Saturday, May 28, 2011

Humid thoughts of hazy days

I fully intend to post soon about the vine-cutting work I did for a land trust in southern Maryland last weekend, but summer has arrived early in all its humid glory, and with it, my yearning to do as little as possible. It's a neat land trust and worthy of some good words, but it will have to wait a few days, when cooler temps, or at least some ambition, arrive back at the homestead. 

In the meantime, I wandered over to the used bookstore today to acquire some fictional reading for these lazy days of summer. As a kid, during summer break, I would lie in bed or in the Papasan chair on the porch outside my parents' bedroom and read all evening and late into the night. I would begin reading after dinner, and suddenly it would be 10, 11, midnight. At the library, I would pick out stacks of books reinforced by plastic tape, which crinkled and cracked every time they were open, their spines bent back farther and farther with each read. Once in a while, we went to the bookstore to pick out a fresh novel, usually the latest one in the series I followed. I also plucked books from the shelf in my family room, though I never saw anyone else in the family reading them. My mom often gave me her books when she was done reading them, and as I finished each chapter, I imagined what she had been feeling as she read through those words.

These days, I opt for nonfiction much more often; when I do look to fictional tales, the classics often get passed over for something more timely. Some of my favorites have been written by the French, Mexicans, Africans, Iranians and other Middle Easterners, and Indians. If I can't visit these places, hampered by my limited funds, at least I can experience the world through their tales of family, work, politics, life, love, sadness, food. Some people read cheesy romance novels by the pool; I prefer the works of Parisians to transport me to that wonderful, flowery, romantic place, the top of my list for international travel.

Used-book stores are fantastic places. Bestsellers, classics, new books and old, all mingle on the shelves together. No strategic placement, nothing ordered based on sales data or rankings or anything like that. The books are there only because of the locals who bring them in to be resold for half their list price (or less). I pull out books at random, free to be less choosy because the financial investment is lower and thus less risky. The four books I chose today are by Balzac (my French fix, which I'm reading first), William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, and Kate Atkinson (the only one of the group of which I've never heard). I have officially renewed my seasonal membership in the Deadbeat Club.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Landmark Years and the Dallas Zoo

I visited the bestie down in Dallas this weekend to celebrate her 30th birthday. Whenever I tell someone I'm going to Dallas, they screw their face up in distaste and ask, "Why Dallas?" I'd probably do the same thing to anyone in my position - Dallas gets a bad rap, probably for some pretty good reasons - but I'd go anywhere to visit with my girl, and we actually find really cool stuff to do there. When I was there in October 2009, we went on a bike ride around the lake and hit up some art shows in people's homes along the way. This time, in addition to spending more than an hour in the used clothing store and shopping in some cool stores, we went to the Dallas Zoo.

According to my friend, the Dallas Zoo pales in comparison to the Fort Worth Zoo, but since we only had a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon and Fort Worth is a 45-minute drive from her place, we stuck with the hometown zoo. After using the women's restroom near the Large Mammal Building, which looked like its graffiti had been there since the '80s, we wondered what exactly our $15 admission was paying for. We wandered through most of the Zoo North section, where I impressed my friend with my knowledge of some of the animals (yes, I know my wood stork and my hooded merganser, thankyouverymuch), after which we realized that it was already practically closing time. But as I know from volunteering at the National Zoo, visitors usually get a little leeway to make their way back up to the entrance. So we made a break for the Wilds of Africa, which was an excellent choice. The new Giants of the Savanna exhibit features a sprawling savanna made to look like the Serengeti, sectioned off for each of the different species. We got up very close to the warthogs, penguins, lions, and giraffes - and I mean CLOSE! The viewing area for the giraffes is set at eye-level to the animals, and they can walk right up and let visitors touch them. I've never been that close to a giraffe. It was really cool. Their heads are much bigger than they look from afar. The whole exhibit was very well-done - the elephants have a ton of room to roam, and during the day, the giraffes can join them. It really feels like what I imagine Africa must be like.

