September 2006

In case you’ve ever wondered why I carry my purse-sized digicam everywhere I go, here’s why. On an otherwise ordinary Saturday, on the way home from walking the dog and filling up the car, you never know when you’ll get stuck in traffic alongside the local high school‘s Homecoming parade.

During my own high school career in Ohio, I attended exactly one football game and one Homecoming parade. It wasn’t that I didn’t have school spirit: I’d wear my school colors to daytime pep rallies as enthusiastically as the next goody-two-shoes Honors Student. But my high school in Columbus was home to enough gang members to make attending after-school activities a risky proposition, so I typically stayed home. The only time I went to a Homecoming parade was during my senior year when I was in the parade, not as Homecoming Queen, but as a National Merit Scholar: my Alma Mater’s attempt to show the neighbors that not everyone at my school was a gangsta hoodlum.

During a week when American high schools have been in the news–first for an ill-fated hostage-taking and next for the murder of a Wisconsin principal–it’s heartening to think that in Small Town, New Hampshire, the most pressing thing on some students’ minds is what to wear to the Homecoming dance, who to dance with, and how to get that weekend homework done in the meantime. When I was in high school, I never quite understood adults’ insistence that high school represented the best four years of your life: if an era of acne, ugly-duckling awkwardness, and confused uncertainty over one’s future represented the best that life had to offer, I’d just as soon stay home in my room, thank you.

In retrospect, I think those adults viewed my angst-ridden high school existence through the lens of nostalgia. Compared to the nine-to-five monotony of adult life, maybe even acne and heartbreak look better in comparison. When you’re in high school, the world is your oyster: contemplating college, the job market, or the thought of settling down and starting a family, you’re at the idealistic start of Life’s Adventure. Once you’ve taken a bite out of the world’s apple, though, you’ve learned that opportunity is a finite thing: having chosen to do X, you can’t simultaneously pursue Y, and instead of contemplating the world with an attitude of “Anything is possible,” you’ve begun to look at life from the perspective of “What might have happened, if…”

These fresh-faced Keene High School students, some of whom I’ll face as first-year college students next fall, have surely read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Most folks read Frost’s vision of an autumnal walk through a New England woods as being the retrospective of a satisfied soul:

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

Most fresh-faced students and the respectable adults they’ll grow into read these lines optimistically: surely Frost’s speaker is looking back upon his life with a sense of gratitude, thankful for choices well-made. But knowing the darkness that often lurks between Frost’s lovely lines, I’m not so sure. If Frost’s speaker is convinced he made the right choice between those two roads diverging in a yellow wood, why does Frost title his poem “The Road Not Taken”?

Heaven forbid I should rain or even cast a cloud on a sunny Saturday’s parade, but I think we mis-read Frost (and mis-lead idealistic youth) if we overlook the way that any choice necessarily involves loss and even regret. Contemplating two equally alluring roads in an autumnal woods, Frost’s speaker knows better than anyone that he can’t “travel both / And be one traveler.” Having chosen his road in life, Frost’s speaker looks back not only with gratitude but also with more than a touch of melancholic wondering. Where would I be now–who would I be now–if I’d taken that other path?

It’s natural to occasionally contemplate the roads not taken, and this is why, I think, adults remember their high school days with nostalgia. What would my life have been like, I wonder, had I gone to more Ohio football games and spent less time huddled alone in my room with books and notebooks? Who might I be today had I been Homecoming Queen rather than a National Merit Scholar named “Most Likely to Succeed”? Although I personally like to think that right now is the beginning of the best four years of my life, I can understand why some folks, laden with grown-up cares and longing for the days before limitless possibility had been narrowed by necessary choices, view high school as a Golden Age when retrospect hadn’t yet become synonymous with regret.

Repaired stone bridge

Remember the old stone bridge that was damaged in last year’s flood and subsequently covered with a protective tarp? Well, Old Stone’s in the process of receiving a face-lift, and here’s how she looks these days: almost as good as old.


In August, crews erected a wood scaffold under the crumbling portion of the double-arch stone bridge off Route 9 near the Antrim border in Stoddard, New Hampshire. With the help of this scaffold and piles of reinforcing gravel, workers have successfully re-pieced the largest of the tumbled stones, re-assembling a centuries-old structure whose only modern use is as a backdrop for scenic pictures.


It’s nice to think that some of our tax dollars here in tax-free New Hampshire are lending a hand to a fallen friend. With Old Stone standing securely again, the only thing keeping this scene from its pre-flood glory are the piles of gravel re-routing the Contoocook River around the damage. I’d like to think that by the time our fall foliage reaches its peak brilliance around mid-October, Old Stone and the river that runs through her will be in picture-perfect shape for the annual invasion of Leaf Peepers.

