Farewell to Blueberries

The months of April, May and June have already passed and — writing now from the red-rock deserts of Utah — the lush green world of our life in the Connecticut woods has begun to fade from recent memory. Even our spring road trip down through Ohio, Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico and on up to Utah has become a blur which only comes back into focus after looking through our photo archives and journals.

I had so much I wanted to write about over those last few months, but life events and packing and the economy and all that seemed to steal away the moments in the morning when I would be able to just to sit down gather my thoughts and photo albums and make sense of the things, in a form fit for public consumption.

cherry_blossom_jefferson.JPGThere was the trip to Washington DC, where Gigi finally got to overdose on history and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The day trip out to West Cornwall in search of the old Colonial house that the humorist James Thurber lived in during his later years. The weekend in Greenwich Village, attending a three-day “cheese bootcamp” at Murray’s Cheese Shop. The final melting of snow, the explosion of flowers everywhere, the return of the rabbits and chipmunks, the journey up through New Hampshire to the land of “Foxbridge” where my novel takes place. and so much more.

journal.JPGWhen we first arrived in South Glastonbury, Connecticut I started a journal and over the next ten months, no matter what else was going on, I almost always took the time to put in an entry, however long or short, recording the date, the temperature, expected weather, and whatever events I cared to note from the preceding day. In lieu of any other tributes, here are the entries from the last week of that journal:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Sunny, Cold 38 degrees. Sun expected all Day.

Last minute things to do. Going to the Peabody Museum one last time so Gigi can look at the exhibit of “sacred stones” used in ancient Judaic traditions. One last pizza night, fill up the bird feeder on last time, visit with our friends Rich and Amy. Replace a few things we have broken.

Have I learned anything while I was here? We shall see. My eyes and ears were open, perhaps more often than in my California days, when the main goal was to shut things out with sunglasses and headphones.

The seasons have their own character, at times subtle in their changes, while at other times abrupt, with morning Summertime sun followed with an afternoon blizzard, and a Ginkgo tree that dropped its leaves in an hour-long shower. We arrived here in the deep green of summer, and now leave in the prima vera of Spring. Everything is a circle.

mouse_cove.JPGThe old Mr. Rose, who owned the berry farm, died while we were here, and his son is running the place for now. The farmer died, but the farm continues. A mouse died on my watch, but the rivers still flow by the cove where he now rests.

This year has been variations on a theme of Solitude, punctuated by occasional ventures into the town-village, or the visits by out-of-towners, or invasions by flocks of wild turkeys.

I’ve learned that I could live like this, and that we have enough within ourselves to keep amused and busy. And so we shall, somewhere.

It has been a magic year. The world is filled with wonders.

Thursday, May 14, 2009
Cloudy, Cool 55 degrees. Thunderstorms later.

The farming machinery was running late yesterday. To be a farmer, it seems it has to be your life. There is no such thing as “after work,” or extra-curricular activity.

Long list of things to do before we go. Must keep my promise to donate to the Mark Twain House. I would like to think that upon my departure, Connecticut was left in slightly better shape than it was on my arrival.

I for one am certainly better off for the stay.

Friday, May 15, 2009
Cloudy, cool 61 degrees. More clouds later

This journal, like our stay here in Connecticut, is drawing to a close. Feeling a sense of regret, of things left undone, as at the end of one’s life when there is still so much left to do. A life well-lived, it seems, always ends in mid-sentence.

pear_blossom.JPGBut have we learned nothing from our stay here, in the woods, next to a blueberry farm where the Starlings are due back any day, and the ten o’clock rabbit now has young apprentices in tow?

The seasons teach us that everything in life is a circle, and that every end a beginning, every death an illusion, if you do not also see the life that follows, as Winter never fails to turn into Spring.

Sunday, May 17, 2009
Cloudy, cool 55 degrees.

The chipmunks are back. Good to see them running about before we go.

chipmunk.JPGWent down to the Peabody Museum yesterday and while down there realized that we had not yet made it over to the Gillette Castle, formerly owned by a stage actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, and who first used the line “Elementary, my dear fellow”.

We went through the woods to get there, stopping at the town of Chester and taking a ferry boat ride across the Connecticut river. Worth the trip.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Sunny, Cold 34 degrees. Warmer later

Almost finished packing. Once again we are living out of suitcases. Once again a long road is our future, our next home beyond the horizon, and across the Great Divide. Oblivious to all of this metaphor, the two squirrels chase each other around and around the base of the Ginkgo tree outside, the ten o’clock rabbit prepares for his morning shift, and now there is a new bird in the trees — could it be a hatchling? — with a curious dolphin-like squeal.

The last frost of winter takes a nip at our heels this morning, perhaps to send us on our way. Or, perhaps, a gentle reminder from winter that the world-in-time is a circle, and that someday soon, it will be back.

Thursday, May 21 2009
Sunny, Warm 68 degrees. Hot later

robin_eggs.JPGA robin has set up a nest on the front porch wreath. One blue egg fell out, but there are three more for the birds to attend.

The movers have come and gone and our car is packed. Within the hour we too will be gone.

Farewell, Blueberry Lane. Farewell, Connecticut. You were not always kind to us, perhaps, but you and your birds and your seasons and your people were cut from whole cloth of an honest weave seldom now seen, an experience worthwhile and not soon forgotten.

And for all of that, I thank you.


The Full Moon and Darwin

moonlight2.JPG(A bit late, but here is an old posting from Connecticut, in early February of this year…)

There was a full moon a few nights ago, and the snow in our backyard late that night glowed in a way that was almost phosphorescent, and formed haunting shadows of trees on the smooth white surface.

The latest theories say that the stuff of the moon was once the outer crust of the early earth, but was blasted off by a massive collision with another planet the size of Mars. Less than a billion years later life began on earth, and from that time on has survived hundreds of other catastrophic collisions, the most recent big ones being a ten-mile wide asteroid around 250 million years ago, which blasted out a crater almost 300 miles wide and wiped out 90 percent of all life on earth, and then a much much smaller one about 60 million years ago which killed off most of the dinosaurs and other land-based creatures on earth…

…with the exception of a few little shrew-like mammals that later sprung back and evolved, so Darwin says, into dogs, cats, lemurs… and human beings. That of course was not the end of the story. For example, the people of the Clovis culture lived here in North America just 12 thousand years ago but were suddenly wiped out, along with woolly mammoths and other creatures, all at once. A strange layer of burned ground found in Clovis-related sites makes many researchers proposes that a huge cluster of comets hit the atmosphere and set the entire northern continent on fire, and everyone on it. And yet a few survived…

There really is no more debate about evolution among serious scientists. Evolution is not merely one of several competing alternative “theories”. Darwin’s essential hypothesis about the origin of new species is not only supported by its ability to explain observations, but (as the true test of a scientific theory) has also made predictions — predictions which alternative hypotheses would not have been able to make — and these predictions were later verified. This is an interesting fact that I only learned recently while Gigi and I were once again out at the Yale Peabody Museum. In the section on early man, there were some letters between Darwin and some paleoanthropologists, about some recent fossils of man-like ape creatures found in northern America. If the theory of evolution were true, they concluded, the migration patterns of humans would lead one to predict that they should find ape-like fossils much closer and more similar to humans near where all major migrations appear to have begun: in Africa.

