May 2004

Water tower

This morning after poring over two separate maps, I found my way to the top of Beech Hill. It’s easy enough to spot Beech Hill from below: it’s the ridge with the cable tower on the eastern edge of town. But the gated roadway that leads walkers to the top of Beech Hill–the gated roadway that leads walkers to a wooded loop that promises a panoramic view of the town of Keene–is more difficult to find. First you have to find Chapman Road, which each of my two maps shows as being in a slightly different place, and then you have to find a metal gate across the authorized-vehicles-only access road to the top of the hill with its water tank, cable tower and satellite dishes.

Water tower graffiti

As it turned out, there was a beat-up white Ford Explorer with earthy-crunchy bumper stickers and stencilled slogans parked on the side of Chapman Road near that metal access gate: a vehicular X-marks-the-spot. As the dog and I began the gradual ascent up the paved road toward the top of Beech Hill, we skirted someone’s flower-filled backyard. Once again, one of Keene’s hidden jewels is situated right in the midst of a suburban residential area, Beech Hill’s water tank and satellite dishes literally located in someone’s backyard. Even so, we were greeted with the usual chorus of woodland creatures: incessantly chattering chipmunks and the incessant songs of ovenbirds, pewees, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers, and at least one scarlet tanager. Birds, it seems, don’t care who owns the property they perch upon, only that such places are there for the perching.

Today, on this last day of May, I saw my first warbler of the season: a black-throated green that zoomed in, chattering and direly upset that someone (presumably me) was encroaching upon his territory. Warblers of all sorts, of course, have been here in New Hamsphire for weeks, but I’d yet before this morning to see any: these days I leave my binoculars at home and do almost all of my birding by ear. Birds the size of chickadess are difficult to spot even when they’re brightly colored; warblers like to glean high in trees, so a painful bout of Warbler’s Neck awaits anyone who spends too much time looking for them. When a warbler as common as a black-throated green zooms in close enough for you to identify it with the naked eye, though, you realize how uncommon a treat they really are: tiny bits of birdflesh, these feathered dainties are brimming with personality and verve.

Satellite dish

The whole point of climbing Beech Hill, of course, is to reach its west-facing vista where you can overlook the entire town of Keene below. This morning, though, the dog and I fell somewhat short of that goal. When we reached the stone outcrop that offers a tantalizing fringe of blue sky and green valley, we found a tent pitched there: whoever drives that beat-up white Explorer had enjoyed last night’s sunset followed by what had to have been a cold night. Technically, you’re not allowed to camp on Beech Hill: the land falls under the city’s jurisdiction, and it’s not open for camping or other nocturnal pursuits. In my mind, though, whoever lay huddled in that tent on a chilly Sunday morning deserved to be there: judging from the bumper stickers and stencilled slogans on their car, they are young and idealistic, very much like the students I encounter at the college, and on a cold night like last night I hope there were two of them, and friendly, and that they figured out an appropriately low-tech way of keeping warm.


Although I’m somewhat older and wiser than folks who would park their car overnight on a road where any of a number of neighbors could have reported them, I remember well the ways of shivery flesh and the carnal gymnastics of fitting two people in a tent or, better yet, a single sleeping bag. That tent wasn’t exactly rocking, but I certainly wasn’t knocking. Instead I called back the dog and we circled back down Beech Hill toward the car. We’ll leave it to another day to check out the view from the top.

Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

Beaver Brook Falls isn’t the kind of place you’d drive from miles away to see; in fact, I bet the folks who live right down the street from it seldom come here. I’ve walked the abandoned road that leads to the falls twice this week, once on my own and once with the dog, and I’ve not seen a soul on either day. Teenagers come here occasionally, it seems; there is the usual assortment of spray-paint graffiti on some of the rocks, and at the falls there is a rocky fire-ring with castoff cigarette packs and other detritus. I suppose the naturalist in me should be outraged at such signs of youthful hijinks: spray-paint and litter, after all, leave a distinctly human mark on an otherwise natural landscape. The scenery at Beaver Brook, though, isn’t particularly untouched to begin with: the half-mile stroll to the falls follows an abandoned, overgrown highway fringed with powerlines and guardrail cables. Beaver Brook isn’t wilderness, but it’s wild, a tiny corner of forgotten green right on the edge of town.

