Monday, March 28, 2011

Birding for Beginners

Walking in the woods to collect my thoughts is a habit I learned in Vermont; perfected in Colorado.

I grew up in a family of athletes. My dad played college basketball. My mom was a phys ed teacher and soccer coach. My sister a high school soccer star. My brother a quarterback. I wasn’t good at any organized sport.
I didn’t get an outdoor education until I moved to the mountains; the northern Maine woods and the Green Mountains in Vermont. I thought I was an outdoor woman because I skied, hiked, and backpacked. I didn't know a thing.

When I did do these things, I didn’t know the type of tree I skied between or the birds singing ing the trees or the animals that scurried past me on the trails or the tracks of wildlife that trammeled by my tent at night.

I did, however, watch my dogs run free, ears flopping but didn’t look for birds, wild flowers or wildlife.

When I lived in northwestern Maine, I’d hike with my friend Brad. The Appalachian Trail was ten miles from his house and we would often hike on it or all the trails near it. Brad would often stop to point out beautiful flowers or walk off trail to look for Trillium. I would get aggravated that our hikes would take longer for all his stops. I wanted to get to the top of the peak for the amazing view and sense of accomplishment. I was always in a rush to get to the top and, then, to get home. Not that I had anything pressing to do at home, I just wanted to hike, bag a peak, and then get back. I missed so mucy.

However, I do remember the flowers the beautiful pink or purple Trillium he pointed out; and perhaps can still identify today.

A year or two later, after living in Vermont and hiking with my lab, Abbey, I got to know the same trail in every season, for two seasons. I still couldn't name tree and flowers and birds, but I watched. Every day and every season, I watched.

I don’t know if this lack of learning is biological, generational or environmental. I have so many interests and want to do everything perhaps part of the problem. The phrase ’kill two birds with one stone’ in my world includes a long run with the dogs or talking on the phone as I drive to work, not hiking on a trail and trying to identify the bird in the tree by their song.

I got my first bird education at the Christmas Bird count in Granby, Colorado a few years ago. I counted  Ravens, Stellar Jays, Mountain Chickadees, Black Capped Chickadees, White Breasted Nuthatch, and Rosy Finches.

I remember a line from the book The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon: “Scrutinizing – touching what you are looking at with your eyes – you run all over the valley and look in on things that couldn’t see you looking, for what it was out there that you didn’t know and needed to know – scrutinizing people, the world, for the best story, for the truth.”

This is what I do now. I'm slowing down, looking for birds, learning about the outdoor world. I now feel like I'm more of an outdoor woman because I can identify the black capped chickadees in my feeder; maybe next year I’ll learn another one.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Writing and Learning About Place: David Gessner Groupie

I can’t remember the exact sequence of events how I discovered David Gessner and his book, Under the Devil’s Thumb.

I think I read he was presenting a nature writing topic at the AWP Conference in Denver in 2010. Since I thought I “lived under the Devils Thumb” here in Granby, I bought his book to read before listening to his panel.

When I saw him in Denver, he certainly knew how to make an impression. When he was introduced and spoke into the microphone he beat his chest like a caveman. I don’t remember what he said, but I remembered him.

A year later, I saw his name on a panel at the 2011 AWP Conference in Washington DC. I signed up. I brought Under the Devil’s Thumb for him to sign but was too afraid to approach him. (The same with Pam Houston. I become star-struck near published writers.)

Tonight, I finished reading Under the Devil’s Thumb.

East coast born, moved west, and now he lives back on the east coast. I understand his displacement and wanting to know a place well. I’ve lived in Colorado for eight years and finally feel like I know a little more about the place. Gessner says that his story is about “the healing that can come through falling in love with where we live.” Like Gessner, I left many things behind and wanted to live out our national myth, for renewal and regeneration. And, “take my cure in the mountains.”

I wish I could describe the Stellar and Gray Jays he sees on his hikes and the creeks and streams he meditates near. He falls in love with the Continental Divide, the history of Colorado, the trails, this place. Hmm. Sounds familiar.

In his book he quotes my favorites: Thoreau, Stegner, Helen Hunt Jackson, Saner.

He rides his bike, hikes, and camps all around Boulder. He has a cat named Tabernash.