Much later, these predictions were proved correct, as were many others, such as the thousands of long-dead “missing links”, that evolution predicted would be found between hundreds of similar species still alive today.

I guess the point of all this is that by comparison with 10 mile wide asteroid collisions, the little economic downturn we are facing in the current microsecond of geological time is very unlikely to have a lasting impact. We will learn, adapt (or be replaced). Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this year, was right. As the character Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldbloom) said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

The Month of March, Leonine and Ovine

March roars in like a lion, and out like a lamb.

In Los Angeles, the month of March is distinguished from the other months of the year by the sudden and unexplained appearance of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps in grocery stores. Rabbits and Chickens. That’s about it. Lions and lambs remained exotic creatures that lived in Africa and the Scottish highlands, or in the latter case sometimes grilled and served with couscous at Moroccan restaurants.

The Lion in Winter

feb_farm.JPGThat said, let’s talk about where we live now. On the last day of February we were in the middle of what we had been warned was a “false spring”. Sure felt like spring to me; so much so that for the first time in over two months I had no qualms about going out for a walk through the farm without a jacket and three layers of insulation (and, for that matter, snow shoes). gigi_house.JPG I’d been trying to collect pictures of the same locations in different times of the year so I brought my camera to get some shots of the farmland, and this picture here of Gigi contemplating the view of the house from the creek. We didn’t need our waterproof boots as all the snow had long ago melted, and though the sky was partly cloudy the ground was warm and dry.

march_farm_day1.JPGThe first day of March had been predicted to involve a sudden change, which took the form of a blizzard. A cold front had moved down from Canada, and the acoustics of this area are such that the wind literally roared through the trees; it was loud enough that you could hear the wind coming from miles away, as it rolled up and over the hills.

march_fireplace.JPGAfter three months of sub-freezing temperatures I was just now starting to get the hang of building fires in the (closed) fireplace. The owners had about half a cord of firewood behind the shed, and about once a week when the snow had cleared a bit we went out with a wheel-barrow to haul some of the logs to the covered front porch, where they could dry out before we pull them in to the house. We had tried using the little fire-starter bricks and followed their directions for stacking the logs, but it never worked too well. Later we tried priming the system with a “Presto” log but after a few days of that we started developing a smokers cough. Finally I remembered something that Frank Lloyd Wright used to do based on his theory that logs, like trees, burn better in their natural position — which is vertical. I arranged three logs in a tripod formation and put a starter beneath them. Whoosh. Guess I should have stuck it out in Boy Scouts just a bit longer to get past Tenderfoot.

snow_house.JPGThe next day the wind passed and the air went still, and the snow once again began to fall. First in small flakes and fast-falling rain, but within the hour the air had cooled further and the march_picnic.JPGsnow was now in large fluffy dandelion formations that glided down slow but piled up fast. I went out to get a few shots but didn’t have much time as there was more snow on the way. The birds left their mark on the picnic table and scrambled to peck out more birdseed before flying back into the spruce trees and brush for shelter.

march_farm.JPG By the end of the second day over a foot of snow had fallen, and once again our picnic table out back had a pure white six-foot long twinkie sitting on top of it. cardinal_snow.JPGHad to put on my jacket again, along with waterproof boots, and the snow shoes, and the thick gloves, and went out get a few more shots of the same area. The snow surrounding the bird feeder was a popular spot, and was quickly trampled down by all the birds looking for food, such as one of our two cardinals and a dark eyed junko, shown here.

The Ides of March: Robins

march_robin2.JPGThe snow did not last long. By the end of the first week it had almost completely melted, by which time robins had begun to appear. I never realized until watching a few of these red birds stalk each other that the old song about the red red robin was based on the bird’s behavior. Their staccato walk consists of a set of three or four steps, after which they stop and perk their heads up, sometimes tilting them slightly as if listening for worms before — bobbing — back down again. The iBird app on my iPhone informs me that their song really is described as “cheer up, cheer up”. Onomatopoetic.

Going Gently

Meanwhile,march_daffodils.JPG the garden — which for the last two months had been dead and covered in a white varnish of snow — had begun to show signs of life in the form of narrow green shoots, that came up through the snow so fast that they pierced some of the old maple leaves left over from the Fall. By the end of the month the shoots were in full bloom, in the form of yellow and white daffodils as well as tiny purple flowers that appeared to be some form of tulip.

Now it is April and we haven’t seen birds at the bird feeder for days. Gigi thinks that they have found better food elsewhere, but I wondering if perhaps they haven’t begun nesting or found some other season-appropriate … activities. Indeed, we finally spotted a dozen or more of the tiny chickadees and titmice under a large sheltering bush by the side of the house. Some of the birds had grown quite fat (or more likely “with egg”) and looked to be settling in among the underbrush for a nice long hatch. Even the cardinal and some of the robins would disappear into the dark bush every now and then, making the bush seem more like a nightclub than a breeding ground (to which some may argue, what’s the difference?)

High Wire Squirrels

march_birdhouse1.JPGThe squirrels spent much of the month honing their high-wire acts, in the form of their repeated assaults upon the bird feeder. Fortunately, the small bird house that hangs between the feeder and the tree was unoccupied. Since that time I have reinforced the bird house hanger so that it can at least sustain the full weight of an adult but clumsy squirrel, from a drop of eight inches. Not too long after that a song wren began to take interest in the new safety features of the little house, seen here inspecting the property under the watchful gaze of a small downy woodpecker.

In any case, here below you may see a video, capturing for the record the event that prompted me to improve the bird house infrastructure:


The Great Backyard Birdcount

canadian_goose_icon.jpghad been reluctant to put any food in the cylindrical birdfeeder out in our backyard. The owners had hung it on a wire between the Ginkgo tree and a Sugar Maple, along with a couple of little bird houses. Someone had said that in the wintertime bears were attracted to feeders so you didn’t want to put anything in them until after March. As noted before, it appears that bears don’t come much to this side of the river, so I finally decided that those poor birds needed some food and went down a week ago to Gardiner’s Market and bought a bag of birdseed, along with some other stuff. I of course forgot about the bag of birdseed and came home with everything but the birdseed. A big snowstorm had made the roads difficult to drive in the meantime, so I didn’t go back for it. Gigi went down to the store a few days later and got some more seed.

Right around that time the Audubon Society announced their annual Great Backyard Birdcount from February 14-16, so that seemed like a good opportunity for me to try my hand at birding. As an Angeleno my knowledge of birds went only as far as the local varieties in Long Beach, which included pigeons, crows, and the sea gulls which hover motionless in the air above the bluffs across the street. Not much else. My brother-in-law Tim had been sending out links to all the nifty apps that now run on our iPhones, so I had been checking some of them out on the Apple App Store. ibird.JPGOne of them is an app called iBird, which is a pretty cool little Audubon trail guide for the iPhone, but much more friendly. If you’re trying to identify some bird, you can put in what you know, such as its size, color (tough for me), geographic location, beak shape etc and it will give you a list (with photos) of the birds matching your description. Once you’ve found your bird, you can click on a button and your phone will start chirping like that particular bird. This apparently sometimes attracts the attention of that species of birds, who may start coming closer to you to see where the other bird is.

