Saturday, March 31, 2012

Speed limit

On the last couple of trips between Maine and Massachusetts, I've not been exceeding the speed limit on I-95. I don't bother on Route 1 in Maine - the local traffic is such that the only time the speed limit is even possible is late at night, or on short stretches for seconds at a time. On I-295 from Brunswick to Portland it becomes possible to set the cruise control at 65, then at 50 through Portland, and drive sedately for most of the way in the right-hand lane. But it's only on the Turnpike that I can actually stay in the right-hand lane virtually the whole trip, some 40 miles, cruise control untouched, calmly watching everyone else speed past. Yesterday, for example, I moved to the left only twice, once for an old guy in a Dodge Dart and once for a semi who lost speed on a hill. I didn't have to worry about mergers; the on-ramps are so long in Maine that cars enter the Turnpike at speed, quite impatient to join the rat race.

My new technique is somewhat more difficult to maintain in New Hampshire, with its curious mix of grandmas and Massholes and other inveterate lane-changers, even though slowing is no longer necessary at the toll booth's, what with the new E-ZPass technology allowing passage at the speed limit (and still only $2.00 for 10 miles! what a bargain!); is achievable again in the 4-lane wastes of northern Massachusetts; but where Route 128 shares I-95, where civility and leisure give way completely to brute survival, disintegrates utterly.

That is the point of my experiment, civility and leisure. No more tail-gating, no more clenched fists at the speed-limiters in the left lanes, no more attempting to set a personal record in transit time, no more predictions as to the minute of arrival, and no more clenched guts when the record (3 hours, 10 minutes set several years ago on a late-night return) inevitably is never broken. And there are many other benefits. I don't have to think about cops, about the exact amount of overage - 5 mph? 10 mph?) that will escape their attention. I hardly have to check the rear view mirror anymore, worrying about the impatience and danger and possible handgun of that Audi owner coming up fast. Of course lane changes are rare, and the signalling and cruise-control adjustments and watchfulness, not to mention slight anxiety, that go with them. Better gas mileage, too. And the trip is leisurely; I've driven the Turnpike hundreds of time but am now seeing things not noticed before. The trip also seems shorter, even though it takes longer, the theory being that time passes more quickly when you're having a good time.

And so I arrive in Newton more refreshed, with more calm stored up against a new week in civilization. No wonder old folks drive slowly.

If this trend continues, in another 60 years I'll enjoy standing in line.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Living in the past

...is easy to do, when you woke up this morning and it was 20 degrees and a bitter north wind was blowing, when for much of the past week you were basking in the T-shirted, sun-drenched glory of 80 degrees. All the spring flowers - snowdrop, crocus, hyacinth, forsythia, magnolia, azalea - were blooming. Trees and hedges were budding. Birds were rioting. The dog craved to be out. You closed your eyes and almost thought of nothing.

At the time, of course, you couldn't fully enjoy the bounty, because it was unnatural to have summer in winter, and you knew we'd pay for it later. You were right. Living in the moment is hard when you know that the next one waits to strike.

I suppose the robin and the azalea deal these thaws and freezes more simply. They live neither in the past nor the future. They expect neither the best or the worst. Only humans do. Humans plan and regret. Humans connive and mourn. A phone call comes from afar and suddenly your father is dead. You're called into a conference room and suddenly you're fired. You say goodbye to a friend and then the email suddenly arrives and you know you won't see him alive again. But you also know that change is the essence of stasis, that death is the essence of life. You knew your father and your friend were sick. You knew things weren't quite right at work. You have the ability to expect the unexpected. The trick is to seize that last hug and know it for what it's worth, then and now and when.

Yesterday, in spite of the cold and the wind, scores of finches were singing in the spruces. The hostas and daylilies had started their push in last week's warmth, but had sensibly stopped after an inch. Wood frogs were "quacking" in the swamps. They know, irrespective of temperature and bad news, that better times are coming. They don't know this intellectually, or emotionally, or obsessively. They know that the past and the future are the same, propelling the moment.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The moralist

The political debate these days seems to be entirely about morals - the evil of debt, women's rights to contraception and abortion, poor peoples' rights to housing and food stamps, the universal right to healthcare. (This usually happens when the economy is going pretty well again.) It's glaringly true in Maine, where the LePage administration is in an all-out war on the poor and the old and the sick and the homeless for being somehow to blame for their own predicaments. Liberals are immoral, conservatives are moral, say the Republicans. Democrats say just the opposite.

