Heavy machinery

Keep clear!

If only keeping a clear mind were as easy as heeding the warnings on a piece of heavy machinery! Today’s Photo Friday theme is Heavy, so I’m revisiting some photos of cherry-pickers and wood-chippers–heavy machinery–I’d photographed at the Dillant-Hopkins Airport in Swanzey, NH back in May, 2007.


In the aftermath of last weekend’s stormy weather, tree and landscape crews have been out in force throughout Newton, cutting broken limbs and fallen trunks. Dismantling windblown trees is hard work, and the sound of chainsaws and wood-chippers has been a prominent part of this week’s ambient soundtrack: an auditory reminder of the heavy-handed influence of heavy weather.

Even in the absence of heavy machinery, storm clean-up has been ongoing: this morning I saw a librarian outside the Waban Library Center doing her part to clean up tree debris, dragging small branches into a pile by a city waste basket. Dressed like a quintessential librarian, she was wearing a long skirt and sensible shoes, and she was carrying a small stack of children’s books in one arm. Even if you aren’t dressed for heavy lifting, there are always small things that need tidying.

Big wheel

Walking down an accustomed road on our usual dog-walk this morning, Reggie and I had to turn around, the road blocked with those aforementioned wood-chippers and tree-crews. The particular house where they were working, though, didn’t have any storm damage that I could remember, and the tree they were chainsawing into logs looked healthy. This particular house recently changed hands, and I’ve been worried that the new owners would make radical changes to its landscaping: their neighbors had cut down a couple of tall pines last autumn, and this particular house is surrounded by a woodsy fringe of unkempt undergrowth where I regularly see the year’s first snowdrops and crocuses along with wildflowers such as trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit.

The woodsy fringe around this house, in other words, is a small spot of almost-wildness in an otherwise immaculate suburb: a small strip of real estate I’d prefer be left untidy. It’s a curious habit I’ve observed in neighbors nearly everywhere I’ve ever lived, though: you buy a charming house that caught your eye because it was shaded by trees, then you move in and cut them all down. It happened with my old house in Hillsboro, NH, which used to be screened from the street by a half-acre of pines–the last time I drove by, I saw a half-acre of stumps–and it seems to be happening here and there in Newton. It’s enough to make your heart feel heavy.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Heavy.

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Street sweeper with leaves

Around 5:00 this morning, I gave up hope of finishing the thick pile of essay drafts I’d promised to return to my first-year writing students at noon. Going back on my promise wasn’t a huge deal, as we did something other than what I’d originally planned to do in today’s class. Keeping these drafts another weekend will give me time to prepare a grammar handout based on sample sentences from these essays, so it’s ultimately a good idea for me to take time finishing them rather than hurrying through the pile.

Street sweeper with leaves

This marks that point in the semester when I realize there simply isn’t enough “me” to go around. For every one task I cross off my daily to-do list, a handful more remain undone. I have unanswered emails, unpaid bills, and a dusty apartment that demand my attention; the kitchen sink is filled once again with dirty dishes only one meal after I finally dried and put away the last overdue batch.

I sometimes think that teaching a course overload–full-time here, part-time there–is practice for growing old, because there eventually comes a point in any semester when you finally let it all fall away, like a gradually declining body finally surrendering to mortality after a good, long fight. Eventually, you just give up the ghost, throw in the towel, and let it all go. One by one, you loosen your grip on things you never had a hold on in the first place, giving way to gravity, inertia, and momentum–the inexorable trinity of Powers-That-Be–as you let things slip and sag into their naturally slouchy state.

Street sweeper with leaves

It’s merely an arbitrary preference, you learn, that insists upon perpetual cleanliness, order, and timeliness. Lines don’t naturally want to be straight, ideas don’t naturally want to be ordered, and bodies don’t naturally want to be slender, upright, and toned. Something there is, they say, that doesn’t like a wall, and something there is that prefers life, work, and love all to be untidy. Why spend precious time and life-blood fighting that inescapable Something?

We did something other than what I’d planned in my noon writing class, and I’ll finish reading drafts over the weekend so I can hand them back in class on Tuesday. In the meantime, I’ve re-learned an important life lesson: deadlines can slip, promises can break, and your own tight hold on your schedule can weaken, but life presses on regardless. Is the true test of any juggler the number of objects she can keep aloft at any given instant or the skill, dexterity, and grace she exhibits in retrieving a single dropped ball?

Smoothing dirt

With all the construction going on in Keene this summer, things at home have been pretty loud.

Main Street with steam roller

I’ve always been more sensitive than many to sound. When I’m teaching, I’m easily distracted by talkative students walking the hall outside my classroom, and when I’m in a closed-door meeting, I notice sounds coming through open windows. Once at break-out session at a writer’s conference where we huddled in a crowded conference room, the session leader and I were the only ones who noticed the obnoxious, unending drone of an air-conditioner in a nearby building. Other participants were able to screen out the sound, but as we sat silently writing, I was acutely aware of a dull throb emanating from the walls: distracting.

Perhaps I’m sensitive to sound because I feel as much as hear it. One night at the midpoint of a week-long retreat at the Providence Zen Center, I suddenly felt the ticking of the head Dharma teacher’s hitherto silent watch sitting on the hardwood floor at her feet as she timed our meditation. It was as if my mind itself had become a vibrating crystal pulsing with a tiny sound sent through the floorboards beneath me. Another time on retreat, I heard rather than felt an earthquake rumbling like a freight train as it raced from the center of the earth into my own spine. Once at the Cambridge Zen Center, I sat chatting with friends in their third-floor room and felt the sudden, bone-thrumming rumble of a truck thundering down a nearby street. “Aren’t you distracted,” I asked, “by loud noises such as that truck?” My friends replied, “What truck?”

