Category Archives: Nature

Winter was always winter

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter:

Winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step. Creatures abroad at this season of the year live intensely, stimulated by cold, using all their powers, all their capacities, to survive. Gone is the languor of August heat waves. Winter provides the testing months, the time of fortitude and courage. For innumerable seeds and insect eggs, this period of cold is essential to sprouting or hatching. For trees, winter is a time of rest. It is also a season of hope. The days are lengthening. The sun is returning. The whole year is beginning. All nature, with bud and seed and egg, looks forward with optimism.

Alone among the seasons, winter extends across the boundary line into two calendars. It is the double season. We meet it twice in each twelve months. It embraces the end and the beginning of the year. It includes the great holiday times of Christmas and New Year’s. Alone among the seasons it retains its original Anglo-Saxon spelling. Spring began as springen, literally “to spring” as the grass springs up; summer as sumer; and fall as feallan, referring to the falling leaves. But winter was always winter.

Crunchy Cons

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In Station Eleven, survivors of a global pandemic and subsequent post-apocalyptic chaos decamp to an abandoned airport in Michigan and eventually establish a Museum of Civilization, comprised of assorted artifacts from life before “year zero,” when the pandemic paralyzed the world and rendered much of the stuff that had comprised their lives useless. The Museum was a place of remembering — the old ways, the things they had once cared about — but also for preparation. Though the world of Station Eleven is dark and uncertain, if civilization were ever to rise again from catastrophe, the wares and wisdom held in the Museum, however haphazard and incomplete, would form the basis of renewal.

This wonderful and trenchant book popped into my mind as I read a different but just as wonderful and trenchant book: Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I’ve followed Rod’s blog for years, and read (and recommend) his memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Though Crunchy Cons was published in 2006, standing as the Republican Party now is before a dark abyss, ready to jump as soon as Donald J. Trump is named their nominee for president, Republicans need the Crunchy Con Manifesto more than ever.

As a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dreher focuses his criticism and encouragement on his fellow conservatives and those under the Republican Party umbrella. But I couldn’t believe, as a moderate independent who tends to lean left but supports some small-c conservative principles, how much I was nodding along while reading this book. Anyone who doesn’t fit into tidy political molds or abide all the shibboleths of establishment Democrats or Republicans will feel at home with one of the topics Dreher spotlights, which include consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion.

The original subtitle lays out the thesis well: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” Bombast aside, the juxtaposition of otherwise contrary stereotypes establishes the general sense of counterculture that pervades the book. Whether Dreher is talking to conservative homeschoolers or liberal organic farmers, their common refrain is a disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the status quo, with the cult of the bottom line and efficiency, or with how “everybody else” does things. It’s why Dreher can find more common ground with liberals on anti-consumerism than the free-trade fanatics in his own party, and why he feels more comfortable spending a little more for quality food at Whole Foods than get unethically produced cut-rate meat at the nearest SuperMegaMart.

Take the chapter on Home, or more specifically houses and how their style and place can affect their owners’ lives. The McMansions and cookie-cutter homes littering suburbia may be efficiently built and ostensibly indicative of financial success, but as bland, soulless carbon copies they fall short on fostering hominess and familial integrity. (One guy in the book likens getting one to dating the prom queen with a drinking problem: it’ll start out nice but quickly sour when someone prettier comes along.)

As an insecure teen I sometimes felt ashamed by my family’s simple, one-story house that wasn’t as big as some of my friends’ houses, that didn’t have its own rec room or backyard golf course or enormous kitchen. But in retrospect I’m glad for it, and glad my parents still live there, in a cozy house with character that they didn’t hastily buy with a bad mortgage and have to dump when the economy crashed. Despite my siblings and I having our own rooms, the more intimate size of the house allowed (or forced as it sometimes felt) us and my parents into closer proximity. It was harder to flee to our rooms and avoid each other. Obviously the size of one’s house doesn’t directly correlate with the quality of the family within it, but it does help create a culture — for good or for bad.

