Prayer flags

“I don’t get it,” a passerby outside Timoleon’s Restaurant in downtown Keene remarked upon seeing me shooting pictures in a sunny alley intersecting Main Street. “What do you see up there?” I was in Keene for a meeting on campus yesterday, and the man caught me on my way to the bank and other errands afterward. “Up there,” I pointed. “The fire escape is casting slanted shadows on the brick, and above that, there are prayer flags.” The man looked where I’d pointed, looked back at me, and shrugged. “Okay,” he said in a nonchalant tone, then walked away.

Fire escape shadows

Apparently he’d expected something more newsworthy: who in their right mind, after all, stops on their way to the bank to photograph shadows? As much as the anonymous passerby was unimpressed by the sight of sun on brick, I was equally undaunted by his dismissal. As many times as I’ve passed this particular alley, I don’t ever recall these fire-escape shadows looking precisely this crisp and neatly demarcated, and I’ve certainly never noticed the prayer flags. Could it be the sight of thin-sliced shadows slanting just so was all it took to make me look up?

The purpose of prayer flags, of course, it to harness the wind so it will pray without ceasing. For Christians, ceaseless prayer is something encouraged in the Pauline epistles: a meditative act that requires both concentration and devotion. For Tibetan Buddhists, praying without ceasing is as simple as stringing a clothesline. The Himalayas are pummeled by wind, so flags printed with prayers will flap their petitions incessantly, prayer-wheels that spin without need for human hands.

Fire escape shadows

Still, ceaseless prayer, like sun-slanted shadows, is hardly a newsworthy event: that nonplussed passerby was right about that. After I’d finished my errands in Keene and drove back to Newton last night, I’d find something much more in line with what I think he was looking for. After I’d settled in with Reggie, my laptop, and an online quiz I was preparing, J came into the room with a concerned look. “Do you hear that?” he asked, and at first I thought he was referring to a Carolina wren singing loudly in the front yard. “The helicopters are circling: there’s been a crash on the green line.”

Checking online, I saw what the commotion was about: soon, we heard sirens along with the roar of news helicopters. Two MBTA two-car trolleys had collided on the green “D” line not far from the stop J and I take whenever we take the T into town. Soon we both were planted in front of the TV watching live coverage from the helicopters buzzing overhead. Although the trolleys hadn’t collided in our own backyard, the accident was close enough that we could recognize the precise spot of the collision, down the tracks from a local landmark we call Varitek Bridge.

Fire escape shadows

Although J and I don’t take the T on a daily basis, we take it every time we go into Boston to explore or attend sporting events. On our way home from San Francisco on Monday, for instance, we’d taken the T from the airport, thanking our conductor when he let us off at “our” stop: a common courtesy. Had we had tickets to last night’s Celtics game, J and I would have been waiting for an inbound train right around the time the two outbound trolleys collided. From our stop, would we have heard the metallic screech of an impending collision down the line, would we have felt the seismic tremor of impact reverberating through the rails, or would we have stood there, wondering at the delay, while T workers hurriedly arranged shuttle-buses for re-routed traffic?

J and I spent much of last night checking live coverage while going about our other tasks, the normal evening routine of getting the dogs settled, preparing and eating dinner, and switching between the Celtics and Red Sox games on TV being accompanied by the incessant sound of helicopters. Initial reports said one of the trolley conductors was seriously injured and trapped in the wreckage; whenever we switched to the news, we watched firefighters trying to pry and cut their way into the crushed and mangled trolley. Around 10:30, after the major networks had returned to their normally scheduled programs, we could still hear helicopters circling. “If that conductor is seriously injured and it’s taking them this long to get her out,” I started to say, and J completed the thought for me. “It doesn’t look good.”

Fire escape shadows

A few months ago, a green line conductor had yelled at J and me for darting in front of her inbound train on our way to board. “Never run in front of the train,” she scolded as if we were rambunctious teenagers. “If either one of you had slipped, I can’t stop the train quickly.” Duly chastened even though, from our perspective, we’d crossed well before the approaching train, we apologized: she was right. It’s never wise to cross in front of a moving train, and ever since we’ve made a conscious point of stopping before oncoming trolleys, making eye contact with the conductor, and gesturing if we want her or him to hold the train while we cross either in front or behind.

“Do you think it was the woman who yelled at us,” I asked J when we learned that the trapped conductor was female. There was no way, then, of knowing, but that statement “I can’t stop the train quickly” seemed particularly ominous. This morning, we learned that MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds, age 24, was not the 40-something woman who’d scolded us; we also learned that Edmonds was probably already dead by the time J and I had remarked last night that things didn’t look good. Still, this morning both J and I looked at pictures of Edmonds and tried to remember if we’d ever ridden with her–do we remember ever thanking her–on the countless times we’ve relied upon the T to get us from here to there.

