Writing Out Loud


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Fahrenheit 451: When Fiction Evolves Into Fact

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As has been the case with many books that weren’t required reading at the high school I went to during the 1960’s, I only recently familiarized myself with what is considered to be science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s best all-time work: Fahrenheit 451. Considered a deeply disturbing book when it was first published in 1953, when I was just three years old, it is unarguably more so now for the simple fact that so much of what Bradbury only imagined then has come, or still is coming, to pass.

Set in a fictitious town that is not named in the book, the story centers around a man who works as a fire starter and whose job it is to burn any and all books he comes across. Categorized as science fiction, the short novel examines the possible outcomes for a society that considers books to be dangerous disseminators of knowledge. Early on, the man, called Guy Montag, gets the sense that there is something wrong with that picture, and his instincts are further confirmed when he meets a strange girl named Clarisse on his walk home from work one night. Unlike all the other people in his life, who are controlled by the government via wall-sized television sets and ear pods known as Seashells, the girl is in tune with nature and the world around her, and she inspires Montag to question his role as a burner of the very information that has set this girl apart from everyone else he knows.

Montag also connects at this point with another individual, an elderly man named Faber, who is still clandestinely managing to preserve knowledge through the use of electronic devices he works on in his secret lab. Together with Clarisse, Faber offers Montag hope that there is a way out of his dilemma, and he eventually enlists the old man’s help to plan how he is going to retaliate.

Mildred, Montag’s wife, on the other hand, is totally controlled by her hedonistic environment, as are all her friends and neighbors. More and more, Montag begins to feel like an outcast, and starts salvaging books from among those he is instructed to burn. He is further traumatized by helping to burn down a house whose owner, an elderly woman, chooses to die with her books; and he lives in fear of the eight-legged robotic dog, called the Mechanical Hound, that lives at the fire station and seeks out violators of the anti-book law. When the hound locates a law-breaker, it eliminates the person by injecting it with poison. And this is what Montag believes happened to Clarisse when he no longer comes across her on his nightly walks home.

After a day and night spent with Mildred feverishly reading some of the books he has hidden, Montag comes to the realization that it is the very knowledge in them that keeps people free. He tries to convince Mildred, but she is immovable and ends up turning him in to the authorities who are, in the book, represented by the fire chief and Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty. While Montag ponders his next move, he is commissioned to burn down his own house, and then turns on Beatty himself.

Now considered a criminal, Montag takes what few possessions he can carry and makes a run for it. His wanderings take him to a camp deep in the woods and miles away from his former home where he meets a group of like-minded exiles who have taken upon themselves the task of memorizing all of the world’s greatest literature before it is lost forever. Their mission is to hopefully influence succeeding generations of the value of preserved knowledge, and the book ends with the group walking away from the effects of a nuclear explosion that has wiped out another part of their former world.

That the book is prophetic is putting it mildly. Not long after its publication, Bradbury spoke of being out for a walk one night and being approached by a police officer and interrogated as to what he was doing out at that time. He also told the story of another time when he noticed a couple walk by him who were not talking to each other. The man was walking along lost in thought while the woman was listening to something through a set of ear pods. It was the first time Bradbury had ever seen them, and he was instantly taken aback by the fact that he had written about something he’d only imagined but that actually already existed.

In Montag’s world, the purpose of everyone’s existence was not to trouble themselves with matters best left to others to decide and to just have fun. Given the current world chaos of our time, one passage is disturbingly prophetic, and it is taken from a pronouncement made by Captain Beatty as he tried to explain to Montag why they had to burn all the books:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none…Don’t give him any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

I wonder what Bradbury would be thinking right now as to society’s current way of “doing business.” News reports whose veracity is never certain and virtually no way to get at the truth, clouded as it is by rapid-fire updates, mired in pointless information, that come at us via all sorts of electronic devices that continue to widen the gap between us. Entire segments of the population who shoot from the hip politically speaking rather than take their time and weigh all the evidence, of which far too many who still believe that the important matters are best left to others to decide. If nothing else, this book should be required reading of all high school and college students, our “succeeding generations.”

