Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]

 

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Adorable Aquatic Mammals Of Rainbow Lake

[Castor canadensis. Source: Wikipedia]

beaver n. A large aquatic rodent having thick brown fur, webbed hind feet, a broad flat tail and sharp incisors used for felling trees and building dams.

–The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.)

When late summer arrives here in the North Country and the leaves begin to turn red, gold and yellow, I like to reminisce about the fun facts and involvement I’ve had with the wildlife that is abundant in the Northern Tier of New York State, deep in the Adirondack forest, where animals and plants, from bears to wildflowers flourish.

I’ve written about the fascinating lives of spiders, black flies, mosquitoes, gnats and bees. This year, I’d like to turn my attention to the cuddly little furry critters that scamper about my yard at all hours of the day and night. The squirrels are just so full of life…they scamper about and make cute attempts to scratch holes into our eaves so they can live in our attic. The deer almost seem ready to eat out of my hand as I sit on the front deck. Every time I walk across the tiny little patch of grass that we like to call “our lawn”, I get yet another chance to check my body for ticks.

We don’t see too many bears so I’ll skip them.

But what we have, living in some lodge in some hidden part of this relatively large Rainbow Lake, are a pair of beavers.

So, let’s talk about beavers.  The North American beaver (Castor canadensis) can weigh up to 71 pounds! I got that fact from Wikipedia, so it must be true.

Are they social animals? You bet they are. They come right up from the lake and into our yard. Why just about two months ago, at night, while I slept just a few feet away, one (or both) of the local beavers chewed through and felled my wife’s favorite Poplar tree. I noticed it the next day when I was taking the recycling bags to the garage. There was the tree resting against the house, just outside our bedroom. Actually, the tree (about seven inches in diameter) was resting against our power lines.

This was serious. Our cable TV could have been taken out. How was I going to watch Dancing With The Stars or The Hoarders? We called the National Grid (sounds so Canadian) and within an hour they had the tree down.

Not one moment of interruption of our favorite shows!

But it was not all bad. We gained some useful information about our friends, the beavers. They loved Poplars and Birch. It so happens that I love those trees as well.

So, what did we do? Simple. We caged the trees. Our friend who sells us firewood and does some trimming (his name is Forrest, really) caged our vulnerable trees.

Now, because of those miserable beavers (what were they going to do with our tree, dam the lake?), we have a yard that looks like a display at Disney World.

How attractive is this:

Or this:

Or worse, this:

At least they left these under our dock. Maybe I can find a nice walking stick from this pile:

In search of more beaver lore, I went to The Wild Center in Tupper Lake. There, in a tank, was a beaver. I felt some aggression rise within me. I stared into the beaver’s eyes and said: “You will not conquer me. You will not take out all of our favorite trees on our .5 acre lot. I am still the master of my domaine. Do you hear me through this thick plate glass? I will not be ruled by you!” I suddenly realized that the beaver was stuffed. A small crowd had gathered around me.

“Daddy?!”

“Harriet, take the children to the car.”

“Don’t worry, Timmy, he’s just a grumpy old man…you know, like grandpa was when he became senile.”

I had to save face. I pretended I was a WWI veteran and slowly limped away humming It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.

I can only deal with these little frustrations philosophically. Soon, none of this will matter. The sun will expand to the size of a Red Giant and consume all the inner planets. Or, global warming will flood the Adirondacks.

And, if none of this happens, we’re going to spend the winter in England. I know they have hedgehogs, but I’m not sure about beavers. Hedgehogs don’t build dams, (I don’t think) but the beavers can gnaw away on our wire cages all winter.

At lease I don’t have to build a Wall.

[With the exception of the lead illustration, all photos are mine.]

 

 

An August Omen

Omen n. Something believed to be a sign of good or evil.

–The American Heritage Dictionary

Can you see it? Between the two large trees…behind the birch. I can see it. I first noticed it a few days ago but held-off saying anything about it.

It’s not a cardinal or an oriole.  It’s a leaf. And it’s turning red. So are the few other leaves on the same branch.

I know about omens. For example, I don’t need a crystal ball or magic stick to know that my next flight on American Airlines is going to be painful. Painful because I have two legs and American must assume you won’t need them during your flight. Other than that, I’m Irish and the Irish know omens.

