Saturday, December 27, 2008

Left Brain, Right Brain, Television

I walk at night in the quiet and the cold. Even with snowshoes on my feet I sink in the snow. I feel the heat build in my core and radiate outward, temporarily captured by my layers of clothes. Soon I am too warm and I unzip my coat so I don't get overly hot. I imagine moist hot air escaping on the night breeze, my scent carried to wild creatures hiding in the dark.

I admire their beauty, strength and instinct. Sometimes I think I am like them, sometimes I want to go back to be cradled in nature.

On a sub-zero night like tonight nothing will be moving. Best to curl up in a brush pile or in the shelter of some pines and wait for the cold to pass. The deer will find a place out of the wind, perhaps in the pines, and lay down in the snow, leaving behind a body imprint, a dish of ice, when they get up and move along. I consider how I would survive without a house to go back to, without a grocery store or running water.

I am not strong enough, I have become something else. I live in a controlled world of artificial light and uniform temperature. The natural world has become a form of entertainment, not a way of life.

Author Loren Eiseley in his book "The Immense Journey" writes of the evolution of man. He ponders our origins and and our connection to the past. He talks of the forces of natural selection and how they relate to man, He says modern man is physically much the same as his ancestors. Man does not evolve like animals, for man, evolution of the physical body has been replaced by evolution of the brain. "quote from Eiseley about how our body remains unchanged."

Where an animal may need a thick coat or night vision to survive, man has clothing or lights. Because of our wonderful brains, we can make tools that change instead of our bodies. Our bodies are frozen in time because our tools do all of the changing. I think Eiseley assumes our big brains, continue to evolve. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I am sure something else is at work as well.

I have made a loop through the fields and now I stand at the edge of the woods in sparkling moonlit snow considering our house, some windows glowing with friendly yellow light. Another window flickers with the blue light of the TV. I stand and listen.

I wonder about the clicking and scraping coming from the woods. There must be a breeze in the tops of the trees that makes the frozen branches rattle. There is the sound of a car in the distance on the highway that gets louder and then fades. This is not true wilderness. The distant sounds of civilization would be a thundering irritation to someone accustomed to real solitude. To me though, all is silent. I continue to stand and then I hear the sound of my dog in the house. She is barking a warning. She has detected something out of place.

Friend since the beginning of mankind. Superior senses, she is doing her job. She sees my form, she doesn't recognize it is me lurking at the edge of the woods and barks a warning. Out here it is a distant sound, barking swallowed by the night, but it must be loud in the house. I feel bad for worrying her and move towards home as her barking continues. I look for her outline in the window and perhaps that of the concerned occupants in the house. Surely they wonder what the racket is about.

Our brain is separated into hemispheres that operate like dual processors in a computer, taking over different duties and sharing information. Our delicate human minds store memories, a record of time, as nothing more than electronic impulses in the brain. The same images in different iterations in person after person.

Using our consciousness we recognize relationships between things, we make stories. We dream. I suspect that our dreams are some kind of accounting between the halves of our brain. We re-live parts of the day and relate them with important parts of our life and mash them together into stories that some how make sense and help us make our way in the world.

In our culture we value originality, but the fact is that anything I can think has been thought before. Stories come to life in our mind and through the miracle of language we share them and weave them in with our own. We share experiences with those who have been dead for thousands of years. Through our eyes and ears we are connected to others. This interconnected group thinks for us and processes information as if they were another part of our brain.

I tromp through the snow past the outside of the house. I linger there undetected by everyone but the dog, peering through the windows at what we have become. In one window my son is absorbed by the task of texting a message on his cell phone. I move on to the next window. Faces illuminated in the blue light, not the moon, but television.

We are wizards. Primitive bodies with no need to evolve because we have magic. We have medicine, science and tools. We think for each other and machines remember and think for us as well. The record of our kind is stored not just in our minds, but in delicate machines. Like our bodies, our brains no longer need to develop. Just as tools have replaced adaptive evolution, technology has replaced the advancement of our brains.

Through the window I see my family, bodies relaxed and eyes wide they see landscapes and experience deeds of courage without being there. If we are still evolving, I wonder what we are turning into.

