Friday, October 2, 2009

9-29-09 Mary Oliver, Lonesome Lake, and The Commons

An ancient yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis) at the height of land on the Lonesome Lake Trail

Poet Mary Oliver was here in Northampton at Smith College tonight (9-29-09) to read her poetry. There were more than 2000 people in John M. Green Hall that came to listen to her. I found that astonishing. I heard someone near me say “she’s like a rock star” because of her enormous following. Her poetry is much loved and so is she. I, too, love her poetry and it was wonderful to listen to her speak each word of poems I know well like Wild Geese and Violets. It was difficult to hear every word because the acoustics were awful and so was the sound system. People (there were so many) were constantly rustling and like the wind rustles in the leaves and drowns out other sounds the background noise stole some of Mary’s words. That was okay because it was a pleasure just seeing her up on the stage glowing like sunlight. Her poems are filled with light even when it‘s darkness they’re exploring. It’s amazing how she brings all these people together through her love of nature, through her lyrical poems about birds and other animals, flowers, the wind, and her reverence for life. She asks us to be “astonished and delighted by beauty”. She said, “Love yourselves then forget that and love the world.”

Large sugar maple trees (A. saccharum) in Lafayette Campground at the base of the Lonesome Lake Trail

My recent interview on NPR and, in part, my blogs, generated email from people around the globe who were inspired by the story behind the photographs on my Photographing America blog. I was delighted to receive emails from high school and college classmates I lost touch with 40 and 50 years ago. One even came from my best friend in third grade! He wrote that he's moved back to North Conway, NH, and often gets together with some of our other classmates from third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. I visited him last weekend and reveled in a small reunion with Jim, his wife, Ann Lee, and several of our grade school classmates. It was wonderful to look into their faces and reconnect with the child in each of us. We reveled in the stories, untold for these 50 years, using our memories collaboratively to fill in details. (e.g. Jim's memory is much sharper than mine with both names and events.) I loved listening to all of their stories particularly about what they've been doing since sixth grade. It was like listening to Mary Oliver with that same strong sense of connection. I was thrilled when I heard in their stories the same love for the mountains and hiking I have and the deep appreciation for the beauty they, too, find in the mountains. It was wonderful to feel that deeper, richer connection with them.

A family from New Hampshire exploring Franconia State Park for the first time

On my way home to Northampton from North Conway I took a quick trip up to Lonesome Lake Hut (nestled between Cannon Mt. and the Kinsmans in the Franconia Notch area of the White Mountains) to say hello to my friends Kate and Erin who are working there this fall. They were members, along with Meredith, Katie, Tasha, and Kelley of the brilliant Lakes 2007 fall croo. The weather on Saturday was spectacular. Parking was impossible because so many people were out enjoying the crisp air and gorgeous colors. As soon as I started up the trail I encountered dozens of other hikers either going up or coming down the trail. As I passed I asked some of them if I could take photos of them. When they asked why I said, "because I'm curious how and to what extent you feel connected to this place." Everyone that I asked agreed to be photographed. This blog entry, then, is mostly photos of the people I met and through those portraits statement, perhaps, of how we see ourselves in nature and how we relate to the beauty we encounter there.

He looks apprehensive of my camera and me

A week ago Saturday on my way up the Gale River Trail, just after greeting Meredith, I was startled by a great blue heron that suddenly rose six feet from me, rising out of the river bed flapping its wings. It rose right next to me, turned in mid-air, pumped its wings once or twice and then glided out of sight down the river. My heart was racing. I wanted to yell with a child-like insistence, "Stop! Don't go! I didn't mean to scare you!" but it was gone in an instant. There's nothing complicated about beauty.

Boy Scouts descending from Lonesome Lake where they spent the previous night. The light in the woods was amazing and motivated me to this take photo.

It's amazing how the Universe bombards us with subtle cues, overt messages, or shouts at us, or even startles us as in the rising of the heron to be aware of all the beauty that surrounds us. Mary Oliver in her narrative tonight explored how we find beauty. She quoted several other poets she refers to as "my friends" (her dog is called Percy) even though her "friends" are deceased. She referred a few times to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first words of Emerson's I remember hearing as a youth are, "Tho you search the world over looking for the beautiful, you will find it not unless you carry it with you." It sounds a little stiff and old fashioned but I feel it's true.

They kept coming in a seemingly endless line.

