Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Patty Griffin

This has nothing to do with the usual topics of this blog, but I've just watched Patty Griffin's new concert dvd along with a Sopranos episode with a bit of Springsteen's Glory Days attitude (and according to the credits, Southside Johnny as himself though I didn't spot him) and I'm thinking a bit of my old days as well.

For those who've never heard of Patty, she's a songwriter covered by a lot of famous singers and increasingly well known for her own releases as well. Earlier this month she won the Americana Music Association's awards for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year.

I knew Patty in the early 90s when she was working at a pizza restaurant and playing as opening act in a tiny club
in Harvard Square. OK, I'm exaggerating the "knew" part; more accurately, I was telling everyone who'd listen that she was going to be a big star, and I might have looked familiar to her in a crowd.

I'd see her walking around the Square and, in what I now think of as a 'what if' moment, once we met as each was walking alone
in opposite directions around Jamaica Pond. She looked sad, as she's said she often was in those days, and our eyes met but we didn't speak. I told myself on the next loop around I'd tell her how much I enjoyed her music and see if she wanted company, but she didn't make that next loop.

Then she disappeared for a few years, moving back to Maine if I remember right, and I wondered what was wrong and why she wasn't a star yet. Finally in 1996 came her first major release and I went to a signing she did at a store in Boston. I brought with me a six song tape she'd released five years earlier and she signed it, "Can't believe you have this!"

Fast forward and she's the star I said she'd be. It was an easy prediction. She has a powerful voice which resonates inside people causing chills and hair-raising whether she's shouting or whispering the words to her mostly sad sounding songs. But hey, if you need cheering up there's the love song
(Heavenly Day) to her dog.

So, the point. Go buy some Patty Griffin music. For memories, I still prefer her old stuff with just her voice and guitar as on that old tape and her first CD Living with Ghosts, but if you prefer a band and more production try this year's award winning Children Running Through, and then you can work on getting the four in between.

We now return you to the ongoing collapse of industrial civilization...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

In Which You Imagine What I'd Write

I still haven't shaken a cough that began four weeks ago, and I'm having trouble concentrating on anything including the life and death matter (for my cat at least) of looking for a new job, so I'm going to clear the desk of some blog ideas that I haven't gotten around to writing.

1) I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that hunters are acting illegally and unethically. According to an article in today's Duluth newspaper, 2/3 of the DNR officers quoted think 40-50% of the bowhunters in town are illegally using bait to lure deer. This is not only illegal throughout the state but people taking part in this special hunt are specifically told in person that it is not allowed. Another article reports hunters seeing fewer deer in this third year of the hunt and speculate the hunt is reducing the population. This is truly complete speculation because the completely unscientific hunt was authorized with no idea of what the deer population was to begin with, much less with any attempt at monitoring the population as the killing took place. Meanwhile a recent poll
on the newspaper's website regarding hunting showed almost 60% of respondents (at a steady rate which made me guess the results were at least legit if not scientific) were "rooting for the critters", which seems a landslide in one of the country's major hunting regions. With two of the three biggest original proponents of the hunt off the City Council in January, and an incoming Mayor who was less than enthused about expanding the hunt in the city's parks, perhaps it's time to start working on eliminating or at least reducing this slaughter.

2) I attended a student dance performance at the university Friday night, which had me thinking of revisiting a column I wrote a couple years ago. I love modern dance for its athleticism, sensuality, creativity, expressiveness. It's my favorite art form, perhaps in part because my earliest exposure to it involved works with strong themes of nature and paganism. At a student event like this with 16 short works, I also get to hear some music new to me. Didn't write anything new but I did add a bunch of dance dvds to my Netflix queue.

3) A month ago as I flew east with two favorite books of essays, The Hopes of Snakes by Lisa Couturier and The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner, I jotted down some ways in which I'd compare and contrast. Respectively, east vs west, suburban vs wild, female vs male, literary vs plainspoken, compassion vs action, emotion vs ideas, individuals vs species. Didn't write anything...are you noticing this pattern? you know why I never finished that MA in English...but it was good to read them again and make a bunch of notes in the margins.

