Timing Is Everything

The heron glided silently along the river’s surface like a heat seeking missile. The snow had been falling softly for hours. The landscape blanched like an over-exposed negative. Street signs, trees turning black against the blank canvas, the occasional fearful, red flare of break lights were the only distinguishing markers. It was a not unpleasant disorientation. These days, variety in any form is welcome.

I almost didn’t go down to the river. I had gotten about half-way, slipping and sliding along what I assumed to be sidewalks, wading into snowbanks to avoid getting clipped by the plows out roving like East German gestapos. My camera thudded against my coat, already warped with layers. I cradled it awkwardly. I had it wrapped in a thin, waterproof covering that came with my camera bag. It worked similarly to one of those flies that go over tents and about just as effective.

It was beautiful to be out in the snowstorm. It was work to be out in the snowstorm. Both things can have equal weight. As I trudged, halting every so often when something caught my eye, my mind picked up its own badminton game. The volley:

Haven’t you been out here long enough? It’s kinda cold (whine). You still have to walk back home, you know. Not like you can just pop into a café to get warm. What do you think this is? 2018?

The response:

(Eye-roll) It’s not that cold, c’mon. And it’s gorgeous out here! You’re lucky to even be out here! And haven’t you had enough of the couch and the blanket and the bag of salty chemicals and the book you’re not even pretending to read anymore and the vague sense that your brain is slowly turning into some kind of viscous molasses-like substance that any day now will just start to ooze out of your ear and pool in a puddle of sap that you’ll notice with only the smallest register of astonishment but mostly disinterest because really this seemed like a foregone conclusion after months of festering existential ennui?

Point. Set. Match. I kept moving.

And so it was that I put myself on the trail that runs along the river, which had become one of my favorite and reliable walking destinations in these past months of restriction and caution. It’s not a spectacular route. There are no rocky outcrops singing with the crush and crunch of roiling waters. No bends delivering a stunning vista of hills and fields. No tire swings dangling over irresistible drops into deep kettles of water. The river is an urban waterway—functional, hearty, modest, a sports bra, a metal thermos, a well-oiled baseball glove passed down from parent to kid. Boston’s lumbering Charles River can have the pizazz and the tourons that come with it.

The seemingly unremarkable nature of this stretch feels like a challenge to me. I return and return and return and I always find something that not just catches my gaze, but holds it. I keep expecting the well to run dry and then KERBLAM! I’m 25 feet from the shoreline and just happen to glance to my left, the snow raining down harder now, and I’m gifted with the spectacle of this ethereal creature that seems like she belongs in Jurassic Park than in a suburb of Boston in 2021. And it feels staged. It feels very Disney theme park, cue the animatronic bird to give the tourons a thrill. It works. I’m standing stock still as if breathing too heavy will make it all disappear. I see a couple about fifteen feet ahead of me, a little closer to the edge of the river in the same pose. Witnesses to this strange and beautiful synchronicity of things—the snow, the river, the bird generous enough to give us a viewing, and the astonishing ballet of moments divided into what appears on the surface as random decisions, arbitrary maneuvers, orchestrated by something unseen, but not unfelt, bringing us all to this spot at the exact right time.  

Spark Bird

Three middle-aged men stand in a small section of parking lot in front of the iron gates of the boating club. The club sits on the edge of a dam splitting the upper and lower portions of the lake. In the pink light of dawn, the men adjust their spotting scopes and peer through cameras outfitted with comically long phallic lenses. I watch them as they chat and sip coffee from their travel mugs and thermoses. Every couple of minutes they lean down, their heads bobbing behind their scopes much like the creatures they are intent to observe. Birdwatchers.

Suddenly one of them breaks off and steps behind his scope. He tilts it up to a near 45-degree angle, training it on a stand of trees across the lake. The others follow. Excitement! One quickly holds his camera at the end of his scope. What began as my routine morning walk by the lake is interrupted. I initially detoured into the parking lot to admire the sunrise over the lake, but now I have to stay for the show.  

