Frantic

A touch of July Fourth patriotism amidst the neighbor’s coleus.

Madness reigns throughout nature as midsummer passes.  Everything not yet hatched is racing to do so.  Annuals are greedily sucking moisture from the ground, handicapped this year by a pretty nasty drought.  Trees are already in full foliage glory, building limbs and roots to survive for years to come.  A glance each cool morning, a stroll each sultry afternoon, a reflection each evening shows ongoing activity.  Once in a while huge storms shake the soul.

As always, it is easy to run everything through our amazing anthropomorphic filters.  Sun and thunderstorm perform like gods to amaze us.  Weeds invade carefully cultivated flower beds.  Insects display resilient determination, butterflies float happily, bees work industriously.  Children and even aged adults invent entire mythologies which interpret and explain complex behaviors and interactions.

Bucolic suburban street scene seems mostly nature

On the ground grass has already browned here and there.  Summer flowers bloom cascading crescendos, each niche attracting particular pollinators.  Fruits begin to ripen on berry bushes and apple trees.  Cultivated perennials like hibiscus and roses are everywhere, uncultivated invaders like ragweed and bamboo carpet vacant lots.  From one week to another views transform completely as if the world is one a giant stage set.

Robins hop randomly for worms.  Swallows swoop ceaselessly over meadows.  Dragonflies are beginning to show, lightning bugs arrived a few weeks ago, bees wonder what all the fuss is about.  Dreaded mosquitoes and ticks are about to become real nuisances, and in deep woods or late evening on the beach gnats crazily seem to aim for our eyes and ears.  “No See Ums,” native Americans supposedly named them, very appropriately.

Harbor waters have begun to turn murky with algae; seaweed arrives in increasing abundance with each high tide.  Horseshoe crabs are almost done annual rituals, but still ply shallow waters.  A few tiny schools of tiny fish flash about, safe from bigger fish so far, but easy prey for egrets and diving terns.  Fortunately, no stinging jelly fish pulsating almost invisibly.  And tremendous events underwater, where none of us can see.

Backyard gardeners create niches resembling corners of Versailles

People are part of nature too, of course, and desperately try to retain their own seasonal rituals.  But this year has been difficult, with pandemic fears and “social distancing” even in parks and beaches, more crowded than usual.  Everyone adapts more or less, but fondly remembered last year seems as distantly alien as the last days of the Roman Empire.  Yet children play in the water, run on the sand, yell in the back yard, stare at ladybugs or caterpillars on a leaf, flinch from a huge spider.  Much remains the same.  A big change is that adults, usually worn down from work and just wanting to relax a little by doing nothing while on vacation, are more bored and restless and search for something interesting to do.

Lazy hazy crazy days are genuinely here.  Summer has begun, fireworks light the sky, and we regretfully begin the long slide to autumn.  Already nights descend sooner, foliage darkens, birds have finished nesting.  Over two months of glorious days to go, yet already a melancholic undertone becomes perceptible.

Lightning Bugs

Should take pictures of bugs, but midsummer flowers are so beautiful

Arthropods _ including insects _ are the most diverse and most populous of the “higher” animal organisms.  They are all very strange creatures.  It is hard to imagine we share the same DNA foundation, and are cousins some multi-eons back.  Some _ like mosquitoes _ I could quite well do without.  Others _ like bees _ are helper friends and I worry about their survival.  And then there are multitudes _ like butterflies and lightning bugs _ that “simply” add beauty and wonder to our world.

Late June of each year arrives with the surprising emergence of lightning bugs.  There is no sign of them until suddenly one evening, perhaps as I take out trash, there are sparks glittering here and there.

Blooms attract insects, and I am willing to not spray and accept any losses.

Sometimes I need to look twice to be sure it is not an illusion.  And then more and more arrive as days go on.  Their patterns zoom about, and like an evening fog their luminescence lifts higher and higher as darkness prevails, beginning level with the grass, ending the evening up near the top of trees.  Where and how these mysterious creatures spend their days and the winter I have little idea, although once in a while one of them may do the equivalent of a flying stumble during daylight.

They are a wonderful reminder of childhood.  Catching them is easy enough, three-year-olds master the simple upward scoop in no time.  Cruel-five-year-olds have learned to dismember them and paste glowing globs on arms and face.  Into early adolescence, some kids put them in jars for “study,” all too frequently and tragically forgotten.

