Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tip #2 for Birdwatchers: Keep Your Eyes on the Regular Joes

Birdwatching is exciting for many different reasons, and one of the most alluring is the possibility of encountering something unusual.  Because birds have wings and are highly mobile, this can happen just about anywhere, at any time.  Discovering something new, something rare, something seldom seen is a big part of what drives us out into the field, whether to the little park down the road or to the ends of the earth.  

It can be all too easy to fall completely into this mindset and start ignoring the normal, run-of-the-mill birds that we see all the time.  The robins, the chickadees, the crows, the cardinals.  The yellow-rumped warblers, the mallards, the red-winged blackbird.  The starling, the house sparrow.  It's understandable, of course.  We see them all the time, and though we don't exactly dislike them, if we catch them in our binocular's field of view we say "Oh, it's just a robin," and quickly move on.  

One of the best ways to increase your skills at finding new and unusual birds, however, in fact the best way to train yourself to recognize them when you see them, is to watch your everyday birds carefully: watch how they fly, listen to what they say, notice where they go in the spring, what they do in the winter, who they associate with, how they're plumage varies, and so on and so on.  Keep your eyes on them!  Knowing a black-capped chickadee inside and out means you'll be that much closer to actually noticing that one bird or flock that seems a bit off, the call note a little strange, and the color of the cap not quite right, and realizing that it's not a black-capped at all, but a boreal chickadee.

This is particularly useful in the realm of bird songs and calls.  Many of our most common denizens have several different vocalizations that can be confusing for years and years, long after you've developed the skill to identify them by sight from two hundred yards away in dim light.  Think of the robin, with its variable song, its woodpecker-like whinny, its understated call note and its rhythmic chuffing that follows.  Following one robin around and watching it while it goes through its little library of songs is very helpful in making sense of the constant chatter you hear all around you.

Getting in the habit of ignoring birds leads to ignoring birds, period, whether they be rare or common.  And beyond that, of course, watching birds closely, any birds, is interesting.  They all have unique ways of behaving and interacting with the world around them that will lead to understanding and insight above and beyond identification and bird-finding skills.  And spending time watching your most familiar neighbors might just lead to a new appreciation and respect for these fellows that have the resiliency to thrive amidst this very altered landscape that we've created.  And and just maybe, that will even lead to insights into...ourselves.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yoga for Farmers

Just so I could add a new hobby to the lists, I've taken up yoga. 

Well, really, I've only gone to two sessions, one last Sunday, one this morning.  That doesn't quite say 'hobby' yet, but the experience has been...interesting.  Intense, humbling, rewarding, and...enjoyable?  Uncomfortable, difficult, confusing.  I plan to keep going for the time being.

Next year I'm going to be a farmer.  I'll be serving an apprenticeship at a vegetable farm in Ipswich from early Spring through mid-late Fall, and it should prove to be a very physical job.  I expect to spend a lot of time on my knees, bending over, lifting things and generally performing a lot of repetitive manual tasks.  I thought that it might be a good idea to try a new program of exercise to prepare myself for the job, and in particular to work on developing my core strength and my flexibility.  Learn how to use my body better, more efficiently, develop the strength to do so, and increase my flexibility to help prevent injury and discomfort.  

So why yoga?  Many reasons, I suppose.  There's a recommended studio around the corner, for one thing.  Attractive, healthy, interesting women seem to frequent it.  But more than that...I'm interested in something that is equipment-free, so I can do it anywhere, anytime (a small, roll-up mat seems a reasonable concession).  Something that combines many goals into one, in this case strength, flexibility, mindfulness, aerobic activity, upper body, lower body, breathing. Many yoga folk claim a lot more, such at detoxifying, losing weight (don't need, don't want), spiritual growth, etc; I'll suspend judgement for the time being on some of this other stuff.  

I went to a studio in Newton called Prana Power Yoga.  Power Yoga is a type of Vinyasa yoga where the studio is heated to a merciless 90-95 degrees or even higher.  Vinyasa yoga is also known as flow yoga, as the center of the practice is moving from pose to pose in a dynamic manner rather than holding a pose for a long time (though we seem to do some of that too).  

I'll tell you, I flush easily and sweat profusely in that kind of heat and humidity, and I lost gallons in both of my sessions.  Today, I think the nice lady who led the group got a little worried about me; she took a moment to quietly ask me if I was okay.  I said yes, and then worried that I would make a fool and liar out of myself by fainting.  Like I said, it's intense!  It's a real workout that seems to hit every muscle; last week I was sore in a long continuous wash from my neck down through my thighs.  It's great!

