Jan 31, 2013
It’s a strange, unseasonably warm day: rainy and dismal this morning, and intermittently cloudy now. The sun is chasing the clouds across the sky: one minute bright, the next minute gray. The quality of light keeps changing, too, from iron-clad to gold-toned. I just posted my final small stone for this month’s Mindful Writing Challenge, and it was difficult to describe a day so mercurial: as soon as I’d mentally crafted an adequate description of Now, the light and tenor of the day had already changed.
I sit writing these words on the last day of the January in my office at Framingham State. I have work to do, as always, but more than anything I want to walk. What better way to experience a kaleidoscopic day shot through with a rotating assortment of glinting, metallic light than by walking through that light, illuminated?
In today’s small stone, I compared the clouds to hammered pewter, and indeed some of them are gray and mottled, capping the heavens like a lid. But at the fringes, these thicker, darker, more solidly heavy clouds fray into something more miscible: spun-sugar and cotton-tuft. On the dull, muddy ground, the rain-sodden grass is etched with spider-tracery, the weirdly wending shadows of overhead tree limbs. Students pass in sweatshirts and long-sleeves—no jackets, but no bare arms, either.
What have I learned from a month of mindful writing? Every day gives you something you can boil down to its essence, the meaty broth of experience. Every moment offers something to see.
I crafted one version of today’s Tweet in my head while I was driving to campus through windblown drizzle this morning, but by my office hour, when I had a chance to post it, that moment had already long passed. Looking back on a month of Tweets, I see not a month of days but a month of moments. Why this arbitrary decision to post a small stone a day when one could easily Tweet a small stone an hour, small-stoning rather than rocking around the clock? If my heart had thumbs with which to Tweet or text, could I emit a small stone with every heartbeat, my Twitter feed pulsing with the emphatic urge of Now, Now, Now?
A car passes, its engine whining, in one direction; two women pass, chatting, in the other. Right now the clouds have parted and the light is golden; in a minute, the cloudy curtain will close, and the light will turn leaden. Nature’s alchemy works in both directions on partly cloudy, late-January days: gold turns to lead, and lead turns back to gold. Given the anvil of time, what will you hammer from your days?
Will I continue Tweeting tomorrow? When the urge strikes, yes, but automatically every day, no. Having started the year with open eyes, now I’ll walk through the rest of these days, alert.
January’s small stones:
1. I needn’t see the shadow of passing wings to know a hawk has been near: the hanging feeder bereft of birds tells the tale.
2. Two downy woodpeckers flit and chitter on a frozen branch, their chatter as brittle as clacking ice.
3. A blue jay calls, and the cardinals, nuthatch, juncos, and all but two house sparrows vanish. False alarm.
4. A downy woodpecker scoots around a slim limb while a male and female cardinal fluff their feathers against the cold.
5. A fat gray squirrel leaps from feeder to tree, spraying an arc of seed for the juncos and sparrows scratching the snow below.
6. A sugar-sifting of snow on my birthday. Two nuthatches scoot and honk overhead, neither looking a day older than yesterday.
7. A squirrel leaps from fence to tree, his tail curled into a question mark. A woodpecker startles, silhouetted in morning light.
8. Curbside trash bins sparkle with predawn frost. High above the streetlights, a thin sliver of moon glows like God’s thumbnail.
9. Two male cardinals are meticulously placed, each a spot of color in his own tree, each coolly eyeing the other: winter detente.
10. Two nuthatches work a half-dead walnut tree, probing for insects. Their claws scratch bark as they hop from branch to trunk.
11. With no gaudy mate to overshadow her, a female cardinal is perfectly complemented by her red bill, black mask, and olive coat.
12. A damp morning–the backyard fence green with algae. A white-throated sparrow sings, his whistle as cool and clear as water.
13. No birds at the feeder, just three fat squirrels who know they outweigh the invisibly lurking Cooper’s hawk.
14. A balmy day, humid with the souls of melted snowmen. The backyard, stripped of snow, is as bare & miserable as a fleeced sheep.
15. Outside before dawn, I see the ears and eye-shine of one of our cats in an upstairs window. In a nearby house, one lit candle.
16. Juncos fly into a black & white tree. A cardinal beneath the snow-topped feeder gives a spot of color to a monochrome morning.
17. Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.
