June 2004


Water sprinklers, Keene, NH

This past Tuesday, Ecotone celebrated its one year anniversary. For those of you not familiar with Ecotone, it describes itself as “a portal for those who are interested in learning and writing about place. It came about as a meeting spot for a number of webloggers who write extensively about place in their own blogs and were wishing to work more collaboratively, as well as raise awareness to this genre of weblogs.”

This time last year, I wasn’t keeping a weblog; this time last year, in fact, I wasn’t writing at all. If I remember correctly, I was burned out on teaching; although I managed to muster the energy to teach a two-day-a-week Summer School class, I was mired in my dissertation and going nowhere with any sort of writing deemed “creative.” I certainly wasn’t “writing about place” in any sort of real way; instead, I was procrastinating on a dissertation that was supposed to focus on “spirituality of place” in American nature writing but instead was focusing on not much in particular. In a word, I was lost, tired, depressed, burned out: although I wanted to be writing, I didn’t know how or where to begin.

30 minute parking, Keene, NH

When I started writing my “Pedestrian Thoughts” essays last August, I started with a simple rule: start where you are. As a way of dealing with the burnout I felt writing scholarly prose about other people’s places, I decided to start writing essays about Keene, NH, essays I’d send via email to anyone who expressed even a remote interest in my corner of the world. “You have to start somewhere,” I thought to myself. “Why not start here?” My very first contact with Ecotone happened because one of my “Pedestrian” readers–a friend of a friend, a person I’ve never met–emailed me the link to Lisa Thompson’s field notes. He figured I’d find much of interest on Lisa’s site, and I did. Not only was she writing about her own neck of the woods, she linked to a slew of other writers–and an online meeting place for these writers–who wrote from the conviction that place matters and place starts at home.

Fiske Hall, Keene State College, Keene, NH

My first contribution to Ecotone happened before I myself kept a weblog: on December 17, 2003, I posted an excerpt of my handwritten journal focusing on “Mythic Place.” (If you follow that link, mine is the 3rd entry down, under posts from Fred First’s Fragments from Floyd and a writer known as “P“). In that post, I came to the same conclusion as I had in my “Pedestrian” essays: place matters, and place starts at home. In my writing about “nature writing,” I always seemed to define “nature” as being somewhere else: surely Keene isn’t “wild” in the way that Henry Beston’s Cape Cod or Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Peak or John Muir’s Sierra Mountains are “wild.” But when you switch from “writing about nature” to “writing about place,” anything is possible. Place happens in cities, suburbs, rural towns…in a word, place happens wherever you find yourself. So place-blogging is simply about waking up and noticing, recording, and then sharing the mundane stuff that happens in your own backyard. When you think about it, how is that any different from what Thoreau himself did?

Parker Hall, Keene State College, Keene, NH

Although we Ecotoners have latched onto this term “place-blogging” to describe what it is that we do, I think many bloggers who wouldn’t attach that label to themselves do something very similar. Whenever Shane posts photos of the signs he sees in Los Angeles, I feel right at home: separated by an entire continent, we share similar eyes even though we find ourselves in distinctively different places. To my ear, Shane perfectly sums up the practice of place-blogging when he notes that he’s begun taking his digital camera everywhere and snapping pictures even though he claims to know nothing about photography. “I’m just fucking around,” he remarks, “and these images here are the ones I like and they’re from LA.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is place-blogging (or at least place-photoblogging) in a nutshell: stroll your neighborhood, fuck around, and share that fucking-around with the rest of cyberspace. Those of us in Keene find it oddly interesting that there are strip-joints in L.A. strip-malls: it looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Free Bunnies, Keene State College, Keene, NH

So, why blog about place–why does place matter? For me there’s this constant desire to feel at home in a place, to feel at home wherever I find myself by noticing, recording, and remembering tiny details as they manifest themselves. Looking back to my childhood years, I vividly remember a particular picture book in which a child took a walk through a strange neighborhood filled with oddly shaped buildings in fantastical colors. When the child turned toward home, then, that walk was a retracing of the same buildings, shapes, and colors. Thus as a child I learned a valuable lesson: it is by noticing and remembering the sights, colors, and shapes around us that we become inhabitants of a place and thereby find our way home. Walking becomes a metaphor for paying attention and for remembrance, and even a strange neighborhood offers more delight than danger if you keep your eyes open.

Marlboro St Launderette, Keene, NH

I’d love to think that if any of you ever came to Keene, you’d recognize some of these sights: “There’s the corner with the lawn sprinklers!” “There’s that parking sign!” “There’s the building that was built in 1913!” These pictures, you see, map out a simple path to school and back: anyone looking for a scavenger hunt could look at these pictures and retrace my precise route. But ultimately, of course, these pictures and this blog–and this whole phenomenon known as place-blogging–aren’t about Keene: you needn’t come here and find the places I’ve seen. Instead, place-blogging is about going out your own front door and seeing the signs that greet you close to home. Blogging about place isn’t about extolling the superior benefits of any one locale: it’s about finding and noticing the particular charms of all places. Seeing what signs sprout spontaneously, like mushrooms, all over both L.A. and Keene, now you’ll find signs sprouting in your own neighborhood, some of them like mine, some not.