I follow the long black pointer of the man’s camera lens. Two bald eagles perch on the uppermost branches of a cluster of spiny pines. Even from my distance, without any fancy “spotting scopes” but the two on my face, I can make out the white crest of their heads, the soft curve of their arched wings equipped with ferocious velocity. I take out my phone and use the camera to zoom as much as I can to see more detail. Grainy and pixilated, the birds are still majestic.

And I think they know it.

With their classic, chiseled features and aura of confidence and command, eagles are like Cary Grant in bird form. They are also America’s national symbol, something that almost didn’t happen. Eagles became the national emblem in 1782 (#branding), beating out Ben Franklin’s first choice for a national symbol: the turkey. Franklin claimed the eagle was a bird of “bad moral character” for its tendency to poach other birds’ captures, going so far as to harassing another bird until it gives up what was theirs to begin with. To review: Ben Franklin criticizing a super power, alpha species whose natural proclivity is to take something that doesn’t belong to it, by force if necessary.  Let us pause here for a moment of silence as we mark the death of irony.

Birdwatching wasn’t really recognized as a “thing-,” neither a pastime nor amateur scientific or naturalist pursuit–until the early 1900s. Newly formed organizations like the Audubon Society aimed to protect and preserve bird populations from the deadliest predator of all: man and his staggering ignorance. It’s not like we’re just going to run out of birds, people said as they loaded their guns. That’s like saying cigarettes are bad for you!

Bird watching books, field guides, the affordability and accessibility of binoculars following World War II, and America’s automotive and interstate booms all contributed to a steady uptick in this pastime that, unless you were traveling great distances, required not much else but standing around looking. Of course, I say that with some sarcasm, but when you consider the basic birdwatching principle in relation to our high holy culture of perpetual distraction and micrometer-sized attention spans, birdwatching is kind of the balls.

My friend Alex fell into birdwatching when he was eleven. He told me about growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and having limited access to nature. His house anchored the end of a dead end street that rested against a few acres of overgrown field and trees that had once formed part of a nearby estate. A chain link fence marked the perimeter of the field. Alex found it was criminally easy to ease his seven-year-old self over the chain link fence and drop into what, to him, looked like Oz. Weird deposits of abandoned building materials—marble pillars, old light fixtures—mingled with tall, reedy grass shot through with daylilies and blue bells, plants more often found occupying prize positions in domestic gardens than amongst the concrete and sandy soil of city land. Over time, Alex not only mapped the geography of his own personal Arcadia, he also began noting and compiling the various bird species he encountered—topping out at 90 by the time he left home for college.

“Everyone has a spark bird,” he told me.

“Spark bird?”

 “Yeah, it’s like the first bird they remember really seeing that gets them hooked on birding.”

“The ornithological gateway drug?”

He laughed. “Something like that. You know, it sparks you up, fires you up to see more.” He shrugged. “At least that was the case for me, but it was more than just birds. It was all of nature.”

I nodded. This made sense to me. If our encounters with nature aren’t mediated—the African safari, the guided tropical forest excursion—they feel increasingly rare. When it comes to things like grizzlies and pumas, this is a relief. But the more our world shrinks to fit in a screen, the more time we spend serving the bankrupt gods of technology, the less time we’re spending, as gamers say, IRL: In Real Life. And that includes in and with the natural world.

Each time the birdwatchers raise their binoculars to their eyes or peer through their scopes, they are waiting for something to happen, for a secret to reveal itself in the form of a shock of scarlet head or in the unexpected return gaze from two eyes like and both unlike their own.

Spark.

Into The Mystic

The first snowstorm of the season came on hard and fast. Streets became slalom courses. Trees dripping with meringue. The world finally hushed and stilled for all the right reasons instead of for all the strangest ones.