Similarly, the choices we make about education can have profound effects on the quality of the upbringing of one’s kids. The Drehers are passionate about (and financially capable of) homeschooling their children for several reasons, the biggest one seeming to be that they’d rather take responsibility for their kids’ rearing than abdicating it to others:

If you don’t educate your children for metaphysical truth and moral virtue, mainstream culture will do it for you. Absent shared commitment to these spiritual and moral verities, it is hard to see how we renew our families, our communities, and our country with an ethic of duty, self-restraint, stewardship, and putting the needs of people, not the state or corporations, first.

Though I’m a proud public school kid, and made it through without the scars others have (and may still harbor), the idea of forming my own children, rather than letting the state and wider culture do it, makes more and more sense as the state of public education gets bleaker and less hospitable to anyone who deviates from state-sponsored directives.

The same theory applies to religion. Though I didn’t go to a private religious school, those I know who did seemed to have an equal or even less chance of remaining in the faith as those who got their religious education solely from church. What matters most, I think, is the example that’s set by parents and the larger community, more than what is said or dictated. A kid whose parents set a positive example of marriage and life, who let their deeds speak for them rather than adopting a “Because I said so” strategy, will probably be much more likely to buy in to whatever religion or ideology they’re steeped in.

Whatever it is, it has to mean something more than whatever the wider culture is providing. “A religion in which you can set your own terms amounts to self-worship,” writes Dreher. “It has no power to restrain, and little power to inspire or console in times of great suffering. No matter what religion you follow, unless you die to yourself — meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself — it will come to nothing.”

Above all, according to Dreher, the crunchy con values authenticity: “In a world filled with the cheap, the flashy, the plastic, and the immediate, we hunger deeply for things that endure. We are the kind of people who long for the Permanent Things,” a phrase borrowed from Russell Kirk, the putative godfather of the crunchy con movement. The book Dreher is working on now concerns the “Benedict Option,” a model of community and cultural engagement (or lack thereof) for Christians who find the secular world increasingly hostile to people of faith. I suspect it will dovetail directly from the crunchy con impulse for smaller, enduring, and prudent living, and hope it will provide more practical wisdom for how to live out the crunchy con creed.

My fool’s hope for the Republican Party is that whatever emerges from the rubble of the modern GOP will include Crunchy Cons as a foundational text. A party that supports families fully rather than sundering them, that protects rather than pillages the environment, that promotes prudence and virtue over consumption and the bottom line, that values humanity and the living over materialism and Mammon — that’s the kind of party I could join.

But until then…

The Shepherd’s Life

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Really enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir of a sheep farmer told season by season. I followed his Twitter account for a while and enjoyed the seeming simplicity the stream of sheep pics depicted. Reading this memoir, however, disabused me of any assumptions I’d made about the life of a shepherd.

Rebanks tells of growing up in a farming family, hating school and the anti-farming condescension that came with it. He covers a lot of interesting aspects of the profession that has run in Rebanks’ family for centuries: training sheepdogs, the long-range strategy required for successful breeding, the arduous sheep birthing process (“Imagine a couple of adults looking after several hundred newborn babies and toddlers in a large park”), the disturbing yet oddly endearing way orphaned lambs are paired with ewes whose own lambs had died, and the unexpected legacy of Beatrix Potter in his region.

But this isn’t a kindly pastoral. The region of the Lake District in northern England, made famous by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is tough terrain at any time, let alone during the long, cold, glum slog of winter, which the hardy sheep can endure but only with help from the equally tough expert farmers. Though lauding its natural beauty, Rebanks openly resents the tourist-attracting romanticization of the region and the at-large decline of his profession and way of life.

Neither does he spare the gory details of life with livestock. It’s hard, sweaty, demanding, low-paying, seemingly never-ending work. Yet even when, almost in spite of himself, Rebanks attends Oxford (his account of which drips with wry bemusement), he tends to his farm work on weekends and holidays and sticks with it even when the possibilities of the “outside world” beckon.

