August 2004


Today is my first day back to teaching at Keene State. Although fall semester classes started yesterday, I don’t teach on Mondays, so I spent part of my last official day of freedom swimming at Goose Pond. The day was hot and sunny, so there were lots of other folks (including a former student of mine) enjoying an illicit dip. Once again the dog and I fled the huddled masses in order to swim off a relatively quiet peninsula on the far side of the pond: there’s nothing more relaxing than watching clouds pass while you’re floating in the middle of a tree-fringed pond on a hot summer day.

That was yesterday, though, and this is now. It’s Tuesday, August 31, 2004, and I teach my first class of Fall Semester–ENG 101/Essay Writing–to a group of sleepy eyed freshman at 8:00 am. I’ve been up since 4:00 am, the first of three alarms I’d set waking me bolt-upright at first buzz: “Shit, it’s the first day!” “First day jitters” is a polite euphemism for the state of pure panic I feel before the start of a new academic year. It doesn’t matter that my syllabi have been crisply copied and are ready to be distributed; it doesn’t matter that I have my stack of books ready to take to class. It doesn’t even matter that I’ve taught both of today’s classes (two sections of freshman writing and a single section of ENG 202/Expository Writing) countless times before. Today, on the first day, my stomach with its flock of flapping butterflies is saying, “Are you sure you’re prepared for this?”

The proper answer to that question, of course, is yes and no. Yes, I’m prepared: I know what tasks need to be done in each of my classes, and I have a lesson plan as to how to get those tasks accomplished. The first day of any class in any semester is pretty much the same: you’re doing the basic housekeeping of seeing who showed up, explaining class policies, etc. The first day of any class isn’t rocket science…you’re just trying to set the mood for the stuff that is to come. This being said, though, I freak out before every first day: am I ready? What if I’m not? What the hell am I doing standing in front of a roomful of staring people pretending that I have anything of value to tell them?

Part of why I have a massive freak-out before the start of each new academic year–and part of why I have a mini freak-out before I walk into any class–is the other side of that question “Are you sure you’re prepared for this?” Yes, on the one hand, I am prepared for this: I’ve been teaching college for over 10 years at this point, so I know what I’m doing. I’m not waltzing into class making things up as I go: this is a routine I’ve planned, rehearsed, and tweaked over countless semesters. But on the other hand, you never are completely prepared to teach any given class: there’s always an element of unpredictability. What if this semester brings a particularly challenging group of students? What if someone ask a question that’s never been asked before? What if this particular moment of teaching is unlike any other that came before it, a fact that is, of course, absolutely guaranteed: will I be able to handle it? Just as you can never been completely prepared for your life and the spontaneous curveballs it hurls at you, you can never be completely prepared to teach. At a certain level, it’s a highly improvisational art form.

And so, like any actor in the final moments before striding onstage, I have a bit of stage fright. As soon as the curtain rises and the spotlight hits me in the eye, I know my Teaching Self will rise to the occasion, saying and doing the same practiced things she says and does every time I put her in front of a sleepy eyed classroom. In the meantime, though, it’s just me and my butterflies, wondering what would happen if Teaching Self decided to call in sick…do you think Teaching Self heard that first alarm clock, or is it possible (egads) that she overslept? “If you’re not nervous about teaching a class,” my undergraduate mentor advised me when I first started teaching, “you have no business teaching that class.” I guess big butterflies make for alive, energetic teaching: instead of running on fumes, this machine is fueled by adrenaline and light flapping wings. After my first class (and my first day of classes), I’ll feel much better, thank you. For now, though, I’m going to watch the clock and fidget from now until my 8:00 am showtime.

    Yes, you’ve seen that last blue-painted window before, back before it had a yellow spray-painted face emblazoned on it. Even the graffiti in Keene changes with the seasons.

I’ve blogged before about the hidden jewels of Keene: those small, typically overlooked spots that wouldn’t be worth driving from afar to visit but that offer a quick, close-to-home getaway. Chesterfield Gorge is a scenic wayside on Route 9 between Keene, NH and Brattleboro, VT. Most folks who stop at Chesterfield Gorge pull into its parking lot in order to use the restroom, stretch their legs, or possibly enjoy a quick meal at one of its shady picnic tables. Although some folks presumably go to Chesterfield Gorge specifically to walk, the trail there is only 7/10 of a mile long: a chance to get out of the car and get the blood moving, but barely worth driving out of one’s way.