18. A turquoise sky caps a fiercely cold morning. Sunlight glints on the birdbath ice, and chickadees chatter from brittle pines.
19. What unseen bit is wedged at the apex of this particular fence slat, luring a red-breasted nuthatch to hammer fearlessly there?
20. One fat squirrel on the bird feeder, a second tail-twitching on the branch above, quietly plotting strategies and trajectories.
21. A woodpecker calls, his “peeeek” as hard as the bird bath ice. Incongruously, a chickadee sings a spring song: two clear notes.
22. A thin film of snow squeaks underfoot. Three lines of rabbit tracks crisscross the driveway: this way, that way, and back.
23. The rising sun glows & sparkles through an opaque veil of ice crystals, the window feathered with bluish brushstrokes of frost.
24. Too cold to look for the woodpecker calling from the tall, twiggy trees behind my office, his cry as sharp as the winter air.
25. Beneath the feeder, two white-throated sparrows scratch for seed, so natty with their neat eye-stripes and clean white bellies.
26. A faint line of bird tracks wends delicately across the sidewalk, an intricate embroidery in a script I can’t understand.
27. Alerted by a downy woodpecker’s call, I look up just in time to see the sun glint golden on a passing red-tailed hawk’s belly.
28. A nuthatch zooms like a torpedo to the feeder, parries with a sparrow there, & deems the place big enough for the two of them.
29. Up before dawn or any birdsong. Underfoot, an inch of sugar-white snow crusted with ice, like walking through crème brûlée.
30. A soupy-humid day, with yesterday’s slush reduced to slop. Beneath the dripping trash bins, two flat rectangles of hidden snow.
31. An otherworldly light as hammered-pewter clouds roll in and out. High overhead, a lone gull circles on long, spindly wings.
If you’re a Van Morrison fan, you’ll recognize the allusion in today’s title. Enjoy!
Jan 29, 2013
One interesting characteristic of being a college instructor is the way you’re frequently asked to present a statement of your teaching philosophy. I don’t know if this ritual is limited to college teaching: I know that entrepreneurs write mission statements for start-up companies, for instance, but I don’t know if the proverbial doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief is ever required to articulate her or his professional philosophy. Do plumbers, mechanics, or firemen ever sit down to explain their philosophy of plumbing, machinery, or firefighting, or is this an exclusively white-collar or even Ivory Tower thing?
I don’t know how it is for other professions, but in my field at least, having a statement of teaching philosophy is as necessary as having an up-to-date copy of your CV. A CV and teaching statement aren’t only required when you apply for a new job; they’re also included in the teaching dossiers many schools require you to assemble to keep your job, whether that means applying for tenure or seeking reappointment as an adjunct. If you’re a college instructor, it’s not enough to simply do your job; you also need to be able to articulate why you do your job the way you do. What implicit philosophy underpins and inspires your teaching?
I recently realized that although I’ve written various versions of my own “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” over the years—a new, updated one every time I came up for reappointment as an adjunct instructor at Keene State, for instance—I’ve never written a statement of my online teaching philosophy. Just as the teaching tasks and responsibilities of an online instructor are slightly different from what is required when you teach face-to-face, these two kinds of teaching require a slightly different philosophical outlook. Having recently crafted a statement of my online teaching philosophy, I thought I’d share. If you’re wondering why I’ve recently had reason to articulate the philosophy behind ten years of online teaching experience, I won’t say anything other than “Keep your fingers crossed.”
Statement of Teaching Philosophy
A recent series of television commercials touts the customer-friendly approach of a particular bank. In the ads, customers go to a competing bank that is ominous and impersonal, with a cavernous lobby studded with grim gray pillars. There are no human tellers in this nameless corporate bank, only a disembodied voice admonishing customers for stepping out of line, tugging a pen tethered to a counter with an impossibly short chain, or daring to arrive a minute after closing time. After reassuring viewers that the customer-friendly bank doesn’t have rope lines, provides free pens, and is open both nights and weekends, a voiceover suggests it’s time to “bank human, again.”
I start with a description of these bank commercials because I think they match many students’ worst nightmares about online classes. No one wants to feel like their bank is peopled by robots who ignore the niceties of human interaction, and no one wants to feel like their college classes are similarly impersonal. When students log into their online classes, they want to know there is an attentive, qualified, and responsive instructor behind the electronic interface: a human being who will gladly answer their questions, encourage and respond to their participation, and provide constructive feedback on their assignments. Given the understandable desire on the part of students to be treated with decency and respect, it’s time that online instructors “teach human, again.”
