March 2006


BP Bridge

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Metallic, so here is a view of the sinuous metallic curve of Chicago’s BP Bridge, which Gary and I walked across on our way to photograph the iminently metallic Cloud Gate, of which you’ve already seen myriad photos. (For another angle on the BP Bridge, see the second photo here.)

When a TV station repeats the same old show, we call it a re-run. When a walker repeats the same old stroll, I call it a re-walk.

If you walk everyday in a place where you’ve lived for more than a month or so, re-walks are inevitable. And if you tend to blog your walks, as I do, it’s only a matter of time before you repeat not only your own footsteps but your own words and images.

The picture at right, which I snapped on a gloriously weathered but semi-sickly stroll yesterday afternoon, is almost identical to one I blogged almost exactly one year ago. Then, I was queasy with some sort of stomach bug; now, I’m battling an energy-tapping case of laryngitis. Last year, it was sunny with afternoon temperatures in the 60s; yesterday, ditto. A year ago, there were mothers with bicycle-riding children on the bikepath that transects Keene; yesterday, college guys claimed nearby basketball courts for the season’s first game of Shirts vs. Skins.

Yesterday, I didn’t sit outside on my back porch like I did last year…but maybe I’ll correct that this afternoon. If writers are destined to repeat themselves in seasonal re-walks year after year, I might as well learn from the past, taking the time to watch afternoon shadows move in their accustomed patterns this year just like last.

Witch hazel

Don’t be fooled into thinking the frazzle-headed yellow flowers blooming in Keene’s Ashuelot River Park these days are early signs of spring: quite the contrary. These blossoms are late bloomers, witch hazel typically flowering in fall and winter. The last time, in fact, I posted a picture of witch hazel, it was blooming in New York’s Central Park in February: not exactly a spring thing.

Still, these days we’ll allow ourselves to be fooled by anything that could be interpreted as a sign of spring. The snow is gone, mostly…but March or April snowfalls aren’t unheard of here in southern New Hampshire, so we’re not out of the wintry woods until the blackflies hatch in May. Local gardens are pushing up crocuses and snowdrops…but cultivated plants, like hothouse flowers, aren’t necessarily indicative of nature’s true seasons.

The robins are back…of course, some of them never left, and some northern robins came here to wile the winter. But still, this morning when I awoke to the sound of robins singing, I knew we’d turned a seasonal corner with the bleak and silent winter months having suddenly blossomed into a morning chorus of chuckling nuthatches, whistling chickadees, and drumming woodpeckers.

Don’t be fooled by the fool’s gold of late-flowering witch hazel. Spring isn’t here yet, but it’s coming, coming.

Although it’s been weeks since we’ve had snow on the ground here in southern New Hampshire, sometimes in the shelter of a shady slope, in the crook of a mossy tree root, you’ll see stubborn pockets of lingering ice: proof that Old Man Winter isn’t dead, just hiding.

On Saturday, rather than joining the crowds at the annual Sap Gathering Contest at Stonewall Farm, I took Reggie for quiet walk atop Beech Hill, where they tap sugar maples the newfangled way.

As I explained last year, Stonewall Farm’s Sap Gathering Contest celebrates the old-fashioned method for tapping springtime sugar maples. At Stonewall Farm, individual buckets collect sap from individual trees, then drivers leading horse-drawn sleds empty those buckets by hand to transport back to the sugar house. It’s a traditional and incredibly picturesque way to make maple syrup, with old-fashioned aluminum buckets hanging from trees while horse-drawn sleds labor through snow, spring-melt, and mud: pretty as a picture. It’s the way you’d imagine maple sugaring in Robert Frost’s day, or Norman Rockwell’s: New England as it used to be, with weathered hands using worn equipment to do things the tried and true way.

On the road that wends toward the top of Beech Hill here in Keene, though, the sugar maples are tapped the newfangled way. Blue tubes stretch from tree to tree, connecting sap-taps like a giant interconnected, arborial IV. Small trees bear a single tap; large trees bear several, their sap-tubes intersecting so the sweet stuff flows away from each tree and downhill toward a single blue plastic barrel that collects all the sap from a row of trees. There’s no need to hang individual buckets; there’s no worry that plastic parts will rust. And for sugar-bush owners lucky enough to have trees growing along a road, there’s no need for horse-drawn sleds: just drive a truck alongside that blue plastic barrel for easy transport.

