Category Archives: writing

Sunday morning-Rachel Carson park

 

With my afternoon to be filled with lifting, digging, and hauling plants for the local parks, I found myself hesitant this morning to work on my own garden, though the salvia, rosemary, lavendar, and sage were ready and much needed to be done before I could plant them.

But, I knew better.

Far more frequently now, I pay the price for wanting to stay at the same speed and intensity of  my twenties and early thirties when I could run before breakfast, deconstruct a deck by lunch, and bike with my kids before dinner.

With hands aching as I type, I know better than to work in the garden all morning with what is to come this afternoon. And I have a half marathon to begin planning for. I ran some good miles last night. Though I would love another fast three or four miles, I know I need to wait until tomorrow. The race is in the fall but avoiding injury is as much a part of my training as proper nutrition or increasing the time allotted for stretching as I go longer distances.

Somehow time wins no matter how fast you think you can go. Funny how that works.

So, in my restless frame of mind, I wandered up to Hawlings River, the Rachel Carson Park, where I have done a great deal of winter photography.

Arriving later than my usual dawn hour, my choice of trails was dictated by the presence of groups in the park. I guess there was a guided hike or two going on this morning. Having no desire to negotiate other dogs, as mine was with me, or any desire for pleasantries quite yet, I took whichever direction was quieter. Sometimes silence is golden while company is brass. This morning was one of those times.

Down by the river, the native azaleas were in full bloom, beating out the mountain laurel which will bloom in June.  I would have wandered and taken more photographs but that would have meant letting the dog off leash, and, with other dogs around, too much trouble for a mind already seeking a little less of that.

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Continuing along the trail, heading away from the parking lot and the more traveled parts of the park, the wide trail, used by horses, is lined with ferns. The woods are so dense here that you can sense the urgency of of all this life pushing down into the soil and up to the sun, crowding and jostling. Thousands of tulip poplar saplings push up through the understory in this park, so much competition in this rich habitat.

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Unfortunately not flying, (was it gleaning moisture from the mud?) this black swallowtail was in the middle of the trail. I helped it off, not wanting it to be crushed by the horses or other trail users.  I left it among the mayapple and fern.

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The park system mows  every few years or so up by the parking lot to provide invaluable meadow habitat. Swallows, bluebirds, and butterflies can be seen quite frequently here. If nothing else, the meadow is simply a beautiful landscape. I enjoy taking photographs here.

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Bicycle Race

I was not planning on writing this morning but saw this morning’s word, Cranky, and I had to respond.

Of course, cranky means to be ornery, difficult, fussy. A descriptor my wife and daughter both use to describe me when I’ve been inside for too long.

But it made me think of getting out on my bike. Working the crank to get rid of the cranky.

Why the title of this post? Among the pleasures of teaching is to be introduced to children who you know will be interesting adults. Years ago, I had a student who loved to sing the lyrics of Queen’s Bicycle Race. He was a fascinating kid-eccentric and always coming up with something thought provoking.  I sometimes find myself humming the tune (off key) of this old song when I am eager to get out on one of my bikes.

After 15 years of hard use, I just had the hybrid rebuilt with new crank shafts.  With the heat and humidity of this area’s summers, riding is the way to go. Running is just punishment. Spring is the sweet spot to get out.

I know I’ve written previously about some biking around here but I get excited and ready to put the bike on the car when I think about the options.

One can ride from Washington D.C., Georgetown to be more specific, to Pittsburgh via the C & O Canal National Park and then, picking up the GAP trail, on to Pittsburgh for a total of about 300 miles-with no need to ride on roads and with little need to cross major roads. For 184 miles, one can ride with the mostly undeveloped Potomac River on one side and the old canal on the other. Almost two hundred miles of old trees, locks, lock houses, and the wildlife that thrives within this corridor. There are myriad places to access the trail with easy parking lots. This photo captures some of the Virginia bluebells found along the trail in April.

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The GAP (Great Allegheny Passage)  trail then climbs from Cumberland, Maryland up to Pittsburgh. I’ve only biked small portions of this trail but it is equal in beauty to the C & O, changing your view from the river to one of the mountains and farms of Western Pennsylvania. This trail takes you through long tunnels cut through the Laurel Highlands and into old railroad towns that will present you with lodging and meal options. You can camp,easily, along the C & O Canal, but I do not think you can do this on the GAP.

