Sunday, May 31, 2015

Berry-Pickin’ Time

Although I know and understand the mechanisms controlling growth and reproduction, and I know that these processes have long been understood and even replicated in the laboratory, still there are things in the natural world that amaze me, that seem somehow mysterious.

I understand how legs move without conscious thought: left, right, left, right and so on. I know it isn’t necessary to tell my hand to open or close around something I want to hold. And I know that each spring there will be blossoms and in the late summer there will be fruit. But it still amazes me.

I understand and I accept the truth of what I know, but I still wonder at how it all works. This morning for instance, walking up a well-worn path that leads to the top of the mountain behind the house, I couldn’t deny a sense of wonder as I observed the tiny white blossoms and slightly bigger white flowers that are now on either side of the trail I was following.

The little buds grow on what were brown sticks a few weeks ago. Thorny purple sticks, taller and bushier, were totally bare three weeks ago. Today they have white blossoms about an inch in diameter. The leaves on both of these are green and healthy. In time, say a couple of months, the tiny buds will be mountain blueberries. The thorny purple stick will be laden with wild black raspberries. Buddy and I will nibble at those especially, come late August, and I will bring home a bag of them every few days. These are the same fruit that my old partner, Max, loved to pluck for himself and that Buddy and Teddy love for me to feed them.

Of the blueberries, there is little to say, beyond noting that while we have probably a hundred easily accessible bushes, it has been years since we’ve tasted them. By the time the fruit is an hour old it seems, the deer and bears, raccoons and birds have stripped the bushes clean. Perhaps it is the thorns that protect the raspberries, or maybe the wild visitors find them too bitter, but for whatever reason, I am happy to have the fruit for our table.

I know that this isn’t a miracle or a mystery, this transformation from dead appearing stick to tasty treat. It is a well-defined sequence of events, evolved and passed down from season to season, generation to generation. Still, like having my feet move when I want to walk, I am always amazed and a bit thrilled to see that the process works, minute by minute, day by day, season and year, again and again.

If the process is no secret, and I know that some if not all can be replicated in the lab or in the greenhouse, it still fills me with wonder that it happens at all, that nature can and does work out without our help, a way to keep things going, repeating and repeating generation after generation.

Nature, in its way, is consistent, even when it mutates into new forms or variants. The same process that began with life itself, perhaps billions of years ago, that can be replicated in varying degrees in the laboratory or the field, continues to carry the burden of life without our direct intervention, or without conscious thought.

It is not so much, in this knowledge-filled world, that we don’t know the answers. We do.

What we don’t always know, are the questions.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Small Change

"The more things change, the more they remain the same." How many times have you heard, read or said that? In English or the original French or any other language, the meaning is the same: we think we are progressing or changing but, in reality progress is simply seeing the same thing through a new viewfinder.

Oh, I don’t mean that we have advanced no further than learning to walk upright, but as for standing on our own two legs, well that’s not much to remark on in terms of progress.

Some days we think we have traveled a road to the end only to discover that it is really a circle and we are right back where we started. It becomes even more obvious with the return of the political season. The only real difference I see is that the pre-presidential yammering is starting earlier, with less hope for change clinking with every nickle that is dropped into some candidate’s pocket. It is not a positive time.

One thing that does seem to have changed is the value of the numbers themselves. When I learned about averages and percentages, and means and so on, a significant difference was in the neighborhood of 25%. Now I read poll results that are supposed to be very sophisticated and accurate when the difference is 2%. How can that be? I understand that there are lots more heads to count today, but the idea that one or two percent of them can predict accurately the outcome of an election, or the popularity of an idea or the justice of a law is, in my mind, simply serendipity at work. Just look at the recent parliamentary elections in England. Even the winners were surprised.

What this tells me is that I have to be very skeptical about promises made versus promises kept. If politicians can rely on results showing an advantage of one or two percent, it is no wonder that the one-percent have the advantage. It would be nice once-in-awhile to see politicians respond to the 99%, not the 1%.

