West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Giving thanks

Winter is here at last, with icy north winds that sweep the last of the oak leaves down the gutters. The sun sets around four. I walked downtown last week for groceries, and the wind had numbed my face through the scarf before I was halfway there. I’d forgotten what cold feels like, the way cold takes up residence in your ribcage. Walking through the small patch of woods behind Eastern near twilight yesterday, I felt absurdly naked without a pack on. I caught myself scanning the forest for clearings near the trail, and realized I was looking for a tentsite. This weather and the low light in the oak trees brings it all back: sleeping in the cold and waking in the cold; making sure your boots freeze in a shape that you will be able to work your frozen feet into in the morning.

Sometimes I miss the Trail with a desperate intensity. A hiker friend who I’ve recently gotten back in touch with said, “I think about the A.T. like an ex-girlfriend.” And it is kind of like that—so easy to look bad and remember just the good parts, and think, why did it ever end? and then you remember the bad parts, and think, why did I ever do that to myself? Walking under the cold oaks at dusk I thought about the simplicity of Trail life, which is the aspect I miss the most. The day’s task was as easy as putting one foot in front of another, finding water, cooking food, surviving. You only have to look for the next white blaze to know where to go. Especially in winter, when these simple tasks consumed all the energy I had and more, the Trail life had a Zen-like focus in the moment. Life in the outside, the “real world,” is so much more scattered and various. There are no blazes to guide anything. The goals are bigger, though, than simply reaching a mountaintop somewhere in the forest.

On Thursday, if all goes well, I will finish my doctorate. It’s a bittersweet feeling to know that I will soon be leaving Connecticut. This has been a good place for me, mostly; I’ve learned so much about love, friendship, ecology, survival. I will miss a lot of people here. Not the place, necessarily—Connecticut is far enough north that it snows, but far enough south that people don’t know how to drive in the snow, among other shortcomings. But the people here... more than anything, I’m going to miss Robin and her family. She’s been the most wonderful advisor anyone could hope for. She and Rob have welcomed me into their home like another daughter. I’ve watched her kids grow up into amazing young adults. I’ve learned so much from her guidance, and it’s been such a joy getting to know her. I spent Thanksgiving with Robin’s family and friends, a gala feast that concluded with Pictionary and Scrabble into the wee hours of the morning. I hope that someday I will have a home and a family of my own so full of love, curiosity, and good humor.

As the cold and darkness settle in, this is a good time to take stock and give thanks. I am thankful that I will not be living in a tent this winter. I am thankful for the wonderful people I have known. I am thankful to have been here and thankful to be leaving.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Leading economic indicators

If you are a US citizen and you are reading this before 8 pm on November 4th and you have not voted yet, go and do it now. Then you can come back and read the rest. Thank you.

I have not posted anything for ages, partly because there has been little to report, but mostly because there has been no time in which to report it. I am finishing my doctorate in a month. If I had known beforehand how much of my life would be given over to the soul-sucking, time-gulping monster that is my dissertation, I am not sure I would have signed up for this. But it’s too late to back out now. If I want to graduate on schedule and keep my job, I have no choice.

Why write this now, then? Because there are things I need to say. I have half an hour allotted for lunch. I wolfed down my pizza in five minutes so I could write instead.

As I was walking downtown to vote this morning, a heavy mist off the river obscured the trees and gave the air a damp, chilly weight. In the six blocks between my house and the polling station, I passed three foreclosure signs and two going out of business sales. Willimantic is still reeling from the last economic collapse, when the thread mills closed down in the 70s, and there is a pervasive grittiness to the town—graffiti on the walls, plywood-boarded windows, garbage in the side streets. In recent weeks I’ve seen a new desperation, though. A couple of weeks ago when I was taking out the garbage, I saw a man going through recycling bins on the curb. I asked if he was looking for returnables—I had a bunch of diet coke cans in the storage room that my old housemate had left, that I’d never gotten around to redeeming.

“Yeah,” he said, “I don’t go through the trash like some people. Only recycling. You gotta understand how hard it is. Three kids in school, my wife is disabled from an accident, the settlement hasn’t come through yet and we’re up to our ass in legal fees...”

There was a hardness in his voice and a reluctance to meet my eyes. New England; everybody wants to show that they can take care of themselves. I handed him the bag of cans, maybe a dollar’s worth. I wished there was more I could do.

A few days later I went to the Salvation Army, looking for an old wool shirt to take on a camping trip in the White Mountains with the Field Ecology class. (There’s nothing better than a wool shirt for keeping warm in the rain—which was predicted for the weekend—and they smell a lot better than synthetics when they’re sweaty and wet. The Salvation Army seems to be the best place to find a cheap one.) It was family night, 50% off everything and the store open until seven. The line was literally out the door. I found my wool shirt and stood waiting to pay for 45 minutes, chatting with the Puerto Rican grandmother in line behind me. As we got close to the register, the line stopped moving entirely. A dark-haired woman and her teenage son had piled their stack of purchases on the counter and she was trying to pay by check. (I recognized the look in the boy’s eyes, being a veteran of teenage shopping trips at the Salvation Army myself). The blue-haired matron at the cash register was calling the bank to make sure the check would clear.

“It’s been refused,” she said, loudly enough for a lot of us to overhear. The dark-haired woman and her son paid by credit card and left the store, their bearing military-stiff. New England.

I have been watching the stock markets drop and economy go into a slow free fall, but moments like this make it real and personal. People are suffering, and meanwhile the Republican National Committee spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on Sarah Palin’s wardrobe. The prosperity is not trickling down.

There are hopeful signs, though. After I voted I stopped at the Coop to buy milk and cereal—about the only thing I’m eating these days, since it takes no preparation time. The Coop is a haven for unabashed liberal hippy types like me, and I chatted with the staff at the checkout line about our cautious, almost secret hope for tomorrow.

“I don’t want to get too hopeful,” one man said. “I don’t want to let myself think, like in 2004, that Americans couldn’t possibly be so dumb... we keep proving ourselves dumber than I think possible.”

“But it could happen,” an older woman said. “It’s like America could really wake up. Like we could change, become what we used to be again. An example to the world.” She laughed. “It’s hard not to get, you know, sappy. Like the sun’s coming out again.”

I looked outside, and indeed, the sun was coming through the fog, rising up over the roof of the abandoned thread warehouse like the Obama-Biden campaign logo. I allowed myself a vertiginous moment of hope.

And more hope as I walked home. A gnarled old apple tree leaning over someone’s fence had dropped its cargo of lopsided fruit in the gutter. I remembered a conversation some years ago with a neighbor in Maine who was a Holocaust survivor. We had been walking in late October. Fruits lay thick under the half-wild apple trees by the roadside.

“It’s a shame that no one picks them,” I said.

She shook her head. “No, it is a good thing. It means that this winter, no one is going hungry.”

The white sun rising behind clouds and apples rotting in the gutter. Hope, such as it is.