4) That was an idea from a month ago unacted on. You think that's something? A couple years ago when I was doing a biweekly column, I intended to write one titled In Praise of Ecoterrorists. In my mind this has now expanded to a three part series about the so-called ecoterrorists, the real ecoterrorists, and the silently complicit (like me) who let what they profess to care about be destroyed through inaction due to issues of fear, security, obedience, etc. I'm going to be requesting my FBI file soon; if I find that I don't have one after all those years of marching, writing, and donating, I'll probably be disappointed enough to get to work on this idea.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Cassie the cow didn’t jump over the moon for your entertainment. She jumped a six foot fence at a slaughterhouse in a desperate attempt to save herself. And compared to most cows, she got lucky. In her case being lucky has involved post-traumatic stress disorder, anti-depressants and sedatives, agoraphobia (fear of going outside) as well as fear of people and being with other cows (slaughterhouse memories). Attempts to socialize her have mostly failed but she has become comfortable being in her own stall with an open window with other cows on the outside. Though her history was detailed on a sign, I’ve recalled it from a few notes and memory so may be off on some details.

After another sanctuary couldn’t handle her needs, Cassie now lives at Maple Farm Sanctuary, formerly a dairy farm for three generations, which is located about ten miles from my father’s house and run by a constantly busy couple of approximate age 60 with the help of never enough volunteers. Their MySpace page includes a newsletter and the heartbreaking/warming story of the life journey which led to beginning the sanctuary. The 150 beautiful rolling acres are home to llamas, cows, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, horses, a miniature pony, and two piglets.

I attended a benefit to raise funds to build a better home for Cassie at the sanctuary a few weeks ago. Peter Young, who served two years in prison for releasing fur farm minks, spoke about how actually seeing chickens being slaughtered was what changed him into someone who had to act directly. He said he’d heard all the Starbucks jokes; I wrote one myself in an old column: “After years living undercover, Young was caught shoplifting CDs from Starbucks and I certainly can’t condone that. Everyone knows you shouldn’t go to Starbucks.” Seriously, I completely agree with the goal of putting furriers, fur “farmers”, and trappers out of business. But I don’t support releasing thousands of mink into the wild to kill native animals and where almost all the mink quickly die themselves. If a habitat were capable of supporting thousands of native mink, they’d already be there. This is just an alternate version of humans acting as if they have the right to do whatever they please with the natural world. There weren’t any questions following the speech so I approached Young later to discuss this but he was deep in conversation with a couple adoring fans, and since I was from 1000 miles away and thus the stranger (i.e. the FBI guy) to everyone there, I let it go and walked away.

I’ve always been the stranger: an only child who started school early, then skipped a grade. Academically, the school wanted me to skip two years; socially, my father decided one was enough. Maybe I might have been an oceanographer or another worthless millionaire if I hadn’t absorbed the values of the 60s, but at age 11 I was first published, a letter in Newsweek supporting the American athletes who raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the national anthem. Growing up, I hiked through nearby woods beginning my love of nature and explored an old graveyard where the inscription “Died from wounds received at the hands of her husband” led to my first attempt at fiction.

In my mid-twenties, I joined Mensa for a year. My partner at the time berated me for being an elitist. It’s true that I am somewhat of an elitist in dealing with people, but hey, at least I don’t think my species is better than all the other species on the planet. No, that’s all the supposed non-elitists who think that. In any case, I didn’t join Mensa because I wanted to feel superior; I joined because I was looking for community I didn’t find in the everyday world. Nor did I find it in the group; I remember some good games of Trivial Pursuit and a rainy hiking weekend in the mountains of New Hampshire where I gave myself a mild case of hypothermia (what a genius!) but I found the same mix of beliefs and values and attitudes that existed everywhere else.

I deeply believe this is a contemptible culture, not only because of how we treat other species, but because of how we treat other humans and ourselves. When someone asks what you do, they’re not wondering if you meditate, read the classics, walk in the woods observing phenology, or volunteer at a homeless shelter or wildlife rehabilitation center; they want to know how you earn money. Tell someone you’re going to college to learn or follow your passion for art or history and you’ll get a strange look because you should be training to make more money. It’s the obsession with money which assigns a cost to other species and steals their true value.

I’ve marched with tens of thousands against wars and for abortion, been to stadium sized sports events and concerts, but always knew we had just an issue or song in common. The only time in my life I’ve been in a crowd of hundreds and known we all shared basic core values was at Maple Farm Sanctuary. That was a powerful day, and that unusual feeling of peace lasted through the two quiet weeks I spent at my father’ the past it hasn’t taken two days before we got into an argument.

