September 2010

Virginia creeper on chainlink fence

I technically don’t have time to write this morning — I have student papers to read and classes to prepare. But here I am, determined to fill at least a few pages because I like what I wrote a few days ago, and I believe writing sludge on mornings like this fuels the more fruitful writing on mornings like those.

Morning glories with fall foliage

I’m at that point of the semester when I feel desperate for time: “please,” I find myself begging the Universe, “just give me a few extra hours!” Who knows what I’d do with that time if the Universe were to grant it. I’d probably spend it sleeping or walking or sorting through pictures — anything but working.

It’s time, I think, to let a few apples fall.

So here I am scribbling instead of scrambling, trying to find an inner sense of balance between Work and More Work, Teaching and More Teaching. “What do you write every morning,” J asks, looking for a general synopsis rather than precise particulars, and I’m unable to answer. How do you summarize the contents of your cognitive junk drawer or explain why it’s important to your inner sense of calm to keep one? My morning pages have become a coping ritual for me, a way to see where I am in this world and in my head: a way of assessing how I’m doing…really.

I scribbled these paragraphs in my journal on Tuesday morning. This morning, I scribbled something completely different: the sound of rain, which I’m saving for a sunny day.


It’s been a few years since I posted a picture of a dog patiently waiting for his owner outside the local laundromat, during which time, several stuffed dogs have done their own stints as Laundromat Dogs. Here’s the latest dog to serve as car-guardian outside the local laundromat. Judging from his expression, this isn’t the first time he’s been left to lounge while his owner washed and dried a few loads.


I think I’ve turned a corner some five years after the Keene flood of 2005. Fall rains are soothing to me once again, the cool blanket of a gray, drizzly day feeling both comfortable and cozy, a calming balm after summer’s glaring heat. Summer is loud and boisterous — bright. Fall is more muted, calm, and tranquil, a temperate, temperamental downshift toward the contemplative mood that is winter.


Summer is extroverted, with bursting blooms and burbling birds. Fall is introspective — a time to take stock, gathering a harvest of emotional resources to tide one over a long, inward-focused winter. Right as New England braces herself for one last invasion of temporary tourists — leaf-peepers with their slow-moving cars clogging winding roads and their five-second roadside photo stops — New Englanders are marshaling their inner resources, ready to hunker down for another winter. Now’s the time to reckon your woodpile, check your snow shovels, and find last year’s boots, gloves, and hats. In New Hampshire at least, winter always arrives sooner than you’d expected, snow being entirely possible as soon as October arrives.

Late bloomer

But usually, October rains come first — and in 2005, these rains swept huge chunks of New Hampshire soil, roads, and cherished landmarks away, victims of a weekend-long deluge. For years after the autumn flood of 2005 and the summer floods of 2006, the sound of steady rain made me uneasy, making me dream on raining nights that my basement was filling (again) with water and leading me to peer out my windows in the morning to make sure I saw pavement and puddles — not a navigable river — where my street was supposed to be.

Yesterday morning, my heart felt grateful for a soothingly gentle rain — the first time in years that I fully relished autumn drizzle without anxious memories of The Flood. How long, I wonder, did it take Noah, his wife, and their children to look up without worry when the first postdiluvian raindrops fell, and for how many years afterward did the once-arked animals paw and stomp nervously with remembered claustrophobia at the first scent of storm?

Red eft

Over the years, I’ve taken a handful of images of red efts, the juvenile stage of the Eastern newt. If you watch where you step while walking in moist New Hampshire woods, red efts are relatively easy to spot in either the spring or fall when they are traveling to or from the ponds where they spend their other life-stages, first as tadpole-like larvae then as aquatic adults.


I have a picture of a springtime eft as the banner image for my Art of Natural History class’s Blackboard course-site. The lesson of red efts is to pay close attention to small details: in other words, watch where you step. On Thursday, I took my Art of Natural History students outside to draw in their nature journals, telling them to record all the signs of fall they could find. We didn’t see any red efts, but we detailed the progress of turning leaves, the additional layers worn by strolling undergraduates, and the settled air of students already nearly a month into a new academic year. Fall is not only underfoot, but in the air as well.

Click here for a photo-set of images from my most recent dog-walk at Goose Pond earlier this month. Enjoy!