And I also really like the emphasis on breathing, though that part is as difficult as any other; it's very easy to lose mindfulness and find yourself holding your breath or breathing shallowly and quickly, out of sync with your movements.  And I value the awareness and relaxation that is integrated into the practice.  One thing that our leader, Jacqui, said that really struck me was that we can never get truly healthy if we never give our minds and bodies a chance to really rest.  In this context, I don't think she meant resting by letting yourself float along with a book or a movie, or sleep, or any of the things we generally associate with relaxation, but something harder and more empty; it's hard to explain, and I don't really understand it either.  My mind is always a whirl, and always looking for something to occupy its cascading, restless energy, but often feels just as cluttered and disconnected as always as I jump from consuming one thing to another, whether it be books or television or hobbies or work or whatever else I do in my free time.  But we took the time within the yoga session to stop and be still, to keep our breath steady, to feel the center of our strength and purpose as we lied on our backs, sweating away.  It felt good.

So I'll be back, and I'll see if I can't work out the kinks, learn some poses, find my center, and finally grab my toes with my hands.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Lure of the Lifer

This morning I had the pleasure of adding a new bird to my life list, a dickcissel.  A dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird with a stout, seed-crunching beak, generally found during the warmer months throughout our midwestern states.  However, according to Kenn Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds, it is "rarely winter except in the northeast, where a few may spend the season at bird feeders."  Right on.  This bird was first seen a couple of days ago at a bird feeder in Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I had an itch to head out today, but I also had a lot of chores to take care of, and also, it was cold.  Though I love winter birding, spending hours up at Plum Island in 15 degree and windy weather seemed a bit much.  So I took the dickcissel sighting to heart and drove up the road to the world's most famous birding cemetery and readily found the spry little gal (it is thought to be an immature female) running frequently between a rather wilted and dismal-looking rhododendron and the base of a forest-green bird feeder. 

I was prepared for a more difficult identification than was needed. As the bird reported was a young individual and a likely female without all the unmistakable marking of an adult male, I thought I would need to pare subtle facial markings and shades from the assortment of other sparrows and finches that enjoy that feeding station.  The dickcissel, however, quickly showed up with a clear and bright yellow wash on its breast and a wonderfully googly-eyed facial pattern.  Frankly, the markings were distinctive enough in the full sunlight that I wonder if it wasn't an adult female I was looking at rather than a young bird, though vagrants like this are more commonly immature individuals without a lot of experience navigating their way south.  

I don't normally do a lot of chasing after rarities.  This has become a very popular manner of birding these days, greatly enhanced by the steady flow of information on the internet as well as networking by walkie-talkie while out in the field.  I certainly do my share; I very much enjoy seeing unusual birds, especially if I've never seen them before, but I guess I prefer to go somewhere and get out of the car and see my birds while I'm walking around in a nice place rather than driving from point to point and peering out of the window or stepping out of the car for a couple of minutes at a time.  I also don't particularly like gassing up and driving a long distance just for the chance to see one rare bird; it encourages a single-mindedness in me that, frankly, often prevents me from enjoying the experience as much as I should (especially if I don't find the bird). Of course, I'll do some chasing on occasion.  Certainly, once or twice every winter, I enjoy taking a day to hit several spots scattered across Cape Anne in northeast Massachusetts; one spot is good for king eider, another for the eared grebe, the state fish pier is great for black-headed, glaucous and iceland gulls, eastern point for black guillemots...I can really put together a fun list for the day if I hit a bunch of spots.  But the high point is always Halibut Point where I take a few minutes to walk through the coastal scrub (where you might see wintering hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warblers or chats) in order to get to the spectacularly rocky coast.  There I'll see harlequin ducks, eiders, scoters and with some luck a few alcids like razorbills (or dovekies!) winging by.  

But with just a few minute's free time on a cold winter's morning to spend birding, the lure of the lifer was just too much to resist.  And with my dickcissel now in the bag, I can go about the rest of my day with a satisfied smile on my face.

(The photograph, by the way, was not taken by me, but by Will Freedberg on the day preceding my visit, when it was snowing. It was bright and sunny, though much colder, when I went.  You can see more of Will's images at:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tip #1 for Birdwatchers: This Is Kind of a Zen Thing

I thought that maybe I’d try something different here, just for fun. I’m going to institute an ongoing series of tips for birdwatchers. Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a world-class birder, or that eventually I’ll complete any kind of comprehensive ‘system’ of birding or anything, but I have done my share of watching our feathered friends and have a few bits of advice I could share. Some of them might be technical tips on using binoculars, some of them might be tips for observing and identifying, and some might be more oriented to seeing things in a new way or opening up the experience to something unexpected.

And so…

Tip #1 – This Is Kind of a Zen Thing

If you’re out on your own, find a comfortable spot to sit and be still for a period of time. Try for ten minutes at least, but twenty would be even better. Someplace comfortable, a little out of the way and off-trail, where you can hide from other human trampers and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. Make sure that your legs won’t fall asleep on you, settle in, shut up and keep your eyes and ears open. Small movements of your head are okay, but try not to reach for your binoculars or that candy bar. Just be still, quiet and pay attention.

