Archive for January, 2011

Jan 27 2011

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Surviving the Cold

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Monday morning we awoke to frigid temperatures here in the North Country.  Thermometers registered seventeen below zero in Saint Albans, and even colder in outlying towns.  That’s the coldest it has been in years.  That’s cold enough for spit to freeze seconds after hitting the ground.  Furnaces worked overtime, everyone bundled up, and some cars wouldn’t start.  No one went anywhere they didn’t have to go.

The cold snap lasted three days.  Now we’re back to normal temps – back to days with 20-25 degree highs, that is.  Yet people complain.  It’s midwinter, the snow is piled high and sub-freezing temps continue unabated.

I’m just about to start complaining myself, then I look out my kitchen window.  A few feet away from the warmth that I enjoy, a dozen birds are fighting for survival.  Literally.

Sparrows, finches, juncos and chickadees – they all take what they can from the bird feeders dangling from the naked branches of an old lilac bush before some other bird beaks them away.  Others vie for the seeds that have fallen to the ground.  Still others peck at the suet.

They all look fat and healthy, but looks can be deceiving.  Their feathers are puffed up, providing maximum insulation against the cold.  Most of their kind flew south for the winter, but these few decided to winter over.  Why?  Judy and I put up our feeders late last month, long after the migration ended.  What would become of these birds if there weren’t any feeders?  I shudder to think.

Like most people who spend their hard-earned money feeding wild birds, we enjoy seeing some sign of life out our kitchen window.  We especially enjoy the bright red cardinals and charming woodpeckers, but any bird will do.  Seeing them makes winter seem temporary.  The snow will melt and the grass will green again, no doubt.  It’s just a matter of time.

That said, I can’t help but wonder how a winged creature weighing only a few ounces can survive the punishing cold, day after day for months on end.  It seems highly unlikely that any of them will make it through.    Yet somehow most of them do.

Some wild animals can survive the worst conditions – conditions that would make the healthiest of domestic creatures keel over in a matter of days.  I can’t help but admire scrappy birds even while watching them fight over crumbs.  Then I turn away from the window, sip my hot tea, and return to my indoor work happy that I’m not one of them.  As long as my furnace keeps working and my cupboards are full, I’ve got it made.

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Jan 19 2011

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Culture of Fear

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A friend of mine urged me to visit and read an article about how the government has created a climate of fear since 9/11.  I did just that and, quite frankly, I was underwhelmed.  Like most of what passes for journalism these days, the article was only about half true.

Fear is alive and well in America nowadays, but that’s largely due to the fact that we have created the ideal environment for it.  We live in a culture of fear, and all of us are culpable to some extent: patriots, pundits, fundamentalists, environmentalists, artists, scientists, government workers, businessmen, teachers, radicals and conservatives alike.  All of us are on the verge of panic on any given day, and neither politicians nor the media can resist playing on that.  Why should they?

Some nut shoots up the place and suddenly he has the rapt attention of the entire nation.  Why shouldn’t the media, the government or anyone else with a vested interest exploit the situation?  What’s to stop them?

When I was in the wilds of Southeast Alaska years back, I stumbled upon the remains of a moose.  I found a little hair, blood and tissue, but mostly just bones scattered across the gravel riverbank.  I squatted down in the middle of the mess and tried to wrap my brain around what had happened here.  Moose don’t die of old age in the open like this, I told myself.  They crawl into the dense alder bush to do it.  So this one must have been surprised by a brown bear, a pack of wolves, or something.  Suddenly it occurred to me that I could meet a similar fate before the end of the day.  Then I felt what can only be described as absolute dread.  Sometimes one has good reason to be afraid.  Some threats are immediate and very real.

What are the chances of either you or me being hit by lightning?  That’s not nearly as likely as one of us being horribly mangled or killed in an auto accident.  I’ve never seen a terrorist or mad gunman in action, but I’ve arrived early onto the scene of a horrific auto accident several times.  And yet, like most people, I keep on driving my car as if it could never happen to me.

Some things are worth being afraid of.  Others are not.  But in a culture of fear, legitimate fears are ignored while other less significant threats are blown completely out of proportion.  Why?  Because there’s money to be made by it.  Because we’ll go to any lengths to prevent or avoid the threats that we believe can be prevented or avoided.  Yet who refuses to get into their car?

Snoop around on the Internet and you’ll find that many more Americans die in auto accidents each year than have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined.  And every year there are many more auto deaths than murders in this country.  Think about that the next time you strap yourself into your car and head for the highway.  Then ask your self why you don’t fear your car at least as much as you fear the random bomb or bullet.

