Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sapsucker Woods

This entry was placed in the winter of 2006. I've been back to Sapsucker Woods many times to walk and enjoy the wildlife. If you don't mind the constant drone from the vehicles on Route 13 or the air-traffic from the nearby airport it can actually be quite pleasing. I also worked for the Lab of Ornithology for a while editing video from around the world from birders. If you get the chance you should visit the building and the paths. They are really quite wonderful.

The Walk

The heat in my apartment was stifling. Even though the thermostat was down to the lowest setting, about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. This Saturday had been flying by as the weekends do and besides sleeping I wasn’t getting much done despite my best intentions. After bringing the dog out for a bathroom break I came in feeling refreshed from the cool air that filled my lungs. The weather was nice enough and I decided this might be a fine day to make a visit to the Ornithology lab and Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary to explore some of the trails in that area.

The gear for this ultra-light excursion was minimal. The dog would not come with me as her small stature was meant more for pleasing my wife’s eyes then taking walks in snowy woods. I put her in the bathroom with water, food and toys then bid her a fond “fare-thee-well” and was rewarded with those sad puppy dog eyes that so many speak of. I then made sure I had a sharpened pencil and a small pocket-sized note pad. I put on gloves, sweater, jackets, wool socks and boots. I decided this hike probably wouldn’t require water or food of any sort so left the Nalgene bottle and backpack. I jumped into my small pickup truck, took it out of four-wheel-drive and headed for the Sanctuary.

It was a short trip. Maybe two miles down Warren Road, take a left onto route thirteen, and a right at the signs for Sapsucker Woods roughly a half mile later. I knew the route well having worked for the Macaulay Library during my last semester at Cornell and over winter break. My job consisted mostly of editing video that was sent in from around the world. A large project was underway to put video of birds and all things associated within easy access for all those that would learn of them. I had been on the trail once before but only on a small section during a lunch break with my boss and co-workers. This time I wanted a more extensive overview of what these trails had to offer. I parked my truck in the usual spot for employees. Being Saturday the parking lot was nearly empty affording me easy access to the trailhead. I exited my truck to a strong gust of wind and walked up to the visitor’s entrance of the Lab, also known as the “Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity”, and found a large trail map screwed into a sort of blind. I decided my route and wrote it down. I would start at Timmy’s Walk and cross the Podell Boardwalk to Wilson Trail. From there I would bear left onto the circular Les and Vail Severinghaus Trail until I got to Sapsucker Woods Road where there would be a small wooden gate. Instead of crossing the road I would bear right toward the Dayhoff Boardwalk, cross that, and bear left onto West Trail. Once I came off of West Trail I would make another left back onto Wilson trail, which surrounded Sapsucker Woods Pond, and head for the Sherwood Observation Platform. When past that I would eventually get beyond the Owens Observation Platform and end up back in the parking lot where I started. It seemed a little complex but I remembered the short path I had walked before with my coworkers was well marked. I also knew that with my previous hiking experience this wasn’t much more then an evening stroll and that if for some strange reason I got lost there was a road nearby in any direction I chose to walk.

Once I figured out my route I started off. Before crossing the boardwalk I stopped just past the blind to gander at the geese. The pond is set with some kind of device, maybe a pump, that keeps water flowing in this particular area; you could hear the bubble and trickle of water. This prevents ice from forming leaving open water for birds. Several Canada Geese were browsing and making use of the open water. In a small island at the center of the pond some deer had somehow made their way and were browsing on the lush woody vegetation. The wind was picking up and because I had been working on my route rather then walking my hands and ears were getting cold so I decided to move on. Crossing the boardwalk I immediately became confused. To my left there were footprints and cross-country ski tracks. To my right, past a sign that begged “Please Stay On The Trail” more footprints passed toward the pond. I vaguely remembered walking closer to the pond and so followed the footprints first. A rock was here with a plaque that honored Agustus Allen PhD. I realized that the human tracks with deer tracks mixed in were not leading anywhere but into and toward the water so after a moment I cut back. I came out of the woods to the curiosity of a young couple that was behind me; wondering, I’m sure, why I had disobeyed the sign and strayed from the path. I realized then the correct route was along the way of the cross-country skiers and started to make some progress. I increased the distance between myself and the couple over the Podell Boardwalk. I enjoy hiking alone in peace and know I am bound to see more wildlife if there is less talking and quieter walking. The snow was fresh and at the most depth it had been all year. The boardwalk, covered in snow, sounded hollow and muffled my footsteps as I plodded along. I found it a little odd that in all this fresh snow, fresh as of three days ago, there were so few animal tracks. I made a mental note to be aware of the point at which more tracks occurred. Finally I came to the first intersection and veered onto Les and Vail Severinghaus Trail leaving the couple behind on the Wilson Trail.