You’d never, as I said, drive for miles to see Beaver Brook Falls: it’s a hidden jewel. It lies at the end of a dead-end street right off the on-ramp for the highway that leads to Concord: the road out of town. When you park on the side of this dead-end road and walk around the chained gate that marks the remainder of the road as being under the auspices of the City of Keene Parks and Recreation Department, your ears are bombarded by the sound of Rt. 9 traffic: you are, after all, right off the highway and less than five minutes from downtown.

Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

But as you continue walking up the road’s gradual, green-fringed incline, the sound of traffic fades as the sound of rushing water grows increasingly louder. Beaver Brook isn’t a large waterway: it’s a brook, not a river, so even after our recent spring thunderstorms it’s only several yards across. But that slight incline and the pinch of a narrowing granite gorge works a deceptive magic: close your eyes and the torrent could be larger, the locale more exotic. As you walk that abandoned road, you feel the cool breath of water and greenery: you don’t feel like you’re right outside of town, your car parked on a road alongside someone’s semi-suburban driveway.

I like strolling at Beaver Brook because it’s a quick trip there and back: it’s a stroll I can squeeze into even the most busy day. There is no traffic and (apparently) few walkers, so I can let Reggie run off leash; there is at least one place where the bank slopes gradually so he can swim without struggling to climb out of the water and back onto the road. Although I’ve not seen many birds there, I’ve heard a tempting assortment of birdsongs: black-throated green warblers, hermit thrushes, red-eyed vireos. And earlier this week when I returned to my car after a mid-day stroll at Beaver Brook, I saw a handful of yellow and black tiger swallowtails fluttering on a tumbling torrent of yellow honeysuckle vine, their paper-thin wings catching sunlight like sparks.

Tiger swallowtail on honeysuckle, Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

Although there’s nothing that can compare with true untouched wilderness, I’ve always loved the hidden jewels in the forgotten corners of civilization. Untouched wilderness is necessary and good, but at a certain level you can’t get there from here: once you or anyone else sets foot onto untouched wilderness, it’s been irrevocably touched and thus loses some of its virginal appeal. Unless you’re going to live in the wilderness, your interactions with it are going to be limited to those occasional sorties you can afford at the tag-ends of your life: a two-week vacation here, a long weekend getaway here. Hidden jewels, though, are perpetually there for the asking: whenever you have a random moment, they unfold their close-to-home beauties for you and the handful of other people (it’s always only a mere handful) who take the time to find wildness close at hand.

Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

I don’t mind sharing Beaver Brook with an occasional band of rollicking youngsters so full of exuberant energy that they’ll walk a half mile for a surreptitious campfire or wade a cold brook to spray-paint their name alongside that of their sweetheart. Animals of all sorts have strange and unusual courtship rituals, and beavers themselves leave a quite drastic mark on otherwise “untouched” landscapes. In the end, I think that nature is meant to be touched, meant to be savored, enjoyed, and experienced: Beaver Brook still flows strong even though a once-busy, now-abandoned road was built on its stony spine, its rocky vertebrae showing no sign of injury from a spray-painted tattoo or two.

On a gorgeous weekend like this, popular hiking destinations like Mount Monadnock are teeming with visitors, weekend-warriors who for the most part have no idea what green jewels lie in their own backyard. Because the mountain is already overcrowded, its trails eroding under the feet of too many visitors, Monadnock State Park doesn’t allow dogs in the park or on the mountain: like the management of an amusement park, the division of parks has to make clear who is and who isn’t fit to ride the rides. At Beaver Brook, there’s no one around to forbid my dog, no one around to care if he runs off-leash or splashes in the stream, no one around to object when he races out of the water and shakes off, exuberant. It’s not easy being a hidden jewel, I’m sure: you spend most of your days in quiet obscurity, forgotten. But those swallowtails, vireos, and thrushes didn’t seem to mind whether they played to a packed house, an audience of two, or the stones themselves. Whether hidden and forgotten or overcrowded and spectacular, nature’s show eternally goes on.

Guinness is good for you, People's Republik, Cambridge, MA

This week’s Photo Friday theme is black & white. Although this photo isn’t black and white, the writing on the wall is. It’s a well known fact, of course, that God drinks Guinness (I’m surprised, in fact, that Augustine has never alluded to this in her interview with the supreme Deity.) And it is also a well known fact that God frequents (and dispenses advice on the chalkboards of) a pub called the People’s Republik located halfway between Central and Harvard Squares in Cambridge, Massachusetts (our former fair city).