I’ve taught face-to-face college writing and literature classes for twenty years, and I’ve taught a mix of face-to-face and online classes for the past ten. During this decade of teaching both online and face-to-face, I’ve learned that all my students want the same basic things. Students want an instructor who knows their name, reads and pays attention to their papers, responds to their emails, and treats them fairly. Students want to know their instructor is “there” even if they need help outside the stated office hours. Students don’t expect their instructors to be available 24/7, but they appreciate a prompt, considerate response to their questions and concerns. Students want their instructors to be engaged enough to notice if they skip class and to care enough to ask why they might be struggling.
Anyone who is a teacher or a parent knows you can’t watch all of your charges all the time: those stories about teachers who have “eyes in the back of their head” are, unfortunately, the stuff of myth. But even though human instructors can’t be “there” for their students at all times, modern technology makes it possible for instructors to be remarkably responsive to their students’ needs. Years ago when I first experimented with Blackboard, I wanted a way to keep in better touch with my face-to-face students even while teaching on multiple campuses. I quickly learned that an online learning management system made it possible for me to hold virtual office hours from home the night before a paper was due and thus be more “connected” with my students in their dorm rooms than I was when I sat in my isolated and Internet-free campus office.
In my face-to-face classes, I notice with regret how students’ personalities sometimes hinder their academic performance. There are always a few extroverted students who dominate discussions, for instance, while their more introverted but equally intelligent peers are less eager to participate. In an online class, however, no one can sit in the proverbial back of the room where an instructor might overlook them. In an online class, everyone participates, and everyone has a chance to think before they contribute. In an asynchronous threaded discussion, you can easily refer to something a student posted earlier in the week and connect that comment to something another student said today. In an online class, all students’ contributions are recorded regardless of how outgoing they are in person.
Because of the electronic footsteps students leave in their online classes, instructors have a wealth of data they can use to ensure student success. Whereas a student can sit in a face-to-face class and quietly nod even though they don’t understand the presented material, in an online class, silent nods aren’t enough. In an online class, students need to articulate their understanding of the material, and that gives instructors like me a clear indication of whether students truly comprehend course concepts. If I’m concerned a particular student isn’t doing well, I can review that student’s discussion posts, blogs, and other assignment submissions. Given those indicators of student comprehension, I can reach out to students who are struggling and need more help. Instead of waiting for confused students to approach me, I can take the initiative to reach out to them.
Regardless of whether they take classes online or face-to-face, college students spend a lot of time and money on their education, and like any consumer, students want to get something of value in exchange. If we are going to give online students an education worth the time and money they invest in their studies, we might take a page from the playbook of that customer-friendly bank I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both bank customers and college students want to be treated like human beings, and one way to assure that is to hire real live humans to help them. Given how faceless much of our mechanized modern life has become, online instructors should make a conscious effort to be engaged, responsive, and respectful, bringing the niceties of human interaction into their virtual classrooms.
Jan 26, 2013
It’s been fiercely cold this week, so I’ve spent a lot of time hunkered down at home. Our cats are indoor creatures who have perfected the art of hunkering, mapping out the warmest radiators and most comfortable cushions. On a cold day, there’s something hugely comforting about curling up with a warm laptop and a purring throng of resting, grooming, and sleeping creatures, each of them quietly stoking their inner fires.
This isn’t to say I haven’t ventured out during this cold snap: I still have face-to-face classes to teach, dogs to escort to and from our backyard dog pen, and a photo a day to take. On Thursday, I dragged myself out of my office at Framingham State to take a short walk off campus and back, even a twenty-minute walk feeling like an adventurous arctic exploration. As much as my body might not want to walk when temperatures are in the single-digits, walking in the brutal cold feels strangely healthy after you’ve done it, the brisk air enlivening your steps. “Cold air kills flu germs,” I tell myself as I breathe the first, searing lungful of frigid air. I don’t know whether that is scientifically true, but it feels healthy to breathe fresh air rather than the stale, indoor stuff shared with colleagues, students, and random strangers.
