Friday, January 27, 2012

Short Life of a Snowflake

I am constantly on he lookout for accidental poetry in everyday life.

The middle line of the following haiku was uttered by the morning meteorologist on one of our local televisions stations the other day. I was reading the newspaper so I didn't catch the context, but the words came through loud and clear.

No one cares about
the short life of a snowflake
when they're shoveling.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

They're Ba-ack!! (At Least for the Day)

The squirrels in our front yard are really quite entertaining – one just took a flying leap and is currently clinging desperately to the suspended cage that successfully protects the sunflower seeds contained within from such airborne assailants and others of its ilk.

However, that hanging cafeteria and the four other (non squirrel proof) diners that Mars and I operate are really intended as BIRD feeders – restaurants for the finches, juncos, cardinals, blue jays, titmice and sparrows that hang out in Connecticut during this cold part of the year, and as additional (multi-colored) amusement for us.

But this has been an unusual winter in our neck of the woods. We had an “unprecedented” snowstorm on Halloween weekend, which (because of the leaves on the trees and resultant falling branches) resulted in a week-plus of electrical outages. Since that late autumn fluke there have been no more frozen flakes, at all – until the first half of this past weekend.

Because of this dearth of winterly precipitation the avifauna were able to find their natural food sources well beyond the time when they normally would have switched over to person-provided provender.

But now, for Saturday only:

Birds are back in town
snow-driven to our feeders –
foul weather friends.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Emptiness in the Desert

Our daughter-in-law and son who live in Santa Fe, New Mexico gave me a copy of Terry Tempest Williams’ collection of essays “Red – Passion And Patience In The Desert” for Christmas. The book argues for the spiritual effect of being in the desert, and for the need therefore to preserve that land in its pristine state. I agreed with most of what the author said – but then again, she was pretty much preaching to the choir. Mars and I are devotees of the desert.

In 1998 we went to the Big Bend part of Texas. It was our first time in that part of the world, but not our first trip to the dry, barren land of the southwest United States. Six years earlier we made the first of what was to become (at least) annual treks to the high desert of northern New Mexico and in 1997 we visited the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. The barren land of Big Bend is the Chihuahuan – the largest of the North American deserts.

Clearly something about the wasteland was drawing us back. Actually it turned out to be nothing.

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
(T.S. Eliot “The Wasteland”)

It was about half way into our 1992 trip to Santa Fe and Taos that we realized that the dry brown dirt that covered our hiking boots was actually the substance of the desert. Having grown up on Lawrence of Arabia and other desert movies, we both had expected sand – which we now know is what makes up the wilderness of southern New Mexico (White Sands), but not the HIGH desert.
Our first desert hike was at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM. The paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe were what had spiked our interest in New Mexico, and Ghost Ranch was where she had lived and created most of those pieces of art. As we drove on to the property we could see a tall phallic sandstone pillar sticking up amidst the other red rocks that stood above the scrub brush desert floor.

“Wouldn’t it be cool it we could climb that!” I said, with no intention of actually doing it if it was even possible.

The omnipresent erosive winds reshape the soft stones into replicas of the objects of everyday human life. This one is called Chimney Rock. And we did go to its top – “simply cross the arroyo and follow the trail 1.5 miles up the ridge”, 6,500 feet to 7,100. It turns out things actually are that accessible in open land like this.

No one else was on the trail – although to this day I insist that I saw a woman in a diaphanous white dress dancing across the top. And there was nothing around us to keep us from making the climb – no over demanding workloads, no overbearing bosses, no over burdensome rules. There also were no guardrails on the footpath that snaked around the outer edge of the natural monument – nothing to hang on to but the panorama of the Piedra Lumbre basin, and the belief that if we both wanted to do something then it was the right thing to do.

“You learn sooner or later to find an equilibrium within yourself; otherwise you move…. Emptiness in the desert is the fullness of space….” (Red – Passion And Patience In The Desert)

Big Bend National Park is about the size of the state of Rhode Island – but with a handful of buildings one of which, the visitor center, which was a one-hour drive from the park entrance through which we drove. We’ve been there twice. The Park’s website has a section called “How NOT to die in the desert.” – the bottom line of which is “remember that YOU are responsible for your own safety. Plan ahead and stay alive!” We took our h2o, our snacks and our snakebite kit – plus our sense of excitement and awe.

There are “trails” in the preserve – Chimneys, Devil’s Den, Lower and Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off, Mule Ears, Panther Path, and others - but no clean, clear paths with blue paint on tree bark to guide a northeastern suburban hiker. The view from any spot on these hikes is one of being in the middle of 800,000 acres of remote desert, devoid of anything except ocotillo, mesquite, cacti, lizards, tarantulas and snakes with (in most places) no cell phone reception – and being able to see to all four borders and beyond. In all our individual hikes at Big Bend we never passed another trekker.
“They are short on water and, as a result, short on green. Green recalls pastoral comfort, provides a resting place for the eyes. It is a landscape of extremes.” (Red – Passion And Patience In The Desert)

In this land of unremitting khaki and brown Mars and I did find verdant things – two times. It wasn’t easy.