The feeling came without any big dramatic moments with people or other animals at the farm. I did some small talk, ate some processed veggie food, mostly ignored the music being played, got a cookbook at the silent auction. There were a few goats and cows in an area where they could come over to a fence for human touch if they wanted (and at least one of them usually did), a mix of llamas, goats, and turkeys in one less accessible fenced in area, and five more cows to watch at pasture far beyond a temporary fence to keep the humans out. More animals were in a barn which could only be visited on a tour...I went on one of the early tours and then again on the last tour of the day. This is where Cassie could be found in her area at the end of the barn. Among other animals along the way were a llama who removed my hat to smell my hair and two piglets who, before arriving at the sanctuary, had already had their tails docked and bore blue dye to indicate to the dockers which pigs still needed to be mutilated. The feel of their snouts against my hands was the most interesting sensation of the day because I’d had no previous experience with pigs. Throughout the day, I know many people were sharing my desire to spend more time touching the animals and it was hard to remind ourselves that this was not a petting zoo but a rare place where these animals were fortunate to find life.

If living in Duluth for six years hadn’t put me in debt that requires an income, I’d ask the folks at Maple Farm if they wanted a full time worker in exchange for room and board. Instead for now I’ve been compiling a list of sanctuaries and studying websites. Maybe when I’ve broken free of my own imposed obsession with money I’ll become a traveling volunteer, knowing that sanctuary is always just ahead.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Boston Half-baked Beans

Public Garden

After landing on a dark and stormy night, I got outside as quickly as possible the next morning and strolled beneath the fully-leaved trees in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue. It seemed incredibly lush after the near bare trees I’d left behind in Duluth. This took me to the Public Garden, one of my favorite spots in Boston, where I returned often during the next two weeks. Towering Belgian Elms among many other species, the man feeding rock doves perched on his hand, the lagoon with its geese and mallards, the Arlington Street Church with my memories across the way, tourists taking photos of bright red maple leaves and hefty but sleek grey squirrels. As I sat on a bench jotting notes and thinking how lucky I was to have lived most of my life in this city, I glanced up to see an attractive woman, one of the many who’d already made an impression, smile at me.

She and the other women of Boston had me fantasizing about losing twenty years and pounds, and feeling more aware of that aspect of life than I am in Duluth. I’ve reached an age where I’ve started to have some regrets about my past choosiness in taking lovers, while paradoxically being so much choosier now that I’m really not looking for any new ones at all. Not that the near-vegan, deep ecologist, non-driving, atheist pool is very large anyway; there ain’t a lot of fish in that sea, and I’ve learned over the years that relationships with women who don’t share core values are doomed and not worth much. Except maybe when you’re old and thinking back about missed opportunities of shallowness.

Veggie Food Fest

After a day flying followed by little sleep in a hot smelly noisy hostel, I wasn’t in the mood for the crowds of the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival this year. They really must find a larger space to hold this event. I only stayed for an hour, collecting a bag full of free samples and saying hello to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. The highlight was the award-winning carrot cake from Cafe Indigo. Asked on my second walk by if I’d tried it, I said, “Yes, could I try it again?” Fortunately, my visit the following day to Maple Farm Sanctuary, which I’ll write a separate entry about, made the date of my trip worthwhile.

Arnold Arboretum

Visiting the arboretum was a trip back in time on many levels, not only due to many memories from years past, but also a step back to fall colors after bare trees, and to the sound of blue jays whose brethren had migrated through Duluth in the thousands weeks earlier. My favorite part of the arboretum had always been Hemlock Hill, an area currently being destroyed by the non-native woolly adelgid. It’s very sad to see this spot in decline with most of the trees dying and what had been a dark cool habitat opening up to the sun. My sadness was relieved somewhat when a snake appeared and I watched him for a few minutes. As a winter lover with limited time, I focused the rest of my visit on the conifer tour. Where among these dozens of trees from around the world did I find Eastern Grey Squirrels? Why, under the local native Pitch Pines, of course.

I used to live a couple blocks from the arboretum on the only dirt road (a short alley actually) I knew of in Boston, with a view of tall oaks where I saw fat raccoons. After a couple years, the road was paved and all the space between buildings turned into a parking lot. As I walked past on this visit, I saw on the paved parking lot, they put up some condominiums, and they’ll charge all the people an arm and a leg just to live in them. Incidentally, I was never that much of a Joni Mitchell fan but her latest CD Shine is a good collection focused primarily on the natural world and our destruction of it.