Penuche's Ale House, Keene, NH

There are colorful people, memorable scenes, in all the world’s cities, in the country, in suburbs, and in various spots in between. Wherever there are people, there are eyes who have grown to ignore these details, thinking they’re a forgettable, second-rate opening act for the Real Thing. So when Mortality steps onstage, tuxedoed and top-hatted, to announce that this, ladies and gentlemen, has been the Main Event, there are gasps of shock and anger: is that all? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is all there is: this is your Featured Presentation, and you’re seeing it from within as it continues to unfold, no moment like any other. And since there is no way for you to petition Mortality for your money back–the ticket called Birth being nonrefundable–we might as well settle in to enjoy the show.

    This is my contribution for the anniversary of Ecotone. Ecotone is a wiki, which means it’s a website where anyone can add content, weblinks, etc. You don’t have to be a “place-blogger” to participate, so feel welcome to contribute to one of Ecotone’s biweekly topics (the one for July 1st is courage and place). Place, of course, is where you find it, and Ecotone’s a great virtual-place where you can meet and mingle with folks from around the world. Stop on by and make yourself at home.

Lake Champlaigne

Chris and I are back from spending exactly 21 1/2 hours in Vermont, and you didn’t even know we were gone!

Shelburne Farms Inn

As part of a surprise for Chris’s mom’s 60th birthday, on Monday morning we drove to Shelburne Farms, where we spent the day with Chris’s family and then stayed overnight at the Shelburne Farms Inn. Chris’s brother, Steve, is a professional photographer, so I tried to hold my shutter-bugging in check. I couldn’t stop myself, though, from taking (and posting) a couple of the usual touristy photos. Shelburne Farms, of course, is beautiful, with acres of cow-dotted fields and tree-studded hillsides. And the Shelburne Farms Inn is absolutely stunning with elaborate carved woodwork, fabulous views, and antique-appointed rooms. (We stayed in the Oak Room, which overlooks the lake and shares a bathroom with the Dutch Room, where Steve and his wife Eve stayed.)

As I said, we spent exactly 21 1/2 hours in Vermont: we arrived for a noontime lunch on Monday and then left at 9:30 Tuesday morning so I could be back in Keene in time to teach my afternoon class. So given the whirlwind pace of Chris and my day-tripping, here are various blog-bits to mull over while I unpack my bags…

176 House

Thanks to Kathleen of unsettled for taking me out to dinner at this local restaurant. We’ve eaten there before, but this was the first time we ate outside on the terrace, which was entirely deserted by the time that our twinkle-toed waiter finally brought Kathleen her last drink. (If you don’t believe the twinkle-toed part, check out Kathleen’s version of the evening: yes, Mitch the waiter really did do a fairy dance amongst the twinkling Christmas lights.) Over the course of the evening, Kathleen showed me how to take a non-blurry low-light photo, which involves using your camera’s self-timer, setting the camera on a stable surface, and then NOT TOUCHING IT. The next time Kathleen and I get together, I’ll take a side-angle photo of her bounteous, blog-worthy breasts. Kathleen repeatedly laments that my blog isn’t trashy enough, especially given how trashy I can be (and frequently am) in person. Just wait, sweetheart, until I have incriminating photos and tell everyone, both of our drooling hubbies included, that our girls’ nights out have gone lesbian. Stay tuned, folks.

On a purely technical level, I’ve been hobbled by continued laptop woes. Faithful readers might remember the accident that robbed me of my T-key. Well, yesterday my new keyboard arrived, and Chris promptly popped it on my laptop…only to discover that the spacebar doesn’t work. Drat. So instead of typing blog-entries-like-this-for-the-several-days-until-I-get-another-keyboard, I asked Chris to switch back to the old keyboard. (I can, after all, still use the T; it just doesn’t have a key on it!) Once Chris had re-installed the old keyboard, I discovered that the slash/question mark key didn’t work…okay, no problem. That makes it impossible to type URLs, but I can live a couple days without that…until I discovered that the P key no longer works, too! So although I can go a couple days without slashing or asking questions, I most definitely cannot go a couple days without P-ing, so here I am typing this entry in my office at Keene State. Here’s hoping my new keyboard actually works from A to Z and beyond.

Home reflection, June 2004

Next, it was only a matter of time before my fascination with shop-window reflections would find its perfect outlet in the Mirror Project, a website featuring photos of folks who have snapped self-portraits in various reflective surfaces. My sidebar blogroll now features a link to random Mirror Project images, where you just might happen upon one of my first three submissions. The picture I’ve posted here is one I took yesterday while sitting the desk in our home office. Behind me you can see a nifty print of an illuminated Medieval map of the world with Jerusalem at the center; in my hand you can see my beloved Waterman fountain pen. There is a mirror on the back of a blocked hallway door in our office; you can see the right edge of that mirror as well as a reflection of the (dusty) file cabinet that is snug against said door. This will be my next Mirror Project submission; often while I’m writing at my desk I’ll pause to look in the mirror, so it was natural to use the camera’s self-timer to capture such a contemplative moment.

Lastly, today is Bloomsday, the 100th anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s June 16, 1904 stroll through Dublin as recounted in James Joyce’s Modernist masterpiece Ulysses. As fate would have it, I’m teaching an online course in British Modernism this term, and my students read (and were completely befuddled by) excepts from Ulysses several weeks ago. (This was a schedule goof on my part: had I planned my syllabus more wisely, we would have read Joyce this week.) The best way to celebrate Bloomsday, of course, is to stroll the streets of Dublin; many Joyce fans, in fact, converge upon Dublin every June 16th to do just that. Joyce, however, wrote Ulysses during his self-imposed exile in Europe: the Dublin streets and buildings he described were those he remembered from afar, the setting of many an imagined perambulation. So lacking the means or the wherewithal to drop everything and spend 21 1/2 hours in Dublin, you should take a day-trip in your own neighborhood, living one day as a flaneur in your own town. Joyce argued that all of human nature as well as the best and worst of all human civilization could be found on the streets of Dublin; I’d argue the same can be found on the streets of any town, starting right here, right now. In other words, take a walk, an at-home day-trip, wherever you find yourself, to see whether Joyce was right.

