Monday, July 27, 2015

Frontier Learning

I'm just starting Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening to the West and am captivated by Stegner's observation of the haphazardness of learning on the frontier.

I knew books were scarce; teachers, too. But Stegner riffs on this "homemade learning" and how boys (and they were mostly boys then, of course) were often captivated and bent by the first man of learning (and they were mostly men then, too) they encountered.

The closest books Abraham Lincoln could borrow were 20 miles away — and they belonged to a lawyer. The closest books John Wesley Powell could borrow belonged to George Crookham, a farmer, abolitionist and self-taught man of science. Crookham collected science books, Indian relics and natural history specimens.

So "[w]hen Wes Powell began to develop grown-up interests, they were by and large Crookham's interests," Stegner writes. Powell went on to explore the Grand Canyon and to champion the preservation of the West — all of this with one arm; he lost the other in the Civil War's Battle of Shiloh. (Powell was a major with the Union forces.)

I think of us now with more influences than we know what do to with. Libraries at our fingertips. Information bombarding us day and night. Would we climb on a raft and venture down uncharted waters? Well, I know what I would (not) do. How about you?

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Utility of Trees

Thinking this morning of the utility of things and how they change through time.

The tree that once shaded the backyard, whose sturdy trunk supported first a baby swing and then a porch swing, has been a branch-less trunk for more than a year now. It's the Venus de Milo of the backyard.

But what it lacks in shade and stability it makes up for in bird habitat. No branches for nests but a great tall expanse of trunk for woodpeckers. I heard the birds yesterday, rat-tat-tatting for insects and grubs, and thought of the tree's gracefulness in good times and bad.

"I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do," Willa Cather said.  She could have been thinking of this noble, denuded, pockmarked oak.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Just Sitting

Who was it that said, "Sometimes I sit and think — and sometimes I just sit"?

This is a "just sitting" kind of morning. Which is too bad since I have lots of work to do. But for a few minutes "just sitting" is what I plan to do.

The cicadas are in high-summer mode. Their sounds ripple through the air, the aural equivalent of a dip in the pool or a Popsicle dripping down the arm on a sticky afternoon.

The morning air is cool and full of promise. I want to bottle it for a stripped-bare winter day. I want to store up inside, which is the only place that counts.

But for now ... I want to just sit.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Time Travel

Last night I finished watching the movie "Interstellar." It's a long film; I had gotten halfway through it Tuesday evening and finished it up last night. But its length was befitting of its topic, the expansive subject of space and time.

Time, the fifth dimension, the true final frontier. Astronaut Cooper trapped in a box of boxes, able to see his daughter Murphy but unable to reach her, except in code, except, he realizes, through time itself, the watch he gave her before he left on his fantastic voyage to another galaxy.

Farfetched? Of course. But who hasn't felt trapped in the here-and-now? Who hasn't yearned to break free from the linearity of our lives? Just a peak at the future. Just a glimpse of the past — long enough to forgive, to restore, to understand.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hot Day, Slow Walk

Usually we move purposefully, Copper and I. But our purposes are not the same. He has his goals and I have mine. For him, a splendid walk wouldn't be a walk at all, but a series of stops and starts. Full-tilt runs followed by dead standstills. Meanderings and sniff-fests. Ambles.

Whereas I have a distance marker, a point I'd like to reach — say Fox Mill Road — he lives for the next sign post, guard rail or fire hydrant.

But yesterday our wishes were one and the same. It was late; it was warm. We wanted a brief jaunt, a slow burn. No way would we make it to Fox Mill Road.

So we turned down a pipestem and ogled some showy phlox. (Well, I ogled the phlox; he salivated at a squirrel.)

We paused often to look at the sky. (Well, I looked at the sky; he sniffed the grass.)

The heat and humidity slowed his normal rocket-fire pace to a more comfortable stride where the two of us were walking side by side — almost as if he was heeling.

"You're doing a great imitation of a well-behaved dog," I told the little guy. Luckily, his sarcasm meter is always set to low. He looked up at me with his big brown doggie eyes, wagged his tail — and we both kept on walking.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Emerson in the Morning

One of the most delicious parts of reading — and liking — a new book (Theroux's The Journal Keeper, which I mentioned on Saturday) is discovering — or in this case remembering — other wonderful books to read.

Theroux mentions Emerson several times in The Journal Keeper so I spent some time last weekend scouring the house for a collection of his essays. One was nowhere to be found. Only a copy of "The American Scholar" in the Norton Anthology.

But this morning I realize that I don't need a hard copy; I can go online. And there they are, familiar words a balm to my flagging spirit:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.  ...
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.  
 Ah yes, I feel better now. Ready to take on the day.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Weeds: What Are They Good For?

Here in the rainy East, it's a good summer to be a weed — or most any kind of plant, for that matter. But I'm thinking more about weeds this morning because I pulled so many of them over the weekend.

The soil is moist and they're easily uprooted. Plus, there are so many of them to banish. I would no sooner finish one patch of yard then I'd spy another plot of stilt grass a few feet away. Let's just say that no weeder will be idle this summer.

One can't help but wonder when weeding: What is it that separates the weed from its more accepted cousin? Or, put another way: Why do we cultivate one set of plants and get rid of another?

Beauty has a lot to do with it, of course, and utility.  And then there's basic economics: We value less what we have in abundance. But isn't there some arbitrariness to it all? After all, a weed can also be a flower.

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book, Marked

I'm reading Phyllis Theroux's The Journal Keeper and — as usual when I read a book that stirs my imagination — am marking pages where there are thoughts I want to ponder. Once an English major always an English major, I guess.