We generally make a lot of commotion as we travel about, and even if we don’t frighten the birds away we often change their behavior. Try and get a glimpse of what might be going on when you’re not there! Maybe some shy individuals will finally show themselves, or perhaps resume their feeding or singing. Remember that some birds (especially those active at night) may be almost invisible when they are roosting; you might want to pick a good spot for owls. Once a Great Horned Owl materialized before my eyes after I had been sitting still for fifteen minutes - I had been looking right at it nearly the entire time!

Try to use this time to really see the whole picture – what kinds of trees are the birds in? What, exactly, are they eating? How do they move, how do they perch? Do they interact with other birds? How do their songs change or repeat? All too often we spend the day caught up in our own activity and excitement and catch very few of the finer details of what is really going on around us. As Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot just by watching.” If nothing else, enjoy the time to yourself and come back to the trail with refreshed eyes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fooled Myself, Again

I tend to trust my instincts when I'm out birding, but the mind does play occasional tricks, often getting the better of me.  It happens often enough; a flash of color or the shape of a wing as it disappears into a grove of trees seems unfamiliar, somehow, or wrong - I can't quite put it into words but I feel compelled to take a second look.  Usually I end up chasing down a song sparrow, a pleasant, familiar bird with a boisterous song that I see or hear almost every time I step outside with my binoculars.  This is a part of the program: knowing all the ins and outs of the relatively common birds is essential to make any headway into the rarities you might encounter.  The more you know the song sparrows, red-tailed hawks and herring gulls, the more likely you are to take a second look at that unassuming lincoln's sparrow, distant soaring rough-legged hawk or iceland gull.  

I went out the Wachusett Reservoir yesterday, ostensibly to scout it and a nearby river for future fishing expeditions.  Wachusett is a pretty big lake north of Worcester, and it has virtually no development along its shores and is closed to boats, swimming or wading.  It does allow fishing from much of its shore, and has healthy populations of lake trout, smallmouth bass and landlocked salmon, along with a few brown trout and other fish here and there.  I had a short hike in from one of the entry gates and to my delight found that much of the shore would accommodate a fly rod.  Whether I might dredge up a fish here and there is another story.  

As I walked along the shore in a very cold, stiff wind, I saw a loon.  I immediately assumed it to be a common loon, though from the very first I was struck by how light it seemed.  I got my binoculars on it and thought that the bill looked awfully bright and yellowish, sandy even.  I wondered about yellow-billed loons.  I watched it for a little while, thinking to get out my Sibley's Guide and check out the diagnostic elements and the ranges, but somehow I just didn't get that excited about it and continued on my hike.  

After watching a paranoid group of hooded mergansers and a soaring bald eagle I left the lake and drove over to check out the Quinapoxet River, which empties into Wachusett.  I saw a couple trout swimming along in the startlingly clear water and scoped out the runs, riffles and rocks for likely spots a trout might hang.  Then I drove home.   

Eventually, I remembered to check out the loons in my Sibley Guide.  This is where my head got, well, creative.  I saw that big yellow bill.  I thought I remember the shape of the bill being somewhat upturned as in a yellow-billed.  That lighter, sandy color really spoke volumes to me. I remembered noticing the eye of the bird significantly, and saw that on the yellow-billed it was more separated from the darker colorations of the head.  I thought back and said to myself that it was a really, really big bird, maybe even bigger than the common loon's gargantuan dimensions.  Of course, I saw that the yellow-billed loon would have been a find of great rarity for Massachusetts, though not unheard of in the great lakes region (though still very, very rare).  

But any birder who pays attention knows that crazy things happen, and every year some nutty Moroccan Fish-eating Cassowary finds itself on the top of a flagpole in Government Center in downtown Boston.  I have to admit to myself that my ego played some role in this; I thought how cool it would be to find something like that and give the head's up to the New England birding community.  First I had to confirm the find.  I couldn't get it out of my head, so I drove back this morning.

I quickly found the bird, a friendly common loon in his winter plumage, sporadically diving, preening and loafing about.  It's possible that I did see a yellow-billed loon yesterday, and today saw a completely different bird; I put the odds about one in ten million.  

Anyway, I enjoyed watching the bird.  Loons are comparatively personable for birds; they don't seem very alarmed by our presence and even seem to enjoy keeping an eye on us in a generally curious, relaxed manner.  We followed each other along a nice stretch of shore for a couple hundred yards or so before I turned back.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Some Flies I Tied

I thought that maybe I'd share a few examples of my latest endeavors at tying flies, a particular few that I'm fond of for one reason or another.  I have to say that if I ever found that I couldn't fish I would miss having a reason to tie these things, and perhaps I'd go ahead and do it anyways once in a while.
This is a Green Damsel, an impressionistic imitation of a damselfly nymph.  This would be a good general searching fly for lakes and ponds.
This is a Stimulator, a big bushy imitation of a stonefly, though it would do for a grasshopper in a pinch.  A good fly for getting a big splash from a big trout.
The ever-popular Pheasant-tail Nymph, a good match for many small mayfly nymphs, particularly the ever-present blue-winged olives.
An Olive Scud, a sort of freshwater shrimp.  Good for weed beds in lakes and slow stream pools.
The giant killer, a Bead-head Squirrel-Tail Nymph.  This one caught my brown trout last weekend.
The Mosquito, a personal favorite.  I hope to catch a giant bluegill on this next Summer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