I’d like to think Rebanks has read or at least heard of Wendell Berry, whose writing on farming, community, and modern life echoed in my head as I read The Shepherd’s Life. Odds are Rebanks would feel at home in Berry’s pseudo-fictional community of Port William, and Berry in the Lake District. Both men deploy a simple yet vigorous writing style, the occasional flourish surrounded by spacious prose — not unlike the rural landscapes they inhabit.

Formally educated or not, Rebanks makes good use of the local dialect. Words like heaf, croft, heather, tup, fells, beck, ghyll, and shearling look and sound positively British, and help to ground us in the turf right alongside the sheep. (Check out the names of the fells — my favorite: Barf.) I also liked the book’s four-seasons structure, which, like two other nature books I love (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson), gives readers the energizing feeling of spending a year on the ground with a wise, seasoned guide.

“It’s bloody marvelous,” H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald blurbed on the book’s cover. From one nature writer to another, she was right. Check this one out.

Some Quotes

On what he learned from a terrible experience in school:

This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact that it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.

On physical work:

Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.

On the pull of the landscape:

The landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

On how city life can shortchange us:

I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.

On functional beauty:

My grandfather had an eye for things that were beautiful, like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him with a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow, and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications—namely the end of winter or better weather to come.

 

Photo above from James Rebanks’ Twitter account @herdyshepherd1.

I Ran Here for the Sunrise

I ran here for the sunrise.
I ran here straight down a concrete corridor, a road
slippened by snow,
past a corner store where coffee and pie
rise to life in manifest alchemy.
With my breath steaming in locomotion
I approach the boulderow, a stone sluice
of Sisyphean resolve—bulwark against the lacustrine,
but this morn
like poppy seed cupcakes: ice-glazed
but dangerous.

My feet wedged, bracing and expectant,
I behold the firmament: a mailslot in the sky
flooding upward with milky amber-beams.
An atoll of ice-chunks,
particles scattered and fractal
from the shoreline, reflect the nascent dawn—a chessboard
—king’s to me today.
A man with a coffee mug and no gloves
comes beside me with a camera to capture the departing show.
‘I’ve been all over the world,’ he says, ‘and
this is right in our backyard.’
Revelers, we. Comrades in delight.
We drink our daily cup: mine today
is atmospheric.

A mighty evergreen near us guards the shore,
still wearing its Christmas lights.
Pales.

Fishing for Failure: On Writing’s Pain and Gain

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“Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.” So says Nick Ripatrazone in a wonderful essay at The Millions. I’m inclined to disagree. Writing and fishing, though art forms indeed, feel more often like science projects built for masochists.

Writing and fishing are laborious. They take a lot of time, most of which is spent on the vast empty spaces between brief moments of glory. Often they reward great pains with very little reward, and yield results so infrequently and inadequately that they make their doers question the worth of doing them altogether. Writers and fishers have to be optimistic in order to sit down at the computer, to get into the boat, but they also have to, at the minimum, be ready for pain, and at the maximum derive something of value from it.

I know Ripatrazone knows this, so I’m not trying to criticize something he didn’t say; but as a professional amateur in writing and fishing, I’m much more familiar with the daily, taxing grind of trying not to fail too often than with the exhilaration of encountering true success and beauty.

On the yearly summer fishing trip I take with my dad, we get into the boat every morning and afternoon hoping that it will be a successful day, but knowing it’s possible to strike out completely. We know because it has happened. We pick the perfect bait, motor to the perfect spot, at the perfect time of day, and then—nothing. A ghost lake. We putter along the shore hoping to stir something up, and still—nothing. Cast after cast after cast ad infinitum. Insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, but people who fish call that Thursday.

