March 2005

Afternoon shadows

As I’ve already illustrated, I am a collector of shadows. After spending most of yesterday in bed waiting for my inexplicably queasy stomach to settle, by afternoon I could deny the dog no longer: we’d go for a short walk.

Yesterday was sunny and mild, with afternoon temperatures in the almost tropical 60s. Mothers and children were out riding bikes on the Industrial Heritage Trail, a stretch of railroad-track-turned-bikepath that runs behind several local factories. I like to walk the dog along this segment of trail because it heads away rather than toward downtown Keene: in other words, it’s lonely enough that I can let Reggie run off-leash within city limits.

It was, as I mentioned, afternoon by the time Reg and I went walking; since I was still feeling sickly, I didn’t plan to take any photos. But I never leave the house without my camera, and the afternoon shadows were irresistible with their delightfully geometric lines and angles.

Afternoon shadows

When Reggie and returned from walking, it was too mild and glorious to go inside even though my body wanted rest. So the dog and I did something we haven’t done since last fall, sitting outside on the screened back porch just like I did this time last year. So much has changed in my life since last year, but afternoon shadows remain the same, as regular as clockwork.

Keene, NH lies ringed with hills in the shadow of Mt. Monadnock, a clot of culture settled in a bowl of stone. Over time I’ve posted various pictures of Mt. Monadnock, and here’s another. Isn’t it ironic that one of the best views of Mt. Monadnock occurs at the junction of Key Road and Winchester Street, right across from Wal-Mart?

I snapped this photo through my windshield as I sat waiting for the light to change at one of Keene’s most congested intersections this past weekend. Sitting in traffic gazing at Mt. Monadnock, you want to be there, now. On cloudy days, you can’t see the mountain; on clear days, she shines like a beacon, her single snow-capped nipple shimmering seductively above Wal-Mart’s pointed facade. Monadnock beckons with the lure of wildness, a pinnacle of nature transcending the noise and traffic of cheap American consumerism.

You’ll discover the irony of ironies, though, if you climb Mt. Monadnock on a nice summer or fall day, for on warm weekends, her trails are nearly as congested as the line into or out of Wal-Mart.

Two final observations. First, notice the color of the grass in the above photo. Although most of our snow has melted here in southern New Hampshire, our winter-killed grass is still the color of straw. The color green will return to Keene only after our night-time temperatures remain above freezing.

Second, today is blue-skied, mild, and sunny, and I’m sick in bed with some sort of stomach bug: yuck. It’s beautiful outside, and I’m stuck in bed: isn’t that ironic?

This past weekend when I went to the annual sap gathering contest at Stonewall Farm here in Keene, I spent an idle moment strolling through the dairy barn, taking pictures of the ladies.

I was raised a city girl. People sometimes assume that my being raised in Ohio means I grew up on a farm (there presumably being nothing else in Ohio), but I was born in Columbus, a bustling city. As a child, the only time I got up close and personal with cattle was during an annual trip to the Ohio State Fair, where my mom and I would stroll the animal barns to ooh and ahh over the livestock. Nothing says “city slicker” like the act of taking a camera into a dairy barn. Instantly you are branded as a sight-seer, someone enchanted with the novelty of large animals. If I’d been raised on a farm, I’d recognize this dairy barn as a workplace where cows convert grass to milk and humans oversee the process. Only upper-class poets consider milking to be a pastoral pursuit, the employment of pretty maids who spent the rest of their time being wooed by country swains in the shadow of green-carpeted hillsides.

The genteel myths of pastoral poetry notwithstanding, it’s nice to know that even working girls have the luxury of a midday nap. Milk and its byproducts (butter, cheese, and ice cream) are presumably the slowest of slow foods. Although processes such as milking can be mechanized, it’s not like you can hurry a cow to chew her cud more quickly. Milk-making is a languid pursuit, and on an award-winning working farm like Stonewall, cows demand a certain amount of coddling. Stonewall’s dairy divas enjoy a pretty good life grazing in the shadow of surrounding hillsides, napping in an airy barn to a soundtrack of country music, and being milked by human hands, the old-fashioned way.

You can buy fresh raw milk at Stonewall Farm, and I think it’s great that local families can show their children where their daily glass comes from. While I was hanging out with Bridget here in the heifer pen, several families were walking through the barn admiring the cows and a trio of January-born calves. Stonewall Farm’s annual sap-gathering contest offers children and their parents a diversion down on the farm, and the kids I saw mingling with the moo-sters were strikingly reverent, taking care to let sleeping cows lie and (yes) watching where they stepped. Stonewall Farm, an energetic educator explained as we rode a shuttle bus from parking lot to farm, is open year-round to kids and adults alike: you can visit the horse and dairy barns anytime. It seems that Bridget for one looks forward to the company.