My first trout on a fly in 10 years

I went up to the Nissitissit River today to do a spot of fly fishing.  It was a perfect fall day, maybe a little late in the year for indian summer but very nice nonetheless, in the low fifties with a modest breeze and a cool, bright sun staggered with erratic racks of clouds.  After I entered the woods I couldn't quite decide whether to leave my sunglasses on or off, and so they went on, then off, then on, then off throughout the morning.  The water was clear and low for the most part, showing the muted colors of the stream bed: golden, quavering yellow beds of sand, flinty gray outcrops of rock, dark green trailing beds of aquatic plants and clear brown water stained of a million decaying leaves.  

I fished a stretch that winds through a Massachusetts  wildlife management area, and though it was far from any reasonable standard of wilderness, once I was on the water I saw nobody else, I heard no cars, I heard no planes.  Which was nice, especially as it had been awhile since I fly-fished a river for trout, and being a self-conscious sort of person I appreciated the seclusion to practice my art.  I was rusty, definitely, having trouble with my back-cast snagging in the omnipresent overhanging branches, losing track of my slack line pooling at my knees, throwing knots amidst my fly, weight and strike indicator, fumbling with knots, dragging my nymph unnaturally through the water, making unnecessary false casts over skittish fish; you get the picture.  But it was very pleasant and peaceful despite several moments of frustration.  

I even caught something.  I fully expected to get shut out, but after about an hour I fished up through a short stretch of pocket water and hooked a beautiful, 14 inch brown trout.  It took a size 14 beadhead squirrel-tail nymph, a nifty little fly.  It jumped several times, coming downstream, almost running through my legs as I frantically tried to strip in the excess line, but somehow the hook stuck firm and I recovered to quickly pull it into my hands.  I let it go after a second or two of appreciation for its beauty (this was a catch-and-release only stretch of river).  

There is a powerful spell in fishing. Being out on the water, amidst nature, near to something as unknowable and mysterious as this underwater world, an ecology apart, yet engaged with the activity of knowing something of this place, confronting it, interacting with it, is a deeply rewarding activity that prods at many parts of our psyches (for some of us, at least; I know plenty of people endlessly bored by fishing).  Our curiosity and wonder at the endlessly intricate and varied workings of the planet. Our culture, the traditions, stories, strategies and tools that we develop to survive.  

In these crazy modern days I think it gives us something like a correction, a reestablishing of basic connections with nature and survival that we evolved with, yet have grown to a place where they are largely hidden from daily life (though still essentially there). For most people, in this culture at least, it has grown into an art form, a recreation, a philosophy rather than any kind of essential activity of survival. In myself, I'm afraid that the post-modern state of fishing has led me to some ethical uncertainties.  When I was younger I pretty much bought into the whole 'catch and release' philosophy, which to be fair is an essential management tool for preserving a resource like trout from the ongoing pressure of an awful lot of recreational fishermen.  But though there are different opinions regarding a trout's perception of pain,  it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are putting these living creatures through an unpleasant ordeal just for our own fun, and putting them at some risk of life as well from injury or exhaustion.  I guess I think that fishing for food is really more acceptable, as long as the habitat can support it.  

It's kind of like my thinking regarding zoos. From a reserved, rational perspective, I disapprove of the capture and incarceration of these animals just for our own amusement, yet the impact they can have on children's hearts and minds is enormous, and for many city kids, the only way they have to easily experience something of the natural world that takes them away from the little they know and encounter in their daily lives.  

Fishing did something like that for me when I was young, and it still does something important for me now.  Exactly what, I'm not sure.  I just know that I'm not ready to give it up.   I'm not too greedy; I'm usually satisfied with just an hour or two of fishing, and if I catch my dinner in the first half-hour, well, there are other things I can do with my time after that.  After all, I've usually got my binoculars with me; I can always go birdwatching.  

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Childhood Voting Woes

When I was seven years old, my class at school had a mock election. This was in 1976, and the candidates were Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Before we actually filled out our ballots we milled around talking about who we were going to vote for. I remember that most of my friends, most of the boys, period, were vocal supporters of Ford. I pretty much ran with the current, proclaiming my decision to vote Ford to anybody who asked.

When the time came to make our final decision, I checked the box for Jimmy Carter. I remember nothing of my reasoning, why I needed to vote contrary to prevailing opinion when I knew absolutely nothing of substance on the candidates or issues. But I checked Carter and slyly, I thought, folded over the piece of paper and waited to drop it into the basket that the teacher was passing around.

A girl who sat behind me, and I don't remember her name but she was big and had tightly-wound pigtails with brightly-colored berets, leaned forward and said "I saw you, you voted for Carter."

I turned and looked at her. "I did not," I said.