To be a moralist, then, is to court criticism from all sides. Taking any kind of stand immediately implies an adamantine hardening. As an essayist with a moral streak I feel this problem every day. I worry about sounding (and being) didactic, to imply or outright state that what I believe should apply to others as well, maybe not all others, but many. This is the reason I finally give up writing fiction - preaching doesn't generally work in the teasing out of character. A compromise between acceptance and judgement, between fiction and nonfiction, might be a commitment to sensation and persuasion, how a breeze off the ocean at low tide feels and smell, how life is immeasurably enriched by a belief in that breeze's purity. My goal is to learn to trust the stories of our senses.

Perhaps the wider world, political and otherwise, runs in confusion among morals and values. The left is all about human values and has no time for religious or spiritual ones. The right applies its religious values of good and evil to human ones. There is no space for humility, compromise, beauty between them.

Thoreau hints at an answer in his Journal entry of March 15, 1852, describing one of the first warm days of spring: “I am eager to report the glory of the universe; may I be worthy to do it; to have got through with regarding human values, so as not to be distracted from regarding divine values.”

He may sound slightly misanthropic to today's liberals, but his emphasis on divine values - which to him meant Nature - is never more pertinent than now. And this from one of the world's great humanitarians, and great conservatives, in the original sense of the word.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Plums

What would you say if I told you that nearly 400,000 acres of undeveloped Maine north woods are going to be conserved permanently, much of which at the ridiculously low price of $37 an acre? That the Nature Conservancy, along with several other groups, was leading the charge and the fund-raising? That recreation and timber would be forever guaranteed? That the land nearly surrounds Moosehead Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world?

Fantastic, of course.

What would you say if I told you in addition that this Moosehead Forest Conservation Project, one of the largest conservation easements in the entire country, was opposed by many other conservation groups? That the total price is not just $35 million, but intense development nearby? That some 800 houses and two resorts are now allowed to be built on 17,000 acres scattered on the shores of that most beautiful lake?

Gulp. What a dilemma.

The reality is that after 7 years of hearings and proposals and counter-proposals and litigation, the Maine Superior Court has ruled in favor of the developer Plum Creek Real Estate Investment Corporation, the largest private landowner in the US, which can start to plan for the building of those houses and resorts. In the end the project was approved because Plum Creek cut back its proposal, agreed to donate some of its land, and sell a lot more at below-market rates.

Whatever you think of the outcome, at least it shows the great value of protests, demands for mitigation, recompense. Thousands of people worked together and got something big out of nothing. Worse than nothing, actually: the government would have approved the original deal, which included more houses, a marina, a golf course, three RV parks, etc. etc., had not the people risen up.

To me the thought of even more development on Moosehead is difficult to support. (I set aside for now Plum Creek's terrible and cavalier environmental record.) A future in which the southern half of the lake looks like the Jersey shore is upsetting. Plum Creek's forest land might have been preserved anyway, in other ways, especially if the company commits to sustainable forestry. I can only hope now that the economy will supply few mortgages for those second homes, that Moosehead's great distance from population centers will protect it, that Maine's famous bugs will scare away the softies, that it will take decades to justify yet more resorts. In the mean time, we need to work feverishly to protect all the other plums in northern Maine - the pristine ponds, the iconic wildlife, the clean rivers, the majestic mountaintops. Unless, of course, your definition of "plum" is vastly different from mine.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Subtle signs of spring

I was very hopeful, on my walk this afternoon, of seeing signs of the end of winter. I had reason to hope, for this morning's walk with the dog, 200 hundred miles south in Massachusetts, recorded snow drops out and daffodils and crocuses shooting green and magnolias budding vigorously and many robins and all manner of other birds blatantly singing. On the drive up Route 1 the weeping willows had taken on a yellowish tinge and several motorcyclists were out and about, including one fellow sitting next to his bike on the side of the road, watched over by two policemen, county and state - a sure sign of high spirits and rising sap, if you know what I mean.

Alas, the signs up here in Maine would prove quite subtle. Nothing newly green at all, for example, and no summer birds, except for the usual crows and gulls, and the pack of determined ducks these days overwintering. The vernal pools, at least those parts in the shade, were still iced over, offering no opportunity yet for frogs to emerge from the muck and produce those clouds of future peepers. The swampy areas were not enlivened by the amazing skunk cabbage, the grasses and weeds were still brown and gray. And of course you can't count the virtual lack of snow, save a couple of small piles on the driveway; if that counted, then the whole winter would have been forever perched on the brink of spring.

