August 2013


Bee on sunflower

Yesterday J and I went to Arnold Arboretum to walk and take pictures: a change from our original plan to go to the Museum of Fine Arts. We changed plans partly because the Red Sox played a day game yesterday—the T from Newton is always packed with Red Sox fans on game days—and partly because yesterday was the last day for the MFA’s popular Samurai exhibit, and we had no desire to fight last-minute crowds queuing to see an exhibit we’d seen back in April. But more than anything, yesterday was a clear, sunny, and mild summer day, and it seemed a shame to waste even a moment of it inside.

Rose mallow

We weren’t alone in our thinking, as the arboretum was alive with picnickers, dog-walkers, and families with strollers. There were children on scooters and children learning to ride bicycles, including one little girl whose pink training wheels lay on the side of the road, castoff, while she walked astride her bike, standing on two feet and crying, afraid to take the next step of actually sitting on the bike and pedaling. “You’re doing great,” I remarked as J and I walked by, figuring every little bit of encouragement would help. It’s a scary step to go from the known stability of training wheels to the wobbly uncertainties a grown-up bike: what felt like an exhilarating rush when you rode with training wheels feels like pure recklessness—far too fast and far too wobbly—when you’re riding without.

Hydrangea

I’ve never taught a child how to ride a bike, but I sometimes feel like I’m doing something similar with my literature and writing students, who sometimes cling to the known security of how they used to write papers back in high school (for my undergraduates) or back in their undergrad days (for my grad students). If you’re comfortable riding with training wheels, trying to ride a bike without them seems a lot less fun, given how much attention you have to pay to things like balance and speed and steering. But once you’ve faced (and cried your way through) the transition to a grown-up bike, you’d never dream of going back, part of the thrill of riding being the way your body eventually finds its own automatic equilibrium. Where once you had to think about steering, eventually your bike seems to know automatically where you want to go, and it goes there.

Golden Rain Tree

This is, ultimately, the place I’d like my lit and writing students to arrive: a place where making an argument—having something to say and then saying it—comes naturally, automatically, the pen on the page (or the fingers on the keyboard) naturally expressing the thoughts in mind. There is a beautiful fluidity in riding a bike or writing a well-argued essay, but balance doesn’t come by accident. Instead, you have to weave and waver and wobble before you can ride (or write) a straight, sensible line. Pedaling a grown-up bike takes a lot of practice, and so does crafting a mature essay. At first you rely heavily upon your training wheels, and eventually you cast them off, the experience of wobbling and even falling being the only way you can learn to trust the equilibrium of your own inner ear.

Click here for more pictures from the Arnold Arboretum: enjoy!

Asiatic dayflower

Anyone who is a teacher, child, or parent knows that August marks the beginning of the end of summer. August is bittersweet because you know the end is coming: you see the ads for back-to-school, and you become vaguely aware of the shortening of days, your nighttime forays to catch fireflies ending earlier and earlier even though you aren’t yet bounded by school-night bedtimes.

Feather on leaf

August marks the beginning of the end because the natural world can continue its unbridled fecundity only so long: the natural world can’t continue summer’s frenetic pace indefinitely. August heralds the end of summer because the sounds of insects—cicadas and crickets alike—grow louder, faster, and more insistent, and there is a limit to how emphatic even insects can sing. An object can spin increasingly faster for only so long: eventually a spinning top will spin itself out. August presages the end of summer because anything that spends itself with the unbridled fury of June and July can’t possibly last: as Robert Frost himself said, nothing gold can stay.

Day-lily

Last year from July into August, we watched a colony of bald-faced hornets build a papery nest in our back yard, beside the gate to our backyard dog pen. Even in July I knew that by winter, all but the queen would be dead, and the queen herself would burrow and hibernate underground. From July into August last year, we watched those hornets build and repair their nest with dogged persistence, reshaping and resurfacing it whenever summer showers stripped away entire sections. This time last year, I knew those hornets would die come winter, but what I didn’t know then was that they’d never make it until winter, growing so aggressive in September that we’d hire an exterminator to kill them in an instant, their once-precious nest left behind as an empty shell.

Bee on hydrangea

Human consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. Presumably animals do not know they are mortal; at least, this is what we tell ourselves. We humans, on the other hand, know our days are numbered, but we do everything in our power to deny and ignore that fact. And yet, any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the tending of its sister’s young—any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the storing of food for a winter that might never come, or for the nutrition of future young that might never be born—must have some sense of mortality, or at least of impending want, even if that creature’s end comes more quickly than anyone envisioned. No creature who is completely oblivious to impermanence would struggle so mightily to build, sustain, and defend, industry serving as a bulwark against extinction.

Memorial

Last night Leslee and I met after work to go walking at the Minute Man National Historical Park in Lexington. We picked the spot because it’s convenient and good for walking, with a big parking lot and long, shady trail—the so-called Battle Road—that wends its way through sun-dappled woods and stonewall-circled pastures.

Queen Anne's lace

If Leslee and I had met at the Minute Man on the weekend, we would have seen busloads of tourists visiting the sites of the American Revolution; instead, on a weeknight, we saw dog-walkers, joggers, and pairs of women, talking. The last time I walked at the Minute Man, I lent my cell phone to out-of-towners who were trying to locate relatives who had been patiently waiting at the North Bridge in Concord: right war, wrong parking lot. After those out-of-towners located their kin and I was leaving, I saw two Revolutionary re-enactors with muskets and tri-cornered hats chatting with a Lycra-clad fellow on a bicycle, a temporal mash-up the founding fathers could have never envisioned.

Queen Anne's lace

If you’re a visitor to New England, places like the Minute Man are hallowed sites where Something Important Happened; if you live in the greater Boston area, however, Minute Man is just another place to walk the dog. When you visit a museum, you hush and grow reverent, trying to imagine what things were like back then when history happened; when you live in a museum, on the other hand, you’re more concerned with the happenstance of today, like what you’re going to have for dinner.

Poison ivy

Years ago when I visited Gettysburg on a foggy summer morning, I remember seeing joggers, a fellow reading a newspaper in his car, and a family waiting for the Visitors’ Center to open. That particular assortment of people summed up that place for me. For the family, Gettysburg was an educational destination, a place where history lessons come alive. For the joggers and the man with the newspaper, Gettysburg is a quiet, calm place to get some exercise or take a break before heading to work.

Pretty pink flower

I suppose you could see these two mindsets as being at war with one another, the battle between tourists and locals being as deeply entrenched as that between redcoats and rebels. But the difference between those who see Minute Man as being a historical site and those who see it as a recreational one is temporal, not ideological. If you visit Minute Man to see the sites of the American Revolution, you revere the place because history happened here; if you visit Minute Man because it’s a lovely place to take a stroll, you value the place because history still happens here.

Lost shoe

What is history, after all, but the happenstance of yesterday viewed through the prism of days: surely those redcoats and rebels had dogs to walk, dinners to eat, and friends to catch up with. It’s an error, in other words, to think that past lives were somehow more pristine or pure than our own, enacted with hushed and reverent tones. Instead, history never stops happening, the stories of today simply layering-over the stories that happened before.

Click here for more photos from last night’s walk at the Minute Man National Park: enjoy!

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