These lilies are being destroyed by an invasive orange beetle

Pesticides, children, lawn mowers, birds, whatever _ how can they ever survive?  Yet they do, reminding us once again of the amazing persistence and regenerative capacities of nature.  A few bugs become multitudes in no time _ again witness those mosquitoes.  Some of them may even adapt quickly so that sprays no longer affect.  I continue to lament what seems a dearth of old reliables _ where are the tent caterpillars and gypsy moths and monarch butterflies of yesteryear? _  but some of the old ecology somehow continues.

Perhaps I am too old to attach much meaning to this.  Each day is a miracle, with wonderful treasures still available if I open my senses.  Lamentation of what used to be, fear of what may arrive are less my concern than when I was younger and presumably had more power.  A thrill of discovery, of unexpectedly finding nature renewed, another summer marked, are enough.  Whatever may come, lightning bugs are here now.

Unnoticed millipedes and ground crawlers love cool shade under ferns.

False optimism, you may shout.  Guilty as charged.  Some may approach each evening grimly aware that all is an illusion.  We are doomed to die when we are born.  There is much wrong with the world.  Even more seems to be getting worse by the hour.  And nobody listens to our lament.  But _ there goes another flash _ and my mercurial mind is once again turned to happy memories renewed.

Poisons

An all too common sign around our neighborhood.

I’ve lived immersed in poisons.  Some of them were natural _ evolution handled most of those toxic effects.  We should note that nature itself presents many toxins, from elements like arsenic and uranium to toxins from venomous animals,  to deathly fungal mushrooms and hemlock plants . But the last century has been one long miasma of newly discovered and created chemicals, usually claimed to be harmless, but nobody knew for sure, and certainly nobody knows right away. 

Those sublimely remembered good old days of the fifties were an immense waste dump.  Everyone figured of one pound of something useful (like DDT) worked well, five pounds would work even better.  Pesticides, herbicides, and unconstrained byproducts of processes old and new poured into the environment.  Fish and birds died en masse.  Babies developed strange maladies.  Adults were exposed to coal dust, asbestos, industrial cleaning agents.  Wearing gloves or masks (or even following directions) was for wimps.  Streams ran black, smog obscured cityscapes, any unused patch of ground could be used as a dump for old oil, paint, or unknown liquids. 

Nevertheless nature seems to do ok, even in this junk drainage behind a drugstore.

In these strange new days, it seems everyone is increasingly scared of chemicals.  Never mind that everything is built of chemicals _ any of them must be bad.  Why, just look how horrible their names sound!  So we have “organic” and “cleansing” and some fairly obscure witchcraft practices to deal with.  Meanwhile, my same neighbors who would never touch a regular old apple happily spray their yards and homes, accept combustion products from yard machines, and drink bottled “pure spring water” contaminated with plastic molecules.  I sometimes think masses of people have simply been “reeducated” from one set of ignorances to another.

Mea Culpa

Enumerating poisons in our environment is useless, especially when we remember that just about everything is a poison in strength _ even water.  And it is hard to make a case that we must avoid their use entirely _ mosquitoes are annoying and a health risk, herbicides do feed the planet.  What bothers me is the unthinking contradictions I see around me.  People trying to cut out poisons in foods, for example, while dumping them around and in their homes.  To be honest, I think we do use somewhat less per capita than my parents’ generation, but on the other hand there are so many more capitas these days, which is a heavy load on the natural environment.

From here, the environment seems just dandy.

Is there some reasonable solution?  Sure _ less people.  Well … yeah … but …  That’s the trouble, every solution has too many residual problems.  Conservation would be nice, environmental awareness is great _ but everyone seems to want that boat or to have the ability to fly to some vanishing bit of jungle elsewhere in the world.  I saw a crowd the other day staring and photographing a once-common big yellow butterfly as if it were a rare creature _ and today it is, perhaps to be gone in a year or so.

A concentration of people into cities might be helpful.  Keeping the poisons we use constrained into small geographic areas would be the best outcome.  Farms as we know them may already be giving way to robotic workers and different ways of raising things like meat.  Meanwhile I’m enjoying my last few years admiring what remains, and trying to keep my own poison requirements as low as possible.

Fresh Eyes

Red maple leaf floating on branch, like me one of uncounted and unnoticed uniquely similar to all the others.