Bird Detective

For the Great Backyard Birdcount, the rules were that your report had to be for a specific amount of time (say, 15 minutes to a few hours), and you had to try to identify and count all the birds you saw in a specific place. So, I started around 10 in the morning on Monday, and armed with a camera and iBird, tried to see how many birds of various stripes I could identify and count. If there were any birds I couldn’t identify, I couldn’t count them. Here’s what I saw:

northcardinalplusdetail.jpgThe only bird that I was able to pick out by sight was the Northern Cardinal, seen here and also at right, with two other grayish birds that I could not at the time identify (but stay tuned). There are two cardinals that hang out around our backyard in the Spruce tree near the feeder, and looked just like the ones I remember as a kid in Kentucky. northcardinalplus2.jpg I vaguely recall having a plastic model of a Cardinal that we had to glue together and paint (like a model airplane). The birds were so red they didn’t look real. More cartoon like than anything. With that black mask they always look a bit angry about something. I don’t know why.

/blackcappedchickadee_detail.jpgThe first bird that I was able to identify with the iBird app was this little guy, the Black Capped Chickadee./blackcappedchickadee3.jpg It was pretty distinctive, and with that black cap on its head it didn’t look like much else in the iBird guide. One thing that helped identify a lot of the birds was the wire grid on the bird-feeder whose squares were about an inch on a side, making size estimates pretty easy.

tuftedtitmouse_detail.jpgA lot of these little birds seem to stick together, and so this other mini-bird, the Tufted Titmouse, was often seen with his buddies hanging out in the same group at the feeder. tuftedtitmouse.jpgThe only way I was able to get a good count was by taking a photograph, as they all kept hopping around trading places, which made it hard to keep track. The iBird app has about 900 North American birds in its database, so to narrow it down I put in that this was a small bird (3-5 inches) with a sort of ruffled topknot on its head and a small beak.

dove_detail.jpgThe Mourning Dove was not too hard to identify either. I was pretty sure it was a dove rather than a Rock Pigeon. Getrude Stein never had much to say about doves. Not even “Alas.” They are a thing with feathers as E. Dickinson would say, but they don’t look very hopeful. I guess mourning does that to a bird. Too bad its not a morning dove. What a difference a “U” makes.

downywoodpecker_detail.jpgThe first four birds were relatively easy, but after that things started getting harder. I knew that this bird was some sort of woodpecker, for example, and had seen it and its companion high up in the trees pecking away since the early fall. With the iBird program I was able to narrow the candidates down to a couple of species, which were the Downy Woodpecker, and the Hairy Woodpecker. At this point however, I was stuck, as the pictures of the two species look virtually identical, with the same red band on the back of their heads, and the same lightning-bolt white stripes on the back. downywoodpecker.jpgAnd this was where I started learning a few things about why evolution is such a tricky subject. It turns out that these two species, even though they look like twins, are not genetically related at all (other than being birds). They are, the scientists say, an example of “Convergent Evolution”, in which two completely different species, arriving in the same geographic area, begin to find advantage in looking a lot like each other. The Viceroy butterfly is one such example, which though completely edible to nearby predators, evolved to look just like the poisonous Monarch butterfly. So far as I know, both of these woodpeckers are edible. To make a long story short, once again the one-inch grid on the bird feeder settled the issue, as our bird is clearly no more than four inches long, but the mature Hairy Woodpecker is a “medium” size bird, about 6-8 inches in length. This little Downy Woodpecker we’ve got is also a bit more fuzzy than hairy.

bluejay_detail.jpgI guess in retrospect this bird should have been a lot easier, but it just points out how much my colorblindness screws things up. I had been searching through the iBird program for some bird that looked a lot like a woodpecker (with its long pointy beak), but which was gray in color, with some dark and white bars on the back. Nothing was coming up that looked at all like this bird.bluejay02.jpgFor some reason I had always thought that Blue Jays were a lot more bluish than this (bringing to mind the old line from “Yellow Submarine”, said by one of the Blue Meanies: “funny, you don’t look bluish”). The blue jay in the iBird program looked very blue. Something told me that this thing was a Jay of some sort, and after digging around on the internet I found some pictures of bluejays that matched my bird. Gigi later confirmed that the bird was definitely blue-gray. Still looks gray to me, except for those little squares on the back.

dark_eyed_junco.jpgThese last two birds were driving me crazy, because I couldn’t find anything like them in iBird, and they were the most numerous of the birds. I guess the problem is that they were so generic looking, just little fat birds with small beaks, one a kind of slate color, the other a vague brownish color with stripes. I had completely given up on identifying them and had already gone online to the Great Backyard Birdcount website to submit my final counts, when the form came up asking me to put in how many of each species I had found. song_sparrow.jpg The forms are tailored to the geographic area, and the form that I was given online was for birds in Connecticut. Each line of the form had the name of a bird, which was a link to a popup photo of that bird. Just out of curiosity I starting clicking on each one, and didn’t get too far through the “Sparrow-like” section of birds before I hit both of my mystery birds. The first one was the (slate colored) Dark-eyed Junco, and the other (to the right) was the Song Sparrow. Finally it all made sense. The two birds that sat next to the Northern Cardinal were also slightly larger dark-eyed juncos. Done! Shrink wrap and ship it!

The Final Count
Anyway, for the record, here is the final tally that I submitted to the Great Backyard Birdcount, for today:

Location: South Glastonbury, Connecticut
Starting Timee: 10:00 am, February 16, 2009
Total Birding Time: 2 hours
Estimated Birding Skill: Fair
Snow on the Ground: Less Than 2 inches

  • 6 Mourning Doves
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 10 Black-capped Chickadees
  • 6 Tufted Titmouses (Titmice ?)
  • 3 Song Sparrows
  • 12 Dark-eyed Juncos (Slate-colored)
  • 2 Northern Cardinals

canadian_geese.jpgTo which, I might add, zero Swans a Swimming, zero Geese a Laying, and zero Golden Ring-Necked Pheasants (which as you all know, is the bird they are talking about in the song when they sing “Five Golden Rings” — the first 7 days are all birds). A few weeks ago, however, I did observe a whole gaggle of Canadian Geese, out along the trail in the Rose’s Berry Farm, and which you can see here and at the beginning of this article. But they weren’t a-laying anything. They just sat there a-honking.

The Zen Squirrels of October

zen_squirrel.JPGThe white lacquered snow has still not melted from the ground in our back yard since New Years, so this seemed like as good a time as any to reprise some of the more strange memories from the anything-but-white days of Fall.

This squirrel at left was staring at Gigi from the Ginkgo leaf covered picnic table for some time before Gigi realized that it wasn’t really staring at her. In fact, it seemed to be completely zoned out, as if it was trying to remember where it left its car keys, or the name of the girl it took to the senior prom. The only clue that the movie (below) is a video and not a photo is the movement of the leaves behind the squirrel. Gigi notes somewhat tactlessly that the squirrels had gotten pretty fat lately. My own theory is that they were getting ready to hibernate, and when one of them puts on enough weight it goes into temporary “hibernate” mode, like a computer laptop. Eventually it snaps out of it and goes on its way.