But the leaf omen is telling me something special. It’s a warning from the Weather Gods of the North Country. Leaves, you see, are not supposed to turn color until it’s autumn. That’s the rule I grew up observing when I lived downstate New York.

But its August. August 22 to be exact. Legally, its still Summer. Fall colors are not to be a part of ones life until late September or October. Trick or Treat time, when you walk down the street and kick leaves dressed as a vampire.

So, what does all this mean? It means that WINTER is around the proverbial corner. I mowed the lawn once this summer. I haven’t blown the leaves and pine needles off the roof yet. And, yet, these leaves are telling me something:

“Winter is on the way. Get your snow shovel out and keep it handy.”

(Yes, I listen to the leaves. Is there a problem with that?)

I just put the shovel away in the garage. What am I supposed to do? Things are happening too fast for me. I’m retired. I should be slowing down.

But no. Winter in the North Country is just weeks away. It’s almost September. I predict that before the end of October, I’ll need to bring out the shovel again.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fall colors…all eleven days of them.

 

 

 

 

It Just Isn’t That Simple

I am waging a war here in the North Country. I am waging a war against spiders. I am the General and I am losing. Look, we bought the house in 2000, but the spiders think they are the real owners. That’s eighteen years of warfare. The two World Wars didn’t last that long. Okay, you can talk about the Hundred Year War in Europe, but I’m not a historian and I’m sure it wasn’t about spiders.

I could stop the small weapon action with the whisk broom and rent a power washer. I could blast every shutter and every cornice and every eave. But I would lose. Seven minutes after I drive off to return the power washer, there would be a new spider web being spun, like a never-ending fairy tale. Sometimes I feel like we are living in something like the Addams Family house…or Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Spiders. Living in the woods. Where is Stephen King when we need him?

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

I spotted a cluster of Indian Pipes (Monotrope uniflora) on the path down to our dock. I always thought they were Saprophytes…living wholly off the decayed detritus of the forest floor. But no. I glimpsed something in the New York Times the other day that alluded to the fact that scientists are finding that the way the Pipes get nutrients is more complicated.

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

The other day, my wife, Mariam (this happened on her birthday) was thinking about particle accelerators. She asked me a question about String Theory and it’s relationship to Quantum Physics. (She knew I was a science teacher for 34+ years). I thought about the question for a minute. Then I told her:

“Honey, it just isn’t that simple.”

So, on a recent night, Mariam and I went to a concert.

The second part of the concert featured a world acclaimed pianist. Before she came on stage I looked up at the piano she was going to play. It was one large piano, a concert Steinway Grand…about the size of a ’49 Cadillac. If it wasn’t for its odd shape (like a piano) it reminded me of the coffin that Andre The Giant was buried in.

[Full disclosure: My son, Brian, lives not very far from the Steinway & Sons factory (when they built them in Queens). He has no connection with the Steinway company so I’m not sure why I’m disclosing this].

We were in the second row. Great seats except you couldn’t see the pianists hands working the keyboard (music terms)…but then again you couldn’t see anything on that stage because of the size of that piano.

She played the piece with total abandon and gusto. It was breath taking…except I couldn’t take my eyes off the collar of the guy in the front row. It was not straight. He was there with his wife (she sat in front of me) and two children.

My first thought was what kind of wife was she? She let her husband go out into public with a messed up collar. Then she leaned forward. A tag on her blouse (shirt, top…whatever) was sticking up. I thought what kind of husband was he, letting his wife go out in public with a tag showing in her mid back.

I considered making a deal with Mariam (she admitted being distracted by his collar after I brought it to her attention), that she could lean forward and straighten out his collar while I tucked the tag inside her top.

We were conflicted. Mariam rejected the idea.

I took another sip of Chardonnay from the ‘sippy-cup’ and settled back to listen to the last movement of a piano concerto.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off the couple in front of us. He was clearly in love with his wife. He kept looking at her and even stroked her arm. She paid little attention to his attention…she chewed gun during the concert.

Was this a dysfunctional family?  Did she really love him?

Then I looked at the two children they made together. The daughter was a pretty 18-year-old with freshly washed auburn hair. The boy was a well-behaved ten-year-old who sat patiently through a concert that he probably didn’t really want to attend. But this couple, with his collar and her tag, were responsible for their very existence.

I guess some things are just not that simple.

