October 2006

Against my better judgment, I’m gearing up for another year of NaNoWriMo: can you say “Three-peat“? After having “won” the annual novel-writing challenge the past two years running, I’d fully intended to sit out this November’s round. Having written two wretchedly unreadable so-called novels, I have nothing to prove…and fiction isn’t my preferred genre. Instead of generating more words in woeful need of revision, I’ve been wanting to return to the blog-to-book revision project I tabled in May…and this month promises to be exceedingly busy as I’m currently teaching a total of six courses (three at Keene State, three online), two of which I’ve never taught before. Between all the prep-work and grading that lies ahead, I have no business biting off another huge project.

But, the sheer impossibility of writing a novel in a month didn’t stop me in 2004 or 2005. Both years, I had no clear story line in mind, and both years, I was juggling a hefty courseload. So why should I let practical concerns such as time constraints stand in my way? Needing a kick-start back into that blog-to-book revision project, I figure writing something completely different might serve to cleanse my narrative palate: after the cerebral blow-out that is NaNoWriMo, perhaps in December, when my schedule lightens just in time for Christmas and New Year’s Resolutions, I’ll be primed and ready to return to revising a project I actually care about. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself by way of self-justification.

See? November 1st hasn’t even arrived, and already I’m spinning stories.

    Just like last year, I plan to chronicle this year’s NaNoWriMo journey on my writing blog, which will come out of its recent retirement tomorrow after I’ve officially begun writing this year’s so-called novel. If you or a blogger you know is too intimidated to write a novel in a month, consider participating in NaBloPoMo, an alternate challenge in which bloggers commit to posting every day for the month of November. Write on, people!

A seeker once asked Zen Master Un Mun, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?” Un Mun replied, “Body exposed in the golden wind.”

This weekend saw plenty of bodies exposed in the golden wind. On Saturday, high winds blew one of my living-room storm windows right off its hinges; on Sunday, I sat a one-day Zen retreat in Lexington while the wind howled and sun-lit tree shadows did a frantic dance on the hardwood floor. This morning when I walked Reggie up Beech Hill, I was surprised to see yellow and copper-brown leaves still clinging to birch and beech, these shorter trees sheltered among taller, mostly bare oaks and maples. When the golden wind blows, there’s safety in both numbers and humble stature, species of the so-called understory clinging to their raiment long after taller trees have been blown bare.


There’s no reason for me to show you the assortment of hand lotions on my bedside table other than as visual proof that you can, if you wish, drop and actually break open an Aiptek pencam and the thing will, upon re-assembly, still take pictures. It’s not something I’d recommend, especially if you’re relying on said pencam because you dropped and damaged your more expensive digicam. But in case you were wondering, an Aiptek pencam is almost as indestructible as I am klutzy.

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain…and to the sight of Tara, one of my upstairs neighbor’s cats, looking wet and disheveled from her perch on my front porch railing. Today was a good day to be a duck–and a bad day to be a cat–since it rained nearly all day. Usually I don’t mind a rainy day; in fact, I’ve spent nearly the whole day grading papers, so I didn’t mind having a good indoor day. But ever since last October’s flood here in southwest New Hampshire, the sound of torrential rain makes me nervous. Last year, for weeks after the flooding that forced the evacuation of my neighborhood, I would peek out my bedroom window whenever I woke to the sound of rain just to make sure I could see pavement rather than water where the street should be. This morning, I instinctively did the same thing, today’s torrential downpours feeling a bit too similar to last year’s.

Although soggy cats want nothing more than to be let in out of the rain, antsy dogs insist on being walked regardless of the weather. Around noon, after a late morning windstorm ripped one of my living room storm-windows right off its bolts, the rain stopped long enough for Reggie and me to take a soggy walk toward Beaver Brook Falls.

The abandoned road that leads toward Beaver Brook Falls is a good rainy-day walk: the route is short and densely canopied so you won’t get too wet, and the road itself is paved so you won’t muddy your feet. But after I got out of the car and started walking, I realized the subconscious reason I’d wanted to walk Reggie along Beaver Brook: I wanted to see for myself whether Beaver Brook was staying within her banks.

Last October, it was humble Beaver Brook that caused all the trouble here in Keene. While the Cold River devastated nearby Alstead, Keene’s own Ashuelot River was relatively well-behaved, rising but not flooding. Had tiny Beaver Brook not breached her banks on the east side of Keene, my neighborhood (and my basement) would have been spared last October’s drama. But last October, we here in Keene learned that a little brook can pack a big, wet wallop if unchecked rains cause her to grow too big for her banks.

So you can imagine my initial alarm when I saw white water where I am accustomed to seeing a slow, steady stream.