Ashuelot River from footbridge

The Ashuelot, like any river, has two sides, and last Wednesday, Reggie and I took a quiet walk on the wild side.

Tattered and turning

I typed that opening line because I liked the music of it in my head, then I did a quick blog-search to review the other times Reggie and I have walked along the Ashuelot River. Sure enough, I’ve used this opening line before, more than six years ago:

The Ashuelot River, like any river, has two sides. You can access the east side of the Ashuelot River by parking in the lot for Blockbuster Video on West Street, where you’ll find the river tumbling over a dam right behind the long-out-of-business Taco Bell. There is a landscaped park on this side of the river which culminates in a smooth gravelled fitness path. This path enters the woods and skirts the river all the way to Route 9 on the edge of town, where it crosses the river on a walkway and then snakes under the road toward Wheelock Park, where it ends.

Dried Queen Anne's lace

They say (and I’ve blogged) that you can’t step into the same river twice, and indeed the wild side of the Ashuelot Reggie and I revisited last Wednesday is not the same river we walked six years ago. Blockbuster Video has gone out of business (although locals still refer to its parking lot on West Street by that name), and the long-forgotten Taco Bell is now (and has been for years) a successful Starbucks. More importantly, both Reggie and I are six years older than we were the first time I blogged the Ashuelot River’s wild side, and although I don’t feel substantially worse for the wear of six years, Reggie’s changed. Last Wednesday Reggie and I walked on the wild side of the Ashuelot–the side that doesn’t have smooth, improved paths, where fewer dog-walkers, cyclists, and joggers go–because the paths there quickly peter out into underbrush, and as slowly as Reggie walks these days, I’ve learned to measure our walks by depth rather than length.


When Reggie was younger and more energetic, we’d walk from the so-called Blockbuster parking lot on West Street to the underpass of Route 9 and back without a second thought: that was a moderate, easy stroll for us. These days, Reggie walks far more slowly, and he spends far more time stopping to rest and sniff: it’s impossible, I’m learning, to hurry an old dog. Reggie and still take our morning (and sometimes evening) walks around the neighborhood, but now that Reggie’s more than thirteen years old, we take those morning walks much more deliberately. We aren’t in a hurry to cover ground; instead, we’re intent on appreciating the ground we cover.

A few weeks ago, for example, Reggie and I went to Goose Pond, where the two of us have walked (and Reggie has waded) many times in the past. I knew it was unlikely we’d make it all the way around the pond, a walk that took us a few leisurely hours in the good old days when both of us were younger, but I figured we’d have a good time walking to the pond and back, if not further, and I was right. This time at Goose Pond, Reggie and I took our good, sweet time walking from the parking lot to Reggie’s favorite wading spot, where he muddied his paws and sniffed while I did a quick scribble-sketch in my journal: walking with a pencil and sketchbook, I’ve learned, is something that goes quite naturally with walking an old dog. When we both were done, Reggie quite naturally turned back the way we came, toward the car, as if to say “That’s enough for today, Mom,” and indeed it was. We squeezed an entire pond’s worth of looking, sniffing, and appreciating into a slow, half-hour walk there and back, and nothing more was necessary.

Sumac leaves

This summer, my upstairs neighbor in Keene had to put her thirteen-year-old German shepherd to sleep; this past week, one of my teaching colleagues said goodbye to her similarly aged Basenji. Each of these and other losses remind me that any time spent with an elderly dog is golden. For the time being, Reggie’s spirit is strong even if his energy is diminished; for the time being, we’re not yet ready for talk of the rainbow bridge. Still, I’m not naive enough to think that time won’t come, eventually; as J mentioned when the film version of the book Marley and Me came out, “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.” When you know where the winding path you trod leads, you can make a conscious choice to enjoy every step as a time to cherish and reflect.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Reflect. I’ve been remiss when it comes to posting recent pictures of Reggie, so let me make up for that by linking to a lovely set of photos J took with Reggie in our backyard this past spring: proof that the Old Dog is still pretty damn handsome, and very experienced when it comes to lounging.

Kousa fruit

I always forget each year how quickly the semester gets busy, as if the school year were a circus act where students and instructors alike are shot out of a cannon to achieve maximum velocity almost instantly: kaboom! It’s already the third week of the semester at Keene State, and already I have my Creative Nonfiction students starting their research projects, and my Thinking & Writing students aren’t far behind. Knowing how much time and effort it takes to climb the mountain of a sustained writing project, I know the first step toward success is getting an early start.