Are we just small change?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Meditation on Age

There are two ways to grow old: physically and mentally. There isn’t much one can do about the physical part. Oh, one may try exercise programs, diets, vitamin supplements and the like, but eventually enough parts will wear out and that will be that. The same is true regarding the mental part. Keeping young in spirit for most of us is possible. But it takes work.

We started thinking about this when we were in Chattanooga, down along the Georgia border, for a family wedding weekend. Guests ranged from teens to those of us who were middle-aged when the bride and groom were infants. Participating in their life-changing event as family and guests demonstrated the continuum of life as clearly as anything could. Those whose lives are not yet independent, and those of us who are closer to dependence of another sort, bookended the guest list and helped make the weekend a memorable event for all.

As I hope  you all know by now,we live on a mountain in a community populated by very few others (actually there are a lot of residents, but most are among the "bear-foot and antler" crowd). Our interactions with upright (as opposed to walking on all fours) neighbors are limited and paced to fill our days and nights with natural rhythms and sounds. City life, as we knew it, isn’t part of our daily life. This meditation is about how we interpreted what we saw as we strolled about the city or sat watching others go by. What we saw and what it means.

It was Saturday afternoon, and the city streets (where we were) had runners and walkers and bicyclers and strollers enough to fill our very small village many times over. Healthy people, fit, able to walk and talk and carry on telephone conversations, email and texting communications, made the atmosphere vibrate with energy and enthusiasm, creativity and cleverness. Observing the level of activity reminded us of when we were starting out, making our way in the world, and it seemed to unlock some mental closets where we had stored some of that youth, some of that energy.

We’re not ready to go back to that kind of life. We’ve been away from it too long, but perhaps we’ve gotten too comfortable, too much at ease with solitude and stretches of silence, enjoying the darkness of night where there is no sky-glow other than from stars and moon, hearing the sound of birds and bees and frogs and insects rather than horns and sirens and squealing tires. There is a danger here, perhaps: becoming too comfortable with a very low level of stimulation. Being among those whose lives are really just beginning brings awakenings we had nearly forgotten.

Coming back to our quiet zone, our dark nights and unpolluted daytime skies offers a sharp contrast to the life a city generates. As much as we think the young should listen to us, we need to keep that energy flowing back, as well.

Energy comes from energy, not from observation.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Friend of the Quick Brown Fox

Buddy follows me wherever I go. Mostly. Not always. Sometimes he thinks he knows where I’m going, and when I’ll return. Especially when I’m writing. Once I settle down for the morning Buddy walks in, goes under the desk and lies on my feet. Great in the winter, not so terrific when the weather turns hot. But Buddy doesn’t mind.

When I put a mat down on the floor for my daily exercise regimen, my pal follows me in, lowering himself to the floor so that his body is pressing up against my head. Unless he decides to lie on my feet. Hard to do lifts and push-ups and things when he participates. I hope my example will lead him to more stringent exercises of his own, but so far I’m just another convenient pillow for him. That’s fine, unless it’s summer and I really don’t need a fur cap.

When we go for our morning hike, usually first thing after I wake up, when the sun is still clearing the mountain to the east, we often cross terrain that demands careful foot placement. We don’t run. Actually, we don’t run anytime. We walk. Sometimes slowly, once-in-a-while a bit more quickly, but that only happens when we’re in the fields, not going up or down the ridge behind the house. Slipping and falling, where rocks and hidden roots and leaf-covered tree stumps abound is not good for contact with bones, so I tend to tread carefully especially on the downslope. When I take too long to make a move, Buddy stops, sits and looks longingly at the road below or the flat field that marks the end of the day’s rough walking. When I move forward, he waits to be sure I’m really going on, and then he picks himself up and walks past me, showing by his easy 4-foot-drive, that he has no trouble negotiating this part of the trail. He wasn’t tired, you see, just lazy. Why move if you aren’t going somewhere?

Having a companion who likes to know you are nearby is a really nice thing about a dog. You’re never alone, but you don’t, beyond giving an occasional pat on the head or scratch around the root of his tail, have to acknowledge his presence. It’s enough to just be there, I guess. It is for me, anyway.