A simple leaf lies next to the keyboard.  Unlike most springtime foliage, it is a dark red, from a maple tree in our front yard.  There are five perfect toothed lobes, main vein down the center of each, lesser lines branching off.  It is small, still perfect, undamaged by insects.  It displays a miracle complete in itself.  It represents infinite miracles of my cosmos.  I usually ignore it, and almost everything else.

To combat complacency, I force myself to adjust my vision.  Seeing with “fresh eyes” requires a different kind of concentration _ immersion in sensation rather than logic.  Academic descriptions are not sufficient.  Ecstasy of the moment requires removal of blinders which I must normally use to ignore all except which is “important” or “necessary.”  When I open to detailed appreciation, I may be too blinded, stunned, and helpless to get out of the way of an oncoming truck.

Just another tree, just another day, just another practical miracle.

When counting one by one, anything over a hundred is practical infinity.  This leaf is one of an infinite number on a tree that has been in our yard at least fifty years, maybe more.  It was mature when we moved in, thirty years ago.  I confess I often notice it only when avoiding branches while mowing, or cutting back ivy underneath, or raking leaves in the fall.  Most mornings I try to pay respect _ the images of foliage change dramatically in early sun, late sun, moon, clouds, fog, rain, wind, snow and every other possible meteorological condition and combination of effects.  But usually, it is just another tree in another suburban yard.

At this level, it is well to avoid deeper meditations.  Yes, this single leaf implies our entire universe.  Yes, I can imagine billions of years of evolution, thousands of years of human history, my very life and meaning _ all if I pursue logical trails of why and how this leaf exists here and now.  But fresh eyes require a different perception of surface beauty,  uncomplicated by intelligence and knowledge.

Common ragweed in front of a common view of a regular old harbor.  Wow.

Visual artists try to communicate that mystery.  Successful artists begin by experiencing the overwhelming majesty of some selected viewpoint.  They manage the difficult translation to some media that is itself mysterious and beautiful.  Full achievement of that goal is doomed, but the artist has also been rewarded with the ecstasy of creative involvement.

A rose is a rose is a rose.

Looking at art is exactly what we do to refresh our eyesight.  When I walk out of a museum, I often perceive the world anew, in different colors and combinations.  For a few moments, blinders are in my pocket.  I perceive colors in shadows, or forms in outline,  or abstractions of light.  Often I simply pay attention to what I have missed.

And another fine view.

As an elder, I try to experience the world as if I were a child.  Amazement reigns.  A leaf, a tree, a butterfly can be enchantment.  In this fortunate state of mind, an often grumpy outlook has been redirected such that life seems gloriously new.  Our mind is always capable of casting illusions onto “reality,” fresh eyes help shape those filters into happiness. 

Fumes

Fossil-fueled boats pollute water and air; these have no economic purpose.

Modern civilization is fashioned of fossil fuels.  Coal and oil have enabled infrastructure, technology, and living standards for masses of people that were only dreamed of by tiny elites a few hundred years ago.  Realization that heavy use destroys the biosphere has hardly made a dent on emissions.  We enjoy our current conveniences and want to continue eating in the style to which we have become accustomed.  Complacent inertia strips mountainsides and pumps holes to spew carbon ubiquitously.

Almost infinite conflicting predictions concern changes ushered in by this pandemic.  I forlornly hope it becomes the proverbial “whap alongside the head” that knocks sense into society.  In particular, I wish our excessive use of combustion would slack off.  Recent health, economic, and social crises could help us to move on.  Imagine a world without internal combustion engines, few jet airplanes, many windmills and solar panels, insulated “green” homes and offices _ cleaner air each year.  And, yes, we could still work, eat, and be entertained.

Roses bloom as much of life continues heedless of possible catastrophe.

Progression in that direction has been going on for some time.  Texas produces huge quantities of wind energy, homes are sheathed in solar panels, electric vehicles are mandated in places like China and Europe.  Various technologies proclaim breakthroughs week by week.  Younger generations had already rediscovered the joys of living in energy-efficient apartments in cities. The cost of “renewable” energy has been dropping dramatically.  But there seemed to be a very long slog ahead, simply because society was used to multiple vehicle households, high heating and cooling bills, work that demanded frequent travel, and all the other assumed requirements of life.   

We are as guilty as the next guy, appreciating our heat and air conditioning

Biology has a term called “punctuated equilibrium” which describes what may be happening.  Little changes keep creeping into an organism, until some dramatic environmental event makes a few of these changes so useful that its owner becomes dominant.  For example, if people begin to work a few days from home, there will be no need to own more than one car.  If trips are shorter and less frequent, small electric vehicles work just fine.  If solar panels lower energy bills at home and office they will multiply. 

