Sunday, August 29, 2010

Billions

Walking and math, I've found, are excellent partners, exercisers of body and brain respectively. In the city, I've often escaped from stress, motors, politics, and worries by simple routines: how many steps to the next corner, what's this month's percent drop in net worth, how long to reach a billion by counting once a second. Math puts a sheen of order to a world that looks to be teeming with disorder.

In the country, on a certain lane in Maine, for example, the exercises get a bit more philosophical. I'm much freer to think about big, and small, things, and their wonders. Nature's profligacy and chaos, for example: how many leaves and needles on just this little stretch of road, how many bugs, how many stars at night. The lane ends at the ocean, where life is even more amazing - a billion phytoplankton in a quart of water. Here orderly math lies under the apparent disorder in a perfect arrangement of cells and atoms.

Thoreau said, "I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can afford to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another, that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp -- tadpoles which herons gobble up and tortoises and toads run over in the road." Would he be so sanguine with our present suffering, our population projected to reach 7 billion sometime in 2011 or 2012, the way we prey on tuna and lynxes and rare wildflowers, the way we burn carbon and religions alike?

A billion has become understandable, just barely maybe, but still I can imagine those 32 years it takes to count one number per second, day and night. Not sure if I can imagine a trillion, a wonder in itself, approaching the infinite. My own body is an example of this dilemma. The number of cells in the average human body is finite, obviously, but might as well be infinite. Nobody knows for sure how many cell there are, because of constant birth and death; estimates range between 10 trillion and 100 trillion. I think this is comforting, this chaos within order, this inner immensity propelling me along.

Numbers are infinite, space is infinite, the earth is not. Tortoises and toads indeed: our mere 7 billion will run them over and use them up, unless we come to our census.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tranquility Grange

I don't think I've ever been inside a grange before last night. There are still nearly 200 in Maine, and we've seen a number from the outside (including one just down the road in Owls Head), but being from away, we never felt bold enough to attend a meeting of the garden club or a public supper or a monthly meeting of The Grange itself. I suppose there might have been some unremembered occasion in the few years of my youth that Minnesota consumed, but that's very doubtful; Dutch Calvinists had their own places to meet, usually the church or the school, and a grange would have smacked vaguely of unions or other somewhat godless organizations. One couldn't imagine belonging to a group that wasn't religious.

Last night's annual membership meeting of Coastal Mountains Land Trust was held at Tranquility Grange in Lincolnville. I would have attended just for the name. Tranquility Grange conjures up a rural past when community was more meaningful, both more intense and more prosaic. The National Grange originated in 1867 as an agricultural organization and "the Patrons of Husbandry" is still part of its official name. I imagine that it served the political and social needs of secular farmers unattached to any church, and I can only guess at the stalwart Mainers who founded their grange with the word "tranquility."

The building is plain, graced with high ceilings and a simple stage and folding chairs and a couple of old-fashioned cloak rooms, the kind of place where, once industrial America started to broadcast its riches, young people couldn't wait to leave. Still, the allure of a ready-made community, sans special interests, sans holier-than-thou is most appealing, especially in the age of the Internet and the suicide bomber. Perhaps it's more attractive to people from away, from the city.

Ironically, this particular person from away found the tightest community of his life on a dead-end street in a suburb of Boston. To re-create that amid the glories of Maine would be heaven. Perfect tranquility is a goal worth praying for.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August

I can think of three books with "August" in their titles and none of them have much to do with the glories of the month. August by Judith Rossner isn't about August at all (also, not a very good book), but about the absence of August in the lives of New York therapists and patients. Barbara Tuchman wrote The Guns of August, a very good book but about inglorious World War I. One of the world's best books is Faulkner's Light in August, but deep summer in Mississippi does not compare well to high summer in Maine. Google added a fourth book, Snow in August, by Pete Hamill, which I haven't read, about post-WWII New York, whose title says it all. Where are the books about this incredible time in Maine? It's so wonderful that a book would be trite. Irony and conflict work much better in the literary world.

At least the name of our capital gives a nod in the right direction.

And it has been an incredible month - day after day of clear blue days and cool quiet nights. This morning the fog embraced Owls Head for a while, gradually retreating into the bay, but never quite leaving the islands, giving those of us on the safe mainland the best of both worlds. No war here, no hot broken city streets, no dusty roads - just a time for inner contemplation and outer radiance. When all those therapists close up shop in August, perhaps they should write their patients a prescription for Maine air and water, mist and sun, corn and tomatoes and blackberries, to get them through the month and maybe even cure a few.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Utilities

It came to me the other day that one of the reasons I like Bayview Terrace, the little ordinary road nearby, is that it has no utility lines or poles. This insight is somewhat embarrassing, as I've been walking that road for, oh, 15 years. But wires lining roads are so common that we don't even see them anymore; roads without wires are so uncommon that we should be memorializing them.

The wires and cables used to be, in their way, comforting. The electrons and the conversations and the premium TV images were safely confined, obediently in their places, waiting for the human touch. Things have changed, course. Wires aren't needed so much; phone and Internet join the waves of radio and TV and solar radiation already sloshing around in the air, and we walk freely down lovely lanes getting our fixes without land-locked interference. The tables are turning. What used to be utilities are now necessities, and "they" can get hold of you anytime, anywhere. I wonder if the phones of the future will have "off" buttons at all.