Humans need bodies for punching buttons and reproducing and little else. We lay motionless as our brains do accounting with the television set. News shows, TV dramas and comedies stream through our eyes and ears, the collective dreams of a rapidly changing society. We don't even realize we are part of something bigger.

I am starting to get cold and I must return to the house just as I always do. I can still run and get out in nature and I can still dream. I will continue to dream.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Looking for an Upgrade

The other day I tried to go for a run on highway 58. I found myself watching a snowplow three quarters of a mile up the road heading towards me throwing a plume of snow 20 yards into the ditch. I escaped to the median with the re-enforced opinion that the side of the highway in winter is no place for a pedestrian.

The pressure has been building. I considered a treadmill for the basement. I know you have to have at least three horsepower and spend overe $1000 for a moderately good one.
Winter has caused some stress. The dark, the cold, the wind, there is always some reason for staying inside. Strange things can happen when you're under stress.

The TV was on. I passed through the room and it pulled me into stationary orbit. I stood behind the couch for ten minutes, slack jawed, engaged in a medical show.
As I stood there an ad came on the TV for a reality show about people losing weight. Then came an ad for a TV service. The famous, sexy woman looked suggestively into the camera and moved her hips and sang "you're ready for an upgrade". She was wearing a short, tight, shiney gold dress. She fell to the ground and writhed around in piles of gold coins.

Something in me snapped.

I struck a pose and rotated my hips and sang out in a faulseto voice, "I'm ready for an upgrade". I was was about to fall to the ground and continue the song writhing on the floor when the family ejected me from the room. With no where else to turn I stepped out the door into the cold. I rummaged around in the garage and found a pair of snow shoes.
With the snowshoes strapped to my feet I started at a slow jog into the field. I kept myself going and the images and sounds from the tv started to fade. I did the slow plodding jog until I could feel the warmth in my fingers and heat raidating from my body. I stopped on the knob of a hill to survey the world. At first I could only hear my own breathing but as my lungs caught up and my breathing slowed I could hear my pulse in my ears. I could hear the blood rushing in my head and feel it pumping in my fingers. I was comfortably warm.

On this calm night fresh snow covers everything. There is a waxing moon that alows me to see in whites, grays with suprising clarity. A snipet from some old song or poem is in my mind. "Cold orb rules the night, removes the colors from our site..." I look down to the snow at my feet, animal tracks pass by in front of me dark holes in the snow. Beyond the tracks the snow spreads unbroken with an occasional glittering caught by my perephrial vision as if diamonds are inset into the ground itself.

Before the cold could start seeping into my clothing I resumed moving at a walk. A vigorus walk, the snow shoes slowing and lengthening my stride making me feel like a giant striding across the land. I settled into my big stride singing in my head, "I'm look'in for an upgrade, an upgrade." I thought to myself, "I could be a character in a Kurt Vonegut Story." After a time, perhaps a mile, I stopped again on another rise and looked across the fields.

The landscape is truly owned by the moon, the colorless light gives the world a dreamlike quality. But in the distance are radio and relay towers with red lights blinking, out of place in the spell cast by the moon. It strikes me as an odd thing and I pause a little longer. A conversation from the past comes to mind. It was about building a house. The people as I remember liked a piece of land, but it had huge power lines cutting across from the nearby nuclear power plant. We walked the land, it was a beautiful except for the scar of the power lines. We could only find one place were the view was not obstructed. Directly underneath the power lines there was an clear view of the Mississippi river valley. You could almost imagine they didn't exist.

I continued to look at the towers lined up in the distance with blinking lights. I thought of War of the Worlds were huge machines driven by aliens stride across the land conquering all they see. My eyes followed an indentation in the ground in front of me that deepend to a ravine at the edge of the field. There I could see the dark forms of a giant cottonwood and a knarled old oak. If the wind rises, I thought, they will sway and come to life. Perhaps they will cross the hills and defend us from the alien invasion.

This is silly, I've gone too far. The cold has penetrated my gloves. I have to get moving. First step, second step, stride, stride. I'm look'in for an upgrade, an upgrade.

