Saturday, December 31, 2011


Hi, there,

Happy New Years! By the time you read this it will be another year. 2011 will be gone, a new thing in its place. We’re just collecting holidays these celebratory days, aren’t we? One holiday greeting after another—but now there won’t be another ‘till Groundhog’s Day.

Chris and I decided to spend the night at home, doing what we normally do on a Saturday, which is listening to Prairie Home Companion and eating Chinese and then puttering around the house afterward, listening to music and dancing. The main differences are that I’ve got a bottle of ginger ale for toasting at midnight, and that today, for the first time, the Chinese was not take-out. I made chicken and cashews, which is Chris’ favorite, from a recipe I made up as I went along and he LIKED it! I am so pleased with myself. Boiled [organic, free-range, I had the store owner call and question the grower] chicken, soaked with cashews in chicken broth, garlic, honey, soy sauce, and ginger, then pan-fried with onion, carrots, and broccoli. Aren’t I clever? I mean, as long as I’m showing off, I might as well be honest about it.

But it put Chris in a good mood and he put on his Kenny Loggins DVD while I cleaned up the kitchen. I’m not a huge fan of Kenny Loggins (I just had to ask Chris to remind me of the name) but I know this DVD and some of its songs—principally, “Convictions of the Heart,” which is the unofficial anthem of the Park Service. I’ve seen a video of it involving rows of rangers clapping in time. It is stirring, a cheering, rousing song;

"One with the Earth, with the Sky

One with everything in life

I Believe it will start

With conviction of the heart."

I like the song…but somehow it arouses the cynic in me. I find myself questioning the singer’s sincerity, his dedication, wondering how much he’s really doing for the planet he’s supposedly one with. It’s too easy, I guess, to be roused by music, to feel dedication or conviction without actually doing anything about it. The song makes me fear that easiness, fear a nation of avidly green consumerist polluters, makes me fear complacency. But I understand a certain cynicism is typical of my generation, that a lot of us confused suspicion for sophistication early on. We are the “ones who won’t be taken,” to quote a completely different song. I don’t know if the issue is really generational or not, but my reluctance to accept Mr. Loggins’ encouragement may be hard-hearted of me.

And generational or not, Chris has no such cynicism. The song makes him cry every time. My Chris can do and say things that would seem cheesy in anyone else, but in him the sweetness is completely genuine. He doesn’t protect himself with suspicion. It is a kind of generosity, a deliberate innocence, a giving of himself to the world. It makes him a husband to be grateful for, and it has made him an excellent park ranger—he’s been a ranger for over thirty years.

The ranger part ends tomorrow as he retires. Thirty years of teaching and explaining and giving tourists directions ends tomorrow, New Year's Day, with a walk on the shore of the ocean. I can’t imagine what that’s like. Maybe it’s because I’m younger, maybe it’s because I’ve had to struggle so long to find something I can even hope to do well professionally, but I can’t imagine feeling done with a career. A new adventure will start, as Chris says, but I can’t help wondering if the past is weighing on his mind tonight, if he’s thinking particularly of the things this song has meant to him.

But it’s not like I don’t cry to music. It’s not like I never allow myself to be moved by a song. I’m not that hard-hearted. Indigo Girls’ “Hammer and a Nail,” for example;

Gotta get out of bed, get a hammer and a nail

Learn how to use my hands,

Not just my head, I’ll think myself into jail

Now I know a refuge never grows

From a chin in a hand and thoughtful pose,

Gotta tend the Earth if you want a rose.”

That’s why I went to Antioch, to learn how to use my hands, to learn to be useful. The song would be the unofficial anthem of the Environmental Science department, if I could make it so. Or, “Back to Pooh Corner,” another song on the Kenny Loggins DVD;

“Christopher Robin and I walked along
Under branches lit up by the moon
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
As our days disappeared all too soon
But I've wandered much further today than I should
And I can't seem to find my way back to the Wood

So help me if you can
I've got to get back
To the House at Pooh Corner by one
You'd be surprised
There's so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh”

That song…is fully capable of making me sob. It did tonight. Growing up…somehow carries such loss. I don’t know why—I’m certainly happier as an adult than I was as a child. And as Kenny Loggins himself relates, if Pooh Corner is a place, it’s a place adults also have passport to; he got back to there by becoming a parent. And it doesn’t escape my notice that most of the things he says he has to do at Pooh Corner sound like field trips for some really cool graduate-level science course—walking under moonlit trees, consulting owls, counting bees, attending to clouds. There are ways to find Pooh Corner as an adult.

