Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rediscovering my winter roots

Photo by Dave Husic, Week 1 of Feb, 2014
Where I grew up, winters were long. Snowy boots and encrusted mittens handmade-by-grandma lined the vestibule. Wet socks were exchanged for a new pair on a regular basis, and rosy cheeks were a better shade than any rouge could ever match.

I haven’t been outdoors much in the past few weeks. Not with a hectic schedule of work, snowstorms, preparing for conference presentations, a bad cold, too much travel. Poor justification, I know; I should take care of myself better. Isn’t that I what I teach my students?

It is easy to get caught up in the winter griping with colleagues and friends, or to make excuses about aching knees and aging bones. Wouldn’t want to fall and break anything. When we do have winter here in eastern PA it is too often punctuated by ice storms.

Lately, treacherous walking conditions have been the norm, especially if you have a very energetic dog on a leash. It reminds me of the days of beginning ski lessons on the bunny slopes being pull by the tow ropes. But then, the only casualties were rope burns if you didn’t have leather ski gloves. And, of course, we knew not to wear scarves that could get tangled in the towline.

Now I think of broken legs, or backs.  Have I become a fuddy-duddy, or just smarter?

I have a bad habit of checking Facebook before I start the day, you know, just to see what’s happening and who might have a birthday. Yesterday, someone had posted journal entry by Thoreau from 160 years ago to the date:

Thoreau's Journal: 12-Feb-1854

To make a perfect winter day like this, you must have a clear, sparkling air, with a sheen from the snow, sufficient cold, little or no wind; and the warmth must come directly from the sun. It must not be a thawing warmth. The tension of nature must not be relaxed. The earth must be resonant if bare, and you hear the lisping tinkle of chickadees from time to time and the unrelenting cold-steel scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold; hard, tense, frozen music, like the winter sky itself; in the blue livery of winter’s band. It is like a flourish of trumpets to the winter sky. There is no hint of incubation in the jay’s scream. Like the creak of a cart-wheel. There is no cushion for sounds now. They tear our ears.

Oh man…why have I been complaining? I love winter. And what a beautiful description Mr. H.D.T. We haven’t had many perfect winter days in quite a few years. I and my zone 6 and 7 plants have done just fine in what used to be zone 5. But I have been missing something too.

My goodness, after watching Chasing Ice the other night and seeing what Mr. Balog will do, bad knees and all, to make sure the world knows what is happening to our glaciers, I don’t think I have too much to complain about. Why haven’t I been outside? Who knows if we will even have winters in the future when those glaciers have departed.

So yesterday was the day that I was going to break away from the routine, and the excuses. With a pending storm that would dump about a foot of new snow, and likely some fresh ice, walking won’t get any easier this week. My get-out-of-jail card was a trip to the dentist to repair a chipped filling.

I snuck home early, a full hour and a half before dark. I bundled up and asked Revi the Retriever if he too was tired of being cooped up (silly question for a flat coated). He may not take Best of Breed in Westminster, or any dog show for that matter. But he has boundless enthusiasm, can follow a trail that is days old, and is about the happiest creature I have encountered in life.

Walking with Revi in fall (he's tough to photograph against the snow)

I was trying to walk in the footsteps of the previous person who ventured into our back 40 (Dave, most likely) and that worked -- sort of. If I walked on unchartered paths, I broke through the icy crust, making the only noise in the calm-before-the-storm woods.

In his enthusiasm, Revi plowed me over. It is difficult to get up with a 70 pound dog on top of you and snow that keeps caving in beneath. There was that moment when I remembered that I am no longer young and no one knew where I was.

Anyone who has lived where snow is frequent knows the look of the sky before a big storm. It has a color – somewhere between lavender and gray and the color of azure butterflies.  My friend Julie recently described it as “Mood Indigo” (1):

We walk to this place
where blue hills meet steely sky
The mood's indigo.
Before we get back
darkness will fall in the woods.
Snow lights our path home.

Perfect, Julie, just perfect.