Buddy isn’t an old dog yet. About three or four would be our guess. As with all of the pack (Teddy and Louie book-end Buddy), our pals are survivors rescued from shelters: strays, un-planned pups, the abandoned and forlorn. They are grateful, loving, rewarding members of our clan, able to adjust to changing times and places and situations. Buddy is a disappointment in only one area: he doesn’t like to ride. Not in my car or the old pickup or the not-quite-as-old SUV we use for really bad weather or as a transport to the kennel when we must be away for a period of time. He will ride, if I lift him and get him in before he knows what’s happening, but it isn’t his choice. Much as I’d hate to have to clean up the side of the car after a ride, I envy those drivers whose dogs ride along, head out the window, happy to be in the breeze, or sitting quietly beside the driver.

One of Buddy’s predecessors was Bear, a mix of Sheltie and Chow. An engaging boy who weighed about 45 pounds when he grew up, Bear would leap into my car or truck anytime I opened the door. Once underway he would stand, his hind legs on the back seat, his front paws on the armrest between the front seats, and then somehow engage my right shoulder with the elbow of his left front leg. It could induce discomfort on a long trip, but it was always comforting to know he wanted to be beside me. Louie is too small to get up into even the lowest of our vehicles, and Teddy, though he loves to ride, is at an age when getting up off the floor is an effort, but he will try to get in the car if he has the opportunity. But not Buddy.

Buddy is my pal. He stays nearby all the time, finding a comfortable (to him) place on the floor where there is support for his head (the wall, my foot, a chair leg) whenever I sit down.

Buddy is the ideal companion for the quick, brown fox.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sans Everything

Shakespeare, of course, had it right. The ages of man progress forward, then backward, ending pretty much where we started, sans everything. The question, then, is what do we need and why do we need it.

The question arose this week because I was looking for something in one of the sheds that stand in for an attic and basement in our house. “Stand in,” because long ago, when we were designing and building the house, we decided that attics and basements were places for things that we should dispose of in the first place. In this case I was searching for a part of a piece of equipment that I had disassembled several years ago so it would take up less space among the things we should be rid of.

I distinctly remember the plastic bag I put the small parts in for safe storage. I remember exactly where I put the bag. The problem is, I can’t find it now. That means taking everything out of the building until I come across the bag, plus all the other things I don’t need but have kept.

Our brains are pretty much like those storage sheds: lots of stuff we thought we’d never need again, put somewhere on a neurological shelf, that tend to fall off and interrupt another search for something else we know we have had once, and stored away somewhere against a time when we’ll need it. Like a name. Telephone numbers for phones we no longer call. Street names, favorite books, author’s names, even special food and drink.

When I’m looking for something in one of the real sheds I usually end up uncovering things I’m not looking for, then diverging from my original mission to do something the discovery suggests, and then run out of time and have to put everything away that I’ve spread out on the grass in front of the shed. The same thing happens when I try to remember something I want to use or say.

This isn’t about aging, though age certainly has something to do with it. The longer one lives, the more things one accumulates and stores in folds of the brain. I can often see a picture of what I’m looking for, but the focus is less than sharp. A story, for instance: did I write it? What was the working title? What was the file called? I begin looking at the index under an umbrella title. These essays, for instance, are filed under “Meditations.” Most of my essays originate as a simple one-line thought. Sometimes the whole thought is in the title. For others, there is a period of cultivation followed by a time of illumination during which the rest of the thought writes itself. That doesn’t solve the problem of course. The thing I’m looking for is still unfound, the thing I need to do is still undone. And then, if I’m not right on top of it, it gets lost behind some other thing on a shelf I’ve forgotten I have. And then it’s over.

Shakespeare had it right.


An apology: In an essay-or-so ago, I wrote about being the subject of a video memoir. I offered to put you in touch with the producer, but my email address was not quite right. Here it is:
Sorry for the inconvenience.