If I am ever at a point where I feel the need to blame someone or something for the sad state of our world today, I will try to remember one of the most profound passages in the book, uttered by one of the book people Montag is moving on with:

“Come on now,” [he says], we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”

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Nature’s Disarming Smile

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For some reason, I never sleep well during a winter storm. That probably has its roots in the years I spent living alone in rural areas, where I had no choice but to deal with nature’s surprises all by myself. I toss and turn till it’s time to get up, and then I long for daylight so I can see what damage, if any, is out there. Even living here, where I shouldn’t have anything to worry about, I do. And I find myself still dealing, after all these years, with the same daunting tasks after a snowstorm as I did 10, 20, 30 years ago.
Thus this morning, I was up early to prepare myself for yet another stint of cleaning my car off for the purposes of moving it out of the way of the plows. Before I even tackled my own, however, a neighbor came over to inform me that the snowblower that keeps the walkways clear had once again buried her car under at least a foot of snow. I volunteered against her protests to help her out, and it didn’t take long for me to remove enough snow from behind her car to allow her to back it out and move it to clear area. After doing the same for my car, I came inside. But when I looked outside again, I noticed that another elderly neighbor was having all she could do to clear HER car off with a broom. So I headed over there to help her and ended up helping a few more neighbors in the process.
Needless to say, I was pretty stiff and sore after all that. I’m not young anymore myself, at least not according to my grandchildren, who think me ancient by their standards. I’ll be 67 in a few days and proud of the fact that I can still wield a snow shovel with the best of them. I’ve even joked that, in the time it takes the snow removal crew to talk about how to get the job done, I could have this whole place shoveled out. That might be a bit hyperbolic, but once I’m in the shovel-wielding mode, there is no stopping me.
After a cup of coffee and a hot shower, I sat in my room awhile looking outside. The sun was shining down on the trees out there, turning the snow on the ground between them and on their branches a pristine and blinding white. A squirrel ran across and up a tree, and crows cawed from the distance. Other birds, who’ve been singing their spring songs for some time now, were also hitting their best notes, and I even heard a raven’s deep throaty call from the distant woods.
There’s been a lot of moaning and groaning and gnashing of teeth lately where the weather is concerned. But for some reason, once my part in it is done and the world is once again accessible, I rest a lot easier and can even see the beauty in it. For which one of us by complaining can remove a single flake from the storm or alter the direction of a single wind gust? And if I’m not mistaken, spring has not let me down yet, arriving sometimes on cat’s feet and other time’s with a lion’s roar. Either way, it arrives, and will do so officially in just a few days now.
I will not be deterred. This, too, shall pass, and there WILL come a time when we’ll forget it ever happened, only to face another winter when it will, all over again and again and again…
Speaking purely personally, I don’t have a lifetime left to me to enjoy nature, her wiles and wickedness included. So I intend to continue to take  what some consider to be the bad with the good. Because in the end, no matter how naughty she’s been, nature is no more than a sweet child who has the ability to melt hearts with a single smile.


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Adopting Nature’s Pace

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A friend of mine, Shawn Poland, who lives a couple of hours north of me in Maine’s western hills area, suggested I put together a video of my writing experiences, but I had no idea how to go about that. So when he offered to do the honors, I took him up on it, and below is the wonderful result of our remote collaboration.

While viewing the video is still difficult for me on some levels, I’m thrilled that, with Shawn’s talented technical help, I was able to commit to posterity a record of the years I spent living the woods, writing about nature, and taking those experiences with me to the present time. Viewing it takes me back to a happy time, and although I no longer live in either of those idyllic places, I can say that I’ve been there and done that. Now, I can revisit those experiences any time I want simply by clicking the Play arrow.

My hope is that others also take inspiration from those experiences, and, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose quote I rearranged for my own title, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”


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My Kind of Protest

 

 

It didn’t take me long to realize that, if I tuned in to any of the major news networks yesterday, all I’d see was more footage of the Women’s March on Washington. Having grown up during the 1950’s and 1960’s, I saw coverage of similar events often on my parents’ little black-and-white TV set. Back then, people were protesting the Viet Nam war, segregation, or other issues that directly impacted their lives. But I was not able to put my finger on exactly why so many women thought they had to march on Washington and what they hoped to achieve. I still can’t.

Did they think that, if enough of them gathered together in various locales around the country, the new and much-hated president would be dethroned? His campaign rhetoric, shallow as it was at times, was touted as being one reason why women felt the need to protest. What were they hoping would change? And did it? Have the lives of all those women improved? Did they achieve what they set out to achieve in D.C., New York, Chicago, and Portland, Maine? And the question that is asked after all such events: what happens now?