Once was along the banks of the Rio Grande River in Santa Elena Canyon and further up the river (via Canoe). In a small pond within the rocks was a stunningly large garden of deep green ferns - hanging down from the "ceiling", growing along the walls, and spreading out onto the ground for as far as the water could feed them.
The other patch of Eden was a small bamboo jungle next to an abandoned limestone trading post with a copse of trucked-in, totally out-of-place palm trees – the remains of an unsuccessful attempt in 1910 to establish a hot springs resort in the area.
On our first visit to Big Bend, as part of an Elderhostel educational vacation, we met a self-trained paleontologist named Ken. He was a surveyor by vocation who had come to the area about a decade before on a job assignment. It was his maiden voyage to this part of the world and he never left. He was, I believe, married at the time. He became obsessed with the paleontological possibilities of the area with “one of the most complete pictures of a prehistoric ecosystem known anywhere on earth.” – and the solitariness to pursue that fixation The deserts can do that to some of us.

We went on a “dig” with Ken who, somewhat like the avaricious gold seekers in the movie Treasure of Sierra Madre, was unwilling to allow us true amateurs to actually lay hands on any of the precious bones that we came across. (The desert can do that also.) The next day we visited the retired yellow school bus jam-packed with osteo-relics that was his museum. Google now shows that the collection has moved to a less mobile building.

In 2000, on our second trip to Big Bend, we were led on our Rio Grande canoe trip by Taz, a muscular woman of about thirty years who was river-guiding and living with her boyfriend in yet another abandoned school bus on a piece of available land without water or electricity. Taz had been traveling around the world, but the arid land of western Texas seemed to reel her in also.

But it didn’t have that effect on everyone. One morning while I was enjoying a private moment with pre-dawn cup of coffee outside our hotel in the town of Lajitas a tourist from Dallas who, it quickly became clear, had been dragged there by his wife interrupted me. It was as dark as I have ever experienced with the only light coming from the waning moon and the small light bulb over the front entrance to the guesthouse. He stood a few feet away but I really couldn’t see him that well in the murkiness.

“You know I just don’t get it. The appeal of this place. I mean there is NOTHING here! Not even a tree.” He told me as we waved his right arm into the blackness.

Either you got it or you didn’t. Ken and Taz got it. We did too.

However, not being given to extremism, Mars and I returned to our leafy, grassy homestead and resumed our New England centric lives with all of their real and imagined obligations – but we return to the southwest desert at least once a year, every year since.

At one time I assumed that the sense of peace and belonging that we experienced in the dry arid land was a direct function of its stark contrast with our workaday lives in the east. Now I realize that, like Ken and Taz but to a lesser degree, we were simply going home. We just didn’t live there yet.

“In sacred places, something gets done to you that you have been unable to do for yourself." ("Chasing Francis" by Ian Morgan Cron)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Santa Fe Shadows

Desert sun creates
an alternate universe –
Santa Fe shadows.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Life at the Playscape

Even though it started out badly, this is turning out to be a very good winter for the squirrels that reside at the Meehan homestead.

On the last weekend of October a snow-laden limb from our Magnolia tree flopped over and severed our connection to our street’s electrical power grid – the very same grid that had already ceased to operate that afternoon. At about the same time a large Oak branch containing one of the tree rat’s larger condominiums (aka “dray”) crashed to the ground. And the bough on our Flowering Crab tree that held our three principal bird/squirrel feeders broke off and crashed to the earth. Several trash bins full of other lumber also tumbled into our yard.

As part of the first wave of our cleanup, Marsha and I retrofitted the seed cafeterias to one of the remaining offshoots of the decorative fruit tree, and rested the broken end of the severed limb atop one of the other remaining branches in order to provide a bit of nearby shelter to our guest diners. Within hours the now homeless refugee rodents were drowning their sorrows in pouch fulls of sunflower seeds. And we were off to the town’s well-heated Community Center where, along with our Hartford based health club, we spent our waking hours during the weeklong blackout.

Ironically we had tree work scheduled for our yard on that Monday. Realizing that the planned work would have to take a backseat to emergency jobs they now had to do I called the tree company and, asked if they could please make a quick stop and prune back our Magnolia so as to eliminate the possibility of another power wire takedown.

I also told them to leave the flowering crab – which had been on the original order as a “check it over and assess” – alone. A week or so later, after we had our electricity back, an out-of-state subcontractor for our arborist dropped by while we were out and (a) cut back the wrong parts of the Magnolia and (b) carried away the fallen branch that Marsha and I had so carefully set in place.

The yard pets seemed unfazed by these arboricultural errors. Marsha and I however had come to like the new form of entertainment provided by the broken limb playscape. Birds gathered on the dead branch, chattering away as they waited their turn at the dining table.