Snow needled my face as I carefully made my way through the slippery, thickly carpeted streets down to the Mystic River. Named “missi-tuk,” which means “large estuary,” by the Algonquan first nation tribe, the Mystic originates north of Boston. It snakes through various communities like East Boston, Chelsea, Charlestown, eventually cutting across Medford, where I live. In addition to being an old waterway, the Mystic has historical significance. That’s one of the things I love about living in New England—you can’t get more than a mile in any direction without running across a house that belonged to a Puritan shoemaker or, if you’re in the historically sexy town of Salem, Massachusetts, the park where they hung witches. New England still pulses with the heartbeat of generations past.

Touching upon so many towns, the Mystic quickly became a major artery in the new colonies. In 1774, 260 British soldiers rowed from Boston up the Mystic to an area in Somerville known as Winter Hill. They marched about a mile to an old stone building where the Puritans stored the largest supply of gunpowder in the region: The Powder House. The British raided the supply, touching off a regional skirmish that came to be known as the Powder Alarm (the colonists were not known for clever branding). Later on, the Mystic supported a thriving shipping industry. The creation of the Middlesex canal joined the Charles and Mystic with the Merrimack River that bypassed Lowell, a center of industrial revolution in the 1800s. Schooners cruised the watery highway transporting timber and molasses for rum distilleries between Medford and the West Indies. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to Paul Revere galloping along the Mystic on April 18, 1775, warning patriots against a British attack. The Mystic has seen some action or, to put it another way: if these riverbanks could talk.

Despite its importance, or, at least, former prominence, the Mystic is missable. It’s not very wide or pronounced. Trees and houses line its banks along with the depressing cache of litter. Its waters are the color of dirty, boiled laundry. Swans, ducks, and geese make homes in its reedy shoreline. For all of its former prominence, the Mystic has made itself quietly unobtrusive in the midst of urban sprawl. Kind of like an elderly retiree.

It’s possible to feel sorry for a field, to pity a patch of woods, to have remorse for a river. I know this because I feel bad for the Mystic. And I’m not ashamed of my sentimentality, which in these parts is usually spent on mourning the loss of a beloved dive bar or pining away for world championship banners. It’s our lack of empathy for nature that has put us, in some cases, literal hot water.

In the many months of staying close to home, I’ve gotten to know this part of the Mystic and appreciate her humble beauty—the way the water mirrors a Tiffany blue sky in May, how the trees along her banks explode in golds and oranges in the fall, turning the landscape into a Bierstadt painting. Resilient. Generous. A place, like a person, contains multitudes.

Reaching the overpass where the Mystic flows under, I sunk in the snow up to my shins, enjoying the quiet, deserted atmosphere. Maybe it was like this in 1630 or 1790, nothing to obscure the river or detract from her power. Patches of ice and snow spread out from the shoreline, the water turning a lethal blue under the stormy sky. The Mystic resting like a sapphire necklace against a pale neck—luminous and precious and enduring.

No Thanks Normal

A few things have transpired since I took this photo in early May. The virus has wreaked havoc with our lives, bringing us and “normal” to our knees. Jobs don’t look and feel like they once did. Schools are operating wild west, frontier style. A little over a week ago, insurrectionists stormed our nation’s capital in an attempted coup stamped with presidential approval. Definitely not normal, at least not in modern America. Life has a Vegas meets Mardi Gras meets high school graduation rager kind of vibe to it where the unexpected, bizarre, and absurd hang out. I get the feeling that “normal” has always been a cover story, an alias, a shell corporation used as a front for the truth that reality is a hot mess.  

I traced the quote back to a man named Dave Hollis. Hollis is a former Disney executive turned writer and speaker. He had shared this notion in a Facebook post dated March 25. That seemed about right. In America, the nation-wide lock down went into effect on March 13. In less time than it takes for a Taylor Swift album to drop, we were itching to wish away our new weird and terrifying in exchange for our good, old fashioned “normal.” I get it.