Once, I told you that I am like Tigger, wondering what tiggers have for breakfast. All the other animals in the Forest know what their type of animal eats, even though all of them seem to be unique. They all know who and what they are and what that means. Only Tigger does not know what being what he is means. Like him, I know who and what I am, but not what that means. I don’t naturally know what I’m doing here, how to be useful, how to get my hands on a hammer and a nail. I was very sad that day, and you knew it. I think you felt a bit helpless in the face of my sadness, but you said the right thing. You said that perhaps we should all abandon other forms of comfort, other forms of making sense of things, and just go live in the Hundred Acre Wood.

The Pooh stories were also the occasion of the only time I have seen my father cry. He was reading the last Pooh Story in the second book, the story where Christopher Robin, beginning to grow up, says goodbye to all of his toy animals. And when the animals have all said their goodbyes and left, all of them except Pooh, Boy and Bear go up to Galleon’s Lap, that magical part of the forest where no one can ever count exactly how many trees there are, not even if you tie a string around each trunk as you go around. What a wonderful place for a couple of ecology geeks, yes? A forest where counting gets you so far—and then finally fails at last, so that you can count again and again and so learn the limits of counting, walking the topography of that shore where laps the ocean of Being that cannot be counted.

And as he read that most familiar story to me and my sister—I think we were thirteen and nine, and the past must have been weighing very heavy on our father’s mind—his voice broke and my Dad began to cry.

“It’s so sad,” he managed to say, but he offered no other explanation. He never finished the story, and he has never gone back to Pooh with us. But I remember the words; I’d heard the words of those stories from him too many times to ever forget the last line my Dad couldn’t say;

“there, a Boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

-Happy New Year,


Thursday, December 22, 2011

This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long

Hi, there!

Today is Yule, the winter solstice. More precisely, the actual solstice moment, when the orbit of the Earth begins to tilt the Northern Hemisphere back toward the sun, was last night, before midnight local time. But that made this morning Yule morning, the sunrise to celebrate. I suspect the European pagan tradition, like the Jewish tradition, began holidays at sunset--as a kid I knew Christmas Eve is the night of Christmas. Christmas dinner, the following night, seemed sort of misplaced. As an adult, I've come to the conclusion that, historically speaking, I was probably right.

Anyway, my husband and I went to the island to watch the sun come up over the ocean, as we always do, and opened presents this morning. Then we had a nap, and then we had pancakes. What is your religious affiliation? You've never told me. You did tell me that you have not been particularly religious as an adult, but I suspect you celebrate something in December, and that you were raised with one religion or another. I've noticed that religious orientation often outlasts religion in the mind, that even staunch atheists often have very specific ideas about the God they don't believe in.

Maybe I shouldn't ask you, though. It wouldn't be the right question about me, after all, for I am identifying myself less and less as belonging to any group. I'm tired of identity politics for myself. I'm tired of swearing allegiance, even conditional or temporary allegiance, to my own current opinion. It's not about me; it's about what's sacred and what's meaningful, and what works, and I'll honor those things where I find them, in church or on a beach, or in a graduate school lecture on ecology....

Although I will admit that Yule is, on the face of it, a somewhat odd holiday. For while the solstice certainly happens, the typical explanation for celebrating it, that it's about the return of light, the victory of light over darkness, is questionable at best. The typical story is that people used to fear that the day would just go on shrinking until everything was wholly dark and cold and dead. The people therefor lit fires and candles and brought evergreen plants into their homes "to keep the year alive," as the poem says. And "when the new day's sunshine blazed awake, they shouted, reveling."