But there were buds on the alders and blackberry canes, although not much bigger than pinpricks, and I found one pussy willow budding in white, just enough to make me a little desperate. There were two bicyclists riding down Ash Point Drive, does that count? and gloves were not needed, coat barely, and although the wind was cold, it was from the south and the sun was warm alee.

Thin evidence, I know, but one is anxious to throw off whatever intellectual or religious belief systems that get one through the dark days.

And then I saw the answer, the not-so-subtle answer. On Lucia Beach Road several sugar maples were tapped, three with old-fashioned short taps dripping into tin pails and one with a long, clear tube draining into a large orange plastic bucket. On this first day of daylight savings time, what better symbol of joy than life-giving sap, the sweet ichor of the gods, and those gods will forgive me, I'm sure, for not needing them for a few months.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hawk and dumpster

Our neighborhood in Newton has become territory for a red-tailed hawk. This Sunday morning I saw it flying from the dumpster behind the fancy restaurant on Lincoln St, drawn there no doubt by the aroma of pate de fois gras and garlic smashed potatoes. It landed on a utility wire and calmly watched the dog and me pass under it just a few feet down.

The presence of wild things is continually fascinating. In the city I can't help but think they are evolving in front of our eyes: learning to adapt to human cars and sidewalks and gardens and trash. Are they also enjoying the other fruits of civilization, such as heart disease, allergies, cancer, stress, fast food, engine noise, dirty air, and neon? Perhaps they really do stick to a traditional lifestyle, lots of exercise, nest of sticks, diet of mice and rabbits and voles and squirrels and the occasional miniature poodle. More likely, our hawk now builds a nest of police tape and bubble wrap, sits around on wires waiting for its entertainment, and eats bits of bread and Halloween candy and Doritos off the sidewalk. I fully expect, in a few thousand years, that a red-tailed hawk will have a gray tail, obese belly, balding feathers, dull talons, and an attitude of entitlement. Its reaction to danger will no longer be fight or flight; it will glower or cower like any other higher animal.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Old Man Winter

I woke up this morning to find maybe an inch of snow on the ground and nothing else arriving. Here we go again, I thought, just the prediction of a big storm is enough to shoo it away. But not true today. By 8:00 the east wind intensified and starting carrying snow. Gradually, the wind shifted to the north, and the surf, which had been coming in so strongly from the southeast, got somewhat confused and broken but still thunderous, and the snow kept on falling, now horizontally. So far, at 3:00, it's been light stuff and not really accumulating, but I imagine away from the water, snow is piling in respectable amounts not seen for months. What a weird winter, in which the most snow falls on the last weekend of October and the first day of March, and almost nothing in between.

I used to maintain that winter was fine, a beautiful quiet time here in Maine. That was before snow stopped coming and cross-country skiing stopped happening and backs were stronger and patience was longer. Now, I have to admit that walking is not quite so pleasurable when brown is one's major color group. More and more I resent burning fossil fuels to stay warm, especially when ruing OPEC now is joined by ruing our own fracking and off-shore drilling and tar sands exploitation. Lack of snow provides no shining white expanses, no exhilarating down-hill runs, no angel robes on the branches of the pointed firs. Winter has become rather blah, punctuated by storm alarms, mostly false, from the media. Sitting snug by the fire loses some of its charm when you do it every day.

My father towards the end of his life started to find winter very unnerving. He was especially anxious about snow and the thought of being snowed in. Possibly he was frustrated that he couldn't shovel his way out of trouble any more, possibly he thought he was losing the capacity to provide for self and wife against a cruel world, possibly it was a metaphor for death. I thought his fears a little overblown, but now I wonder. Will this boredom with winter turn into something else? I'm already wearing an extra pair of socks these days...

Old Man Winter won't be denied. (And I won't deny the denial by moving to Florida.) That still doesn't prevent me from longing for spring. Maybe that's the simple problem. On the first of March we shouldn't have to be trapped by wind and cold, shouldn't have to look back over our shoulders to see fateful winter taking what it didn't give us in November, December, January, and February. March should be a hopeful month, not a cruel one that reminds us of time and age and sore backs. Leave that for April when we can better cope.