The People’s Republic of Cambridge (as the city is fondly known by diehard Cantabrigians) is indeed a left-leaning, earthy-crunchy place. Last night I drove down to Cambridge to give a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center with my friend Mark (aka Zen Master Bon Haeng). The Dharma talk was merely an excuse to visit my Zen friends, sleep over at the Zen Center, and then spend today in Cambridge. Visiting the Zen Center for me is a chance to reconnect with old friends, soak in some strong practice energy, and stroll the streets of my past. It’s like going home.

The Cantabrigia, Cambridge, MA

Even though today was rainy, I spent most of the day walking. I have a certain ritual when I’m in Cambridge: there are certain places I revisit, certain routes I walk, certain sights I take in. This morning, for instance, I had breakfast at the Greenhouse Cafe in Harvard Square, and then I walked to Mount Auburn Cemetery for a stroll. When we lived at the Zen Center, nearly every spring morning I’d ride my bike to Mount Auburn where I’d spend the morning birding, then I’d ride to the Greenhouse Cafe to eat breakfast and write up that day’s bird sightings.

The Greenhouse Cafe is one of my favorite places to write whenever I’m in Cambridge: the waitstaff doesn’t bother you needlessly, and the other patrons are colorful and intelligent, the usual Harvard crowd, so the eavesdropping is better than most. When we lived in Cambridge I was mostly vegetarian, so there was a certain guilty thrill in going to the Greenhouse at lunchtime for a grilled tuna salad sandwich and a heaping plateful of sinfully crispy french fries. (Surely they used lard to fry those taters: vegetarian decadence!) During our Zen Center years, the Greenhouse Cafe was my clean well-lighted place, a place where I could share space with anonymous people.

Harriet Jacobs, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

If the Greenhouse Cafe is my favorite place to write in Harvard Square, Mount Auburn Cemetery is my favorite place to walk. Although I typically went there to go birding, Mount Auburn is simply a beautiful place to walk: today I didn’t have binoculars but went to Mount Auburn to seek out the grave of Harriet Jacobs, author of the 19th century autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (I’d assigned excerpts of Jacob’s narrative in my Women’s Lit class, so I wanted to show my students a photo of Jacob’s grassy grave.) It started to drizzle while I was strolling around Mount Auburn, but that didn’t matter: I had an umbrella, and the cemetery’s landscaping, tombstones, and funerary statues looked even more lush and lovely in the rain.

After returning from Mount Auburn to Harvard Square, I stopped in at Bob Slate’s Stationers (a paper fetishist’s paradise) and then had a sinfully decadent cup of hot chocolate at Burdick’s Cafe. Burdick’s was crowded and I couldn’t find a free table, so I shared one with an older woman who was reading a New Zealand guidebook in preparation for an August trip with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. “Do you come here often?” she asked over her first cup of decaf cappuccino. When I explained that I live in New Hampshire but had come to Cambridge to give a Zen talk, she asked what I’d talked about. “I talked about how Zen is about living in the present moment. It’s impossible to save it.”

Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like exercise. You can’t stockpile fitness: you have to exercise everyday. Zen’s the same way. Each moment is new, so each moment you have to keep practicing.”

“It’s like cod liver oil,” the woman remarked.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like cod liver oil. My mother made me take a spoonful of cod liver oil everyday when I was a child up through the age of 15. But today, if I want the benefit of cod liver oil, I’d have to start taking it again.”

“Well, yes, exactly!” I laughed. “That’s it exactly. Zen’s just like cod liver oil: you have to take it everyday.” Only in Cambridge could you sit down with a total stranger, enjoy a cup of sinfully rich hot chocolate, and talk Zen without batting an eye.

“So, what else, besides time, can’t one save?” the woman asked. It was a perfect koan: I was stumped. What else, besides time, can’t one save? By this point, the woman had drained her second cup of decaf cappuccino. “I don’t know,” I stammered as she packed to go. “Have a good time in New Zealand!”

After she’d left and I had that clean, well-lighted table to myself, I realized the perfect answer to the woman’s question. We can’t save our lives: we all, gradually and invisibly, are marching toward mortality, inching our way to our grassy grave. “You can’t save a decaf cappuccino,” I should have told her as she swallowed the last drop. “You have to live your life and drink your cappuccino before it gets cold. You can’t save it: once it’s past, it’s gone for good.” That answer, though, came too late: it wasn’t written like the words of God in black and white for me to read off a wall, and in the moment it took me to think it up, the opportunity to say it had already passed. I’m flexible, it seems, but sometimes I miss those the amazing opportunities when they reveal themselves.