 

Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

I Caught The Eye Of The Groom In The Brussels City Hall.

[Only a part of the Grand Place.]

Unaware Americans. Yes, that’s who we were when we arrived in Brussels. Yes, that’s how I felt when we arrived here.

Mapless.

I need to know the urban geography of any place I am in.  But, I had no idea about this city.  Changing the B&B we left to come to the Marriott was a great shift in plans. I could sleep cool and not suffer night sweats.

Besides we were closer to the city center and the city action. At first we thought we were on the main Central Place…but this afternoon, in a very light rain, we walked toward a steeple that had caught my eye.

When we got there we found it not a great cathedral or church but the Town Hall.

I watched as the middle-aged bride and groom passed and went into the room to be married. The Groom and I had eye contact.  It lasted several seconds…a long time in this kind of situation. I smiled and gave him a slight salute, he nodded and smiled into my eyes.  He noticed me…a nobody…on his way to middle-aged wedding. Mariam and I were married in our middle years. There was something about this man who, probably my age or more, saw in me and my wife the contentment that he was wishing for in his middle-age nuptials.

In my heart, I wished him the best of luck. I didn’t think I should take a picture. I wish I did.

But instead, I took some photos of the Grand Place.

We leave for London tomorrow morning.

Good-bye, Brussels…..and whomever the groom was, the one who caught my eye…I wish him and his bride the very best of luck…and the very best of a marriage at this time in their lives.

Bon voyage, my friends.

[All photos are mine.]

The “Popcorn” Man

[The Street Vender. Photo is mine.]

At first I thought he was selling a popcorn necklace. He would walk up and down the rows of diners, whose tables (here in Paris) always face the streets. And he would peddle his “popcorn” necklaces to those at the tables that were closest to the sidewalk.

Yes, I thought he was selling “popcorn” necklaces. If I bought one, would I eat it for dessert as I walked home? He seemed to be at every restaurant on the Boulevard St. Germain.

The more I saw the man, the more I thought about his life. I lived in New York City for almost three decades so I thought I knew about street/restaurant venders. Mostly those individuals sold roses, or played Do-Wop, or simply held out an old Greek coffee cup that all the delis and hot dog guys sold coffee in.

They held out their empty cups.  I had no way to discern whether or not they were truly “homeless”, truly “veterans”, truly in need. I had to go on instinct. Was this just a pan-handler (and there are more and more on the streets of New York) or someone truly in need of two quarters or three dimes.

So, I thought more about the “popcorn” man as the days went by. People rarely bought anything from him. I would watch him work the rows of diners. Most paid him no attention.

I thought about him at night when I couldn’t sleep. I thought about him when I walked through the Louvre. I thought about him when I sat and contemplated Notre Dame.

What was his life like?  Did he go home after his rounds? Who gave him the necklaces to sell? Did he have a family? Did he have to sell his wares to feed his children? Was he a widower who went home alone to an empty flat? Was he a happy man? Did he hold dark secrets in his heart?  Was he even married?

But, the real question that kept looming in my mind was quite simple.

Was this man lonely? Was his only human contact with those who pretended he wasn’t even there or brushed him off as an annoyance to their Parisian dinner?

When I looked at him, I tried to work out his life…but, clearly, that was an impossible task.

Until tonight.

I made sure we were seated up front, near the sidewalk. I had my iPhone. I wanted to ask him his name. I wanted to take his photo. I wanted to make some kind of contact.

And, I wanted to buy the necklace of “popcorn”.  I would eat it, as dessert on the way back to the hotel.

I nearly gave up on finding him.  Then, there he was. Four tables away. Then three.

Finally, he stopped at our table. I indicated that I’d like to buy his merchandise. He smiled and sold me the necklace for 3 euros.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bangladesh,” he replied.

Before he could walk away…before I could ask his name, I asked what it was that I just bought. From the first touch I knew it wasn’t popcorn.

[The Jasmine Necklace. The Photo is mine.]

“It’s Jasmine. Jasmine flowers,” he said as he walked off, moving on to another restaurant. Ten seconds after we had spoken, I lost him among the the pedestrians.

Now our room is filled with the scent of Jasmine.

I’d like to think (maybe it’ll help me sleep) that I made a quiet street vendor smile, even for a second, and fall asleep to the scent of Jasmine.