April 2008

But is it Art?

Yesterday, it was the shoe-fruits of London. Today, it’s the coat hangers of Keene. What do you think will start growing on trees tomorrow?

RIP Richard "Rico" Modica

One thing I love about being a place-blogger in an urban area like Boston or Cambridge is the way no one seems to care if you stop, snoop, and snap photos: there’s nothing you’re doing, after all, that’s any weirder than anything anyone else is doing.

Mixed messages

Although I know folks who have been asked not to take photos in particular public places, I’ve never been confronted for my shutter-buggery. Either I look boring enough that I don’t arouse suspicion, or I look weird enough that folks aren’t surprise when I do something quirky with a camera.

Usually when I snap photos in public places, I try to be discreet: not only do I not want people to think I’m taking photos of them, I don’t want to call attention to myself. One of the benefits of using a purse-sized digicam is the fact I can pull out my camera quickly, snap a few surreptitious shots, and then sneak it back into my pocket or purse before anyone’s noticed what I’m doing. If there are people milling around something I want to photograph, I’ll typically wait until they disperse, or I’ll refrain entirely from taking pictures. The last thing I want to do is make myself an object of attention while focusing my attention on some interesting object.


As I was composing the above photo of the graffiti along Modica Way, for instance, I heard the crack and static of a police officer’s two-way radio as a faceless person passed behind me. “Holy crap,” I thought as I froze mid-shot. “All I need is for Mr. Cop to ask me what I’m doing in a graffiti-covered alley taking pictures.” After I’d snapped my shot, I looked down Modica Way to see Mr. Cop walking away unconcerned, a McDonald’s bag in one hand. I don’t know how Cambridge cops feel about street artists, but apparently hungry officers won’t interrupt their takeout breakfasts to harass place-bloggers who like to snoop and snap.

Click here for a photo-set of images from today’s and yesterday’s posts. Enjoy!


On Sunday mornings when I’m scheduled to give consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, I make a point to arrive in Central Square early so I can take a quick walk, camera in hand, to see what’s new in my old neighborhood.

Be curious!

Taking a quick stroll around the Square helps clear my head before I meditate…and it’s one way I heed Cambridge’s official command that I “Be curious!” What better way, I think, to put the Buddha’s mantra of “What is this?” into practice than by taking a quick spin around the block to see what’s changed since the last time I strolled the streets?

Central Square, like any urban neighborhood, is always full of surprises. I already knew from blog reports that a new crop of street art had sprouted like spring wildflowers along Modica Way since the last time I’d taken pictures there. Every time I walk around Central Square, I see something I hadn’t noticed before–something new, perhaps, or something I’d previously ignored. Even though I lived in Central Square for two and a half years more than a decade ago, the streets there still surprise me. Even if I were Kwan Seum Bosal with her thousand hands and eyes, I still wouldn’t be able to take it all in.

Easter egg

The surprises you encounter in urban neighborhoods like Central Square shouldn’t be surprises: in urban areas, nothing should surprise you. Are you surprised to find a cracked but otherwise whole Easter egg lying in the middle of a parking lot more than a month after the holiday? When you remember that the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Easter later than we Westerners do, and when you remember that there’s a Greek Orthodox Church in Central Square, a late April Easter egg makes sense.

When I was a child, I always loved looking for Easter eggs because it gave me once-a-year permission to snoop around looking for surprises. In retrospect, I guess keeping a photo-blog gives me a similar excuse to scour my surroundings for things that are interesting or odd.

Once you start looking for Easter eggs, you start finding them everywhere: it’s as if you hone your senses to notice All Things Egg. On Sunday, for instance, I wanted to snap a photo of the Goldenstash decal I’d previously seen on an electrical box at the heart of Central Square…


…only to find the mustachioed man nearly everywhere I looked.


The enigmatic character known as Goldenstash is something of a legend in the greater Boston area, appearing as street art on signs, electrical boxes, and walls.

Goldenstash rules!

Goldenstash’s street-mystique has garnered press attention and a slew of Flickr photos.


Going ‘stash-spotting, I’ve learned, is a bit like looking for Easter eggs: you’ll find him in the usual spots you’d expect, and then you’ll find him in spots (and in poses, and with people) you’d never have expected.

Goldenstash with girl

But just like an Easter egg, you’ll never spot the ‘stash until you start looking, even if that means seeming a bit silly as you snoop around.