Yesterday, though, I didn’t have anywhere to go, just an antsy, August-roasted dog to walk, so driving out of the way was no problem. Chesterfield, NH is about 10 minutes from Keene, and the stretch of Route 9 that spans the two towns is a nice scenic drive: the same general area where I saw a bear several weeks ago. Figuring the gorge would be a cool shady spot where the dog could run off leash and go for a swim between intermittent afternoon showers, I took Reggie for his first visit to Chesterfield Gorge, telling myself that the forest shade, recent rain, and humid, misty conditions would prevent any serious shuttersnapping.

Not knowing anything about photography beyond the usual “point and shoot,” I figured there was no harm in trying to capture some low-light shots. I’ve never, for instance, been able to photograph sunlight glinting off rain-drenched spiderwebs even though I consider them to be one of nature’s loveliest sights: somehow, I never get the lighting or angle right. When I saw this eye-level, rain-glistened orb glinting in the setting sun, I took a handful of shots from an oblique angle: the web isn’t centered in this shot because I was pointing my camera at something that at the time, from my perspective, I couldn’t see. And although most of the pictures I took were fuzzy or poorly lit, this one looks like a recognizable spiderweb: although you can’t see its Creator sitting leggily at its center, this is the first spiderweb image I’ve successfully captured. Although I’m not yet in the same league as Fred First with his online gallery of jaw-dropping spiderweb images, I feel like I hit the jackpot with this shot: I wasn’t expecting it to turn out, and it did. That’s “bonus” in my book.

One of the things I love about summer rainshowers is the way they leave the woods damp, dripping, and befogged. Usually summer humidity is a tortuous thing, but a misty, steaming forest always seems more lush and intimate than a dry, summer-baked one. Yesterday as I dog and I hiked down to the bottom of the gorge and back again, I couldn’t tell if it had started to sprinkle or if overhanging trees were simply showering a series of hoarded raindrops. In the mist leftover from summer showers, everything seems blurred and magical, a scene out of a dreamy impressionistic vision.

By some convergence of the laws of reflection, refraction, and good ol’ fashioned timing, yesterday’s walk offered more than the usual assortment of slanted, prismatic sunbeams: filtering through rain-drenched leaves, the setting sun splintered into golden, oblique rays, like God’s own fingers. Again, I’ve never been able to capture satisfactory images of this phenomenon: usually I simply look, sigh, and try to remember the oohs and ahhs engendered by nature’s stained-glass window effect. Yesterday, though, I was either bored or emboldened enough to take photo after photo, entirely sure that few if any of the images would turn out. “It’s a digital camera,” I told myself, “so there’s no film to waste,” a truth that is quickly becoming my own photographic mantra. Shoot, shoot, shoot, then later you can delete, delete, delete. Way back in the days when I took pictures (rarely!) with a non-digital camera, I’d choose my shots carefully: if the image in the viewfinder didn’t match the grandeur of what I saw with my naked eye (and it never did), I’d put the camera away, shots not taken. Those days, my inner-photographer was miserly, my shots stingily hoarded. These days, though, I’m only burning batteries, so there’s no harm in taking seven shots of the same scene in the hope that one dice roll will win you the jackpot.

Reggie, of course, has simpler needs than I do. He doesn’t need a photograph to remind him of the pleasure of wading a ice-cold stream on a hot August day. No, Reggie came home with a different sort of jackpot reminder: now he’s covered with tiny prickling burrs, agrimony seeds or something similar, which I spent a good long while last night slowly, patiently picking out of his fur while he soughed and wriggled, indignant. When it came to gambling, my Irish grandfather used to joke that it takes only one raffle or lottery ticket to hit the jackpot: winning’s a matter of luck, not odds. Neither he nor I ever hit any monetary jackpots, and I think his miserly approach hits somewhere off the mark: the more you look, the more you see; the more you risk, the more you win. Unless you wade right into the stream of life, you’ll never reap its rewards; beauty is like a cosmic agrimony plant that will cover you with its self-replicating spores if you venture anywhere near it.