On Friday, J and I went to an afternoon symphony concert, which meant we bundled up to walk from our house to the T and from the T to Symphony Hall, stopping along the way for lunch. “That’s a popular choice,” our waiter chuckled after both J and I ordered hot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Looking up, J and I noticed that indeed, the restaurant was filled with bundled married couples, many of them eating hot soup and sandwiches, and all of them clearly headed to the symphony.
“These are the hardy symphony-goers who can still get around on their own,” I whispered to J, since the BSO is largely popular with elderly folks, many of whom arrive at Symphony Hall by the busload from local retirement communities: one of the perks of growing old in a city with a world-class orchestra. True to our experience of past concerts, the BSO ushers expertly guided folks with physical challenges to their seats, whisking away canes and walkers to be stored in a neat row outside the restroom: the geriatric equivalent of the rows of baby-strollers you see outside playgrounds and popular amusement park rides.
“At least they showed up,” J mentioned, nodding to our otherwise empty row; apparently many concert-goers stayed home, daunted by either the cold weather or the threat of flu. I’d stuffed a handful of cough drops in my purse before we left home, knowing that Coughing At The Symphony is a social faux pas that is to be avoided at all costs. We didn’t need to avail ourselves of that emergency stash, though, and we heard very few coughs or sniffles during the symphony’s performance. Apparently the folks who venture out for a concert on a frigid day are an especially hardy bunch.
Jan 22, 2013
Today was the first day of classes at Framingham State, so I spent the break between my morning and afternoon classes in my office writing, as I did last semester. Last semester, my office was beastly hot, so I’d open a window to keep from sweltering; this semester, my office is a bit chilly, so today I found myself wishing I’d brought a sweater.
We got a dusting of snow overnight—just enough snow to cover everything with a thin film of white, like the powdery bloom on raspberry stems—so I had to brush off my car before commuting to campus this morning. It’s cold outside—in the 20s, and windy—so I took an abbreviated walk around the block and back, just far enough to take a handful of pictures.
The first day of any semester feels a bit like a first date, or at least what I remember first dates being like. There’s a certain amount of nervousness all around: you’re trying to decide if you like your students, and they’re trying to decide if they like you. Everyone is nice on the first day—everyone is trying to make a good impression—and you can’t yet tell whether that good first impression will last. Despite all the niceties, you can’t help but think ahead with a bit of trepidation to that point in the semester when your students will get sick of you and you will you get sick of them, in turn.
The first day of any semester is full of promise and potential: a fresh slate. When my department chair gave me my course assignment for the term, she mentioned that teaching second-semester freshmen is different from teaching first-semester freshmen, as the students are no longer fresh and dewy, eager at the prospect of starting a new phase in their lives. But although the mood among second-semester students might be different from the students I taught last term, I still sense a feeling of new beginnings, perhaps because spring semester starts so soon after the New Year and its associations with self-improvement and new resolve.
Second semester students might be a bit wilier than first-semester students—they’ve been around the proverbial block, having discovered that boring college classes are a lot like boring high school classes and allow the usual methods of shirking work—but such students often want to redeem themselves from the previous semester’s indiscretions. Second semester freshmen have survived their first term—they have gotten their initial rebelliousness out of their system, and they’ve watched their less-conscientious peers fall and fail. Second semester freshmen aren’t as dewy as the students I taught last semester, but they also aren’t as naïve. Having discovered their own limitations, second semester freshmen are willing to revisit the lessons they didn’t master last term, having learned from experience that those aforementioned tricks for shirking work will get them only so far.
I find myself wanting to promise my students on the first day that this class will be different, that we’ll avoid the pitfalls and traumas that make so many of them dislike reading and writing. “This will be a fun class,” I want to gush, “because I’m a fun teacher.” I don’t say this, though, because I know it’s only partly true: there will come a time when the novelty of a new semester, a new class, and a new instructor will wear off, and all that’s left is the unavoidable reality of nausea: Peter Elbow’s term for that stage of the writing process when whatever you’re working on seems hopelessly awful, far beyond the reach of revision. I can’t promise my students that reading and writing will always be fun: I love to write, but I’m the first to admit that writing is hard work. But even if I can’t promise that my class will be a constant source of fun, I can promise that I’ll try my best to treat my students and their writing with respect, I’ll try my best to make writing a bit easier for them, and I’ll try my best to give the most helpful feedback I can.