A street artist’s Everyman, Goldenstash is the ultimate Easter egg. Simultaneously elusive and everywhere, ‘stash is a stealthy secret until you learn he’s ubiquitous, sticking around with the sole purpose of being spotted by someone, sometime.

After having snapped these shots in Cambridge on Sunday morning, later in the day I spotted Goldenstash on the back of a sign somewhere in Jamaica Plain while a friend drove down unfamiliar-to-me streets on our way to dinner. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera, unfortunately, to achieve a drive-by ‘stash-shot, so you’ll have to believe me when I say the mustachioed one is everywhere.

Cardinal in maple

Now that the maples of Newton are bursting into leaf and flower, the cardinals here are still sitting pretty, just as they were back in February when the trees were bare.

Even trees get thirsty sometimes

With all the spring sun we’ve been getting in New England these days, even the trees are thirsty, sneaking surreptitious sips of high fructose corn syrup in the form of McDonald’s sodas. Either that, or “leaf litter” isn’t the only kind of dry detritus you can find in the woods in springtime.


Last week in Keene, we had our first fire warning of the season: a reminder that low humidity and dry leaf litter make for dangerously flammable forests. This weekend in Waban, the “fire” outside is metaphoric, with forsythia blooming like a yellow-hot blaze in suburban yards and gardens.

Although I mentioned Earth Day earlier this week, yesterday I was remiss in remembering Arbor Day. Steve was similarly remiss, mentioning today that he’d forgotten both Earth and Arbor Days, presumably because he was “not watching the calendar closely enough!” For good or ill, neither Earth nor Arbor Day is on my calendar, but I’d like to think that doesn’t matter: wouldn’t it better for us (and the health of the planet) if we spent less time watching our calendars and more time listening to trees?

In New England at least, the trees right now will tell you it’s spring, their “words” being unfolding leaves, blooming flowers, and (in the case of pines) a yellow dusting of pollen. Before he died, Thoreau had intended to construct a local “Kalendar” that, according to Bradley Dean, would provide a biological time-line of the natural year, with the blooming and breeding of plant and animal species serving as temporal markers:

Apparently he intended to write a comprehensive history of the natural phenomena that took place in his hometown each year. Although he planned to base his natural history of Concord upon field observations recorded in his journal over a period of several years, he would synthesize those observations so that he could construct a single “archetypal” year, a technique he had used to wonderful effect in Walden.

Maple blossoms

In my neck of the woods, I’ve learned, trout lilies bloom at the end of April, and forsythias flame not long after. I don’t need a calendar to remind me of that fact, just my blog (the 21st-century, high-tech equivalent of Thoreau’s journal) and photo archives. Next week, I’m hoping the wake-robin (Trillium erectum, also known as purple or red trillium) will be blooming since I have an unofficial ritual of blogging them on May 1st, whether at Goose Pond or Beech Hill. After May 1st, I’ve learned from years of New Hampshire living, the black flies will emerge, and my days in the woods around Keene will be numbered, at least until blood-sucking insects die off.

It might be true that the trees of the greater Boston area are fond of McDonald’s soda, but I’d prefer that instead of “loving it,” they simply leaf it. Steve rightfully notes that every day should be both Earth and Arbor day, for “When should we not be thinking about trees, about the health of the planet?” Between you and me, I think the trees in New England and elsewhere would be healthier if they just said no to soda.

This post is a roundabout excuse to mention two tree-related things. First, the Nature Conservancy is spearheading an effort called Plant a Billion Trees which is attempting to re-forest a richly bio-diverse (and unfortunately endangered) area in Brazil. If you, like Steve, can’t plant a tree in your urban backyard, you might consider donating to the cause of “One dollar – One tree – One planet.”


Second, don’t forget to submit your tree-related links and pictures to next month’s Festival of the Trees. You can send permalinks to mike (at) 10000birds (dot) com, submit them via the Contact page at 10,000 Bird’s, or use the Festival’s online submission form. The deadline is April 29, so get moving!

Hula hoops

Circus performer Yelena Larkina looks positively electric in this photo from the Big Apple Circus last weekend. Surely this is what a cloud of electrons twirling around a nucleus looks like, at least if atoms consisted of circus performers spinning a half dozen silver hula hoops.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Electricity. You can see a photo-set from the Big Apple Circus here.