Which raises the interesting existential question of what is the more absurd: a squirrel staring off into space for no reason, or two human beings watching a squirrel stare off into space for no reason, for no reason.

In any case, here is the YouTube video (it zooms in on the critter after a bit):


The Shape of Water

Spent about half the day on Sunday digging out from the most recent snowstorm, armed with snow shovels, ice blowers, salt and gravel. So, I had a lot of time to think about snow, ice and water in its various forms.

december02_s.jpgIt took a while for the ingredients of water to appear on the scene in this floating world. The protons that go into making the “core” of Hydrogen appeared first, about a millionth of a second after the start of the Big Bang, when the soup of quarks had cooled enough to congeal into protons (don’t you hate it when your quark soup does that?). It took another four hundred thousand years for the protons to combine with electrons, which orbit around them to form the tiny little solar system we call a Hydrogen atom.

The other ingredient in water, Oxygen, was a lot more tricky. You have to pack eight protons together closely to make the core of Oxygen, and protons hate to get close to each other (I think Bohr called it the “proton cootie” effect). The universe had to cool down enough for all the light elements to condense into stars, dense enough that the protons were crushed together in nuclear fusion, causing the stars to light up as they formed heavier elements such as Oxygen. Altogether, that whole process took another couple million years.

water_molecule_dimensions.pngFrom there, the recipe for making water is fairly simple: combine two Hydrogen atoms with an atom of Oxygen and light a match. After your singed eyebrows grow back you will have a molecule of water, H20.

At room temperature on earth, water is liquid, but once it gets cold enough, it becomes solid and forms ice. Depending on how cold it is, how humid, and what the air pressure is, the ice will take on different shapes. There are sixteen known kinds of ice, but most are very rare around here, and only appear in odd places such as Mars or one of Saturn’s moons. 800px-cryst_struct_ice.pngThe most common ice on earth is called hexagonal Ice One, so called because the water molecules all line up in a nice six-sided honeycomb shaped array. I had always assumed that this was old knowledge, but was surprised to learn that the structure of common ice was not understood until Linus Pauling (famous for promoting Vitamin C, and almost beating Watson & Crick to the discovery of the DNA double helix) figured out its shape back in 1935. He had to use the brand new theory of quantum mechanics to do it, so I guess ice is a lot more tricky stuff than I thought.

(Incidentally, fans of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s book Cats Cradle will be interested to learn that there really is an Ice Nine. When he wrote the book there were only seven known. Fortunately for us, the real Ice IX does not have a freezing point above room temperature. So it goes.)

ct_snowflake_mosaic.jpgAnyway, it’s from those six-sided hexagons in the ice crystals that snowflakes get their pretty, unique shape, such as the ones that I was able to capture in the photos here at left. The general way that snowflakes form is understood, but there are some things about the perfect symmetry of many snowflakes that scientists still cannot completely explain. The main character in my novel won a prize (in the story) for his solution to the question of why snowflakes are so symmetrical… but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is.

frost02.jpgEven if the ice crystals are not free-floating but stuck on something, the same processes that make snowflakes form the fern-like branches of frost on our bedroom window.

snow_on_plant.jpgThe ice crystals in snow act like little prisms that reflect and scatter all the the light that goes through them, so that if enough of the stuff piles up on the ground, the only color you see is — white. On a clear day the shadows of the snow appear blue, because they are reflecting the only light that hits them directly, which is the blue of the sky.

picnic_table_snow.jpgAs you may recall, the first big snowstorm of the season hit us on the day before my birthday, December 20th. Over nine inches of snow fell altogether, and by the time we came out that morning the backyard and surrounding countryside was completely covered in what looked like smooth marshmallow creme…

tracks_02.jpg…except for the tracks. It was really interesting to play detective and try to sort out what animals had been wandering or hopping around our backyard the night before, where they came from and where they went. In this picture, to the far right the tracks of our “ten o’clock rabbit” can be seen. The rabbit is traveling towards the camera. The tracks of a rabbit hopping along at a modest clip is, I’ve learned, usually shaped in the form of the letter ‘Y’. The bottom of the Y is formed by the rabbit’s two front paws coming down for a landing, one in front of the other. The rabbit’s bigger hind legs then land slightly in front of the two prints, side-by-side.

In the middle a squirrel was hopping away from the camera, crossing over the rabbit’s tracks. Squirrel tracks look like the letter ‘W’, because the squirrel puts his small front paws side-by-side, then his hind quarters land just past. To the far left a dog or a coyote was following along, possibly after the rabbit. We’ve seen more rabbit tracks since this photo was taken, so I’m pretty sure the ten o’clock rabbit is still on schedule and hasn’t been eaten.

river_ice.jpgEventually, as the temperature began to drop, the creek has started to freeze, forming plates out from the rocks and boulders in the water. A few snowflakes fell on the plates of ice, and they grew into these large white starfish crystals. They must have been a couple of inches wide. spruce_cone_ice.jpgSome other plates of ice had formed in the front yard, capturing in the process some of the little spruce pine cones and needles. Gigi spotted this one sample.

icicles.jpgSome of the forms that water takes are no mystery. The icicles coming down from the roof, for example, just form when the snow on the roof, warmed by the inside air, melt and trickle down to the edge, freezing again in the cold night air.

roman_numerals.jpgSome of these other features, however, took some guess work. I came down one morning to see what appeared to be roman numerals embedded in the snow. The mystery was resolved when I noticed that some of the icicles hanging from the roof had fallen into the snow at odd angles, carving out the figures you see here.

half_pipe_ice.jpgSome fierce wind kicked up a few days later, and at first I thought our windows were being pelted with hail, but after going outside later after the storm the snow was littered with ice in the shape of half pipes. That’s what happens when you live in Los Angeles all your life. People who grow up in cold climates probably know all about this stuff and have names for it, but I had no clue where the things came from. leaf_ice.jpg It took another large gust of wind for me to see that these were the shells of ice that formed on the branches of trees and leaves, sliding off only after the wind had bent and shaken the branches enough to liberate the half-pipes and leaf-shaped ice.

Here is another one of those little attention grabbers for you: an incredible amount of water has passed through your body, and then gone back into the atmosphere by sweat and — other means. That water gets churned around so much in the clouds that most of the water that has ever passed through you is completely mixed up by now with all the other water on the planet. So much so that, in each of those six little snowflakes I photographed above, when you do the math, on average each one of them has about a thousand molecules of water that were once inside of you.

Think about that some time. It’s deep.