Although it’s raining as I write these words, yesterday–Easter Sunday–was sunny and glorious: the kind of day that gives reassurance that yes, you have survived another New Hampshire winter. When I saw crocuses blooming in my across-the-street neighbor’s yard, I nearly broke into a joyous jig right there on the spot. New England winters do that sort of thing to you: they make you want to dance for joy when there’s the slightest indication that they might be over.

When I saw those crocuses in my across-the-street neighbor’s yard, I knew I’d have to walk the dog until we found more (and more accessible) ones; I knew I wouldn’t come home until I’d photographed some. Walking across my neighbor’s yard to photograph his crocuses seemed too invasive, what with me being attached to an inquisitively sniffing and peeing dog and all. So Reg and I set out for West Street here in Keene, where I took several of last year’s springtime crocus pictures.

And yep, sure enough there were crocuses blooming in front of a particular business where there had been crocuses last year, and I took the above photo. It felt a little like cheating, this going straight to the spot of planted quarry you know is going to be waiting (and posing) for you. But that’s another sort of thing that New Hampshire winters do to you: they make you drop your usual scruples about shooting canned subjects.

So, as a sort of penance for luring you in with a photographic set-up, here’s a completely spontanous picture: a handful of snowdrops in a spot I wasn’t expecting them. I guess that’s how stalking not-so-wild plants works. Sometimes when you’re looking for something you know you’ll find, you find something you never imagined.


Postscript: Crocus leaves (if not flowers) played a prominent role in my most recent (and woefully overdue!) edition of “Pedestrian Thoughts,” which I sent to my email list on Saturday. “Pedestrian Thoughts” is a semi-monthly nature column I began before I started blogging: it’s what led me to blogging, since an early PT reader sent me a link to my very first blog, and that led me to another, and another, and another. My Pedestrian essays are longer and more polished than my blog-posts: my Pedestrian essays are culled from my handwritten journals, just like Thoreau’s essays. In my mind at least, there’s something different about an essay that started as scribbles in a notebook rather than typed words on a screen.If you’re on my Pedestrian Thoughts email list, you should have received the latest essay this weekend. If you’re not on my PT list, I’d encourage you to sign up here: it’s free (and e-newsletters are eco-friendly), so what do you have to lose?

Sap Gathering Contest

It’s “almost-spring” here in New Hampshire, which means it’s time to tap the trees for maple sugar.

Yesterday I went to the annual Sap Gathering Contest at Stonewall Farm, a not-for-profit working farm and educational center here in Keene. Nowadays, many maple syrup producers use plastic tubes to move sap from tree to sugar house: an arboreal IV. But in the old days, teams of horses pulled sleds into the sugar bush where drivers and their helpers emptied sap buckets by hand, a tradition that Stonewall Farm preserves through their annual contest.

As much about draft horses as it is about sap, the Contest attracted 18 two-horse teams from five states. Here Peg Dockham from New Hampshire guides her 20-year-old Haflingers, Streeka and Stokwel, through a draft horse obstacle course no less complicated than any Driver’s Ed exam.

Sap Gathering Contest

Haflingers are small by draft horse standards, but they easily pulled their all-weather sled through our springtime mix of snow, mud, and ice, their most impressive move being a straight-line backup. Knowing how difficult it is to manuever a car in reverse, I marveled at how Streeka and Stokwel were able to backup in unison: impressive.

Draft horses, like sled-dogs, are trained to respond to voice commands. As impressive as it was to see Peg Dockham steering her Haflingers through various twists and turns–the equine version of parallel parking–the true test of a draft team’s training comes in the sugar bush, when drivers guide their teams from the ground while retrieving and emptying sap-laden buckets.

To get a feel for traditional-style sap collection, I followed one team on their round through the contest course during which they were judged on quickness as well as accuracy, the sugar bush being stocked with 40 color-coded sap buckets that drivers and their helpers had to empty into their sap-sleds.

At the start of any contest, participants appreciate a friendly pep-talk. Here Robert Nunes from Maine readies his sled while a helper spends a quiet moment with draft horses Becky and Slim.

