Tuesday, September 29, 2009

America's Best Idea

Like many of you, I've been enjoying Ken Burns' latest opus, The National Parks. Part II was especially inspiring, with its tales of those who fought to preserve our natural (and later, ancient cultural) wonders, against the relentless, single-minded commercial urge of the nation. I stand in awe of people like John Muir, who can fight year after year for a cause they believe in -- in his case, the preservation of the Yosemite Valley, and of all the land that eventually became Yosemite National Park -- despite setbacks, despite being up against powerful, moneyed opponents, despite simply not being successful, for so long a time. I consider it one of my character flaws that I am too easily discouraged; had I been in Muir's place, I fear I would have given up long before the moments of success could arrive.

But then, Muir's successes were often not quite complete -- as when he succeeded in having the high country around Yosemite Valley declared a national park, but not in getting the valley itself trans-ferred from the (indifferent) care of the state of California, to the federal government -- or they weren't permanent, as when the city of San Francisco managed to persuade the federal government to allow the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be dammed, to form a reservoir for the Bay Area. But he plugged on, he never gave up, which is of course what They always say: you must Never Give Up.

I've certainly learned lots of fascinating facts, thanks to Mr. Burns & Co. For one thing, I hadn't realized how far in the past John Muir lived, worked, wrote! I thought he was active, making his travels (to Alaska, among other places) and writing his books, in approximately the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Undoubtedly a shameful thing for a librarian to be admitting, but I also have to admit that I've never read any of his books. I simply knew they were considered classics in the realm of environmental literature, books one did not discard from the collection, even if no one had checked them out in a long time.

But good lord, the fellow stumbled onto Yosemite -- which he promptly fell in love with, and which soon became his life's obsession (something else I didn't know) -- way back in the 1850s. And I didn't know that it was because of him that the Sierra Club came into existence, for the express purpose of protecting Yosemite. I also had no idea that that organization went back as far as it does (1892). Just as I didn't know the Audubon Society was originally started by someone named George Bird Grinnell, who worked tirelessly in the late 1800s to preserve natural habitats and their wildlife. One of the most satisfying moments of Part II was when it described his publishing in the magazine Forest and Stream, of which he was editor, an article on the slaughter by poachers of buffalo in Yellow-stone National Park, which so outraged people that Congress in short order passed the National Park Protective Act, thereby saving the buffalo of the park, and animals throughout all the parks. Yes! The power of the press!

Indeed, again and again in this series we are learning about individuals -- many of whom I personally had never heard of -- whose passion and dedication were given over to protecting and preserving the natural wonders of this country, for the enjoyment of all of us. These men -- and early on they were all men -- are as much an in-spiration as the parks themselves. And certainly the many gorgeous views of the various parks is an inspiration to get out there and experience some wilderness.

It reminds me of the time I went camping with my Aunt Kittisue in Alaska. My lovable aunt's idea of camping was to put Pavarotti on the cassette player, pour a glass of wine and wait for the steaks to cook on the habachi. While she and her friend Mary were doing that, and enjoying a good gab fest, I made the short walk from our campsite out to the road. Straight ahead reared that awesome sight, Mt. McKinley, completely white though it was the end of May. It was ten o'clock at night but the sun was still shining, and all the birds were still singing (I wondered fleetingly if they dropped dead from exhaustion because they never knew when to go to bed). I stood there in the middle of that two-lane highway for a good ten minutes, and no car passed, there was no sound but birdsong. And I realized that there was virtually no touch of humankind for many miles in all directions; we were surrounded by true wilderness. And I was forcefully struck, for the first time in my life, by how valuable that fact was, the fact of wilderness, of land untrampled, undeveloped, uncommercialized. Just nature, doing its thing.

