Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Solitary Life

In Thoreau’s Walden, he says, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

It’s probably the most famous quote from Thoreau’s journals, written in the mid-1840s right after he built a small 10x15 cabin on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s woodlot. Millions of people since then have taken it as the clarion call for a stab at their own mystical wilderness experiences, and a fine set of words they are. But the truth is, as deliberate a life as he might have lived, as solitary as he may have been, secluded he was not.

His rude cabin on the shores of Walden Pond was a mere mile and a half from Concord, and within calling distance of a spot where two active roads converged. Emerson allowed him to build his cabin in exchange for some work around the 14-acre property—namely clearing away brush and replanting trees--and Thoreau used his time there to write.

He was not a hermit, even though he called himself one fairly often in his writings. Turns out it was tongue-in-cheek, even though, again, the legend lives on. He was a mere 23 years old when he moved to Walden Pond, and he lived there for only two years before moving into Emerson’s house in town.

When I was younger and locked away in the city, I read Walden (and later, Civil Disobedience, when "disobedience" against the ruling factions was still seen as our patriotic right, if not our duty).

In the midst of the chaos of my young life, the thought of living so simply in a small cabin in the woods was heartbreakingly seductive. Thoreau did it when he was broke and without a job, and it worked for him—yes it did. So why not? And during a fair number of fleeting moments, I worked at devising an escape plan that would take me away and plunk me down in a Walden Pond of my own.

Apparently I wasn’t alone. I swear, it’s what kept multitudes of us city-dwellers going. So imagine my surprise when I discovered just how close to town Walden Pond really was? How unlike any kind of wilderness Thoreau’s setting really was? Instantly, I thumbed my nose at him—lousy dilettante!—and dropped him from my then nearly-stagnant list of role models.

I looked on his writings then as silly (Cultivate the habit of early rising. It is unwise to keep the head long on a level with the feet) and puffy (I stand in awe of my body)—an ode to his unworthy self. Who did he think he was, anyway? Well, it turns out he was a writer, and a pretty good one. That’s why the longevity. (Consider this: Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business. And this: Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.)

He was a blogger of his time, and I can’t help but imagine a 23-year-old Henry writing about his simple life today:

“Pulled up some weeds this AM, and got a couple rows of beans planted. Jeez, what a job! How’d I get into this, anyway? Oh, yeah, now I remember. Waldo’s fault. He says, “Want to build you a house on my property over there? You can blog yourself to death, and all I want is some of that brush cleared and a few trees going in.”

So I said, Cool! It’s quiet there. Nobody to bother me while I’m thinking thoughts. I said, throw in WiFi and you got yourself a deal!”

Look here for more on Henry David Thoreau.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Boats and Ships, Lakers and Salties

One day I was sitting on my Sittin’ Rock looking out on the bay, and it suddenly came to me that if I had a boat big enough, I could shove off from our dock, go around the bend to the shipping channel, follow it into Lake Huron and then head down through the St. Clair River, across Lake St. Clair, down the Detroit River to Lake Erie, onward east into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and finally float into the Atlantic Ocean. From there I could sail the world’s seas to parts so exotic even the National Geographic would marvel at the stories I would have to tell.

I could do that—though, sincerely? I never really would. Still, it’s pretty thrilling to think that the seemingly placid waters in front of our cabin could, in fact, carry us to the far reaches of the entire planet.

From our island ferry dock and all along the St. Mary’s River system we see Salties from all over the world passing upbound to go through the Soo Locks into Lake Superior or heading downbound, following that winding route to the ocean again. (Proof that my plan is workable.) Some of them are incredibly beautiful, while others look like hard times and rough seas have just about done them in.

They ply these waters alongside our own Lakers and sometimes it’s a toss-up over which of them is more wondrous. Our Great Lakes boats can reach lengths of 1000 feet or better—the length of three football fields and then some. Their size is just amazing--a sight we never get used to.

(I’ll stop here for a bit of trivia: 1. Ocean-going vessels (Salties) are called “ships”, while Great Lakes vessels (Lakers) are always called “boats”. 2. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system runs 2038 nautical miles, from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth, Minnesota, and encompasses all of the Great Lakes. More facts here.)

We can’t see the channel from our cabin, so we can’t watch the boats from here, but sometimes in the fog we hear their urgent horns. The first time I heard them, I felt a little heart-tug, remembering the huge fog horn on the Coast Guard Station at Five Mile Point on Lake Superior, near the cabin owned by my Aunt and Uncle. It was a two-note horn, OooAaa, OooAaa; over and over, far into the night, lulling us to sleep, with us not giving a single thought to boats possibly being in danger, steering clear of the direction of those horns. There was a kind of eerie romance about them and when the fog horns were gone from the lakes, having given way to a quieter technology, it took us years to stop listening for them in the fog.