I was having a tough time getting purchase with my old boots. The Gore-Tex was still working like a charm but the tread had long since lost its bite. I decided to break my own rule and walk along the cross-country tracks unless I came to spots that were wide enough where I could avoid disturbing them. Although my ears were cold I wanted to be able to hear and see well in the event some animal should show itself. That’s when the first one did. I was trotting at a good pace when I noticed a very slim tree off the path that had a huge bulge. At first I thought it might be some sort of strange knot of wood, maybe a reaction to an infection of some sort. Then it moved. I was delighted to see that I had caught a gray squirrel in mid-climb and it had frozen hoping to hide from me. Realizing that I was laughing at his pitiful choice of a tree (really a young sapling) to hide behind he took off, dropping into the snow and then running up another tree. I continued my walk noting all the bird houses scattered around with small rounded hats of snow upon them. I then came to my second major intersection on the loop. Here I double-checked my route on the convenient trail map posted within a small structure to keep it dry and accessible to all. I bore right and continued along.

The snow was deeper here for whatever reason and I started walking toe-heel to dig my foot in and get more purchase as I walked. I vaguely remembered someone citing this as being the preferred method of the Native Americans for walking: Something else to research at another time. I stopped dead in my tracks at one point as I heard what could only be described as “laughter” but from some sort of animal and most probably a bird. Being a poor birder I had no idea of the species and so waited with hope that it might show itself. Ten minutes or so later I continued on. After only four or five steps there was movement to my left. Another gray squirrel was hanging onto a branch rather tentatively. Finding my eye upon him, he immediately tried to jump, missed the branch oh but just barely, and went somersaulting into the snow with a light “foof!”. I grabbed my sides and burst into laughter. They always seem so graceful bounding through the trees. This one left in a hurry. I’m sure he didn’t want me to see the red-face that accompanied his graceless embarrassment. Once the show had ended I walked on looking for deer and other tracks while scanning with my ears. I decided to give a try at my Barred Owl call. A couple of unsuccessful attempts later I finally came out with a good recreation for a human. I continued trying every ten minutes or so to see if I could get a response. Crossing the Dayhoff Boardwalk I found my way to West Trail and was discouraged to see a massive development through the trees. I had noted a fence and heard dogs barking in the distance earlier but hadn’t thought I would come up on human encroachment so very soon. Walking along they became bigger and more pronounced. They were painted a god-awful brown and tan color and looked like large lumbering monsters through the trees. The tiny fence I had noted earlier came back and separated me from the road directly opposite of the path I walked on. I call it a road but it was more or less a parking lot on some sort of loop. It really did bother me. Going on walks in the woods is almost a religious experience most of the time. It helps me get away from the noise and stress of everyday life. And it was so noisy here. I hadn’t really noticed before but the buzz that I thought was the wind was becoming louder. It was the traffic from route thirteen and the adjacent airport. Whatever hope I had of a peaceful walk in the woods was slowly dissolving.

After walking past the housing development I had warmed up enough to take off my gloves and continued on West Trail until I came to another intersection. Taking a left would lead me to a gate. Right would lead me to the Lab as I could see it through the woods and across the opening that Sapsucker Woods Pond made. Although the sun was starting to come down I didn’t feel like there was any chance of getting lost and turned away from the Lab to go through the gate. A little sign on the woven metal gate and fence asked politely to treat the gate gently and I opened and closed it with great care replacing the metal horseshoe latch. On the other side was a very clean and crisp path created by cross-country skis heading toward the development. Straight ahead was little or nothing. I could see that at least one person on skis had been this way but the snow had covered it up and left only a very light indent of the tracks. That was my path. As I walked along I noted two things. The pink flagging present along the well-traveled path was no longer here. There were also a hell of a lot more animal tracks and I had trouble identifying several of them. The wind had picked up and I could hear the crack and pop of trees around me as they strained against the wind and cold. Sirens blared in the distance but it was forgotten quickly as I was walking west into the sunset, wind biting at my face, eyes locked on something beautiful. The sky was a brilliant blue and toward the bottom, where I could see through the trees, the color turned an orange-pink color that reminded me of orange-crème popsicles I used to eat when I was younger. Walking a little farther I came to a hunter-orange fire hydrant on an unplowed portion of road. I could only guess that this place was earmarked for more development in the not too distant future. It made me a bit sad and I honestly wondered how many people would appreciate, as I did, being right here, right now, with a beautiful sky and wind howling through young trees that brushed together, sometimes violently, making strange rubbing sounds and sometimes clicking loudly in the canopy.

