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April 2011

A Personal Landmark

A landmark was destroyed recently.  It's demise didn't attract the attention of the media, just as it's existence never did.  You won't find it on any sort of historical registry, but it was a piece of the local landscape for years.  It was a life size wooden sculpture of a black bear; the sort that is carved with a chainsaw.  He stood on his hind legs, his paws over his stomach, looking out at the Bedford Street traffic with a sort of bemused curiosity, a cross between Gentle Ben and Winnie-the-Pooh.

When I first started to get to know Lexington I used the bear as a landmark, a sign that I'd found the right road to take me back to the highway.  Once I knew my way around better, he just made me smile.  His owners must have had a soft spot for him too.  When they built a wall along their property to block the noise of the street, they designed it so the wall formed a little alcove around the bear.  It was like the bear was on display at a museum, a more rustic and ursine Birth of Venus

Sunflowerish Newburyport 081410

 

I'd love to show you a photo, but I never thought to take one, until the morning I drove down Bedford Street and saw a wood chipper parked next to the bear. No, I thought.  They wouldn't chop him up into so much mulch.  They must be trimming the overhanging limbs and this was just a convenient place to park.  When I passed on my way home that evening, he was gone.  The absence highlighted by the unpainted boards of the fence that had previously been hidden by his massive form. 

This winter when the snow piles were so deep only the bear's shoulders and head were visible, I thought about doing a little yarnbombing.  He looked like he could use a scarf.  I never did knit one; the bear, after all, was someone's personal property, but I kind of wish I had.

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Thanks to Google Earth I was able to find a photo of the bear.

 

 


Spring Peepers

Tonight there's a slip of a moon,

so fine it could be mistaken for a curl of butter

on a great indigo plate. 

The air smells of sodden earth,

rich with life, both past and potential.

And there it is. 

A voice nearly forgotten, for being silent so long.

A chorus of frogs serenades the darkness, and winter is a memory.

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I heard my first spring peepers of the season tonight.  The person I was with said that even if the weather gets warm, they won't come out until it has rained at night.  I haven't verified that, but it sounds plausible. 

If you'd like to hear the spring peppers, there are a lot of recordings on-line.  The Fairfax County school system in VA has a great Spring Peeper page complete with photos and recordings.

 

 


Collecting - Mailboxes

Growing up, my older brother was always collecting something.  He collected bottle caps (I can't remember why), coins, stamps, Star Wars action figures, and baseball cards (Topps, not Fleer).  I'd listen to him rattle off what made one item more valuable than another, how they should be handled, just how many he needed before he had a complete set, and I wanted to have a collection too.  I was fascinated by the planning: where to get the next one, how to organize the ones you have.  And I loved the guidebooks full of arcane minutiae set in endless tables. 

I love glass, so I started a collection of old bottles, the sort that can be found in the woods near deserted cellars.  I picked them up at flea markets and tramping through the woods, but I never wanted to look in any of the guidebooks I brought home from the library.  I liked the idea of all those facts and guidelines for collecting much more than the reality of studying them.  So I stopped collecting anything that anyone else might find valuable.  I had a collection of itty, bitty pencils (ones with working erasers were the top find), rocks that looked like animals (I still have my first, a hamster) and teardrop shaped glass sun catchers.  

Today my urge to collect manifests itself in the pictures I take.  There are certain images that I never tire of: weather vanes, hollows in trees, squirrels, animal tracks, shadows and most recently, mailboxes!  This latest collection started when I took a wrong turn and ended up on a road with some of the brightest owner-decorated mailboxes I've ever seen.   I say owner-decorated because there are all sorts of companies making unique mailboxes, but what caught my eye was the DIY nature of these mailboxes.  Let me show you what I mean.  

Tiger mailbox 040311.jpg This tiger striped mailbox was the first one to catch my eye.  You just don't expect to see something like this in Lincoln, a historic, rural, New England town. 

Cheetah mailbox 040311
Further down the road I spotted this cheetah mailbox.  Could their owners be friends?

Canadian geese mailbox 040311
This Canadian goose mailbox is a bit more traditional.  I liked how the goose on the front seems to be daring you to come any closer.

Fungi mushroom mailbox 040311
This one intrigues me.  I'd love to talk to the artist.  Both sides show fungi on a desolate landscape.  It felt sci-fi inspired to me. 

  Mailbox attached to tree 040311


In addition to alien-world look of the painting, it has a lucky horseshoe underneath.  I don't know if it's intened to bring luck in the form of good tidings, or if the homeowner was just trying to preserve the mailbox from the snow plows.  All up and down the street I saw trees with gouges from plow blades, and mailboxes which had clearly been knocked down a time or two.   This winter the snowbanks were so high that on some streets all you could see of the mailboxes was the tiny mailbox-door sized holes their owners had made.

All of those plow mishaps have lead to some creative solutions. 

Concrete block stand mailbox 040311
The base of this mailbox is surrounded by concrete blocks.

Yellow mailboxes 040311
These brightly painted mailboxes have been secured to a stump in addition to having metal supports. 

  Milk crate mailbox 040311
And my favorite plow-war veteran would have to be this one.  The original support only goes so far as the first milkcrate at which point it ends in a splintery mess.  So the mailbox is actually being supported by two milk crates attached to a dolly with a web of bungy cords.  Now that's Yankee ingenuity (and thrift).

