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November 2010

Seeing Reality

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Can anyone tell me why we teach children to draw the trunks of trees brown, when they're actually more gray? 

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Certainly some have a tinge of brown to them, and pines look almost Army green in spots, but from a distance tree trunks appear gray.  So why do we simplify them to brown when we draw them?  Are there trees in another part of the country that truly do have brown trunks?

Last winter I took an introductory watercolor course and the instructor, Joyce McJilton Dwyer, said that the trick to realistic art is painting what you actually see, not what you expect to see.  I bet she's known about the tree bark issue for ages.

The Thanksgiving Stroll

There's joy in watching people do the same things you enjoy doing.  I love watching people do crafts, or even better, spend time pouring over book s.  So it should come as no surprise that it makes me happy to see people out for a walk together, a stroll really, the sort of walk that has no purpose other than the chance to be outside and together.

Thanksgiving morning,  I stopped at Vij's Convenience (the absolute friendliest store in Lexington) for some pre-pie-baking caffeine and found it packed with a family buying hot tea and coffee after a cold morning ramble.  Their cheeks were as red as the old timey candy the kids were asking to buy.  They were joking with the owner and having such a merry time it reminded me of the nephew in Dicken's A Christmas Carol.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only times I can think of when brothers and sisters, their spouses and children would get together and go for a morning stroll.  There's a stillness to the streets on those days, when the stores are closed and people have left their routine to be with one another, that's perfect for walking.

  Gibsons summer 1872

My family, circa 1872

I can find holidays rather infuriating due to all the expectations and stress that surround them, but a family stroll is the absolute opposite.  It hearkens back to what we like to consider "a simpler time" without seeming forced or prescribed.   What could be more natural when family comes together and the small talk has dried up, and the kids are both restless and excited, than to get outside and take a walk?  Suddenly there are things to see and comment on.  Conversation resumes.   And if it doesn't that's OK too, because now instead of sitting, staring at each other, it's possible to enjoy each other's company whether you're talking or not.

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As I drove to the house where I would be enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, I smiled to see so many people walking the streets of downtown, peering in the shop windows.   I drove past three cyclists, protected only by spandex from the gusting wind, and imagined their dinner bubbling in the oven at home and just how good it would taste after their frigid ride.  I even saw a couple girls out for a walk with their grandparents and their goats.  Yes, goats!  The goats were on leashes and walked behind their little masters as docilely as dogs.

Later in the day, after my friends and I had eaten heartily, I'm happy to say we joined the ranks of the Thanksgiving Day walkers.  We waved to neighbors enjoying a drink on their porch, and we glimpsed a raucous family football game.  We called hearty hellos and Thanksgiving wishes to the strangers that we passed, and I felt grateful to be out walking surrounded by the people I love.


  • I had the song "Over the River and Through the Woods" stuck in my head yesterday as I drove to and from Thanksgiving dinner.  It turns out that that it has a local connection.  There's an interesting post about it on the New England Folklore blog.
  • If you've never actually read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, or would love to hear it again to help get in the holiday mood, a great audio version is available for free through Craftlit.  You can stream it online or download it to a variety of gadgets. 



A Bit of Business

Please excuse this brief interruption of the typical Ever Onward content.

 I didn't like the look of my books section on the blog, so I went looking for a prettier widget to display the books I mention in my posts.  The nicest one I found (which didn't require me to have any programming skills) was available through Amazon. 

If you click on a book image it will take you to the book on the Amazon website.  Amazon will know that you got there via a link from this blog (I promised them that I'd tell you that).  If you then buy something at Amazon, I will earn a small commission which I'll use to help fund this site, or maybe buy a frozen yogurt.  That's not the point.  

I'm just happy with my pretty new book display.  I hope you enjoy it too.

We will now return to the regularly scheduled program. 

M is for Monday and Mice

I set out on my daily walk yesterday feeling less than motivated.  The sky was gray.  I hadn't taken a good, long walk in a couple days, and my muscles felt stiff.  Usually I'd overcome this sort of inertia by listening to a particularly awaited podcast (see the right sidebar), but I'd left my iPod in the car overnight and it needed recharging.  So, I did what I tell my students to do when they don't like what they're reading; I faked enthusiasm with the hope that that it would become the real thing.

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I walked through a tiny puddle.  Nothing.  I halfheartedly kicked a pine cone.  A twitch of a smile.  I walked through leaves the wind had blown across the sidewalk.  My pace increased as I spotted an even larger drift of leaves up ahead.  Feeling about 5 years old, my legs sliced through the leaves in big exaggerated kicks.  I think I laughed out loud.  And then my foot made contact with something.  Something small, but more substantial than leaves and pine cones.  I saw a flash of gray arc out of the leaves and solidify into the form of a tiny mouse.  It belly flopped against a tree, Wile E. Coyote style, and grabbed hold.  It stayed like that, claws grasping the bark for several seconds, stunned, then scampered up the trunk until it was a good 12 feet above the ground.  From the security of a fork in the tree, it stared down at me, every inch of its tiny body shaking.