She looked around and said, louder, so others could hear, "He voted for Carter!" I just shut up then and turned back to the front and didn't say anything else, hoping that she wouldn't bring any more attention to my political sympathies, my deceit, or my cowardice.

And what is the moral of this story? Well, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "There's no moral to the story. It's just some stuff that happened."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A return to an old obsession

I have been overcome, for the moment, with an obsession from my past - fly-fishing and fly-tying.  When I was in high school and for some time into college, fly-fishing occupied a pretty big chunk of my brain, along with the Clash, H.P. Lovecraft's horrors from outer space and  whatever crazed psycho I was playing in the ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  Girls came later, mostly; I was a late bloomer in that department.  I spent many an hour during class letting my mind drift along, thinking of mayflies and trout, windswept meadow streams of Idaho, my nimble 4-weight fly-rod connected to a yellow humpy or hare's ear nymph.  I wrote wholly imagined stories about getting tangled up with big lunkers that got away and spent hours in the basement poring over books full of fly patterns and tying them up as best I could.  My specialty was the 'western' Adams, which took a standard Adams pattern and replaced the hackle tail with moose hair.  
We, my dad and I, fished mostly in the West during this time; apart from an unsuccessful trip into Pennsylvania and two trips to Michigan (the Pere Marquette, where we got bageled, and the AuSable, which was very nice) all of our fly-fishing for trout took us close to or west of the continental divide.  We fished the upper Green in Wyoming, the Henry's Fork in Idaho, Henry's Lake in Idaho, the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan in Colorado, the Bow in Alberta, the Brooks in Alaska, the Deschutes in Oregon...I can't remember all the spots (we may have fished the Umpqua, also in Oregon, but mostly I remember the first truly gourmet meal I ever had there at the Steamboat Inn - and of that I mostly only remember that the main course was lamb).  
Once I got a bit older and went off to college and did some traveling of my own, I developed a taste for high-country fishing while camping and backpacking in the Uinta mountains of Utah and the Cascade Range in Oregon.  Though not the most difficult or technical fishing in the world, I just loved watching little brookies snapping at my fly in a high-altitude lake, and then eating them, dusted in flour and fried. 
Anyway, life and my crazy mind drifted along and leap-frogged to other things, birdwatching, songwriting, novel-writing, work, relationships, cooking, snorkling, fiddle-playing, what have you.  Over the years I only made fitful attempts to get back into fly-fishing - a trip to the outer banks of North Carolina to try some saltwater fishing (a miserable failure, at fishing that is - otherwise I enjoyed myself) and a couple of days on the Beaverkill in New York - great fun but very modest success (two or three 10 inch trout on a hare's ear).  And for the last 8 years or so I've gotten up to the Lake of the Woods in Western Ontario for a week or so's Summer vacation, to swim, read, visit with family and also to do some spin-casting and jigging for Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike and Walleye.  
The last couple of summers we've gotten out my dad's seven-weight fly rod and done some casting, with pretty decent success with the bass and the pike.  I guess it's taken a while, but it's been sneaking up on me and now I find myself tying every week, brushing up with some of my trout books (reading the water, rigs and tactics for trout, essential trout flies, etc) and researching local waters.  Apparently, there are some nice ones.  Closest to home, about an hour away, is the Nissitissit, which I went out to see today.  I didn't fish, as I haven't gotten my license yet and wasn't sure conditions would be right this late in the season, but a local fly-shop proprietor (Charlie of the Evening Sun Fly Shop in Pepperell - an excellent shop and a knowledgeable host) told me that it can still be fished up until early or mid-December.  So I just might get out in the next few weeks.  If not, well, I'll continue daydreaming and tying flies until Spring.  Or perhaps I'll get sidetracked and start playing Dungeons and Dragons again instead.

Pictures are: Above:  The Nissitissit River.  Below:  The last of the fall colors, the mighty oak.  A muddler minnow I just tied.  A few woolly buggers I tied this week.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pictures from Camel's Hump, Vermont

I think my favorite of the fall colors is the toasted yellow-brown of the beech leaves.
A view from the top of Camel's Hump with Lake Champlain in the distance.
The loneliness of the long-distance mountain hiker.  Actually, there was a bit of a mob scene at the summit, but as you can see, it was possible to get a bit of your own space to gaze and contemplate.
Our crew at the top, digging into the goodies.  Clockwise from top (sort of) are Kim, Mark, Chris, Anne, Katy and Karen.
Beginning the descent along a wide open face of rock and alpine grass.
A cool lichen shaped like a trumpet.
Camel's Hump.
Karen and Katy.
A lovely grove of beech.
In the center distance is Mount Mansfield, the tallest peak in Vermont.  It is also a stellar climb that I have done in other years.
Another view from the top.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Mount Chocorua

A big rock with a wonderful patchwork of lichen.
Some cool mushrooms. I have no idea what they are. I didn't eat them.
New England at its best, looking from the slopes of Mount Chocorua towards Mount Washington.
Fall colors and distant mountains.
Me, from the top of Mount Chocorua.
Lichen bullseyes and blueberry.
Looking up towards the top of Mount Chocorua, at 3,490 feet.
A view from the top.
Lisa, Emily and Rob, my hiking companions.
A lone raven, drifting south, Lake Winnepesaukee (I think...) in the distance.