All of such changes have cascading effects on industry.  Electric utility companies already notice a drop in power demand, but if homes really start to go off-line, the cost of maintaining an electric network of wires and transmission stations becomes exorbitant.  If fewer cars are used less often, the underfunded road network will wither and encourage rail bulk transport.  Work from home is likely for service industries, electronic connections finally leap to prominence over face to face business travel.  Many factories (filled with robotic labor) will relocate to places like deserts where solar power is cheap and frequently available.  The list is long and strange.  And once started, the progression is self-sustaining.  It becomes too expensive and annoying to fight trends _ just like the replacement of horse-drawn transportation in a decade or so. 

It would be foolish indeed to ever ignore beauty.

Although I hate yard crews because of noise, they are indicative of hopeful home trends  _  renting or sharing power equipment.   The same is true of using cleaning services.  Home delivery of goods is more power efficient than multiple individual vehicles making short trips.  Solar panels, efficient lighting, decent insulation and windows all cut down on energy use and save money.  These and other similar issues are all of a nature that becomes more asymptotically common _ fads which are good for the environment.  All of these have been given a giant boost by the pandemic lockdown.

Anyway, I am breathing clearer this year.  The air has rarely seemed so delicious.  Admittedly, in the last few weeks, traffic has returned and mowers and blowers resumed their roars.  Peace and quiet gone with the return of economic activity.  As everything gets back to “normal” I fear that all my hopes and dreams are only hopes and dreams after all.  We have learned nothing.

More boats stretch to the horizon, forces greater than I are involved.

What nature remains seems to have adapted anyway.  I realize that my little locality does not represent the world, and my personal observation is hardly universal.  Yet local extinctions seem to have occurred, not only in reptiles like snakes and turtles, but in all species not cohabiting with man (e.g. gulls, raccoons, chipmunks, pigeons, rats, crows, dogs, cockroaches, etc.)  Insects are too sparse.  Thousands of plant species are gone with the snows of yesteryear.  Perhaps nothing can stop our march to sterility.

For a few moments, however, let me pretend there is a silver lining somewhere.  That a tipping point has been reached towards something better.  That trends aligned against fumes will begin a virtuous cycle that eventually ends smog forever.  I realize it is probably no more likely than any other fantasy of being saved by the supernatural, but I am grateful for any improbable fleeting vision of good to which I can momentarily cling.

Crisp

Enchanted backlit greens float everywhere

Springtime in New York encapsulates revived youth.   Rejuvenation from seemingly lifeless barren landscapes begins in February, like a helpless newborn, with thrusting bulbs, swelling buds, and other tantalizing promises.  March represents the tiny baby stage, where amazing changes happen rapidly, but there is as yet no recognizable speech nor much motor coordination.  April breaks out as a cute toddler full of promise, but quickly morphs into a petulant May adolescent who alternately excites or disappoints with cold, or rain, or lovely days, or bright blossoms.  Ah, but then comes June.  A brilliant young adult out to change the world.

Iris is an old-fashioned favorite, and this one an heirloom from Joan’s mom.

“Crisp” describes Huntington outdoors as June begins.  Foliage has not yet developed a patina of dirt, nor has it been ravaged by the stress of drought and depredations of insects.  Flowers bloom abundantly, tended by bees of various types.  Grass has a special emerald glow.  Everywhere there is a peculiarly clean odor of restlessness, often punctuated by clouds of scent from surprising vegetation. Waves of flowers have come and gone, always replaced by new ones.

Air remains crystalline, untroubled by the later humid haze and smog of summer.  Especially this year, distant views stretch clearly in sharp focus even to the far Connecticut shoreline.  Morning fog clears to bright clarity.  Occasional showers wash tenderly.  I take a deep breath, trying to appreciate the fact that our atmosphere exists, and that I can still take advantage of its often ignored wonders.

Rhododendron has done extremely well this spring

Early June floral displays are perhaps the most inspiring of all.  Although the cherry blossoms are long gone, and memories of tulips almost ancient, flowering shrubs are everywhere.  Fading azalea blossoms provide a thick coat of brilliance.  Rhododendrons explode with purple, white, and red cannon balls.  Over it all floats delicate pink and white dogwood.  Roses parade as if summoned by bugle calls.  Although the grand drooping plumes of purple wisteria have dried away, day by day another midsummer flower such as wild white daisies bursts on the scene.    