"It's Ok little guy; I'm not going to hurt you".  He looked so tiny and vulnerable against the giant expanse of gray sky.  I could just imagine him, snug and asleep in a warm pocket of leaves, then jerked awake to find himself hurling through the air!   At least he wasn't midair in the claws of a hawk, I consoled myself.  It helped, but I still felt like an oaf.  The funny thing is, just this week as part of our annual winterization, I set mouse traps throughout the basement without a twinge of concern for the creatures they might capture. 

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As I continued my walk, I must have still had burroughs and woodland creatures on my mind, because when I spotted some matted leaves sticking out of a crack in a tree, my first thought was, I wonder if an animal put that there.  I walked a little closer and felt almost certain that the wind couldn't have been responsible for putting the leaves there.  They looked like they'd been through a mulcher.  I reached out and picked at a corner of a leaf.  Instantly a tiny gray face and ebony eyes poked out of a higher hole in the tree, just inches from my face!  I jumped back, tripped over a branch and landed flat on my backside.  

I wanted to get a photo of the tiny homemaker.  I tried tapping on the tree.  I rustled the leafy insulation, since that's what got his attention the first time.  I even sat quietly, but the mouse was clearly ready to out wait me.   The best I was able to get was this shot of his ear, taken by putting the camera up to the hole where he'd originally peered out at me.  It looks rather bat-like, don't you think?

Mouse ear 111510

On my way home, I decided I would try to sneak up on the mouse and get a photo.  He was just so cute, like a character in a children's book.  He was not at all the malevolent invader I imagine when I find bird seed bags chewed through and tiny trails of indiscriminately left droppings within the walls of my home.   

The images of the tree on my camera screen were too tiny to help me identify which apple tree he called home, so I stopped at each one on that stretch of road and peered into their crevices.   Mouse house 2 111510

I looked into this hole just in time to see two tiny rear legs and a skinny tail disappear into a tunnel leading up.  I circled the tree hoping to see where the little fellow came out, but either his perch was too high or he was holed up in a warm, dark den.  The bottom of his hole is lined with chewed leaves, just like the one I'd seen earlier in the day.  It looked soft and dry.  I could imagine being comfortable in a larger version, something like this tree that I spotted on the same road.

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This is just the sort of tree I imagined Sam Gribley living in when I read My Side of the Mountain.  Ever since reading that book for the first time as a young teen, I've sized up each hollow tree I see as having housing "potential" or "no potential".    It's just as well I don't own the tree, or one like it, because I'd have to see if a mouse's homeis really as comfy as it seems.  Which is only fair since mice keep wondering the same thing about mine.  


All of this talk about mice has reminded me of the wonderful short story Misdirections by David Ebenbach.  The story appears in the collection Beyond Camelots (the picture in the right sidebar will take you to it on the Amazon website).  I first encountered it when the author read it as part of WBUR's radio show Morning Stories.  The story is bittersweet and so perfectly crafted it deserves to be part of the American literary canon. 




Reaquainted with the Night

I am one, reacquainted with the night, to paraphrase Robert Frost.  My reflective vest arrived today, and after a moment's hesitation that went something like "Am I really going to look this dorky in public on purpose?" I was out the door. 

I love the night, when it occurs at proper "night" hours.  There's magic in moonlit walks.  The sky expands and the stars bend low to whisper their secrets. 

  Moon 111110
Walking after dark is dancing along the quay in Nice, to the rhythm of the waves; it's stumbling down wooded trails to the camper after a bonfire on the lake; it's gliding on my sled over icy lanes, pulled by my grandmother; it's jumping up with a shriek during flashlight tag when a cat brushes up against your bare leg; it's spending endless summer nights lying in dewy cold fields staring up at Orion, his belt like a cow's profile and Cassiopeia's giant W. 

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The night lends mystery to the mundane, and offers up a new world to you and you alone. 

  Stained glass 111110

As I walk the silent streets I think of those in the houses I pass. 

Goodnight firefighters.  May your sleep go undisturbed tonight.

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Good night neighbor with the wracking cough. 

Good night haughty yellow cat and "polar bear" dog.  

Good night student bent over your book.

Good night ham radio fan, tucked in your basement in a florescent gleam.

Good night horses, snug in your stalls.

Good night ma'am finishing the dishes, oh so late.

Good night couple watching the Daily Show before calling it a day.

Good night blog readers, everywhere.