During what little footage I watched, I saw lots of picketing signs being hoisted above the crowds, many of them bearing some pretty crude and mean-spirited slogans. The F-word and other expletives peppered many of them, and I had to truly wonder at the maturity of those who thought they were making a difference. If most of those protesters were there to rail against Donald Trump, then does it follow that their hatred also extends to all those who voted for him? That’s a scary thought, as it clearly indicates a country divided against itself, with half its population hating the other half for exercising what was clearly within their purview to do, which was to elect the candidate they deemed the most suitable. Thanks, but no thanks.

Even before this march, it was becoming less and less possible to have a decent civilized discourse with anyone and be able to walk away without having created an enmity or alienating someone. Less and less are Americans able to talk to each other without tempers flaring and walls being erected, and half the population places the blame for this solidly on one man who has no control over our individual actions whatsoever. If that’s not misguided and skewed logic, then I don’t know what is.

But aside from the current vitriol against that one individual, what were the other reasons for the march? I read somewhere weeks ago that it wasn’t an anti-Trump rally at all but built rather on many of the issues facing women and pretty much all of Americans today. I pondered this awhile and searched my soul to find a single motivating factor that might have compelled me to join that movement, and I came up empty-handed. And after running into another woman I know at the supermarket yesterday and hearing her take on it, I felt reassured that maybe I was on the right track in my own thinking.

“I don’t have any reason to march,” she said. “I have a comfortable life, and everything I need. And if I don’t, then it’s up to me to do something about it.” Now, this woman is not rich. Far from it. She is a neighbor of mine here at the senior community we both live in, and her situation is very similar to my own. So I was left to assess my life and see if there are any gaps that might have been filled by standing out in the cold and holding a sign decrying my current angst against whatever spectre might be overshadowing my life. And then it hit me: if something IS wrong in my life and I am at a loss as to who to blame, all I have to do is look in the mirror. And there staring back at me, replete with all its wrinkles, hanging flesh, and worry lines, will be the culprit’s face: mine. For I, like every other so-called rational adult in this country, am the sum and total of every decision I’ve made since I had the right to make them. The very idea of placing the onus of that truth on someone else’s shoulders is nothing short of ludicrous.

So please, someone, tell me what the point of all that was yesterday and what, if anything, was accomplished by it. The marches I remember from my youth all had specific goals in mind: stop a war or make sure that kids of all colors can go to the same schools. According to one co-founder of the recent march, its major goal was to bring to the forefront the ongoing struggle that is women’s lives. But what about life isn’t a struggle? And is that limited only to women? We struggle desperately to be born, we struggle as children when we first start school, we struggle to fit in, to find jobs, to make ends meet, to fill the oil barrel, to reach the finish line, to survive, and then in the end, we struggle against death. Struggle is endemic to the human experience, and not a single one of us, male or female, ever escapes it. Struggle is what shapes us, defines us, motivates us. Struggle is everything we must overcome each day to become better, stronger and wiser. For if we approach them maturely, it is overcoming those struggles that makes us stronger.

I struggle to get my taxes done on time, to open jars of pickles, to thread a needle, untangle Christmas lights, and to shovel the snow off my walk. I struggle emotionally when I’m waiting for the results of a medical test or when I think there is something wrong with my car that will cost me a small fortune to fix. Who should I blame for that, Trump? Congress? The Senate? The Pope? God? There IS no one to blame. It’s called life! And it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to get through it the best we can. Our Constitution assures us the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Nowhere does it contain any wording to the effect that said happiness is guaranteed.

I happen to like the life I’ve created for myself. And I’d only be insulting my own intelligence were I to go out into the streets of any big city and rail against a force that it is entirely within my own power to control. I chose, rather, to stay home and to do those things that I hope will improve my life, make however many days I have left to me pleasant and productive.

I wonder what has changed…and was all that energy demonstrated yesterday sustainable? How might things have played out if all those hundreds of thousands of people who marched had turned instead away from that and, say, spent a couple of hours in a soup kitchen or a food pantry, visited some old lonely people in a nursing home who never get any company, volunteered at a shelter to spend time with abused and neglected animals, or read a story out loud to kids at the local library? Wouldn’t any of those also qualify as trying to ameliorate the struggle each and every one of us must deal with on a daily basis?