Homage to Albrecht Durer, who painted “A great piece of turf” centuries ago.

If spring seems a metaphor for hope, June is that hope realized.  What were merely dreams _ late evenings, swimming in salt water, lazy hazy times, vacation plans _ are available to our waking moments.  Yet it is not yet horribly hot nor humid, we do not need to seek shelter at midday, we can still take long pleasant walks without desperate rehydration.  And, mostly, all of this is still new.  Just like arriving at a carnival for the first time as a young child, nature is all flash and brilliance and thrilling mysteries.  We have had no time to become jaded, have not yet been bothered by mosquitoes, can relish each moment outdoors.

Solstice approaches in less than a month, the brilliant rays glint off morning dewdrops coating flickering grass blades.  Strong angles sparkle on waves, a magic canvas for boats large and small swarming into Long Island Sound.  Evenings linger almost too long for those of us exhausted by taking advantage of earlier dawn and the temptations of long walks.  Oh, and of course the various ambitions and chores and exercises newly available _ planting flower beds, mowing lawns, touching up the house, trimming shrubs.  Sun comes up as it goes down _ huge, fiery red, reminding us that it is indeed our true god.

Let this perfect clematis star symbolize my hope for the future.

June is a great time, even in bad times.  I sometimes think June exactly defines why I love this environment all year, in spite of its problems and climate.  But I must stop typing and run outdoors to breathe deeply and experience immersion once again ….

Memorial

Flags of celebration and respect to past glories are the dominant theme

Traditional Memorial Day is martial in nature, with marching bands and veterans parading down flag-festooned streets as crowds cheer.  Media incessantly reminds us to remember sacrifices of all the brave people who have defended our way of life.  Slogans such as “freedom is not free” resound through the air. 

I respect the military in our important wars.  Those who fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II did not do so for pensions and fast track into police forces later.  They were not planning a career.  They volunteered _ or were forcibly inducted _ to risk their lives and health into enemy fire and constant tension and disease.  What they did actually changed the way we live now.  Some of our other wars _ Mexican, Spanish-American, Korean, Vietnamese, Gulf _ have been of significantly less consequence.  And our current volunteer army is not much like our troops who fought the Nazi’s and Japanese.

Gold Star Battalion Beach is dedicated to men from Huntington who fought in WWII.

This year is different.  Parades are banned.  Tiny gatherings are allowed at cemeteries which hold the remains of heroes gone.  Perhaps a few of us rethink who our current heroes are or should be _ what occupations and sacrifices are now most important to our way of life.  I wonder moreover if this particular holiday might be remembered as the end of a bygone era from a not too distant, totally changed, future.  Economic and social traditions and bonds are being stretched to and possibly beyond the breaking point.

Eras sneak up on you, with assumptions and an inertia that claims “this is how it is.”  And yet, history proves that eras can end, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a blink.  The American, French, Russian, Chinese revolutions took only a few years.  The Medieval, Renaissance, Industrial, and Computer took longer.  Today, of course, everything runs at warp speed, and possibly the next huge paradigm shifts in culture and civilization will do so as well.  Much can happen in just one year. 

Fog clouds our hopes and fears most densely in the best and worst of times.

Our current era, however many decades or centuries it has lasted, has been one of scientific discovery,  globalization of nature and culture, and massive population growth, some of it accompanied by more goods available.  There has also been severe consolidation of wealth, fragmentation of cultural goals into various fierce ideologies, and massive degradation of the environment.  Reporting of such changes has been practically instantaneous.  Above all, it has been an era dominated by the myth of American exceptionalism and Western capitalistic ideology.  Perhaps this is the moment when the world suddenly realizes, once more, that the emperor has no clothes.

Goods and services have overwhelmed what were once productively silent wetlands.

No matter what historians claim about historic inevitability, nobody in the middle of a revolution can predict its outcome and effects.  That has not stopped modern prognosticators who claim work as we have known it will mutate and vanish, for example.  Visionaries conjure vast economic and social upheavals, some apocalyptic.  I (optimistically) think the only “safe” option here is to plan on the familiar world never quite returning, and possibly being shockingly unrecognizable, in less than five years.

As traditional as it gets, I hope life remains stable for a while longer.

After that, those who have time and energy to remember will no doubt gather at the future equivalent of a Memorial Day.  Toasts will be raised, the world as it once was nostalgically recalled, and (with luck) some kind of celebration held to cheer what came after.