The National Parks, America's Best Idea, is reminding me of that moment, and that conviction.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The rail trail explorer strikes again

I decided to take advantage of another gorgeous day of sunshine and green leaves, and walk a stretch of the Rail Trail I hadn't walked before. This stretch runs from just past the little frame building housing Kennebec Jewelry and Repair...with its sign out front, "Gem panning here," which I do not get at all -- it's not like they have a stream tumbling down from the mother lode at their doorstep...north toward Hallowell. Across the street from the opening in the fence where you access the trail is the big, ugly frame building that houses the KV Health Club (KV stands for Kennebec Valley). Farmingdale has a surfeit of these buildings. They would look pre-fab if they weren't so big, although maybe they make big pre-fabricated buildings. They are incredibly functional looking: plain walls, roof, windows, door, the end. Aesthetics are for sissies.

But the trail. It's lovely. Actually much nicer than the stretch running south from Hallowell that I walked in the early spring (Note of April 19). Admittedly, then it was pre-leaf season, but even so there are many more large trees along the Farmingdale stretch, and they are often on both sides of the trail, and close at hand, which is not the case at the Hallowell end. Indeed, a couple of times I could hear myself thinking, "Lions and tigers and bears, oh no!"

The breeze in the trees made that water-like sound I love so much, though since the leaves are beginning to dry out, the sound wasn't so much soft as brittle, more like a small waterfall than a rushing river. Quite a few birch trees to be seen in amongst the maples, the oaks, their distinctive white bark marking them as special. In one case there were two growing close together, with one contorted somewhat like a stretched out S, the other standing perfectly straight. I could just hear the conversation over the years -- "Please, come away with me. Let's explore over this way." "I'm not going anywhere." "If you won't come with me, I'm going alone." "Suit yourself; I'm staying right here." "Ach! You know I can't live without you."

There were another two farther along, the trunks close together lower down, but then they began to grow apart. In adulthood their upper branches had suddenly reached out to each other, as they realized they needed each other after all.

Yes, I can make up a story about anything. In fact, when my siblings and I were kids I used to keep them and myself entertained on the long hauls between Texas and Indiana where we had moved after my mother married my stepfather, by telling them stories based on whatever they pointed at out the window. (old barn -- "Once upon a time a brother and sister lived in an old barn...")

At one point the rail trail made a right-angle turn and crossed the track. Big excitement. Of course, as I mentioned last spring, trains no longer travel along this track, so there was no danger involved in crossing the track. But why the change? As soon as I was over there I thought I knew: I was now directly above the river, and closer to it than I'd been anywhere else along the trail. It was too bad that the tide was out, so what lay below me were exposed mud flats, rather than flowing water. But the current was moving northward, which meant the tide was coming in. If I'd had a few hours to kill I could have stayed there, and watched the water reassert itself.

Another nice aspect of this stretch of the trail is the absence of traffic noise. It quickly disappeared, once I was on the trail, from a combination of the thick stands of trees on the road side, the gradual descent of the trail to a lower level than the road, with an embankment serving as a noise damper, and a widening distance between the road and the trail. A combination of factors that increased the peacefulness of the walk dramatically. Altogether a perfect way to spend an hour on a perfect day.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nature, behaving strangely

Here it is the beginning of the third quarter of the month of September, in the state of Maine, and all the leaves are still green. They are tired and worn out, a dull green, as opposed to the perky, full-of-promise lime green of early spring, or the serenely lush forest green of mid-summer, but still, green. Oh, there's the occasional patch of red or orange here and there, but it's very occasional. When we have a breezy day there are leaves all over the place, but they are dried-out, brown leaves that seem to have fallen from the trees without going through the mandatory color change first. Even the big, gorgeously round tree I pass every day on my way to work, that normally starts churning out the colored leaves in the middle of August, is still determinedly green, though many of its leaves are curling at the edges and turning brown.

A word to the wise: don't come leaf-peeping for a few weeks.