There is a simple freedom to riding. I wonder what Thoreau would say about riding’s ability to let you explore; I think there is a meditative element to biking. You can let the rhythm of pedaling help you zone out and the safety of being on a trail prevent you from having to worry about navigating around automobiles.  And you can enjoy the view.

But, enough writing. Time to get the bike on the car. See you on the trail.

 

 

 

 

The Journey Home-Edward Abbey

I need to put down Abbey. He’s really not healthy for anyone who has to work indoors, work around people, or live around anything made by people. The Journey Home is an ode to wildness and wilderness and it is not to be taken lightly. Like the loaded gun Abbey was found of keeping handy, this book can kill. Kill your desire to, yet again, force yourself to go inside. Kill your desire to acquiesce. To accept the asphalt, plastic, and concrete that separates you from anything that would make you uncomfortable and  make you realize that you are alive.

I want to start a petition for the rights of workers to take well days. Why must we take a sick day? What about well days? Those days that it’s just too damn perfect outside to be inside. Those days when the rain drives hard enough  to keep the ridge trails empty of people, and empty of lightening. But not so hard that that pine tree, the one up in the saddle,  doesn’t make a perfect place to open the thermos of coffee and watch the curtains of water dance in the wind.

Those windy days in the autumn that swirl the leaves into dervishes of reds and golds. Those days when you have to run!

Those days when the sun rises and the air thrums with the song of the blackbirds in the marsh grass.When the kayak glides into the water and you can feel the air come alive with the beating wings of the great blue heron.

Those days when you feel too good about yourself to want to compromise with, talk to, or convince anyone to do anything. When your heart is full of its own energy and has no desire to share it but with the hot sun. When a long run or hike or ride or walk is needed- or anything but another damn day inside!

Again, the book is titled The Journey Home. Edward Abbey. Don’t read it. It’s dangerous to those who prefer the free air, mud in their boots, and a soul on fire.

Silence

I search for and examine silence.

I guess one wants what one does not have. I’ve been working on this blog post for some time with may false starts as I try to work out some profound statements that are worth sharing. Perhaps there is a little irony there.

I am a middle school English teacher and the father of a child with Aspergers Syndrome. If you have unfamiliar with children with Aspergers, they talk a lot…to you, to themselves, often to anyone who appears to be listening. So, I don’t get much quiet. My thoughts alone provide enough noise for me to navigate; by the end of most days, I am exhausted, seeking only the refuge of silence.

In his brilliant essay, The Eloquent Sounds of Silence, published in 2001, Pico Iyer discards the cliches and tired metaphors in order to tell us that we must work for silence and make it part of our daily existence. Silence is not simply given. It is not something to find. It must be created.

Iyer warns his reader about searching for the type of silence that is fool’s gold-a mountain top, a retreat, an escape. We may come back refreshed from these getaways but we then find ourselves frazzled and exasperated as soon as we have to return to the clamor of the world. When we go to these places of silence, we recite the standard litany of comparisons. “Silence is golden, company is brass” and all that.

He tells us that silence must be earned. Work must be done to build stillness into our lives. To create a presence, not an absence. To make silence not an escape but an enchanted place where one can think and where one can create.  And, truly, this is remarkably difficult. Finding a public silence is perhaps the easiest. It is fairly simple to turn the cellphone off (something I try to do more and more), shop online, walk late in the evening when all of the neighbors are safely ensconced in front of their televisions. Finding a private silence is more difficult. Turning off and turning away from the myriad distractions that prevent us from hearing ourselves and others think is much more of a challenge. How can we engage in meaningful dialogue when the pings of our tweets, feeds, and messages from those far away distract us from the very real soul attempting to connect to us in the here and now?