So that’s my vow as we start this optimistically named spring semester: I can’t promise to be perfect, but I promise to try my best. Whenever J and I are out walking and get stopped by a passing motorist asking for directions, J reminds me of the goal of any good direction-giver: even if you can’t give flawless turn-by-turn instructions from Here to There, at least get the driver closer to their destination so they can ask another person to guide them the rest of the way. I think a similar goal applies to teaching: no one instructor can teach every lesson, but each instructor should try to move her or his students another few steps in the right direction.
Jan 17, 2013
This month I’m participating in the Mindful Writing Challenge, which basically means I’m trying to note and record one interesting thing every day, using my Twitter account to post these “small stones.” Noticing and recording one small thing every day sounds easy enough—just open your eyes—but of course, simplicity is never as simple as it seems.
I’ve settled into a routine for generating each day’s small stone. In the morning when I take the dogs to our backyard dog-pen and back, I try to notice one interesting thing I can describe in a single arresting image. My walk to the dog-pen is short: from the back door to just beyond the garage. During that short stroll down the sidewalk, across the driveway, and back—something not long enough to count as a proper dog-walk—I watch for birds at the feeder, hawks in the trees, stars in the sky, or anything else that seems noteworthy: something seen in the brief backyard space between here and there.
Because I’m using Twitter to post my daily stones, I can’t be wordy: instead, I have to boil things down to their essence. On Twitter, I don’t have room to mention how this morning’s squirrels reminded me of other times I’ve seen squirrels romping and chasing; instead, I have to determine what makes this morning’s squirrel-spotting interesting or unusual. What is the kernel of experience that makes this squirrel stand out as remarkable or noteworthy? Specific details, I tell my writing students, are what make your writing believable: you want to capture the essence of “squirreliness” in your description, proving how attentive an observer of squirrel-nature you actually are. You don’t want to describe a squirrel as if you’ve never met one outside a book; you want to describe a squirrel as if you know it.
This morning’s squirrels were romping and scurrying, scrambling from all directions down one of our backyard maple trees onto a weathered picket fence, running along the top of it one after another. That was the central image in my head when I crafted this morning’s Tweet: squirrels rapidly converging as if from all directions, scrambling down a bare, branching tree and then chasing one another, one by one, along the top of the fence—one, two, three, four.
I just spent an entire paragraph describing this morning’s squirrels running from tree to fence, and I still don’t think I’ve provided an accurate picture. I haven’t mentioned the tail-twitching, the scrabbling claws, or the sharp chits of four squirrels chattering amongst themselves. I also didn’t mention how later, I saw even more squirrels—these same four, I’m guessing, and one or more additional ones—chasing and tumbling in the tall pines that fringe our backyard. Describing one squirrel encounter is difficult enough; describing two is infinitely more complex.
Having failed in two paragraphs to describe for you these squirrels, I give up, opting instead to create only the sketchiest of outlines: a Tweet that implies more than two paragraphs of prose could ever tell. When I craft each day’s Tweet, I first notice something as I’m taking the dogs out and in, out and in. Then I think about that noticed thing while I’m washing the previous night’s dishes, rinsing the recycling, and taking out the trash. Given what I saw, what can I say about it? Only then do I actually try to commit words to paper, except there’s no paper involved. Instead, I log into Twitter on my iPod Touch, then I skim a few Tweets before typing a short, condensed description of what I saw, ignoring how many characters I’m using and only trying to describe one central image that might express or explain the whole experience.
I do this with my thumbs because that’s how you type on an iPod Touch, as if you were texting on a phone. I never thought I’d use my thumbs to compose miniature bits of nature writing based on things I see in my suburban backyard, but I’m finding my Touch to be a perfect compositional tool for the simple reason that I don’t have to turn on my laptop to use it. Before I’ve written my morning journal pages much less turned on my laptop for the day’s work, I’ve composed the first draft of my daily Tweet, which I then whittle and hone so it fits Twitter’s 140-character limit. This act of winnowing words is what makes such Twittering useful to me as a writer: a daily exercise in concision. When you don’t have room for all your words, you pare down to your best words. This and this and this, and not a jot or tittle more.
This morning’s result? A single sentence that took me five minutes to get just so:
Four squirrels scramble down a mazy maple, each taking his own circuitous path to the fence, where they scurry in a neat row.
