifestyle or otherwise – with its shoddy goods, tawdry entertainment and minimum-wage jobs will do little to enrich the quality of our lives. All we build anymore are places designed to suck the last bit of dwindling wealth from us by amusing us and distracting us and making us feel temporarily good by selling us more unneeded junk.

Imagine what could be done if the same amount of money and energy went into revitalizing an existing downtown area with modern mixed-use development with restaurants, affordable housing, small shops for local merchants and craftspeople, offices for professionals, markets for local produce, banks, post offices and local schools. Nearby could be small factories where people actually make things and have real jobs. Much of it could be powered by renewable energy. After all, New England was largely built with water power. All of it could be connected by a network of walkways and bike paths.

But no, we get more of the same. Cheap, soulless buildings surrounded by impermeable parking lots, gluttonous energy consumption and car-only access. I guess what it comes down to is that we don’t produce anything anymore, we only consume. I looked out over the vast emptiness and wondered if this was the only future we can hope for. Are we destined to live our lives according to the vision of guys that see the world over the blade of a bulldozer?

I was ready for breakfast and some scenery that hadn’t been sculpted with a Caterpillar D-9, so I walked my bike down an unfamiliar dirt trace that disappeared into the woods across the street from the devastation. This soon opened onto a power line right-of-way that I followed to a familiar back road that I knew would lead me toward Moose Hill. I followed it to Walpole Street and I took this to the trail that leads to Allens ledge where I pushed my bike into the woods, out of sight from the street.

I walked up the path to Allens Ledge. This is a nice rock outcrop surrounded by oak-pine forest. A little further up the trail is the bigger and more popular Bluff Head, but I didn’t want to gaze out at Gillette Stadium and the surrounding new Patriot Place mall. This is another prime example of the sort of consumption/entertainment complex that passes for progress in early 21st-century America, and I just didn’t want to look at any more of that.

From Allens Ledge in August, I can gaze out at the oaks, pines and sky and see no roads, no malls, not even houses. With all the hard rock around me with little bits of moss and grass growing from the cracks I could almost imagine I was back on Camel’s Hump in Vermont or even the Sierra of California. A few small bonsai-like pines cling to the rocks and blue stem grasses grow in small patches of thin soil. There are a few red-cedar trees that are typical of these rocky ledges and a small patch of scrub oak. The rocks themselves are scored with striations in many directions and I can’t help but think some of them must have been left by the continental ice sheets that once covered these hills. The old stone chimney reminded me that people have been enjoying this spot for a very long time.

I sat on the stone, enjoying my sandwich, cantaloupe and coffee. I gazed at the infinite blue sky with a white half moon overhead. There was barely a puff of breeze in the warm, dry air. I was so alone I felt it would be okay to pull off my tee shirt to feel the sun on my skin. No birds sang and the few that flew over seemed to have distant locales on their minds. Big dragonflies patrolled lazily in the soft air above the rock.

The September-like air reminded me that yet another summer season will be drawing to a close and the remainder of my life will be one season shorter. I hoped for a better world in the years ahead but I felt as if we faced years of desolation and darkness before we find the peaceful valleys of our dreams.

Please Note: Don't forget to check out the Moose Hill Notebook for shorter, more frequent posts.

Labels: ,