I can't quite figure out (other than to do one at a time, in reverse order) how to sequence photographs in a preferred order. No big deal.

Yesterday I took my first big fall hike of this year into the New England Appalachians, to see the always astounding colors of the leaves spreading in unruly washes across the hills, to visit with some of the wilder elements of this planet, to replenish a part of my being, to exercise my limbs in a long(ish) climb into some of the higher parts, at least for around here, and to enjoy all of the above with a few friends.

The mountain was Mount Chocorua in east-central New Hampshire, one of the storied White Mountains, just a bit south of the famous Presidential Range and Mount Washington, reputed (believably) to have some of the fiercest weather and wind on Earth. You can see snow gracing the top of it in one of the photographs above.

Chocorua is not one of the 40 or so 4,000 footers, as it tops out at almost 3500 feet, but it will easily fool you into thinking it one as it has a long approach with a couple of steep climbs and a wide, spectacularly craggy treeless zone at the top that has stunning views in all directions, and, usually, a fierce, cold wind.

Anyway, these fall colors and aging granite mountains are one of the great treasures of this part of the country, and Autumn is just not complete without a trip amidst them, and so I went, and now share what I can with you. Enjoy!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Chile Rellenos and unidentified fungi

Well, my four heavy weeks of work have ended, for the most part, giving me some down time to pursue some personal activities and give my thoughts to future plans.  The work seemed a bit easier this year, due I think to the several years of experience I've put in up to this point and also to the knowledge that it would most likely be my last season driving a van full of instruments around New England.  I will grudgingly admit to a certain wistfulness visiting some of these schools I've become familiar with the last nine years, but it's time to move on and I am very excited for the coming changes to my life and career, though they are still months away.  I wish I could get started sooner, but I will do my best to enjoy the fall and winter and leave my job in good standing.  

Anyway, as I said before, this weekend has been a time of restorative activities that I haven't had time for over the last month, and they have done much to raise my spirits and energies.  I had an enjoyable night out with some friends on Saturday evening, including an excellent meal at Henrietta's Table in Cambridge; I especially enjoyed the duck leg confit.  Sunday morning I slept in and spent the day relaxing with music and books, capped off with a very messy attempt at making home-made chiles rellenos.  I love to cook, and I think I've developed some affinity for it, but I certainly haven't mastered the finicky arts of stuffing and deep-frying.  Every time I try I tell myself that there's no need to master every single tasty culinary technique, but eventually an impulsive desire to make a recipe that's caught my eye undoes my resolution.  I love stuffed chiles, even the standard suburban tex-mex variety, and so I found myself caught in the throes of chaos, fingers mired with goopy batter, a wok filled with hot oil and splattering, frothing chunks of cheese that had slipped out of the roasted chiles, which had likewise slipped from their coatings of flour and egg.  All I could do was scoop everything out of the wok, drain it of excess oil as best I could, drown it in red chile sauce and eat it.  

Today I went for a run, and during a quick cut through a local plot of woods I noticed that with the recent rain mushrooms of all kinds were popping up everywhere.  I noticed many russulas, some beautiful amanitas which may or may not have been death caps (they had that greenish tinge to their caps), a smelly stinkhorn and a bunch of others that I had no idea what they were.  I even grabbed a handful of some particularly meaty, fresh-looking specimens (picture above) that I thought might be blewits due to a faint purple color on the cap edges and the stalk.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to key them out successfully - their spore print was a medium brown color which should nix the blewit - and I couldn't follow the taxonomic key in Mushrooms Demystified to a convincing conclusion, so I guess I won't be eating them.  Too bad; they smell pretty good.  

I look forward in the coming weeks to getting out my fiddle and my guitar, finishing what will be the fourth draft of my novel, making plans for next year (travel and my apprenticeship), and whatever else might strike my fancy.  

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Unexpected Pop Songs

You know, it’s a wonderful thing to know that life can still throw small surprises your way. By this time in my life (let’s generously call it approaching early middle-age), I sort of understand that big, unexpected things could happen to anybody, anywhere; health things, accidents, world events, what have you. I also understand that I understand very little, and everyday shows me new things in the world, which I sometimes appreciate and often overlook, but still my jaded eyes know the basic boundaries of my small, daily world, what I can expect and how I can appreciate or ignore the things that come my way.