Into the Wild

Saw the movie version in Boston since it never came to Duluth and I thought this might be better on a big screen. I didn’t find any of the book’s power in the movie, although several (Holbrook, Keener, Stewart) of the supporting cast do a great job of bringing their characters to life. What I didn’t feel at all though was the connection with Chris McCandless I get when reading the book, so the movie felt empty to me.

Here Come the Suns

Browsing a bookstore, I found interesting November issues of two magazines I used to buy regularly. Shambhala Sun is a Buddhist mag but this issue includes articles by many people familiar to those interested in issues concerning the nature/society relationship: Gary Snyder, Joanna Macy, Theodore Roszak, Dianne Ackerman, and a Bill McKibben review of a book by Paul Hawken. Toss in an article about songwriter Leonard Cohen. The second magazine, The Sun, was long one of my favorites, allowing no advertisements and with much of the content written by its readers. This issue has an animal theme with Derrick Jensen writing on zoos, Sue Hubbell on a rehab bird named Bird, an essay on ravens, another on dogs in church, animal photos set to words of Walt Whitman, and animal related quotes including this one by Ed Abbey: “When a man’s best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem.”

Why I Went to Sea and What I Saw There

I didn’t actually. I stood in line in the cold wind for about 45 minutes before the whale watch was canceled due to high waves, and I wasn’t able to reschedule as their season ended a couple days later. But I’d already thought of the title and wanted to use it for Walden fans. Why I went to sea in the past? Because watching a humpback whale breach, or seeing her uniquely patterned flukes slip back into the water following a surfacing is a powerful experience. Because there is a great peace in being 30 miles from shore with no other sign of humanity in any direction, a peace not easily obtained on land.


Sickness had kept me from doing much in my second week other than enjoying being in the area as the Red Sox won the World Series and rereading a couple essay collections I’d brought along and plan to write about. Maybe taking life slowly was what led me feel like I was Home again, which I hadn’t felt on previous trips or even during the last few years I lived there. I found myself appreciating the landscape of hills and heavily forested countryside, amazed by how tall the trees were even in residential areas like the one where I was staying.

So I didn’t make it to Walden Pond until the day before I flew back. After arriving in Concord on a delayed train, I first stopped at Fairyland Pond which I had to myself except for a dozen geese in the water and perched on a fallen tree. Oak leaves and pine needles covered the ground in a combination I hadn’t realized how much I missed. Many other memories of humans and other animals I’d shared this place with hung in the air with the low clouds.

Still heavily congested, cluttered with thoughts of the trip home if not Home, and planning to make a couple more Boston stops that day, I wasn’t in a very alert naturalist mode but I still noticed part of a crushed turtle shell as I walked along the road to Walden, where I found one area of shoreline collapsed (most of the walk around the pond is a narrow path with a fence on both sides to help prevent erosion) but another shoreline area covered with many four-foot pines. There was a big crowd of kids at the cabin site so I didn’t make my usual stop there, nor did I make it downtown to the gravesite for my usual reflection and thanks. The shop was closed due to construction so I also wasn’t able to buy a book I intended to get. Much hadn’t gone as planned both on this day and on this vacation but they had still been good ones.

The Return

The trip east had been made over heavy cloud cover with no good views even during landings and takeoffs. I had much better luck going west as we took off over Boston Harbor with good views of the city and Cape Cod, and heading west over Quabbin Reservoir, Hudson River, Finger Lakes, Niagara Falls, Lakes Erie and Michigan. Coming into Duluth over Lake Superior, we paralleled the sand bar with a good view of the shipping entrances and one of my favorite hiking spots.

A smooth travel day until I actually got here. After landing, it appeared my bag had been lost as it didn’t appear. After waiting at a counter and filling out a form, I took a look up the luggage ramp on my way out. Up at the top I thought I just might be seeing a little silver which just might be my black and silver bag in the darkness. Back to the counter where I had someone climb the ramp...YES, my bag was here. Then another wait for a cab (yes, here one must call for a cab at the airport). I’d given my only apartment building key to the person feeding my cat, and with the managers and everyone else I tried calling out, it took me an hour to get into the building. OK, Universe, no need to be so subtle. Just give me that lottery win to pay expenses and I’m outta here.

First thoughts on seeing my cat after two weeks with a miniature dachshund: So Big, So Black, So White.