American Candidate camera crew, Keene, NH

It’s strange but true. Keene has been invaded…by Hollywood. As if it’s not bad enough that we have to withstand the once-every-four-year media circus that is the New Hampshire primary, now it seems my quiet little mountain town has been selected to provide some quaint New England color on the upcoming Showtime reality show American Candidate. Yesterday was a bright and beautiful Sunday here in Keene; the locals were pushing baby strollers, walking dogs, licking ice cream cones…and being accosted by fake candidates jockeying for position on yet another so-called reality show. Can somebody vote me off this island, pronto?

Aspiring American Candidate with camera crew, Keene, NH

I’m not entirely sure how American Candidate is supposed to work other than it involved sending droves of camera crews to Keene this weekend. On Saturday, I learned after-the-fact, Montel Williams hosted a faux political rally in downtown’s Depot Square, an event which I saw work crews preparing for. (In addition to a portable stage and acres of star-spangled banners, they’d put up a huge “You’ll love Keene!” sign on the side of a parking garage. I guess that’s what happens when Hollywood meets the Keene Chamber of Commerce.) Yesterday an infestation of “candidates” was strolling the Square looking for “votes,” their every move and conversation followed by clinging film crews. As I understand it, each “candidate” has to get a certain number of people to phone in a “vote” in order to stay on the show. Sometime in August, then, snippets of footage from Keene and other places will appear on Showtime as the hype builds and crests toward the eventual goal of a November 2nd presidential “election.” The prize for the winning American Candidate? Two hundred grand and a chance to “address the nation” on the issues they hold dear. Priceless? Perhaps. But is it worth transforming our otherwise quaint little town into a media circus, again, while Depot Square lies strewn with red, white, and blue litter? I’m officially undecided.

Working the electoral charm, Keene, NH

Before you rush to your TV in the hope of seeing Yours Truly on a small screen near you, let me hasten to add that I’ve been lurking as part of the backdrop: not once, I think, has a camera been pointed my way. Sure, our local Thai restaurant was riddled with cameras and ubiquitous crew-members yesterday as we had lunch, but apparently the quality of my ginger mushroom tofu isn’t a pressing issue in this particular election: no one asked my opinion on that. The closest I came to pressing some pseudo-presidential flesh was when this happy campaigner, not herself a candidate but cheerily working for one, handed me a flyer just like those I’d seen littering the Square. “I’m here working with this reality show that seems to be taking over your town,” she said somewhat apologetically, her voice tinged with irony at the word “reality.” Ah, yes, when has politics ever been about reality? The cheaply-produced campaign flyer she handed me urged me to “Help Fight for Politics We Can Be Proud Of!” By calling in for Jim Strock, party nonspecified, I can “Help Our Cause.” What would that cause be, exactly? To keep on TV a so-called reality show about make-believe candidates in a make-believe election? To keep camera crews in Keene? To line Montel Williams’ pockets while giving a “nobody” two hundred grand and their much-desired-for 15 minutes of fame?

Here for Bike Week, Keene, NH

Alas, that smiling campaign worker, although she was perfectly nice, took very little of my time, and let me take her picture, failed to outline the issues at stake: Jim Strock along with the rest of his make-believe rivals failed to earn my vote. Surely other people will call in to cast their imaginary vote; as for me, I’ll stick to casting real ballots even though the outcome is usually stranger than Hollywood. Although it’s always good to see visitors bring their business to Keene–I’m sure both the Chamber of Commerce and local merchants are happily waving American Candidate flags–I’ll be happy when we can settle back into our normal semi-obscurity, the only visitors being the motorcycle afficionados on their way to or from the annual North Country festival known as Bike Week. Bikers, I’ve found, are a gritty, sweaty, heavily tattooed and be-leathered bunch: there’s something very real about them. If a biker had handed me a campaign flyer, I’d have rushed right out to vote for that. Politics, you see, is a gritty, down-and-dirty pursuit; I’m not sure it’s ready for prime time. American Candidate might bill itself as a reality show, but what interests me is what’s left behind when the camera crews call it a wrap and go home, for that’s what’s realer than real.

    Montel Williams notwithstanding, the real celebrity to visit Keene on Saturday was NH photo-blogger Ron Cillizza, who posted several pictures to show for it. I hope you enjoyed your brief jaunt through Keene, Ron. One of these days our paths will cross, eventually.

Enter to learn; go forth to serve

For the second summer in a row, I’m teaching Summer School at Keene State College. As an adjunct instructor at KSC (someone who’s officially considered a “full-time temporary” employee), I don’t get my normal paycheck during the summer months, so Summer School is a good way to bring in a little cash. Summer School classes are smaller than academic-year classes–this semester, I have 14 students in my Lit of the Open Road class, and that’s a “large” Summer School section–and these classes are offered through Continuing Ed, so there’s usually a good mix of ages. In a word, Summer School’s cool: I get to make a little money, teach smaller sections of my usual classes, and mingle with a more mature, self-motivated group of students.