Now, we can be sympathetic to the primitive peoples who thought this, but we know perfectly well that there is no chance at all of the day just diminishing into permanent night. Also, on the other side of the planet today is actually the day when the days start getting shorter. Perhaps there is cultural value in maintaining some ancient traditions regardless of the origin, but to the extent to which I am a pagan, I'm a convert. And so are most people in the Neopagan movement. That's what Neopaganism means; the Neopagan religions are those developed recently, and mostly by people who were raised as something else. Why on Earth would any sane person not only convert to, but actually help invent a religion where one of the major holidays involves worrying that the law of physics will just stop?

I didn't wonder about this until I had been a convert for several years, and I found an answer to the question I hadn't thought to ask.

I'd decided to celebrate Yule in the woods that year. This was long before my husband came along, and I figured that as long as I was celebrating by myself, I might as well do so on a backpacking trip in southern Pennsylvania. So I packed my sleeping bag and my food and my hammock, got a ride to the trail-head from my mother, and off I went.

I am entirely familiar with backpacking, but only in three seasons. I can deal with a certain amount of cold, but not true winter. I'm not unwilling, I just don't know how. In any activity, there are certain bifurcation points beyond which you're fundamentally playing a different game. As a sawyer, for example, I learned that there is such a point right around trees of ten or twelve inches in diameter. Try to fell a tree much above that, and you're going to need wedges because the increasing weight of the tree makes its behavior more dangerous and less predictable. I was trained to cut up to that size, but beyond that size I was not allowed to go without further training. My supervisor knew that bifurcation point was there, and warned me of it. Nobody warned me that a bifurcation point exists in backpacking where the temperature drops down cold enough to freeze carrots.

I didn't know carrots could freeze, did you? So can raisins. All the foods I had bright with me to eat raw, and which I had thought of as essentially dry, actually had enough water content to freeze, and freeze they did, as hard and unpalatable as rocks. So I could not eat without cooking. Unfortunately, I could not cook, either, because my stove was uncooperative, and as I fought with it in the dark, I could feel my core temperature starting to drop. In the woods, once you get cold, you do not get warm again. So I had to go to bed without dinner and stay there all night. The following day I learned that the daytime high could not thaw my drinking water, and I aborted the trip.

But that night that I went to bed hungry was the winter solstice. I was alone, and I knew that the night had turned colder than I was prepared for, but I did not know how cold it would get. The possibility that I could freeze to death occurred to me. I didn't think it was a very strong possibility--I had a zero degree bag, and I was not warm in it, but I wasn't exactly frigid in it, either. Based on having used a twenty degree bag for years, I had a good sense of how cold you can get and still be ok. But small or otherwise, the possibility existed that I wouldn't make it, and there was nothing further I could do about it. The warmest place I could get to was where I already was. There was nothing to do but wait.

Hammocks have the advantage of keeping a body off the ground, and they also swing, some, which is comforting. It's hard to be really afraid while being rocked. Also, though I had a tarp thrown over a line above my hammock in case of rain, on clear nights I could push that tarp back and sleep right under the stars, which is what I did. But there is no way to sleep from dusk till dawn on the winter solstice, even I don't need that much sleep, and anyway I was cold and nervous. So I dozed on and off, and spent most of the night watching the moon, just a day or two past full, cross the breadth of the sky behind the skeletal fingers of trees. One side to the other. It was beautiful. And when the new day's sunshine blazed awake, you can bet I reveled.

It occurred to me then that primitive peoples must have been pretty sure the sun would come back up (how could they know when to revel, if they didn't know which dawn was the beginning of longer days?). Even if they were a bit nervous about it and found the ritual comforting to their nervousness, they fully expected the sun to come up again; they knew winter happens every year, and spring comes afterward. What they didn't know was whether they, personally, would see spring. Like me, they were cold, with an uncertain supply of food, and there was no help for them if they had prepared for the season wrongly. And all they could do about it was wait. When the sun came up, they were not quite out of the woods (neither was I), but they had passed a turning point. Even though December is just the beginning of winter weather, the growing light would be cheering. They could look forward to something. They felt better. I certainly did.