And yet, we go out again. And the next day. We’re not exactly doing the same thing over and over again since we continually adjust, but we’re still out on the boat, roasting in the sun, throwing out cast after cast after cast ad infinitum. Why? Because we love it, and we have to do it. We don’t expect to haul in huge walleyes with every cast. To do so would rob us of the joy of the experience itself. The joy comes in the hope, the anticipation of the subtle nibble on the leech, which becomes a hooked fish, which becomes a battle to the boat.

But failure can arrive at any time. The fish might not nibble at all, or they might nibble but never bite (or worse, steal the bait). A hooked fish might get tangled in the weeds. A fish being reeled to the boat, fighting for freedom, might snap the line. A fish at the boat and about to be netted might wriggle off its hook and disappear into the water.

Failure, failure, failure. And yet, we do it again.

Kinda sounds like writing. Every sentence can fail. In fact, almost every sentence does fail at some point, deleted or rewritten or slightly adjusted for grammar or effect. And yet we write another sentence and another and another ad infinitum, hoping in the midst of constant defeat that the pain and boredom of these failures will eventually yield something good. A great phrase becomes a sentence. A good sentence leads to another one. A few good ones in a row form a solid paragraph. Cast, cast, cast; write, write, write.

I write because I love it, but I also hate it. It’s hard to fail and fail often, just as it is to cast often and into nothing. But I write because I have to, because as a means of self-expression and self-discovery it comes more naturally to me than most anything else. Because hands on the keyboard for me is as smooth as a paintbrush on canvas for others. And because I’m just enough of a masochist to enjoy it.

(Photo: my longtime fishing lake in northern Wisconsin)

Snow Bank Stories

Alexis-Anderson-puddle

On my block the snow banks reign. They billow with the winter, building girth with every snowfall and polar vortex. This winter has been especially harsh. The banks are bloated with layers of snow that together tell the story of the season. The inch in late November sits at the bottom, hugging the frozen tundra and buttressing the snowfalls that followed: the blizzard before Christmas, the extra inches that welcomed the new year, and every nighttime shower that lubricated the roads and made hell of your commute. I can see all of these snowfalls now in the mounds that flank my neighborhood, bound together like a white pages in an epic novel. Season’s Greetings: The Snows of Winter 2014—coming to a bookstore or e-device near you. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that these paper stories tell time like the rings of a tree, like that from which the stuff of paper comes.

There’s a particular snow story I noticed recently on my block, on an unseasonably warm day. With the sidewalks leading to the street barraged with shoveled snow and many driveway ends flooded with snowmelt, someone had forged a new pathway to the street through a sturdy snow bank. This makeshift staircase, formed by the boot prints of many waylaid walkers, had been fossilized by nightly icings. So long as the cold held, this corridor would too.

But how strange it felt to walk on water! For if it were July and I took this same detour, my feet would not leave the ground. But it is February, and as I climbed this temporary trail to the street, I thought nothing of the miracle it was to walk upon a path made of solidified water.

This will not last. Snow burns just as paper does, and as the temperature rises and the sun burns stronger the stories the snow banks tell will slowly melt away. They will disintegrate and be subsumed back into the muddy earth, where they will atomize and reform as new stories for the spring to tell with a smile. Those wearied by the long winter usually cannot wait to bid it an unceremonious farewell, as if they blame winter for getting in the way of the more marketable spring. But the beautiful stories the spring tells were not earned; they were given. The flowers and the green grass and the robins and the balm of the temperate air owe their existence to the grace of winter, to the unheralded work it performs to prepare the earth for resurrection. It is hard work, but it gets done every year.

It’s winter yet in early March, but I can feel the coming of spring. In this dreary in-between when the cold and snow seem to linger like uninvited guests at party’s end, I don’t despair. Rather, I spend my late- winter days finishing the weighty tome of winter and anticipating how the story of this year will continue in the sequel of spring come April.

To be continued.

Photo by Alexis Anderson.

Dharma Island

If you click the link from John August’s above tweet, you’ll learn, as I did recently, that Disney World used to have a wildlife attraction on their massive property called Discovery Island, which was abandoned in 1999 and left to be overrun by wilderness. Shane Perez, a self-described “urban explorer” and photographer, apparently snuck onto the island in 2009 and took some photos of the deserted exhibits and infrastructure.