Falling Leaves

I live in the suburbs, so even though I think it's pretty quiet in my neighborhood, there's often a plane overhead, a leaf blower a block away or the faint sound of traffic in the distance.  Typically I can tune it out.  But I was recently in a rural area and realized with a shock that it was quiet enough that I could hear the leaves falling from the trees and landing around me.  I shot a little video to capture the moment.  The images aren't exciting.  You may want to just close your eyes and listen. 


If you're interested in just how prevalent noise pollution is today, check out Tom Ashbrook's conversation with sound ecologist Gordon Hempton

What the Leaves Reveal

About 15 years ago I had the chance to go to Arizona for an extended visit and I fell in love.  It was the middle of summer, mind you, and I fell hard for that vast, baking landscape.  When I returned to New England, I found it too cluttered.  Everywhere I looked there was another overeager plant, bursting forth with a profusion of leaves and flowers. Didn't they have any restraint?  After becoming comfortable with the spare lines of the desert, this abundance felt tacky, like a house drowning in knick knacks. 

I was reminded of that experience today as I took my walk.  With the majority of leaves underfoot rather than overhead, familiar roads suddenly offer all sorts of new sights.  This point was particularly driven home when I realized a copse of trees I've walked past more times than I can count, is someone's fort. 

Don't see it?  Neither did I at first.  I walked past as I have before, and thought the lumber was destined for the nearby dumpster.  But a second look revealed that the sheets of plywood are leaned up against trees to form an L.  There's a ladder attached to the tree at the left of the picture, and a bin labelled "curtains" which appeared to have old pillows in it.    Even the wood on the ground is not there by mistake.  One board forms a trail of sorts, leading from the road, through a couple trees to the little clearing.  I could almost hear the child architect saying " and these little gray trees are the door.  They only open for people who know the password". 

My childhood was full of such forts.   Someone would say "Let's make a fort" and in a flash we'd all run home to scavenge whatever supplies we didn't think our parents would miss.  Sometimes we misjudged.  We were always so surprised when adults were upset that we'd used up all their nails, or brought their tools into the woods and misplaced them. 

Chunks of plywood were always highly prized, but we'd use branches from the forest if enough plywood couldn't be found.  Tarps and random large sheets of plastic were vital to overcoming any defects in construction.   I remember one fort that we worked on for weeks.  We could sit inside it and stay dry even if it drizzled, no small feat considering the materials we were working with.  We'd even painted the interior pink, using some leftover paint found in a friend's shed.  The only problem was that making the fort was always more fun than using it afterward.  A few weeks after completing one, we'd begin repurposing its components to build a new one in an even better spot. 

Today's fort was a great find, but it was not the most surprising thing I saw on my walk.  The squawk of a Bluejay overhead made me look up and notice this next one.

Do you see that white candy cane shape up in the tree?  It's not a Christmas decoration.

Just how does a toilet brush get lodged two stories up a tree?  I'm not sure I want to know. 

The next thing I saw, in the far reaches of a grocery store parking lot had me wishing I could call the Mystery Inc. crew (you remember Scooby-Doo and the gang, right?)

That's a bone.  A large femur length bone wedged in a low branch of a tree.  Did I mention it's in a parking lot in the center of town? 

When I saw it, I immediately had an image of a leopard pulling a wildebeast into a tree to keep it out of the reach of hungry hyenas.  I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation that doesn't involve leopards roaming New England, or anything more nefarious,

but not knowing that explanation,

is pretty darn fun.


I wonder what tomorrow's walk will reveal. 



Day 3 - Post Time Change

What was amusing in its newness on Sunday, and was dismissible as "rainy day gloom" on Monday, is officially here for the foreseeable future.  We have entered the darkness.  Why does this come as such a shock each year?  I think it's similar to how we can never actually remember pain.  We know intellectually that something hurt, but fortunately we don't actually remember the feeling.  Having the darkness of midnight descend at 4 p.m. is just that sort of experience.  I know each fall that it's coming; I tense a little as the leaves switch from gold to brown.  And then it's here and we're supposed to go on like nothing has happened. 

  Evening backyard 031610

This year I'm fighting back.  I won't fall victim to the urge to hibernate, surrounded by carbs and chocolate.  I won't lose my interest in my hobbies.  I won't spend all my free time sleeping and watching TV.  I won't be grumpy and short tempered with my loved ones on a daily basis.  And I certainly won't gain 15 pounds.  Not again. 

If, like me, you get "bear brain" as the days grown darker, you may find some of the steps I've chosen to take helpful.  The following are choices I've made after consulting with my doctor and reading Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seaonal Affective Dissorder by Norman E. Rosenthal.  I am most certainly not a doctor. 