My favorite line from his book:

These are my pleasures as well.
“The jittery feeling after a run, the slight euphoria following the first drink, the quiet of walking by the creek, the mind-emptying joys of a bike ride, the eye-closing pleasure of devouring a great meal, the occasional out-of-self absorption when the writing is going as good as it can…” (75)

Today, I felt blah and unmotivated to write. I was discouraged by the writing life, until I finished reading his book. I am inspired again.

Why do we write? Why do any of us feel compelled to write the stuff of our lives?

I write because it matters. It matters.

I write to feel alive.

I hear or remember a story. I want to tell the world about it. I need to put pen to paper (or finger tips to keyboard) and tell the world what I’m thinking. In that process I make meaning of my life.

It is a yearning for connection. The yearning to hear someone say: “Yes, Yes, I know what you are feeling.” Much like I felt reading, Under the Devil’s Thumb.

Sometime I write about what devours me: sadness, love, pain, want.

Sometime I write about how I wished things turned out.

Sometimes I just write.

Sometimes magic happens.

I think that I will be a Gessner Groupie and read everything he’s written. He has much wisdom about place and landscape. I have a lot to learn.

“I’m afraid I am a polygamist of place. This worries me. Is a man with two homes doubly blessed? Or is he homeless?” (204)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Granby Town Lights

Originally Published in  Rough Writers, Inc Literary Magazine2008

“All the world was shining from those hills, The stars above and the lights below. Among those there to test their fortunes and their wills I lost track of the score long ago.”  – Jackson Browne Barricades of Heaven

It is 9:00 on a cold, windy January night. I am driving north on Route 40, coming home from work in Fraser. I descend Red Dirt Hill as the snow squalls twirl on the black road in my headlights. I come around the final curve and see the lights of Granby in the distance; the twinkling lights are like beacons, and I smile. Every night this happens.

Descending into Granby and seeing the lights remind me of my first night in Colorado in 1988. I was seventeen and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life except be in the west. All my friends were preparing for their first year of college while I flew west to Denver for a hiking trip through the Rocky Mountains with people I didn’t know. I was excited, scared, happy, and didn’t know what to expect around every turn.

I met the other group members at the Denver airport and we drove north to Estes Park. We arrived at night and I was tired from an early morning flight from Boston and ready for bed. A sign on the road to Estes Park made me questions my decision to do this trip: “climb to safety in case of flash flood”. But it all vanished the moment we turned a curve in the road and the sight made my heart race and eyes fill with the tears of extreme emotion. We were coming into a valley of lights; it was like coming into a new kind of paradise for the first time. The lights were welcoming me; calling me closer. I’d never seen a valley like this; the lights sprinkled the lower valley and canyons walls. I was 2,000 miles from home and never wanted to leave.

It is this same sense of overwhelming beauty and wildness I feel as I drive home in the evening; coming home. Home – I feel at home here, more than anywhere I’ve ever lived. I moved to Granby not knowing anyone or anything about the town except the demographics from a website; much like the hiking trip through the Rocky Mountains. The lights of Granby remind me of that sense of adventure and desire to learn about a new place. The lights remind me of a Walt Whitman poem, Bivouac on a Mountain Side

Below a fertile valley spread, with bars and the
Orchards of summer,
Behind, the terraced sides of a mountain, abrupt,
In places rising high,
Broken with rocks, with clinging cedars, with
Tall shapes dingily seen
And over all the sky – the sky! Far, far out of reach,
Studded, breaking out, the eternal stars
All these sights and sounds in Granby remind me of the confusion and excitement of the search for where I want to be. And, they turn me back into that seventeen year old girl with her backpack and hiking boot in the trunk of the car, looking for new adventures in the west.

I am comforted by the Granby Town Lights.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Appalachia, White Mountains, and Dreams

Last month when I was back east for a conference (Washington, DC), I bought the journal, Applalachia, at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda.

I hadn’t been in a Barnes and Noble in years so I slowly walked through my favorite sections: New Non Fiction, scowling at the popular reality show characters who actually get books published. I smiled at the great titles of new memoirs and their no-name authors who scored book deals. If I had all the money in the world, I would have bought those beautiful hard-cover memoirs and literary fiction with great titles and beautiful covers.

I continued to the sports section looking for triathlon books that I needed to read, ending in the magazine section. I looked for literary journals and magazines about the writing life. I picked up a British triathlon magazine I’d never heard of and in the outdoor section saw the journal, Applachia.