I backtracked to the gate and headed east toward the Lab. To my left on this portion of the West Trail was a dying stand of conifers; probably water-logged in the wetlands that encompassed this area. Several hardwoods had been knocked down by the wind exposing their root structures in a shallow pan that usually indicated the roots were not exploring too deep for moisture. I came to the intersection of Wilson Trail then and took a left onto my last stretch of trek. From here on out I would be on Wilson until I got to the parking lot.

The remainder of my walk was rather uneventful. I stopped at the first pull-off of the trail where a bench stood along with a post whose sign was obviously missing. I looked out again over the opening that this swampy area along with the pond afforded and moved on. There were many more deer tracks now, some out into the wetlands and around the Larch or Tamarack that dotted the landscape. Sparrows flew in and out of the shrubbery and brush upon the border of the water. I came along the path following the cross-country ski tracks, boot tracks, and snow-shoe tracks and walked out onto the Sherwood Observation Platform. Here someone had plopped down on the snow covered bench without wiping it down leaving a perfect butt-print. A smile crept onto my face as I noted it and looked out onto the windows reflecting the sunset, now a deep pink, on the western face of the lab. A small plaque was nailed here. “Dedicated to the Joy of Birdwatching. In Honor of John Sherwood. 1929-1997”. I wondered if I would ever do something that warranted my name on a bench somewhere some day after I was long dead. Strange thought.

There was little more until the parking lot. I came to the head of the Owens Observation Platform but didn’t go onto it as the only view was Kips Barn across the way. There was posted a info-sign that interested me and a strange camouflage tube I had seen in the woods up near the middle of West Trail. It stated that these PVC pipes were Black-Capped Chickadee snags to entice nesting in the area. Apparently they like to hollow out rotten standing wood for their nesting sites. The PVC tubes have a hole drilled in the top and are filled with sawdust for the Chickadee to excavate on its own accord. Interesting. The last bit of curiosity was a final “Please Stay on Trails” sign. Here there were footprints out past the sign and off the trail into the nearby pond and through the ice. I shook my head thinking how accurately this defined the human condition. You may make your own inference as to what that condition is.

Happy with my walk I took back toward my truck and over the last couple of unnamed boardwalks. But before leaving I went back to where I started to complete the circle of the day and also to search for any pamphlets and literature on the trails. I felt foolish for not looking before the walk but thought I would still like to know what was available for future walks. Near the door for visitor access I found the literature and took a few pieces home with me. Finally I jumped in my truck and felt the buzz of civilization as I turned the key. Driving down thirteen toward Warren the sky had turned a deep pink. Behind me there was only black.

Afterthoughts

The walk was, in general, good for me. I did enjoy it. But I was disappointed in the encroaching development and all the noise. And besides the required deer there was little variety in animals from the tracks I observed. I come from a much smaller state: Massachusetts. The funny thing is that I can drive fifteen minutes and be on a trailhead that leads me on a fifteen mile hike and no noise pollution, which obviously infests this area. If you look on a map of south-central New York it is all just a big grid of paved roads. I couldn’t get lost if I tried and that really bothers me. In western Massachusetts I can traverse sections of the Appalachian Trail, the Yokun Ridge and many other nearby nature reserves without the sound of airplanes taking off or the constant hum of engines and we have an airport and the Massachusetts Pike nearby. At one point it felt like I was back in the Air Force on the flight line. The props were so loud from one plane taxiing that I was just discouraged with my walk. I could even see its running lights through the trees. Maybe there are other places around here that afford more privacy but I can’t imagine where with the roads situated as they are. I think that the Sanctuary is a wonderful idea and is a great source of nature for everyone to experience. I just have to believe that there are much better places out there for a hike or walk.

Taughannock Falls

I often write down my feelings and thoughts on "place" and have generally done so over the years regardless of this assignment. As I was going through old journals I thought it would makes sense to present these writings in this format. This next piece is pretty much self-explanatory and takes us through a short walk to Taughannock Falls: One of the tallest east of the Mississippi. You may note that I've mentioned my girlfriend in previous posts. Here I mention my wife. This was before our divorce in 2006-2007.

Taughannock Falls Walk

A Short Walk

I was interested in a trek to Taughannock State Park to see the Taughannock Falls. After gathering my wife and our small dog in my pickup we headed out down Route 13 and connected up with Route 89 which skirted the edge of Caygua Lake. It is a short drive and my first impression in parking was that the place was highly manicured. The grass was freshly mowed, the parking lot looked new and the buildings were well maintained. Trees were planted and dark mulch was built up about the base; landscaping seemed to be a priority. When we started on the trail to the falls there was a small shelter with rules. The pamphlet boxes were empty and had a Snapple bottle perched on the lid. Trash was inside. In general this area looked “used”. The rules were printed on a large Plexiglas covered page that was at least 2x2 feet. The print was so small it was hardly worth reading.