Although Beaver Brook wasn’t high enough to breach her banks, she was higher than I’d ever seen her. Springtime brings black flies here in New Hampshire, so I’ve never seen Beaver Brook swollen with spring melt: I avoid walking Reggie in buggy places, so we don’t go to Beaver Brook until summer. In the summer, Beaver Brook is a quiet, gently babbling stream: a waterway so shallow, Reggie can easily wade from one bank to the other. Today, Reggie sniffed at the swollen water but didn’t dare go in, sensing that the depth and current were too much for his dabbling.

On most summer days, you can hear the hum of nearby traffic as you start toward Beaver Brook Falls; it isn’t until you are well within the brook’s sheltering ravine that the sound of water literally drowns out all traces of traffic. Today, though, I could hear the roar of water the moment I got out of my car: the same sound that presumably preceded last year’s torrent.

What I didn’t successfully capture with my pencam, unfortunately, were several snaking waterfalls that cascaded down the rocky walls bordering Beaver Brook: autumn rivulets over summer-dry stones. How surprising it was to see long, trailing waterfalls where in summer only tiny tributaries trickle. Beaver Brook, it seems, hides many a trick up her verdant, ravine-edged sleeve.

And as for me, I prepared for the worst, donning a Gore-tex parka and funky rain-boots for my rainy-day stroll. It started to sprinkle right when Reggie and I reached the falls, so my Worst Case wardrobe came in handy. By the time we’d arrived back home, another round of torrential rains began, the water falling in buckets while I settled in over hot chocolate and more grading. It was a good day to be a duck, a bad day to be a cat, and not a bad day to be a dog-walking blogger with plenty of papers to grade.

What I intended to capture with my pencam this morning at Goose Pond was the sight of a lone merganser swimming in foggy stillness. Accidental, though, are the odd tinges of yellow and bright blue in the water above that bird: I don’t remember seeing any strange smudges of color, but my pencam is notorious for adding its own peculiar glints and tints to whatever images I snap.

These days, all my shots are accidental, taken with my pencam while I’m waiting for a pre-paid box to arrive so I can ship my injured digicam for repair. My pencam, like an old fashioned film camera, doesn’t have an LCD screen, just a viewfinder, so I have no idea when I snap shots how (or even whether) they’ve actually been recorded. Instead, I snap shots blindly, not knowing until I get home what duds or delights my pencam holds.

Just as early morning fog drapes an exotic aura over even the most familiar landscape, my pencam typically captures images of the almost seen. The image at left isn’t faithful to what the fog-shrouded pond looked like under one arching hemlock: in reality, that hemlock was gilt with gleams of slanting sunrise, the water beneath an inky shade of midnight blue. But the inaccurate image my pencam captured offers an unreal beauty all its own: no, the underside of that arching hemlock didn’t look over-exposed in person, but neither did the water under it shimmer with such a dreamy shade of sky. The photo at left isn’t what that tree and the water beneath it actually looked like, but that isn’t enough reason to make me dislike the image. Instead, in this case I think I prefer my pencam’s distorted view of reality, suggesting as it does a quality of black-and-white etching suddenly transforming into richly evocative color, with a reflected tree looking more real than its physical antecedent.

Although my pencam doesn’t offer the same pixel-sharp fidelity as my digicam, I often adore the way it captures the warmth of a particular image. Digital cameras capture what’s there, but sometimes that pixel-perfect image seems lifeless and sterile, a picture as seen by a robot.

Sometimes, the pictures I snap with my pencam look ancient to my eyes, like the sepia-toned photos or daguerreotypes of yesteryear. This is, again, an accidental effect: I get no thrill from pretending this morning’s walk transpired in another age, and it’s odd to imagine my living hand as that of a photographer long dead. But just as hallucinogens and other intoxicants offer the excitement of the mundane world made magic, the simple act of seeing the world through an imperfect lens turns that world on its head, adding surprising sharpnesses and quirks of color that call into question the reliability of my senses. What if my eyes themselves are imperfect lens: what if my pencam sees the world as it really is, and all my life I’ve been deluded?

“Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.” The second of the Four Great Vows points to my Buddhist commitment to see the world clearly, and yet I wonder if seeing the world too clearly is its own kind of delusion. Perhaps these pencam images with their funky colors and surprising glints and tinges are an apt metaphor for Don’t-Know Mind, the world always offering more than we think we see and understand.

Yellow birch

One unforeseen benefit of damaging my digicam this weekend is the excuse it gives me to dip into my photographic archives, re-visiting images I snapped months ago but never blogged. In July, I took several photos of the row of yellow birch trees sprouting from the sliver of earth between Beaver Brook and the abandoned road that runs immediately alongside it. These trees have always intrigued me with their yellow bark that glints gold when wet and their long, finger-like roots which snake above the old, cracking pavement that once was road.

