October 2006


Both Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard wrote essays about dead moths; now it is my turn to write an essay about a dead butterfly. Today I walked Reggie up Beech Hill to the same place where I’d seen the monarch butterfly chrysalis I’d blogged on Monday. And just as I feared, it hung unchanged in the same precise spot as before, its clear walls still encasing the folded form of the developed but dead butterfly within.

In a world where newspaper headlines continually chronicle the death of humans young and old, it seems silly to mourn the death of an insect I never had the privilege of meeting. Still, I felt moved to dignify this tiny passing with some sort of observance: if I were to die unheeded in the woods overlooking Keene, I’d want someone to mourn my passing. And so, as I walked with Reggie around the looping trail atop Beech Hill, I silently sang “Ji Jang Bosal” in time with my striding feet. When humans die, practitioners in my Zen school intone the Korean name of Ksitigarbha, the “earth treasure” bodhisattva who vowed to defer his own enlightenment until all beings are saved from hell. It’s how we say goodbye to the dearly departed, and it’s how we help generate positive energy for their transition from this world to the next.

In my mind, even insects fall under the mantle of “all beings,” so I don’t think Ji Jang Bosal will mind that I bothered him with the death of a butterfly. Although I don’t technically believe a celestial monk sits somewhere listening to my chants, I know the world and its sentient beings–butterfly and human alike–need all the positive energy we can get. Today I chanted for a butterfly, and perhaps someday the Universe will return the compliment. In the meantime, I’m more than a little saddened to consider one caterpillar who completed her earthly metamorphosis only to find her chrysalis transformed into an impromptu death mask.

Is there a lepidopterist in the house? Does anyone know whether monarch butterfly chrysalises are hardy enough to withstand one or more hard frosts?

From the looks of things, this monarch is ready to emerge from its metamorphosis just in time to head south…but since we’ve already had several hard frosts here in southwest New Hampshire, I’m wondering whether the butterfly coiled inside this thin-skinned chrysalis is already dead. It seems impossible that a folded bug could survive a hard frost…but then again, it seems impossible that a newly emerged monarch could migrate from New Hampshire to Mexico without any veteran migrants to show the way, and that’s exactly what happens every year.

Perhaps the monarchs that emerge in early fall are extra tough, born to fly a route they’ve never seen. Scientists still don’t know how monarchs navigate to and from the tropical places where they over-winter; whereas young birds can presumably follow older flock-mates the first time they migrate, last year’s veteran butterfly migrants are already dead. If the late-blooming butterfly I saw today beats the odds and emerges from its metamorphosis unscathed, will its good luck last until it reaches Mexico and begets the next generation of intrepid migrants?

Today’s chrysalid butterfly is definitely behind the migratory wave, for last week is when the big wave of monarchs passed through Keene:

Last week’s monarchs seemed to think the Keene State College grounds-crew planted nectar-rich chrysanthemums specifically for their gustatory pleasure, which makes sense when you consider how many calories a flight to Mexico must burn. Today’s almost-emerged monarch didn’t look like he was in any real hurry to go anywhere. When you consider what Keene, NH looks like these days, can you blame him for wanting to hang out a while?

(Click on panorama for a larger version.)

I just got back from the Providence Zen Center, where I spent the weekend with 80-some other Kwan Um School of Zen Dharma teachers and Dharma teachers-in-training. Coming home from retreat is always a tenuous thing: practice, like any intense activity, causes its own kind of adrenaline rush, and this effect is even more pronounced on Dharma teacher retreats, which feature more talking and socializing than is usual on a Zen retreat.

Going from a Dharma room filled with seasoned (and very articulate) Dharma teachers to my quiet apartment with its lone meditation cushion is a bit disorienting: coming home feels like coming off a sugar-high, with the excitement soon fading to reality. Yesterday I led a workshop on “The Zen of Writing” in which I shared five minutes of timed free-writing practice with a handful of intensely focused long-time meditators, each of us scribbling as we sat at a long folding table covered with a plastic red and white checked tablecloth. Tomorrow after breakfast, I’ll do a solo scribble at my bare kitchen table, and then I’ll meditate on my own before fetching Reggie from the kennel: back to business as usual as the memories from this weekend are over-written by new moments in unending supply.

I learned long ago that you can’t cling to any experience, not even the clarity of mind and refreshed zeal that come from weekend retreats. Just as retreat time is all about the Now, so is my everyday life here in New Hampshire. Trying to carry retreat-mind into daily life is as foolish as trying to hold yesterday’s breath today: each moment brings a new breath, and each morning offers a new page. Practice isn’t about trying to re-trace the page you wrote yesterday; it’s about turning a new page for each new moment, the wisdom of Now writing itself in vanishing ink across the sun-slanted surface of consciousness.

I don’t have any pictures of the demolition, only its aftermath: a flat, fenced lot where an abandoned building used to stand.

I don’t know what the decrepit old building on Main Street used to be: as long as I’ve lived here, it has stood empty, its destruction long overdue. In a town as quaint as Keene, it makes no sense to tolerate long-standing eyesores…unless, of course, you like the look of eyesores.