I didn’t want to watch the death toll climb like a telethon tally from hell. I didn’t want to keep reading stories of artists struggling to pay the bills because theaters and clubs were closed and festivals were cancelled. I didn’t want to go to the grocery store like I had just rolled the dice in a game of Jumanji, racing to the paper goods aisle to get the last sacred package of toilet paper. I probably would have sold whatever remaining eggs I have left for the simple pleasure of hanging out in a café with a couple of friends complaining about our privileged problems for even an hour. But I know better. Familiar and comfortable are not the same as well, as healthy, or as just and humane.

My PhD research focused on representations of physical disability in American culture and the meanings we assign to all kinds of bodies, but especially those marked different or “abnormal.” The root of the word “normal” is Latin, first used in relation to geometry: “made according to a carpenter’s square,” something fashioned in perfect proportions. Ideal, perfection—these ideas came into play later on in the 1800s when “normal” meant conforming to a preferred, cultural, racial, physical, economical set of standards.

The Victorians made categorizing various types of people into an Olympic-level sport. They used physiognomy—a pseudoscience involving using the study of facial features to determine one’s character and personality—to create distinctions around people considered “normal” (read: morally superior) and those judged as abnormal (read: ethically deviant, bad, criminal, all together not desirable in any way shape or form). Three guess as to which race and class of people this benefited and one guess as to which it did not.

In grad school I wrote a lot of elegant theories about how so many elements—class, race, politics, media, science and medicine—coalesce to influence constantly shifting notions of physical disability. But I could have just as easily written one sentence over and over again like Jack Torrance from The Shining: Normal is a construct that can fuck right the fuck off. My advisor would have, as they say, “found this phrasing problematic.”

But it’s the truth.

If it wasn’t apparent in March or April or even August, it’s pretty obvious now that not only is “normal” a myth, it’s a dangerous idea. It’s designed to widen the gulf between one another, to stoke conflict and alienation. It seduces us into accepting things that are, in actuality, unacceptable and untenable. I’m not in a rush to get back to oppressing and victimizing people with a different color skin than mine. I’m not in a hurry to feed the machines of capitalism and welfare inequality. I’m not eager to sink deeper into the quicksand of social media, colonizing my brain a little more with every click and “like.” I’ll take my chances trying to make something meaningful out of this new now rather than trying to resurrect a needless “normal.”

Pay Attention

I paused at a place where the trail curves and rises in a subtle incline. Gaps in the patches of trees broke up the shoreline like openings in a fence. Across the water a large stand of tress jutted out into the lake. Their tall black spines set against the sky the color of flint, downstrokes of ink. Beautifully obstinate. Fog had poured itself into every crook and crevice of the landscape. The hills and houses I knew existed on the shore beyond were muted, disappeared through blissful oblivion. This is fog’s gift—a gentle blotting out and softening of the mean edges of things or, in this case, life in a pandemic.

This trail has become one of my regular routes since the virus stole through our cities, towns, and houses, stealing lives in the process. Whether in fog or a complete black out, I could walk it easily. Before, I didn’t even know it existed. This is a gift of another kind—awakening to our ability to explore and discover, talents crowed out by the click of instant gratification.

On foot, the elements and the surroundings vie for your attention, which is what I love about spending time outdoors. This is my kind of “driven to distraction.” It would be rude not to stop and stand still for a few moments gazing out over the lake that you’ve visited in every season, but this morning has transformed itself into a scene from another time and place. What a shame to hurry past a stand of birches without taking a minute to admire their pale bark, gleaming clean and white like hope itself. Such a waste to miss out on noticing the way the light skims across the tops of brambles anointing them with little halos. Maybe the fog brings something into focus previously obscured or overlooked.  

The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” More and more these days, that seems like one of the only rules worth practicing. It’s become way too easy to let it all go by in a blur until we’re knocked on our asses and benched, where a lot of us have found ourselves this year. The invitation to crack open our hearts and minds along with our eyes renews itself every day. It costs nothing, but it’s worth everything.