The wide “path” along the edge of Taughannock Creek is a roughly one mile round trip of well kept crushed gravel that a heavy vehicle could easily drive over. At various spots along the path there is access to the streambed that was mostly empty. The stream ran along the sandstone and limestone shelf that had interesting pitting patterns. At this low level of water flow most of the bed was accessible by foot and we used this opportunity to explore the riparian zones we could reach. The rock, smooth but uneven, was covered in a light dust and there were many footprints clearly imprinted upon it. Fissures filled with water ran horizontal to the shoreline and were not stagnant. This gave me the impression that Taughannock was very popular. If the stream had, with the last steady rain, filled the streambed and there were many footprints and no stagnant water. My conclusion was that the area had been and is well traveled. As we continued the short trek we found little bits of garbage here and there and stopped to read the convenient information boards that lined the common path.

The valley we were in continued to get deeper as we walked toward the falls. At one point I was curious how it was that some of the overhanging rock was able to hold on 400 feet above us. There was quite a bit of overhang and a lot of debris along the edges of the path. This made me more nervous as we walked ever deeper into the valley or gorge and the towering cliffs of brittle shale loomed ever higher and closer. My apprehension of the situation was apparently well justified. In April of 2005 Deborah A. Rowen, A New Jersey resident, was killed when she and four of her family members went off the trail. She was crushed by falling rock and the other members of her family were injured to various degrees. While the family from New Jersey did not stick to the trails we had no delusions of our own mortality and continued the rest of the way by well marked path or streambed.

When we reached the end of the trail and the falls the number of signs increased warning not to stray from the path. A small bridge spanned the river where an observation area was located looking directly at the falls. We trekked to it, took a few pictures and jumped about ten feet off the ground when some of the loose shale broke away, came crashing down into the gorge smashing on the side of the wall near the base and then into the water. The waterfall was impressive but we didn’t stay long.

When we arrived at the parking area we took a short drive across 89 to the other side of the park where a beach, boating/docking area and campsites were located. Once again everything was perfectly mowed, well kept and clean…almost sterile looking but pleasant. The sun was going down at this point and there wasn’t much else to see so we drove home.

Feelings and Observations

I really had a lot of mixed feelings about this place: I hated it and I loved it. The most common wildlife we encountered (other than trees) were native Ithaca residents walking along the path late on a Friday in a college town. There was also a lot of garbage but much less then the foot traffic would have indicated although I suspect most of it was swept away by the “creek” when water levels rose. This place was obviously wild; it takes its share of human lives every year and that impressed me as did the quiet looming intensity of the gorge itself. I was in awe of it walking within its majesty. It reminds me of how very small I am on this planet and how so many of us have had to make the decision to destroy rather then to preserve this rock we are living on to accomplish the level of damage we can see today.

My dissatisfaction is bred from being an explorer and purist hiker. I like discoveries to be as natural and personal as possible. Niagara Falls is amazingly impressive but it doesn’t have the impact of hiking along a stream in the woods with no path and finding a smaller but equally beautiful waterfall that you and maybe only a handful of other people have seen in the last 50 years. Discovery of natural beauty, beauty not manipulated and sterilized by humans, is, within my humble values, the true way to experience and enjoy the outdoors. This experience was most certainly not ideal. Taughannock is impressive, scary and makes anyone with any sense of self-preservation quite wary but it seems about as natural or “pure” as the manicured lawns at the entrance and the driveway to the falls itself. It creates the same kind of nervous curiosity that a grizzly bear in a zoo with only a moat to separate you inspires.

On a trip to Hawaii several years back there were falls you could hike to in a similar fashion. And while I’m sure that there were areas similar to this one the fact was all the trails I ended up on were much more wild and could only be traversed by foot. There were still a lot of people on the paths but there was much more a sense of accomplishment and discovery as you pushed through thin dirt paths and overgrown vegetation to break through to a secluded waterfall you could dive into and explore.

So in the end this waterfall trek was overall pretty nice but too close to civilization to be challenging and exciting. I hear there are other trails that can be explored and have more of a “payoff” in the end and I’ll come back to look for those this summer. As a side note I mentioned to my wife that most parks are having trouble because they rely on donations or federal funding to keep up their looks. This park was in excellent shape and that might say something about the residents and their enjoyment of this park in what it has to offer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Buzz

