Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Country mouse, city menagerie

I spent last weekend at my brother's new house in rural Ohio, set on some twenty acres of woods. Among other things, we talked about the odd phenomenon of seeing more wildlife in the city than in the country. Around his suburban house he saw deer, groundhogs, raccoons, turkeys, vultures, hawks, egrets, and innumerable songbirds. So far, six months in the country have produced only deer, a few birds, and a hundred trapped house mice, although muskrats are rumored to inhabit the pond. I related similar experiences in comparing suburban Massachusetts to rural Maine.

A hunter this fall did stop by and ask if he could continue to hunt in the woods. Dave had no objections and the man eventually bagged his buck and displayed its carcass for the edification of the city folk. One wouldn't experience that in the burbs. One also does not experience there the vaunted independence of country people, so stubborn about it that they will often vote Republican against their own interests of healthcare, income equality, education and fair taxation. In this election year the contrast between right and left seem to be even greater. Unlike wildlife, people don't seem to be adapting and changing to fit the times any more, but just harden and isolate their positions and fire salvos from their redoubts.

Of course, the escape of people like my brother and me to the country often seems illusional, or delusional. Certainly, it's noisier in the country, not politically, thank God, but decibel-ly. He's got the trains that traverse the I-90 corridor, I've got the airport, and we both have the infinite variety of country engines: pick-ups, riding lawn mowers, chain saws, wood splitters. Dave doesn't have the illusion of "real" wild life, like the bears and moose and bald eagles of Maine, not to mention the immense bulwark of the Great North Woods. He makes do with his acreage. We all try to survive hunting season as gracefully as we can.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Big and little oil

The rising price of heating oil ($4.09 per gallon this week here in Massachusetts) coincides understandably with news stories about diminished support for the heating needs of the poor, and coincides terribly non-understandably with the warmth of the winter. The poor are hit with a double whammy: the high prices themselves and cut federal aid programs (one of the many, many costs of smaller government). The oil companies seem to be unconscionable in flouting the laws of capitalism (like certain Republican presidential candidates recently criticizing Mitt Romney for being a capitalist!) which usually suggest that increased supply means decreased prices. Not so when the companies have everyone over a barrel (so to speak).

I've long thought the price of oil has to go up considerably in order for us to make real conservation gains - the portion of the price represented by taxes, that is. I'd also be in favor of regulation of fossil-fuel companies. Make them semi-public, like the utilities, and subsidize those members of the public who can't afford the basic needs of heat. It seems unfair that southern folks get the benefit of regulation for their air conditioners, but northern folk suffer the worst of free-market excess for their furnaces. All of this preaching smacks of socialism, I know, but if Newt and the Ricks (great name for a polka band) can criticize the free market, why can't I?

Of course, unlike other warm-blooded animals, bears, for example, or farmers in the Great Depression, we don't exactly make much effort to maximize our own heat. We don't cuddle together in dens or live in kitchens and leave the bedrooms unheated. Indeed, our houses are really too large for this climate, not to mention poorly constructed. The old houses of New England are a particular problem since it takes more dollars and will than most people have to make them efficient. And we won't go back to caves and woollies, God knows. But how about a little better management of a scarce resource, on levels both environmental and personal? Lack of compassion for those in need and for the earth has no price, but oh, what a cost.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Conquering nature

Another house is going up on Ash Point Drive, once again in the modern style of construction: buy big lot, knock down all trees, build large house (of course, large - when was the last time you saw a small house being built?). I'm at a point in my life where almost any new construction pains me. Less and less do I understand the urge for the new. There are so many existing structures that could be rehabbed, or even knocked down and begun again, and one more acre would be saved for the trees. Even the bare timbers and planks and studs of a new building seem to plead in some agony. Perhaps that's why the builders cover them up as quickly as possible with Tyvek and clapboards and shingles, to stop the screaming.

After the house will follow the manicured grass, the scalloped edges around ornamental bushes, the tarred driveway, the mulched flower beds, the three-car garage, all the impervious surfaces and domesticated plants that keep nature at bay. The need to dominate and tame and control must be a recent human evolutionary development, going far beyond using nature for food and shelter. Now people must conquer it. Their terror must be extreme, even if they won't acknowledge it. Their answer to terror is apparently to barricade oneself in with stuff; construct huge living spaces that one can control; install floodlights against the woods. Everyone gets, or desires to have, a separate bedroom and bathroom and screen. Families stay inside, passing by each other in the halls, perhaps meeting to snack at the Sub-Zero. They don't go outdoors: a coyote or a neighbor, a gnat or a terrorist, might attack.

If I were to be honest, most human works, not just new houses, pale in comparison to nature. Something utilitarian doesn't bother me. But useful items these days so quickly degenerate into prestige and greed and ostentation. Only something made to be quite useless, ie, a piece of art, can come close to satisfying what nature does so easily. That little bit of wetland that I walk by most days, for example, is especially beautiful this winter. A transparent skin of ice on the standing water produces a blue sheen like a tropical ocean. This rainy mild winter has given moss a big green boost, and it covers the mounds of rock and stump like thatched huts on a shore. Somewhere in the mud peeper eggs lie housed, waiting for spring. They have no need to conquer nature, or preen. Our life cycle is as short as theirs, considering infinity: would that ours were as glorious.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Walking the dog on holiday mornings

With Christmas and New Year's on Sunday this year, there were four opportunities - twice in the country and twice in the city - to walk the dog on holiday mornings, one of the small pleasures in a cacophonous time of big ones. Today and yesterday in the country were not that much different from usual walks in Maine: the fresh sea air, the naked deciduous trees, the clothed conifers, the winter berries shining in the sun like bits of red neon, the faint sounds of someone working in the woods, an airplane landing. No people were around. One car moved along Ash Point Drive. Crows cawed in the trees, and moss seemed to roll in waves across stone and stump, bright-green in this weirdly mild winter. The ocean was calm.

In the city, Christmas morning is the best time of the year to walk. This year the pleasure was doubled. On neither Sunday or Monday did I see more than one moving car. A cardinal flashed in and out of a hedge. There were no other dogs to frighten our little one. Among the mass of suburban houses and yards I saw a total of four people: two stepping off a porch, a woman walking, and someone de-limbing a felled tree with an electric chain saw. This last man and his strange activity on Christmas morning made me think he was making a political, anti-Christmas statement, or maybe he just got the saw for a gift and was celebrating in his own way. The whole rest of the neighborhood was inside, with family or friends or quietly alone, celebrating the gifts of the season.

Such mornings are one of the few times the peace of the country invades the city, and one can walk without thinking about the waste of carbon and time and sentiment. It is mostly quiet and peaceful, like a country lane. The grass rolls across the yards, bright-green in this weirdly mild winter. The soul is calm.