It helps, too, that I really like it at KSC: the institution that students wryly refer to as Kinda Sorta College is Kinda Sorta Cool, too. (Sorry, Shane, if I’m bringing on another bout of Keene-sickness, but it’s true!) The first time I drove through downtown Keene, I was on my way to interview at Keene State: I’d recently quit my part-time adjunct job at Saint Anselm College in the hopes of finding a “real” full-time job in corporate America. (I’ve mentioned this failed quest before: my official motto at the time was “I’ll do anything for health insurance,” but sadly no one wanted to take me up on the offer.) Finding that no companies wanted to hire an over-credentialled, under-experienced academic refugee, I didn’t hang up when I got a call from Kirsti Sandi, Director of Writing at KSC. Although the full-time adjunct position she was looking to fill didn’t offer health insurance, I was jobless without any prospects on the horizon. Sure, I said, I’d come for an interview, but I wasn’t expecting to take the job: after all, why would I want to exchange one dead-end adjunct job for another (albeit full-time) one?

Silver Maple, Fisk Quad

Well, there was something about the town of Keene, and the campus of KSC itself, that changed my mind. When I first drove through the Square in downtown Keene (you have to picture me making a circle motion with my hand when I say “the Square in downtown Keene” since the Square is actually a circle), I thought to myself, “I could be happy living here.” At the time, Chris and I were homeowners in Hillsborough, NH, about 40 minutes from Keene, and we weren’t looking to move. Still, there was something about downtown Keene that struck me and hasn’t yet let go (as this blog and its many pictures testify). Central Square is a quintessential New England town, quaintly topped with a white church spire and lined with trees. People actually stroll through downtown Keene, and the day of that first fateful visit was sunny and clear. The thought “I could be happy living here” was more accurately the realization that I could be happy walking here: the streets of downtown Keene looked (and are) pedestrian-friendly. In my mind the way to judge a town is by foot: if I can walk it, I’ll love it; if not, well, maybe it will grow on me, or then again maybe not.

Partly cloudy; mostly leafy

When I set foot on the KSC campus, my fate was clinched. I’ve always been a strongly intuitive person: although I have an entirely logical head, I tend to trust my gut when it comes to making big decisions. When I was considering that aforementioned adjunct job at Saint Anselm College, I spent an afternoon walking the campus: finding it to be green, pleasant, and pedestrian-friendly, I knew I’d be happy teaching there, and I was. Over the years, I’ve applied and in one case interviewed at other unnamed New England colleges where I haven’t felt the same at-home feeling: in each case I haven’t regretted turning down or failing to pursue the proffered position. If I can walk a campus and feel that nebulous “at-home” feeling, it’s a good fit; if I wander the campus and get lost, feel out-of-place, or find nothing aesthetically pleasing, it’s probably not a good fit.

Ivied

So on that June day some three years ago when I first set foot on the campus of Keene State College, I knew I’d be happy teaching here. I remember I was wearing a green dress and the campus was similarly bedecked: even though most students will never see KSC in her summer finery, the grounds crew takes great care to keep the campus clean, green, and lush throughout the spring and summer months. Keene State has lots of trees on campus; in fact, at least one publication refers to the “Keene State College Arboretum & Gardens” and leads visitors on a walking tour with information on the various trees and plants you can see here. (KSC also publishes a map of walking routes on campus, which says something about the earthy-crunchy nature of the institution.) As silly as it might sound, being surrounded by green is important to me. Had Keene State’s campus been overwhelmingly framed in brick and concrete, I probably wouldn’t have sought out Kirsti’s office for that interview. Finding it to be green and inviting, I began to envision the possibilities.

In the three years since that sunny June day, I’ve found my initial gut instinct to have been on-target: it’s cool (and even keen) to teach at Kinda Sorta College, even in the summertime. After having two 90-plus-degree days here in New Hamsphire this week, we’re back to our usual mild summer temperatures: clear, sunny days in the 70s, and even cooler sleeping weather at night. Keene State’s looking good these days; my students are diligently reading, writing about, and discussing great American lit, and life is good. The other day in class, a student’s cell phone went off; looking chastened, she explained as she dashed into the hallway to take the call that her daughter was home alone. “No problem,” I laughed: it’s difficult to juggle kids and other summer obligations with a mid-afternoon class that meets four days a week, and even I sometimes forget to turn off my cell phone. “You’re the only professor I’ve ever had who laughs when someone’s cell phone rings,” another student, looking too-cool-for-school in a funky sundress, remarked. “All my other profs lecture about cell phones for 10 minutes the first day of class and then give you the evil eye if one goes off.”

Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata)

Well, yeah, I guess I should crack down on errant cell-phone calls and practice up on my evil eye…but just the other night my cell-phone went off during my Women’s Lit class. Accidents and cell-phone calls happen, and summertime is when the living is easy: we can afford to be a bit more laid back than usual. Summer’s cool, you see, and summer school’s even cooler.

Industrial Heritage Trail, Keene, NH, Oct 21, 2003

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Journey. This is, I suppose, a fitting theme for me given that I’ve for many years now taught a lit survey course called American Literature of the Open Road. Living in New Hampshire with one set of family in Ohio and another in Michigan, Chris and I do our share of driving for holidays and other visits, and we’ve been crazy enough at various points to drive cross-country, with the dog, to see as many states as physically possible.