After reaching the old meadow at the top of the rise, Revi and I saw the diffuse sun over our blue hill – Blue Mountain, the Kittatinny Ridge – just before it slid behind the terrain.  But unlike Julie, I didn’t want to head back down the icy trail in darkness, so we couldn’t linger.

Back down, safely, we grabbed the bird feeders for restocking before the next round of bad weather. Earlier in the day, I had heard both male cardinals and tufted titmice singing their spring calls. Silly birds. Them gals aren’t going to be interested in this cold weather. Trust me on that one. I don’t think I could wear enough layers in the evening during this time of year.

Looking back towards the west, the sun is almost gone now, the clouds a bit thicker and the sky a bit icier blue-gray than before. Snow’s a-comin’. I wish I could paint the colors of the winter, highlighting our gingerbread-like house with its fresh snow white icing, the lovely shadows and textures in the snow. I can’t, but I know people who could though.

Our gingerbread house
Back inside, it was time to strip the wet mittens and socks, and line them up like I did when I was young. It was time to settle in, and wait for the storm, and maybe even complain a little about winter.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

We all need some spirit nurturing sometimes

I have been feeling a bit glum lately, not inspired in my teaching (largely due to unreceptive audiences), and disappointed in this country's lackluster leadership with respect to many issues, especially the environment. But today, I am catching up on reading some articles and blog posts, including some by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez.

I want to thank Jennifer for reminding me that, even when we are in a lull, we must remember Pete Seeger and Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela – inspirational elders who have all left us now – left us with unfinished missions that must be continued. I realize that if those of us who teach today’s youth don’t continue to march along in this duty, then things will continue to grow more dire. 

Students in my classes don’t know these important names, much less why these individuals are so revered. It is our job to teach these students, to engage them, to inspire them. Jennifer expresses it well when she notes that “we are all Noah now.” I think this is true whether we are trying to save biodiversity or humanity or important history and culture.

When I responded to one of Jennifer’s blog posts with similar comments to what I wrote above, I said that we must continue to "trudge along in this duty", rather than "march along". I was thinking about trudge -- as in making slow progress despite hard work -- rather than considering the task as drudgery, but she was quick to respond with the following:

Diane, have you read Charles Eisenstein’s latest book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible? He notes how important it is for those of us who are awake to the ecological crisis to connect with each other–it’s not “preaching to the choir,” it’s nurturing each other’s spirits so that we can continue solidly and strongly in our chosen paths. I am glad my blog posts served that function for you today!

I feel very lucky with the students I’m working with this semester. Remarkably passionate and aware young people. With your “unreceptive audience,” how can you get under their skin and find the sweet spot where you will be able to wake them up from their media-induced sluggishness? Sometimes it happens when you dare to reveal your own vulnerability, your fears and grief and love. I hate to hear of you “trudging.” See what you can do to dance in front of the class, and get them up and dancing with you!

She is correct. Trudging is the wrong way to think about this, although my discouragement was worsened by my experiences this week. I am just back from the National Council on Science and the Environment conference on "Climate Solutions" having taken some students with me. I tried desperately to get the students to network given the many influential people who were in attendance: Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space (who is now at NOAA), James Hansen and Richard Alley (great climate scientists), Gina McCarthy (the current EPA director), and many other researchers and policymakers. How could they not be inspired?

On the way home, as we crossed over the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge in Maryland that spans the Susquehanna River(dedicated, by the way, by John F. Kennedy eight days before he was assassinated), a bald eagle flew over the car hood - so close you could see into its eyes. Yet they couldn't be bothered to look up from their smart phones since they had important messages about the "100-days-to-graduation party" they would head to when we returned to campus. As they party their way towards graduation, I wonder what their longer-term plans are. And I wonder why I care so much about their future. So yes, Jennifer, some spirit nurturing is indeed needed at the moment. 

Thank goodness for some words of encouragement from another foot soldier in this effort! On Monday, I must try to remember to dance again.