Nesting

I wanted a bird nest, but those around here are too hidden for my feeble attempts

People in the New York Metro area have been asked to remain mostly at home, a directive made easier by the abnormally cold and wet spring we have been enduring.  Watching flowers, birds, leaves, strong wind, constant showers, and other seasonal signs has been better accomplished from warm rooms or heated cars.  A brief dash, well bundled, is what most of us manage, even to view the tulips in the park where the show goes on even through the festival has been cancelled.

I am used to seeing goslings hatch around now, although they are often associated with me wearing shorts and tee shirt rather than heavy coat and ski mask.  But I noticed three broods following their parent along seaweed shoreline in howling winds at thirty two degrees.  A harsh way to be introduced to the world.  Meanwhile, I am observing nests being built in several bushes around the house, mostly protected from the elements, definitely hidden from the hawks.

Azaleas in gorgeous apparel, covered in blossoms and bees.

Nature continues, regardless of what humans and weather may do.  Squirrels are chasing about, chipmunks are out of hibernation, bees and gnats and flies fill the air.  Birdsong is far more noticeable now that aircraft are absent. 

In spite of the drumroll of death, which is terrible, and “dire” predictions of the economy to come, and great angst about how society may change, this can be seen in some ways as a happy spring.  The air is clear for the first time in years.  The environment seems to be making a comeback.  Scenery far and near is incredibly beautiful.  We are reminded once more of the majesty and awe of existence.  Perhaps even my neighbors are bored enough to enjoy nature when they get tired of listening to grim media news.

Lilacs heavily perfume our yard as birdsong fills the air.

I have lived in a deceptively secure and predictable world.  There is always food.  A child’s death is unexpected.  Old people think themselves young as they pass eighty years.  But not long ago, it was not so, and we were more like those geese.  Most children, like goslings, died before they were five.  People wore out fast, were old by forty, and incapacitated by sixty, an age which relatively few achieved.  At least a few times in every lifetime there were famines or plagues or wars.  We had hoped to be done with all that; it is jarring to suddenly encounter something like them, even here, even now.

An eternal human hubris is to perceive the world as unchanging, followed by the even more incredible belief that we control our lives.  We can certainly control our inner thoughts and mental existence, but as any survivor of any tragedy knows, much still lies beyond our power.  When change comes, especially awful change, it is hard or impossible to accept.  When good change occured, for the last fifty years or so, I have taken it for granted. 

I try not to forget the subtle, like these almost hidden lilies of the valley

Full spring now, cool perhaps, maybe too much rain, but glorious.  The annual visual spectacular repeats, and cycles of the seasons still comfort me.  I enjoy sky, wind, trees, flowers, cardinals, jays, robins, squirrels, and our dashing little chipmunk and (as long as I stay away from the TV) am incredibly grateful just to be aware. 

Competence

Once a garage, reclaimed by elements, final destination of all our efforts.

Our stucco house has brick decorations below the windows.  In this long semi-incarceration they came to my attention as I sat in the warming sun with little else to do.  And I thought how little real competence I have in my world. Any Sumerian laborer could probably make bricks and lay them better than I could.  In fact, of all my vast environment, I am capable in very few activities. 

This world of marvels is constructed of fragile relationships.  Experts and specialists mine and grow and plan and build.  Sometimes I impose a certain order, but mostly I simply accept the end result.  I can buy food, I can sit on a purchased chair, I can look at my house.  But I could no more grow my food, make my chair, nor build my house than I could regulate my internal temperature or mindfully digest my meals.  Magic surrounds and permeates my existence.

With effort, I can appreciate the beauty of flowers as much as “primitive” people

What competence have I attained in over seventy years?  Some fleeting and now irrelevant electronic coding.  Some upon-a-time ability to work collaboratively with others.  Mostly, even now, an ability to plan a little and react a lot as unexpected situations arise.  A bit of ability here, a bit there, none extraordinary.

Schoolday myths proclaimed the Jeffersonian joys of yeoman farmers.  Full independence on a self-sufficient homestead where everything was crafted by the owner _ an American metaphorical ideal.  Yet, like all childhood stories, that whole concept was flawed from the beginning.  No farmer mined iron and forged his own tools, built not only his gun but also the machines to construct the parts, ate only the produce planted and harvested by his own hands.  From the beginning, people specialized, gaining surplus from what they did best to pay for what they could not do at all.

