Friday, March 27, 2009

Winsome, Loathsome

My computer was down for a few days this week, and I thought it was for good. Turned out the only thing I'd decided I was willing to spend money on considering that I expect to be computerless in three months anyway, a cheap new mouse, was enough to get it lumbering along again. I'd written a brief farewell to post from the library--here's a bit of it.
I've long recognized that having a computer took a lot of time away from activities I'd previously enjoyed. Now instead of pressing a button as soon as I wake, I lounge in bed playing with the cat and contemplating life. Once I get up, I spend more time listening to music and public radio, writing with pen on paper, and out in the world. Computerless evenings, combined with only two non-digital tv stations, lead to more reading.
Honestly, while knowing it was going to cause me some inconvenience, it seemed like a pretty good life. There are a lot of great things about computers and the internet: instant research and
access to the previous inaccessible, the companionship of like-minded blogs, email; but also a lot of time wasters like games, and reading comments on newspaper websites. And they've led to the death of many things I valued in life: newspapers, magazines, book and record stores. Overall, for all its wonders, I think all this technology takes us away from the life we should be living.

So though the computer's still running for the moment, I'm going to try to spend more time away from it. I'll still post some book reviews I need to write anyway, there will probably be some Duluth comments before I leave and accounts of spring hikes, and I've had the title of my final post lined up for months. But I'm going to stop thinking I should post something because I haven't done it in a week.

Instead, I'm going to watch the last snow melt as I drink a cup of tea. I'm going to shoot more rubber bands across the apartment and laugh as Walden leaps in the air like a volleyball player at the net. I'm going to fill the pages of my journal more quickly.
I'm going to wait for the Lake to make a wave.

Some things I'm finding interesting--increasing numbers of tent cities, decreasing numbers of jobs and struggling non-profits, desperate attempts to wish the economy back into what it was and will never be again by trying to get people who are accepting the new reality to go back to spending money instead, final passage of increased Wilderness, and almost 20% of the world's population of North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay.

See you at the next trail junction.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Just Gimme an Inch

Coming up is a bunch of sentences regarding a new book, One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton. I should explain my approach to writing reviews at Amazon: because their description and many of the reviews cover all the ABCs of plot or subject matter, I tend to skip all that and just write about my own reaction. Because really Amazon only exists so that I have another place to write about myself and my opinions. Which is fine in context, but here would leave you wondering what the hell this book is about.

So . . . this book is written by a man who has made his living recording and selling the sounds of nature. He lives near Olympic National Park in Washington, where he's placed a small stone and started a campaign to have it be a place of silence, especially concerned about airplanes flying overhead. His theory is that in order to keep that one square inch silent, you would actually be keeping a much larger area silent. He decides to drive
his VW bus across the country to Washington DC to pitch his idea.

But before we get to the review, here's what has been driving me crazy for the past couple days. There was a song, perhaps by some group like Supertramp or Led Zeppelin, maybe by some hairy folksinger or British blues rocker, which at some point led to the plaintively spoken/sung/yelled lines "Just give me an inch, all I need is an inch, all I want is an inch" etc. Or some such version in a different order. I think this was not so much part of the actual lyrics as a fadeout or aside during the song. Please please please help me and tell me what this damned song was and who sang it!

Back to the regular program.

I wish I liked this book more. I'm a hiker and love natural silence and natural sounds, and have cursed at many an airplane destroying the quiet. There are some lovely bits of nature writing scattered through the book. Being a fan of Doug Peacock's books, I was happy to see him appear. I enjoyed the pages on tinnitus and hearing tests, having experienced that some years ago.

But despite my love of quiet, I think it's silly and wrong to claim that preserving natural silence is as essential as species preservation, habitat restoration, toxic waste cleanup, and carbon dioxide reduction. If humans disappear most of our noise stops immediately, but extinction is forever and so might be some of our toxic waste.

I suspected trouble early when the author reports a conversation with a ranger giving no clues as to facial expressions or tone of voice. When the ranger acknowledges remembering the author, I already wondered if he meant How ya doing? or What do you want now, you pain in the butt? I found most of the cross-country travels and conversations which make up the book much less interesting.

