A New Way of Seeing
Saturday, March 14, 2009
It was still in the mid-20’s when I left home for Moose Hill Saturday morning, but that was OK because the forecast was calling for clear skies and temperatures in the 50’s. It was a great day for walking, with bright sunshine and little wind.
As soon as I stepped out the back door, I was greeted by sounds of Spring: One of the neighborhood cardinals was tooting away. At the end of the driveway, I saw the first two robins of the year to be in the yard. Doves were cooing along Pleasant Street, and a pair of grackles flew over the train station. Along the road to the tennis club, I saw one of my first chipmunks of the year. On Lover’s Lane I saw that the lovers haven’t been waiting for Spring. (Note to lovers: It’s probably not a good idea to leave your latex evidence laying around, announcing to the world the location of your secret spot.) A pair of hooded mergansers took flight from Beaver Brook as I crossed the new bridge over the dam. In the cedar swamp, the redwings were calling chink-ker-ee! The new season was truly underway. Soon, I’ll be heading up in the evening to watch the flight of the woodcock.
I didn’t have any firm plans, but I thought I’d head to one of my favorite breakfast spots on the Boulders. Rather than hike up the road, I ducked back into the woods to take the Hobbs Hill trail. Away from the road and the brook, the woods were quiet. I walked along quietly and steadily, feeling my body warming and loosening. Thoughts were rolling through my mind without organizing themselves into any particular themes or patterns.
In time, the Hobbs trail took me back to the road, and I crossed it to take the Vernal Pool trail toward the Boulders. I tried not to hurry, but breakfast was calling from my pack. I had two big slabs of fresh homemade whole wheat bread slathered with peanut butter (the peanuts-only kind) and drizzled with pure maple syrup. I was going to use the usual jelly, or maybe the classic honey, but in honor of maple sugar season on Moose Hill, I tried something a little different. In the vacuum bottle, I had some shade-grown coffee. I knew these token efforts to eat as if food matters could make me seem like something of a Fauxhemian, but what the heck.
As I approached the Boulders, I paused to peer through the thin ice into the clear water of the vernal pool that is alongside the old road there. It seems it will be a few more weeks before the amphibians that depend on these ephemeral ponds for breeding will arrive.
I climbed up onto the Boulders and found a stony seat that afforded the warmth of the sunshine and a view back down on the trail passing below. I put my little foam pad on the cold rock and draped my fleece blanket over my shoulders. Before I could finish unpacking breakfast, I heard the yanking of a nuthatch behind me. This was followed by the tooting of a group of titmice and the tapping of a small woodpecker. This little guild stopped by just long enough to check out the new curiosity in the neighborhood before going back to the important business of finding something of their own to eat.
I sat enjoying my sandwich and coffee. A gentle southerly breeze reinforced my hopes for a warm afternoon. A couple of crows flew over, cawing loudly just over the treetops. A couple of hikers passed on the trail below, but they never glanced up to see the blanket-clad boulder troll peering down at them.
My thoughts mostly lingered on the state of the economy and, more particularly, what the current disarray might be telling us about our future. I remain convinced that, as Tom Friedman puts it, we may be at an inflection point where both our economy and environment are hitting the wall at the same moment.
On Friday afternoon, I was watching one of the major cable business networks as President Obama was telling us that it’s time to start building a new clean-energy economy and start laying the foundation for post-bubble economic growth, and that no longer can we drive our economy with an over-heated housing market and maxed-out credit cards. Those days are over, he said. A funny look came over the pretty high-def face of one of the program hosts. She just couldn’t grasp what that might mean. The concept of an economy that did not depend of constant growth and expansion with ever-increasing consumption and spending was beyond comprehension. I was struck how this crisis of imagination is typical of most people who have had it so good for so long. I was troubled by the on-going belief that all the bailout money we are throwing at the recession will prove to be a last-gasp futile attempt to prop up a system that is destined to failure no matter what we do and that all this new debt will only make things much worse for many years to come. What we need is a new way to look at things.
I was getting cold and these thoughts were not particularly fun or comforting, so I decided to get moving. I packed my bag and started looking for a way to walk around and down off this rocky outcropping. A ledge of granite, four or five feet tall, was in my way and, as always, I looked for a way to walk around it. Suddenly, an idea coalesced. For a while now, I’ve been entertaining rock climbing fantasies. This may have started a couple of years ago when we were in the Ansel Adams museum at Yosemite National Park. In the gift shop they were playing one of those New-Agey videos where an amazingly fit and graceful athlete was climbing on boulders to the accompaniment of soothing music. It struck me that it must be so wonderful to move through space like that with nothing more than skill, nerve and power.
Now, I’m an overweight middle-aged man with a bad shoulder. Even in high school when I was in pretty good shape I could never do more than 10 pull-ups. I have what I euphemistically call a low center of gravity. So, I have no business even thinking about rock climbing. But suddenly I started looking at the boulders all around me differently. I started looking for routes, hand-holds and toe-holds in the stone. Starting with the small wall in front of me, I found a way down the rock face rather than around. It was fun, so I walked over to the base of the tallest outcrop. There is a big fissure in the rock, and I started to climb up. My binoculars were tangling from my neck so I went to slip my pack off my shoulders so I could put them away. The pack promptly slipped from my grip and tumbled to the ground about 10 feet below, teaching me an early - if unnecessary – lesson about the dangers of combining height and gravity.
I spent several minutes moving up and down the rock. I was quickly learning a few lessons about this sport: As in chess, every move - and a few beyond that - must be planned in advance. Attention and focus are critical because a careless move can quickly lead to a situation prompting a cold sweat. It’s important to make a plan and follow through with it. It’s very helpful to know where you’re going, or you might wind up in a place you’d really rather not be.
It felt good to be stretching, reaching, grabbing and pulling. I felt like I was using muscles that don’t get used often enough. I was also exercising the parts of the brain that provide focus, concentration and discipline that can always use a workout. More importantly, I was seeing these familiar rocks in a new way.
Feeling like I’d pushed my luck enough with these first baby-steps into the world of rock climbing, I made my final descent and retrieved my pack. I was in a happy mood as I headed down the trail back to the road. The sun was shining and the Spring air was getting warmer. I’d had a fun new experience. And while I won’t be free-climbing El Cap any time soon, I knew that from now on I would be seeing the world around me with new eyes.