Has it been too dry? Is it because we still haven't had a frost? We have been having absolutely gorgeous weather for the past month -- sunny days, highs usually in the upper 60s, low humidity -- after a perfectly miserable June, when it rained or was overcast for all but three days, and July, during which if it wasn't raining it was the hot, humid weather that makes it so much hotter than whatever the thermometer declares it is. I have been enjoying these so much more cheerful and comfortable days as much as everyone else. People come into the library saying "isn't it a beautiful day?" and of course I agree. But I'm thinking, why aren't the leaves changing? And I wonder why no one else seems to have noticed.

I just checked online, and at scifun.chem.wisc.edu, on the Chemical of the Week page, learned that low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, which of course makes leaves green, and if those low temps. stay above freezing, it enhances anthocyanin (the red pigment found in some leaves) production. So maybe it has been too warm -- even at night the temperature has been dropping only into the lower 50s/ upper 40s (I can hear my Texas relatives, still enduring daily highs in the 90s, yelping "Upper 40s!") which may not be cool enough.

The information on this Chemical of the Week page says one thing that really confuses me: "bright sunlight also breaks down chlorophyll." But in that case, why are leaves so green during the summer? Admittedly, at the beginning of this summer, here in Maine, we didn't have that much "bright sunlight," but other places have lots of sunshine during their summers, and they still have green leaves.

But then, chemistry has always left me in the dark. I realize it's life at the most basic level -- that it isn't just biology as destiny, but chemistry as destiny -- but that just means life at the most basic level leaves me in the dark.

And why aren't the leaves changing?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Odds and ends

One of the reasons I like living in Maine:

Between 1998 and 2008 the number of homicides averaged 24 a year, ranging between 11 and 40. Can you imagine living in a state where there are only eleven homicides for the whole state in the whole year? Even 40 is pretty dang low. And almost all homicides are domestic, so if you can just avoid being married to a guy who's been out of work for too long and was a jerk to begin with you're probably o.k.

Literary pet peeves:

Characters clutching the steering wheel, the gun, the whatever so tightly their knuckles turn white. Excuse me, folks, but when you clutch something your knuckles do not turn white, although they may get a little pinker. And whatever color they turn, anybody standing there with you is not likely to notice the color of your knuckles. Face, other body language, yes, color of knuckles, no. Even the best writers use this literary cliche, and it drives me crazy.

The best writers are also forever having their characters turn pale -- not just their knuckles, but their whole faces. This is something else that simply doesn't happen. When people get a terrible shock they may look stricken, they may freeze in place with horror, they do not, instantly, turn pale. This evening one of my staff came in to work even though she was feeling unwell. She was noticeably pale, but you can bet that condition did not come upon her in the blink of an eye.

I find it fascinating that the following people were almost exact contemporaries, both as to birth dates, and death dates. Besides the fact that they all became famous, and successful, what did they have in common? They got rich and famous by writing words...

Cole Porter 1891-1964
Ben Hecht 1893-1964
Dorothy Parker 1893-1967
Oscar Hammerstein II 1895-1960
Ernest Hemingway 1899-1961

And moving from words to music: first composer John Williams lifts Darth Vader's leit motif directly from Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, now he's "borrowed" the Aquarium piece from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals for the haunting background music in the Harry Potter movies. (Can this get me sued? But all one has to do is compare the pieces...)

Some rock lyrics to make you wince:

"He will be like she and me" (from Danny's Song, by Loggins & Messina)
"The heat was hot..." (A Horse with No Name, by the Eagles)
"Open up your morning light and say a little prayer for I" (I Don't Wanna Wait, by Paula Cole -- this may be my all-time favorite most horrible rock lyric)

On the other hand, a rock lyric I really like:

"Sometimes I think/ life is like a rodeo/
the trick is to ride/ and make it to the bell." (Rock and Roll Girls, by John Fogerty)

A license plate on a Massachusetts car that made me smile:

(non-trekkies won't get that at all)

A bumper sticker on a Maine pickup that made me laugh:

Kill your television.