Sap Gathering Contest

On the contest course, each two-person team has to locate their color-coded buckets, park their horses, and gather sap into their sleds. Here’s where a draft team’s training comes in handy. Whereas you’d have to climb back on or into a tractor or truck to drive it to the next stop, draft teamsters can call out commands while still on the ground: forward, left, right, or reverse. It’s remote-control driving at its best: if you call your commands properly, your sled will come to you.

Sap Gathering Contest

And now the heavy lifting. After emptying two sap-pails into a plastic bucket, human team-members empty the contents into the sleds. Although speed is one factor in the contest, teams are penalized if they aren’t meticulous in their collection. Tin pails have to be returned to their trees with covers properly replaced, and judges rate how well each team cooperates as they move through the sugar bush. In a word, teams need to Hurry Up while Being Careful.

Sap Gathering Contest

Once a team has collected their sap, it’s back to the sugarhouse…and the finish line.

Sap Gathering Contest

Producing maple syrup is labor intensive. In the spring, sugar maples raise the dissolved sugars they kept in their roots over winter: this year’s sap is the leftover food from last year’s photosynthesis. Raw maple sap looks like water and contains about 2% dissolved sugar. It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, a fact made visible by the number of empty milk jugs tied to the outside of Stonewall Farm’s sugarhouse.

Sap Gathering Contest

It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup…in other words, if you’re in maple syrup business, most of your labor literally goes up in steam.

Sap Gathering Contest

Sap-boiling takes a lot of heat, so wood-burning evaporators require constant stoking: a hellish job to produce something that tastes like heaven.

Sap Gathering Contest

When you realize how much work it takes to produce even a drop of sweetness, you understand why pure maple syrup costs what it does: at Stonewall Farm, a gallon of the Good Stuff goes for $38.50. Yesterday for a mere dollar, you could buy a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with as much fresh maple syrup as you could pour: liquid gold the color and consistency of honey. It was a fitting end to a sweet almost-spring day.

Sap Gathering Contest

You can tell something about a people’s hopes and fears by their seasonal stockpiles. As we eagerly await spring here in Keene, local merchants have begun lining up bikes. Care to invest in New Hampshire futures? The red-winged blackbirds and wood ducks are back, and we’re dreaming of summer months to come, days when getting around town is as easy as hopping on two wheels and pedaling.

Contrast the above picture of New Hampshire hopes with the stockpile stacked at the other end of the same parking lot:

Summer dreams are fine and good, but only a well-seasoned woodpile will keep you warm on cold March nights. In these middling, pre-spring days, a carefully stacked stash of winter wood is our Now, and an alluring line of shiny bicycles is our Not Yet.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Tiny. Although these weren’t the tiniest leaves I saw while wandering through the Sam Houston National Forest with Gary, they were probably the brightest and freshest.

Don’t believe the calendar or all that talk of the vernal equinox. Here in New Hampshire at least, winter isn’t dead yet. Although we didn’t get the 3 to 6 inches that the forecast predicted, we did get a dusting of heavy, wet snow overnight, and tiny rain-like flakes are still falling. Perhaps by afternoon there will be enough snow to shovel; in the meantime, this sludgy stuff is more easily removed with a push-broom.

Although several of my students despaired at the thought of more snow, I don’t mind storms like this one. Spring snow tends to melt quickly, and even a dusting of white is prettier than March mud. Right now my only concern lies with the handful of leaves–crocus? daffodil? tulip?–that was starting to sprout on campus earlier this week: this morning, are they alarmed to find themselves capped with chill? Native wildflowers know better than to bloom in March, for the ground that is soft and muddy by day freezes with equal solidity at night, and the possibility of snow threatens constantly. But planted by human hands, garden greenery doesn’t know any better than to be tricked by March’s diurnal delight, being caught by surprise when they awake to a blanket of cold, wet whiteness–nature’s own March madness–crept in suddenly (silently!) like a thief in the night.

There’s something irresistibly alluring about this photo. Last April I posted a similar image of the backside of the Aubuchon Hardware store on Roxbury Street here in Keene: every time before or since I took that photo, my eye is drawn hypnotically by the undeniable power of a bold orange arrow on blank brick. “Look right here,” the lines seem to say. “Right here is where it’s at.”