Cornell as a school is exhausting, for sure, but sometimes my roommates don't help. Maybe it's the attitude of this college town or something else...I don't know. I had a late night last night since my girlfriend needed to do some work on a project for her job. My roommates had people over to play Magic the Gathering. I used to play, about ten year ago, but haven't really had the time. When they come over they are here until the wee hours of the morning. I went to bed at around 2am and they were still playing along. So I had to drive Karley in at about 7:30am and came back to get some rest. Usually I can't get to sleep right away so I watch some movies or listen to some music. Something. When I finally got to the sleeping point I came into my room and opened all the windows wide. It's beautiful outside with many different birds singing and, while overcast, the sun was out and the temperature was up. With that in mind I decided to turn off the fan and the radio so I could pass out listening to the outside symphony.
Of course it never takes long to get woken up here. I've got two roommates and one has a live-in girlfriend that can get annoying. Instead of waking up to the birds and the wind blowing outside I wake to a baseline and the sounds of a video game...one each provided by each roommate.
To tie it into the theme of this blog, well, it's just amazing to me how people don't care about the weather even as they bitch about it all winter long. One complain after the other about how much the winters suck here...it's all I hear. Then when you get a nice day do they go outside? Do they enjoy the weather? Soak up the warmth and the sun? No. One is stuck playing video-games literally for hours (from the point she wakes up until she goes to school) and the other stays in his self proclaimed "dungeon" where he makes mixes of he 250 gigs of music. Meanwhile I have to wake up to their addictions instead of the birds.
The roommate with the girlfriend...he's a good guy but a paradox in health and living. Both he and his girlfriend have been trying to buy "healthier" which amounts to a visual consumption of anything that says "light" or "free" or "natural" which are all vague terms designed to confuse consumers into thinking their product is "healthy". Yet his girlfriend lives right down the road, less than a half a mile, on nice back roads, and do they ever walk back and forth between their places? I can't recall one instance where they did. I think that equates to a kind of sickness in this world. Ithaca may be ten square miles surrounded by reality but how many people dream of "getting lost" in a place different and beautiful? Ithaca could certainly be that place...especially when the students are gone. But of course many of the locals don't appreciate it the way they should and regress to complaints and worries instead of getting out of their little boxes and enjoying the environment.
Cornell sucks because of that. I've had so little time to enjoy the beauty of this place simply because the college takes up every second of my time. I know it's temporary but I still desire more free time. I'm lucky to have a partner who is of the same feeling.
I gave up some homework time yesterday to get some things with her of great importance. First, and most importantly, we went to Dunkin' Doughnuts and got her a couple of pounds of her favorite coffee. Then we traveled to Lowe's where I picked up some wood to make a dirt sieve and more soil to transplant some tomato's and peppers. I grabbed some pots and a shovel as well to be ready for the spring planting season. We then went to Expensive Mountain Sports (EMS) where we bought her a really decent backpack with a 40-50lb capacity. I used to work at EMS long ago and unfortunately this is one of the few stores where you can buy gear and get a student discount. Believe me when I say I'd rather buy local...but we need the gear and we aren't rich. She has recently impressed my by identifying bird species she heard in the parking lot and by getting happily involved with my interests of hiking and backpacking. She went so far as to purchase a new pair of boots for me for my job in Vermont this summer. She is exceptional in her love of the outdoors and of animals. Beyond that she has made real strides in getting outside more on her own as she loves to walk and run. I have a hard time keeping up with her strong legs. I bought her a headlamp (and some other gadgets) and then groceries later at Wegman's to even out the costs. We are both excited to get some serious backpacking in this summer in the Adirondacks where we've planned a nice little week-long trip together.
This summer may bring many changes to my life. I have a real chance to make strides as a botanist in the field. I'll be alone without family, friends, or girlfriend during this time and I want to make the most of it. But I know that, while roommates talk of what they want to do with their lives I'll be out in the woods and fields doing it while they'll be inside hidden away from their dreams, locked into patterns that seemingly never go anywhere. Maybe that's harsh but it's just an observation that seems, at this point accurate. I don't take any pleasure from it and I wish it was not this way. But what can you do? You cannot change people...especially those that you care about. You can only live as an example and hope that they change themselves.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What does the weather mean?