Ocean Trail, Acadia National Park, Maine

Apparently you can’t teach an old photo-blogger new tricks, or maybe my taste in imagery hasn’t changed at all over the past two years. How else would you explain why yesterday I snapped a nearly identical photo of the same pile of rocks I’d blogged the last time I was in Bar Harbor two years ago?

Ocean Trail, Acadia National Park

Although I didn’t set pencil to sketchbook this weekend, I’m glad someone took advantage of today’s picture-perfect day to Get Artistic in Acadia National Park. True to pattern, it was a sunny, mild, perfectly beautiful day in Bar Harbor today…right as I was leaving. Of the two full days I spent in Maine, Saturday was rainy and Sunday foggy, so it was a challenging weekend photography-wise. But never one to be daunted by mere weather, I hiked nevertheless…I just don’t have many decent photos to show for it.

This morning, before hitting the road to head back to New Hampshire, I took advantage of the Finally Perfect weather to walk the Ocean Trail from Sand Beach to Otter Point and back. The last time I walked the Ocean Trail, it was raining, I snapped photos from under an umbrella, and I had the trail almost entirely to myself. Today I didn’t need an umbrella, and the path was thronged with families, busloads of tourists, dogwalkers, and hikers of all shapes, sizes, and ages.

Of the photos I took today, this one is probably my favorite, capturing as it does an anonymous hiker watching a trio of sea kayakers. Does this picture say “picture perfect day” or what?

Anyone in the mood to go shopping? Today’s Photo Friday theme is Girl, so here’s an image from last month’s trip to Dublin, where a store display in Saint Stephen’s Green Shopping Center caught my photographic eye. Here in the States, I occasionally go shopping for bargains at T.J. Maxx…but if I lived in Dublin, I’d have to patronize Mr. Maxx’s Irish brother, T.K. Whatever the store is called, who can resist the ever-watchful eye of a camera-wielding glamor girl?

What’s that girl looking at? Well, here’s a shot of the inside of Saint Stephen’s Green Shopping Center…

Is it me, or does this open and ornate architecture call to mind the panoptical splendor of Kilmainhaim Gaol? Whereas Kilmainhaim’s Victorian hall allowed prison guards to monitor inmates with an ever-watchful eye, a well-designed shopping mall encourages consumers to see, desire, and ultimately possess an ever-alluring array of goods. How many times have you gone “window shopping” and ended up buying something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it?

As for me, this girl’s going hiking. I’m off this morning for a long weekend in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I plan to spend as much time outside (and as little time blogging) as a potentially rainy weekend will allow. If it rains, I guess I’ll have to go window-shopping. What’s more quintessentially girly than some weather-induced retail therapy?

Although the autumn equinox doesn’t happen until Saturday, it already feels like fall. In addition to piles of pumpkins and rows of chrysanthemums, the Virginia creeper is ripening, its leaves turning red while its berries turn blue.

Compared with last year, this year’s crop of creeper seems to be turning ahead of schedule. We’ve already had our first frost with another forecast for Friday; it seems in keeping with September’s equinoctial temperament that an overnight freeze is enough to set our fences on fire.

Airport Road, Swanzey, NH

Although the hillsides themselves haven’t started to turn, some of the shorter, scrubbier trees that fringe them have. On Saturday’s walk down Airport Road in Swanzey, NH, I noticed one field dotted with reddening saplings while the next was still entirely green. The leaves of Virginia creeper are red and their berries blue, and goldenrod is lending a splash of color: a fitting overture to the symphony of color that will surge and crescendo over the coming weeks.

Comfy kitty

I think my neighbor’s cat is getting a bit too comfortable with my car, which lately has been serving as a makeshift Kitty Throne. Whenever I’ve found Miss Bling’s hood and windshield dotted with cat prints lately, I’ve assumed little miss Tara had claimed it as yet another perch from which to taunt poor oblivious Reggie. But yesterday I caught one of Tara’s house-mates in the act of using Miss Bling as a virtual heating pad, arching and curling to get the heat of her cooling engine on just the right furry spots.

As you can see from her expression, Kitty wasn’t too happy to have me shooing her away to reclaim my wheels.

Cranky kitty

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Bright, so here’s an eye-popping glimpse of a neon orange fungus I spied at Goose Pond a couple weeks ago. This year has been a particularly fecund one for fungi: there have been mushrooms of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere, and last week I even saw an old, dead mushroom covered with furry mold. When you have fungus sprouting fungus, you know you’re living in an especially ripe time.