Take pop music. I’ve always loved pop music, which I take to include all but the utmost fringes of rock, r&b, rap, folk and country music. But I’ve had a difficult relationship with it for a number of years now. I’ve always continued to appreciate the music that I learned to love and that was important to me as a youth and young adult. And I’ve always been interested in exploring new things, but the last few years it’s become something of a chore. I have a restless ear and I want to like new things, I read record reviews, I ask friends, I listen to things that people like or love or that catch my fancy in some definable or indefinable way. And I like a lot of it, but it kind of stays there…I like it, and then I don’t listen to it again. New stuff, old stuff I never heard, whatever (I will say that the percentages go way up when I catch overlooked stuff from bands or eras that I enjoyed when I was younger).

I usually write it all off to being a bit of a fogey, not appreciating the darn-fool stuff that kids today listen to, combined with my brain being full already of pop music. But today an utterly unexpected gem came my way, nothing world-changing or shattering, just a perfectly written and executed gem of a pop song from a source I’d never given a moment’s thought. The song is “Goodbye Lucille #1” from 80’s British band “Prefab Sprout”. Written by Paddy McAloon, it’s definitely pop, and polished, but…well, like I said, just perfect, moving in surprising yet entirely natural ways, moving and sentimental yet straightforward, earnest with a lash of humor and off-the-cuff spontaneity.  The album is "Two Wheels Good" or "Steve McQueen" (you can find it under either title), and it's all good, but for my money this track is the standout.

This is just a tease, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll figure out how to put a streaming copy of the song on my blog so you all can enjoy. Otherwise, I’m sure if you’re so motivated you can figure something out. And if not, just take solace in the knowledge that these little surprises lay in wait for you, too.  

But it helps if you do a little digging and keep your ears open.

Nothin' doing

Okay, so I'll try my best to get something up here every week for the next month or so; it's important that I keep my fans happy and hungry.  We'll see; as some of you know, I am pretty busy for the month of September, driving around New England, meeting young musicians and their parents and helping to get them started with a violin, viola or cello.  I am going to try and not complain as much as I usually do about all the overtime, the nights on the road, the loss of a full weekend; not only does that not really help anything but also I am anticipating working just as hard, if not harder, for several months next year with my upcoming farming apprenticeship. Serves me right, I suppose.  

Anyway, knowing that this will be my last season doing this has lightened my spirits and allowed me to enjoy it more than I have the last few years, even if I still look forward to the end of the month and the easing of my schedule.  

You can see I have next to nothing in mind for this posting today; my sincere apologies.

One interesting thing I'd like to note:  I have a counter for this blog where I can track how many people visit this site, where they come from and how they got here.  Lately I've picked up a lot more visitors, especially international visitors; I can only assume that Blogger has done some work in making their blogs more visible to the greater world of the internet.  In particular, I have a lot of visitors who take a peek from a google search that brings up one of my postings.

Which brings me to the interesting (or not) thing:  a large percentage of these visitors got to me through a search on google for the following string: "blue hubbard squash".  Apparently there are a lot of people out there looking for more information on this topic, and have visited a brief posting I made last fall extolling the merits of this wonderful food and describing how I prepare it.  

Anyway, I found that interesting.  Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Farmer Boy

Boys don’t generally read the ‘Little House’ books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I certainly didn’t, not when I was younger. Girls, I think, are much more open to books generally considered for boys than boys are to 'girl's' books. I guess we just always feel we have more on the line for being considered interested in that ‘girly’ stuff. I was a pretty voracious reader and even had a sort of secret curiosity about those stories (I’ve always loved tales of survival) but never considered reading them back then. I also avoided Nancy Drew, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables.

Most of those I still have yet to read, but a few years ago I started reading the Little House books, and I loved them. I picked them up because I was starting to write a children’s novel of my own and wanted to consume just about every classic I could think of, and also because my youngest sister Esme was reading them and enjoying them and my curiosity was again piqued. I discovered that not only are they enjoyable page-turners with interesting, diverse characters and suspenseful story-lines, they are truly treasures of American history, full to the brim of the clearest writing you’ll ever read of how the settlers and rural folk of this young country made their way on the ever-expanding American frontier.

Unsurprisingly, I was endlessly fascinated by all the details of how they ate; what they grew, what they shot and foraged, how they preserved it, how they cooked and ate it, how they enjoyed it. Boy, how they enjoyed it. The undeniable truth of living as a homesteader back then comes through in the general joy the characters get from almost every bite they take, whether it is their morning porridge or a once a year treat of maple syrup poured into the snow. Wilder’s writing really comes alive talking about food, sparking my appetite over and over. It’s clear that food really meant something to her and her family, and their connection to what they ate was primal and sophisticated at once.

Currently I’m reading Farmer Boy, which follows a year in the life of the young Almanzo Wilder, future husband of Laura Ingalls, on his family’s farm in New York state. The work, of course, is never ending and endlessly physical, and so is the young boy’s appetite. In particular, I am struck by how much pie he eats. It seems he closes every single meal, breakfast, dinner, supper, with two or three (or more) pieces of spicy apple pie, and frequently runs into to grab a slice or two during a quick break from pitching hay.