Squirrels, sometimes performing as a group, ran in a continuous nose-to-tail cycle across and up and down the fallen branch – abruptly changing direction in perfect unison through a series of rapid-fire, gravity-defying maneuvers impossible to execute in three dimensions, and equally difficult to describe in 2-D words. When doing their solo acts the bushy-tailed rodents leapt fearlessly from their new playground perch onto our latest “squirrel proof” feeder – which up until that point had largely lived up to its name.

This alleged squirrel foiler is made up of a square-sided plastic tube with several feeding holes, surrounded by a separate metal cage with leaf shaped decorations. The cage is attached to springs. The tube is not. When a squirrel latches on to the outer enclosure, it drops down and its ornamental leaves cover the apertures on the immovable plastic feeder. Amazingly this Rube Goldberg contraption actually functions as advertised. The squirrels' weight does indeed force the metal shell down so that its doors shut tight against the plastic-lined feeding holes on the interior tube. The little rats still climbed up onto the feeder and gnawed away at the metal (unsuccessfully) and plastic (successfully) but quickly became frustrated and returned to the ground where they were humiliatingly forced to feed on the castoffs of their much lighter feathered dining companions.

But now, apparently fired up by the easy access provided by their new “shelter”, the squirrels hurled themselves at the beleaguered feeder with such frequency that at pretty much any time during the day one of the tree rodents was either on, or in mid-flight on its way up to the feeder.

And they stayed on it longer when they got there.

What the squirrels finally figured out, possibly under the influence of the playscape induced adrenaline, was that once they gnawed away enough polyethylene to make the food portals larger than their covers, the sunflower seeds simply tumbled into their greedy little mouths.

And we figured out that if we wanted this traveling circus to continue its performances, then we needed a new playscape. Fortunately one of the large branches from our copse of arborvitae cedars had also been damaged during the surprise snowstorm.

So with a little pruning-saw action, and some long distance dragging, the birds and squirrels had a newer, even better (because it had foliage) “shelter”. Marsha decorated it with shiny red, blue and gold ornaments for the holidays and I verbally stopped the arborists from removing it when they finally came to perform our originally contracted work and to properly prune the Magnolia.

Our house wires are safe from our timber. And, as the real cold weather settles in, our birds and squirrels continue to find new ways to enjoy their playscape – and entertain us. Not only is it going to be a good winter for our squirrels, but hopefully for us too.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Signs As Subject Matter

"I suppose I would still prefer to sit under a tree with a picnic basket rather than under a gas pump, but signs and comic strips are interesting as subject matter."

Roy Lichtenstein

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Santa Fe Light

Santa Fe, New Mexico is not the same as any other place on earth. It even calls itself “The City Different”. Some say it is the altitude – 7,000 feet. Others say the attitude – sometimes called Santa Fe Style. I say it’s the light.

The sun really doesn’t shine all of the time in Santa Fe. But it sure does seem that way. This is, of course, because the source of this city’s natural light – a red circle with groups of rays pointing in four directions – is in fact unlike that of the rest of the world.
This icon is a sacred image to the Zia Indians of New Mexico and is one of the official state symbols appearing on its flag and its newly designed license plate.

Like so much of southwestern iconography the Zia Sun is rich in both Christian and Native American beliefs – the result of the attempted “forced conversion” of these indigenous peoples to Catholicism by the Spanish in the 17th century. And the adaptation of these Catholic credos into beliefs and practices which allowed this new externally imposed ideology to exist alongside but not replace their existing worldview. Today they say that they still practice both religions.

The shape of the Zia Sun is that of a Christian cross. Yet the four arms refer to: the points of the compass (north, south, east, and west); the seasons of the year (spring, summer, autumn and winter); the periods of each day (morning, noon, evening and night); the seasons of life (childhood, youth, middle years and old age); and, the sacred obligations one must develop (a strong body, a clear mind, a pure spirit, and a devotion to the welfare of others) – the pillars of Zia culture and religion.

The landscape of “The City Different” is imbued with the same all-encompassing luminescence. The thick walls of a traditional adobe house absorb the sun’s four-pronged radiation and transfer it gradually (like a time release capsule) to the interior. And the coldest day in Santa Fe still contains a sense of warmth – like the heat of the outdoor hot tub at Ten Thousands Waves Mountain Spa still permeating our bodies as we walked back to the changing rooms in wet bathing suits and thin cotton kimonos on a twenty degree, starlit night.

Similar to the Zia Sun, Santa Fe itself is a blending of contradictions which just don’t seem that way unless you think about them – like the commonplace appearance of “The Virgin of Guadalupe” in seriously secular settings, such as serving breakfast coffee on hand-printed hot pads.
And the subjects of every day life, and their silhouettes, which present themselves as objects of art to even the most amateur of photographers. (In fairness it should be pointed out that to a stranger the “objects of every day life” in Santa Fe sometimes can be as atypical as the light that illuminates them.)

It has seemed this way to Marsha and me since our first visit to New Mexico in 1992, and it has continued thus through our most recent trip over this past Christmas holiday.

We look forward to some day being permanently different