Road to the Badlands, South Dakota, Summer 2002

All this road-tripping notwithstanding, when I think of journeys, my thoughts immediately draw inward. Instead of envisioning a long, flat road stretching into the South Dakota prairie, I envision a more murky, inward-leading road. My all-time favorite photo of Keene is one I snapped last October: I was walking the dog as I do everyday when for some reason I turned around. The weeds and trees that fringe our ordinary bike-path, a paved resurrection of yesteryear’s railroad line, gleamed with a burnish hue. The sky itself glowed with diffused morning light. The scene was golden and lovely, but the light was all wrong for a picture, I thought, but I snapped one anyway. When I got home and saw the way that cloud mottled sky gleamed, I knew I’d captured it: late autumn Keene in her morning-muted glory. By walking no more than a half mile from my house, I’d found Valhalla, the Garden of Hesperides, the Western Pure Land.

Appalachian Trail in Virginia, Summer 2002

One of the major themes we discuss in my Lit of the Open Road class is the notion that all journeys are inward journeys. We often begin the semester by discussing Dorothy’s journey from Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. Initially, Dorothy wants to leave Kansas: she’s fed up with a boring, black-and-white world where she and her dog Toto don’t seem to belong. When she finds herself in the strange and wondrous land called Oz, though, she suddenly wants to find her way back home to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. When Dorothy, the Scare Crow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion finally do encounter the famed Wizard after surviving many a harrowing trial, they discover that they each had within them that which they’d been seeking. Dorothy has been wearing the magical ruby slippers that will take her home, and the Scare Crow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion had each exihibited along the way the wisdom, compassion, and courage they were seeking. In the end, we learn that the Yellow Brick Road leads to self-discovery, and with this lesson learned Dorothy can return to her own happily-ever-after home.

Redwood Forest, California, Summer 2002

This notion that exploration is a metaphor for self-discovery leads to an interesting paradox. If the goal of Dorothy’s journey is to find herself and her proper place in the world–if the happily-ever-after ending rests on her realization that she’s at home in Kansas with the people she knows and loves–why is the journey to Oz necessary? If the goal of a true journey is to find yourself, why can’t you stay at home and do that? In discussing this point with countless students over the years, we always seem to come to the same conclusion: you can’t appreciate your home until you’ve left it, and you can’t find yourself until you’ve tested yourself. Dorothy has to leave Kansas, James Joyce has to leave Ireland, Ernest Hemingway has to leave the States. Until you’ve viewed “home” through a rearview mirror, you never will know quite what it is that you’ve had all along. Until you’ve brushed elbows with curious folks in the land of Oz, you’ll never know who you really are and who you can truly become.

Main Street, Keene, NH, June 10, 2004

And so this summer we’ve no grand plans for any cross-country road trips. We already visited Ohio and Michigan back in May, so no obligations pull us there; this year, we’ll either stick closer to home or go somewhere and stay a spell. Having seen both American coasts and countless pretty points in between, I’ve come to realize the tree-lined streets and sidewalks of Keene as being among the loveliest in America, from sea to shining sea. Thoreau spent his life travelling a great deal in Concord, Massachusetts; I think I myself could spent a lifetime or two strolling the streets of Keene, New Hampshire, Thoreau’s mother’s hometown. Happily-ever-after is where you find it; Valhalla, the Garden of Hesperides, and the Western Pure Land is out your own front door. Armed with wisdom, compassion, and courage, you don’t need ruby slippers: any beat-up pair of walking shoes and whatever path you find before you will do just fine.

Stormy weather

In her most recent book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard talks a lot about clouds. Clouds, of course, are ephemeral, and they, like people, are constantly changing. Still, old landscape paintings capture the “dated clouds” that their makers saw from their particular spot in time and place: the clouds, for example, that floated over Brighton as John Constable’s wife sickened and then died. Looking at a Constable painting, we see clouds hovering over land; what we don’t see are the narratives behind the clouds, Maria Constable lying pale and failing in her bed while her husband gathered their children and, yes, paused to capture clouds.

Yesterday was hot here in New Hampshire, a rare (for us) ninety-plus degree day. Yesterday just after 5 p.m. the storm clouds began to gather, and last night just after 7 p.m. they burst into torrential showers and sky-illuminating lightning. Today it is overcast and warm, but not hot; it’s supposed to rain most of the day and then be sunny again tomorrow. Weather, like moods, comes and goes; skies that were clear yesterday will be clouded today, and those clear skies will return and then leave again, return and then leave.

Stormy weather

Tracking yesterday’s weather seems particularly foolish. Forecasters make their living looking ahead: how does it help anyone to know that it rained yesterday or last week, or last year? And yet ignoring the temperate moods of days gone past seems at the same time short-sighted. Surely part of the reason why we remember a particular picnic, Sunday drive, or painful leave-taking is the climatic backdrop of that event: that was the day it rained, or the day the wind showered apple blossoms, or the day the clouds parted to bestow a single ray of sunlight. Growing up in Ohio, I have a childhood’s worth of wide skies and endless clouds speckled with late summer flocks of starlings and grackles that stretched from horizon to horizon. Growing up in the Ohio, I heard stories of single days–single grim-lit clouds–that froze the hands of time.

Stormy weather

On April 3, 1974, for instance, a tornado leveled the town of Xenia, Ohio. If you’re not from Ohio, you’ve probably never even heard of Xenia, but it like any other town it is filled with souls and stories. On the morning of April 3, 1974, Xenia had no way of knowing that in a looming spot of time it would lose almost half of its buildings, nine schools, nine churches, 180 businesses, and 33 lives. In the aftermath, 1,600 were injured and 10,000 were homeless. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I’d go further to say that folks tend to turn Buddhist (although few Ohioans would use that term) after surviving a tornado. “Impermanence surrounds us” is a quaint spiritual truism until you’ve seen the way a single cloud can flatten half a town.