Some parts of the zoo may definitely need some work, but I have to say, I almost liked it better than the National Zoo. Blasphemy, I know. I saw a whole lot of animals at the Dallas Zoo that I never even knew existed. The National Zoo has a fantastic conservation and education program, but I was familiar with a large percentage of the animals there already when I visited for the first time. The Dallas Zoo lets you get very close to the animals, and they exhibit some very different animals there. To combine the best of the two zoos would make for an amazing facility with the opportunity to reach a lot of people and do a great service for global biodiversity.

As for the landmark birthday my friend was celebrating, it made me think back to my 30th. A year and some later, the advice I would give to anyone turning 30 is to spend the first 8 or 10 months reflecting on what you always thought you would have accomplished by that point. Then, about 2 or 3 months before your 31st, throw it all out the window and say To hell with it all! Then do whatever you want because you realize that it was all a bunch of bull, that your life is actually better now for not having done those things, and that the pressure is off because you already screwed up anyway so you might as well have some fun. The 30s are the time in between acne and menopause (tell that to my skin...), when you finally lose that baby fat and have the money for some real clothes to flatter that new figure. It's a time of transition, of discovering new things about ourselves, letting go of some of the baggage we've been carrying and getting on with the next stage of our lives, and eating German chocolate cake for breakfast. It's a lesson about how we never stop learning. I hope that my friend's big year is full of positive transitions and exciting new projects.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

First Ascent

The first hike of the season was yesterday at Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. It was a good day for a hike - cool with a warming sun. The plan was to hike the Potomac Overlook trail to the North Ridge trail to the South Ridge trail, but as should always happen on an outing like this (and in life, really) I took the advice of my inner compass and opted to hike farther down the gravelly Boston Mill Road and start with the South Ridge trail instead.

The South Ridge trail is two or three people wide in most places, and much of it winds through meadows or a mix of meadows and trees. At the overlooks, oversized benches offer respites from the continually uphill climb, where soaring long-winged raptors can be seen floating the thermals through the valley over cows in pastures and crop fields, and grasshoppers can be heard sproinging through the tall grass (one of my favorite sounds). The upper part of the South Ridge and the western part of the North Ridge are more wooded and the trail is rockier. The breeze rustled through the trees, the whooooosh amplified by the still-bare branches. The dogwoods were in full bloom, their flat white flowers fluttering, creating bright flags among the foliage. The redbuds bloomed too, their tiny pink flowers dotting the woodlands with color. Recent rains have left the forest floor muddy and small rivulets carved canyons into the trail. Pipevine, zebra, and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies darted from flower to flower, lapping nectar and seeking mates. The electric blue of the pipevine is breathtaking, and the flash of unexpected orange dots under its wings delivers a second punch. Woodpeckers tap-tapped and unidentified chirps called from a hidden perch.

I started up the North Ridge trail past the rushing stream, but that inner compass pulled me back to the Gap Run trail, which winds along the stream downhill back to the gravel road. So much water rushed through the stream that it could be heard high up in the hills, echoing off the valley walls long before it became visible. It flushed down through the valley and splashed over, under, around and between rocks and logs, carving new paths that weren't there after the last rain. This is how it begins. Maybe some day this unnamed stream will be as mighty as the Potomac River, or perhaps it will trickle quietly from the earth, no starting or ending point in sight, just small clear pools between exposed tree roots. Yesterday, it overflowed its banks and spread out over the trail and in all directions. The saturated ground was squishy, the grass and fallen leaves doing little to provide stable footing. It is mostly peaceful here, except for the airplanes that occasionally fly overhead and the stream of people out for a Saturday hike.

Yesterday's hike was only three miles or so, but the steep hill climbs and the admiration and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich held me back. After almost three years here, it doesn't feel as special as it once did. Forests are everywhere here - people live right on the edges of them - and they generally look the same - same trees, same wildlife, same nearby road sounds. Humans have conquered this land, mostly. The trees seem to hold their breaths most days, standing guard against the next subdivision. There is little wildness here, just managed sanctuaries from civilization. The earth here is cognizant of human presence.

But don't be mistaken. Despite its commonality, the forest is a magical place. This land may now be a part of the human landscape, but we will never totally conquer it. Sometimes, it conquers us. We need it to remind us of our fragility, our innate hopelessness in our fight against mortality, so we can appreciate the fact that we are still here.