I’m sure there are many tourists–folks who drive from miles around to see the Sap Gathering Contest–who would lament the switch from old-fashioned to newfangled. Stonewall Farm taps trees the old-fashioned way as a way of educating youngsters how things used to be done and as a way of showcasing those farmers who still breed and train draft horses. But just as most modern farmers use tractors instead of horse- or ox-drawn plows–and just as most modern suburbanites use cars rather than horse and buggy–most maple sugar outfits have kept up with the times, using whatever modern conveniences they can to make their job easier and more efficient.

Can you blame them? If you relied upon the watery lifeblood of trees for your livelihood–if you knew that the sap gathered within a several-week span of spring would be the only income you’d gather from your trees for an entire year–wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to make your work easier, less wasteful, and more efficient? Sugar maples studded with taps and coiled with blue tubing might not be as picturesque as what you pictured…but when you head off to the office everyday, do you dress for success or for the enjoyment of visiting paparazzi?

    By way of demonstrating how mild a winter we’ve had, look again at the bare ground in today’s first picture, then compare that to the snowcover we had at last year’s Sap Gathering. Does the term “global warming” spring to mind?

    UPDATE: Check out the picture of an old-fashioned sap-pail Granite State photoblogger Ron Cillizza posted today. It seems that come spring, NH bloggers’ hearts turn to things sappy and sweet…

Italian Village, Columbus, OH

When my Dad grew up in Columbus, OH in the neighborhood around High and Goodale Streets, they didn’t call it Italian Village. Back then, when this neighborhood was an ethnically-mixed, working-class ghetto you wanted to get out of, the poor folks who lived there called it Flytown.

Union Station mural, Columbus, OH

Last weekend while day-tripping in Columbus, Gary and I took a stroll through the Short North, the now-gentrified neighborhood near the area where my Dad grew up. The murals in this upscale gallery- and boutique-laden strip between downtown Columbus and the Ohio State University campus quickly clue you into the fact that this is a place trying to recreate itself. Downtown’s Union Station is long gone, only a single archway having been preserved…but the grandeur of the grand building’s facade is replicated on one side of a High Street parking lot while the trains that would have thundered in and out of the station are depicted on a nearby wall (click on the image below for a larger version):

Trains

Cup O Joe

My Dad’s name is Joe…but this posh Short North coffee-shop isn’t named for him. When I last lived in Columbus in 1980s, the Short North was not a neighborhood where you wanted to stop for coffee…unless, of course, you were a cop stopping for caffeine after another night of busting teenage prostitutes and the shady businessmen who patronized or pimped them.

In the ’80s, “Short North” was the Columbus police department’s shorthand term for an urban strip of High Street where not much good was going on. Still, when developers came in and began gentrifying the working class neighborhoods along High Street, a lot of average working folks found themselves priced out of their homes. Although my Dad’s mother, sister, and brothers had long since left Flytown for nicer neighborhoods, when gentrification in the area soon-to-be-renamed the Italian Village began, my Dad astutely noted that had they kept the old house they’d been so quick to move out of, they would have ultimately been sitting on a goldmine: prime real estate in a neighborhood destined to be Yuppified.

Short North gates

When Gary and I mentioned to my folks that we planned to spend part of our day in Columbus strolling the Short North, my Dad didn’t regale us with stories of his old ‘hood…but he did make a point of mentioning that the lightbulbs in the area’s signature arches, designed to create a historic ambience by replicating the gas street-lamps from the good old days, aren’t and never really have been functional. You can renovate a neighborhood out of a ghetto, but you apparently can’t repair the ghetto out of that neighborhood. The Short North and Italian Village are now among the priciest places to live in Columbus…but the area is still somewhat funky, with undeniable aspects of urban squalor that some would call “charm” and others would consider “overpriced hype.”

Short North Tavern

Whether or not living in the Short North is worth its fashionable price-tag, the fact remains that this once-shady district is now a premier place to hang out. As Gary and I window-shopped High Street’s various upscale boutiques, I kept marvelling that this was Columbus we were browsing; when I was a teenager in Columbus, there was virtually nothing to do downtown other than maybe roll tumbleweeds down the all-but-abandoned streets. These days, you can go Gallery Hopping the first Saturday of every month, or simply sightsee (and be seen) every other fabulously fashionable day.