Earlier this week, Dave reminded me of this unblogged picture when he posted several yellow birch photos of his own, saying “Yellow birch has always been one of my favorite trees, largely because of the way its ropy roots loop over the ground or twine around rocks and stumps.” I’d always thought the birches of Beaver Brook were odd, but it turns out they’re simply being birch-like, accomplishing in an unusual place the kind of rootly contortions they’d presumably try anywhere.

    If your blog archives harbor vintage trees of any shape or sort, consider submitting them to Rachel, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Email your contributions to festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com; the deadline for the coming festival is October 30.

Scottish highland cow

Electric wire and long horns notwithstanding, isn’t this the most cuddly cow you’ve ever seen? With their shaggy coats, puppy-dog ears, and teddy-bear eyes, the Scottish highland cattle at Pitcher Mountain Farm look more like oversize plush toys than so many pounds of beef on the hoof.

Every time Reggie and I make the short drive to Pitcher Mountain to go hiking, we both hope for a sight of these bovines: Reggie because he wants to stick his head out the window and sniff, and me because I want to take pictures of the cuddle-creatures. On Saturday, looking for a quiet place to walk Reg during the Pumpkin Festival, we escaped to nearby Stoddard, where I snapped this picture of a cuddle cow before Reggie and I made a leisurely walk to the summit of Pitcher Mountain, far from the pumpkin-mad crowds.

As much as I love pumpkins, you see, they aren’t nearly as loveable as shaggy, floppy-eared cows cuddling their cud.

Every year, on the day after the annual Pumpkin Festival here in Keene, NH, the Sunday Sentinel prints a huge color photograph of Main Street thronged with crowds and pumpkins, the frame fringed with fall foliage and capped with the picture-perfect spire of the Congregational church downtown. You can see this year’s picture-perfect image, taken by Sentinel photographer Steve Hooper, here; you can see the front-page photo from 2004, the last year Keene beat Boston for pumpkin bragging rights, at the bottom of this post.

Every year, I ooh and ahh over the Sentinel’s front-page photo with more than a hint of envy: how and from what vantage point, I wonder, do Sentinel photographers always get the Perfect Shot? Yesterday, I discovered what the Big Guns have that I don’t: in addition to having fancy cameras with enormous telephoto lenses, the Big Guns get an annual lift in one of the industrial platforms used to raise and lower the festival scaffolds–and their pumpkin adornments–into place. What the Big Guns get isn’t a bird’s eye view of the Festival, but a pumpkin’s eye view, looking down from one of four pumpkin towers overlooking the festivities.

Not being a member of the mainstream media, I’m forced to capture the Pumpkin Fest scene on the ground, with my now-broken Little Gun. Fortunately, the festival is eye-popping regardless of whose eyes you’re looking at it from.

Of course, if you’re photo-blogging from the ground, you have to fight the crowds…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although Keene has now officially lost pumpkin bragging rights to Boston, who yesterday amassed over 30,000 pumpkins on Boston Common to seize the official world’s record for the largest number of lit jack-o-lanterns gathered in one place, yesterday we broke our own attendance record here in Keene, attracting some 80,000 people to stroll our downtown streets.

To put things into perspective, Boston has a population of over 550,000, and their Festival attracted an estimated crowd of 100,000 people and 30,128 pumpkins. Keene, NH, on the other hand, has a population of almost 23,000, and yesterday’s Pumpkin Festival attracted a record-setting 80,000 people and a disappointing 24,682 pumpkins, well below our previous record-setting count of 28,952 in 2003. It seems clear that Boston has earned the right to see themselves as the Jack-o-Lantern King as far as world records are concerned…but just as it isn’t fair to compare the pictures I take from the ground with a now-broken pocket digicam with photos taken by a professional with expensive equipment from an off-limits vantage point, it seems unfair to compare Boston’s small per capita turnout with Keene’s festival. Yesterday’s Pumpkin Fest nearly quadrupled Keene’s human population, and for several years running we’ve amassed more pumpkins than we have people living in Keene. In my mind, Boston won’t really earn pumpkin bragging rights until they amass a comparable per capita ratio: over 550,000 jack-o-lanterns in one place at one time, one for every resident man, woman, and child. Somehow, Beantown, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, if ever…and rest assured that if those Damn Yankees hear Boston bragging too mightily about World Record status, they’ll smash your pumpkin record to smithereens in a heartbeat.