I’ve never experienced a tornado firsthand, and we didn’t drive down to Xenia (as many grimly curious Ohioans did) to survey the damage back in 1974. But having been chilled by the faded pictures, I feel an eery, edgy sense whenever the weather is hot and ready to break as storm clouds gather on the horizon: twister weather, a heaviness that hearkens disaster. Tornadoes are rare in New England; here in New Hampshire, people tell stories of the Hurricane of 1938, a rare inland storm that around rush hour on September 21, 1938 toppled the Congregational church’s landmark steeple and skewered it into the church sanctuary. No where on earth is safe from weather: clouds brew in heaven and hell alike.

Stormy weather

The lesson of clouds is that everything is perpetually changing; the lesson of tornadoes and hurricanes is that all things can perish in an instant. People look at me strangely when they see me snapping pictures of the sky or the corner of my own roof: surely there’s nothing noteworthy to see there, now. But while others are focused on the solid, seemingly permanent things in the foreground–leaves and trees and solid, well-built buildings–I’m zoomed onto the emphemerals that lie behind: sky and cloud and fierce-brewing storm. Those solid things, you see, pass away in an instant. Only the fickleness of heavy weather and its ever-shifting soul remains constant over time, undeniable.

Store windows, downtown Keene, NH

While I was at this weekend’s conference, I missed the first of the summer’s First Friday celebrations here in Keene. I’ve actually never been to one of these celebrations: Chris and I moved to Keene last July, so we were so tapped from the process of selling our house, liquidating a huge portion of our belongings, and settling into our new apartment that we somehow missed the various summer activities in our new hometown.

Although I’m an entirely outgoing person when I need to be (and, unfortunately, at times when I shouldn’t be), I’m not much of a joiner. It’s ironic but telling, I think, that my taciturn and reticent former office-mate has been to countless more academic conferences than I have: scholars I’ve merely heard of know him on a first name basis. When I envision any sort of club or organization, academic or otherwise, I immediately imagine the reasons why I would never fit into such a group: surely the folks in this club are too cool for the likes of me, and surely I’m not well-read enough for that organization. Perhaps this is a hold-over from a childhood growing up in a neighborhood with few other children my own age, or maybe it’s the natural tendency for thoughtful, sensitive kids to remain aloof and withdrawn. It’s curious, though, since “aloof” and “withdrawn” (like my office-mate’s self-descriptive “taciturn” and “reticent”) are not adjectives one would normally apply upon meeting me. I can make friends and fit into groups, but for some reason I tend not to.

Store windows, downtown Keene, NH

So it somehow seems fitting that I’ve been enjoying the leftover remnants of this past weekend’s First Friday Art Walk while doing my usual lonely circuit around the Square with the dog. There are no crowds of other strollers jostling for elbow room; I don’t have to stretch and strain to see over or around the heads of other art admirers. Instead, I have the shop-windows of Keene virtually to myself, each being filled with an assortment of art (paintings, quilts, pottery, sculpture) by local artists and school-children: art by and for the masses. I like the idea of a pedestrian festival devoted to art and artistry: I think the term “Art Walk” is a delightfully redundant term, walking itself being an art with few truly practiced practitioners.

In his journal, no less an authority than Henry David Thoreau noted that “It is a great art to saunter”; in his essay “Walking,” Thoreau laments that he has “met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.” I don’t know if Thoreau would have included me in his privileged company of “not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers”; Thoreau very well might have lumped me together with his fellow villagers, those “vile” folks who saw roads as being the practical way or via toward the marketplace and its monetary pursuits. These days, I walk for the dog’s sake as well as my own: perhaps it’s not possible to saunter with a leashed dog in tow. I do know, though, that it cheers my heart to see other walkers, alone or in pairs, strolling the Square, men in ties and shirt-sleeves and women with sneakers and skirts enjoying a spot of fresh air on hurried lunch breaks.

Store windows, downtown Keene, NH

There has been a long debate in both elite and popular circles about the true nature of art: is art a practice for the masses or is it something to be practiced (and truly appreciated) by only the privileged few? Debates about high- and low-brow art–disputes, in fact, about whether there is a difference between art and Art–have raged for centuries and have, I fear, frightened off many average folks who might otherwise be interested in aesthetic pursuits. I was heartened to see, then, a local shop window that displayed gorgeously wrought quilts as an example of “art”: here at least this form of “women’s work” is applauded for its mastery, creativity, and design, a craft that is both intentional and artistic. Similarly inspiring was another shop window filled with intricately welded metal animals: why should a paintbrush be deemed superior to an acetylene torch if the creative impulse of each craftsman is the same?

None other than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Self-Reliance” argued that that the toil of common workingmen could be considered a higher action: “The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.” If stodgy old Emerson could see a laborer’s work as a kind of prayer, it seems no more generous for Thoreau to see an office-worker’s lunchtime stroll, a young mother’s jaunt with a baby carriage, and even a restless academic’s walk with an equally antsy dog as falling within the Saunterer’s art. Is the noble order of Walkers closed to those who have to work for a living or who walk with others? Is Sauntering an art only to be practiced by long-dead writers who themselves weren’t much in the way of joining?