The boats have a language of their own—a series of boat whistles that is a form of talking to each other. We landlubbers love hearing them, and we keep a horn blast glossary so that we know what’s going on. One long and two short means they’re greeting (or saluting) one another. One long at two minute intervals or less means they’re moving in fog or snow. One short, one long, one short means they’ve anchored in reduced visibility, and five or more quick short blasts means the threat of imminent danger.

For the past couple of years, there has been a lottery to win a trip on one of the Lakers, and twice now I’ve bought tickets hoping to get my husband on one of those boats. That’s his dream—to ride along with those crews and experience the wonder of those massive carriers. But he’s not alone there. How can anybody watch those beautiful boats silently glide by and not want to be on board?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

Today is Independence Day--better known these days as “The Fourth of July”. In 1776 it was the day the 13 British Colonies officially became independent states, and it was unequivocally a Big Day for America. So why do we call it “The Fourth of July” and not “Independence Day”? It’s become the day for picnics, parades and fireworks, and any thought of our Founding Fathers and what they accomplished is pretty much left in the celebratory dust. That’s pretty sad. But I get a little giddy and my heart beats a little faster at the thought of the hundreds of millions of American flags—from the tiniest to the most outrageously ostentatious--flying freely, wildly, proudly today.

It’s the one thing I love about our modern-day Independence Day celebrations—all that flag-flying. Our flag is the most stunningly beautiful in the entire world, without question (at least to me and most Americans). It’s a brilliant concept, in that the original 13 colonies and all 50 states are represented. The colors couldn’t be better. The overall pattern—stars and stripes—is a purely original, radically clever design. It’s perfect.

We’re from the old school here when it comes to flag etiquette. The flag never touches the ground, and when it’s worn, it’s replaced and the old one is either burned or given to the American Legion, where it’s disposed of properly. (One thing we don’t do is keep a light on our flags at night—a Big No-No according to our grandson, who is definitely from the young school but still knows all about it.)

We go through flags pretty quickly here, what with the howling north winds doing a constant number on them, but I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that the majority of the flags sold today are made in the USA. Hooray for that!

If I have one gripe, it’s that too many times our flag is used strictly commercially as a come-on. That’s sacrilege to me. I hate seeing huge, building-sized American flags flying over businesses. Our flag is a national treasure and very nearly a sacred symbol to a whole lot of us, and to see it relegated to the role of advertising gimmick gives me chills--and not in a good way.

I don't want our flag diminished in any way by using it for purposes never intended. But it’s one of those things I’ll have to get over, because I see it’s done more and more. And I don’t want to be a curmudgeon about it—especially on this day.

Happy Independence Day and have a great Fourth of July.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sunrise, sunset, silhouettes

I love sunsets, I love sunrises, and I absolutely love silhouettes. But I have to admit I never gave much thought before to how all three of my loves are intertwined. I think the revelationsunriseHorizonEast.jpg came when I started to get serious about photography. I’ve always had a camera with me, and I’ve always taken pictures, but since I've gotten both a digital camera and a Photo-enhancer computer program, I’m paying more attention to how lighting and composition can make art out of a snapshot. (No, I’m not an artist. I think of my “art” as a kindergartner thinks of finger painting. Hey, look what I did! I like it! Woohoo!)

sunset.jpgAnyone who knows me can tell you that I’m a nut for sunrise and sunset pictures. I’ve taken hundreds of them, and I’ll bore people with them every chance I get. I have so many, I often can't even remember where they were taken. (This one I know…it’s off of my deck looking west northwest.) Sometimes I don’t even know if the picture I’m looking at is a sunrise or a sunset. But I can see now that those older pictures are sterile and actually pretty uninteresting. That’s because there is no framing. And that’s where those wonderful silhouettes come in.

BlueHeron.jpgIn the early days when I took sunrise/sunset pictures, I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the beauty before me. I zeroed in on the spectacle and took snap after snap as the sun either rose or set. I, in effect, genericized the bloody things. Now I look to see how I can frame it, and since it’s usually either still dark or getting dark, everything I see is a silhouette.

grandislandoverlook.jpgIn fact, with the right backlighting, silhouettes can appear anywhere. I love the idea that I can make out what something is, even if it’s totally black, simply by its shape. And I have to believe my appreciation comes directly from watching sunrises and sunsets all of my life.

So why didn’t I see this before? I’ve always been crazy for silhouettes, ever since the teacher stood me against a wall, shined a light on me, and drew my profile on black construction paper. (My mom framed it. It’s around here somewhere, so don't be surprised if it suddenly appears here one day. It looks just like me. Uncanny.)