Last night I finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the final section of which includes an account of several mushroom-foraging expeditions Pollan pursues as a neophyte mycophile. Pollan’s book is a delight regardless of your diet, for it’s chock-full of intellectually enriching food-for-thought. Wild mushrooms pose a quintessential omnivore’s dilemma, Pollan explains, because we can safely eat some but not all of them. Faced with an odd, neon orange fungus, does instinct scream Eat or Don’t Eat? In the case of less colorful species, how exactly do you distinguish an edible chanterelle or morel from a toxic lookalike, and would you trust a field guide to steer you true?

Pollan initially chooses not to eat a chanterelle he identifies with several field guides; later, he willingly eats another specimen foraged with an experienced friend even though he admits the latter technique isn’t as scientific as the first:

    As the case of mushrooms suggests the omnivore’s dilemma often comes down to a question of identification–to knowing exactly what it is you are preparing to eat. From the moment Angelo handed me that first mushroom, what is and is not a chanterelle suddenly seemed as plain to me as sunshine. I knew right then that the next time I found a chanterelle, anywhere, I would recognize it and not hesitate to eat it. Which is peculiar, when you consider that in the case of the chanterelle I found in my neighborhood, a half dozen authoritative field guides by credentialed mycologists had failed to convince me beyond a reasonable doubt of something I now was willing to bet my life on, based on the say-so of one Sicilian guy with no mycological training whatsoever.

The eating of mushrooms, Pollan suggests, is more a matter of lore than it is a matter of science. Old World mycophiles like Angelo didn’t take botany classes to learn which mushrooms they should or shouldn’t eat; instead, mushroom foraging would have been something you learned from a family member who took you into the woods to give you an old-fashioned face-to-face lesson without any books.

Although I’ve eaten and admired plenty of wild mushrooms, I’ve never gathered any on my own. I don’t know anyone well-versed enough in mushroom lore to lead me true, and trusting my life to a field guide seems risky. As someone who knows how difficult it can be to identify wildflowers, I recognize that fungus ID is even trickier…and even when you know how to identify normal mushroom specimens, what do you do with a freakishly deformed fungus like this one with its oddly split stem?

Unlike Pollan, I’ll willingly sidestep the Mycophile’s Dilemma by being content to look at the colorful and diversely shaped wild mushrooms popping up everywhere these days. I snapped this photo of a pair of freshly sprouted mushrooms at Goose Pond last week because I thought the one on the left looked just like a miniature pumpkin…but just because this fungus looks like a mini-pumpkin doesn’t mean I’ll assume it tastes like one. Sampling an unknown lookalike just doesn’t seem like a very Bright idea.

Yesterday I took my first-year Thinking & Writing students along the Ashuelot River to draw: it was too lovely a day to sit inside a windowless classroom. As my students sketched a grassy field, river, and surrounding hillsides–the same circle of hills that Henry David Thoreau loved when he passed through Keene on his way to Canada–I sketched two of my students standing on the bridge over the Ashuelot, their heads down as their hands worked steadily.

As a teacher, I’m always looking for a teachable moment, and I want to create a memory I hope will resonate in a young person’s consciousness for the length of their days: Nature Matters. When, after sketching, we turned to talk about Thoreau, excerpts of whose 1851 journal we’re reading incrementally with each day of ours corresponding with a day of his, one student observed that Thoreau in his journal jumps from topic to topic because he was always making connections.

It’s exactly this kind of connection–this sort of a-ha moment–that I’m aiming for in this class. I want my students to make connections between what they see and what they read, to notice (as Thoreau does) the changes from last year to this as well as the remarkable continuity between Thoreau’s September and our own.

On September 12, Thoreau wrote about a flock of pigeons–in 1851, they would have been native passenger pigeons–that perched so motionlessly, they looked like painted decoys. Passenger pigeons were colorful, so I understand why Thoreau thought them painterly, and they are now extinct, the sort of bait station Thoreau described being one of the factors contributing to the birds’ eventual demise.

Thoreau’s September was full of birds that are now extinct, but I know from experience the morning mist of which he writes with an almost rhapsodic reverence, dubbing September “the season of fogs.” Do any of my first-year students wake up early enough–perhaps on blurry-eyed walks to 8 am classes–to see the morning fog that connects our September to Thoreau’s? Without cars, my first-year students have no way to go to Goose Pond on a chilly, mist-enshrouded morning, so the season of fogs is one they have to read about, trusting either Thoreau’s testimony or my own.

Being older than my students, I know how slippery memory is: I know how quickly today becomes yesterday, last month, last year. This time next year, my students will be in other classes, reading other books for other professors; will they remember lessons about rats and refuges or a sunny September afternoon spent sketching in the open air rather than discussing books in a windowless classroom?

Whether or not they remember–whether or not they spark to and resonate with the kind of connections I’m trying to make with them–I know I’ll remember our sunny afternoon along the Ashuelot, having sketched the scene by hand and by heart.

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