Canada Mayflower, Ashuelot River Park

Today’s another busy, rainy day: looks like I’ll be inside all day catching up (still!) with grading and such. I’ve been in something of a funk this past week or so: it’s summer so I should be relaxing, yet I’m teaching what amounts to a full course-load…for what amounts to part-time pay. In the back of my mind is the thought that I should do something spectacular to celebrate my completion of the PhD: after working for a decade toward this one goal, I celebrated minimally and then headed right back to work. The realities of adjunct teaching (and adjunct salaries) make it difficult to do something hedonistic like go on vacation or take a span of time off. Still, I underestimated the level of “post traumatic stress” (as one former prof termed it) that sprouts in the aftermath of realizing PhD actually means “Piled Higher and Deeper.”

When you’re feeling in a funk, it’s easy to overlook the obvious. There’s so much to be thankful for. Even though I don’t have the time (or money) to celebrate my diss-completion in the way I’d like, I am grateful to be done. Someday, Powers-That-Be willing, I’ll have the time and resources to take my summers off, to travel, to enjoy leisure. In the meantime, my dues-paying existence isn’t bad at all: as I’ve said before, my current situation is better than a 9-to-5 desk job. Way back in the days when I was an evangelical Christian (believe it or not), a wise pastor once remarked that the only difference between a monastery and a prison is gratitude: if you’re thankful for what you have, a prison can be a place of spiritual practice, and if you forget to be thankful for what you have, even a beautifully peaceful monastery can be a drag.

Insect on false Solomon's seal, Ashuelot River Park

It’s difficult to remember to be grateful, to seek the extraordinary within the humdrum details of our day-to-day lives. Thank goodness we have other folks to remind us. This morning my buddy Fred from Fragments from Floyd posted a lovingly illustrated essay on “The Ordinary.” In it, Fred pretty much sums up the aesthetic philosophy of “Hoarded Ordinaries” and its author: the place where beauty hides isn’t some far-off beach, distant fog-shrouded mountaintop, or exotic foreign bazaar (although, of course, I wouldn’t mind visiting any of these). Instead, the place where beauty lies is in our own backyard, in a plain-Jane pasture viewed from our mailbox or on the sun-dappled side of a barn we see every morning over yet another cup of much-needed coffee.

These days in Keene, Canada mayflower and false Solomon’s seal are blooming in the woods along the Ashuelot River; both of these members of the lily family are very common. Both mayflower and false Solomon’s seal are, in a word, ordinary: you’ll see them everywhere along shady trails, and your eyes will begin to ignore them as you look for more showy, spectacular, or rare beauties. But Fred’s right, of course. The ordinary is all we have: it is, after all, the very stuff of our days. It is by watching the daily passage of common lovelies that we train our eye to catch the spectacularly uncommon; through the door of the ordinary, the extraordinary creeps. Are you watching? Will you recognize it when it arrives hidden and silent, cloaked in green?

Downtown Keene, NH, May, 2004

This week has been stormy. Unlike the otherwise fearless Kathleen, I’m not freaked out by thunderstorms. Although I have my share of neurotic phobias–I don’t like earthquakes, I tend to get claustrophic in crowds, and I hate using telephones–thunderstorms don’t phase me. In fact, I’ve actually enjoyed the tempestuous downpours and sky-illuminating pyrotechnics we’ve been treated to every night this week.

Last night as I drove home from the Women’s Literature class I teach once a week in Bow, I drove over a mountain ridge in the midst of a thunderstorm. When I used to commute from Hillsboro to Keene, I’d drive this winding, undulating span of road several times a week in all sorts of weathers: snow, sleet, hail. When you drive over a mountain ridge, you can’t tell from the bottom what sort of weather you’ll face at the top: what starts out as rain in the lowlands might turn to freezing rain as you crest the ridge.

Downtown Keene, NH, May, 2004

My mother for one hates to drive at night, much less on a rainy night; she still can’t believe that I used to drive over the mountains in snow, sleet, and rain, much less on nights characterized by such weather. I drive a Subaru, and I drive carefully. Although I’ve seen more than a few cars (and one tractor-trailer truck) fishtail off this stretch of road, I’ve come to know and respect it as a familiar friend: if you tend to its curves and heed its slippery spots, this road won’t cast you off. About a year ago I saw a bald eagle winging its way over Granite Lake as I drove this road to Keene from Hillsboro; on another day last year I saw a groundhog-toting coyote trot in front of my oncoming car, and just this past March, I saw a fisher-cat dart cross the road in front of me. Last night I didn’t see any wildlife on my way home fom Bow, but the light show was pretty amazing as 360-degrees of sky were illuminated by crackling flashes of pure rain-rinsed energy.

