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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Five minutes with four crows

Four crows flew down again to the lawn this morning. Quite amazing how interruptible one is when trying to write.

All wandered around for a bit. One got a better offer and flew away almost immediately.

The remaining three got together in a little circle. One wallowed in the weeds for a while, scratching its belly on the ground, scraping its wings with its beak, dry-bathing perhaps, or de-lousing. The other two stood around, then left for some desultory walking and pecking.

All three tried the red berries on the bush on the edge of the lawn - they must have been sour.

Standing just outside the garden, one pecked briefly at the lavender (funny, I've never seen a crow actually in the garden). Was it the weed bather? I don't know, I don't know which is which anymore. I've lost the pea in the pod.

One tried pecking for something underneath one of the Adirondack chairs. Three times it snapped forward and backward, abruptly, like a comic imagining a lurking ogre.

None of them made any sounds at all - there were no foxes around to hassle, clearly, not was it 5:00 a.m.

Five minutes was enough of this play (I can't believe any of it was serious feeding - more like sampling and spitting at a winery). All of us went back to work.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


The contrail looks straight and purposeful. The plane producing it is heading east, probably to Europe, carrying a summertime assortment of tourists and business people, so straight and purposeful. This is what we imagine our lives to be, full of the easy mechanical decisions, east-west, on-off, cold-hot, happy-sad.

I'm pleased to see, after just a few minutes, that the contrail starts to break up. It wiggles and wavers, and soon enough, as the approaching cold front takes over the sky, it disappears. Human purposes leave inevitable traces, some harmless, some destructive, and our easy decisions can have terrible consequences. The atmosphere breaks up this particular warning sign, but suffers because of it. Contrails contribute more than you'd expect to climate change. The carbon cost of jet fuel is terrible. Modern travel is all too convenient. When we will stop take the easy way?

Friday, July 12, 2013


It is Thoreau's  birthday today and I've taken some time to look at "quotes" websites. He of course is the quoter's dream; I've been as guilty as most "nature" writers of mere copying and pasting more times than I care to count. But today, in his honor, I rescue one of his most popular sayings (you would not believe the number of inspirational posters on Google Images for "The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it") from the twang of popularity.

Thoreau never wrote this sentence. Somebody uneasy with the complexities of his language made it simpler, more balanced, more quotable, blander and more memorable, and it took a little digging to find what he actually said, in Walden.

In his first chapter, towards the end of a discussion about birds' nests, foxholes, the wigwams of Indians, and the shelters of the poor, which are palaces full of luxurious things compared to the Indians', he actually wrote: 

"But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man — and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages — it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."

So much for shallow sloganeering.

My cost for this slice of life? A wonderful half hour wandering in the woods and weeds of Walden.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

White on black

E.B. White is 114 years old today. I deliberately use the present tense, since to me he's as alive and relevant and wise as he was on his 70th birthday in 1969, when he gave The New York Times the following quote:

"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

What I miss most about the literary world today is the subtle, thoughtful, moral response to the human condition. There are a lot of thoughtful people, there are a lot of moral people, but there aren't very many subtle people, and making a measured view of the rightness or wrongness of a person or event is quite rare. Irony is big, empathy is not. The balance is way off. Many writers have no trouble planning their days.

Throughout One Man's Meat, White's collection of essays from Harper's Magazine, World War II is a quiet presence, but some of the greatest anti-war sentiment is found in this book, with no shouting, no enraged pacifism, no exploding bodies or cruel drones, no statistics of death. He got at the blackest subjects through the commonest things - going to the lake, the death of a pig, a spider, farm chores, taciturn Maine neighbors. Improving and saving the world is rather hard to do quietly: I'm in awe of how he did it. Too bad we can't be like White, and save and savor at the same time.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Four crows

About half the area's usual patrol has landed on the lawn. Three walk around, tottering a bit on their clumsy legs, looking for bugs. The fourth takes a dry bath, rubbing its belly and wings on the grass as if to rid them of lice. They totter and bathe until a shadow in the window sends them clacking and cawing away.

I shouldn't like crows as much as I do. They are loud, sociable, aggressive - traits I run from in humans. They specialize in the 4:30 am wake-up chorus call. They dive-bomb poor little foxes. Sometimes their cries sound like something or someone mortally wounded, or at least gaseous. They're black and ominous.

Yet I like them, not adoringly as I do goldfinches, not awestruck as by the dive of the osprey - but comfortingly. They're like family. And in these few days when we celebrate the birth of our country, when we tolerate the firecrackers and parades in the heat and fireworks in the mosquito-bitten night, the raucousness of crows fits right in. They remind me of all the places I've lived, for they were there too, announcing big events, chaperoning. They remind me of the Fourth of July, the anticipation of picnics, badminton with your uncles, sparklers (as close as we were allowed to firecrackers), lemonade and Grandma's white bread and hot dogs that have never tasted so good since, fireworks over water. The crows were there, picking up the pieces. It was OK to be loud, sentimental. It was OK to be an American.

Now we don't do much of anything on the Fourth. Patriotism has become a little suspect. Our summer evenings are no longer endless. Our enthusiasms have waned. Equally I can say that the ones that remain have intensified. We are content with quiet, and lovely views, and words on a screen or a page. Love is still there, and passion. But the hoopla is gone, except when the patrol flies by, a loud pack of eleven-year-old cousins bent on mischief.