I guess we all sometimes want the Universe to speak boldly and with a broad brush, pointing us indelibly toward Where It’s At. While strolling the streets of Livingston, TX with Gary last week, I had to chuckle at one particular storefront that housed an evangelical church, Bible bookstore, and sign painter who promised “Signs and Wonders.” (Click on the image for an enlarged version.) You have to admire the commercial resilience of this operation, hawking as it does direction in a society that clings to freedom and lawlessness. Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. We say that we want to live on our own, making our own rules and following our own governance, but sometimes it feels like it would be easier if God himself made his feelings known, writ large: a huge arrow from heaven pointing the way.

If you venture into that Bible bookstore, you’ll learn that the Good Book itself is wary of both signs and wonders. “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan,” St. Paul warned, “displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.” Sometimes we need to know not simply Where It’s At but Where It’s Not. It’s easy to be deceived by appearances; sometimes we need not one but three signs (if not wonders) to let us know we’re in danger of going the Wrong Way.

I have always loved airports. My parents are inveterate homebodies; the last time they left Ohio was during a family vacation to Florida when I was in grade school, and I think they (or at least my mother) vowed never to venture far from home after that. Despite the fact that they themselves don’t travel, my parents live near the airport in Columbus, so when my grown sisters go on vacations and business trips, my parents volunteer to take them to and from the airport.

As a child, I’d tag along while my parents played Airport Taxi, and I’d watch with envy as planes took off and landed. I desperately wanted to be on one of those planes: I desperately wanted to be one of those people who were tearfully bidding farewell or joyfully reuniting with loved ones. Living in Columbus felt like living in the Middle of Nowhere; watching people coming and going, I imagined the excitement of being freed from home and hometown. Even if I wasn’t jetting to any of the exotic destinations listed in the airport terminal, I felt a vicarious thrill being around those who were. In short, I fell in love with the allure of airports, the fact that nearly everyone walking the concourses (my parents and myself excluded) was going somewhere, their pace driven by a single-pointed desire to be Anywhere But Here.

Now that I’m old enough to drive myself to and from, I still love the allure of airports. Not only do airports offer endless opportunities for people-watching, their concourses are ripe with the bustle of motion spiked with a splash of adrenaline. Whereas my mother is terrified to fly, I find air travel to be exciting and almost addictive, the rush of fear one feels during take-off and landing serving to whet the appetite for more motion. Going to or coming from a new city feels like a grown-up game of dress-up, the chance to explore unfamiliar streets and neighborhoods giving one permission to be someone else, somewhere else, for a while: a vacation from the usual predictables. Simply being in an airport, train station, or hotel lobby evokes that sense of novelty: I’m going somewhere. In one sense, it doesn’t matter where or how far away that destination actually is: it’s the promise of motion that beckons.

Although I’m not as well-traveled as some of my more cosmopolitan friends, having ventured out of the U.S. only a handful of times, I’m enamored with the thought of criss-crossing the country via plane, train, or automobile: it’s no accident, I think, that I teach a course entitled American Literature of the Open Road. Part of the allure of travel lies in the belief that we can Find Ourselves en route, wandering being emblematic of self-discovery. Although I know that Here and Now is the only place I (or anyone) can Find Myself, places far-flung and sundry still beckon with a siren call: only after visiting Oz does Dorothy realize with certainty there’s no place like home.

I suspect that my homebody mother considers my restless wandering to be a personality defect: instead of being content to live and die in Columbus, I married in Toledo and then moved to New England, where I’ve lived in six towns in two states over the course of a dozen years. Mom has always blamed this restlessness on my ex-husband: surely he tried to alienate me from family by whisking me some 700 miles away. Yet the “blame” for my wanderlust–if restlessness is indeed a culpable offense–lies with no one other than me: born in an ambulance, I was perhaps destined to be perpetually on-the-go, my childhood penchant for rocking chairs lying primarily in the fact that they allow you to be moving while you’re sitting still.

I fully recognize the irony that lies beneath my love affair with airports: as a place-blogging Zen Mama who insists that Beauty Happens Here, it is fully contradictory to be enamored with a never-ending scurry to be Anywhere But. Still, I believe that Moving and Staying Put are the complementary opposites that make a harmonious whole: by leaving we learn how to come home, and by coming home, we prepare to leave. Keene isn’t exactly Columbus: Keene feels a bit closer to the pulse than the Middle of Nowhere did. Although I’d be willing, perhaps, to live and die in Keene, I also recognize that I as a wandering outsider appreciate her streets and sidewalks more fully than I would as either native or homebody. Somehow, paradoxically, I think the practice of perpetually coming home is honed by those other places, so different and distant, that haunt my dreams even while I murmur my destination’s name.

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