Although I’m awed rather than frightened by spring thunderstorms, I do (as I mentioned) have my share of neurotic phobias. Ever since I started keeping this blog, I’ve experienced this weird freak-out whenever people I know “in person” read my blog. I’m cool when someone like Kathleen reads my blog since she met the “blog-me” before meeting the “in person” me. But when friends, family, or students read my blog, I get strangely nervous. Somehow, in my mind there’s a different kind, level, or degree of intimacy that I share with online acquaintances versus in-person ones: the “me” you’ll meet in person is somehow different from the “me” you’ll meet here. That isn’t to say that I lie in my blog or present a false self in person; it’s just to say that we all have various personae that we present in different situations, so the thought of mixing my “real” with my “virtual” self is somehow disconcerting.

Downtown Keene, NH, May, 2004

Several months ago, for instance, I freaked out a bit when my landlord mentioned having read parts of my blog. “Oh my God!” I fretted. “I hope he didn’t read the post about my underwear!” For some similarly neurotic reason, I get anxious whenever I check my referral log and notice someone from Toledo, Ohio has accessed my site: might that be one of my in-laws or a former professor? Although I know that several in-laws and at least one former professor have read my blog, I still grow nervous at the thought that these folks might be reading: what if I say something here that doesn’t match my in-person persona, or what if I say something that can or will be used against me?

I get even more nervous when I learn that a student, past or present, has checked out my blog. Within the past week, at least one of my current Keene State students and at least one member of that aforementioned Women’s Lit class have read and commented upon my blog, a realization that stopped my heart for a moment. Is allowing your students to read about your underwear choices in accord with proper professor/student protocol? What if a student reads a particularly inappropriate or non-PC comment here? If you could be a fly on the wall in my Women’s Lit class, you’d realize how blatantly absurd these concerns are: within the confines of that classroom, my eight fabulous female students and I have talked (and laughed uproariously) about everything from vibrators to preferred methods for offing an oafish spouse. (If you’ve read Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, you know that the way to get rid of an obnoxious hubby is to “knot it.”) So it’s not like any of those ladies is going to be shocked to hear that have secret ambitions of becoming a stripper.

Downtown Keene, NH, May, 2004

So just imagine how odd I felt when I discovered via my new-found friend Shane at Nickerblog that a former writing student of mine keeps a blog of her own. Does that mean she followed Shane’s link to my blog? Is she freaking out at the thought that I’m reading her’s? Although I don’t see myself as being the Intimidating Intellectual type, maybe my students find my Professorial Persona to be threatening or intrusive or…whatever. If I were a student, I’d be embarrassed to have a professor read my blog: heck, half the time I embarrass myself when I read my own blog.

And so they say that only six degrees of separation come between any two people on the face of the planet: if any given person clicks through the right six blogs, they’ll eventually land here on my site whether I’m ready to greet them or not. The thought of six degrees of separation is, in my book, far more scary than facing 360-degrees of mountain-cracking thunder and lightning. Human behavior, after all, is far less predictable (and far more dangerous) than any weather you’ll find on a mountain ridge. Keeping a blog is like wearing a tin funnel on your head in the middle of an electrical storm: at any moment, ZAP, who knows what (or who) will hit you. There’s a certain beauty in unpredictability, and maybe that’s what drives those of us who are flatlanders by nature into the dizzying, lightning-defying reaches of the blogosphere. Right about now, though, I think I should change the name “Hoarded Ordinaries” to “Duck and Cover.”

Ferns, Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

It’s been rainy here in Keene these past few days: both last night and the night before there have been rousing thunderstorms. In the aftermath of such storms, the air is charged with energy and the earth smells rich and fertile: you can almost feel yourself sinking into the soil as it composts your feet on contact.

On Sunday during a sunny spell the dog and I walked to Ashuelot River Park while Chris went golfing: two distinctly different ways of communing with nature. The river was dotted with kayakers–greenhorns, judging from their frantic paddling–and the trails were peopled with divorced dads shepherding flocks of visiting children. During the week when the dog and I walk the river, we see unaccompanied boys who race their bikes on the trail and wade into ponds to catch turtles and snakes; yesterday, only Reggie waded while I tried to hunt down frogs, all the turtles having apparently gone into hiding for the day.