Store windows, downtown Keene, NH

If I could travel through time, I’d love to go walking with Thoreau: I’d love to show him around Keene, the town where his own mother was born. I’d show him around the forested hills and rocky country-side; I’d show him Beaver Brook Falls and take him up Beech Hill. And I’d walk him, dog-like, through town, pointing out shop windows hawking cell-phones, mutual funds, and high-tech running shoes, products the likes of which Thoreau probably could have never imagined. And if he and his legs were up to it, I’d saunter with Thoreau down to Colony Mill Marketplace, where we’d sashay into the Toadstool Bookshop to show him his own writings hawked and marketed alongside the likes of common folk he’d never envisioned.

Ultimately, we’re all joiners whether we like it or not. Walt Whitman recognized the “the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls”; Whitman realized that we’re all traveling to some invisible destination, our elbows perpetually brushing with those of our fellows. Walking like life is an accidental art: we practice it well or poorly without even trying or realizing. Both Walking and Art are pursuits to which we should devote our First Fridays, our Last Fridays, and all our Fridays and other days in between. It is a great art to saunter, you see, and the world needs everyone to take artful, joyous heed of their every step.

Mount Washington Hotel

This is yet another version of one of New Hampshire’s most famous vistas: the grand Mount Washington Hotel nestled in the shadow of the Presidential range. This weekend’s ASLE symposium on Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest didn’t take place at the Mount Washington Hotel, of course; we met down the road at the AMC Highland Center. But as I started my way home to Keene yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t resist the urge to pull off the road and capture an image of the panorama of clouds that blew in right as the symposium (and a weekend of perfect weather) ended.

View from the Highland Center

It’s difficult to encapsulate an entire weekend of thought-provoking presentations and workshops. Simply being in the presence of so many people–activists, academics, writers–all interested in environment and culture was inspiring; to be able to meet and mingle with these folks in such an inspiring setting was a delight. Thanks again to my former office-mate and longtime friend, Pavel Cenkl, for his outstanding job as symposium organizer…and for roping me into attending, presenting, and chairing a panel. It’s ironic, I suppose, that it takes a taciturn and reticent mountain man to draw my otherwise extroverted self out of my semi-suburban southern New Hampshire seclusion. Dr. P’s right. I should go to more conferences and spend more weekends hiking in the North Country.

Starflower and Mayflower

In addition to the usual indoor conference presentations, this weekend featured various outdoor workshops. On Saturday I attended a journal writing (and drawing!) workshop led by Clare Walker Leslie, author of Keeping a Nature Journal and Nature Journal. Not only did I learn that Clare is, like me a lefty who loves to walk the streets of Cambridge, MA while toting her stuff in a small black CourierWare walking bag, I learned the definitive way to draw a mountain. Keeping a nature journal, Clare noted, is about seeing and recording details, and only after I spent a half hour hunkered down on the side of a trail sketching Canada mayflower (of which I’ve posted a photo here before) did I realize that mayflowers have only 4 petals and begin blooming at the bottom of a flower cluster.

Highland Center

Perhaps the most fitting way, though, to summarize this weekend is to share what I wrote during yesterday’s outdoor writing workshop with John Elder, professor of English at Vermont’s Middlebury College, current president of ASLE, author of Reading the Mountains of Home and The Frog Run, and co-editor of Nature Writing: The Tradition in English. Not only is John an impressive scholar, writer, and speaker, he loves food, Italian culture, and the Red Sox. As I wrote the following description during a freewriting session along a stream beside the Mount Willard trail, I knew in the back of my mind that at workshop’s end we’d all pile into our cars to go our separate ways home.

Sunday, June 6, 2004

Across the path is a dead tree stump, broken off at the top where it stands speckled with light. At base it is wide and fluted, scarred and buttressed, still standing covered with shelf fungus although obviously and entirely dead.

Pink lady's slippers, Mount Willard trail, Crawford Notch, NH

In the treetops above me, a red-eyed vireo sings incessantly, inquisitively, while a motorcycle rumbles down the nearby road, followed by the low hum of passing cars–another sort of incessant song. In the background, on another sonic layer, the sound of the rushing stream, braided and meandering around crisscrossing paths and stepping stones, the rocks and logs we forded to arrive at this spot.

And closer at hand, the nearest, most alive layer of skin and nerve, a warbler twitters overhead–redstart, someone said–with a short emphatic trill that ends abruptly like a sneeze. Meanwhile the wind, merely a breeze here on the forest floor, swells and then ebbs, at its height nearly drowning out the sound of both traffic and creek water, soughing.

Headed home

And around me, viewed peripherally like spirits, the passing flames of human souls, as fleeting and ephemeral as the dead black fly I just now crushed beneath my unknowing hand and then brushed away. These souls bedecked in wilderness finery–red jackets and green hats, battered boots of assorted shapes and sizes–mingle their breath (our breath) with that of the beech and birches and their decaying leaves which lie crunching beneath us. How long until that upright, still-standing stump entirely disappears to decay–how long will its fluted trunk and fungi-speckled bark stand resilient and rebellious, a hull against time? How long until its body passes the way of its already-departed soul? And how long until each writing one of us, still standing solid though our souls flit as ephemeral as flame, fleeting as a redstart, float down river in the rush of time, forgotten as yesterday’s traffic or last season’s stream?

Airport Road, Swanzey, NH

Today’s Photo Friday topic is Landscape. For all my talk about place and nature, I actually take relatively few landscape photos: I find myself focusing more on discrete pieces and parts of the world around me versus the “big picture.” But when I think of landscape, I think primarily in terms of sky: an attractive landscape is defined primarily by the heavens, not the earth.