I'm more a fan of trying to do as little harm as possible than I am of eccentric doing good schemes, and I think the author's world travels have done more environmental harm than his unlikely square inch of silence would do good. I'd be tempted to call his crusade tilting at windmills, but he informs us that they, along with almost everything else, are too noisy.

The book Viners got didn't include the CD, so we couldn't comment on that. Throughout the book, there is mention of the taking of many photos of the One Square Inch stone as it poses before landmarks or is held by various people. I can easily imagine the official final product having page after page of these photos of the stone--it would somehow be perfectly appropriate for this rather unusual book.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Abbey Walk

In honor of Allan honoring Ed, I headed out for a walk this morning. It's warming up, but it's no desert out there and that's fine with me. The walking can still be dangerous though; even the sidewalks which were cleared can now be covered with ice from the overnight refreezing of the previous day's melted snow. So I walked in the street and threw beer cans at the passing vehicles.

I did a short version of Hike #2, figuring I'd enjoy the view despite my morning after headache. Just as I entered the woods, a free range canine charged at me, making a racket I didn't need to hear. Up ahead, ineffectual sounds tried to call the beast back, soon followed by a man with more canines. "He gets jittery sometimes," sez he through his teeth. "Well, that's why they have the leash law," sez I. No reply from the mangy cur. Damned welfare ranchers running their critters on our public land.

I took the high road atop the canyon, having fun looking at the events of the days since last snowfall: mouse with tail, snowshoe human, cone petals beneath a squirrel's lunch spot, shredded tree beneath a woodpecker's.

Reaching the end of the trail, I descended quickly to the creek. Very quickly, putting my lead boot sideways and hoping for the best as I slid down the snow and ice covered curving stairway which more closely resembled a slide. Similar slides led to and from a series of bridges crossing the creek, but these had freezing metal railings to pull myself up with and to help control the downhill skis.

High numbers of crows celebrated up high. The gurgle and occasional glimpse of moving water beneath the ice. A frozen waterfall off a side wall. A large amount of erosion had happened in the past few days, the fallen rocks and soil atop the snow at the base of the cliff or the trail left behind as they rolled farther out to the creek. I witnessed three small collapses as I passed back and forth, the tiny sound echoing off the walls.

The trail led to another steep and shiny ice stairway. I tried to circle up around it but couldn't pull myself up over the final ledge. I fantasized about being trapped there til spring and it seemed a good place to live, but I returned to the site of my initial descent and tossed my pack ahead of me as I used my gloved hand to complete a scrambling tripod as I climbed.

Back on the street, an attractive young jogger gave me an enthusiastic smile and hello. I stroked my bushy Abbey beard and impregnated her on the spot.

The Machine may seem omnipotent, but it is not. Human bodies and human wit, active here, there, everywhere, united in purpose, independent in action, can still face that machine and stop it and take it apart and reassemble it--if we wish--on lines entirely new. There is, after all, a better way to live. The poets and the prophets have been trying to tell us about it for three thousand years. -- Edward Abbey, Shadows from the Big Woods

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Hear a Different Drummer

Only because it was requested by a couple people, my rather cranky Amazon review of a book about a hero many consider a crank. (The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan)

I almost wonder if this book is intended to be an example of the type of paradoxical humor Thoreau enjoyed, given that it seems to be completely unnecessary with no imaginable audience. There is so much which annoys me on one early page defining the book that I'm going to concentrate on those matters to make my point.

The author tells us the book may offer little new to Thoreau experts. I'd never label myself an expert but I have a few dozen books by or about Thoreau and have attended several of the annual meetings of the Thoreau Society he refers to. (I've also made the walk many times from downtown Concord to Walden Pond and it's nowhere near as traumatic as he makes it out to be.) I think it's reasonable to assume that the audience for books about Thoreau is primarily made up of people who know quite a bit about him already. If you read Walden in school and thought Thoreau was a jerk, are you likely to buy a book which intends to prove you wrong? So he's telling most of his paying audience he has little to offer them.

He tells us the book is not a biography of Thoreau. Perhaps he means it's not a scholarly biography or not solely a biography, but the majority of the book is definitely a biography. He seems to think that being a freelance writer gives him some understanding of Thoreau. Sorry, come back in 150 years when your work is considered among the most important in American literature and I'll think you have something meaningful in common. He tells us he will not dwell on Thoreau's work and can't interpret Walden for us. Won't that make it rather difficult to explain the book's subtitle: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant?