Monday, June 23, 2008

You Just Had to Be There

I have confirmed that I am a little bit crazy. Today I noticed little puffs of pollen coming from tall grass with little yellow flowers. It is amazing how much pollen comes from one grass plant.
Something came over me when I looked out over the fields. I thought of herds of Buffalo on the great plains. I thought of the Harvey Dunn paintings of the prairies. I thought of pioneers in covered wagons in grass as high as a horses back. I thought of sod houses. I thought of a fourteen year old pioneer boy and his mother in southwestern Minnesota. The mother made the boy plow furrows around their home on the prairie because she could see smoke in the distance. They barely survived a prarie fire.
I didn't think about the fact that I'm off the charts for grass allergies. I thought I would make a video of pollen coming off the grass. After the close-up of little puffs coming from the tiny yellow grass flowers I would raise the camera from the delicate individual plant and pan across the vast waving fields of grass to demonstrate the scale of it all.
I went to the field with my camera and shook several grass stalks and the pollen issued forth. I went into the field with grass up to my neck and shot video of the grass at all angles. I squatted down and got shots of the the grass contrasted against the blue sky. I panned across the field, lingering on patches of bright purple or yellow flowers, subtle in the distance.
Having had allergies for some time I had some idea I may be uncomfortable later, so I held my breath as long as possible. But I couldn't do that for an entire hour.I have confirmed it is grass that I am allergic to. A video camera in the hands of someone such as myself can't begin to capture the colors and textures in a field of grass. The video is quite dull - just shots of green fields with no obvious subject. Individual stalks of grass being roughly shaken by a disembodied hand. The audio of my little shoot had some very nice bird and bug sounds in between my amazingly loud sniffles of my best allergy attack of the year.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Path in the Grass

I promised myself I would hang sheetrock tonight in the garage after dinner. I hung one sheet and started to feel restless. It did not seem to be right to work inside a garage on an evening like this. Well, I thought, I could mow the grass, a noisy chore, but at least I would be outside and still get something usefull done..I found myself on the riding mower. Without a glance or a thought I steered away from our yard and out across the fields. Reasoning that I was mowing a path to walk on later.
I drove on, mowing across the field far enough that I wondered how many miles per gallon a riding lawn mower gets. As I mowed I thought of one of my grandpa's who had a bad leg. He would drive his lawn mower around the yard, out to the mailbox or up to the chicken coop. Many of my memories of him include a lawn mower. I've heard of old people, not completely in their right mind who escape on golf carts or lawn mowers driving to some unknown distant and more satisfactory place to be collected later by fussing relatives who shake their heads in amusement or dismay.
I think they, the escapees, are not addled. They are seeing the world from another point of view. As I drive this train of thought leaves my mind. I am noticing my surroundings. The sun is low near the horizon and halfway behind a cloud. This evening light has magic in it. I have seen it many, many times but it is always new. Everything near and far seems to be focused and sharp beyond reason. I imagine I can see individual leaves on distant trees. The texture of the high grass draws my eyes and invites me to touch. I notice there are different kinds of grasses with different kinds of seed tops. I see the verigated leaves of clover and the flowers on the vetch are very purple as if the color eminates from inside the blossom . I look at the clouds in the sky and see a towering thunderhead floating by like a giant battleship, the top illuminated by the setting sun.
Suddenly I feel foolish trapped on the noisy lawnmower. My only thought is to hurry home and park it so that I can return to the fields on foot and in silence. My goal is to catch the last light of day on the fields of grass. I reach home and the sun is fading fast. No time to convince someone to come with me. Even though our house is surrounded by every kind of grass, I had to get back to the same place where I first noticed the evening light. I took a camera and started to run on the trail I mowed. As I ran through the field camera in hand I could smell summer and feel the evening comming. Fresh mowed grass mingled with the fragrance of clover blossoms and a thousand other plants unknown to me. Warm summer air on my face would suddenly give way to cool moist air that felt like evening, then back again to warm fragrant air of summer. In the morning the fields would be coverd with dew, cool fog hanging in the low spots. I felt it before it could be seen.
Tonight I managed to hang one piece of sheetrock and mowed a path through the middle of one hundred acres of grass and watched the sun set while a cloud that looked like a battleship sailed by. Who would have known it could be such a productive evening.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