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Jan 13 2011

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Planetary Awareness

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Recently my doctor prescribed an antibiotic for me that had to be taken four times a day.  I chose four easy times to remember: first thing in the morning, noon, dusk, and bedtime.  My wife Judy laughed when she heard this.  “Dusk?” she said incredulously, “Most people go by the clock.”  Perhaps so.  But dusk is a major event in my day.  Especially during the winter.

Dusk is when the world takes on a decidedly spiritual aspect, when it is easiest to comprehend the simple fact that we live on a planet.  On cloudy days this fact can be overlooked, but a clear or partly clear sky makes it hard to ignore.   At such times, the sun sets in a blaze of glory, the moon shows itself, and the first stars come out.  Sometimes it is quite the show.

At dusk I often stop whatever I’m doing and take a moment to acknowledge what is happening to the physical world.  My dog, Matika, is finely tuned to my habits and usually gets excited around this time of day.  She knows that we’ll be going out soon, and if she’s lucky I’ll toss the ball for her a few times while gazing towards the sky.  But not always.  Sometimes I like to just stand in the middle of the yard, taking it all in.

A few years back, when I dove into astronomy with reckless abandon, I eagerly awaited dusk.  When conditions were just right – clear sky with a late moonrise – I would set up my telescope just as the sun was setting.  While twilight faded, I would print star charts from my computer and map a route to some incredible deep-sky object: a nebula, star cluster or galaxy.  Now I’m not quite so fanatical about my viewing.  All the same, I still cultivate planetary awareness on a regular basis.  After all, it’s so easy to do at dusk.

During my brief sojourn in the Alaskan bush many years back, I enjoyed one sunset that seemed to go on for hours.  It was high summer and sun dipped beneath the horizon with great reluctance.  Then I experienced with full force the reality of being a creature living on a planet.  It might seem like a silly thing to say, but when you truly feel your presence on a sphere spinning on its axis, just being alive in this world seems absolutely remarkable.  The sky is suddenly a window to the cosmos, and planet that you inhabit is incredibly fecund.  Even in the dead of winter there trees, bushes and other kinds of vegetation patiently waiting for spring.  Even when this world seems cold, dark and hostile, the air you breathe seems to be made for you.

This is my planet, I often tell myself at dusk as if uttering a prayer.  This is the exact place in the universe where I belong.  And no matter how alienated I might become during the course of daily events, nothing can take this sense of belonging away from me.  I am a man on Earth and that is enough.  Everything else is superfluous.

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Jan 07 2011

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Deep In It

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My dog Matika was restless so we had to do something.  Okay, maybe I was a little restless, too, having stayed indoors doing literary work for a week or more.  At any rate, we headed for Aldis Hill the other day despite the weather.

I had hoped for a daylong excursion in the mountains but a morning snow shower nixed that.  The prospect of a forty-minute, white-knuckle drive each way along greasy roads did not appeal to me.  Better to stay close to home and leave the bigger outing for a sunny day.  So I headed for the hill.

We hiked up Aldis Hill as a light snow shower tapered off to the occasional flurry.  Almost immediately I regretted not having a pair of Yaktrax with me –  a simple device that slips over each boot, providing traction on icy surfaces.  A couple inches of fresh snow concealed the hazardous conditions underfoot.  Last weekend’s melt-off had turned the hill into a great mound of ice.  Oh well.

Matika didn’t care.  She ran through the woods all smiles, as sure-footed as a mountain goat.  I hobbled along, paying more attention to where I stepped than to the surrounding snow-covered woods.  Near the top of the hill, I stopped long enough to enjoy the view eastward towards French Hill.  And that’s when it struck with full force:  deep in it now.  Deep into winter and there’s nothing to do now but endure.  A fortnight past the Solstice, the days are getting longer, yes, but it’ll be another month before that’s noticeable.  Until then it’s the deep freeze with long dark evenings, a lot of shoveling, and difficult driving.

Descending the hill was even more treacherous than ascending it.  I caught myself wishing for a lot more snow so that I could break out my snowshoes.  That’s how woods walkers like me embrace winter.  Those whose moods run closer to the surface glide down slopes on skis, but some of us would rather slog along, sinking half a foot into the white stuff with each step.    What the hell, if it’s going to be winter we might as well be waist-deep in it.

Matika doesn’t care.  Winter, spring, summer or fall, it’s all good to her.  Dogs are even better than children at being in the moment.  But I am more than half a century old, think too much, and am always looking ahead.  So I dream of warmer, sunnier days even as the cool, fresh air fills my lungs.

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