Awareness is probably the best tool of all.  I know the danger signs and that gives me hope that if I see myself sliding into bear mentality, I'll be able to catch myself and make some changes.  On a more concrete level, I've purchased a Sunbox and try to spend at least a half hour in front of it each morning.   Winter Blues discusses what to look for in a light box and how to best utilize its benefits.  I suspect I'm not taking full advantage of mine, but I'm doing what fits my life.

Last year about this time my doctor handed me a prescription to walk "at least 15 minutes, as close to dawn as possible, every day".  The greater the exposure (i.e. longer walk, sunnier day), the greater the benefit.  Doing it early is important.  Exposure to daylight at any point in the day is better than no daylight, but researchers have found the benefits are greater the earlier the exposure takes place.   

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One of the things I've always loved about walking as exercise is that the only required equipment is a pair of comfy sneakers.  Depending on the length of the walk, a water bottle could also be a good idea.  I've added a map and my iPod to my personal list of required equipment, but these are icing rather than absolute essentials.  This week I purchased a little more icing: a pair of rain pants and a reflective vest.  I've already worn the rain pants twice, and I can't help but wonder why I never thought to get them before.  Gone are the days of soggy jeans slapping against my skin as I attempt to keep to my walking resolution.  Throw your soggy winds at me November, I'm ready!   The vest hasn't arrived yet, but I think having it will give me one less excuse not to get out there and walk. 

Drumlin produce 092310

The rest of my attack plan can be summed up with the words "be good to myself".  This covers everything from planning ahead so I have healthy, preferably unprocessed, foods on hand, to making plans in the evening, so I have a reason to look forward to the dark end of the day.  I've found this is a great time of year for taking adult enrichment classes.  I'm lucky enough to live in an area where there are numerous adult programs.  I also make a point of reading notices on the bulletin boards of libraries and coffee shops to see what one time events are coming up.

In The Geography of Bliss Eric Weiner discusses the preferred Icelandic method for coping with months of true darkness.  Can you guess?  Not surprisingly, it's alcohol.   If you have any non-alcoholic tricks for dealing with the encroaching darkness, I would love to hear them.  I'm also on the search for dinner recipes that can either be made in advance or freeze well.  Feel free to leave a link in the comments section.  Until next time, stay warm, soak up the sun and feel free to write yourself a walking prescription. 

The following video is included for the song, Willie Nelson's Bring Me Sunshine.  I double dog dare you to listen to it and not start smiling.



Afternoon Delight


It was posts like this one on Alicia's blog Posy Gets Cozy that inspired me to make a blog out of my own walks and musings. Alicia's walks and travels give such a wonderful sense of place, that I feel like I've been to the Pacific northwest.

If you enjoy gorgeous photography, delicious recipes, and all sorts of yarn and fabric goodness, I encourage you to visit Alicia's blog. And I'll be back soon with more of my own rambles, once my fingers and toes thaw out a bit more; it's cold out there today!

The Frost is on the Pumpkin

Every morning I make my way to the hall window to see what the weather has in store for the day.  Admittedly, this is not the most accurate way to determine the weather, and it may be the reason why I often find I'm inappropriately dressed by noon, but today there was no mistaking the message mother nature was sending.  

A rather forlorn looking squirrel lay belly down, stretched out on a branch, soaking up the meager warmth of the sun.  Delicate, icy half-moons laced my neighbor's shingles and he was scraping his car windows, for the first of many times this season.   As my grandmother Crockett would say each fall, "The frost is on the pumpkin, for sure".    

In honor of all those pumpkins whose demise was hastened by last night's frost, I offer this photo salute. 

Drumlin pumpkins 102910
Just a few of the many decorating Drumlin Farm in Lincoln.  I like the restraint of the middle one.

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The droop of the ear is priceless. 

These baby spooks make me want to pinch their cheeks.



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The serendipitous melting of the wax adds just the right touch of gore.

Big eye pumpkin 110110
This one appears to know it's destined for the compost heap. 

Speaking of which, I read this week that the decomposition of organic material in landfills creates methane, one of the greenhouse gasses (Composting for Dummies).  Why isn't this talked about more?  Actively encouraging citizens to compost seems like something rather easy for towns to do.  My town got a grant so it could offer compost bins to citizens for a tenth of what they normally cost.  I'm new to all this, so I can only assume there are roadblocks that I'm unaware of.  Otherwise, wouldn't there be PSA's and the like touting the benefits?  

OK, back to the pumpkins... 

Our 1st pumpkin 103107
Our pumpkin from several years back and Z's first time as master carver.


This year's masterpiece, slightly remodelled by a squirrel eager to help with the composting process.

Still plenty spooky, if you ask me. 

Could this be why we didn't get any trick or treaters?