If you turn the mathematics around the other way, it also means this: think about any famous person in history, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Buddha, Genghis Khan, Queen Nefertiti. According to the laws of probability, it is virtually certain that you now have within your own body, molecules of water that once coursed through the veins of each of these men and women. For millions of years, billions of humans have come and gone, leaving behind their water. And you have within you a few molecules from each of them, as well as uncounted numbers of lions, pterodactyls, and velociraptors, all life going all the way back to the beginning of the world, made from water and other elements formed by a long dead star that exploded in a supernova perhaps eight billion years ago.

coffee_mug_snow.jpgI started this little essay with a discussion of the big bang, and I leave you now with another picture of the same universe pictured before, in the coffee mug from which it came.

Ah, coffee. Remind me to talk about the shape of the caffeine molecule some day…


creek_bridge_snow.jpgThe snow began to fall early afternoon on the 19th, and did not let up until after midnight. Large fluffy flakes piled up at the rate of over an inch an hour, and the air was still and quiet.

snow_leaf.jpgBy the morning the backyard had lost all remaining signs of Fall. Only a few stray oak leaves that fell overnight punctuated the smooth white carpet that surrounded us.

winter_berries.jpgSomeone had told us that the reason the leaves fall is that they are pushed out by new growth underneath. I had always pictured Winter as a time of dormancy, when everything is asleep or dead. Everywhere you look, however, there are already signs of new life in the bud.

All together more than a foot of snow fell over the next 24 hours. It’s funny how all the old holiday songs about snow and winter and mistletoe suddenly begin to make sense when you look out a window and the gentle cascade of snow envelops the world in a hushed peaceful whisper.

both_snowshoeing.jpgWe took the opportunity on my birthday to test out our new snowshoes. The old fashioned ones used to look like tennis rackets; these are very different, and are sort of metal frames with cross-beams into which you snap your boots. We snowshoed out into the Rose’s Berry farm out back of the property, and went over to check out how our Christmas tree was doing. We had it tagged back in October, and planned to cut it down just in time for the holidays. The view from the farmland looks like a classic Christmas card. Wish you could be here!

Snow Tubing
snow_tube.jpgAt some point we did begin to realize however that, just as the price of fall colors was the Rake, the price of all this winter wonderland was … snow blowers and snow shovels and wrestling bundles of wood in for the long winter’s night. The one upside of the hard physical labor was that we discovered an inflatable inner-tube sled in the garage (while searching for the extension cord for the snow-blower starter motor).

This has all been a lot of fun, but now its three days since the snow began to fall, and every muscle in my body is sore. No wonder folks around here are so thin. The seasons are pretty, but they’re a hell of a lot of work. Enjoy the videos!

Niles on the tube:

Gigi leaps into action:

Like a turtle on its back:

Latitude and Longitude

google_house.jpgThe house we are renting on Blueberry Lane is located at 41°39’29.20″N latitude, 72°34’45.10″W longitude. If you are curious, you can see our house on Google Maps. When I was working at NASA-Jet Propulsion Labs, I hung out with a lot of mapping people, geographers and cartographers mostly, to whom Geography mattered. In this little note I’d like to explore that notion a bit.


When I was a kid I was never able to sort out which was which until one clever friend (let’s give him credit: Jim Conolly) suggested the mnemonic “latitude is flatitude”. So, the latitude lines run horizontally, east-west, and represent how close you are to the equator (at 0 degrees), or the poles (at 90 degrees) respectively. For sailors, this was alway the easy one to figure out when you were lost at sea, because the further north you were, the lower the noontime Sun sat over the horizon. At nighttime, you could “shoot the stars” with a sextant and measure how high Orion or Polaris or some other star rose in the sky. Our current latitude is 41°39’29.20″N, the N meaning North of the equator.

That’s pretty darn far north. It puts us almost halfway between the Tropic of Cancer (below which the noontime Sun will appear straight overhead) and the Arctic circle (above which the noontime sun may not even come above the horizon). I wasn’t quite sure how North that really was though, until I got out a map and checked to see where I would be at that latitude if I were over in California. It turns out that would be around Yreka, which is about seventy miles north of Redding (where my older brother Keith and his wife Cindy reside), and just 30 minutes away from the Oregon border.

What does all this mean in daily life? Mostly, its about daylight and how much of it you get. If you were down at the equator, for example, no matter what season, the sun is up for about 12 hours a day and usually goes somewhere straight overhead. At the poles, on the other hand, during the winter the sun doesn’t come up at all, while during the summer it may stay up 24/7, and simply circle around you, just above the horizon like an hour hand. In our case, deep in November, it means when I get up at 5:45am to make coffee, I am feeling my way through pitch black. The sun finally comes up around 7, but by 3pm it is already twilight. When we lived out in Los Angeles, Gigi and I would go for a walk every day, along the beach, in bright sunlight. Up here, we still go for walks through the trails in the backwoods and farmland, but broad sunlight? Not so much. I’m thinking of taking vitamin D supplements just to make up for what my skin would otherwise produce.


Longitude is all about clock-time. While even the ancient Greeks knew how to determine latitude, the problem of reliably finding your longitude was not solved until recently, when really accurate clocks could be made. The real problem was, unlike latitude, one longitude line (meridian) was just like any other. There was nothing you could look at in the sky to tell you your longitude. So, they had to just arbitrarily pick one (which happened to pass through an observatory in Greenwich, England), and then measure all the other ones with respect to that one, which is called the Prime Meridan.

Not everybody agreed on where “Zero” longitude should be. The French, for example, did not think that Greenwich England was a suitable location, and so they (of course) chose a place near Paris for their “Zero.” This had some serious consequences back when they began building the “Chunnel” tunnel underneath the English Channel, linking England up to France. Each side began digging their end of the tunnel from their coastline towards the other, and had agreed beforehand where (in latitude/longitude) they would meet in the middle of the channel. A few years past, and as the two digging projects began to approach they realized that they were off by about 5 feet in the east-west direction. Apparently the French used the Paris-based longitude system, which they only now discovered did not agree with the British one. Fortunately, they were able to “jog” their tunnels a bit at the end so they joined up.

Our longitude is 72°34’45.10″W, the W meaning West of Greenwich. Our old house in Long Beach was at 118°W, three time zones away. This means that when I come downstairs and sit t my computer at 8am, it is still 5am in California. And that in turn means I have about two hours when I can work on my writing, noodle around on Yahoo or Google, and have breakfast before anyone even thinks about showing up at the L.A. Office. Typically, I start work at 10am EST (Eastern Time), and work until 6pm EST, which is around 3pm on the west coast. Of course, due to the effect of latitude, the sun has already been down for over an hour, and so I end my work day with pitch blackness outside my window. To get some walking done, Gigi and I usually try to get out around 3pm, which works out well for the L.A folks, because it is lunchtime there.

Latitude and Longitude. Just numbers. Numbers that pin your life down on the fragile surface of a blue marble spinning in an elliptical orbit at 18 miles a second around a small yellow star in the minor arm of a barred spiral galaxy that completes just one rotation every 250,000 years around a black hole with a mass of a hundred thousand suns, the whole nebulous pinwheel hurtling towards an unavoidable collision in two billion years with the Andromeda galaxy. Numbers that tell you when to get up in the morning, when you should go out for a walk with your wife through the backwoods, and how much snow will be on the ground when you look through the frosted windows of a New England house as you sip on spiced apple cider on Christmas morning.