The thing is, none of us know we will see the spring, even if winter is not for us particularly dangerous (and is not what it used to be, anyway). None of us know how long we've got here. Yule is a time to celebrate not just the dawn, but being here to see it.

So, I hope and expect you will see the spring, and that I will see you then.

As ever,

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Birds of a Feather


We’re on our way back from my sister’s birthday party and I JUST HELD MY NEPHEW!!! I had not done so before, as my sister wanted to minimize people touching him in his first six weeks or so. He is bigger and more alert than he used to be. As my Dad says, when he looks at you, you really feel looked at.

Holding him was nothing like holding a cat, though he is about the same size. A cat, being an adult animal, has full control over its bodily movements, and cooperates in being held. A cat it not passive in human arms, but turns and adjusts its body to find a comfortable and safe position. The cat will either make itself easy to hold, or it will ready itself to jump, but either way its position in human arms is a joint venture. There’s no particular technique to it, as long as you know not to use the tail as a handle, not to squeeze too hard, and so forth, because the cat helps. But my nephew has little physical coordination yet. He is not passive, he wiggles and squirms, but he does not help you hold him. You’ve got to do everything. His father was showing me different holds, and he reminded me very much of you, or other bird-people I know, explaining how to hold birds. How you have to be careful to maintain control of the other being’s body at all times. My nephew isn’t going to claw me or fly away if I get it wrong, but still, there is a similarity.

Do you remember when I told you about my modest involvement in the bird world? I was careful to explain that I am not, myself, a birder. I did not want you to think me fluent in a language where I only know a few words. I didn’t want you to assume that a commonality existed where none did. You smiled and said, with a great deal of fondness, “but you like them.” It wasn’t a question. You had spotted the commonality that did exist, or one of them.

The problem with meeting a group of people all at once is that all the names and faces get confused. I’m not sure I ever got everybody down, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was, for you, still lost among the crowd that day. But obviously, you eventually learned to recognize me as an individual, and maybe it was that day; ah, yes, there goes that non-birder who likes birds.

And I do. You were right. I’m not sure that I like birds more than other live things (which is to say a great deal—I really like living things), but bird imagery has been important to me. I drew birds, and made up birds, when I was small, along with horses, cats, dogs, and dragons. My room in the house in Maine had a flock of birds on the ceiling, their eyes and bills formed by the swirls of colored knots in the wood paneling, seventeen birds, just for me. My favorite Christmas ornaments were the antique glass birds we inherited from my grandmother, fantastic birds, pink and blue and purple, with graceful necks and pointed bills and white, filamentous tails. There was a whole mixed flock of them, their legs made of springs, their feet, metal clips so they could perch on the Christmas tree.

Perhaps this was why my mother signed us up for a bird walk when I was seven, in Maine. I found it totally boring; a lot of grown-ups pointing binoculars at trees. Sometimes one or another of them would offer me a look through the binoculars, but no one ever explained to me how to look through binoculars properly, what I was supposed to be looking at, or why. I mean, I understood the idea was to look at birds, but where? Why? Eventually, the group passed through a wonderful little cove and disappeared into the bushes. My Mom and I stayed in the cove, climbing on rocks, and I played in that cove every summer for the next seven years, a wonderful gift given to me by liking birds not quite enough.

I never went back into the bushes to look at where the birders went. They didn’t return the way they had come, so they must have circled back up to the road, somehow. I was vaguely aware that there was a small, freshwater pond up there, the only one I know of on the island, though I suppose there are others. I remember one year there were gulls flying back there and out again. They were bathing. I didn’t know gulls bathe, but evidently, some do. One, as it came flying out, stopped itself in flight, hanging on the air a few seconds to shake itself like a dog before flying on.

I don’t understand birding. I don’t see what is exciting about the act of seeing and identifying a bird, which seems to be the heart of the exercise. It is a kind of collecting, I think, a collection of experience. You see a bird and you know what it is, and that experience of recognition is an item of inner richness, a kind of “oo!” right? Except, I’m not much of a collector. I never have been, maybe I’m not organized enough. It’s not that I like plants better; I would not take a trip in order to see a new kind of plant, in order to collect that recognition. Instead, I want to know everything about a place, ooze the tendrils of my consciousness into every pocket and fiber. I want to know the names and ways of all the living beings I can see, so I can greet them as friends and perhaps approximate a knowing of the whole. I’d love to know all about birds, too, but they move. I think one has to be a birder to be motivated enough to learn about birds. It’s a kind of gateway you went through, and which I have not. And yet, you’re right; I like them.