5 March 2008

In other blogs on other sites where I post journals I've often talked about how the wind, rattling the windows and causing tree-branches to scrape against the side of the house, bring out a sort of primal relaxation that cannot be described. Storms are fascinating in their own right...we talk so much about control in my environmental classes: How to control the economy, how to control society, how to control the status quo...and if we don't control then it is simply understanding or educating ourselves on what it is that we've formed questions about. I know there is a whole science devoted to understanding the weather. Yet weather doesn't fit so well into neat little formulas and theories like, say, physics does. When that wind is howling, when the wind is blowing strong and the lightning is smashing down around us, when there is absolutely nothing we can do about the rising level of a river...these are times when nature, in all her beauty and glory raises her head and dares us to look her in the eye. It is a time when we have no control and can only wait until it passes.
Here in Ithaca we've had some beautiful ice storms and this one was no exception...just exceptional. After the storm initially hit us the power was out for about a day. Not much, but enough to slow us down. More on that later. The beauty and destruction it left behind was awe-inspiring. A large non-native maple sits in the back yard of my apartment. As I was leaving during the middle of this storm to pick my girlfriend up from work (apparently retail doesn't respect the wishes of the storm) I walked out the door of the sun-room and immediately heard an enormous "CRASH!" Although I wasn't sure what had been damaged I did realize that a section of that maple, about as big around as I am, had snapped off from the weight of the ice and wind, and landed either on top of or next to a small shed where all the tools and lawnmower was kept. Now I'm not much for driving around in storms unless there is some form of photography in it. I respect the weather, keep sand in the bed of my truck, drive slow and use my 4WD. Still I'm always amazed at how retail stores in any area will stay open no matter what. Last year, for example, almost a foot and a half of snow had dropped on Ithaca in less than 24 hours. After plowing my way out of the driveway, with snowshoes in hand, I made it to work, walked across the lot with my snowshoes on only to find a stressed out manager and zero customers. I was one of three (of about 20) who found a way to make it into work (or back home). Why are we so damn anxious to sell shit to the point of putting peoples lives in danger? I barely made it into work and I know others who got seriously stuck or worse trying to get in. But I digress.
The next day there was this eerie quiet; nothing electrical hummed or buzzed or rang or dinged or gave the slightest hint of existing. It was a blessed peace that I fear far too many in the developed world can appreciate. I walked outside and it looked like an artist, with a flair for cheesy Christmas stories, had left their mark. Everything was covered in ice at least a quarter-inch thick. The sky had turned blue and the sun was shining through it making the landscape look like some dream created from glass in another world. Of course my girlfriend, a native Ithacan "poo-pooed" it as common...but after a day or two even she had to admit that it was unusual for the ice to stay on the trees for so long. I just did my best to enjoy it while I could. When I was developing my own film for a class project we had a similar ice storm in Middlefield. I went out with my Pentax K1000 and snapped about 15 rolls. Unfortunately someone had screwed up the chemical mixture in the lab and my film remained completely blank. I was heartbroken. Now I have a small digital camera with no money for film developing. Still I took a few shots, as I always do, and will share one or two nice ones with you.
Slowing down is hard to do. In this high-powered world where people are aghast when their airplane is running four hours late (and how long would it have taken you to drive from Florida to Chicago?) I think folks have forgotten how to relax realistically. I even see people who go on "vacation" plan every little minute to fill the day with doing "things" they normally wouldn't do. A good storm slows you down, forces you to sit and wait and think. I find it hilarious that children get punished for running around, out of control, full of energy and a lack of focus. I think that adequately describes most of the adults these days. Too bad we can't send them all to their room. Maybe if they thought about what they had done their lives would be a little better.
In the end the storm moves on and the beauty or destruction left in its wake is removed and tidied up. What precious things.
Now, with no snow on the ground, the branches have been cut and sawed and piled on the road-sides for pick-up on the local roads. Much of it will be made into mulch which I will use to slow weed growth in my garden and around the deck. Some of it will be burned. The landscape will be cleaned and mowed and raked and shoveled and trimmed and planted until nature looks right. And we'll keep rushing along until the next storm slows us down.