I’ve felt tenderly toward this building–and really, who feels tenderly toward buildings?–ever since using two pictures of it to illustrate this post: one of my all-time favorites. If, as Elizabeth Bishop suggests, losing is an art, what better master than one that has stood abandoned and neglected for as long as I’ve lived in Keene, and longer?

I snapped these photos in early August, not knowing this building would make way for a convenience store expansion several months later. It’s easy to assume things which have stood for years will continue to stand, easy to ignore and pass by. In early August, I had watched Born into Brothels and wondered what it was, exactly, that seemed so beautiful in simple images snapped by children living in abject poverty. How could children armed only with cameras find such beauty in brokenness?

I never wrote the blog post that was brewing when I snapped these photos; matters of beauty and brokenness still rattle in my consciousness, an intellectual eyesore.

As a writer, you relish any subject so rich it reveals an unfolding nuance each time you reconsider it; as a photographer, you cherish any structure which offers a different appearance and texture from every angle you contemplate.

Now these blogged pictures are all that remains–the architectural ghosts–of a nameless building that is no longer there.

If the art of losing is so easy to master, why do I feel sad to see even a crumbling building fall?

Dashboard monk

As good fortune would have it, there is no Buddhist precept against Coveting thy neighbor’s Dashboard Monk. I spotted this bobble-buddha inside the car parked next to mine at my local laundromat last week. Although the car’s window was open and I could have easily transmigrated Mr. Monk from one car to the other, I heeded my Buddhist vow “not to take things not given.” So, how much accumulated merit do you think it will take for me to earn a Dashboard Monk of my own?

At first glance, you probably see nothing curious about this photo of Kali’s Sports Pub on Main Street here in Keene, NH. What’s more all-American, after all, than an establishment where you can watch a televised game over a beer or two? It’s been over a year since Kali’s inspired controversy after some local parents voiced their concerns that a bar would be serving drinks and offering al fresco munchies within sight of Main Street’s most popular ice cream stand. Over a year later, though, that initial hoopla seems to have been much ado over nothing. Kali’s hospitality hasn’t brought bands of inebriated sports-hooligans into downtown Keene, and I haven’t heard anyone crying over spilled milkshakes since beer moved in two doors down from ice cream.

No, there’s nothing about Kali’s itself that makes this picture curious; instead, you have to understand what the rest of downtown looks like these days. Whereas merchants from coast to coast, I’m told, are hunkering down in wide-eyed expectation for another Christmas shopping season, here in downtown Keene, it’s still October. Yep, you heard me right: here in Keene, local merchants aren’t yet pushing sleighs and reindeer, although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if hordes of leaf-peepers wanted to start their Christmas shopping early here in tax-free New Hampshire.

One of the benefits of living in the pumpkin capital of the world is the fact that Keene doesn’t hurry the arrival of Christmas the way other towns do. While merchants in other towns–and even marketers for the Big Box Stores on the outskirts of town–are already announcing the start of holiday shopping, downtown merchants here know where their pumpkin bread is buttered. Why hurry Santa’s arrival when you can sell All Things Pumpkin? These days in downtown Keene, you can buy pumpkin hats, pumpkin T-shirts, pumpkin-painted gourds, pumpkin ties, or painted pumpkins. Although Keene is perfectly charming in December, downtown merchants don’t feel the need to start humming “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” when the calendar says “October.” Instead, our local color follows a predictable and leisurely seasonal succession, with September bringing fall foliage, October bringing pumpkins, November bringing turkeys, and December bringing Santa. This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy a turkey in September or fall foliage in October…it just feels refreshingly sane to let Santa Claus arrive in good time and in the proper season, with Keene’s annual Christmas tree lighting happening at the beginning of December, right when it should.

Given the pumpkin-preoccupied tenor of downtown Keene these days, now you might notice what’s wrong with that picture of Kali’s doorway: what’s with Frosty? Although we here in southwest New Hampshire sometimes get our first snowfall in October–in theory at least, we could make snowmen and snow angels at the Pumpkin Festival later this month–it seems quite curious to see a snowman propping the door to a downtown sports pub. If nothing else, shouldn’t Frosty be holding a pumpkin in one hand rather than a red Christmas tree ornament? To my eye, it seems clear that Frosty the Seasonally Inappropriate Snowman isn’t from around these parts. If he were, he’d at least wear a pumpkin T-shirt, hat, or tie with his spiffy scarf.

It’s all a matter of perspective. At first glance, this might look like a tropical palm tree towering over the Lyman Plant House at Smith College in Northampton, MA. Instead, it’s “just” an ordinary (albeit healthy) plant photographed by a small person. Had Leslee taken this photo, these leaves would have been at eye level, but from where I stood, all I could see was the heavenly sight of greenery silhouetted by blue.

If you’ve read Leslee’s account of our Sunday stroll in Northampton, MA, you heard how heavenly the entire day was. Instead of spending much time shopping inside Northampton’s many alluring boutiques, we headed toward Smith College, where we enjoyed a sunny stroll through the botanical gardens, considered the tranquility of Paradise Pond, and walked along the Mill River as far as the footpath would take us. It was, as Leslee’s post suggests, a spot of paradise in an otherwise mundane weekend: a little bit of heaven on earth, Northampton style.