Appalachia is “American’s Longest-Running Journal of Mountaineering and Conservation" according to the cover. It is an AMC book and I had never read it. When I lived in New Hampshire I was an AMC member and every month got the magazine, but never got the journal. I skimmed a few pages and kept seeing "White Mountains" and photos of mountain tops I've been on and knew I needed to buy it.

I didn’t read it on the plane home. I waited until I got home so I could savor every word that was written about hiking in the White Moutains. I wanted to read every article slowly and remember the time spent in the woods and mountain peaks of New Hampshire and Maine.

The cover photo of the Winter/Spring 2011 edition is taken from a logging camp to the north of Owl’s Head, a 4,000 foot peak that I never got to. But I swear, if that photo was in a different magazine or somewhere on the internet unnamed, I could tell it was taken in the White Mountains.

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic today and reading the first lines of Pemigewasset Dreams by Jonathan Mingle, I start thinking about the Pemigewasset wilderness and the time I spent wandering its trails. Those two words together are magical to me today: Pemigewasset and Dreams. His story starts: “I am walking through Zealand Notch, south toward Thoreau Falls.” I’m there. I want to be there. The second paragraph keeps me reading: “But the forest disrobed offers me a chance to scan for signs of the cataclysm, so I do.” He is wandering the valley in winter admiring a reborn forest after decades of logging.

He says the place names that marked my world so long ago such as Carrigan, Zeacliff, Zealand Falls Hut, Mount Tom, and Pemigewasset.

Reading the story, I think about how little wandering in the woods I’ve done this winter. I’ve skied and hiked short trips with the dogs. No long skis on the trails in Winter Park and no long hikes up the mountain behind my house. I am feeling that I am missing winter and bemoaning the cold; very uncharacteristic of me.

Today, I will go out my front door, dogs on leash, and wander around a bit more before the afternoon of triathlon training. Today, I will spend more time outside than inside. It’s a beautiful day on the western slope, blue sky, temperatures hovering in the 30s. Earlier this morning as I write, like William Stafford did, "before first light" that I am living my dream. All this time I thought my dream was Montana, but it really is Colorado.

For now, the Rocky Mountains are my dream and I will wander its valley and mountain peaks. 
I’ll get back to the Whites and the Pemi and Owl’s Head, some day. It’s part of my history. And, it will be part of my future.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Be a Hockey Fan

I went to an Colorado Avalanche game last week and fell in love with hockey again.

You see, I used to be a sports fan. In my early teens I watched the NY Yankees and Pittsburgh Steelers. I ate Reggie candy bars and had a crush on Terry Bradshaw.

As I got older I started going to Plattsburgh State Men's Ice Hockey games with my middle school friends. I liked the player who wore #6; and can’t remember his name. But I followed him for a year or so until I moved to New Hampshire and started watching college and pro basketball.

My favorites players were Patrick Ewing at Georgetown and Dr. J (#6) with the 76ers.

My junior year in high school I went to my first Bruins game and started liking #6 - Gord Kluzak. I took friends to as many games as I could that year. I bought a Kluzak jersey and wore it all the time. [I let a friend borrow the jersey for a Halloween costume, and never got it back.]

Shortly before high school graduation I discovered the outdoor world and started skiing and hiking.

The sports watching stopped.

I even dated a man who had to watch SportCenter on ESPN every night before going to sleep, and still, it didn’t get me back into sports. I vaguely remember the silliness of the sportscasters and wonder if they still have funny broadcasts of the day’s sports stories.

Last week I went to an Avs game. Going to the game was a birthday present for my like-minded boyfriend: we agree that it is fun to watch a professional sports game in person, but we wouldn’t watch it on TV. We went down to the ice during practice and I watched the Edmonton Oilers warm up. I saw #27 Penner and he reminded me of Kluzak, tall, scruffy, tough. During the first period he scored the first goal.
 I am officially a sports fan again. I enjoy following a player I like; it makes watching sports more fun. I have a propensity to have crushes on tall, tough, men with the number 6 on their back. [how old am I?]

I started following Edmonton on Twitter and Facebook.

Days later, Penner is traded to LA.

I become an LA Kings fan. I’m hooked.

I might even start watching SportCenter.