Ripe and ripening

Autumn is the season when time speeds up — suddenly the lazy days of summer are gone, gone, gone, and each day seems in an increasing hurry to hasten toward sunset. There never are enough hours in the day, and this always comes as a sudden shock each September, as if I could have forgotten such a dire truism. Tonight when I arrived in Keene for another week of face-to-face classes, the town felt noticeably quieter than it did two weeks ago when I arrived to re-inhabit my apartment the night before my first classes began. Two weeks ago, students were hanging out and relaxing with their neighbors, not yet swamped with homework on their first day of classes. Tonight, on the other hand, there was less traffic and fewer pedestrians, as if a noticeable number of students were hunkered down at home with homework or with the tiring task of procrastination.

Berries with variegated leaves

In the meantime, Nature has gotten an early start on a sustained project of her own, revising her first green drafts into something riper and more mature. Every year, I wish I had the time and discipline to learn the names of the myriad berries that ripen in fall — the hordes of honeysuckle and various viburnums — and each year I push it off until next year. In the meantime, I greet the fruit and berries of autumn as foggily familiar neighbors I see only in passing each year, but never long enough to exchange names. “Oh, yes,” I smile and nod, searching my mental archives for a name that never surfaces. “You!” The greeting is heartfelt if not entirely personalized, the first fruits of autumn realizing at the center of their cells that their existence is essentially an anonymous, perishable one.

Click here for the latest installment of Dave Bonta’s Woodrat podcast, which features a conversation with me on far-flung topics such as blogging, journal-keeping, pilgrims, hermits, and Buddhism. Enjoy!

Callery pear fruit

Last week, 90-degree days turned my Keene State classrooms into saunas; this weekend, the coming and going of Exaggerated Earl brought a welcome break in the weather, with this week being a golden paradise of sunny, mild days with daytime temperatures in the 70s.


This is, I think, my favorite time of year, when the sun still shines like summer while the temperature eases into an almost-autumnal briskness. This morning when I walked Reggie just after dawn, I wore a lightweight fleece atop my summer shirt-sleeves: the first taste of fall layers. The morning light had a strange, almost smoky orange tint, as if the sun itself were metallic and every surface it touched were burnished: an odd autumnal alchemy.

During the summer, the sun shines unabated; come fall, the skies turn pyrotechnic, casting sharply defined shadows through a strange sheen of slants and angles. No sky is bluer than an autumn sky, and no light is more golden. September days seem to know they are precious: in addition to the summer sounds of keening crickets, these transitional days brim with the sound of single-engine planes guided by pilots making the most of warm and waning days. These are the year’s golden days, and nothing gold can stay.

Ragweed in construction webbing

I arrived back in New Hampshire on Monday night, at the end of the first day of classes at Keene State. Because I teach on campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I always get a one-day reprieve at the beginning of the semester: an extra day to move back into my apartment, stock up on groceries, and tend to last minute preparations before embarking on another academic year.

Ragweed with construction webbing

I wrote this time last year about the strange sensation of moving back into my apartment in Keene, where I live three days a week during the school year. It’s been three years that I’ve divided my days this way, migrating like a student between my summer and school-year homes. This, of course, is the first year I’ve left a husband behind in Massachusetts, thereby surprising those who believe marriage automatically means uninterrupted cohabitation, professional obligations and economic realities notwithstanding. Among academics, however, there is a long tradition of commuter marriages, and I’ve encountered more than a few long-married folks who get a far-off, longing look when they consider what it would be like to be married but with a place of their own to visit occasionally.

Coming back to Keene after a summer away, I’m always acutely aware of the things that have changed while I was gone. The house across from mine is inhabited by a new batch of college guys with pickup trucks; around the corner, two new houses harbor another throng of students, clogging the street with a new string of parallel-parked cars. Downtown, there is now a hotel in a boxy building I’d watched grow from the ground up: how strange to see a family pushing a loaded luggage cart to parking lot that used to be weeds and grass! And yet one thing I’ve learned from three years migrating between New Hampshire and Massachusetts is that change never changes. Every year, there’s always new construction, always new neighbors, and always a new crop of students, this set of replacements slipping into the places left vacant by their predecessors.