The Greatest Gift

Here is a Riddle:

Question: What is the one thing that even the gods fear?
Answer: To be forgotten.

Journal Entry, Saturday November 8, 2008

Cloudy, 59 degrees, more rain expected later

12:45pm: Gigi and I were getting ready to go for a walk when I went out to the garage and noticed a mouse, clinging to the automatic garage door that rolls up into the top of the garage. At first I thought it was just climbing, but when I got closer saw that it was actually caught, its left arm crushed between the folding panels of the garage door. It must have gotten caught the night before, when we came back from dinner.

I was able to free the mouse from the door, but its arm was completely useless. It squeaked a couple of times when I lowered it to the ground and it tried to hobble off slowly towards some leaves, but I didn’t think that it would live long and it was obviously suffering. A rain-storm was coming this afternoon and I couldn’t bear the thought of it going through its last hours in the downpour.

I don’t know what to do.

Gigi and I talked about it. I couldn’t stand seeing it suffer, and thought about putting it out of its misery quickly, with a hoe or a shovel, but Gigi thought that would be cruel and suggested drowning it — which from what I’ve heard is an unpleasant way to die and seemed even more cruel. As I speak, we have put the mouse on a rag-blanket, in a small cardboard box, with some bits of cheese nearby for him to nibble on. But I am still at a loss. Are we doing the mouse any favors by giving it food, which could only serve to prolong its life and therefore its suffering? Which is the greater kindness?

No doubt if I were a farmer or a hunter I would have no qualms about dispatching the mouse and wouldn’t think twice about it again. Until today, the mouse and I had separate destinies, but now I have no choice but to think about what future the mouse will have. Either we

  1. somehow take it to a vet and then nurse it back to health, minus one arm, and keep it warm and safe and fed in a cage with water and cheese and peanut butter.
  2. take it out to the forest and set it free to find its own destiny — which we will then never know and always wonder about
  3. keep it comfortable for whatever time it has left, or
  4. kill it, mercifully

What would the mouse want?

3:00pm, same day: The mouse was still alive as of two hours ago. At that time I put the box with the mouse in it in the garage. I started the engine of our car, left the engine running, then closed the garage door. Carbon Monoxide is supposed to make you fall asleep, and then never wake up. A half hour later I came back out and turned off the engine, but left the door closed with all the exhaust in it. Will check on the mouse later.

4:06pm, same day: The mouse is still alive. When I opened the door and looked in the box, he stirred. Oh God, little mouse, why do you cling to your life so fiercely? Feeling remorse. He was already victimized once by the modern machinery of civilization, and now here I’ve gone and subjected him to toxic fumes, and yet he still lives. I was trying to be merciful, but was too stupid to have read about how modern automobiles, with their catalytic converters, produce almost no Carbon Monoxide anymore. So all I succeeded in doing was the make the air around him a bit more unpleasant. I let the air clear out, closed the garage door, and went back inside.

Tried without success to not think about him, the rest of the evening.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunny, cool 52 degrees. Sunny all day.

Eating oatmeal for breakfast. Have not gone out yet to check on the little mouse. We have done our best to keep him comfortable. The rain fell hard last night and I consoled myself that at least he was in a warm dry place. I don’t want him to suffer. How is it possible that such a tiny little thing could bring my entire world to a standstill?

10:06am, same day: I went out to the garage after breakfast. The mouse must have passed away some time during the night. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be at peace. I said a few buddhist prayers for the repose of his life, wishing him all the best for the next, and thanking him for this lesson in life.

Strange all the things you think about. To get through life, it seems, you must be able to hold seemingly contradictory facts about the world in your heart as true, in spite of the contradiction. They always seem to come in pairs, one of which is

  1. Nobody should ever die alone, and
  2. In this world, we all die alone.

mouse_rock.jpg11:00am, same day: I took the mouse, still on his rag blanket in the box, down to the river in the forest next to the farm. I found a sunny spot near where the water cascades over the rocks. A peaceful place. I buried him near an oak tree by the cascade and put a rock marker on the grave. And so, life goes on. And Fall turns to Winter, which never fails to turn into Spring.

But this little mouse: he will be remembered.

Leaf Storm

ginkgo_picnic_table.jpgThe owners of our house had pointed out to us that the Ginkgo tree in the backyard will drop all its leaves in a single day, and to keep our eye out for the first sign of leaf-fall (and to have a video camera ready).

ginkgo_leaves.jpgLast Friday morning Gigi called me down to the sunroom, because the leaves were starting to fall. There had been a cold snap the night before (below freezing) and this morning the bi-lobed leaves of the Ginkgo tree were all curled up and drooping. Within minutes the leaves had started to fall, and just a few minutes later it turned into what could only be called a Leaf Storm.

sound_icon1.pngThe sound heard while standing under the tree was like a hard, driving rainstorm. The leaves are shaped very much like the tail of a bird, and with their stems attached they are very aerodynamic. Most of the leaves come straight down, fast, with the stems pointing down and the triangular leaf acting like a rudder that makes them twirl like a helicopter. On occasion, however, a leaf will turn horizontal and glide, sometimes tracing out long graceful arcs far away from the tree.

Two hours later, and well before noon, the leaves had all completely dropped, carpeting the ground and the picnic table that sat beneath it in a green and yellow layer of leaves several inches thick. The little youtube video below really fails to capture the intensity of the event, but it will have to do for now.


The Rake’s Progress

rake_autumn.jpgHere we are surrounded with color. The Sugar Maple leaves fill the spectrum between deep magenta, vermillion and dark orange, while the Beech are now lemon yellow. The Oak leaves are only now starting to turn dark red. For someone who did not grow up in this climate, it is surreal, but in a pleasant sort of way, to find 100 foot tall trees in day-glow pumpkin orange, sitting next to a tree the color of red vine liquorice. The colors are now so brilliant that even at night, when your color vision fades and you are driving through near total darkness, all it takes is a single street lamp to bring out the blood-red of a Maple tree.

The downside: the leaves fall, and you have to rake them.

Every single day.

Where the hell do they all come from? Gigi says they were all up in the trees, but I think they are like a fungus, coming out of the ground and spreading leaf spores over the asphalt.

front_driveway.jpgOur neighbors, Mary and Wes, loaned us a leaf-basket so that I could haul the leaves I had raked up from the front circular driveway to a mulch pile out back. “The Maples and Beech are the first to go,” Wes informed us, “then the Oak leaves drop later.” I was kind of hoping that this one weekend of raking would do the trick, but Wes in true laconic Yankee style just looked up at the trees in our front yard, still full of yellow and red foliage and announced in an accent just this side of Maine, “Be a while yet.”

True to form, the next morning I came out to inspect the front driveway. Just the night before I hauled five large baskets full of leaves out to mulch pile from there. Now I couldn’t see the asphalt for all the leaves that had fallen overnight.