If you pride yourself on being a Big Gun, you will constantly live in fear of finding a Bigger Gun to topple you from your boastful perch…and you know that saying, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Here in Keene this weekend, we were more worried about the actual fall of pumpkins rather than the figurative smashing of records. Because of Friday night’s thunderstorms and high winds, this year is the first time I remember Grandpa Jack wearing a seatbelt to keep him in place atop the Central Square tower:

According to one festival worker I overheard yesterday, approximately 50 jack-o-lanterns were blown off the two towers that had been set-up for Friday night’s Community Night. As Leslee already blogged, Friday night’s Pumpkin Fest preview was a disappointment, with inclement weather forcing the cancellation of the usual Friday night tower-lighting, hayrides, and other pre-Festival festivities. Had Friday night’s weather been as quintessentially perfect as yesterday’s, presumably Keene would have amassed a number of pumpkins more in keeping with our previous record-setting status.

Now that Keene is no longer defending a world’s record, though, we can focus on the things that really matter. According to an article in today’s Sentinel, some of the pumpkins lost in Friday night’s thunderstorm were part of a marriage proposal; as I blogged last year, there’s always at least one romantic soul who pops the question by pumpkin-light, and this year was no exception. As if to prove that love does indeed conquer all, workers from a local construction firm quickly re-carved the missing letters, the question was popped, and the lady in question said Yes. Does it matter how many pumpkins you gather as long as they spell the right sentiment?

(Click on the image above for an enlarged version.)

Not everyone here in Keene wears their heart on a pumpkin. Other folks have more temperate loves.

Whatever style of pumpkin you prefer, you would have surely found it somewhere here in Keene…

At the end of the day, the success of the Keene Pumpkin Festival isn’t measured in numbers but in depth. Holding a world’s record gives you bragging rights, but holding a family-friendly festival that attracts people from far and wide lets you do something more satisfying than brag. Yesterday Keene again demonstrated the kind of quaint hospitality we’ve long been famous for. I find it interesting that whereas the front page of the Keene Sentinel always boasts that beautiful day-after photo, the Boston Globe had a front-page article about wanting to break the pumpkin record, but once the record had been had, the story was no longer front-page news. In Boston, it seems, it’s not about living, breathing, and being Pumpkin Central year after year: pumpkins are just another feather in Beantown’s cap. Now that Boston has a record to defend, we here in Keene can begin to look forward to next year when we won’t have to worry about being the Biggest Gun, only the Best.

This may turn out to be one of the last pictures I took with my several-month-old Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ3S camera. Not long after snapping this backlit image of one of the more creative creations at today’s Keene Pumpkin Festival, I dropped my camera.

I’ve dropped digicams before, and normally it’s not Digital Disaster. But today, I really dropped my camera: in fact, it’s more like I accidentally flung it. I typically carry my camera in my pocket: that’s why I bought a pocket-sized Lumix rather than a more impressive-looking digital SLR (that and the fact that I wouldn’t know what to do with a digital SLR). This afternoon was a bit chilly, so I’d put on gloves…and when I pulled the camera out of my pocket to snap something-or-other, the camera slipped out of my gloved hand and flew onto the pavement, where the metal housing around the lens got banged out of shape.

So, now the lens won’t extend, and I’m without a functional digicam. Luckily, when I bought the camera, I also bought an extended service warranty that covers accidental damage, knowing how klutzy I can be. But it will take approximately 12 days to repair or replace my camera, and my old digicam–the one I’d bought the Lumix to replace–is now not working at all, finally wearing out even the Last Legs it had been standing on.

So unless I can rely on my pencam and keychain camera to take night-time shots–the one thing they both are rotten at–it looks like I won’t be capturing any images of this year’s after-dark Gourd Glow. Fortunately, I took lots of daytime pictures yesterday and today which will be Coming Soon to a Blog Near You. But tonight it will seem very odd to walk the pumpkin-lit streets of Keene with just my eyes to take in the once-a-year sights.

What’s more innocent than a pile of pumpkins ready to go under the carving knife? Tomorrow’s the annual (and world famous) Pumpkin Festival here in Keene, so businesses like this local engineering firm have stockpiled pumpkins for employees to carve today. As for me, I have three small-ish pumpkins on my kitchen table awaiting my attention, so you know one thing on today’s to-do list.

Keene, of course, holds the current world’s record for amassing the most lit jack-o-lanterns in one place: 28,952 illuminated gourds, set at the 2003 fest. Last year, still sodden from disastrous flooding, Keene managed to assemble “only” 22,153 pumpkins: not enough to break our own record, and a couple thousand fewer than a competing festival in Boston. This year, that festival in Boston along with some 20 other pumpkin festivals across the country are going for the pumpkin gold…and is there anything more innocent than a good rivalry?

    This is my submission for today’s Photo Friday theme, Innocence. Expect to see many eye-popping photos from this year’s festival over the next few days; in the meantime, you can check out last year’s pumpkin artistry here, here, here, here, here, and here. Right now here in Keene, it’s pouring rain…but the forecast promises a sunny (albeit windy) Saturday.

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