New Moon

There was a half moon when I posted last week. There is almost no moon today, Next week there will be a half moon again, growing larger. It seems strange that the phase of the moon follows my weekly entries.
The moon has become detached from the weeks and the months on the calendar and I forget were they come from. I live by my calander. I am busy. It is easy to forget about the moon. How do I know what else I have forgotten?
I open a window, get out of my car, set foot outside my house. Getting outside is the only thing that helps.
Sunday I took my little tractor into the field. I should have known better. Farmers make their living in the fields. Not one of them is out on a tractor yet.
On a slippery, muddy slope with no where left to go I stopped the engine and hopped off to consider my options. As sometimes happens, I found myself standing, looking around and listening. In the distance I could hear voices, boisterous yelling, a big flock of geese high in the sky honking encouragement to each other as they headed North.
I had to scan the sky to find them. They were so high and untouchable that I had to laugh in amazement when I spotted them in their distnat smallness. Who wouldn't be tempted to imagine a time before cars and airplanes and bright lights. A time when geese could push the borders of imagination.
We have it easy. We don't have to move. Arctic adventures and calving iceburgs on the nature channel can't satisfy the simple need to slip around in the local mud and scan the sky.
Much time is spent watching TV. I much prefer sitting on my front porch cleaning fragrent wet dirt from my vibram soles.
I am laughing inside as I write this(a few days early). It is the last day of March and the snow has been falling hard all day. I have been laughing all day. I don't think I can explain it, but I am sure it is the snow. It's not on my calander.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Moon & Me Talk Trash

The half moon came with me this morning at sunrise. It's at its zenith and will share half of the day with the sun. It seems the moon takes an interest in my blogging activety. Last week the full moon was low in the east as I drove home from work thinking of what to post in the blog. It was big and waxy, a warm yellowish orange in its rising. The beauty of it struck me but I dismissed it, because it was the official turn of the season and my blogging thoughts were on the equinox and melting snow that would be in my post.
I turned my head for just a moment. When I looked back at the moon it was cool and distant. Half its previous size and nearly blue. There was nothing I could do.
The damage to our relationship was not too great though because this morning the moon was with me again marking another post with another phase. As I moved down the road it followed me shining through the bare tree branches ocassionally disappearing behind the hill. The turkeys have gotten bolder, now I see them in the road and the gobbling in the hills barely stops when a car goes by.
Up on the highway there is a dead deer that has been frozen there all winter. It puts me in mind of a road killed coon I saw last year. Obviously a mother by the look of her. Someplace nearby there was a brood of kits that would starve. I had the impulse to go look for them, but I would not know what to do if I found them.
Once around this time of year I found abandoned baby red squirrels in a tool shed and we raised them. From helpless, hairless little things they grew strong and energitic. They were not designed to live in an aquarium. Their energy was fearsome. When out of the cage they could be up your sleeve and down your leg in a heartbeat. Finally we let them go to meet their fate in the woods.
I have noticed tracks in the snow that indicate some coons are smart enough to use the culvert under the highway as an underpass. This morning deer stand in a little group in a nearby field as if holding a meeting to form a a petition to get a culvert big enough for them.
As I head back down the highway towards home the trash of winter has been exposed by the melt. It is ugly what we leave behind. Maybe someone could design a fast food container that, like a seed, could ride the edies of wind behind passing cars and follow them to their destination.

Off the highway now, I notice a shiny black garbage bag that has landed here in the last week. Today I stop to look. It's half full, not split. It is tied tightly shut with bright red handles. It looks clean. I imagine it riding in the passanger seat next to some anonomous person. Tracks in the soft mud along the road suggest it was carefully set there and not tossed. It takes a minute for me with the moon looking over my shoulder to untie the cheerfull red handles. Inside is what appears to be an entire winter's worth of dog feces. Someone out there has the good sense to pick up after their dog.
This is a small thing, I'm happy its not a microwave. The sun is rising now. The moon and I need to get moving.