Imagine if all that people power had been redirected…and the innumerable acts of kindness that might have resulted from that. The only way to fight a perceived evil is by throwing lots and lots of love and compassion at it. And that is not what I got from what little I saw of that march. I saw, rather, lots of anger, rage, hatred, and ugliness, all antitheses to love. So I stayed home and wrote a small check to my local food pantry. It’s winter, and the struggle some people, many of them children, face to eat is real, as is the struggle to keep enough food on the shelves for them. There’s that word again: struggle.

I have no doubt whatsoever that my gesture, as small as it was, will indeed help reduce that struggle a little for at least one person. Now that’s the kind of protest I can relate to, the quiet unnoticed kind that produces results.

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Something About Lighthouses

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Many years ago, I went to a local sidewalk art festival where there was the usual assortment of seashore art: paintings, drawings, shells with designs painted on them, and so on. Given that the state of Maine is known for its long coastline and all things associated with maritime living, booths displaying primarily lighthouse art are numerous at such events. After walking by several and spending the obligatory amount of time admiring the artists’ efforts, some more than others, I commented out loud, “There’s just something about lighthouses.” A woman standing nearby replied, “You’re right! There is, isn’t there? But you can’t put your finger on just what that might be.”

And she was right, of course. There is something decidedly attractive and appealing about a scene that portrays a lighthouse in some form or other. And here in Maine, we have plenty of them TO admire, from the southernmost town of Kittery to the easternmost town of Eastport. Here in the York County area alone, there are dozens of them that had served as the inspiration to many artists and photographers through the  years, yours truly included. And I’ve often wondered just why so many people are so in love with lighthouses.

I am not particularly so, but I have to admit that there is something fascinating about, not only how a lighthouse almost always stands out from its surroundings in a very dramatic way, but also the aura of steadfastness it exudes. Aside from the very urban Munjoy Hill Observatory, which is smack dab in the middle of a very busy Portland neighborhood, most lighthouses were constructed centuries as lonely outposts that cast light across the sea to get sailors and other seafarers safely to shore. Many of them have fascinating histories, and all, at one time or other, were home to keepers who kept the lights burning all night every night and during the worst weather. In time, as the properties that many of these lighthouses stood on was sold off, and modern technology crept in, ancient ways of illuminating the night gave way to electrified methods, and eventually to lights that no longer needed constant monitoring, which made the role of lighthouse keeper pretty much obsolete.

By its very design, a lighthouse can withstand tremendous oceanic energy, a fact attested to by the many that still stand in areas that have seen some pretty violent storms over the years. The sea can batter the tower endlessly, with no ill effect, embracing it with wave after crashing wave, that simply rush back to the sea for the next encore. The walls of houses are usually thickest at the bottom, measuring roughly 3 to 4 feet at their bases. This wall width decreases toward the top, where walls are generally a foot thick. The most impermeable lighthouses were built on solid bedrock, which made them even sturdier.

When I look at a lighthouse, different things come to mind. What was it like to live there during the days before electricity and automation came along and so isolated in most cases from the rest of the world? What must it be like to stand on the top deck and look out over the ocean, especially on a stormy day? Aside from all that, though, is this: when I look at a lighthouse, any lighthouse, I am drawn back to another time, another era. And the basic fact is that I just would love to be up there, and I suspect that this is what many, if not most, people feel when THEY look upon a lighthouse, either in a painting, on the side of a seashell, or in real life. Here in Maine, we’re very fortunate. For no matter where we live along the coast, there is a lighthouse within a reasonable distance to view.

A woman I know who lives in Colorado has never seen one. She has, in fact, from what I’m told, never been to either coast of the United States. I can’t imagine a landlocked life devoid of the experience of seeing and hearing the surf pounding on the rocks, smelling the salty air, feeling the sand between your toes, hearing gulls screaming high overhead, or seeing a lighthouse standing on its lonely outpost, its beam flashing in the distance. For me, they’ve been a way of life since the day I could run across the sand. So I hope she gets to experience them all someday.