My solution is of course always to leave the Blackberry in the bag. This may be against the current of the times, and I expect soon to be painting signs for the beginning and end of Bayview Terrace: "Cell-free Road Ahead. Violators will be Arrested and Sentenced to 15 Minutes of Quiet Staring at Moss." But what really worries me is if they figure out, on an industrial scale, how to make the transmission of electricity wireless. I won't be able to leave my machines behind.
They will be my head.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bird noising

In these scientific times we're not supposed to anthropomorphize. So what a bird does with its vocal apparatus may not be called singing. It is marking territory, repelling a rival or attracting a mate, announcing a cache of bugs, warning of danger. It is not joyous or sad or carefree or disconsolate (don't spell it "mourning" dove). Even "calling" may imply too much self-aware communication. "Sounding" and "noising" are acceptable.

The idea works for gulls, who squawk as a matter of course, no reason needed. Crows too, who are an examplar of noise in fact, especially at dawn when their incessant caws and screeches and nyucks in the big bare spruce near the open window cannot be understood to have any malice or disturbing intent (or we would go crazy).

It gets slightly trickier with the dawn and dusk scatting of the robin, which sounds suspiciously like new-wave jazz in a club. The high-pitched motherly squeak of the osprey is not echo-location (or is it?). The woodpecker can't help it if he (I mean it) sounds crazy.

Even worse are the little armadas of ducks, swimming and diving, blended families of ducklings and parents whose burblings and murmurings I am desperately trying not to describe as "contented." And what do you say about the hummingbird, which is without sound, except the whirring of wings, as if a precious jewel that you'd give to a loved one could fly?

But at last the idea falls apart. There is the goldfinch, sitting at the close of day at the very top of a 50-foot balsam fir, in the last rays of the sun, pouring out his heart, baring her soul, singing (damn it!) for the glory of our lives.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking advantage

Advantage has two meanings, benign and malign. The first happens on a day like today, when the combination of hot sun and cool ocean breeze makes me spend almost the whole day on the deck. There's no competition involved, no striving. I'm not trying to beat out the gulls. Clean fresh air comes at no price.

People thought the same about coal, oil, gas, cod, rain forests. They were free and endless and the miners and drillers and entrepreneurs weren't taking advantage, they were fulfilling a destiny. Not so anymore. Every one of earth's resources has been monetized.

Including the wind, the tides, the nitrogen of the ocean. Yesterday Matthew Simmons, energy entrepreneur, of fossil fuels in Texas, of renewables in Maine, died. The news stories praise him as a visionary, and his good deeds and big thoughts were legendary. But I couldn't help but groan when I read that he died in his house on North Haven, just a few miles across the bay from his huge estate in Rockport, both of which are complemented for the winter months, I'm sure, by properties in Houston and other warm places. Why does one man need so much? How easy is it to champion renewable energy when you've made your pile on oil? Why does John Kerry need a $7 million yacht?

No doubt I'm being a churl and a hypocrite. Producing electricity from a wind turbine is much better than burning coal. I haven't turned in my car in protest of imported oil. But there's a way to take advantage of nature, and for all the promise of alternative energy, the hype misses the point. I can't help but think that the same old profit motive drives it. I can't help but wonder if the wind and the sea will run out, not in the same way as oil, but as a temporary way station in the relentless thirst for energy, and the machines will have covered the earth in vain. I can't help but predict that turbines and ammonia plants and solar arrays will one day be discarded, just as expendable and ugly as Three Mile Island. I can't help but worry that our refusal to conserve will force us into more nightmares of fission and fusion.

A true visionary works with the earth, not against it. It should be easy for us to give up our advantages, those of us who have had enough.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Antique cat

On Monday morning someone reported seeing a mountain lion in a field near the Owls Head Transportation Museum. The witness was a former Maine Registered Guide and was adamant that what he saw was not a bobcat, or a coyote. The folks from Fish and Wildlife are quite ready to be convinced, they say, but need more evidence that the big cats are re-establishing territory in Maine than the occasional sighting here and there.

What would convince them, a formal introduction? Or some lodge could organize a puma and panther party, a cougar and catamount crusade, with hundreds of hunters and dogs to beat the bushes and shoot the thing, skin it, mount it and put it on display next to the stuffed Studebakers in the OHTM. That would show 'em.

Or we could just believe Mr. Kip Yattaw (whose name is an anagram for "it Kat-y paw") when he says, "They are here and they are real."

It's the agnostic's dilemma: we want to believe but say we need proof. Or, considering the insults to the earth these days, is it that we don't want to believe and we don't want proof? We're human, we mix faith and fact to suit the politics or the emotion. All I know is that I don't like zoos, and I don't like animal dioramas, and I'm very happy this week on my walks, hoping for the impossible to appear in the woods, or even, when I took the dog out last night for her final pee, wondering if that large brown shape bounding out of the garden into the black night was possibly not the deer it was last week.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Trash

The never-ending Bush recession is producing still more casualties. It seems that the Maine companies that burn waste to produce electricity are having trouble getting enough trash to operate at full capacity. People aren't buying as much, so there's less packaging to discard, or they are holding on to stuff longer, or both. To combat this un-American activity (and fulfill their delivery contracts), the companies are resorting to mining landfills, or importing trash from other states.

At least there's an irony here that most sufferers from the recession can't enjoy. Trash is not so treasured. The country has slipped from its peak-trash pinnacle, and that is good. Isn't it?

In the waste-to-energy business, there's a direct relationship between input and output. In most other businesses, this is no longer the case. Many companies are making record profits this year, as the banks did last year, but still have not re-hired the people they axed in the depths of the recession. So fewer people are producing more goods. There's no irony here whatsoever, just the tragedy of the unemployed, discarded like packaging, and of the employed, pushed to the burning point, both quite disposable.