Fire escape shadows

Past midnight, after both we and the circling helicopters had turned in for the night, I stated the obvious to J: “We could have been on that train.” Although the accident occurred past our stop, it could have occurred anywhere, and although we don’t recall ever riding with the conductor who was killed, it could have been anyone. Last night, presumably inspired by those ceaselessly circling helicopters, I dreamed J and I saw paramedics running down our street with bandaged bodies on stretchers even though most of the crash victims left both trains under their own power, some even walking themselves to a nearby hospital.

Life is short, and even your next moment isn’t guaranteed. Last night as we switched between the Celtics and Red Sox games on TV, the sound of helicopters buzzing incessantly overhead reminded me again and again to pray for everyone on those trains, for the firefighters trying to help them, and for all the fragile, imminently mortal passersby with whom I share this planet. Life is short, and even your next moment isn’t guaranteed. Never cross in front of trains, always thank your conductor, and never pass up an opportunity to pray.

Cardinal in maple

Now that the maples of Newton are bursting into leaf and flower, the cardinals here are still sitting pretty, just as they were back in February when the trees were bare.

Even trees get thirsty sometimes

With all the spring sun we’ve been getting in New England these days, even the trees are thirsty, sneaking surreptitious sips of high fructose corn syrup in the form of McDonald’s sodas. Either that, or “leaf litter” isn’t the only kind of dry detritus you can find in the woods in springtime.

Forsythias

Last week in Keene, we had our first fire warning of the season: a reminder that low humidity and dry leaf litter make for dangerously flammable forests. This weekend in Waban, the “fire” outside is metaphoric, with forsythia blooming like a yellow-hot blaze in suburban yards and gardens.

Although I mentioned Earth Day earlier this week, yesterday I was remiss in remembering Arbor Day. Steve was similarly remiss, mentioning today that he’d forgotten both Earth and Arbor Days, presumably because he was “not watching the calendar closely enough!” For good or ill, neither Earth nor Arbor Day is on my calendar, but I’d like to think that doesn’t matter: wouldn’t it better for us (and the health of the planet) if we spent less time watching our calendars and more time listening to trees?

In New England at least, the trees right now will tell you it’s spring, their “words” being unfolding leaves, blooming flowers, and (in the case of pines) a yellow dusting of pollen. Before he died, Thoreau had intended to construct a local “Kalendar” that, according to Bradley Dean, would provide a biological time-line of the natural year, with the blooming and breeding of plant and animal species serving as temporal markers:

Apparently he intended to write a comprehensive history of the natural phenomena that took place in his hometown each year. Although he planned to base his natural history of Concord upon field observations recorded in his journal over a period of several years, he would synthesize those observations so that he could construct a single “archetypal” year, a technique he had used to wonderful effect in Walden.

Maple blossoms

In my neck of the woods, I’ve learned, trout lilies bloom at the end of April, and forsythias flame not long after. I don’t need a calendar to remind me of that fact, just my blog (the 21st-century, high-tech equivalent of Thoreau’s journal) and photo archives. Next week, I’m hoping the wake-robin (Trillium erectum, also known as purple or red trillium) will be blooming since I have an unofficial ritual of blogging them on May 1st, whether at Goose Pond or Beech Hill. After May 1st, I’ve learned from years of New Hampshire living, the black flies will emerge, and my days in the woods around Keene will be numbered, at least until blood-sucking insects die off.

It might be true that the trees of the greater Boston area are fond of McDonald’s soda, but I’d prefer that instead of “loving it,” they simply leaf it. Steve rightfully notes that every day should be both Earth and Arbor day, for “When should we not be thinking about trees, about the health of the planet?” Between you and me, I think the trees in New England and elsewhere would be healthier if they just said no to soda.

This post is a roundabout excuse to mention two tree-related things. First, the Nature Conservancy is spearheading an effort called Plant a Billion Trees which is attempting to re-forest a richly bio-diverse (and unfortunately endangered) area in Brazil. If you, like Steve, can’t plant a tree in your urban backyard, you might consider donating to the cause of “One dollar – One tree – One planet.”

Rooted

Second, don’t forget to submit your tree-related links and pictures to next month’s Festival of the Trees. You can send permalinks to mike (at) 10000birds (dot) com, submit them via the Contact page at 10,000 Bird’s, or use the Festival’s online submission form. The deadline is April 29, so get moving!

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

Spring!