But wherever you find heaven, somewhere close by you’ll also find hell. Leslee neglected to mention how we concluded our sun-soaked day in Northampton, so here’s photographic proof. After admiring Paradise Pond, we headed underground to swill martinis at the Tunnel Bar, a delightfully dark and cozy hole in the wall where a taste of heaven (or is that hell?) is served in martini glasses, shaken or stirred.

The last time Leslee and I went to the Tunnel Bar, it was brutally cold; on Sunday, it was oddly disorienting to see the sun brightly shining outside while we lounged and swilled martinis in a subterranean darkness. Having learned from experience that two Northampton-strong Tunnel Bar martinis are enough to induce a not entirely pleasant wooziness, Leslee and I limited ourselves to one drink a piece, reminding one another that “Friends don’t let friends drink the second martini.”

So, what’s your perspective: was our Sunday spent in a tranquil, sun-soaked heaven, or was it spent in a shady, alcohol-spiked hell?

Here is the obligatory October shot of Dame Monadnock in her autumnal skirt, snapped along Route 101 in Dublin, NH. It’s been two years minus a week since I posted a nearly identical shot of Mount Monadnock, so I figure even long-time readers won’t mind a quasi-rerun.

Columbus Day weekend often marks the peak of New Hampshire’s fall foliage season…and whether or not the weather and Mother Nature cooperate, Columbus Day weekend always marks a predictable influx of leaf-peeping tourists who arrive every year just like clockwork. This time last year, Mother Nature walloped leaf-peepers and locals alike with record-setting rains and flooding, so it’s been a relief to have sunny days and glorious foliage this year instead.

Although I ooh and ahh New England’s arboreal pyrotechnics as much as any leaf-peeping tourist, I typically don’t take many postcard-worthy pictures of fall foliage. Some of the reasons why are technical: shooting pictures from within a shaded forest is a challenge, and even the widest panoramic shot can’t capture the “big picture” sensation of looking at the color-dappled countryside from a vantage point within that same landscape.

Mostly, though, I don’t take much less post many postcard-style shots of fall foliage (even though I consistently feel I should) because I’m always disappointed by the pictures I take. Somehow a screen-sized photo never manages to capture the feel of standing, walking, or even driving within a landscape that is literally glowing with color. If I could take a picture that made you feel like you yourself were glowing, an orange ember smoldering incandescent within a golden bowl, I’d race home to post it. But no photo I’ve ever taken–no photo I’ve ever seen–successfully recreates the sensation of breathing air that itself seems luminous, surrounding trees illuminated as if from within while the atmosphere itself shimmers electric.

If I had a video camera mounted on my car’s hood–if I had a camera in my head that snapped photos of everything I see–perhaps then I could show you what it’s like to take even a short Sunday drive in southwestern New Hampshire these days. Instead, you’ll have to content yourself with a quick photo snapped as I approached a police roadblock, October being the one time all year when you don’t mind stopping for road construction. Who could complain about construction delays when you have roadside scenery like this to entertain you?

Brilliant & bare

Here you have the yin and yang of autumn, snapped outside the post office here in Keene, NH. Columbus Day weekend traditionally represents the pinnacle of leaf-peeping, with some trees peaking and others already peaked.

Perhaps it says something about my own slovenly nature that I love the look of fallen, unraked leaves. Why bother to rake and carry away that which Nature herself is so intent on scattering?

My first awareness of death is inextricably tangled with the memory of fallen leaves. M, the woman who lived next door, killed herself when I was around eight. Although I’d previously been to funeral homes when extended family had died, M’s was the first death I realized: one day she was there in her apartment bordering my parents’ yard, and the next she wasn’t, never to return.

There was and is a mature maple in the yard between what was my parents’ home and what was M’s apartment. In the fall, M and her boyfriend would rake its leaves into huge piles; a handful of childhood friends and I would jump in these piles or, when tired, bury ourselves in the scent of autumn before carefully arranging leaves into shallow lines and rows, the demarcations of an imaginary playhouse. I loved those ephemeral homes with their ragged lines: I remember dreaming in imaginary rooms with grass for carpet and scattering leaves for walls.

M and her boyfriend used to scold us children for scattering their carefully raked piles; they didn’t see the art nor the intention of our leaf-lined floorplans. And yet weekend after weekend, M and her boyfriend raked those leaves, never bagging and carrying them away but leaving them in soft, inviting piles. What did they expect of eight-year-olds? Were the piles designed to tempt us, to make us grapple for the first time in our young lives with the simple imperative Do Not?

Eve was tempted by fruit, and I was tempted by leaves; we both fell amongst the fallen, both apples and leaves ripening in fall. I assumed, as children do, that M’s death was my fault: surely she killed herself because I’d buried myself in her leaves, strewing and scattering them according to my dreams rather than hers. Today, I still think of death and its imperatives when I see unraked leaves tempting me with their papery touch and earthy scent. Was Eve similarly haunted by the tart, forbidden sweetness of apple on her tongue?

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