Archive for January, 2010

Jan 26 2010

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Wind across Lake Ice

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I was waiting in line at the grocery store earlier today, trying to figure out how Octo-mom got her bikini body, when suddenly it occurred to me that I’m not spending enough time outdoors.  My excuse is that I’m hard at work on my literary projects during the winter, but the truth is I’d rather spend my time reading and pondering the mysteries of the universe whenever I’m not working.  But grocery store tabloids don’t lead to any deep thoughts, so I dropped off my groceries at home and headed for Kill Kare State Park to stretch my legs.

My dog, Matika, was all for going to Kill Kare.  She hopped around excitedly in the back seat of the car while we drove there.   Then again, she thought going out yesterday in the freezing rain was a good idea.  No, her judgment isn’t to be trusted.

Kill Kare is a spit of public land jutting into Lake Champlain.  Dogs aren’t allowed in the park during the summer, but in the winter nobody cares.  From a large field right next to the lake, I tossed a ball for Matika to chase while I walked around taking in the scenery.

The lake was iced over as far as I could see.  Shafts of light breaking through gray clouds illuminated Adirondack foothills a dozen miles away.  A steady breeze rippled the open leads of water close to shore.  Several ice fishermen were standing over their holes a hundred yards away, dreaming of perch.  A couple days of above-freezing temps had melted off all the snow, revealing nearly transparent ice no more than six inches thick.  Wouldn’t catch me out there on a bet.

It didn’t take long for the wind blowing across the lake ice to cut through my four layers of clothing.  Didn’t look like the fishermen were catching anything, yet no one moved from their hole.  They all seemed oblivious to the wind.  I stuck around long enough to wear out my dog then headed for the car.  Snow flurries were swirling around my head by the time I reached it.

While finishing my walk, I daydreamed about the choppy, green-gray lake water of early spring and the warmer weather beyond.  Then I realized that today’s the meteorological middle of winter here in Vermont, or thereabouts.  That means we’re halfway through the cold season, so balmy days are still months away.  The lake will remain iced over a while longer still.  Ice fishermen will have ample opportunity to catch perch.  Wish I shared their enthusiasm for the sport, but I’m going indoors to ponder the imponderables instead.  Winter is, after all, a good season for pondering.

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Jan 18 2010

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A Murder of Crows

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I went out at dusk yesterday to throw the ball for my dog, Matika, in the back yard.  While I was out there, a bunch of crows flew overhead, then a bunch more.  Then a great, dark stream of them flew past – hundreds of them, then hundreds more.  Their passing took five minutes.  I stood there awestruck by the avian display.  I’ve seen crows countless times, but never so many.

Where are they going?  Why are there so many of them?  What keeps so many birds alive in the middle of winter?  I like to think of myself as something of a naturalist, but even in my own back yard I am often stumped by the wild.

Black birds against a mottled gray sky.  A murder of crows in the dead of winter.  In Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, crows play a particularly menacing roll, attacking school children. If all those crows landed in my yard, I’d step inside, certainly.  Yesterday over a thousand crows flew overhead in the fading twilight.  Occasionally one would let out a halfhearted caw, but for the most part they were silent.  As silent as the grave.

A flock of crows is called a murder because some farmers say they’ll gang up and kill a dying cow.  I find this hard to believe, but I’ve often seen them feeding on roadkill so I know they’re big carrion eaters.  Hence their association with death, especially in European culture.  I’ve also seen a crow being mobbed by a songbird after attacking its nest.  Yeah, they’re opportunistic as well – proof positive that Nature can be very cruel.

When I was sojourned in Alaska, I learned to appreciate the ways of ravens, those close cousins to crows.  Crows, ravens, jays and other corvids are intelligent creatures.  They know how to survive, that’s for sure.  In the Alaskan bush, I watched ravens carefully and took their lessons to heart.  Consequently, I developed a certain affinity with them.  But crows are still just crows to me.  Nature’s clean up crew at best.

My bird book tells me that crows gather by the thousands when they roost in trees at night.  That explains what I saw.  No doubt they have a roosting site nearby.  But in the depths of winter, I can’t help but sense something ominous about the presence of so many crows.  Black undertakers in a white landscape, they make me long for spring, anyhow.  I miss my green world.