Believe me, when I lived in Columbus–and when my Dad grew up in Flytown, long before the Short North was cool and “Italian Village” even existed–they did not have arty murals on the brick walls along High Street:

American Gothic mural

Mona Lisa mural

Van Gogh mural

If you want to live in one of the Mona Lisa condos, you’d better act soon…and be prepared to pay a pretty penny for the privilege of tossing your trash next to La Gioconda‘s enigmatic smile. The Short North and Italian Village have gone from being a slum called Flytown to being the hippest place to live and play. One of the truest signs of changing times I saw during last weekend’s stroll was this banner for a yet-to-be-completed condo renovation:

Ikea lofts

Ikea lofts

In case you can’t read that condo-banner, here’s an enlargement. As if having a Short North address isn’t fashionable enough, the Yukon Studio Loft condos boast Ikea kitchens, something my Dad definitely never had in the Flytown home of his childhood. If it seems odd to sell real estate on the basis of its kitchen appliances and furniture, keep in mind that there are no Ikea stores in Ohio, but there are Ikea fanatics there. Apparently the best way to furnish a tony Short North condo is with funkily fashionable Swedish furniture…and I’d be willing to bet that Swedish-made lamps work better than the Short North’s stylish but non-functional street arches.

So if you’re looking for the “urban lifestyle” of one-bedroom lofts, non-functional street lamps, and arty murals, the Short North district of downtown Columbus, OH might be just what you’re looking for. The art scene is hot and the hangouts are cool…just don’t offer an over-priced cup o’ Joe to an old Italian Daddy named Joe, or he might regale you with stories of the old days when this was a ghetto called Flytown.

In spring, you never know what you’ll find blooming underfoot. Last weekend, after we’d left Chicago but before I’d returned to New Hampshire, Gary and I hiked the horse trails across the highway from the Litzenburg Memorial Woods in Findlay, OH. On his hiking blog, Gary shared the sad, sorry story of how our walk turned into a mud-bath…but all wasn’t lost on the slippery slope of our first stream crossing.

Perhaps before telling you how excited I was to find the scattered skeleton of at least one winter-killed deer in Findlay’s spring-thawed fields, I should explain that when I was a child, I collected bones, feathers, owl pellets, and other biological effluvia, the crown jewel of my collection being a deer skull I kept in a shoebox under my bed. Yeah, it’s a bit creepy to collect random body parts you’ve found in the woods…but nature nuts are an odd breed. Given my childhood curiosity for all things biological, it’s no wonder I felt right at home at Dublin’s Dead Zoo or amongst the bones and boobies at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Death is a biological universal, so if you’re interested in living things, you’ll necessarily be interested in dead things, too. Although I know that deer abound in the woods and fields of both Ohio and New Hampshire, I don’t have much occasion to see them alive these days. Given that sad, sorry truth, spotting a deer skeleton is the next best thing.

To most, finding the spring-scattered bones of a winter-killed deer would be a grim discovery, something to hide from one’s children’s (if not one’s own) eyes. When I was a kid, though, I knew that biologists studied all aspects of life: there was no room, I told myself, to be squeamish about predation, excrement, or the biological necessity of decay. I understood that biologists studied the scat–the scientific term for poop–of the animals they tracked, and I knew the owl pellets I loved to collect and dissect were nothing more than bird vomit containing the undigestible stuff of living creatures swallowed whole.

If studying death is the necessary flipside to studying life, why should the sight of sun-bleached bone be any less lovely than the sight of a naked milkweed pod, its stripped hull revealing an intricate pattern of seed-fluff? Biologists aren’t the only ones who know that life relies upon death: even the Bible agrees that a seed must fall and die to bear much fruit. Poets speak of found poems, collages of random words and phrases stitched into a patchwork of meaning. Isn’t a sunlit still-life of spine, hip bone, and seedpod a found poem of its own, its random parts pointing to the fragility of life in a world where death is always just a winter away?

And yet, although I feel no qualm about posting photos of individual sun-bleached bones, their parts not adding up to a bloody much less gruesome whole, I do hesitate to share the mangled, mostly entire deer carcass Gary and I encountered later in our walk. (If you’re brave enough to look, you can see it here.) What is it, I wonder, that makes individual bones mere scientific curiosities but an entire (if highly decomposed) body somethine gruesome? In her essay “The Deer at Providencia,” Annie Dillard watches the dying throes of a deer trapped by hunters; considering the question of carnivorousness, she concludes “These things are not issues; they are mysteries.”

What interests me about a deer carcass isn’t the flesh, bone, and hide left behind, but the spirit which has departed. What was the sad, sorry story of how this carcass came to be: are these the bones of two deer, distinct, or one creature, scattered? What mysterious and ephemeral force inspired these bones one moment and then slipped away the next, the effluvia of spirit? Until these bones learn to talk, we’ll never know, having nothing more than scattered parts and a mangled carcass to point toward the untold passing of another wild soul.

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