Jan 15, 2013
Yesterday J and I walked to Newton Centre for lunch, taking pictures along the way. We saw an odd assortment of lost or castoff objects: a baseball tossed from someone’s backyard, a dropped jar of peanut butter, a row of unwanted paint cans and plastic storage bins, a leather loveseat. In the aftermath of January thaw, walking with a camera feels a bit like a scavenger hunt, where your goal is simply to collect images of whatever interesting detritus you encounter. By the time J and I arrived our lunch destination, I felt like we’d already been fed one kind of sustenance: the creative inspiration of found objects.
Although I habitually carry a camera with me everywhere, this year I’m more consciously aware of the practice, having decided to attempt a 365-day photo challenge: in 2013, I’m committing to take and post to Flickr at least one photo every day for 365 consecutive days. Since I’m already in the habit of taking lots of pictures, the thought of taking 365 photos in 2013 isn’t daunting: in 2012, after all, I posted 1,714 photos to Flickr. For me, taking 365 photos is easy; the challenge lies in sharing photos from 365 days.
Looking back on last year’s photo archives, there are radical fluctuations in the number of photos I took from month to month. Last February, instance, I posted only eight photos to Flickr whereas in August, I posted 304. Some months seem more photogenic than others, and some months I don’t have as much time to take (or at least post) a lot of photos. Looking at Flickr’s calendar view of any given month, I see how I tend to take photographs in spurts: on a single day in August when I visited the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, for instance, I took 146 photos, which is more than I took in the entire month of April. If you’re shooting photos for a blog or photo archive, you don’t have to worry about taking photos every day: as long as you have enough photos from last week, last month, or even last year to show on-blog, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you shot any images today.
What I’m liking (already) about this still-embryonic 365-day challenge is how it’s forcing me to re-think this idea that I don’t need to take photos today if I still have photos from yesterday. Although my blog may not care whether I shot any pictures today, my 365-day challenge does. Regardless of how many photos I shot yesterday, I still need to shoot something today, and anything I shoot today won’t count for tomorrow’s goal: all that matters is today. So far this year, I’ve already gotten into the habit of shooting early and often, taking some easy morning shots (usually of sleeping cats) that I know I have on hand just in case I don’t have time (or can’t find inspiration) to shoot something more interesting later. Knowing I have those easy morning shots to fall back on has given me the impetus to find (and photograph) something more interesting later, if only to prove to myself that I don’t need to rely on easy shots.
I’ve written before about how the first photo you take on a given day breaks the ice so you can take more photos, and I’m finding that to be particularly true with this 365-day challenge. When you know you already have a photo you can share today, that gives you the freedom to take other, even better photos. Given the easy “gimme” shots you took in the morning, you want to find something better, more interesting, or more photo-worthy to share instead. Promising to take one photo a day ends up spurring you to take multiple photos on any given day: the more photos you take, the more selective you can be when it comes to picking your favorite. Instead of posting “what I have,” I can share “what I liked”: that one shot out of several that piqued my attention. As a result, I’ve already posted more photos during the first two weeks of January, 2013 than I did the entire month of January, 2012.
Only a few weeks into this year-long photo challenge, I’m realizing it’s an exercise in trust as much as discipline. If I’m faithful in taking and sharing a photo today, do I really believe the Universe will provide something interesting or photogenic for me to shoot tomorrow? Shooting and sharing a photo a day reminds me of the prohibition God made when he fed the wandering Israelites manna from heaven: gather all you can eat today, but don’t hoard any for tomorrow. Even as a child, I fretted over this Bible story, knowing I’d be the type to squirrel away a secret stash “just in case” tomorrow’s promised harvest failed. Although I still stockpile photos for my blog, I know as long as I’m doing this photo challenge, I’ll have to shoot something fresh tomorrow, the next day, and the next. I’m curious to see how desperate, creative, or desperately creative I’ll get as the year continues, the novelty of this project wears off, and I start running out of “obvious” pictures to take. How deeply can I trust my intrinsic belief that this moment and the next and the next is truly like no other?
The photo at the top of this post is today’s Day 15 photo; the other photos come from either today or yesterday. Here is the Flickr photo-set where I’m posting my daily photos in case you want to keep track with my progress. (Please note that while I’m committing to SHOOT each day’s photo by midnight Eastern time, I might not get around to POSTING it until a day or so later, depending on when I’m able to upload photos. Luckily, Flickr automatically registers when a photo was taken, so I won’t be able to cheat with post-dated images.)