I never read Farmer Boy when I took in all the other Little House books a few years ago, mostly because I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative of the Wilder family as they moved from the big woods to the little house to the banks of plum creek, etc. Now, with a season working on a farm looming in my near future, it seemed the right time to head back and finish off the series with this book, and I’m glad I did. 

And, of course, this one’s not particularly girly, so I'm safe, right? 

Friday, August 22, 2008


Almost ten years ago I quit my job in Cincinnati to hike the Appalachian trail. By the time I stepped onto the trail in a cold rain, mid-March in the north Georgia hills, I had spent six months planning, daydreaming, and longing for the countless steps that would take me from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. I collected books of all kinds on the subject: humorous, practical, poetic, mystical, historical, personal. I examined my gear; I bought new gear (I threw out some of this and bought even more along the trail, finding much of the stuff I started with either superfluous or way to heavy). I examined my reasons and motivations for going; I tried explaining these to other people, as much to work it out for myself as for any other reason.

So what were my reasons? I’m not sure I really remember, though I do recall what I told people at the time: “I want to experience a different way of living,” I would say, “and for a long time so that it’s not a vacation, but just my life.” I wanted to stop staring at a computer, which I was doing way too much of. I was realizing that I had ignored a part of myself that loved the woods, the open air, birdsong and the sound of tumbling water for far too long and I wanted it back. I wanted change, and I wanted to feel like I had accomplished something.

I spent about a month on the trail, going somewhere around 250 miles through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee to the northeast end of Smoky Mountain National Park, well short of the 2100 miles that was my goal. I remember telling myself that the experience and the process was what was important, more so than finishing; maybe that was why I didn’t. But I can see other reasons I stopped hiking, from the sharp pains in my knee (I can no longer remember which one it was without consulting a photograph) to the new songs that ran through my head, calling for a fuller realization, a guitar and some kind of recording device. But I also just don’t think I was quite ready for this kind of journey. I didn’t have the drive to finish at all costs, and I didn’t have the maturity or peace to accept the experience for what it was, whatever it was.

As much as I hate to admit it, I fell into a trap of boredom. I did enjoy my time, sometimes blissfully so. I particularly loved the late afternoons and evenings, hunting for a good spot to camp, pitching my tent and rummaging for a proper meal, firing my stove, chatting and relaxing with fellow hikers, drinking cocoa, zipping myself in as night closed in and the nocturnal creatures awoke. But too much of the hiking became drudgery, or trudgery, and I developed a tunnel vision that blotted out much of the trip. I think you have to be open to each step to really make it the distance on a trek like this, and most of mine were lost. It finally was too easy to get off during a dispiriting moment when my aching knees couldn’t keep up with a small group of friends I had been hiking with. Still, it was a valuable and enjoyable time, and many memories and faces loom large in my thoughts.

Now, I am soon embarking upon another change, another journey, physical, personal, spiritual, practical. Next year I will be spending a full growing season, some eight months worth, on a farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts as an apprentice. The folks up there run a successful, 500 share CSA up there, and I will be trading my labor, a considerable amount of it, for education and experience in all that they do, whether it be tractor work, seeding, harvesting and weeding or managing the distribution of more than 100 different crops to the local shareholders.

I hadn’t really connected my Appalachian Trail experience with my new plans until I noticed that I will be starting up my apprenticeship almost exactly ten years from the moment I stepped onto that trail in north Georgia, and that got me thinking. One obvious thought – we all change and grow as we pass through life, and sometimes we need to step into new shoes to do so and keep our feet healthy. On a personal level, I looked at my experience ten years ago, at what I learned, at how I failed and how I succeeded, if those are even appropriate terms; better to say at how I lived up to my expectations of myself and how I didn’t. I’ve looked at who I am today, wondering how this person is different than that person, and what would happen if we switched places.

I’d like to think that I’m more prepared now for something like that, a six-month journey through the long green tunnel; more prepared to simply accept what the experience gives me. Maybe. I still don’t think it’s right for me, not yet. I still have some growing yet to do in order to spend that much time inside my own head and skin without going a little stir crazy. This apprenticeship thing shares many things with my hike, but really, it’s a much more practical affair, and has been undertaken as much as a career stepping-stone and practical education as any kind of personal journey.

But if I can take any lesson from ten years ago, from thirty or so difficult, enlightening, beautiful, painful, monotonous days in the rugged green hills of the South, it’s to be as open as I can to what I see, hear, feel, taste and smell. To listen and learn, to learn by doing, to pay attention to what the soil feels like in my hands, and to watch little green plants grow up, day after day, reaching for the sun.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pictures from Canada

A spiritual moment for Harper.

Your intrepid blog host.

A mouse-eye view of a mushroom.

An interesting flower amidst the blueberry field.

A very interesting mushroom.

Yet another mushroom.  There were lots of them.

A classic Canada sunset.

Esme and her cello.

In the blueberry jungle.

Uncle Jim and Esme, on her first round of waterskiing.

Brad catching some hang time on the wakeboard.

Dad at the dock with moon.