And I'll close with a bumper sticker that I second:

God bless the whole world
No exceptions

A window on nature

I was just looking through the folder where I kept notes for my newsletter, which I started sending out in March of 1979, and pretty much discontinued in 2005. Lots of odds and ends never made it into the newsletter. I've decided to trot out a few of the fairly recent ones, dating from when I was living in my cold, leaky but wonderful cabin-on-the-lake in East Winthrop, Maine. The lake was the Cobbosseecontee, shortened by everyone to Cobbossee. I was forever being treated to scenes that delighted me, driving along the road that led in from the two-lane highway to the unpaved road that in turn led to the camp where my cabin was located, driving along various back roads when I just felt like exploring the neighborhood, even just looking out the window of my cottage. To wit:

When I first moved to the cabin from the motel where I'd been staying I was arriving late in the evening, and it was quite windy. My headlights lit up masses of dry, late autumn leaves that were being swept across the road, up, over, around, turning the road into a tunnel of swirling leaves. And there was perfect, vigorous musical accompaniment on the radio -- Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Made it seem like I was starting out on this exciting adventure.

One day in early spring I glanced out my window and saw a perky squirrel sitting upright on a branch, its tail a bushy question mark, looking just like all those cartoons. Then it took a flying leap to another tree and the air filled with dust, lit up by the sun. Dust? A few minutes later a car drove down the road to another of the cabins, and I saw that it was covered with a fine green film. The light went on in my head: the "dust" I had seen was tree pollen, being transferred by one of natures transport agencies.

Another sign of spring: two bugs copulating on the window pane. It looked like forcible rape to me -- she kept trying to scoot away, he kept pulling her along in the other direction. When I hit the pane they both froze, played dead ("Shhh. Somebody's seen us.")

One winter's day I drove into Winthrop proper. Flawlessly blue sky, bright sun, the ground and trees covered with recent snowfall, but the roads clear. Out on the lake in town (Maranacook -- another great Indian name) there were scattered ice-fishing huts, the occasional snow mobile speeding across the snow-covered surface. At the edge of the lake some folks had cleared a small area of snow, turning it into an ice-skating rink. All those people out there enjoying the day, despite the 24 degree temperature. But 24 degrees with sunshine and no wind feels good to northerners dressed for it. And all of this was accompanied by the beautiful, peaceful music, with just a touch of the melancholy to it, that was playing on my car radio. When the piece ended I learned it was Dvorak's 9th symphony. Perhaps he wrote it on just such a day. It went so perfectly with the day, the scene, that I almost cried.

Another day in winter I watched snow dust being wafted through the air from the snow-laden pine and hemlock trees around the cabin on a wind that was really nothing more than a breath. The earth breathed, and the trees sighed.

And this was my reaction when I got home late one night, and stood for a moment in the dark, listening to the silence that was interrupted by a waxing and waning wind:

"I love the sound of the wind coming through the trees toward you -- like rushing water -- and it sounds so strong you're surprised that the trees around you move so little when it arrives. Sound...the great deceiver."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Death comes to an island (again)

Well, I've now read the first of Ann Cleeves's mystery novels, called Raven Black. I think it's actually better than the second one, White Nights, which I liked very much (see Note of Aug. 22). For one thing, the murderer was more psychologically feasible, and came as more of a surprise. I'll admit to having had an intuitive flash of who the murderer was, early on in White Nights, based on the fact that the character seemed to serve no essential purpose in the story...but there he/she was. Must be there for a reason...(Would this qualify as a spoiler?)

There was no great satisfaction in being proved right with that book since, by the time the climax rolled around, too many deaths, and the reasons for them, had made it hard to swallow that the murderer was, indeed, the murderer. It's interesting that the author made this mistake (to my mind it was a mistake) in the second book of the series, but not the first. I'm hoping she doesn't go out on another psychological limb with her third culprit (I gather four books in all are planned for the series).