Jan 12, 2013
On Thursday afternoon, Leslee and I walked at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, where I’d somehow never been. When I lived in Cambridge years ago, I didn’t have a car and thus relied on public transportation, my bike, and my own two feet to get around; daunted by the traffic that converges near Fresh Pond, I’d never ventured there, preferring to make the longer, less-hectic pilgrimage to Concord to visit Walden Pond when I was in the mood for shore-side contemplation.
There are many ways that Fresh Pond in Cambridge is unlike Walden in Concord. Fresh Pond is a reservoir providing drinking water for the city of Cambridge, so you can’t swim there in the summer, as you can at Walden. Fresh Pond sits next to a busy intersection across from a shopping mall, and the trail around it is paved, unlike the wooded trails at Walden. You can pay to park at Walden, although the lot regularly fills in the summer, when locals come to swim and tourists come to visit Henry David Thoreau’s house site, but if you don’t have a City of Cambridge parking decal, you can’t park at Fresh Pond any time of year. The thing that Fresh Pond and Walden have in common, however, is ice: not just the present-day ice Leslee and I saw (and heard) on our Fresh Pond walk, but a history of ice-harvesting.
During our walk around Fresh Pond, Leslee and I saw a loon in drab winter plumage, two soaring red-tailed hawks, and a handful of scaups: I couldn’t tell with my bare eyes whether they were lesser or greater. We also heard the ice that remains after an unseasonable thaw chiming and knocking: chiming as bits of broken ice jingled in the water like rows of wine glasses tinkling in a rickety china cabinet and knocking as wind-blown waves hit the bottom of thin ice sheets near shore, the percussive sound amplified through melt-holes in the surface. In Walden, Thoreau observed how a frozen pond thumps like a drum when struck, and at Fresh Pond Leslee and I heard a partially thawed ice-drum struck from below by the watery slap of the pond itself: a wintery percussion section of ice drum, ice marimba, and ice chimes.
This ethereal ice-music is the kind of thing Thoreau himself would have been fascinated by: Fresh Pond’s own original composition. Ice groans and grunts when it breaks up in spring, and Thoreau describes the whooping and booming of Walden ice at various times of day as it warms and chills with the sun’s diurnal passing: “Who would have suspected,” he wrote, “so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?” These rhythmic sounds remind us, Thoreau suggested, that ponds are living, breathing things, with their own songs and calls as they molt from one watery plumage to another:
I also heard the whooping of the ice in the pond, my great bed-fellow in that part of Concord, as if it were restless in its bed and would fain turn over, were troubled with flatulency and had dreams.
Leslee and I saw lots of dog-walkers at Fresh Pond—that is what the pond is most renowned for today, featuring prominently in both Caroline Knapp’s A Pack of Two, which celebrates the bond between humans and dogs, and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, which commemorates Caldwell’s friendship with Knapp, including their many walks at Fresh Pond with their dogs. In Thoreau’s lifetime, however, Fresh Pond wasn’t a place to walk your dog; instead, it was renowned for its ice, as was Walden itself, both ponds growing a thick winter rind that icemen harvested and shipped to cities by the slab:
Southern customers objected to [Walden ice’s] blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds.
Today, when we want to ice a beverage, we go no further than our refrigerator, but during Thoreau’s lifetime, northern ponds were the appliance that supplied massive blocks for city-dwellers and southerners, who had enormous cakes of ice shipped in to be stored in cellars and iceboxes:
Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation. They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever?
In the age of global warming, I doubt that either Fresh Pond or Walden freezes thick enough to yield the harvest Thoreau described, when “in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre.” On Thursday, most of Fresh Pond was open water, with only the frozen fringes singing an icy song. But after hearing the rhythm of wind-swept waves amplified through ice, I can easily imagine the tinkle of Fresh Pond ice cubes in 19th century tumblers, the sound of cool summer beverages echoing across the ages on a warm January day.
Click here for Leslee’s (illustrated) account of our afternoon walk around Fresh Pond. I shot several short videos of the wind-blown water and ice in an attempt to capture the chiming and knocking sounds. Although the sound quality is disappointing, you can check them out here and here and here.
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