Iyer tells us that silence is only as good as what we can bring forth from it. Silence is not malevolent brooding-it is not isolation. It is the teacher allowed a quiet retreat from the clamor of the classroom to research, to read, to plan; without time to engage himself in inner dialogue, how can he be expected to help his students engage in reflection and thinking that helps them become better versions of themselves? How can an educator teach a child to think more critically when the educator herself has no time to do the same?  It is the silence of the political leader who is comfortable within the citadel of his own thoughts; he who can bring forth from decades of incarcerated isolation reconciliation with those who imprisoned him.  It is the religious thinker who can emerge from his contemplations of cancer and his own imminent death, to tell us how we all must exist joyously, together, within the Cathedral of the World.

Iyer goes on to examine the holiness and wholeness of silence. How, in silence, we go beyond hearing not only ourselves but perhaps something larger; behind the protective walls of silence, we are free to examine the stillness within ourselves. Here, we can see that the sacred is as much within us as without.  Vows of silence can be seen as the highest devotional act. It is only in places of silence that we can stop and hear the voice of the divine. God has no place at the table of man’s idle chatter.

Our world has only gotten noisier since Iyer published his essay. In 2001, he ponders a future where more and more machines talk to us; a future where we can cocoon ourselves ourselves from public noise with the Walkman. In 2017, we live in a world that no longer demands any amount of silence. Indeed, we live in world where it seems that he who speaks the loudest and with the least amount of forethought is the one who is listened to, not ignored for being a buffoon. We live in a world where children can speak to a device called an Echo for information and for entertainment. Heedless of Bradbury’s warning, we are allowing the nursery to raise our children; unaware that we may find ourselves devoured by the lions of their imagination. Iyer’s exhortation that we work to build silence into our lives is  ever more urgent and  even more necessary.

Silence does take strength and a willingness to be still, and we appear to be weakening in our resolve to be silent and to listen. If we are constantly creating and consuming noise, then we are not listening to each other. The consequences of this lack of meaningful exchange surround us. We are a world that is returning to the dreaded “us versus them” mentality. Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of history knows the consequence of this thinking.

Iyer concludes with his thoughts on silence as the “ultimate province of trust.” With loved ones, we can be silent. Idle words are not needed-there is no embarrassment to mask with babble and idle gossip.

Perhaps if we begin with simply being quiet, if we simply allow silence a place at the table, there will be a little more peace on everyone’s plate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hemlocks

 

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I have been avoiding the news, again, occasionally glancing at the New York Times and the Economist to be aware of the more significant happenings. But I will not watch the news-I cannot contribute to the Orwellian personality cult that has become my country.

There is finer sustenance at my table than the latest spew from the pumpkin man with daddy issues.

I went to the mountains this past weekend. I went despite the weather forecast of ice, wind, and snow. But, my wife would say that I never heed the forecast for what is considered “bad” weather. It seems that my twenty plus years of backpacking stories are full of ice storms, snow, torrential rain, and  hip deep mud.

I went because I had to-the mountains were calling and I had to go. To be more precise, the hemlocks offered me their rich, loamy embrace and I found myself lonely without them.

 

Norman Maclean wrote, in his novel, A River Runs Through It, “I am haunted by rivers” as he describes fly fishing and the truth found in the waters of western Montana.

As any of my hiking companions can tell you, I am haunted by hemlocks. I search for them along the mountain streams and in the shady hollows. I appraise the health of the smaller ones, looking for signs of the adelgid that annihilated some of the best memories of my childhood. I proclaim, with desperate hope, as I examine one small tree, that this particular specimen looks, “okay.” I quietly weep when I hike the Cedar Run trail in the Shenandoah where all of the giants are felled-the trail along the creek is littered with the immense carcasses of the once towering hemlocks. Briars have replaced what was once a cool, moist, dark forest floor. I follow the news of replantings and of scientific studies into ways to combat the killer, the wooly adelgid from Asia. (The United States Forest Service has some excellent resources.)

But all of this work just brings me more sadness. I know that all of these attempts are good and coming from the best of intentions; but what is left of the wild? This is just another example of manufacturing wilderness. So much has been altered and destroyed either by malice or neglect that man must intervene to save or manage what is left. Where then does one go to escape, for a moment, the teeming multitudes? Even these trees, miles from any trail head, have been tagged and numbered-a nail driven into their bark, a metal disk proclaiming each tree a number. Thankfully, some of these disks are hidden from view. But they are there.