I certainly do not know the medicinal and magical properties of nature as well as my ancestors.

Capitalism loves fluid roles which shun competence_ ideally, any worker can be replaced, nobody is indispensable.  That’s ok, because the associated lie is that with luck and hard work, anyone can succeed and prosper in anything.  A competent person rises to become wealthy, famous, and remembered forever.  Artisanal crafts are worn down to machine-capable rote tasks, with an interface anyone can perform.  Driving a car when first invented took a skilled chauffeur.

Retraining is a vicious pretense which proclaims that competence can be easily transferred.  Throw someone out of a job at which they have become competent for years and make them do (badly) something they have never encountered.   Also, sever all their current implicit connections _ lateral ties to fellow employees or clients for example.  Then let them go naked into the marketplace to start over.  Sixty year olds are treated as if they were fifteen.  This massive and intractable flaw in modern consumer capitalism is what will eventually lead to its overthrow.

Weed in a perfect lawn?  Or a symbol of what I do not understand?

Competence is not purpose.  One learns competence in reference to doing something, even if that something is as mundane as laying bricks.  It often takes years to become good at a task, when actions are all but unconscious and errors are intuitively avoided.  Competence most clearly shows when things go badly _ especially as tasks become more complicated.

Finally, competence does provide an element of pride and self-worth.  Who we are is inevitably tangled with what we do.  But the only competence any of us can keep with certainty is that of our approach to life.  It must be secure, flexible, and reliable.  Good luck with that … 

Noiseless

Sometimes it is easier appreciate the visual when not assaulted by other senses.

Silent Spring is not my reference.  Yes, the English language makes a clear difference between “noiseless” and “less noise,” but how should we define the noun?  I do not regard birdcalls, wind in trees, nor even the shouts of children as noise.  Leaf blowers, chain saws, automobiles, heavy construction, and low jet airplanes, on the other hand, are obnoxious intruders on the symphony of natural sounds.  This pandemic April has been a time mercifully free of human engine roars.

The sound of silence around here has until recently been missing.  All hours, every season, mechanical clamor is relentless from near and far, above and below, around and about.  But this month, enforced shutdowns have eliminated a lot of trucks and cars and planes and local projects.  I could sit outside and hear trees in the breeze, the taps of woodpeckers, the warning calls of bluejays.  Even occasionally the rustle of leaves as squirrels race through the underbrush and up branches.  Sometimes the buzz of fat early bumblebees drifted by.

Tulips have passed full glory and are passing individually or en masse.

Like Boccaccio’s Florence, much of affluent Huntington has fled to less infested places.  Traffic is abnormally sparse.  Many neighbors have gone South or West to visit friends or linger in vacation homes.  The less affluent remain behind, but they have temporarily been prevented from their normal loud activities (because the rich are not around to make them do so.)  There is often a surprising lack of pedestrians on our local streets, because the gloomy cold weather has also damped excursions.

In the last few days, however, demon-spawned yard crews have begun to erupt once more, with their insanely oversized infernal gas engines spewing smoke and commotion.  So far those episodes remain sparse and nearly tolerable, but it is a worrisome reminder of what must soon return.  All the more reason for me to savor quiet while it remains available.

Tulips have passed full glory and are passing individually or en masse.

Maybe, eventually, people will rethink the demands of civilization.  Up until this plague, there were only two ways to deal with noise pollution.  One was to huddle hermetically behind triple-pane never-opened glass and hide inside in peace and comfort.  The other was to outcompete the cacophony by blasting nearby noise of one’s own choice _ through earbuds or boomboxes or outside speakers.  I wonder if after this interlude, some folks may not come to enjoy natural silence.  But I suppose probably not.  Noise, like most pollution, spills into common space; one lout spoils the environment for everyone within miles.

For nearly the first time, crews are forbidden on Sunday.  Many people sleep in.  I had a wonderful walk through the nearby park, admiring the cherry blossoms, young leaves, and green lawn.  Red winged blackbirds have returned to the pond, to begin nesting amongst the reeds, not yet attacking anything that comes too near.  A blissful natural calm, reminding me of my youth in less crowded and far less raucous places.

Like everyone else, I ponder what comes next, what changes may occur.  Maybe the whole world will return to what it used to be, increasing noise and all.  If that be the case, I must treasure these noiseless moments never to return, as if I were on vacation from modern civilization.  I must open my door and visit the paradise that has so briefly interrupted everyone’s frenetic brass bands.