So, does it take luck, skill, or plain and simple perseverance to (finally!) photograph a chipmunk? Way back in May, I’d promised Jenny that I’d post a picture of a chipmunk as soon as I found a photogenic one…and yesterday is when I finally hit that jackpot. Chipmunks usually stay low to the ground; here in New Hampshire, they love to hide in the nooks of our ubiquitous stone walls. This feisty fellow, however, was scared about seven feet up a tree when Reggie and I returned to the parking lot picnic area after our walk down the gorge (in the background you can see the ventilation pipe from the picnic area’s outhouse). So, does this shot represent luck, skill or perseverance? It took me some three months to find a suitable subject and a half-dozen photos to capture that subject in focus. If I had better skill, maybe one lottery ticket would do the trick, but in the meantime, I guess I should buy them (like film) by the roll.

You know you need to get out more when you get excited about new dryers. My usual laundromat was closed last Tuesday while these lovely double-deckers were installed. You’ll note that these new dryers are digital: not only do they have lights to tell you which temperature setting you’ve chosen, the digital read-out displays how many minutes of drying you’ve paid for, an oddly convenient step up from the old “analog” dryers.

(Since the dryer isn’t on in this shot, the digital display simply reads “25”: the amount of money you need to deposit for 6 minutes of drying time. I’d wanted to get a shot of two piggybacked dryers in motion drying the Zen Mama’s togs, but there was a flock of laundromat workers around inspecting the new machinery as well as another woman who was drying several loads right beside mine. So I waited until the crowds dispersed before I took this surreptitious shot, lest I be outed as The Freakish Woman Who Photographs Her Own and Other People’s Laundry.)

Another sign that I don’t have much of a life these days is the fact that I even tried to take this photo of an American toad. While other folks actual do stuff on Saturday nights, my last wild ‘n’ crazy weekend before classes resume featured a crepuscular walk with the dog along the Ashuelot River. By the time I saw this enormous, tangerine-sized toad muscling his way across the trail, the woods were nearly dark. Still, some crazy impulse drove me to crouch on the ground and hope that my digicam’s feeble flash would capture some sort of image. I’m actually pleased at how the photo turned out, which again suggests that it doesn’t take much to excite the Socially Deprived. Rest assured, though, that even I wasn’t desperate enough to try to kiss this toad in search of my own riparian Prince Charming…but there’s always next weekend.

Raymond Trail

Today’s Photo Friday topic is Modern. When I clicked through my collection of photos, I realized I don’t have anything that qualifies as modern: instead, I tend to take pictures of old and decrepit things. The closest thing I could come to a “modern” picture was this photo of the new Keene State College Science Center I’d blogged about earlier this month. So, what’s a thoroughly old-fashioned, stuck-in-the-past kind of girl to do with as assignment of this sort?

What I planned to do, of course, is fudge. I took the above picture of the assortment of electrical, ethernet, and telephone cables behind my couch since I’d moved the couch to clean and straighten there anyway. What’s more Modern than this up-close-and-personal view of my electronic lifeline? If it weren’t for these cables and cords, I’d have no idea what is going on in the outside world since I don’t have a TV. Heck, up until yesterday, I didn’t even have a landline phone, just a cell phone that I seldom had on much less answered (as Kathleen can well attest).

Somehow in my mind, the sight of hardwood floors and old-fashioned wallpaper in my turn-of-the-century New England house juxtaposed against 21st century communications technology seemed particularly Modern to me, at least in a literary sense. Literary modernism, you see, is typified by a random, fragmented juxtaposition of elements old and new: a Modernist text like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example, is a mishmash of classic (read: old and old-fashioned) texts. How very Waste-Land-ish, then, is the sight of a wireless network router perched atop a traditional Asian rice-paper lamp? This, indeed, is what our Modern world has come to: East meets West, Old meets New, in the livingroom of a TV-eschewing, Web-surfing born-again Christian Zen Mama. Take human culture, toss it in the blender, and hit puree, baby: that’s the real recipe for Modernism.