Saint Bernard's with steam roller & curbstones

It is, of course, possible to become acclimated to ambient sounds. When my ex-husband and I were first married, our apartment bordered a railroad track, and the train clattered by every morning around 4:00. After the first few nights of waking, noting the noise, then falling back to sleep, I learned to sleep through the train. In college, I was famous for my ability to sleep through my roommates’ sometimes blaring stereo: once I fell asleep on a mat on the floor right next to the thing, and my roommates repeatedly stepped over my oblivious body to switch stations. In college, I also trained myself to sleep through my roommates’ alarm-clocks but to wake to my own, differentiating in my sleep between the particular tone of my own alarm and the ignorable sound of theirs.

Sleeping soundly is one thing; noticing sound when you’re awake is another. Although I’ve trained myself to be a sound sleeper, when I’m awake I find myself noticing sounds that others ignore. It isn’t so much that I’m bothered by these sounds; I just notice them. While others are able, it seems, to be selectively oblivious, tuning out monotonous sounds like the drone of air-conditioners or passing traffic, I can’t help but notice them, finding them to be non-ignorable parts of my sonic landscape.

Curbstone cement-mixing

The only time my sound sensitivity proved to be practically problematic was when I was married to a musician who practiced at home. In any marriage, there’s a delicate dance as two individuals try to establish and maintain their own private space in the midst of their marital togetherness, and for me, this separate “space” was necessarily sonic. As a teacher, scholar, and writer, everything I do requires some semblance of quiet: it’s difficult to read papers or concentrate on research if you can hear the laughter on a downstairs TV or the distraction of an overheard conversation.

During the summer I was preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams, my ex-husband played drums in a rock band that recorded a demo CD in the basement of our rented house in Randolph, Massachusetts, and it was a constant challenge for me to concentrate on my work while listening to a seemingly endless loop of a handful of songs as the band practiced, recorded, and mastered. When I was finishing my dissertation in a two-bedroom apartment in Keene, I was perpetually aware as my ex-husband, having abandoned the drums for a lute, meticulously practiced what seemed to be the same three notes day after day. Although earplugs helped to dampen the sound of perpetual practice–and although listening to a lute isn’t as annoying as listening to, say, construction traffic–it was cumulatively exhausting to spend so much energy not listening to something so omnipresent. When my ex-husband and I separated, one of the first things I noticed was the blessed silence that came with living alone, my sonic space no longer invaded by someone else’s passion.

Cheshire Historical Society with steam roller

Being sensitive to sound isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I was in high school, I began birding by ear, listening to audio recordings of bird-songs and going on walks with veteran birders so I could learn to identify birds by their sounds and calls. These days, I rarely bother with binoculars, birding almost exclusively with naked eyes and ears.

When I walk or go about my daily business, I’m not looking for birds, but I always have an ear out. It’s possible, I’ve learned, to peel back layers of sound like the transparent encyclopedia pictures of anatomical systems I perused as a child: here’s a body with skin, here’s the muscular system underneath, and here’s a skeleton beneath that. Walking in a morning woods, I’ve learned to do something similar with sound: from the cacophony of blended bird-songs, if you peel back the insistent chatter of a nearby ovenbird or the bold burble of a soloing wood thrush, you might hear a far-off tanager or vireo, that softer, more distant sound shimmering from the sonic backdrop like unearthed treasure.

Yesterday morning, when I let Reggie out to sniff and pee, I peeled back the sound of passing traffic to focus on a shrill, insistent peeping in a low hedge. Zeroing in on the sound, I discovered its source: a squat-bodied, wren-sized cardinal, barely fledged, that teetered its tailless body on a slender branch. Nearby, an adult male cardinal sounded a staccato chip, and the peeping fledgling quieted, staring at me with one shining eye beneath the first sprouts of a feathered crest. Later in the day, after I left father and fledgling to their own business, I heard the same shrill, insistent peep as I sat reading on the porch. Who would have thought a bird so small could be so loud?

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday topic, Loud.

Thank you for visiting

Today’s been a catch-up/not-yet-caught-up day. But around dinner time, dog-walking could no longer be denied, so Reggie and I took a stroll at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in Swanzey, NH, where I heard but did not see veeries, hermit thrushes, a scarlet tanager, and at least one elusive bittern.


A set of cherry-pickers and wood-chippers parked in the airport lot were much more cooperative than the goldfinches, yellowthroats, and kingbirds I saw but could not photograph: at least heavy machinery does not flit. I don’t often get the chance to get up close and personal with heavy machinery: usually, this equipment is working, so it would be dangerous (or at least impertinent) to approach too closely. But when heavy machinery is at rest in a parking lot where local folks leave their cars to go dog-walking, it’s possible to shoot some extreme close-ups without bothering any Men at Work. You can see a slideshow of these parked cherry-pickers and wood-chippers here: my way of saying “Thank you for visiting.”


It’s a rare day that I set out looking for images; most mornings, merely walking the dog is the prime priority. Today was typical in that I wasn’t consciously looking to take pictures while I walked Reggie around the square…and today was typical in that I barely got downtown before I’d fished my digicam from my bag, fixated on some silly something that had never caught my interest before.

Mind you, I’ve been walking the dog this same route almost everyday for some three years now: you’d think I’d have seen–and shot–everything. But no. This morning I was struck by the painstaking pattern–so like chain mail!–of a snow-plow’s tire tracks in street-dirtied snow. Have I seen this sight before during three years of dog-walking? Probably. Have I ever shot it before? Presumably not. And so here you have it: one shot that says “This Morning,” a silly something that struck me today in a way it hadn’t ever done before.


Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Reflections. I took this photo last August in the reflection of a fire-truck bell. As this and my other reflective pictures prove, I’m smoking, baby!