Whatever the reason, I often can't read a book without a pen and paper in hand. When it's a library book, as this one is, I content myself to mark the pages with little sticky notes. Re-reading some of these marked pages this morning, I came upon this one:

"Rereading an earlier part of my journal, I came across the lines where I say that Emerson chose his life early. I have chosen to be a writer and must be willing to do what it takes. It is like drilling for oil, having the faith that it is down there. But beyond or beneath that faith is the commitment to dig, whether the oil is there or not."


Friday, July 17, 2015

A Different Hour

Not my typical time to post — but that's not the different hour I mean. It was my walk yesterday to Metro, more than three hours later than usual.

The light slanted in from the west on a day that was as exquisite as promised. The fact that I'd spent almost every minute of it inside made these outdoor minutes all the more precious.

The buildings were gleaming, the pavement stones shining and people lingered at sidewalk cafes and corner bistros. At Rosa Mexicana a man wiped his mouth with a large cloth napkin. He was eating guacamole from a stone bowl. At the corner of Seventh and F a beggar shook coins in a dirty paper cup. No one seemed inclined to add to them. Ahead of me, a couple strolled in the waning light, holding hands. He held a gym bag and leaned his head toward her when she talked, which she did, animatedly, all the way down the block.

I had Les Mis in my ears and the capital city in my sights. Day was turning to evening. It was a different hour. It was a good walk.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Change in the Air

I love humidity, really, I do. I love the way it buoys me up, an invisible presence; the way it surrounds me. I like an air that can hold its own.

Sometimes after a long day in a chilled office I walk the hot sidewalks of a muggy D.C. and my fingers fairly tingle with the moisture in the air. The feeling comes back into air-condition-numbed extremities. I feel alive again.

And yet ... this morning I woke up to a lovely, chilled, low-humidity day ... and it feels divine.

Suddenly, there are closets to clean and yard work to do. There are books to read and comb through, materials to research. And this isn't even counting what awaits me at the office.

Summer torpor slows me down, and that can be a good thing, a corrective. But after weeks of stickiness, this low-weight air is invigorating, a mountain stream. It gives me a first-day feeling, a necessary fresh start.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Rows of Sharon

The Rose of Sharon is blooming now beside the driveway. The dark green plant is covered with plump, white, rose-like blooms. But it's not my Rose of Sharon I want to write about — but a row of these plants that line a yard a block away from here.

I know the history of these small trees, know why they bloom where they do. The corner house is the home of "the faithful jogger." Don't know his real name, only that my children used to call him that years ago because every day, at least once a day and regardless of weather, he could be seen running up and down Folkstone Drive. He never seemed very happy, had a plodding gait — I always imagined he had taken up the practice for his health. All of which is beside the point except to illustrate the man's persistence. He doesn't give up easily.

And he didn't give up when three years in a row bad wind or ice storms took down his split rail fence. Twice he built it up again. In fact, he was always one of the first people out clearing debris. Then a few days later, more fencing would appear.

This last time was different. Instead of planks he planted rows of spindly Rose of Sharon trees, the smallest, slightest stock, barely more than sticks in the ground. There were many of them, though, and I could see his plan — to create a green and living border, to make a fence that would bend but not break.

It's been years now since those trees went into the ground, and years since he last jogged down our suburban lane. But those once-spindly trees are filling out into a proper, flowery border. They have matured to beauty and to fullness. And when I saw them the other day, I saw not just what they are but what they were, what they have become.

This is what happens when you walk a place; when you know not just its stories but its back stories as well.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

7,800 Miles

It is 7, 214 miles from Washington, D.C., to Kigali, Rwanda, where Tom has gone on a business trip. In less than an hour it will be 7,800 miles — just a few hundred more — from Nasa's New Horizons probe to Pluto.

Earth meets space, the Kuiper Belt, that which lies beyond our solar system in what surely deserves to be called terra incognita (except that it isn't terra!).

Early pictures show an orange globe with a crown of methane and nitrogen ice and craters the size of the Grand Canyon. By tonight we will have more photographs of this celestial body, photographs that may help scientists decide whether to call it a planet or a dwarf planet.

What we have right now is a tantalizing glimpse, a collectively held breath — and of course, the wonder. 

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Water, Water Everywhere

A rainy Monday, so maybe not the best day for a post about thirst and the lack of public water fountains. But an article in yesterday's Washington Post made me think about this endangered feature of communal life.

According to the International Plumbing Code, the number of public drinking fountains required in new buildings is down by half, the article says. There are a few causes. One is the consumption of bottled water, which has quadrupled in recent years. Another is fear of contamination, which ironically has grown since the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 began requiring municipalities to notify their residents immediately of any problems with their water.

But the lack of clean, safe public drinking water has actually hurt American's health by driving young people to consume more sugary drinks, the article argues. And a preponderance of plastic water bottles is hurting the environment.

This article explains why I have to hunt longer to find a public water fountain. And it also makes me remember the water fountains of my youth. The one at Idle Hour Park, which made a deep whirring sound and produced a trickle of water that seemed to have been drawn up from the depths of a nearby swamp. And the one in the hall of my grammar school, which we would be allowed to stand in line and use on warm spring afternoons. Imagine 400 to 500 kids drinking out of the same fountain! Still, nothing has never tasted as good as the water that flowed from that cool — and I'm sure unsanitary — tap.

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Summer Day

Yesterday was the perfect summer day. I thought this even on the way to the dentist, and if you notice it then, the impression must be valid.

The air was weighty and warm and filled with the sound of cicadas. There was no rain (this was key). And the morning held the promise of just enough heat.

In late afternoon, when I was walking Copper in the woods, a couple of big frogs were bellowing from the creek. They plopped in the water as we walked by. The katydids were chirping slowly, as if they could barely be roused from their dreamy, midsummer naps.

Spiders had been busy and webs were strung between the trees like tiny Buddhist prayer flag ropes. When they caught a leaf it waved cheerily in the breeze.

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