Monday, January 07, 2008

I don't need no stinkin GPS

I value being comfortable in the outdoors. Being able to start a fire, read a map, knowing where I am, dressing for the weather.

My reaction was mixed when a relative gave me a GPS for Christmas. I do like gadgets.
My first thought was "GPS? I don't need no stinkin GPS". I couldn't resist the curiosity, though, and a played with it a little bit. Soon the novelty wore off and I left it on a shelf.

January 4th, the thaw hit. By morning the hard crusty snow was soft and slushy. Animal and people tracks from the day before were obliterated. For the first time since fall I noticed fresh coon tracks, easy to follow. I thought it would be fun to get one of my sons and follow the tracks to see what the coon was up to. Maybe we could find his den.

Having the boys with me didn't work out. I got a quick refresher course from my oldest son on the workings of the GPS and headed out on my own.

I found myself electronically marking property corners, brush piles, deer beds and of course, a coon den. In my mind, every time I marked something I was showing it to my sons. Of course if I had been with my sons I would have been talking too much, which is what I tend to do.

Who knows if they will ever try to find the points I marked. Maybe they will, and I enjoyed showing them all kinds of things even though they weren't there.

I will eventually find uses for this little contraption.


The tracks of the coon near our house got trampled by dogs, kids and me, so I went walking to find others. Not a hard thing to do. The coons were out. I found good tracks near the border of some private land and state land. The state land was logged a couple of years ago.

An interesting note, the brush is pretty thick in the logged area, as I would expect. What I didn't expect was sign of heavy human activity. Someone, from the DNR I suspect, had been out with a chain saw cutting non-native buck thorn. Seems like a losing battle to me. They'll have to do that for years to have any effect. How do you wipe out a plant like that when you have birds pooping little seeds all over? I wonder if they factor the cost of that into the economic benefit of logging.

If the brush is hard to walk through, the slashed brush and little stumps stained with blue weed killer are almost impossible to navigate. The coon evidentally agrees and stays out of the brushy mess.

I follow his perfect little hand prints in the soft sticky snow. When he comes upon a down tree he jumps up and walks along the length of the log, making his tracks disappear for a stretch. He knows where the logs span deep washouts and uses them as bridges, slippery enough to make me wary of following his lead. His path seems to be from one big rotting log to the next. I see rotten wood chips freshly strewn in the snow where he was tearing through the rotten wood to get at something.

I'm thinking about bugs, In the fall box elder bugs gathered by the thousands on the southern exposure of our house. I tried vacuuming them up, but there seemed to be an endless supply of them hiding in nooks and crannies. I ended up with gallons of bugs from one side of the house.

This winter, on a ledge in the garage where the electric line comes in I found a big pile of box elder bug wings and legs. What happened to the bodies? Closer inspection revealed mouse poop mixed in with the bug parts.

It appears I have found the table of a feast that lasts all winter. There is someone who likes box elder bugs. Looking at the rotten tree I know it is full of different kinds of bugs. From my logging of fallen trees I also know it is full of mice.

There is meaning in this. Since I was a kid I've heard and read, that a climax forest is a dead forest. There is no life because the trees are too big. Logging allows young trees with tender buds to grow which provides food for wildlife. There is some truth in this, I'm sure. But it is a half truth. It's the company line.

An ecosystem does not start with deer browsing on young buds. Even grade schoolers learn that it starts with the smallest creature and leads up the chain to the top. The logged area over the fence line does not have big dead, standing trees, and it won't for 150 years.

What will a coon waking temporarily from his winter slumber find to sustain himself in the young brush. No rotting wood, no bugs, no mice, no den. The logged area is certainly no good for woodpeckers. What about other bug and mouse eaters?

You can't easily walk in the thicket that replaced the forest, its not pretty to look at. My point is that logging is not an environmental activity any more than pumping oil. Likewise, we are not any more likely to stop using wood than we are to stop using oil.

Wood may be a renewable resource, if it's grown like a crop, but a forest is not. Not in our life time and not in the way forests are "harvested".

It would be good to leave some places alone. The economics we use to evaluate a lumber sale on public property probably don't take into account the loss of the forest environment.