An Afternoon Walk

rose_berry_farm_october.jpgNow that Gigi has gotten some climate-appropriate waterproof Gore-Text hiking boots, we’ve been trying to get out and walk around the roads and trails of the neighborhood in the afternoons. Our most recent trips have taken us around the Rose Berry farm adjacent to our backyard. The trails go quite a ways back, and pass through long rows of blueberry and raspberry bushes, pumpkin patches, various kinds of squash and corn, as well as pear and apple orchards. The corn field has already been carved up into a corn-maze, and one of the soon-to-be-seasonal Christmas Trees is decorated in pumpkin and skull ornaments.

witch_pig.jpgAlmost all of the blueberries of the summer are gone, and the bushes now serve as backdrops for an odd assortment of scarecrow witches and ghouls and such-like in preparation for Halloween events on the farm. Not entirely sure why this disturbingly pink witch has a piglet holstered to her side, as I was not aware they could be brandished like a weapon. At any rate, the pig seems to be more or less content with its situation.

chestnuts.jpgWe have at last confirmed that the “tribble” like balls we’ve seen squirrels running around with are in fact chestnuts. As we were walking along Matson Hill Road in front of the farm we spotted a few trees surrounded by the little hedgehog-like objects, some of which were still attached to the tree. They had already ripened, if that is the appropriate term, and the nut had fallen out. A neighbor drove past in her car and, noticing that we were inspecting the things, pulled over to the side and stopped to chat. She positively identified them as chestnuts, and said that you can pick and roast them (presumably on an open fire) until the shells pop. I’ve heard reports from my Mom that she was unimpressed by their flavor when roasted. We might try deep frying them instead. Can’t hurt…


Sugar MapleAbout a month ago I dropped in to the Glastonbury town hall to register to vote, and while there picked up a little booklet that was a self-guided walking tour of the the trees in the historic district of the town. Gigi and I took advantage of good weather on a recent Sunday to do a part of the walk that goes around the Hubbard Green, including an old cemetery that predates the Revolutionary War.

As our guide book indicated, there are indeed many trees around the area of various stripes, including the Sugar Maple (pictured at left), Eastern Redbud, Norway Spruce and Maple, White Fir, Pin Oak, and the Thornless Honeylocust, which is a very pretty tree that turns bright yellow in early autumn.

memorial.jpgWe also took a side trip to the old Green Cemetery along the way, and inspected the grave markers and memorials. This one in particular (at right) was interesting. Erected in 1777, it memorializes one fellow, a Thomas Kimberly who was at the powder mill here when it “took fire and blew up”.

Armed with this new body of knowledge, our hope is to go back to our house and try to identify the various trees and shrubs around the yard. Other than the maples, the only other tree I had positively identified was the Ginkgo Biloba tree.

The Squirrels Join In the Cause
Just yesterday I was working at my desk when I spotted one of the squirrels out back, carrying in its mouth a large round object, larger than its head. I was sure it had just stolen one of our tomatoes, and so got up to follow its progress across the yard. It seemed to be in a great hurry, and must have known somehow that it had struck pay-dirt and was now making its getaway. When I went into the sunroom, Gigi (who has claimed the room as her office) noted that she saw the squirrel taking off like a bat out of hell (or at least a squirrel out of hell) and that it went around to the side of the house. We finally spotted it off by the well-pump and saw that in fact it did not have a tomato, but a large spiny ball about two inches in diameter. There was a hole in one side, and half the squirrel’s head was buried in that hole, furiously gnawing away on something.

chestnut.jpgOur best guess is that this spiny “tribble” like object is a chestnut. The last time we saw things that looked like this was during our hiking trip through Spain, where these things were ubiquitous in the forests of the foothills of Garrotxa; our friends Steve and Esther were quick to identify them as European chestnuts. After walking around the backyard for a while this morning I was able to capture one of these tribbles intact and get a picture of it. From my tree-spotting guides online, the best guess I have so far is that this is from a Chinese Chestnut tree. There are still some American Chestnuts around, but they are mostly seedlings, that only live long enough to produce fruit before they die from its eponymous blight.

The Peabody Museum at Yale

We went down to New Haven a few weekends ago to explore a bit of Yale University, and to check out the train schedules into New York. As an incidental bonus, we also caught sight of the Amtrak “56 Vermonter” train, which is the very train on which the opening scenes of my novel “The Pythagorean Concerto” takes place.

While we were on campus, we visited the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum was founded in 1866 by George Peabody, the philantropist uncle of O.C. Marsh, the great paleontologist. Marsh used the museum to house the fossil dinosaur bones he discovered on his excavations in the Western United States in the 1870’s, and from which he mounted his scientific and personal battle with his long-time rival, fellow paleontology Edward Drinker Cope. Their already poor relationship went on a sharp downturn after Cope published a description of Elasmosaurus (a giant aquatic dinosaur) — and Marsh pointed out that Cope had placed the skull on the wrong end of the skeleton. Oops.

red_cloud3.jpgIt was on one of his later “Yale College Scientific Expeditions” that Marsh befriended the great chief Red Cloud, head of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Red Cloud had earlier been at war with the U.S Army and had signed a treaty with the U.S in 1868, but his tribe had the misfortune of residing in gold-rich land, resulting in their forced relocation to the Badlands. Red Cloud only allowed Marsh onto their reservation, in exchange for his promise to communicate the rampant corruption and food problems back to U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The chief was pleasantly surprised when Marsh kept his word to Red Cloud, and they remained friends thereafter.

These facts tie in tangentially to my novel. One of the characters, Lilith Cohen-Ptesanwi, is a Jewish-Lakota paleontologist at Hammersmith university, who spent much of her youth out on the Lakota reservations and at many of the digs, and who continues to go out to the Dakotas, Wyoming and Utah each year. This plays a role in a later part of the story.

torosaurus.jpgWe were greeted out front of the museum by a lifesize statue of a Torosaurus, which looks very much like a Triceratops. Inside on the ground floor was a good sampling of the original Marsh collection, including his famous almost-complete Apatosaurus (aka “brontosaurus”). There were also some temporary exhibits, including one called “The Tree of Life”, which was an heroic attempt to explain the current evolutionary theory of life in a way that would appeal to the common sense of evolution-doubters. I’m not sure how well they succeeded in this effort. Some concepts are intrinsically difficult, and require an investment of mental energy that, quite frankly, many people do not (or cannot) bring to the discussion. For those people to whom complex, nuanced chains of thought are simply too much trouble, “God did it” makes a much more satisfying story, and there’s not much you can say in answer to that. You might as well be speaking Swahili.

In the “Tree of Life” exhibit, there was a display of live Elephant Shrews, muddling about with their long noses. Contrary to the impression given by this little video, an elephant shrew cannot be identified by its signature call “Momeee! Wook at dat!”

After wandering around the first floor for a bit we decided to take a free guided tour by one of the volunteer docents at the museum, a very interesting fellow named Gene Scalise. Gene is a semi-retired finance attorney, who amuses himself by taking on jobs such as grocery clerk, just to find out what that life must be like. We spent almost as much time after the tour just talking the fellow, as we did on the tour itself. He has met a lot of interesting people in his adventures, and is hoping to write a book about it.