Dinosaur rusty mailbox 040311

This old rusty ol' dinosaur has seen a crash or two.  Wouldn't it be great if they actually painted it like a dinosaur?  The door just needs a tongue and razor sharp teeth like a T-Rex.  A couple cold reptilian eyes on the side and it would be perfect!

Red fox folk mailbox 040311
This fanciful, red fox out for a moonlit run is my absolute favorite.  The simple lines and bright colors look like something out of a children's book.  I look at it and imagine the rest of the fox's adventure, and then I start to imagine what sort of story I could paint on my own mailbox. 

I think I'll collect some more mailboxes (for inspiration of course), before I take that leap. 

 




Is it Meditation or Flow?

I've been curious about meditation since I was in high school.  From time to time I've sought through books and video how-to's to learn how to do it.  I've focused on my breath, imagining it filling and then emptying from every part of me.  I've slowed my breath to the point of getting a little light headed, and wondered how this could possibly be relaxing.    I've made lists of potential mantras, have tried sitting, lying down, even lying down with my feet raised above my head and in the end concluded that it simply wasn't for me.  I could not meditate and that was OK.

In the last fewmonths,  I've been surprised several times to hear some of my favorite activities called "the new yoga" for their ability to induce meditation.  This came up again and again in Tom Ashbrook's On Point episode on the resurgence of knitting.   When knitters talk about losing track of time and feeling like their mind has been set free from their body, I know just what they mean.  The same thing has happened when I'm out on a walk.  Once I'm warmed up, my legs and arms find their rhythm and suddenly I realize I'm several miles from where I was the last time I took notice of my surroundings.  I've often thought this was an example of flow, but maybe I was wrong and it's actually meditation.   My previous attempts had convinced me that meditation was something that required an exhaustive struggle to tame the mind. If meditation can be achieved through fun activities, that's like finding out that dark chocolate is actually good for you (in moderation of course, but still, that's something). 

I tried to research the difference between flow and meditation and found myself more confused than ever.  One source said that one is a state of mind and the other is an activity.  I found flow described as something that happens during meditation and distinctions being made between flow and mindfulness.  I finally decided that correctly naming the experience wasn't relevant to my enjoyment of it, and stopped the search.

However, before I gave up, I stumbled on a review of a study on the calming effects of yoga (specifically in relation to anxiety and depression).  Susan Seligson of Bostonia Magazine (Spring 2011)  did a great job summarizing the study for the non-psychologists of the world, so I'd like to share her introduction here. 

"Even the most mainstream psychiatrists might agree that yoga is like chicken soup - it can't hurt.  But researcher Chris Streeter has gone a step further toward validating yoga's potential to help treat depression and anxiety.  In a recent study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine...[Streeter and colleagues] scanned the brains of yoga practitioners and found that compared with that age-old stress reliever, walking, yoga brings a greater improvement in mood and decrease in anxiety" (Seligson 9).

Did you notice what activity the researchers chose for their control group?  Our good friend "that age-old stress reliever, walking" (Seligson 9).  The researchers had previously found that GABA levels  of yoga practitioners were higher than in a reading control group.  This is really interesting because low GABA levels are found in people with anxiety and mood disorders (including depression).  In this study they wanted to check if it was physical activity or yoga specifically that was responsible for the change in GABA levels (Streeter et al. 1146).  

One of the many things I found interesting about this, was that the researchers actually had the means to ensure that the activity both groups (yoga and walkers) experienced was equal.  They used a list of metabolic equivalents (METs) created by the American College of Sports Medicine to determine the physcail demands of each activity.  It makes sense that such a thing would exist, but it's so outside my realm of knowledge that I found its existence surprising.  Based on this system, they knew that one hour of the specified type of yoga was equal in to one hour of walking at 2.5 MPH on a flat plane (Streeter et al. 1146).  To ensure the equivalence, I assume the walkers were on treadmills, which instantly takes away the joy of walking in my opinion.   It is however, a sure way to know that the walkers' mood is purely related to the mechanics of walking and not what they're seeing and feeling along the way.      

Which brings me to how Chris Streeter addressed the question of whether or not their study was saying that yoga was better than walking.  Streeter replied "In this study, in this population, walking didn't prove to be as beneficial to mood as yoga.  It doesn't mean that yoga is better than walking, in other populations and other situations" (Seligson 9).  I'd be curious to know what the GABA levels of someone who has been out walking in the heady early days of spring would be.  How would those results compare with the treadmill walkers (and yoga practitioners)? Is it the action of bone, muscle and sinnew or the sights and sounds that make walking so enjoyable?  It wouldn't be a scientifically accurate comparison, but it would certainly be interesting. 

If you'd like to know more about flow, watch this entertaining and informative  talk given by the creater of the term. This video  comes from Ted.com, where you can find talks given by "the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers" (Ted.com)

Works Cited

Seligson, Susan. "Your Brain on Yoga: Calmer, More Content." Bostonia Winter-Spring 2011:Print

Streeter, Chris et al. "Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study." Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 16.11 (2010): 1145-1152. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.