************

Dear oh Deer

03 March 2008

I find myself often reflecting on past events...sometimes it helps to step back and take a look at the strangeness of it all to get some perspective. My second semester here (early 2006), while still living on Warren Ave past the tiny Ithaca Airport I had the luck of taking Ecological Orchard Management at Cornell. Ithaca is, by all counts, an area with a great love of apple orchards and my professor, Ian Merwin, is no exception with that love as he protects the orchards he owns with fences that are nearly 20 feet high. After one particularly stressful night in the Plant Science Building I was putting a group project together with several classmates on an IPM (integrated pest management) management program for a plot of land we were "granted" to virtually experiment with. I didn't go to sleep that night and found myself, in that sort of "I got no sleep last night" trance, walking to my vehicle located in the parking lot across from the Dairy Bar. On a side note: Somehow I got myself into Cornell, I can't stand Corn and I can't digest milk. Oh the Irony...but back to the story at hand.
So I got in my truck and proceeded to leave taking a right out of the parking lot and onto Judd Falls Road. As I accelerated a deer, out of nowhere, walked right into the front of my truck giving me absolutely, at a whopping 15 mph, no chance to stop and avoid the poor beast. I was going so slow that I made the conscious decision not to apply the brakes; they could only further damage the animal if the truck happened to stop directly on top of her or slid with a wheel locked on any body part. I felt the truck roll over her like a soft speed-bump and then it was over. I looked back in my rear-view mirror and there was no deer. She must have gotten up and ran although I still have no idea if she was severely hurt by the experience. It was so surreal and I'll never forget it. I drove home and went into a fitful sleep.
To this day I believe that deer was trying to commit suicide. I have seen deer strikes and unfortunately driven past a moose strike on the 90 in Massachusetts...let me tell you that there is not much more that freaks me out then seeing a steaming pile of blood and meat, after passing several smaller chunks, that is actually taller then my car; I was lucky that time to be on the opposite side of the road. Usually a strike occurs quickly when you have no time to avoid the animal. This particular animal got right in front of my truck and was nearly face to face with the grill before (diving?) proceeding to insert itself under my chassis.
This was all brought back vividly to me on the 3rd of March this year. Deer are, by many accounts, a problem in Ithaca. As humans have removed all their natural predators (maybe a few are left) leaving a dwindling supply of hunters to thin the ranks, the population of these ruminants has exploded. My daily routine as a Cornell student involves walking up Snyder Hill Road past the Dryden town line and up to the apartment I share. This evening, quite dark out and very icy thanks to one of the several storms we had been blessed with (no, no sarcasm, I love ice storms), I noticed red flashing lights up beyond the bend in the road a bit past Peregrine Way. As I arrived to the scene I realized there was a red Saab upside-down in one of the neighbors yards...the little house that sits on the plot happens to be one that my girlfriend likes very much and, as before, the scene was surreal. There were police and a fire-rescue crew prying the doors open to get the people out. I asked what had happened and if I could help. The official story was that the driver, coming down the hill, had tried to avoid a deer when his car skidded out of control, hit the ditch, and flipped.
One thing I'll never get used to in this town are the ditches. I have never seen any place that digs the kind of water-deterring ditches that they do here in central NY. In the past two winters, along the bend adjacent to Sharlene Road, I've seen a car that has slid off the main drag and firmly planted itself into the ditch with the rear end so high in the air that the rear tires are level with my nose. While I'm sure these ditches control erosion to a degree I have to wonder about the sanity of their design. Well luckily the driver who was avoiding the deer had hit one of the more shallow ditches which caused this car to roll instead of stopping instantly which may have caused more damage to the delicate flesh within the car. The officer said they had things under control and I walked away and tried to get a shot of the scene but my camera was and is a piece of junk unable to capture anything in the dark.
The next day I was walking back to the bus stop and realized the amount of damage done. The car, as it was flipping, took out several mailboxes and ripped off both the rear-view mirrors. I also observed that they must have being going very fast or been very drunk to allow this kind of accident. Here's a bit of advice: Hit the deer. Going off the road is not an option for any sane human being. And on the bright side you might get a few pounds of venison. Yum! In this particular wreck there was no deer to be found. I'm sure it just sniffed the air and walked away.
So I've included a couple of pictures of this incident. I apologize for the blurry and fuzzy stuff. And I have come to a couple of conclusions: First, be careful walking or biking on the back roads here in Ithaca and Dryden. People drive like idiots: It's that small-town mentality (throwing beer cans out the window while driving wildly on narrow backroads...Hayduke would be proud) mixed with the big city wealth...the drunks are driving Audi's, BMW's, Lexus's, etc...and are too young and ignorant to know how much power they have in their little hands. Second conclusion is that I need to learn how to hunt. If only I could afford a bow.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Gently...quietly...spring rolls in

Early April on a Sunday. The sun is out and it's warm...at least fifty degrees. It's enough to melt the ice in the bird-bath and the wall of ice that's been built up around me from a winter that has felt all too long. Strange as it may seem I love the winter and don't much care for those days of summer that are just all too hot. I'm a man of reason and common sense...or so I'd like to think. My clothes and life-style are functional more than stylish and I feel that is very important: You'll never catch me in baggy pants down past my ass or attached to the latest styles and trends. It's all bullshit. So when it comes to people who complain bitterly about the winter I say to them "build a fire"..."put on more clothes"..."find someone whose warmth warms you"..."take a few shots of vodka". But the summer is brutal. There is no escape from the heat. Not even the hypnotic drone of the air conditioner does much more then add a breeze to the room. Winter allows you to adjust. In the summer there is no way to get less than naked and in Ithaca we live in a place of some notable extremes when it comes to the seasons. I'll take them all. I have no complaints about that.