And so my favorite New Hamsphire landscape pictures aren’t stunning autumnal panoramas or rolling summer hillsides, although I’m sure I’ll collect a few shots of those over the coming months. Instead, my favorite New Hamsphire landscapes are seen during the brooding winter months when dark clouds hang over a gray, snow-cloaked earth, the prime source of light being a gleaming sliver where clouds almost brush the horizon. Most normal folks, I know, find New England winters to be grim and depressing, but as I noted when I first posted this photo last December, I find a calming sense of comfort from clouds that seem low enough to touch. When the sky is darker than the land beneath, the world feels upside down, huddled, protected. Summers are good for running about and feeling invincible; winter is a time for hunkering down, drawing inward, and looking intently toward the horizon and beyond.

Beaver Mills, Keene, NH

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Crawford Notch, NH to attend a symposium on Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest. Keene isn’t in the northern forest, so it’s a bit odd that I’m not only going to this symposium, I’m presenting a paper and chairing a panel discussion. But, alas, my former office-mate is in charge of organizing this symposium–it was his brainchild, the fruit of his diligent labors–so I got cornered into attending, presenting, and heading a panel. So instead of poking around the corners of Keene this weekend, I’ll be hobnobbing with scholars in the North Country.

In my academic career, I’ve been to only one academic conference, and that wasn’t even a “real” conference. It was a conference specifically for graduate students, so the competitive bar wasn’t too terribly high: basically, the purpose of the conference was to give grad students some practice reading a conference paper and then surviving the question and answer period afterward. Since everyone was a graduate student, though, no one had a lot of academic expertise under their belt. I remember, for instance, listening in on a Medieval lit panel where none of the presenters was specializing in Medieval lit; they each had simply written a paper about Medieval lit for one of their Masters level classes. Since I was at the time taking a PhD seminar on Medieval lit, I asked what I thought was a softball question about Chaucer only to have the presenter look at me dumb-founded: what? So when it came time for me to give my paper on the theme of voyeurism, silence, and oppression in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, I wasn’t quaking in my boots thinking someone would shoot me out of the intellectual water: I figured most folks in the audience wouldn’t have ever read the book.

Beaver Mills, Keene, NH

This weekend’s symposium offers to be somewhat more challenging than that graduate conference. There will be an interdisciplinary mix of scholars, writers, forestry professionals, artists, and activists: at any minute, someone could ask a question that actually matters (versus the practice pitches we gingerly lobbed at one another at that grad conference). I don’t expect this paper I’m presenting to be nearly as nerve-wracking as the doctoral defense I just survived: in a worst-case scenario, I’ll embarrass myself, hop into my car, and then never face any of these people ever again, thank you. It’s not like anyone there will have the power (or the desire, I hope) to denounce my academic credentials: the best thing about arriving at “Doctor,” I think, is that no one can take that away from you.

The strangest thing about going to this conference, I think, is my reluctance to get back into “academic mode.” After defending the dissertation, I’ve let my brain out to pasture to roam and wander at will: although I’m teaching this summer, my teaching persona isn’t hugely academic. It’s not like I go into my classes trying to prove myself as a scholar; it’s not like I go into my classes feeling like I have to “out-Doctor” other Doctors. Looking ahead to this symposium, though, I’m feeling a bit nervous: now that I’m a Doctor presenting a Real Paper at a Real Conference, how exactly am I supposed to present myself? What if I don’t sound, look, or otherwise come across as “scholarly enough”? Although I usually take it as a compliment when people say, “You don’t act like a professor,” at times I worry that my professional persona isn’t quite right. Although I certainly don’t want to be pompous, intimidating, or obtuse, sometimes I think I should be.

Abandoned building, Keene, NH

But before I can even get to that conference, I have several pressing tasks that need to be done. At the top of the list? I have to thin Thoreau.

The paper I’ll be presenting on Saturday, you see, is on Thoreau’s The Maine Woods. The paper’s full title is “Claiming Maine: Acquisition and Commodification in Thoreau’s The Maine Woods,” an adequately pompous, intimidating, and obtuse title. (The fact that the title contains a colon is clear indication that the paper so described will be unbearably dry and pedantic: the dusty stuff of academe.) I wrote it way back in 1995 when I was taking the first of several PhD seminars with Dr. Wayne Franklin, who ended up being the chair of my diss committee. (Actually, he also chaired my former office-mate’s diss committee, so he’s ultimately to blame for unleashing both of us onto the not-quite-ready-for-us academic job market.) When I wrote this seminar paper back in 1995, it weighed in at 22 double-spaced pages. Between now and when I leave tomorrow, I need to weed down over half of that wordy exuberance so the paper weighs in at around 10 double-spaced pages: something I can read in 20 minutes.

Garden hose, Keene, NH

So, as I prepare to present said paper as part of a panel titled “Negotiating Forestry / Telling Forest Tales,” tonight I’ll be staying up late to do a different kind of thinning. Instead of wandering the woods with a chainsaw looking for dead limbs or entire trees to hack, I’ll be chopping words, sentences, and entire paragraphs: Timber! Even Thoreau can get a bit weedy at times, and certainly my ramblings about Thoreau could be trimmed up a bit. They say the most important part of writing is revising, and the most important part of revising is cutting; even Thoreau earned gainful employment as both a surveyor (someone who measured forests for felling) and a pencil-maker (someone who used the trees so harvested). So tonight Thoreau and I will stay up late, and I’ll be wielding a metaphorical chainsaw. Anyone want to say anything less-than-complimentary about my professional persona now?

« Previous PageNext Page »