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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Friday, September 28, 2012


The fall foliage season in New England is supposed to be one of the best in years, and judging by the amount of color we saw in mid-coast and southern Maine yesterday, "they" will be right. We were actually leaving Maine for a few weeks and thus were pleased to see brilliant spots of red and orange and yellow here and there. Not a massive and heart-stopping blast across a hillside, but a smattering enough to last until we get back, get back to Massachusetts, that is, in mid-October when it will still be early enough, we hope, to have a heart attack or two.

Here's one from a couple of years ago in Maine (Bald Mountain in Camden).

We will be missing the Maine display this year because of a trip out West, where we hope to make up for it in the canyons of southern Utah. Will Bryce and Zion measure up? Will rocks trump leaves? It pains me to be even a little disloyal to New England, but I fully expect they will.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Motion vs. rest

Why is the eye drawn so immediately to anything that moves? Is there something anatomical or physiological about its make-up that forces attention? Any ophthalmologists out there who care to weigh in?

Where I rest and watch, birds are the obvious provocateurs. Gulls and crows add noise to their movements; the three loons I see this morning move, but placidly, along the water. But waves demand attention too, and reward you with a crash on the shore, and the sailboat out in the channel moves quietly like a loon, and the monarch butterflies flutter about disjointedly, looking for nectar to sustain their migration to Mexico. Yesterday afternoon I watched a robin for ten minutes, and it just stood motionless on the lawn newly mowed. I don't ask why, but that feeling built, you know the one, the one that begs you to rap on the glass at the zoo, or flick a dragonfly, or gesticulate at a robin, demanding motion from something that was built to move. If it doesn't move, it might be dead and that would be inconvenient, might even make you think.

Movement is demanded to seek food and shelter, or for the pure joy of itself, like goldfinches chasing each other in the newly-bright morning, or a hike up Bald Rock. For anything else, does the eye betray us? Does it lead us to ambition, or greed, or movement for its own sake, like a treadmill or a TV screen, sans joy? At the most basic level, I presume that the eye is meant to warn. But for humans, so many of our dangers today are invisible, and maybe we can discover them best at rest, with patience, with the help of others. Sight is a wonderful thing. Second sight is even better. We were built for both, I trust.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bird on a wire; birds wired

I was driving on Route 1 near Camden the other day and saw a small raptor, a hawk of some kind, sitting on a telephone wire or Internet cable or whatever other marvel gets strung out along roads these days (not including commuters). It was perfectly still. Now traffic on Route 1 is busy even in September, especially in September, but our friend seemed completely unperturbed. Perhaps it had spied a bit of roadkill and was waiting for evening, or October, and a chance to swoop and snack. Perhaps it liked the rush of traffic, soothing like surf if you're not in it, I guess. In any case this individual hawk has made some kind of peace with the most destructive beast our civilization can offer, the automobile, grunting and gassing in packs just a few feet away from its perch. I can't necessarily apply such accommodation to its whole species, nor to ours.

The next morning I was sitting in my chair working (i.e., staring out the windows in front) when there was a thud on the window near the chair. It wasn't one of those loud thuds that instantly conjure up the death of a bird, but I got up to look anyway. Immediately, two blue jays in the cedar tree five feet away started shrieking, presumably at me. Whether one of them was the original thudee, or it was another bird altogether, these two were mad - or so I interpreted it. They were definitely looking through the glass at me, clearly hollering their heads off at me. It was so loud for a while that I started to think the original thud on the glass was not an accident at all but an attempt on my personage. They seemed more like a raptor than the hawk did, not at all happy with the way we humans take our places in the world, taking not finding, by the way, and with the way we then wall ourselves away behind steel and glass. What must it be like for birds to live so close to aliens!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Eaarth, part 2

As promised, Bill McKibben in the second part of his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough Planet offers some hope, or rather, some hopeful signs that our culture is becoming different. It's too late to rescue the climate that made human civilization what it is (was), but re-making our lives will help the transition. His basic message? Small and local, with the internet binding us together in new bursts of creativity and community to balance all the boring little stuff we'll now have to do (grow things, save things, feel things).

The new efforts span the globe, yet get little publicity. The new efforts are incredible and amazing - McKibben gives scores of innovative examples for growing food and producing energy - yet they get little publicity. I didn't know, for example, that new farming methods can produce much higher yields than  the monocultures of mega-farms. I didn't know that rooftop solar panels and wind turbines could produce 81% of New York City's power. And on. And on. (Read the book.) It's embarrassing to read that places in the developing world are much more sophisticated than the US about organic farming (and get better yields).

