Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

An Open Letter to H.D. Thoreau


Henry,

I am afraid that the world has become a much noisier place than when you were living on Walden Pond. We have not listened to your words. I visited your old stomping grounds yesterday. It was a cool muggy day, overcast and threatening rain.  I teach your work to my students. We plant beans in your memory.

I stopped at Emerson’s house first as you would as well, where they talked far more about the portraits on the walls than about Emerson’s ideas, which is a shame, because I don’t think anyone really reads the man any longer. No time.   As you know, one was of Sumner, the friend who was beaten on the Senate floor for his positions on slavery. “Beaten, like yelled at?” someone asked. “No,” the guide replied, “beaten like hit. I think with a bat.” It was a cane, but that’s a small detail.  APUSH students love the story—who doesn’t like the story of a good fight for what you believe?  APUSH is all about memorizing dates and facts for attest at the end of the year; Alcott would not approve.  There is no recess in APUSH, no experiential learning. They read, listen, take notes. In some ways, things have not changed much since you were in school, Henry.

After lunch, I went to your grave. There was Emerson’s huge rock, dominating the ridge as he dominated the transcendental scene. And Louisa May, tucked in with her family.  Yours was buried in flowers and blocked by three people arguing over the national political scene. It’s bad, Henry. No one was been caned on the Senate floor—yet—but it’s ugly. In some ways, I think you all would feel right at home reading the national news. But you would never argue over tactics in the cemetery! Between the discussion and the road repair that was happening down the hill, I fled.

There’s now a trail over to your cabin. I know you came in and out of town via the railroad, but walking on or near the tracks isn’t legal any longer—someone might be hit and sue the railroad. We have become even more litigious than we were in early New England! So they put in a trail that wanders through the local wetland and by a bean field. The bean rows were straight and free of weeds. Someone had gone in with a tractor to cultivate that field, rather than using a hand hoe. Why? Time spent cultivating beans, knowing beans, is time well spent in philosophical thought.  But there it is, a perfect bean field. Well, almost. It had been flooded by rain last week. Your personal field has been taken over by third growth and returned to the woodlot.

Dog walkers like your trail, Henry. And women with phones do, too. This is the strangest thing. People now walk down a trail talking to someone miles away—this woman was talking to someone on another continent!—rather than watching for the wintergreen blossoms by the side of the path. You may even see two friends together, both looking at their phones, not at each other. We are a distracted society. We need your simplicity more now than ever.

People love your cabin. There is a broad path to the door—or the eight posts that mark the location in the woods. They write comments in the guest book like “the perfect house” and then head for the gift shop.  A ranger was lecturing a bunch of pre-college kids about your relationship with Louis Agassiz when I was there. Loudly. They wanted to add rocks to the pile by your door. That pile has grown since E B White was there; it is no longer a small ugly pile, but a large ugly pile.

But then they all left and I was able, for the first time all day, to hear the forest around you. There are still mid-summer birds and insects, the rustle of the leaves in the trees, the sound of pencil on paper in your little clearing, Henry. The pond is still there—no loons today—with a path down to where you gathered your water. In the near distance, the train still calls as it leaves town, but I think it is going faster now. And it is, still, just far enough away to block the sounds of humanity rushing about their lives, but close enough to walk into town to talk with a friend, one on one and face to face.




Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What I love about the South.

What I love about The South—the northern South, to be clear.

1.       Sides. Sides are the best dining idea ever! In Pacific Northwest parlance, you choose your protein—fried catfish, meatloaf, pork chops—and then two or three sides, which range from reasonably healthy, like collard greens or pickled beets, to deep fried okra or sweet potato French fries. Mac and cheese is a side. You can also just order sides if you are not too hungry.   Sides allow you to customize your dinner perfectly. And southerners have way more choice than other parts of the country. If the Lusty  Bun diner ever existed, it would have southern sides.

2.       Iced tea. It comes in big red plastic glasses, semi-transparent.  You can get it sweet or un, or, the best, half and half. With lemon. And the waitress calls you honey when she serves it.  It’s not strongly caffeinated, so it is safe to drink until afternoon.

3.       Night. Summer nights wrap around you, warm and humid. Moths fly into your tea if you leave it untended. Insects call. Fireflies float through the air. If it’s been hot, it cools down a bit. The air smells, too. Of river, or trees, or skunks or rain… Night makes up for the bake-y heat of the car when it has been sitting in the parking lot too long.

4.       Voices. Southern voices are slower, more calm, than northern voices.


5.       Time. Maybe it’s just Kingsport, where Mark is from, but Eastern Tennessee seems like a step back in time. I’m not sure exactly when, but at least to 1975. Sometimes earlier.  The buildings, the signs, the interiors, even some of the smells…they all remind me of my childhood. Objects that would have been replaced ten or more years ago in Oregon are still around, still being used.  It is haunting. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Kansas!


Kansas is an amazing place! Everything in American history washed through the state at some point and there is probably a small town museum that mentions it. And it is beautiful. Just beautiful. 

“Kansas was once part of the great inland sea, “a woman with a Mennonite cap informed us in the Oakley Museum. There was a local ranch where thousands of fossils were discovered in excellent shape, so many that the woman of the place, who was an artist, incorporated the bits and pieces into her paintings. “You can see them, with vertebra for the tree trunks and small shells for petals on the flowers.” She pointed the way. “And the big fossils are around the corner.“ We examined the paintings, then headed around the corner. And there was an eight foot long complete amphibian fossil, bigger than any we had ever seen-- and we just came from Dinosaur National Monument. Amazing!

At the next museum, we found the iconic photographs of the Dust Bowl rolling into Scott City, the ones that are in the Timothy Egan’s book that I assigned a few years ago. We saw the buildings that the dust covered-- ate lunch in one. We examined photographs of the Jack Rabbit Round-ups, when they caught 10,000 rabbits in one day, because they were eating any green plant that survived the drought. Ten thousand in one day and they held regular ups. Another display described the life of Zora Hurst, one of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. the Board of Education. She went to school in Oakley, which was integrated because the population was so small. As we headed down the road, I began to remember all of the history that happened in this state: the westward movement that started out in Kansas City, the debates over free and slave states that circled around the borders, the beginnings of the grange and populist movements of the nineteenth century. All of it happened right here, in the middle of the country.

The next day, we wandered over the Tall Grass prairies. The Nature Conservancy, working with the National Parks, purchased an old ranch and began to preserve some of the land as prairie. It had not been plowed, but grazed by cattle. First we explored the buildings, the fancy, modern for the time barns and the house, then we headed out to the grasslands. Bison grazed on the far hilltops. Flowers bloomed-- some that we knew, some that we did not. We examined the bloom patterns, commenting on how the tiny flowers began at the bottom of the stalk and opened upward. “There’s a name for that,” Mark muttered. Birds flew around our heads. Clouds covered the sky and a breeze dried the sweat on our backs. Some lovely. So quiet. 

And then, both nights, we had HUGE thunderstorms. They began with heat lightning at dusk and slowly built to full on, hour long storms, constantly flashing and rumbling. We laid snug in the Ark, listening to the rains pound on the roof. It was impossible to sleep. I understood, perhaps,why Kansas has always been so strong minded and contrary-- they may just be short on sleep from the summer storms. They were incredible. 

We left the state reluctantly, wishing we had planned several more days to explore the border towns, like Fort Scott, where we found a preserved downtown and the old fort when we stopped to hunt for a bathroom one evening. But we had miles to go, literally, before we slept and we pushed on. We may need to go back.