The other potential audience for a book like this would be people who are just becoming aware of Thoreau and enjoy his work. For them, there are many better books than this one, many of which are mentioned in this book's Notes.

Want a better biography? Walter Harding's The Days of Henry Thoreau or Robert Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Local history? Walden Pond: A History by Barksdale Maynard. Want to know what Thoreau really meant? There have been dozens of books offering interpretations of that, but mostly I'd suggest that if you want to know the Thoreau you don't know, you should read Thoreau. There are several annotated editions of Walden (Walter Harding's is my favorite), and a wide variety of books focusing on the journals by theme or date or editor's preference as well as the relatively complete journal in two large volumes, and a new scholarly edition underway. All Thoreau's other books and essays are also in print--decide for yourself what he meant.

Snow & Wilderness Defeated

Our most recent "blizzard" was a failure. Despite forecasts and the Weather Channel crew sent here to cover it, we only got some wind and a couple inches of snow. I can only hope the forecasts of several days of high temperatures in the 40s prove just as inaccurate. While most people look forward to its demise, the end of winter always fills me with a deep sadness.

As I guessed two months ago, the House defeated the designation of 2 million acres as wilderness. Not so much defeated as didn't support by a wide enough margin as it fell a couple votes short of the 2/3 majority required. And apparently this had less to do with the concept of wilderness than it did with the Great American God Gun. Shoot!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Thanks to Terry for bringing this story to my attention: Zoo chimp 'planned' stone attacks. The article tells the story of how Santino, a chimp at a zoo in Sweden, would gather rocks in the morning to throw at the humans who would come later in the day to point and laugh at him. And he didn't just pick them up off the ground, he learned how to find weak spots where he could break off chunks from larger concrete boulders.

It's all fascinating stuff, but possibly the most interesting part of the article is the headline. Over a story which details the unambiguous steps and planning involved, the BBC still felt obligated to put 'planned' in quotes. It's very important for some people to try to keep humans superior even when contrary evidence is right in front of them. We are, of course, unique, but then so is every other species.

That article also doesn't tell you that as punishment for daring to throw stones at presumably paying visitors who were taunting him, the zoo had alpha male Santino (who was not attacking fellow chimps) castrated. You can read about that in the AP version.

Personal update: My hope of using a part-time job I enjoyed as means to getting a second better paying part-time job, the combination of which might have let me afford to stay in Duluth and keep my cat for another year, was dashed into a full time job I hated which had terrible hours, didn't cover my expenses, and would only have wasted my last few months in Duluth. So I'm back to blogging, volunteering, and keeping my fingers crossed I'll be out playing in the noreaster blizzard which may hit us tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Mysterious Case of the Moving Bread

I didn't work today, and so I can report the tale of the piece of Italian bread I watched move repeatedly for no visible reason. Though that would certainly be a reason to take a day off work, I didn't know it was going to happen. No, I took the day off for the final meetings of my Minnesota Wildlife and Nature Writers classes. (And I'm taking Friday off because I got an offer of a ride down to St. Paul and can sell a few boxes of books while making more money and having a much better time than I would at work--you have to ease into this working thing. Or ease out--I just read the official local unemployment rate was 9.9 % for January and I assume it's gone up since then.) At some point in the future I hope to write a bit about nature writing definitions, styles, philosophies, and purposes, because the instructor and I have very different preferences--but not today.

I have to try to set a complicated scene. I've written before about the little wild spot across the alley from my windows: chokecherry and mountain ash trees provide food for birds, squirrels, chipmunks; a brush pile has provided the roof of a home for successive rabbits and hibernating chipmunks. All of this is on a hillside and wrapped around a one story parking garage for another apartment building; coming from the parallel street higher up the hill, you can walk onto the roof of this garage--from that street only the garage's skylights appear above ground level, while from my apartment I see the complete building. So the farther something is from me, the higher it is, with the top of the snow-covered brush pile well above my sight line. Can you picture that?

Last Thursday we got a few inches of snow. Saturday or Sunday morning I woke up and noticed the snow around the brush pile and garage had been heavily disturbed. From my angle, I thought the tracks were human and assumed a drunk or kid had jumped/fallen off the garage onto the snowy brush pile. I cursed that my pretty scene had been disturbed and didn't investigate it further.