In the beauty of the heron, for me, there's a statement about health and sustainability; that in the beauty found in the White Mountains and elsewhere there's a clue about our sustainability, the Earth's, and the fact that we are all connected by that beauty and the mere health of the Gale River, that particular watershed and the larger ecosystem of the White Mountains that enfolds it.

This man wanted to be identified as a "runner", not a hiker.

The fact the heron was there at all, that far up the Gale River, looking for breakfast represents the health of the larger system. The heron's presence, so beautiful, opens up that kaleidoscope of connections between it, the fish, the water, the trees along the river, the forest, the soils, the rocks, the sun, you, me, on and on. The heron, in its own way, represents that health but also the incredible beauty of what the health represents. The people hiking up and down the Lonesome Lake Trail last Saturday become ensconced with the beauty they see and, more subtly, with the health of what they find beautiful (not to mention at some level that they also sense, correctly, that they are a fundamental part of it.)

A character

I think a lot about The Commons. I capitalize the words to differentiate the concept of The Commons from other common things we talk about. By The Commons I mean what people own in common. To be safe I should say it is a concept congruent with democratic forms of government. In totalitarian regimes you don't hear debates about The Commons. I think of them as to the necessities for all life on the planet like good health, food, air and water. Grazing lands have become a symbol of The Commons, one that's been fought over more than any other, probably. To a large extent literature, poetry, and the arts and knowledge are part of The Commons. I also include concepts of governing and socio-political activities protected by the US Constitutions (other countries' constitutions) like religion, government, laws (the constitution itself), justice, the Bill of Rights as fundamental facets of The Commons. I include the communities in which we live as The Commons. At our reunion the other day Jim and I were talking about our experience of being raised in North Conway in the 1950s as a facet of The Commons. We were raised by the entire community and there was a sense that, within that community, to a large extent we relied on each other for most of our needs. We recalled an incident where we were on our way to the movies and were throwing snowballs at passing cars. On the way out of the theater, later, Jessie Lyman was waiting for us at the door and gave each of us a pretty hard swat on the butt. I can still feel it. His truck had been hit with a volley of snowballs and one went in the driver's side window and he was legitimately angry. He said something like "Don't ever let me catch you doing that again!" and he didn't. We were interwoven into the fabric of that community and nurtured by it in almost every way you can think of.

A fast hiker.

Water, the oceans, theoretically are part of The Commons, but we all know are no longer owned by us, "the people" meaning we no longer have a say, except indirectly, in how they are used and supervised. I noted earlier that Coca Cola, Nestles, Pepsi, and other corporations make billions of dollars annually from our water and we can't do much about it. If you, or I, or a group of people said: "Hey, you have to stop selling our water" to Coca Cola, or Poland Springs, which is Nestles, what do you think would happen? The court case would go on for years. When push comes to shove and there is a infrastructure in place and money being made we lose our "theoretical" clout. If we went out on the ocean, and people are trying to do this, and said to the commercial fisheries, "Hey, this isn't your ocean, ya know." what would they do?) Another aspect of The Commons is that, when commercial entities like the huge fisheries operating on the oceans misuse or over-use The Commons and things like pollution, scarcity, or extermination occur it's "we the people" who end up paying for it. The mis-use then becomes part of The Commons as a negative, what is termed an "externality", like an oil spill clean up, and represents the real cost of something. This applies to the bank bail out in 2009. The banks get bailed out and our cost of living goes up. We end up paying for it twice. All of that probably makes The Commons seem large, nebulous, and difficult to grasp, but they can also be concrete.

This man does day trips like I often do, getting up at 4 am and driving to the mountains, doing a long hike and then driving home; a lot of driving in one day. He lives near Cape Cod.

The White Mountain National Forest (WMNF), (all the national forests and parks and wildlife preserves under the aegis of the federal government) is a good example of The Commons. We "the people" have some control over the WMNF. It's just a sliver of what The Commons used to be but we can keep it from being sold, we can keep special interest groups from taking it over, we can take part in making sure the beauty and health of the WMNF is preserved and enhanced. We can all participate in active stewardship and help legislate this piece of The Commons. This is kind of the idea behind all the photos of people in this blog who temporarily inhabit the WMNF: to show the social importance of this piece of The Commons because those who work in it, use it and those of us who love it are also the principal "stewards" of it. It's ours to enjoy and it's also our responsiblity. I emphasize the AMC huts and hut croos in this discourse because I see them as stewards of the WMNF in a way that most of us can't be because we're just not there enough of the time.