Bull frog, Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

I heard three kinds of frogs yesterday–slews of green frogs, a couple bullfrogs, and one tree-frog–but I saw only a single mud-brown bullfrog who splashed into the water at the dog’s approach. Minutes later, I explored a new-to-me side trail that snakes the turtle pond I’ve mentioned before while Reggie went wading, in mud, yet again. He must have startled one of those green frogs since I heard an amphibious shriek and then a liquid plop: when it comes to scaring up frogs, Reggie has me beat, being less hesitant about mud and mire.

Today has been an inside day: on Monday I post a week’s worth of assignments to both of my online classes, then I teach a face-to-face class at Keene State, then I drive some 45 minutes to teach a night class in Bow, NH. It’s summer-time, but I’m teaching four different courses at three institutions: a grammar class along with three distinctly different lit classes. This morning I had papers to grade and assignments to read: I’m catching (but not yet caught) up from that trip to see relatives to Ohio, and before that the end-term crunch, and before that the final stages of the diss. One of these days, I’ll catch up with classes, and housework, and the piles of bills, papers, and other tasks that have accumulated…someday, someday.

Ferns, Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

In the meantime, though, I like to remember yesterday’s ferns and frogs, denizens of cool, moist places: I bet life’s pretty simple when you’re a fern or frog, your days spent jumping from dogs and inquisitive boys or just sprouting from rhizomes and spewing out spores. As careful as I was yesterday, I still muddied my feet, so before we headed back into town and then on home, both Reggie and I waded in the river, he up to his belly, I up to the tops of my mud-blackened toes. Sometimes you just need to take some time to cool your heels, and right about now the Ashuelot River would be just as good a spot as any.

Central Square setinel, May 1, 2004

Central Square setinel, May 20, 2004

What a difference 20 days make. The photo on the left was taken on May 1st; the photo on the right was taken on May 20th. I don’t fancy myself a photographer, but I am a collector obsessed with time. Sometimes when I snap yet another shot of some shop window or overlooked doorway, I ask myself why I bother to chronicle such insignificant places. Often an odd response pops into consciousness: “Someday when all this is gone, people will wonder what life was like in the old days.” Town square statues seem lasting enough, but the Buddhist in me knows that impermanence surrounds us: even if this statue is here for years to come (and there’s no guarantee of that, or anything), chances are I won’t be. Even if I spend the rest of my life in Keene, something that’s not likely given the state of the academic job market, eventually I’ll grow old, my sight and memories will fade, and I’ll die. But somewhere in cyberspace–somewhere in the synapses of a reader or two, perhaps–these and other images might live on. Here stood one set of eyes with a camera on two separate days in May, 2004, and these two precise moments will never pass this way again.

Picnic table, Depot Square, May 20, 2004

I’ve posted such before-and-after images on several occasions: one of the surprise joys of keeping an illustrated blog is the way you can use your entries to travel in time. This recent photo of a spring-cleaned picnic table in Keene’s Depot Square, for instance, hearkens back to an image of the same picnic table minus fresh paint and chess boards that I took last October then posted in March. Although the angle of the photo is different, you can tell it’s the same table if you compare the splintered wood at its base: apparently, they paint only the tops of picnic tables here in Keene. Although it’s been rearranged and repainted, this table has been doing its civic duty in Depot Square since October at least. How long before that did this picnic table languish in total obscurity?

This weekend Chris and I went to see the film Troy. Apart from several interesting departures from Homer’s original story, the film was quite good: if nothing else, it was delightful (ummm, yeah) to see a buff and hunky Brad Pitt as an arrogant and entirely sexy Achilles. (Hector and Odysseus weren’t bad on the eyes, either: ladies, tell your fellas this is a manly action film, which it is, then sit back and enjoy lots of sweaty, sword-wielding studs.) One of the themes that the film drives home a bit too heavy-handedly is that Achilles fought to preserve his name throughout history: when a messenger boy tells Achilles he’d be too frightened to fight a huge Thessalian opponent, Achilles looks the boy in the eye and says, “That is why no one will remember your name.”