Gone are the seventy one boxes
of books that filled up half of
the storage Pod, her historical
biographies, my old textbooks on
Pseudodifferential operators and microphysics,
all the Pogo books

Gone are the arcane kitchen utensils,
the high-carbon cleaver I’ve
had since ’78, the
apple corers and lime squeezers I’d
used to make Cosmos on Thursdays
sipped on the balcony watching the container
ships come in from Shanhai

Gone are the strings of Christmas lights in the shapes
of pigs, and all the other pig items
people gave Gigi because they thought
she liked pigs because of all the pigs
she had

Gone are the mattresses, tables, flashlights,
food processors, crescent wrenches,
clothes, framed pictures of grandmothers,
turkey smokers, halogen reading
lamps, geometric models of archimedean
solids that used to hang from
the ceiling of my office

Gone and Gone are all the
things that kept the wood-floored
rooms of this apartment from
the echoes of footsteps

Now there is only me, and Gigi,
a couple of rosemary plants
whose branches have seen so
many roasted chickens, a philodendron,
and a bonsai juniper tree that
mom just sent, with instructions that
it needed daily watering

Now in this house
there is only air, a solid
floor on which to walk, and
we the living, we the mortal
transient things to whom existence
is a fragile thing, and not a
permanent state of being.

And Now, Only Now, is it so
clear: These things, these
foolish solid things, are of no weight.
We the living, and those that
we love in this one, wild life,
are all that have ever mattered,
and all that ever will.

–Niles Ritter (With eternal thanks to Cathy & her Writing Class)
July 2, 2008

Mark Twain House

“Travel is fatal to prejudice” –Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

twain_house.jpgTwo week ago on Labor Day we took advantage of the sunny weather and went on our first literary pilgrimage, this time up to Hartford to see the Mark Twain House. This was the house where Samuel L. Clemens and his family lived during eighteen of the most productive years in his career, and where under the pen name of “Mark Twain” he wrote Huck Finn, Connecticut Yankee, and almost all of his other famous works.

The House
fachwerk.jpgThe house, which both Twain and his family loved and to which Twain felt a spiritual kinship, has been described as Gothic Revival, but also has some stick work features on its otherwise brick exterior that some say was influenced by the “Victorian Stick Style”, but which make me think more of the criss-cross “Fachwerk” wood patterns on traditional German / Bavarian houses. In any case, the recently restored house was beautiful, and had many touches (including glass and interior work by Tiffany himself) that anticipated the “Arts and Crafts” movement that produced many of the most appealing houses that I have ever entered.

The house was a gift from Twain’s father in law, who was a wealthy and successful businessman. The same could not be said for Twain himself: few of his business ventures ever paid off. After a particularly poor investment rendered them unable to afford the upkeep on their beloved house they were forced to move to Europe, where they lived for a number of years, and where Mark Twain embarked on a worldwide tour, in hopes of earning enough money to return to the states and the house.

“My axiom is: to succeed in business, avoid my example”
— Mark Twain

Writing Room
Twain wrote late at night in the top floor of the house, which was a low-ceiling room in which there was a pool table and his desk, and where, our tour guide claimed, he would entertain male visitors with cigars and liquor. To highlight this, both the ceiling and the south-facing windows were decorated with pool cues and cigars. The windows were notable for being very thin translucent sheets of rock, etched by the architect with a coat-of-arms of billiard ball-and-cue, as well as the date of construction. Other than the occasional guests, the writing room was off limits to all but the cleaning staff. (Alas, I was not able to get a photo of the translucent windows, as all interior photography was forbidden — but you can see a grainy video capture of the room here).

twain_tesla.jpgMark Twain was always fascinated by science and technology (the picture here taken in 1894 in Nicola Tesla’s laboratory), and the house, though constructed in the 1880’s, already had some very advanced gadgets, such as an acoustic intercom (based I believe on the same principle as the tin-can-and-string phone), as well as a bleeding-edge device known as a telephone. The telephone had of course no end of technical problems, and our tour guide produced some interesting sheets of notation that Twain had used each month to complain to the Bell telephone company. One squiggle mark, for example, apparently indicated “the sound of artillery was heard on the line”, while another mark meant that “no combination of switches on the phone would connect us to anybody.”

The Book Store
The museum book store was filled with books by and about Mark Twain. It is perhaps a testimonial to the interest and popularity of Twain that not only were there dozens of books in the store about Mark Twain, there was even one novel-length book whose title and subject was “How to Write About Mark Twain.” I wondered at the time how that author knew how to go about writing that book, and whether he expected to write yet another book on that topic (and so on…).

How To Tell a Story
I was sufficiently intimidated by the sheer volume of writings by and about Twain that I may well be permanently incapable of bringing myself to the level of arrogance of ego to think I could add anything new to the discussion. If you read more and beyond just the Disney versions of Huck, you begin to see the dark shadows on the edge of the primary colors, and the satirical rage at the follies of the foolish animal called man.

“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. It is a pathetic thing to see[…] To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct.” –Mark Twain, “How to Tell a Story”

uppercase.jpgUppercase and Lowercase
In the museum adjacent to the house was displayed the Pierce automatic typesetting machine which was Twain’s financial downfall. Besides being a riverboat captain on the Mississippi, a prospector in the motherlode country, and an editor, Twain had also been a type-setter. The Pierce machine failed because they were never able to get all the bugs out of it. For comparison there was also on display an old-fashioned typesetting machine, with its trays of letters used to put together a page of a newspaper. As an interesting bit of trivia, the big letters were kept in the upper tray (case), while all the little letters were in the lower case. And hence, so the theory goes, the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” letters.

One surprising feature, ubiquitous in the bookstore, were paintings and pictures of cats. Mark Twain loved cats, which distinguishes him from another of Connecticut’s resident authors, James Thurber. Thurber was a dog man to the core, and had been known to refer to someone in print as “a notorious cat man”. Thurber did not live in Connecticut until long after Twain had died, however, and even then lived nowhere near Hartford, but up in West Cornwall.

But that is another story, and a literary pilgrimage for another day…

“Always obey your parents when they are present.”
— Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth”

The Day After the Storm

conn_river_afterstorm.jpgThe day after the thunder-laden steambath called Hurricane Hanna passed through, we went out to survey the aftermath. The air was cool and crisp, with an almost cerulean sky. We drove through the hills around town, entertaining one of Gigi’s favorite pasttimes which was to check out the local housing market. We later went down to the river at the Rocky Hill ferry landing, where there was a little park and nature trail that skirted the river. The river was still light brown, muddied from the churn of the storm yesterday, but overall it was still a good postcard view.

tobacco_barn_2.jpgJust down from the ferry were a couple of picturesque red barns. We had seen them before, and they had an unusual set of openings that Gigi realized were for drying tobacco — still a cash crop in these parts, though much less so now since the housing boom caused so many farms of all types to sell their land to developers.

tobacco_barn.jpgThe loss of farmland to subdivisions is one of the big issues in this area, with the usual battle lines drawn, and strong feelings on many sides. The local farmstands sell a DVD documentary of Connecticut agriculture called “Working the Land” (narrated by Connecticut’s own Sam Waterston) whose proceeds go to the preservation of local farms, as intact operations. There are also several farmland festivals held in the area each year that promote the cause.

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