Except maybe the "flu" season. The Goddess can keep that. I don't recall ever being in one area where everyone was so sick at the same time. I'd like to blame the college students...wiping their noses with their hands, typing on computers, ordering food, handling door-knobs...it's nasty and passes on to everyone. I think this is, however, a microcosm compared to the rest of our workforce in this country. If you are sick you still go to work; you can't afford not to. And by doing so you get everyone else sick as a dog. Productivity goes down, medical bills go up...and yet somehow it is justified. Sometimes I'd just like to tell the students to go home, get some sleep, and stop working so damn hard. But Cornell asks you to push your physical and mental limits. I'll try to express this as plainly as possible. I was in the military for 5 years and then worked three jobs at a time before getting to this school. Cornell is by far the most difficult challenge I've ever faced. Maybe it's my age or my time in life. Maybe it's the divorce and bankruptcy last summer. Maybe it's deciding to "invest in my human capital" and staying poor in order to find something better someday. I don't know. I just don't. But I'll tell you what's important to me.

Living life in happiness. Today I worked in my vegetable garden. I weeded the beds, carved out the isles a bit, neatened up the compost area and got all the plastic and other garbage left over from last year sorted out. I worked in the dirt and it felt damn good. I was initially outside with my black Cornell hoodie on but found, after a few pulls with the shovel, that it was not necessary. I removed the hay mulch off the last remaining bed or two and planned in my head where the vegetables would be going this year...hopeful that they would be well taken care of since I've accepted a job as a botanist in Vermont for 12 weeks of summer. My girlfriend and roommates will have to take over the job of making these plants grow. I think they are excited and up for it but you can never tell the way things will turn out. You just have to have some faith that they will.

After getting things more or less prepped for the next phase I went inside and brought my young furry son out (a 1 year old cat named Lucius). He was glued to the window while we were working and I decided that once I could pay more attention to him I would bring him to the garden (enclosed with six foot fence) and let him explore. As I dropped him, to his pleasure, in a large pile of well-decomposed sod, he mewed and playfully began exploring his new world. I sat down with a wary eye and looked...and listened.

Today was the first day I heard the spring peepers. From my garden there is a wetland a bit northeast from here up the road. I'm sure that at some point it will be filled in for development as they always are but for now, with the sun beating on my face, I enjoyed for a time the music. It brings me so much peace. Before it was drained by the town we used to have a small wetland in my field back in Middlefield where I grew up. I would spend hours just wading around in my bare feet, looking for polliwogs and their parents. It was like a little lagoon that captured my imagination. Every night, as I set my head to sleep in the spring they would sing their song loud and strong. It was my lullaby.

From my vantage point I had a view of the road in the distance. People were out running and bicycling. I assume this is their way of enjoying the nice weather but how many people just sit down and listen? This may be a random thought but there are so few people that I feel have that ability. Maybe it's an age thing? I know that after my divorce I realized that no matter how pretty or intelligent a woman is, if she is young (beyond the age of imagination and before the age of adult realization) there is little patience for sitting on the porch, sipping ones' favorite drink, and just listening. Granted that's a blanket statement and as such is not entirely true. Even when older people just forget to slow down and listen to the world around them. I think that's why things go to shit as they do from an environmentalists perspective: Out of sight, out of mind...or in this case out of the range of hearing. So when those peepers are gone from this world who will notice? Only the generation that remembered them. The children might hear stories about those fine little Pseudacris crucifer but they will never again enjoy their song like I did. I'm not a selfish man. I don't want that for myself. I want it for everyone. This is where my thoughts tend toward McKibben as opposed to Cronon. While I understand that even my backyard is a wilderness and even that "wilderness" is an anthropocentric creation the truth is that the spring peeper has not a care in the world for the anthropocentric viewpoint. And once we kill them all off they are no more and we have made "nature" in our view something worth less than it is. Who will sing me my lullaby at night? Maybe that's the point: "nature" is a creation of our society and a modern creation at that. Yet would a masterful painter decide that one color was worth less than another or would that painter create with the fullest extent of the palette so as to create imagery that can bring a tear to your eye? If the Sistine Chapel were painted in baby-blue would it still invoke the emotion it creates on so many? I think not. I know not. The spring peeper is but one of the many colors of nature and as we make it more and more in our image it becomes more and more sterile until we are left only with baby-blue whatever that may be. I can only guarantee it will be a dull and lonely place. And a dangerously unstable place as those sterile environments usually end up being. One might not know that the most dangerous place and likely place to get an infection is in a hospital: They've been using anti-microbial and bacterial cleaning supplies for so long that the microbes have adapted and become much stronger. I wish nature could do the same, but that is not our vision. But I digress...

A chickadee is calling out and wondering why I'm not enjoying the sunshine; "spring-time" she sings for all to hear. I should go out and talk to her and let her know that Cornell requires this of me. In order to increase my natural capital I've given up so much...hiking, bird-watching, gardening, sleeping...but all so I can go out and make sure there are more places for my little froggy and feathery friends. Such is the way we must live in order to move forward and so I look forward to the day when things slow down and I'm not so damn worried about what Monday will bring. Hopefully more sunshine.