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Jan 11 2010

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Getting into Winter

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I’ve never been a big fan of winter, and after shoveling the white stuff for a few days, I begin to hate it.  But it’s unhealthy to live in a place like Vermont and stay home from the first snow flurry of the season to the last.  So even now, in the middle of winter when all I want to do is hibernate, I make it a point to get into the woods when I can.

A Nor’easter struck a week ago.  For all you who don’t live in New England, that means lots of precipitation straight from the ocean.  In this case, it came in the form of snow falling for three days in a row.  Between one and three feet of it, depending upon where it was measured.  Good if you like to ski; not so good if you have to shovel your own driveway.  I fall into the latter category.  But once I finished pushing back the white stuff, I grabbed my snowshoes and headed for the hills.

There’s a wild area on French Hill, not far from home.  I go there whenever time is tight but I need to get out.  I went there a few days ago and cut tracks across the trackless snow until I reached a snowshoe trail that someone else had cut a week earlier.  Even with fresh snow, I still found it easier to follow that trail than to cut new tracks.  Fortunately, it led to where I wanted to go: a beaver pond less than a mile from the road.

My dog, Matika, loves the snow.  I’m not sure why.  I think it holds smells better than dirt does.  At any rate, she likes to frolic in the snow, occasionally burying her snout in it to investigate some hidden treasure.  She looks silly with her face all frosted but she doesn’t seem to care.

First thing I notice whenever I’m alone in the woods after a big snowstorm is how incredibly quiet it is.  An ominous quiet, that is.  Robert Frost nailed it with his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” of course.  But standing  in a cold, white forest, it’s easy for me to believe that I just discovered the terrible beauty that wild nature becomes in deep winter.  Trees heavily laden with snow are both magnificent and surreal.  As they droop towards me, I keep thinking that maybe I shouldn’t be alone out here.

The beaver pond was frozen over – a black-and-white photograph brought to life.  Starkly beautiful.  The gray clouds overhead thickened and a flurry commenced.  Matika wanted to keep going deeper into the woods, but I thought it best to turn around.  By the time I reached the car, my own sweat had chilled me.  But it was good to get out.  And whatever gripe I had earlier in the day was forgotten by the time I got back home.

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Jan 04 2010

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Guerilla Goodness

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There are plenty of people trying to make the world a better place – philanthropists, activists, idealists, and the occasional self-proclaimed philosopher like me.  Sometimes we actually accomplish good things.  Sometimes our intentions are good but the consequences of our ideas or actions only make things worse.  Usually we attract a great deal of attention to ourselves while we are busy saving the world.  And when the accolades are doled out, most of us accept any praise bestowed upon us as if we really do deserve it.  After all, we’ve been working so tirelessly for so long.  Heaven forbid that our efforts should go unnoticed.

Polly Beebe-Bove passed away Christmas Eve.  You probably don’t know who she was.  I don’t think she ever made the news.  But she definitely left her mark in this world.  She left her mark on my wife, Judy, directing her towards a church-sponsored silent retreat to resolve matters both spiritual and temporal.  She left her mark on me, encouraging me to keep at the difficult task of recounting a life-altering experience in Alaska.  She left her mark on many others, I’m sure.  She made the world a better place in small, quiet, self-effacing ways.  Polly made the world a better place in ways too incidental for anyone to notice, when no one was looking.  Guerilla goodness, I call it, and only now in her absence do we feel the full impact of her labors.

Polly was no saint.  She wasn’t an easy person to live with.  Talk with her children and you soon learn that.  And she had her demons.  Don’t we all.  But to Judy and me she was always encouraging, supportive, kind, and non-judgmental.  Now we are left wondering if we can work in a similar vein.  Judy is more optimistic about this than I am.  To save the world is easy; to selflessly aid others in their moment of need is not, especially if no one is looking.  Try it sometime.  Guerilla goodness.  It takes a great deal more effort than one might think.

There are times when all nature appears cruel and self-interested, and human beings are no exception.  History is filthy with it.  To a non-Christian like me, the teachings of that Nazarene two thousand years ago seem sadly unrealistic.  Then someone like Polly comes along and I begin to wonder what we humans are truly capable of doing.  Even from the grave, Polly’s unsinkable optimism snipes at my longstanding cynicism.  Just knowing someone like her makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for humanity.  We haven’t completely defeated ourselves yet.

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