I came away cursing the big-business obsession that dominates our dinner tables, our ambitions, our politics, our news, our lives. I am appalled to realize that industrial society is the first time in human history when one needs no neighbors to survive.

By the way, McKibben is pretty much a genius. He blends fact and fury, doom and hope, story and statement in an utterly compelling way. (Did I mention that you must read this book?) Like any good evangelist, he sometimes (in my opinion) minimizes the problems of freeing ourselves from Big Agriculture, Big Oil, Big Wind, Big Government (I mean, it's his own statistic that one barrel of oil equals about 11 years of manual labor - think about that for a moment) and I personally can't decide if the internet is ultimately a mind suck or a group hug - yet, I was terribly depressed and terribly inspired, both, by the book.

Here are two websites for further inspiration. Look at the daily news for further depression.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Eaarth, part 1

What a strange feeling as I read the first half of Bill McKibben's book Eaarth! Not just that it's so dire, so full of unassailable arguments about the fate of the earth. His point is that humans have changed our environment unalterably. Nature is no longer in charge. There's too much carbon in the air and the seas to go back. The great features of our planet - the temperate forests of the US, the aboreal forests of Canada and Russia, the tropical forest of the Amazon, the polar ice caps, the seas themselves - have been or will be damaged forever. We live on a different planet now, and the biology, the ethology, the psychology of all of its inhabitants are mutating.

All of this is not the strange part, depressing as hell as it is, for it's something we already know, deep in our hearts. The weird part is to be reading the book in a place still largely unchanged.

For the most part, Maine's waters are still clean, air is pure, forests cover 95% of the land. The population is stable or even declining a bit. Wonderful experiments in farming and locavore eating are happening. The land trust movement boasts 100 organizations and incredible successes. We escaped almost entirely the heat and drought and storms and fires that most of the rest of the county suffered this summer. It feels like a cocoon here, or a enchanted island. I look out on the bay and I'm transported to another time.

There are stressors, of course. Southern Maine really should be called northern Massachusetts. We don't have much snow anymore, and the ski resorts suffer. Deer habitat is under attack; hunters and dollars now go to Canada, or Pennsylvania. Invasive species creep in. Lyme disease and West Nile increase. Lobsters behave erratically. But for the most part life here goes on as it has for centuries.

I'm very anxious to read the second half of Eaarth. McKibben promises ways to live, to cope, to enjoy. Good - it's fine to live in fantasy until the rest of the world comes knocking.

See you in couple of days for part 2.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A very determined caterpillar

Ever wonder why a caterpillar moves so purposefully? I do, and when I saw one crawling along the edge of the deck, I decided to watch for a while.

It was the black and white kind so common lately in Maine, the Hickory Tussock, and it's in the news besides, for its hairs are allergenic to some people. Panic! Don't let anyone go outside ever again!

Here it is.

So it crawled to the end of the edge, waved its head and front half in the air as if Googling, and turned back. It crawled all the way to the other edge, at a rate of speed I estimated would not exceed 200 feet per hour, manfully (bugfully?) straddling the multiple chasms between the deck boards with hardly a pause. Upon reaching the other side, it Googled some more. Thinking it wanted a somewhat more productive surface than my recently painted deck, I played God and flicked it onto the grass. This was a fall equivalent to more than 100 feet to a human, but the caterpillar rested only a moment before resuming its pursuit of...I don't know what. Obstinately, it pushed through the grass and started climbing up the latticework below the deck, went upside-down navigating the lip that the boards make, and greeted me again on the surface.

Now what? You can't fly yet, you silly bugger, so why the obsession with altitude? For a while it was more of the same, exercising on the moon, but then it must have sensed more appropriate climes, for it made for the back edge where a fern overhangs a bit. I cheered its successful transition from chemical to vegetable, although stupidly, it bumbled about for a while, looking for the highest frond, which it eventually found. It stayed for a while, upside-down, maybe hiding from God. I watched until dinner was ready.

Very boring to some but not to me. While it crawled, I admired its coloring and symmetry (also, I had the beautiful bay to look at if bored). I learned basically nothing, except that, sorry Eric Carle, it didn't seem to be very hungry. According to the books, it's supposed to end up in the leaf mat on the ground, forming its cocoon for the winter. It probably did - at least it wasn't on the fern in the morning. All in all, an excellent half hour of pure observation, little philosophy, few facts, no wisdom - better than watching what was on TV at the time, allergenic network news.