As luck would have it, though, as I was mentally composing a blog-post that juxtaposed that photo of my cords and cables with a charming and witty story about how I set-up my new Vonage landline last night after the UPS guy interrupted my laptop Netflix DVD viewing of “Sex in the City” (how very modern is that?), I got interrupted. Sometimes you knock your head against a wall trying to come up with blog fodder, and sometimes the blog fodder comes knocking. At least, that’s what happened with my new neighbor:

Yep, as I was sitting at my office desk mentally composing today’s blog-post, I heard the sound of knocking. I knew there was a hairy woodpecker that hangs out around the row of dead and dying mountain ashes outside my office and bedroom windows, but I’d never heard him drumming or drilling before. Today, though, he was excavating what looks like a nest hole: a cavity large enough for him to crawl into, turn around, and then toss out mouthfuls of wood chips. A nest-building woodpecker in August? According to everything I’ve read about hairy woodpecker behavior, hairies hammer out nests in January, not August. In August, in fact, Mr. Woodpecker should be lying low somewhere in mid-molt.

He does look a little scruffy around the edges, like he’s been having something of a Bad Hair Day. Maybe he wanted to hide his molting, worse-than-balding self in a hole, hence the out-of-season nesting? Or maybe he, like those “Sex in the City” gals, has decided to live outside of the box, in a hole of his own making: instead of waiting for Ms. Right or even Ms. Right Now, Mr. WP has decided to make his own home and his own bed. Who needs a mate, babies, and all the usually scheduled proprieties? Why can’t Mr. WP live in a room (er, hole) of his own, freely independent and unfettered by either instinct or social norm? Surely Mr. WP’s a thoroughly Modern guy: maybe he’s a Metrosexual or even a quirkyalone, or maybe he’s the avian equivalent of Queer Eye for the Straight Bird, decorating his bachelor pad (er, hole) with fine housewares bought for himself alone?

Do you think he has a cable modem, wireless network router, and/or Vonage landline in that snug hole of his? Do you think he watches TV or surfs the web? Earlier today as I swept the floor in my office, Mr. Liberated Bachelor Bird tossed mouthful after mouthful of wood chips out of his hole: here’s a man who’s handy around the house (er, hole) and cleans up after himself. Woodpeckers, I read, “have extraordinarily long, extensible, wormlike tongues which they can protrude to astonishing lengths”; this tongue in turn “is driven by the powerful muscles of the bird’s strong, wiry neck.” Hmmm. I bet those Sex in the City girls would know just what to do with a guy like that. In the meantime, though, as I read further, I answer my own question: “both sexes excavate roosting holes, and each may have several; young, especially, excavate such holes in fall.” This bird might be a old balding bachelor or he might be a wet-behind-the-ears beginner, but either way, he’s roosting, not nesting. Even birds, it seems, feel the occasional need to pupate by themselves in a safe hidey-hole. How very Modern is that?

Okay, class. Close your books and notebooks, and take out a blank sheet of paper. We’re going to have a pop quiz. Quickly, no peeking…what kind of flower is this?

Yesterday as I took a late afternoon walk along the Ashuelot River here in Keene, I snapped this picture of a cluster of purple berries sprouting from a whorl of parallel veined leaves. In my mind, I was convinced I knew what flower had produced the berries in question. “Oh, yeah, that’s what’s-its-name!”

There are a handful of flowers that stump me every year: every year I remind myself of their name, and every year I forget their name anew. For the life of me, I can never recall the name Clintonia, a genus of small multi-flowered lilies that bloom in mountain woods in spring and early summer. I didn’t grow up with Clintonia, so when I moved to New Hampshire, they always struck me as being odd and unfamiliar. For some reason, I always confuse Twinflower and Starflower even though they look nothing alike: something about the simplicity of their name befuddles me. And for some reason I always want to call Arrowhead by the name “arrow-root” even though I’ve never seen their roots and it’s obvious that their leaves are shaped like arrowheads.

With such confusion in mind, when I took the above photo, I was certain I knew what this plant is…but now that I check my books, I’m not sure. The leaves are too wide (and too parallel veined) to be Starflower; although Bunchberry has whorled leaves under a cluster of berries, they typically have a single whorl of 6 leaves under a bunch of red, not purple berries. And although the berries in the photo do look a lot like dark blue Clintonia fruit, Clintonias have lance-shaped basal leaves, not ovate whorled ones.