The place looks eerily beautiful and, as John August suggested, the absolutely perfect place for Disney to install a Lost-themed attraction in the style of the Dharma Initiative’s digs. They would have to do very little; just install a few hatches, ferry over a VW bus or two, and slap a Dharma logo on everything and it’s set. I’d make a trip to Disney just to see that.

Silence Is Beholden

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I was on a solo hike a few weeks ago on a beautiful northern Californian day in Shasta Trinity National Park. It was a weekday morning, so I had the place to myself. I followed the Waters Gulch trail for about a mile or two as I trekked the path toward Packers Bay. The river (pictured above) was low, exposing the golden sediment beneath the thick green trees. It wasn’t long into the trail when the bustling world outside the Park faded and the world hushed. Though I knew I was walking through a vibrant and wild ecosystem of life in many forms, I was awed by its absolute silence.

Not a car. Not a plane droning above. Just my boots on the gravel. It was divine.

I wanted to capture that moment to take with me back into civilization, but I knew that some moments are better left uncaptured, free to roam on in time for the next eager seeker in need of some bliss. But I think some ought to be documented, if only because places like that — where noise doesn’t intrude on the soothing symphony of nature — are an endangered species.

And that’s why I suspect Gordon Hempton has the best job in the world. He’s an “acoustic ecologist” who records rare nature sounds and the few places on earth where silence still rules. He’s also the founder of One Square Inch of Silence, a research and advocacy project to protect the naturally silent habitats of the Olympic National Park in Washington.

I learned about Hempton through On Being, a podcast hosted by Krista Tippett I recently started listening to. It’s a great interview series featuring makers and doers of many stripes. Some recent guests include a Zen master and poet, a mathematician, a physicist, a pastor, and an oceanographer. Each has their own area of expertise and interest, but what I like about the series so far is how each show, despite the varying subject matter, still lives within the same sphere held together by the centripetal forces of truth, discovery, beauty, and meaning.

Tippett’s conversation with Hempton was so serene and poetic and enlivening. He defines silence not as merely the absence of sound but instead as “silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” He sees the world as a “solar-powered jukebox” and links our modern world’s lack of silence to our inability to listen.

I don’t need an excuse to seek out quiet. My introversion calls for a degree of separation from the world in order to recharge, and often that separation leads me to a quiet place, where I can only hear waves overtaking shoreline rocks, or rain falling on leaves. It’s so hard in an urban setting to escape the noisiness of the world, but it’s important to do so. Quiet, as Gordon Hempton says, is a “think tank of the soul.” We don’t have natural ear-lids for a reason.

Trees Of Life

When was the last time you touched a tree? I see them often, I walk past them, I benefit from their biology every day, but I rarely touch them. They are no longer an inescapable element of our daily mechanized, plastic lives. Perhaps we wanted it that way: the inception of brick and steel and drywall and kerosene and electricity allowed us to downgrade trees from tool and fuel to mere ornamentation. We protect trees now, in reservations and city blocks and forest preserves, but we’ve stopped touching them.

To touch a tree is to touch history. It’s to touch an impossibly, intricately beautiful creation that doesn’t need a plug in a wall for power. It’s to touch the wisdom of years we were born long after and will die soon before. The tree has seen the world and has seen you. The world will continue on without us, but not without the tree.

The tree doesn’t need our touch for validation or survival. It doesn’t need us at all. And that’s why you should touch a tree. Touch them soon and touch them often. Touch them before they figure out everything they do for us and decide they’ve given enough. Soak in by osmosis their total lack of regard for our lives and thank God everyday they think that way, because no one else is telling us how our mountains are really molehills and how we get our daily air.

Give them this day their daily breath, God tells the trees, but let’s see if they ever figure it out.

What is the meaning of life? Touch a tree and see.