Cleeves did as good a job in Raven Black of rendering the people, the culture, the physical makeup of the Shetland Islands as she did in White Nights. In both books police inspector Jimmy Perez is a jewel of a character, very likable, not hard-boiled at all, but smart. He gets there. And while in White Nights we saw what folks of the Shetlands got up to in the summer, in Raven Black we see them celebrating the same kind of drunken New Year's Eve celebrated elsewhere in Scotland, and later involved in their own special celebration, Up Helly Aa, which celebrates the island's Viking heritage with a giant bonfire in which a full-sized replica Viking longboat is burned. All quite fascinating.

However, I do have to take issue with the publisher calling these books thrillers. They are intriguing, well-plotted mysteries, but the emphasis is on the characters, on their interactions with one another, and on their interior lives, not on heart-stopping action, on exciting adventures of the hero, often while tracking and/or being tracked by the bad guys. That's my idea of a thriller. Did they think the books wouldn't sell if they were just called "A Mystery"?

So...check 'em out.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The other night I watched a video of My Darling Clementine, starring a marvelous Henry Fonda, an unusually good Victor Mature, and a ludicrous Linda Darnell, playing her Mexican senorita (or was she supposed to be Indian?) with a flat Texas accent. The story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers up against the dastardly Clanton family in Tombstone, it is felt by many to be John Ford's finest film. It is a good movie, with many striking shots, excellent performances, and some pleasantly real, human moments. But it takes huge liberties with history...which is not, of course, unusual in a movie.

Just for starters, it would seem that Wyatt Earp, far from being a man of heroic stature, was a not-very-nice man, at least in his youth, and more than anything was a self-aggrandizer, who quite possibly took credit for achievements of others.

In March 1871, in Missouri, two lawsuits were brought against him. One, brought by Barton County, charged him with having kept the moneys he had collected, in his position as constable, instead of turning them over to be used by the school fund. In a separate allegation he was charged with having misrepresented how much a local citizen needed to pay in fines, again keeping the difference. Neither of the actions was ever acted on, apparently because Earp and his father (who was also not one of your more upstanding citizens) had left the state.

The next month he was charged with horse theft in Indian Territory, where he had apparently fled to avoid the suits against him back in MO. He was arrested for this crime, but escaped.

In 1872 he was living in, and off the proceeds, of a brothel in Peoria, IL; he was arrested several times in connection with this, and had to pay fines. Later he was involved with a floating brothel on the Mississippi. He often made his living gambling.

In Tombstone, where he achieved his greatest fame, he wasn't even the marshal, as all the movies would have it -- his brother Virgil was the deputy federal marshal, as well as the city marshal -- Wyatt was just, at times, a deputy. In Clementine Virgil had the job of riding shotgun on the stagecoach; this was actually a job that Wyatt took, in between gambling, and mining. Those were his primary interests in Tombstone.

And the famous gunfight was nothing like the way it's always portrayed in movies. For one thing, the opposing party wasn't "Pa" Clanton and his four sons; it was only Billy and Ike Clanton, along with two other brothers, Tom and Frank McLaury, and a fifth cowboy, Billy Claiborne. Ike and Billy Claiborne ran away, and so lived; the three others were killed. Doc Holliday was not killed -- as portrayed in Clementine -- though he and the other Earp brothers were all wounded. Wyatt was the only one who came out unscathed, which is what contributed mightily to his reputation as a top gunslinger.

The gunfight didn't even take place at the corral, but about a block away, in an empty lot between two buildings, with the two parties facing each other at close range, not scooting in and out of out-buildings and behind fences, as generally portrayed.

While I find all of this factual history very interesting, I can't help wondering how this man who seemed to spend as much of his time on the shady side of the law as supporting it, ended up becoming this western icon. Well, actually, I know how -- he told his highly roman-ticised story to someone who swallowed it whole, wrote it up, and spit it out for the rest of the world to read, be fascinated by, and believe. We want heroes so badly, we'll take them even when they aren't real.