Trout lily


I wasn’t expecting to see trout lilies (Erythronium americanum, also known as fawn lilies or dogtooth violets, pictured above) on my stroll to the Soggy Sink during my lunch break on campus today. According to my blog archives, though, I saw trout lilies on April 24, 2004 and on April 21, 2005.

I also discovered today that the spring beauties blooming along the Ashuelot River here in Keene (pictured below) are of the oval-leaved Carolina variety (Claytonia caroliniana) rather than the more narrow-leaved variety I grew up seeing in Ohio (C. virginica). I didn’t bother to key the precise species of violets I also spotted underfoot (pictured at right). They were uncatalogued icing on today’s botanical cake.

Spring beauties


This morning I walked Reggie first thing upon awaking, recognizing we both feel better when we begin our day on foot. Reggie rests more quietly–he’s less antsy–after he’s been walked, and I feel more alert and alive after our strolls. Taking a walk makes it easier for me to come back home, have breakfast, and then write in my journal, even if I haven’t seen anything on my walk worth writing about. The simple act of getting out and getting moving pulls me away from my laptop’s virtual world and pushes me into my neighborhood’s actual one, and that’s a good thing.


Mark posted from India today about blogging and diary-keeping, and I posted a lengthy comment in response. I think it’s natural for bloggers to occasionally ask themselves why they started (and continue to keep) a blog: why keep a blog when it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing anything? Yes, some bloggers become famous or at least popular via their online writing; some bloggers get book deals or make money from their sites. Most of us, though, do not. Blogging is something we do primarily for our own satisfaction; if we were looking for something else from our online writing, we’d give up, discouraged, the moment we discover New York literary agents aren’t pounding down our doors with book deals and expensive pens in hand.


The only reason I continue to keep both a journal and a blog is I see each kind of writing as being a spiritual–not a commercial, professional, or even practical–practice. I write journal pages and blog posts the same way I sit in meditation: the act of writing or sitting is its own reward. Any positive consequence of sitting, writing, or blogging is an accidental side-effect: a result (good or bad) that’s beside the point. Long ago, I gave up any hope or expectation of achieving “enlightenment,” figuring that sitting quietly, breathing, and lightly gazing at the floor in front of me isn’t a bad way to spend an occasional half-hour. I’ve given up, in other words, any hope or expectation that meditation will give or get me anything remotely practical; instead, I figure if I’m here in a human, breathing body, I might occasionally spend some time simply experiencing what it’s like to be breathly and embodied.


Writing is the same kind of practice for me. After eating breakfast in the morning, on most days (when I’m not in a frantic hurry) I don’t have much better to do than sit a spell while I finish my morning juice or tea. Given I’m typically in no hurry to attack my to-do list right after breakfast, I might as well do something rather than nothing with that time…and scribbling into a notebook is the “something” I’ve chosen. You might reach for the newspaper while you finish your morning coffee, or someone else might flip on the television before showering and getting dressed. I reach for notebook and pen: nothing special.


Were I a perfectly faithful journal-keeper, I’d have no need for a blog…but an online audience keeps me honest. If I skip a day or two, a week or two, or a month or two in my journal, no one but me will notice. But if I disappear without a post or picture for several days or more, presumably someone in cyberspace (I tell myself) will notice. On many days when I just don’t feel like I have anything to show or tell here, the expectation of an awaiting audience (whether they’re actual or merely imagined) makes me show up rather than slacking off.


Ultimately it is that fidelity and discipline–that entirely quotidian commitment to show up more days than not–that keeps me blogging. Practicing anything (meditation, writing, or other) by oneself is no less fruitful than practicing with a community, but many of us are more likely to show up consistently if we know other folks–including folks whose names and stories we know–will be showing up as well.

So these days, I blog about Keene to remind Mark what it’s like here while he spends his academic sabbatical there. The rest of the time, I blog about my environs to remind myself time and again what it’s like to be “here” even as I remain close to home, steeped in the here and now.

This is a more-or-less exact transcript of this morning’s journal pages, written after I’d walked Reggie, made a quick check online, and ate breakfast. If you’re interested in this topic of blogging and journal-keeping, I’d highly recommend Mark’s post as the push that set my mental wheel in motion.


