April 2008


Graffiti

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.

Graffiti

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.

Graffiti

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.

Graffiti

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.

Graffiti

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.

Graffiti

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.

Magnolia

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

Hooray, beer!

Now that spring has sprung in Boston, it’s far too warm to walk the streets in full protective hockey gear. But the fact that these four goalies were walking out of a bar–along with the fact that their jerseys suggest they play for team Molson rather than either the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens, who duked it out in a red-hot NHL playoff game at the TD Banknorth Garden last night–suggests that all hockey fans, regardless of team affiliation, share an affinity for beer. After all, both hockey and beer, like revenge, are best served ice cold.

Hooray, beer!

This is my contribution for this week’s Photo Friday theme, Cold. Since we had plans to be in Boston yesterday afternoon, J and I tried to get tickets to last night’s playoff game…but now that the Bruins are winning, their tickets are a hot commodity, leaving J and me out in the cold.

Table for two

These geometric shadows tell the story more clearly than I can. The spring sun has arrived in Keene, and Main Street is bustling with people strolling, sitting, and otherwise soaking up the light and warmth we’ve craved all winter. Sunny days are here again, and it’s all but impossible to stay inside.

Fresh paint, with lock and graffiti

The first time I walked up Beech Hill here in Keene, the municipal water tower was unfenced and covered with graffiti. One year later, the tower had been surrounded by a tall fence…and it was still covered with graffiti.

Fresh paint, with fence and graffiti

Last week, I walked with Reggie up Beech Hill to see if the wood frogs were calling, but the woods were still partly snow-covered. (In the meantime, I’ve heard wood frogs quacking elsewhere.) In the process of looking for wood frogs, though, I discovered that the City of Keene has finally gotten around to painting over the graffiti that’s covered the Beech Hill water tower since before it was fenced. And in due fashion, some intrepid street-artist has scaled the fence to leave the first of presumably many tags, the blank canvas of a freshly painted water tower apparently begging to be so claimed.

Newly tagged

It took the City of Keene nearly four years–from the first time I walked up Beech Hill in May, 2004 until now–to paint over the same old graffiti…and it took some intrepid street-artist a matter of months (if that!) to make the first claim on this territory. As a writer, I can understand the impulse: there’s something about a blank page that beckons. In a season of fresh leaves, isn’t it tempting to turn over a new one by making one’s mark on a fresh slate, intoxicated by the promise of fresh paint?

Not-so-finicky predator

If you’ve ever wondered what your cute little kitty does when you let him or her outside, here’s a partial answer. Not only can house cats catch and kill birds and mice, they occasionally kill and eat squirrels.

Killer kitty

And yes, this cat was enthusiastically eating a squirrel when J and I spotted her during an afternoon walk around Newton this weekend, even though by the looks of it she wasn’t wanting for food. When has simply being well-fed stopped any of us from saying “no” to a particularly tempting tidbit?

We pet-owners seem to think a collar, a regular supply of kibble, lots of cuddling, and several hundred generations of domestication can irrevocably redeem cats and dogs from their “wild” ways, but occasionally even the most pampered pussy returns to her natural predatory habits. In discussing the ethics of meat-eating, my undergraduate Eastern Philosophy professor described some acquaintances’ misguided attempts to raise vegetarian pets. “It is in a cat’s dharma to eat meat,” my professor explained after having defined “dharma” as the underlying nature or “law” of a given creature. Expecting a cat to live like a meat-eschewing Buddhist monk was contrary to the laws of nature, he suggested, and was thus doomed to failure.

The after-Easter bunny?

If you own cats and love nature, the best thing you can do to protect all creatures great and small is to keep Kitty inside. Even thickly settled suburbs like Newton offer a tasty array of feline temptations…and even the suburbs are wild enough to harbor coyotes that consider cats as cuisine.

J has nine cats, and they all live happily indoors…which is why both rabbits and squirrels romp with abandon in his yard, taunting dogs and cats alike. If this sounds like a happy version of the Peaceable Kingdom, take note: J’s resident backyard rabbit demonstrates a voracious fondness for fresh spring greenery, which is the kind of predatory dharma cottontails are prone to. Regardless of your species or level of domestication, it’s a jungle out there.

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