Living just a few miles from the sea is one of the gifts in life that I have come to be most grateful for. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

(Photo is of Portland Headlight at Two Lights State Park)

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And the sea does not change…

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I realized not long ago that the words in the title, which were sung by Stevie Nicks many years ago now, still apply and always have really. The sea DOESN’T change, at least not in our human understanding and perception of change. Yes, it changes daily, hourly, and every second in places we can’t see from the shore. Some forms of life die while others are just starting out. The ocean floor shifts due to pressure from the earth’s core, and everything that sea water contains evolves constantly. And the oceans themselves continue to be redesigned by meteorological and seismic forces since they were formed. From one great body of water to what we know now, it has never stopped changing.

To us, however, it is always the same. Aside from the tides going in and out, a process that affects everything the water touches in its calmness or its ferocity, we look out, despite the season, over the same vast expanse of water that we did yesterday, the day before that, and that we will tomorrow. It is that eternal quality of the sea that is its appeal…that it’s there always…never going away…never completely evaporating into the atmosphere and leaving us high and dry in many more ways than merely visually.

For there is, and has always been among humans, a deep connection with the ocean. It is, after all, where all life has emanated from, and it still flows through us in a very tangible way. Because of its perseverance, it has also become a symbol of strength and grandeur which often moves us in deeply emotional ways. “Going to the beach” just scratches the surface, for reams and reams of poetry and other literature have been penned in honor to those shifting blue-green waves and the energy they produce and store.

I can visit a beach, any beach, at any time of year, and its basic components are not much different from what they were six months ago. Here, in the northeastern United States, where we are privileged to experience the four distinct seasons, the sea is the only medium that remains fluid and mobile all the year round. And I can be standing on a shore that is backed up with several feet of snow, yet I’d never know it gazing out over the water. For it, as always, remains the same…rising, falling, advancing, receding, ebbing, flowing, lapping or crashing…whether it be winter, spring, summer, or fall.

The sea does not change…which gives us here in coastal New England a visual respite from the doldrums of winter. For we can head down to the beach any time of day and, hopefully, watch the sun playing with the waves, a scene that never fails to erase anything else that might be going on inside our tired minds.

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The Case of the Talking Trees

 

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Being the tree-lover that I am, I already knew they talk because I’ve heard them. No, I’m not crazy. I’ve actually heard them talking. Not in words, mind you, but in other ways, including simply in how they behave together, communicating when it’s time to bend a certain way and to straighten up again, and when to stand perfectly still. Trees speak many different languages, and it can be a veritable Babel to most people. But to someone who understands them, theirs is the most comforting voice in the world, far preferable to that of humans that almost always portends bad news of some sort or that has the ability to grate on the nerves.

Recently, I decided on a whim to research trees and to see if anyone else out there believes they communicate, and I was both surprised and delighted by what I learned. According to at least one researcher, it seems that a vast network of tiny root fibers produced by fungi that attach themselves to tree roots actually do communicate by sending nutrients from tree to tree. Perhaps the most fascinating fact I discovered was that the oldest and largest trees in a forest are indeed, as I’ve always suspected, the most important ones, as their root networks extend the farthest and involve the most trees around them, and at sometimes great distances. Not only are these considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of a woodland simply by their size and stature, but they also are responsible for keeping many of the younger trees in their “families” alive. If nothing else, this system produces yet another lovely metaphor for the importance of cooperation that is the hallmark among families or other groups of people whose lives intertwine much as do tree roots.

Known as a mycorrhizal association, fungi, the same type that produce the mushrooms we see pop up along a forest floor after a wet spell, multiply rapidly beneath the soil where they attach themselves to the roots of everything, including trees, that grows there. This greatly improves the trees’ ability to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil, but also creates a system by which these are distributed to whatever grows within the fungal network. The fungi help feed the trees, which in turn help to feed them. And this exchange, which also conveys information about soil conditions from tree to tree, is how they communicate. In some cases, the micorrhizal filaments are so small, they can be likened to the millions of similar threads that connect everything going on inside our own bodies. Hence, another wonderful metaphor for life!

I didn’t need to read the statement that “trees communicate.” I knew this. I like to take that one step further by saying that, not only do they talk to each other but to us, too. Don’t listen for words or even for distinct sounds. Listen, rather, with your heart and your other senses. Smell the air around trees. They’re telling you about how their very presence there produces that scent. Touch the bark of an old pine and feel its energy course through your own veins. And then, the next time you are in an old forest, close your eyes, clear your mind, and listen for that humming sound, very subtle but very much there, that only trees can make. It’s there. I promise.

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