These guys were kissing right on the trail! I told them it was illegal and they laughed. (It's perfectly legal)

The AMC is often singled out for attracting people (too many) to the WMNF and is therefore part of a larger problem and not part of a solution in terms of "best management" of the forest. I try to remind people that there are numerous pros and cons to the presence of theAMC in the WMNF but it is a certainty that the White Mountain National Forest would be a far different place today if it wasn't for that organization. The US Forest Service, the official steward of theWMNF , has always had, in my experience, an outstanding group of managers overseeing this national forest in areas of administration, research and planning but theWMNF probably gets visited by more people every year than all the other national forests combined (that's an exaggeration but it sounds good). The logistics are increasingly difficult each year and the management piece today in terms of having sufficient resources in the current economy is probably a nightmare. So, having the AMC as a 'partner' in all this, a not-for-profit that can pay it's own way in terms of trails maintenance and other aspects of its stewardship, is a positive arrangement for both organizations.

Family group.

The Appalachian Mountain Club is 'licensed' by the Department of Agriculture through the US Forest Service to be a vendor in the WMNF. The license is actually a permit which allows the AMC to operate a non-profit organization (under an approved mission statement) on publicly owned lands (the WMNF). The AMC has to renew this permit every 30 years. I was present in 1965 when the permit was renewed and it was a pretty cut and dry process. There was almost no discussion. In 1992 I was part of a committee organized to insure the re-permitting process went smoothly at its execution in 1995. That was a "planning group". There were storm clouds on the horizon but also hope was that the re-permitting would only take a short time. Instead it took years due to a lot of arguing about the WMNF and the role of the AMC. There were some really good arguments and some not-so-good arguments. The good ones echoed the debates between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson 230 years ago and were largely around the public's ability to control what happens in the WMNF. Many, many people said they thought the AMC had too much control and were benefiting too much by having a "free ride" in the WMNF to develop their own political agenda.

Another family group in that exquisite light.

The important point form me was that there was a serious, informed, debate that the USFS facilitated brilliantly. It agreed with my concept of The Commons and my belief that we all need to talk more about The Commons (as in the current national debate about health care), in greater depth and with increased familiarity. We need to pay a lot more attention and try to be more representative by taking an interest in and advocating for the common good, common unity, and the common wealth .

Staying connected. He was calling his dad who was only 100 yards back down the trail.

I'm sure the hikers on the Lonesome Lake Trail on Saturday wouldn't have wanted to listen to one of my rants. my dire warnings about the inevitable loss of The Commons, so I won't subject you to one either. It's only that I think, and I mean I think a lot, about the beauty of the White Mountains and how vulnerable that beauty is and that the health that it represents now is ephemeral, it could be compromised at any time. As an example, there's a large corporate entity, a Real Estate/Recreational Consortium, researching the construction of a huge development in the Bretton Woods area on the west side of Mt. Washington. If it goes through it will change that area forever. It would compromise access to trails and the use of the national forest on that side of the range. It won't be a Disneyland per se but it could increase traffic exponentially and it would add lights at night, sound and air pollution. It will erode the beauty and health we're accustomed to and the sense of wildness of that valley. The land is privately owned and has been forever but it has not been extensively developed outside of some condominiums, theBretton Woods Hotel and golf course and a few commercial businesses around an existing ski area.

They called themselves the "Extreme Group."

All of this, the mountains, the scenery, the views, the rivers, lakes, the moose, trout, bear, deer, summits, you name it, beauty itself, after all, are just commodities. They, it, all has a price. It has value that translates into someone being able to make a buck on it. If you have moose then you fill a van and charge a buck to see them. If Disney came and built a huge park here a lot of people would yell "Yippee!" because there would be jobs and money. The aspect of more jobs would be more persuasive, say, then beauty, wildness, or sustainability in New Hampshire's private sector. I know it sounds overly dramatic but you can forget The Commons. Money and Jobs usually win out. If you doubt that look at Lake Winnipesaukee from the point of view of congestion, misuse and pollution.

He's got a great face.

On the lighter side, on Saturday I was reminded on my run up to Lonesome Lake of a lament I wrote in the Lonesome Lake Hut log in 1962, when I was in my teens that was two pages long about how the Mountains were going to hell in a hand basket because of all the people that were coming to hike. That was almost 50 years ago and for all my pessimism and "end-of-the-world" preaching not much has changed since then. (Lake Winnipesaukee yes, White Mountain National Forest no.)