Imagine the fragile predicament of spring flowers. In the spirit of the early bird catching the worm, April plants send up sprouts to soak in as much spring sun as they can before being shaded by early-leafing trees, spreading shrubs, and even their flowering fellows. But an early bird on New England turf can face a deadly surprise when April nights plunge below freezing or even bring sudden snow.

Flowering shrub in sunshine

This past week, the ex-girlfriend of one of J’s longtime friends passed away after a sudden illness, exacerbated by chronic medical problems, left her unconscious and brain-dead. I’d met D when J and I traveled to Atlanta last summer; she was J’s age, which is two years older than I am. Life is a fragile condition, and D had struggled with an ongoing array of medical problems: brain cancer, asthma, partial deafness. We’d known that D’s health was precarious, but when I met her, she seemed healthy enough: she didn’t look like the kind of person-turned-patient who could, in the span of a week, suffer respiratory failure, several heart attacks, and death. Intellectually, I know that life is fragile and sickness and death can strike at any time: still, I’d never imagined last summer that an otherwise lively person my own age would be dead by springtime. Although death is the inevitable and thus entirely “natural” result of any given life, human nature tends toward procrastination and denial. Yes, death happens eventually…but not now, not soon, and not to people like me.

First forsythia

Last week, before we’d heard about D’s decline and ultimate death, J remarked in passing that in ten years, all the pets we presently own will be dead. What he didn’t need to say, of course, was that in the course of ten years, either or both of us will probably experience other losses: relatives, friends, acquaintances. J and I have already attended our first wedding together, but we’ve yet to go together to our first shared funeral…but this too shall come to pass. In response to my recent post about Reggie and the not-quite Rainbow Bridge, a friend remarked that I’m “awfully young to be so mortality-aware.” In a world of cause and effect, isn’t it strange that an awareness of mortality should come as a surprise at any age? Given the natural and inevitable way of all flesh, shouldn’t it be more surprising that we insist on ignoring crystal-clear reminders that impermanence rules?

Flowering shrub

D suffered from asthma, as I do, and although I manage mine through medication, I know any disease affecting the lungs has the potential to be deadly. Having had one attack years ago, before I’d been officially diagnosed, when I nearly gave up the ghost out of sheer exhaustion, I know how easy it is to die. And yet, when you’ve contemplated your own mortality in an actual rather than an abstract sense, your remaining days have a certain gift-like quality. Having almost died once, you realize any extra hours you can squeeze from Time are an undeserved bonus, each day being a precious thing you’d previously taken for granted. Life is a fragile condition, and each day we spend above-ground is as precious, tenuous, and beautiful as an April flower.

Sunny crocus

This is my belated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Fragile. This is actually the second time I’ve titled a blog-post “Fragile”; the first considers flood damage to an old stone bridge that has since been repaired.

Out to dry

It rained last night but not this morning as forecast; now in the late afternoon, the sky has darkened with imminent thunderstorms. In the sodden aftermath of April showers, you sometimes find rain-soaked newspapers abandoned on benches, their inky images blurring as their pages return to pulp.

You might consider this an April update of an image I shared last November.

Through

I consider myself lucky to have a blog I can use an excuse to climb children’s playground equipment to snap curious and colorful photos. Most grown-ups, of course, need to have children to justify their spending any time at a playground…and when you’re a mom or dad, you presumably stay on the ground and observe while Junior tests out the equipment. But if you have a hungry blog to feed, you can engage in all kinds of playful and otherwise odd behavior. How could you tell, for instance, exactly what the inside of a jungle-gym tunnel looks like unless you climbed upon the thing to look for yourself?

Pretty pony

As adults, we easily acquire a kind of tunnel vision that looks at the world from strictly an adult-level view. How difficult it is for us grown-ups to remember how even the prettiest playground pony must have looked tall and daunting when we first looked upon it as tiny tots. Walking the usual streets and sidewalks of our mundane lives, it’s easy to forget the amazement and wonder that fills folks newer to our neighborhood. To a child, even a small, otherwise ordinary playground can be a miraculous spot where make-believe characters come alive, childhood lasts forever, and a kiss from Mom or Dad makes everything instantly All Better.

If our adult lives seem less magical than now-distant childhood days, perhaps that’s because we walk the same streets and sidewalks that children do, but our grown-up perspectives prevent us from seeing the color, whimsy, and wonder that’s so apparent to those closer to the ground. Walking past a playground, we adults see ordinary swings and slides…but if we allow ourselves to experience the same at eye-level–climbing up, crouching down, or otherwise deviating from our usual upright business–we might find an entirely new world of wonder in a neighborhood we thought we knew.

Make it better