No words or photos of mine have thus far paid sufficient homage to the giants left in relative peace on the side of that mountain in West Virginia. How can one avoid cliche and banality? My solution is to plan another trip. I guess I will need to return with camera and notebook and keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking

I offered, the other day to  a fellow blogger, as a worthwhile read, Thoreau’s Walking,  which is a brilliant tribute to the need for wildness.

This inspired me to search through my bookshelves for my yellowed copy of this brilliant essay. Along with my first copy of Walden, now in tatters but still in its rightful place-within reach on my nightstand as it has been for twenty years, Walking  also remains with me.

As I reread the words that were gospel to me twenty five years ago, I find that the annotations and underlined passages of my youth still fire my soul with their electricity of truth.

Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. 

I believe in the forest, and in the meadows, and in the night in which the corn grows.

How can one not cry out!

And I find that these lines ring only more true now, in these desperate times where so many are crying out for help and where so much that is good and whole is being irretrievably lost.

Nowadays almost all man’s improvement, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.

This essay is a clarion call to preserve something worth looking at! For a place where we can get out of doors.Where are we most friendly with our neighbors and strangers alike? I have been greeted and engaged in more friendly conversations as I walk stream valleys and hills than in shopping centers and stores. What more engaging conversation can there be than to share your morning’s sights with someone going where you have been? And, likewise, to hear what may lay ahead. What a joy to be asked for directions! To talk about what you have seen! To share something that Nature has given.

Last autumn, my son and I were wandering one of our favorite places deep in West Virginia. And, as is often the case, we were asked for directions  (my son finds this, how often we are stopped, very amusing); it seems our fellow hiker had misplaced his maps and had become turned around. Out came the maps and our conversation began. Campsites, views, and where to find the largest spruce were just some of our topics. What could be more interesting! Fellow explorers, helping each other find new lands.

We are so pinched and rushed in our daily errands. How many conversations occur in parking lots and shopping centers? How can we be inspired to a meaningful thought or conversation, adrift in a sea of asphalt and concrete?

What creative thoughts can come from a landscape in which we play no part? How can one become little more than a cog in a machine when we can drive for hours and never escape something man has done to mar the view? What hopes and dreams of a new world, a better world can come to our children when all we leave behind is broken and subdued?

In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the school, that delights us. 

All good things are wild and free.

Aware

Excavators

Today, over and through the conversations of my students making meaning of literature I heard the harsh sounds of the excavators knocking down the old school building on the other side of the belt of trees. We were reading a book about a clash of cultures-the animist beliefs of the Indians of the west coast of Canada and the Anglican British priests sent to save the Indians from damnation.

I walked over to see the progress.

I had hoped that the school would be turned into open fields; the new school has replaced old, overgrown hay fields with concrete and asphalt. But, hey! We got a green roof-that counts, right?. The school and the community benefited from a land swap. Nature lost both ways-less habitat, less room, and more land altered beyond all original shape.

I remember when I started working in this once rural spot, over a decade ago, the killdeer swooped over the wide open fields behind the school with their cheerful little cries. I would take my students outside in May, allowing them room to practice acting Shakespeare. I would track the killdeer and the hawks. Somebody had to; may as well be me. They (the birds, not my students) were sometimes difficult to see when they entered into the old trees that lined the field-it did take some work to follow them so I wasn’t goofing off or slacking at completing a very important part of my job. .

With the development of the homes across the street, the killdeer vanished. Like so many things, you first notice the quiet and the emptiness. Then you puzzle over what is missing. And then you realize that another part of the world just got lonelier, emptier, more hollow. I hope they found some other, quieter fields. Perhaps on the old farms outside of town.

 

I drive around this town, beginning to choke on its gluttony of development, and scope out each woodlot, each little postage stamp of open space, the large fields on the edges and obsess over when they too will be swallowed in the gaping maw of the excavators and the bulldozers.  I search for the signs that celebrate another development that morbidly use the name of the farm in its name. “Glen” is my favorite. Ah! The visions of leafy green grasses and trees carpeting gently undulating earth. The irony is enough to make you gag-homes put on billiard table flatness, trees the thickness of pencils, and grass from a roll off a truck.

I will keeping listening, hoping, once again, to hear the killdeer.

 

Heard