Overgrown doorway, downtown Keene, May 20, 2004

We all want to be remembered by someone: even if history forgets our names, we’d like to think that our friends and family at least will recall our lives and eventual passing. It’s arrogantly anthropomorphic, I think, to save remembrance for humans alone: why shouldn’t tables and shop-windows be memorialized as well? Someone took care to build these objects, at one point someone took care to tend them, and even if these objects have since fallen into benign neglect, they and the nameless hands who wrought them deserve some sort of immortality. I don’t know the story of this overgrown doorway, but I know it looked quite different in March when it showed not a hint of green. (To see the “before” image of this same doorway, click here then scroll halfway down.) Nature continually moves on, with each season following the previous like a turning wheel, and only we humans and our arts hold the promise of remembrance. If we don’t cherish and remember abandoned doorways and faded flowers, who will? Without remembrance, why bother with time?

In one of Achilles’ more contemplative moments, he remarks to the slave girl Briseis that the gods envy men because men are mortal. Overwhelmed by the monotony of time, the gods realize that only mortals can truly appreciate beauty because that beauty is fleeting, our mortal lives ultimately being the fuel of time. It is true that the most poignant moments of Troy occur when various characters acknowledge that their time is short: Hector’s final leavetaking of his wife and infant son, for instance, is heartbreaking because he knows he will not return alive. When we breeze through our days thinking that time and its accidents are infinite, we miss the particulars of life’s pageantry; once we become acutely aware of impermanence, though, we heed life’s tiny details as a means of time-keeping. These chimney swifts overhead sound the same as those last summer, and the black-throated green warbler singing from a conifer here in Keene sounds the same as those heard in the Ohio pines of my childhood. These details provide continuity and a kind of immortality: it is such remembrance that brings meaning to otherwise anonymous days.

Both film and photography are a luxury and, ultimately, a crutch: Homer imagined and then recited from memory the details of the Trojan War along with the intricate stories of each of its heroes. Our task is much less daunting. Given the stuff of our days, can we remember the particulars that give our lives beauty and specificity? Given the monotonous march of time, can we remember the precise shape and pattern of every footfall?

View from West Hill

Have I ever mentioned how beautiful the area around Keene is? When we moved to New Hampshire from the Boston area, we were looking to buy an affordable house, but we also were looking to live amongst mountains. Living in New Hampshire’s north country, in the midst of the White Mountains, would have been beautiful, but it would have been too far from gainful employment. Hillsborough, NH was our initial compromise: it was close enough, in theory, that Chris could still work in Boston, and it was equidistant from several larger college towns (including Keene) where I could teach.

Horatio Colony's writing retreat

Ultimately, though, Hillsborough was a poor choice for us. The town is small, the population is largely blue-collar, and Chris and I felt out of our element. Our house, although nestled in the woods across from a large State Forest that offered plenty of hiking, was dimly lit and situated in a subdivision peopled by families with children: Chris in particular felt out-of-place in a neighborhood of minivans and Little League moms. Although it turned out to be a good financial investment, our three-bedroom house was too large for an intentionally childless couple. When Chris left corporate America to pursue music full-time, it was difficult to justify my teaching a backbreaking adjunct teaching load at a handful of colleges just to (barely) pay the mortgage.

Last summer, we consciously downsized, selling that house in Hillsborough and nearly 3/4 of our possessions before moving into our humble little two-bedroom apartment here in Keene. Instead of driving some 45-minutes one way to a handful of colleges, I now walk 5 minutes to one. Instead of two cars, we drive (occasionally) one. We’ve traded white-picket-fence, child-rearing neighbors for ones who are college kids: they stay up too late listening to loud music, and so do we. We live within walking distance from an artsy old renovated theatre, a handful of coffeeshops and good restaurants, and the prettiest (and most pedestrian-friendly) downtown I’ve ever seen. And when folks around town ask what we do for a living, I can honestly say, “I teach at the college, and my husband’s a musician” without getting slack-jawed stares. Keene’s a good fit for us. It’s a town where even we as outsiders feel like we belong.

Stone wall

And best of all, Keene is located in just about the prettiest place you can imagine. Ringed by hills and in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, Keene offers good hiking close to home. I’ve mentioned on several occasions going hiking at Goose Pond here in Keene, and I’ve posted pictures from Goose Pond even more frequently. When I don’t have time for the ten-minute drive to Goose Pond, I can walk to Ashuelot River Park, which I’ve mentioned here previously. And yesterday, after languishing with
wanderlust for too long, I at long last explored the
Horatio Colony Preserve
, which I’d been wanting to explore ever since we moved to Keene last summer.