One of the treats of a hike to Lonesome is this first glimpse of the lake and the Kinsmans.

And it's true, not a lot has changed in the last 50 years. Some days you can hear motorcycles driving though the notch up on top of Lafayette and some days there seems to be a million people on Mt. Washington and Mt. Lafayette, but I have climbed both in the past few months and not seen anyone, or hardly anyone, on the trail. Some days I will find a piece of tissue or a candy wrapper on the trail dropped from some one's pocket but most of the time I don't see any litter, at least not that was intentionally left. I think it is a true statement that nearly every hiker who travels through the mountains respects them and joins in keeping them pristine. My recent tirade about the road next to the cog railway tracks with all the construction debris that is still lying there next to the tracks are the only exceptions I can think of to that statement.

Gorgeous smile! Check out the logo on her T-shirt.

Speaking of moose and making a buck there's a great story that's from the endless stock of 'regional lore' of northern New England best told with a Maine accent. This one involves a Maine farmer (of course) that looks out one day and sees that a moose has fallen through the ice on his farm pond. The moose seems to have injured his front legs in the mishap. The farmer rigs up a tripod and winch and pulls the moose from the pond, gets the moose comfortably situated in the barn and calls the veterinarian. The doctor comes and gives the moose a clean bill of health except for some sprains and torn ligaments. He recommends that the moose should "set a while" until the wounds heal. So the farmer feeds the moose from his stock of hay and the winter passes. In the spring the moose is healthy as a lamb and the farmer tells his neighbors that he is going to let the moose free to return to the wild. (continued)

He's got a really interesting face

(story cont.) One of his neighbors, though, says: "wait just a damn minute! Didn't you pay those doctor bills and feed that moose for a couple three months? Why don't you put a big sign on your barn that says: 'Come See My Moose, only $10'? When the tourist begin coming in June you can make all your expenses back?" The farmer decides to do just that and everything goes well. Lots of tourist stop and look at the moose and pay the farmer and the farmer is getting a little ahead of the expenses. Then, one afternoon, a big station wagon pulls into the yard filled to the roof with a large family that's from one of those highly populated states to the south of Maine. The family clambers out of the car and line up in front of the barn and the father says: "Say farmer, do you think its worth $10 for my family to see your moose?" The farmer looks at the guy and then at his family. He scratches his head for a second and says: "Shucks, mister, I don't know whether it's worth more for your family to see my moose then it is for my moose to see your family."

Her comment: "Why in the world would anyone want to take my picture?"

Mother and son. He told me he's climbed all 48 of the 4000 footers in New Hampshire.

Another fast hiker. Fast people's photos are always a little blurry.

Northbound Appalachian Trail (AT) thru hikers. The guy in red was trying to remember the nationality of everyone they camped with the night before. The list included Irish, Japanese, Mexican, Ukranian, German, American and a man from Trinidad (Trinidadian?). He couldn't remember the rest. It speaks to the growing popularity of the AT.

Lonesome Lake with Mt. Lafayette on the left and Mt. Lincoln on the right.

Cannon Mt.

A school group eating surpsingly healthy food on the helicopter pad by the lake.

So my real purpose in presenting these photographs and bringing Mary Oliver in to the discussion is to leave you with a reminder of the diverse people that come to the mountains to enjoy them, to enjoy the company of others, to seek the many facets of beauty and health that are there. For some that means a more serious intent to commune with nature and for others it's simply to have a nice time outdoors for a few hours. That's the end of my rant. I hope you enjoy the photos. The light was unbelievably lovely and enchanting. The portraits are supposed to represent all of us in myriad ways. Think of them as poems.

Waiting for friends to come down from the Kinsmans.

Kate surprised by my camera and overwhelmed with getting dinner ready for a full house and also tending to day hikers clamoring for things to eat and drink. Luckily her parents were there for the weekend lending able hands. The rest of the croo, Erin, Taylor and Pat, were packing up the "rec" which is short for 'requistion' which is slang for fresh food, etc.

The trail back around the lake

A Rhode Island family eating a late snack before descending.

The last view of the White Mountains on my way home. There's a turnout on Rt. 118. a "scenic vista", where the road winds up and over a shoulder of Mt. Moosilauke. That's Franconia Ridge in the background with Mt. lafayette to the left. Mt. Washington, 50 miles away, is to the right of center and on the skyline.

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