Today was another mild, gloriously sunny spring day in Keene: the kind of day when it’s difficult to stay indoors. During the free hour I have before my noon lit class, I took a walk on and around campus, crossing the railroad bridge over the Ashuelot River then following the local bike path a few blocks into town and back. On a sunny spring day, exercise easily passes for ecstasy.

Chalk folk

The stretch of bike path that intersects campus could never be confused with wilderness. Both the paved and dirt portions are leftover from Keene’s industrial heyday when the railroad delivered raw materials and retrieved goods like chairs, ball-bearings, and bricks in exchange. The segment of bike path I walked today passes an auto body shop, several derelict garages, and a series of run-down industrial buildings that house the local aikido dojo, a large upholstery and fabric store, and other commercial endeavors that aren’t quite ready for the prime time of prime downtown real estate. Most New England towns offer a mix of the quaint and the quotidian, and today’s stroll took me past the backside of industries most casual tourists never take the time see.

Chalk folk

On Earth Day more than any other, it strikes me that these well-worn sites of human industry are exactly the kind of places we overlook in our quest for the “virgin wild.” In today’s noon lit class, we began to discuss Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the very title of which alludes to the allure of the untamed and untrammeled. “If only I could escape civilization like Christopher McCandless did,” readers of Krakauer’s narrative might wish, “and encounter Nature where she is still untouched and untamed!” And yet “the Wild” is an elusive quarry. Venturing into the Alaskan “wild,” Chris McCandless ended up camping in an abandoned bus not far from Healy: not exactly an untouched wilderness. In McCandless’ mind, however, the mental distance he’d traveled from his suburban childhood in a privileged Virginia suburb to an alien Alaskan landscape transformed even an abandoned bus into a Wild place…as did his eventual demise there.

Cheshire Tire Center

Perhaps an apt way of observing Earth Day would be to temporarily refrain from fossil-fueled travel in search of the Wild. Instead of jet-setting to popular eco-tourist spots or retracing the steps of Chris McCandless in search of Alaskan enlightenment, perhaps the most green thing we can do is to make a conscious effort to stay close to home, engaging in human-powered travel as we explore the streets and sidewalks of our own human habitats. “Walk more, idle less” proclaim dozens of crayoned signs in the shop windows of downtown Keene: local school children’s answer to global warming, high fuel prices, and expanding American waistlines. Thoreau famously claimed that he “traveled a great deal” in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and maybe he was onto something. Rather than seeing “the Wild” as being far off and elusive, perhaps we should re-inhabit our own habitats, investigating wonders close to home while making an eco-friendly commitment to “Think Globally; Walk Locally.”

Spring leaves

Every spring, I can’t help but snap photos of the year’s first leaves. These pictures are like those of New Year’s babies shown on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. Every year, the first baby of the New Year qualifies as news that’s fit to print, and every year, I show you the baby leaves in my neck of the woods.

Spring leaves

In past years, I’ve waited until May to show you New Hampshire beech leaves unwrapped; this year, it’s the April maples of Massachusetts. Regardless of the state or the species, the upshot is the same: as we speak, the gray, barren woods of winter are starting to sprout into something lush and lovely, the exact opposite of autumn’s annual strip-tease.

Mature leaves seldom strike us as special: trees are common in New England, and each one is covered with countless leaves. But when new leaves first appear, they are simultaneously unusual, odd, and cherished. New leaves often look distinctively different from their mature counterparts, as if baby leaves were alien life forms that only later morph into something known and familiar. New leaves also herald a new season, with local trees’ decision to cover their bare branches happening right when we bundled New Englanders are deciding to cast off our layers, trading turtlenecks for T-shirts, pants for Capris and shorts, and boots for sandals. Perhaps alongside each year’s first green leaves, I should start a tradition of showing you the first naked toe of the year: a whole other reason to celebrate.

Spring leaves

Today is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, a state-wide remembrance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which marked the official start of the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775: America’s real birthday. I’ve previously blogged my impressions of the green and leafy landscape where the shots heard ’round the world were initially fired, and I’ve also blogged the role that New Hampshire more-than-a-minute men played in the conflict. What I haven’t previously noted, though, is the happy coincidence that the American colonies began their fight for independence right as New England trees were declaring their own green victory over another winter, with unfolding leaves casting off the oppressive bonds of bud-scale and killing frost. It’s the kind of green-flagged victory that even the most pacifist among us can celebrate with abandon.

Spring leaves

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