As my good luck would have it, the Horatio Colony Preserve is located less than ten minutes from our apartment; the vista at the head of this entry is less than five minutes away from Keene’s brand new Home Depot, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Borders. If I had a bike (a purchase that I’m leaning increasingly towards, given Keene’s abundant bike trails), I could bike to the Preserve and then go hiking. Although the Preserve is small (“only” several hundred acres with “only” three-and-a-half miles of hiking trails), it offers a delightful illusion of wild isolation. I spent less than two hours wandering aimlessly at the Preserve yesterday, and when I came home that wanderlust was for the moment at least entirely satiated.

Remains of Tip Top House

Like any other sort of carnal craving, wanderlust is easy enough to satisfy. You needn’t go far, and you needn’t go for long: you just need to work up a good heart-pounding sweat. Approximately half of yesterday’s stroll was up a moderate but undeniable incline, a tangible reminder of how out-of-shape my sedentary academic body has become. There’s something about sweating, panting, and feeling your heart pound in your throat that wipes away any and all thoughts and worries. For just under two hours yesterday–and during the endorphin-soaked aftermath of those two hours–I wasn’t thinking about course-prep, the academic job-market, the latest accumulation of dirty dishes and laundry, etc. It was just me and my heart, lungs, and feet facing the tangible reality of gravity.

I didn’t spend a lot of time yesterday stopping and looking; instead, I kept walking, and huffing and puffing, my way up, up, up an incline that would have provided far less challenge to a person used to hill-climbing. The entire way, I did my birding by ear: you don’t have to stop to identify the calls of black-throated green and black-throated blue warblers, scarlet tanagers, olive-sided flycatchers, Eastern wood pewees, and red-eyed vireos, all of which I heard but did not see yesterday. I did pause once or twice to admire the pink lady’s slippers which were blooming, and I did try (unsuccessfully) to stalk one particular chipmunk that froze almost-close-enough (in theory) for me to snap his picture. For the most part, though, I kept walking. The mosquitoes were mercilessly undeterred by the all-natural citronella repellent I’d slathered myself with; apparently, our local blood-suckers actually like the taste of citronella, for both mosquitoes and black flies descended in droves upon my head and arms whenever I’d stop. So, I stopped rarely, letting the breeze of my own momentum brush away the bugs. And when I got home, I promptly ordered some real insect repellent as recommended by Leslee. Next time, I’ll be better prepared.

Relaxing atop West Hill

Blood-lusting bugs notwithstanding, I did take a moment or two (more like twenty) to lie down on the rock outcrop right down summit from the ruins of the Colony family’s old Tip-Top House, on the northern slope of West Hill overlooking the town of Keene. The granite there is speckled with moss and lichens, and the ants, caterpillars, and inch-worms were out, but I didn’t mind sharing sun with them. Had I walked the trails the “right” way around, I would have come to this scenic outcrop early into my hike; as it was, I walked the mapped-out loop backwards, thereby assuring (by felicitous accident) that I could enjoy this vista toward the end of my walk when I was good and ready for it. Once you’ve given enough blood to the mosquitoes and black flies, you don’t necessarily mind giving a drop or two more if the view is good and the lying-down is comfortable enough. Some folks travel far and wide to find such spots of sweat-soaked, heart-pounding, blood-sucking heaven, and it’s been in my (relative) backyard all along.

Yellowjacket on lilac leaves


Today’s “Photo Friday” theme is “Macro.” I’ve had this current digital camera for almost a year now, we had a hand-me-down digi-cam for a year or so before that, and I never realized that there is a special “macro” setting for taking extreme close-up shots. All this time I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to take close-up pix of wildflowers, insects, and such, and all this time I’ve been wondering why none of them turn out. Duh. Guess I should have read the Owner’s Manual. So, here are two pix taken in my own backyard with the new-to-me Macro setting on my digi-cam: guess you can expect to see more close-up pix of flowers and insects in the days to come as I play with this newly-discovered feature.

Horsetails, Keene, NH

The horsetails that I’d mentioned in several previous posts are now blanketing the waste places along the bikepath with a muted hue of green. The birches along the path are similarly leaved and lush, creating a screen of textured green by the overlooked side of one of downtown’s busiest pathways. For a long time while I was finishing up the diss, I longed to lie down in a mossy, flower-strewn hillside: this slope of horsetails is the right color but not nearly remote enough for idle loafing. My search continues for a place to rest my head and cool my heels. In the meantime, these horsetails apparently think that a busy path in downtown Keene is the perfect spot to set down their perennial rhizomes.

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