I have not been back to that cove the birders left behind in twenty years, now. I wonder what it would be like to see it? I could still find it, if I wanted to, and I’ve driven the Maine coast twice now, in good company with nowhere in a hurry to be. I could have stopped by. I might yet. I was afraid, perhaps, that I would find it different, reduced to mere memory. Or, that it would be the same, but I would find no way to fit its continued reality in my adult life. Some things break over the years. I don’t know hold them.

The glass birds broke, most of them. Only two or three are left. My sister and I are grown-ups now, each married, she with a child and—gosh, thirty years old? My little sister! This year, our mother invited us to take some of the family ornaments home to our own trees. I think we both had mixed feelings about this, but Mom’s collection has grown too big to fit on one tree, anyway. I took some of my favorite “soft” ornaments (they are not all soft, but they are alike in not being fragile). I took one of the two varnished balls of compressed flower petals my Dad made, brown and odd-looking, but I love the story, and also two of the Wizard of Oz figurines we got from Longwood Gardens that year, and the toy horn that really plays a note when you blow into it. I took some of the glass ornaments, but not the glass birds. I thought they should stay in their own habitat a while longer. Plus, I didn’t want to risk breaking them. They slip, so easily and so permanently, out of an unstudied hand.

Let my nephew break them, if somebody must.

-best, C.

Monday, December 12, 2011



Ever listen to Prairie Home Companion? I actually don’t know if you’d even like it, but I grew up listening to it, my husband listens to it…an enduring image for me is one I only heard about by letter; my Dad and step mother eating stuffed zucchini from the garden on the back deck of their house as bats began patrolling the summer sky…listening to Prairie Home Companion. I think they even saw it live, once.

It’s not so much that it’s such a great show—sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. It’s the consistency, across not only time but space. I remember one time the show came from Tanglewood, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Stockbridge, where I went to boarding school, is right down the road. We walked over there sometimes. At Tanglewood I saw Peter, Paul, and Mary with my dorm one summer, which had to be the best Fourth of July ever, even though there was no music for the actual fireworks. Another year, we saw Arlo Guthrie there—I was unimpressed by his music, but he did tell a story about moose with their antlers going growing the wrong way into their skulls, causing them to wander into towns and look in people’s windows. We didn’t get tickets for BB King, but we sat on the hill on campus and we could hear most of the concert, that’s how close Tanglewood was. And here was Garrison Keilor’s voice, broadcasting out from that spot—at that very moment. The great thing about a live show is the sense of connection with the people making the show, and also with everybody else listening to it.

When I was living in Keene, I always listened to it, because I knew my sweetie listened to it, too. I’d hear the music and the applause and know exactly what he was doing. Now, we listen to it together, usually over Chinese food. My husband has a thing for spring rolls.

I sometimes think that if you ever visit and your visit lasts over a Saturday, you’ll listen to it with us. Maybe your mate will be there, too—if it’s part of your vacation, of course you’d want her with you. So we’ll get twice as many spring rolls, and maybe at the end of the show I’ll get up and dance and pull my mate up to dance with me. And—I don’t know which one of you would be more likely to start it, as I’ve never seen you together and I don’t know her—but one of you would grin and draw the other one up to dance, too. And there would be two couples spinning around the room, being sweet and goofy.

Do you know how to dance? I mean, actual steps and everything? I don’t, though someone explained the waltz to me once. I don’t know if my sweetie knows how, but he with me he just sort of moves. And yet we never step on each other’s toes.

It’s been over thirty years, listening to the familiar voice of that stranger in the dark of radio. One of these days he’ll retire, or even die. He’s had a minor stroke, already. But I hope he stays in it long enough for my nephew to get to know it. That’ll be another generation.

And here I am going on and on and on. How are you?

-best, C.