So, class, does anyone know what the above plant is? It can be difficult to identify berries since most wildflower books are keyed toward flowers: if you don’t know the number and/or color of flower parts, you’re stuck when it comes to ID’ing an unfamiliar species. So does anyone in the studio audience know? I promise a virtual apple from the teacher for the first bright student to lend a a hand with this: any takers?

I’ve been remiss in reporting some of the cool creepy-crawlies I’ve recently seen. This is a photo of a red eft. It’s the larval stage of the red-spotted newt. (At least that’s the species, Notophthalmus viridenscens, that is pictured in my published-in-the-70s, bought-in-the-80s copy of Ohio’s Amphibians; I don’t know if New Hampshire boasts a different species of eft.) Whereas most salamanders, similar to frogs and toads, have an aquatic “tadpole” stage before they mature into land-dwelling adults, newts live their amphibious life in reverse. Newts hatch in water, then after three or four months of gilled aquatic infanthood, they grow lungs, lose their gills, and spend two to three carefree “teenage” years on land before turning from eftish-orange to newtish-green and living the rest of their responsibly adult breeding life underwater.

When we lived in Hillsborough, NH, I’d see red efts littering the forest floor in the springtime. They looked like gummy candies, orange and alluring: you’d spot one, then another, and another. Although they look like rubbery, orange-flavored candies, their brightly colored skins serve as a warning to predators: like toads, red efts have skin glands that produce an irritating secretion. You can look, but beware not to touch!

When we moved to Keene last summer, I feared my eft-spotting days had ended. This past spring, I saw no efts in my Keene-area walkabouts: none at Goose Pond, none along the Ashuelot River, none at the Horatio Colony Preserve. You can imagine my delight, then, when I saw one lonely, very vulnerable-looking eft during my hike up Lovewell Mountain (he’s pictured here next to my hand to give you a sense of scale). Since Lovewell Mountain is in Washington, NH (right down the road from Hillsborough), I figured that Keene must lie outside the normal range of red-spotted newts and red efts. Surely Hillsborough and Washington are eft-country whereas Keene, alas, is not.

So you can, again, imagine my herpetological delight when I found not one but more than a half dozen red efts littering the forest floor during my recent jaunt up Beech Hill. That eminence, of course, lies within the Keene city limits: Beech Hill, in fact, is more or less in my own backyard, a ridge that’s visible from the laundromat at the end of my street and accessible via a 5 minute car ride followed by a 5 minute walk to the summit. So for nearly a year I’ve been fretting about the lack of red efts in lonely little Keene…and they’ve been kicking up their tiny amphibious orange toes within 10 minutes of my house the entire time.

I had to travel a little bit further to catch a glimpse of this next fella. This is a millipede I spotted while hiking with the dog at MacDowell Lake in Peterborough, NH, about a 30-minute drive from Keene. I can’t ever remember seeing a millipede in the middle of a forest path: they usually hide under logs to avoid light. I mention this last part a bit guiltily: when I first spotted Mr. Millipede (alas, I don’t know his specific species since I no longer own a field guide to arthropods), he was tightly curled around himself as myriapods are wont to do, and he moved (quickly!) only after I took a flash photo of him. He was, in a word, running away from the big evil giant with her nasty bright-flashing light! So apologies to Mr. Millipede for disturbing his out-in-the-open slumber…although it was cool to see all those legs in action. (Click here for an enlarged version of Mr. Millipede: he’s really quite gorgeous.)

How grateful I am that I never succumbed to the brainwashing that suggests that girls shouldn’t be interested in creepy-crawlies: to think that a “girly-girl” should run away squealing from efts and millipedes is rather sad. Why should guys like Gary and Kevin be the only ones to get some gee-whiz enjoyment out of the likes of geckos and centipedes? Any girly-girl who’s spent time trolling the dating scene knows that the world is full of creepy-crawlies: what better way to prepare for this sort of Wild Life than by getting to know all of one’s slithering and slimy neighbors?

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