Today I climbed up there and now realize they weren't human but large canine tracks along with what seems to be some digging down into the snow at the top. The terrain, snow depth, days passed and resulting effects of weather, along with my own lack of tracking skill all make it hard to tell who this visitor was. If I were to go only by the current size of the tracks, I would guess wolf. Wolf tracks have been seen within Duluth's city limits and I'd love to think one was a few feet away, but I doubt if they've been in this heavily populated an area. But for all the dogs I've seen running loose on city trails, I've never seen one running loose in this neighborhood. So combined with the evidence of digging, I'm going to split the difference and guess coyote.

You're probably wondering why I decided to look today after ignoring the scene for several days. And what about that bread? Well, this morning I threw few chunks of stale bread out my window for whichever critters came along. Maybe the skunk I smelled during the night?

After I got back from class, I looked out the window to see if the bread had been taken. Suddenly the chunk closest to the brush pile began to move through the powdery snow. You can imagine that it took a couple looks to believe this, checking to see that a big wind hadn't started blowing. By this time I was standing with binoculars at the window hoping to see a paw or head. The bread moved about a foot to the left near a small tree trunk and stopped. Then back to the right, then rapidly to the left again, repeated several times, obviously trying to be fit through a hole too small.

Eventually, the bread disappeared from my view and that's when I headed out and got distracted by the canine tracks. Though below the level of the surrounding snow, the bread was still there at the entrance of a tunnel.

What was going on? In reply to a question in class a couple hours earlier about what will happen in nature this month, I said the hibernating chipmunk across the alley will come out. And though s/he didn't come out to my sight, I think the forceful movement of that bread indicated a muscular chipmunk rather than a mouse, perhaps a chipmunk woken a little early by a hunting coyote.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What a Way to Make a Living

I remember (or misremember) Joseph Campbell telling a story about hearing a father tell his son, "I've never done anything I wanted in my entire life." That's how I feel about the jobs I've had.

There are plenty of explanations for this: a desire to always have as much free time to myself as possible to indulge the interests which are more important to me than any career, childhood experiences and influences, caring about place more than income, choosing to live carfree, living in a society which doesn't reward what I value.

It's not (only) that I'm lazy and selfish--at times in my life I've loved volunteering my time rehabilitating wildlife, shelving l
ibrary books, being a zoo docent, talking with the homeless or institutionalized, teaching people about peregrine falcons, bringing in the hay. Pay me for any of those activities or many more and let me set my schedule and I'd be a happy and hard worker. Give me a society which respects the natural world and I'll respect that society and want to contribute to it instead of wanting to have as little to do with it as possible.

But I am tired, and have been for a very long time, of the 40 hour work week, much of which for most jobs is spent doing nothing, and almost all of it for every job doing nothing of importance compared to taking a walk or cooking a meal or making love or reading a book or singing a song or playing with a pet. I've never understood the people eager to trade their time for money and objects, or who are bored when not working, or who keep working after winning the lottery, or who angrily tell someone to get a job. I've never understood them, and I've hated working with them.

So I've been delighted and very fortunate that I've managed to survive the past nine years rarely working full time after spending the previous ten years working full time for one employer which ultimately left me on the edge of complete collapse. Now (an indeterminate period) is unfortunately but necessarily one of those rare times, when I'll be feeling stressed from having to spend time with mainstream people, when I'll have too little time to myself, when I'll be irritable and uncreative and weary, when I'll resent having my time wasted. Oh, poor me! Alas and alack!

All of which is only to let you know there will be very few posts coming up on this blog in the immediate future--no bat abuse, no doomsday vault, no
nutrition dvds. I've got advance copies of a couple possibly interesting books (One Square Inch of Silence, and The Thoreau You Don't Know) which I need to review for Amazon so maybe I'll copy the reviews here when I get them read. I'll try to make an occasional weekend post when the mood strikes and I'm not doing the walking and reading I intend to concentrate on in my too little free time, and ultimately the temporary (like life) job may keep the blog going a little longer than it would have lasted otherwise. Thanks for reading.

Go north, young creature.

Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault