Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Good Morning from the White Mountains

Good morning from the White Mountains.
 
Oh, you'd love it here this morning.  The air is delicious.  It is mountain cool and mountain fresh.  We have been up since just before five when only a glimmer of the day to come hung expectantly in the air.  Already we've been up Black Cap and we are now home. 
 
Atticus did well.  He's not seven years old any longer, but he is responding nicely to the cool air.  No breathing issues.  At least not like he's had.  He led most of the way and I'm grateful for that.  We took the easier of the two routes, the same way we went when we climbed it twenty-eight days after my emergency gall bladder surgery.  The same path we took when we reached the top less than a month after Atticus's toe was amputated. 
 
On the way up, we stopped at one of the ledges.  It's a private place, for the most part.  I'm not sure it's meant to be, but I think people either don't know about it or they pass it by in their hurry to get to the top.  But as we're wont to do on our hikes, we linger there.  It's like dropping in on an old friend the way to someplace else.  It's comfortable and easy.  It's familiar. 
 
Because it's the first view of the day, this wild little patch of rock and shrub with a window to the west is a welcoming place of us. I've never seen anyone there, which is another reason I favor it.  It's always a good thing when you get a mountain to yourself, or at least a piece of one. 
 
I should amend that by saying I've never seen any other people there.  
 
This morning, for the second time ever, we encountered a bear on those ledges.  He had the same idea we did.  We all came for the blueberries. 
 
As dawn was breaking and soft light filtered over the Valley and a peach glow of warmth washed over the three Moats and Chocorua, Atticus and I crouched on one side of a tangled blueberry patch, and while I plucked wild berries from their bushes, offering one to Atticus, then the next to myself, a bear lumbered slowly on his own side.  He foraged with ease.  Every now and again he'd raise his big head up into the air and point his brown snout at us.  But all he was doing was what we were all doing, keeping an eye on the others, for obvious enough reasons. 
 
I'm happy to report that an understanding was reached.  There was enough space between us, we weren't bothered by the company (for my part, I was overjoyed by it), and, perhaps most importantly on the bear's part, there were more than enough blueberries so he didn't have to go without. 
 
Black Cap is not a tough mountain to climb.  I used to consider it only a walk for us on mornings when we weren't able to hike.  But life changes.  Years add to years.  We age.  Our bodies change.  We adapt.  This summer it fits into a rotation of smaller peaks for us to climb where we are rewarded with grand views.  Seeing a bear is always a plus, but unfortunately it rarely happens on a hike.  So we like our places that are special for their own reasons.   
 
Atticus does well enough with these easier mountains.  He needs more water than in the past, and we spend more time walking side-by-side (when the trail allows for it), but he's happy to be out and about and getting up to a place where he can cast his eyes out over great distances, as a fly fisherman casts his line over the water. 
 
Winding around the "back," less popular side, we walked through the brush and listened to the glorious song of birds and looked up at the sky, still pale compared to the blue it is now.  I stopped, at a place where we always stop, and looked back to see the mountains peering over the growth at us.  It's a nice preview of what we'll soon see, but it also offers a different view, one where the plants are highlighted by the mountains, and the mountains are highlighted by the plants.  It's a relationship that seems to work for both of them, whether they know it or not.  At least to my eyes it does.
 
Nearing the summit, Atticus trotted forth and leaped onto the highest rock and sat.  I came to sit down behind him to let him enjoy the view toward the higher peaks of our mountains.
 
Agiocochook had his head in the clouds, as is often the case.  But the rest of the mountains were shining brightly, much like the red brick shops used to in the early mornings when we lived in downtown Newburyport before people stirred much and their doors opened for business.  That was when I appreciated Newburyport the most and it’s often when I appreciate the mountains most.  It's like waking up to a lover before her hair is done, before makeup goes on.  There's an intimacy to it.  A privacy that means something.  You get a view that not all others get.  You see what's real and not colored by the bright light of the prime of the day.  
 
I prefer Agiocochook's Abenaki name as the "home of the great spirit" to Mount Washington.  It seems more respectful to me; less self-congratulatory.  It’s a cultural thing and reveals much of how two different people came to see Nature.  The Abenaki name holds a reverence to it, while Mount Washington reflects our need to control nature, and infers we have bested it, that we own it.  Even when we don't.
 
Agiocochook says, "This is where God lives."  Washington says, "You belong to us."
 
We have our favorite viewing places on the sprawling expanse of the Black Cap's summit.  There is not a bad seat in the house, especially when the only others there to enjoy it are the birds and busy chipmunks and red squirrels.  They forage was the bear was foraging earlier.  It’s breakfast time. 
 
We stopped at each of viewpoints.  I brought food for both of us and we nibbled without looking at it.  Instead, our eyes were held captive by what we love - by what we've always loved. 
 
Gosh, I think we've both missed being on the mountains.  I understand we moved here to live in the mountains, and we've enjoyed that, but on these days when we still get up to a good view, when our bodies earn it as lungs, heart, bones, joints, and muscle all work together, it means more. 
 
There may come a day when Atticus gets too old to do even this level of mountain and I place him in a backpack to carry him up the trail, but I understand what this means to him.  He enjoys the journey.  It’s the mass itself before the sacrament of communion.
 
We both enjoy the view.  We've driven to some vistas and it's not the same to him.  When we climb by foot and paw, he takes longer with the views.  They hold his attention more.  I don't pretend to know everything he's thinking, but if I had to take a stab at it, I'd say it has something to do with being one with the mountain.  And being one with the surrounding mountains.  He’s always been different when he’s up high.  It seems to be the realm he belongs to. 
 
Atticus changed when we started hiking ten years ago.  He became more – more of what he was meant to be, I guess.  This was his place to feel at home, as compared to the provincial city we lived in when I had to lead the way.  In the mountains he was more natural, more at ease.  He’d come home. 
 
Sitting here at the kitchen table now, I look over at the couch and he's happily sleeping.  I'm grateful for the first few hours of this day but more joyful for him. 
 
Now, no matter what happens, the day is already something special. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Morning Walk Reveals A Natural Treasure In The Woods

We came upon this treasure in the forest this morning.
The heavy rains of last night and the early morning stopped, at least for a while, and offered us a window for walking in the forest.  Everything was richly colored.  Green leaves in full bloom glistened; the floor was bronze with fallen pine needles soaked through; tree bark was saturated and dark, verging on black in some cases; and the air was washed clean, wrung out, and left as welcoming as laundry hung on the line to dry.

A few mosquitos buzzed around us and I waved them away with my hat.  The only other sound in this silent world was the random plop of a vociferous raindrop leaving a higher leaf to drop onto a lower one. 

In the cool that enveloped us, Atticus trotted along happily, sniffing where other animals had been, and turning back to check on me. 

There was a scent to the forest to let me know that another season, while two months away, is coming.  That's one of the things I find most beautiful about the mountains.  Here, even in the midst of a hot summer, there are glimpses of autumn.  It could be when the evening falls and the stars rise and chilly temperatures visit us.  Or it could be on a morning like this one, when the density of July is rinsed away and the air is easy to breathe. 

After walking for thirty minutes, Atticus stopped and looked up into a tree and then he threw his glance back to me.  When I caught up to him I saw he had discovered this humble home probably four five feet off the ground. 

It was too wet for him to want to sit but it was clear he wanted to stay - so we did.  I squatted next to him and we watched as the nest coughed out inhabitants every thirty seconds.  They'd fly away and return home again.  None of them bothered us even though I could have easily reached out and touched the nest.    

I know Atticus's eyes are failing.  There have been signs of it over the past eighteen months.  It's common at his age.  But he noticed every winged creature come and go and he only took his eyes from them to look at me.  In response I'd run my hand over his head, fluff his ears, then rub his back as we took in this simple show. 

We never know what we'll see in the forest, but it's always a wonder.  And always a reminder that we are but visitors to the homes of others.  Live and leave be is easy here.  Land has been protected from developers and no one is saying "we own this".  It's share and share alike. 

It had me thinking of the way bears visit those of us who live in the mountains.  There are some who are not from around here who seem almost incensed that a bear would have the audacity to walk into a person's yard, come up on a deck, look in a window, or even open a car door.  They often say a call to the forest service is warranted to remove the bear and bring him elsewhere.    

The bears come and go here. As do fox and moose and deer. As do various birds.  And chipmunks and red squirrels.  It's part of the grand spectacle and we're fortunate enough to take it all in. 

(The bears bring with them a comic side as well.  They watch us, hidden to our eyes in the nearby brush, and learn to open car doors.  It’s especially interesting when the bears do this and somehow the door closes and they are stuck inside.  It seems to happen every year or two that someone leaves their house, locks the door, has a cup of coffee in hand for the drive to work, only to see a black bear sitting in their car.  I laugh at the specter of it.  Interestingly enough, I don't lock the car here because of people, but because of bears, even though bears appear to be more trustworthy than what the evening news reports about our own species.)


All of us, all animals, including humans, live here together.  It's easy to remember that when walking in the forest and coming upon the homes of another.  In this morning's case, we played the roles of the bears and I was grateful that we were not considered intruders and attacked because we decided to pause and watch the comings and goings of another species. 

John Muir has a great line and it pertains to way “civilized” people see the “wild” world. “How narrow we selfish conceited creatures are in our sympathies!  How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation!”


I imagine we’ll be walking by this humble forest home again and when we do we’ll stop and watch for a while, as we did this morning.  Thankfully, we’ll not be considered trespassers, just curious passersby tramping along a trail.

The world is a small place and getting smaller, thanks to human hunger for control and dominance.  We could learn some lessons from the bears, chipmunks, and (even) the wasps who find a way to live around our selfishness. 

Empathy goes a long way, if we are willing enough to put ourselves in the place of others, especially those silent souls whose lives we infringe upon.

 
 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Aragorn Comes For A Visit

 Our reality is that we live in Bear Country.  I couldn't be any happier about this than I am. 

Because we live in Jackson and not far from restaurants and inns, the bears travel frequently around Jackson Village.  On a daily basis some regulars pass through our yard on the way up from the Ellis River headed to the Shannon Door Pub and other places. 

We don't feed the bears.  We don't even keep birdfeeders out once winter turns to spring and the first bear paw print is seen.  But they travel through our yard anyways.

One of the locals is Aragorn.  I've named him this although I'm not sure what others call him. He's young and more than a little skittish, but he seems to be fascinated by Atticus.  We first met Aragorn a couple of years ago when Atticus and I were on a walk.  We crisscrossed paths with him a few times and when we returned home and were out in the backyard, he was maybe ten yards away in the vacant yard next to ours. 

I reminded Atticus that not all "dogs are friendly" and so he sat.  Strangely, so did the very young Aragorn.  When Atticus dropped to a Sphinx position, amazingly so did Aragorn.  Since that day we've encountered the bear several times.

This year, however, he's become far less skittish with us.  He has always been curious but kept his distance.  And from what I've heard and seen, he's not a big fan of other people around town, but he seems quite taken by Atticus. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, Atticus and I were sitting outside when Aragorn came into the yard and sat as Atticus sat, watching the crows, the butterflies, and the chipmunks while we watched them.  He was only fifteen feet away and stayed there for about fifteen minutes. It was only after he heard our neighbor that he commenced to hissing, huffing, and snapping his jaws before rumbling off towards the river out back. 

This morning, just after I finished watering some flowers on our little deck, a place Aragorn has taken a nap on while taking advantage of an oversized dog bed out there, I took several photographs of a spider who lives outside our door.  Soon after I was on my hands and knees cleaning the floor right inside the open door.  I felt a nudge from behind and it was Atticus.  When I looked up, just two feet away, young Aragorn was looking at me. 

Now, I'm no fool and understand the bears who live us are not our pets nor are they tame.  They are wild animals.  My rule of thumb is to make sure they and we both have exit strategies and that keeps the stress level down.  So this morning, with the door open and me ready to shut if need be, I slowly picked up my camera and took a few pictures of Aragorn. 

When it was over and I asked him to leave, he turned to leave.  He always does when I ask him to. 

The way I see it is that this was the land of the bears before it was our land.  In the five years we've lived here, we seem to have things worked out pretty well with the chipmunks, woodpeckers, fox, and bear.  I'm not sure if you'd call it mutual respect, but it's clear we've come to some kind of agreement.   

Enjoy these photographs of Aragorn, a bear who has seemingly fine manners when it comes to our interactions. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Embracing Our Quiet Life of Words and the Natural World

Twenty years ago I couldn't be alone. I hated it. So I set out to feel comfortable with my own company and with the ideas of peace, quiet, and solitude. I read people like Paul Tillich and Sam Keen and Joseph Campbell; Tom Robbins and John Irving. I mixed non-fiction with fiction. Then I practiced what I learned. Leaving behind the Undertoad, my little paper with a big voice, in a city that ...loved to talk and read about itself once seemed impossible. That's when my love of nature kicked in and I became young again and rediscovered the mountains of my youth. By that time it was too late to change what would happen next. Mary Eaton, a Newburyport artist and political blogger wrote the following about me when I started climbing mountains but still lived in Newburyport. She said something like "I can remember seeing him at City Council meetings and thinking 'we've lost him'".

Our life in Jackson is a pretty little thing. We absorb the quiet and make it our own. We avoid crowded places and most social events and you will never again see us on a crowded summit or mountain trail. I'm thankful for our good friends and for learning to embrace what the theologian Tillich was talking about in his famous quote.

When we get our little farm one day, I envision it being tucked away with plenty of privacy. A place where nature and the lives of carefree animals conspire to create a piece of paradise.

Our book tells our story, as does our blog and Facebook page. Other than that we are extremely public when we have author events. They are great fun, but they are a rarity. I like the excitement of being around so many appreciative readers, but I also like driving away and all the quiet that follows and allows us just to get back to being us. And allows me to embrace my love of words. Those written by others, and the ones that dance in my head and from time to time make it into something I write.

I say all of this because it took me years to realize that solitude is my friend. During the last five years, I cannot remember a day when I have been lonely.

Out of many things, I believe this is one of the things I'm proudest of - the ability to be quiet.

I also address this at this time of year because the White Mountains are glorious during the summer and vacationers come from far and near to see the attractions, to breathe the clean air, to walk the wooded paths, and to stand atop a mountain or two. And each summer I receive many wonderful emails, letters, comments on the blogs, and even a few posts out on this page when people write that they loved the book and reading the blog and our daily posts and they want to get together. Please don't take it as an insult that I can't imagine ever wanting to do that. Some people get angry or frustrated that I do not want to get together, meet for dinner, or drinks. Believe me, it says more about me than it does you. Ask my friends, I don't often do these things with some of them. We really do enjoy our quiet lives.

It's an honor to think that we have introduced hundreds (if not more) people from around the world to the pleasures of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It's great hearing that people travel here to experience the region after reading our book. I truly love that. Adventure awaits you here, but so does peace and quiet. We wish all who travel here the same joy in discovering them that we have.

Enjoy your Friday night, everyone. And may you do something enjoyable this weekend.

There are times when we glimpse the extraordinary in the ordinary. Sometimes
sitting in the backyard is more profound than standing on a mountaintop.
I know Atticus well. 

It’s a product of twelve years together, starting when he was eight weeks old.  But more importantly, it has to do with our partnership in hiking far more than a thousand mountains together, sometimes in extreme conditions.  In the mountains, up high and far away from home and everyone you’ve ever known, when the temperature soars to unbearable reaches or the cold comes at you at forty below zero wind chill, or the snow is blinding and you are stuck in unexpected blizzard conditions halfway through a twenty-four mile a hike, you reach new levels of knowing and trusting.    

Trust is everything.  We had that from the beginning, but it was strengthened in the mountains. 

Hiking is an intimate partnership.  Strangers become fast friends.  True friends become even truer.  And when man and woman meet on the trails, well, let’s just say these mountains host as many affairs as the hotels in Boston do on any given day. 

So while I don’t pretend to know everything Atticus is thinking, I feel comfortable in knowing what he wants most of the time, what makes him happy, what fulfills him, what he dislikes.  And it’s not just the silent human and dog bond, it’s the connection between two hiking partners who have grown in the mountains together.

With Will, I’m still getting to know him.  I do my best to put myself in his position and try to figure him out that way.  I do not know much about his past.  What I do know is how scarred and scared he was when he came to us.  How angry and lacking trust he was.  I saw the rot in his mouth from lack of care, the hips that had been imprisoned  in a crate for far too long, the willingness to bite and draw blood.  Somewhere along the way Will had been betrayed.  He’d grown old and was not taken care of. 

I’m told there’s a difference between neglect and abuse, but I don’t see one.  Neglect is just another form of abuse, whether it is from ignorance and arrogance.  Our job is to care for others in our lives, and if we can’t do that, the least we can do is not hurt them.

I catalogued these observations in my head over the first few months Will came to live with us.  It was my job to put myself in his place, to figure out how to help him, if I could, and figure out if he wanted to be helped.  The rest was up to him.

With Atticus it’s easy.  We’ve always been together and more often than not, I just know.  With Will, I don’t presume to know much.  Still, we did the usual things – the supplements and drugs for hips and pain, dental work, a wholesome diet, healthy grooming habits, protecting him from himself and the outside world.   But that was only the beginning. 

We all have a story to tell and after those initial steps, Will started to reveal his own.  I don’t pay much attention to the past or to why things happened as they did in his life.  I rarely think about the people he used to live with, nor do I completely condemn them for I don’t know their whole story.  What I have been concerned with from the beginning is how Will is any given day. 

I decided to leave behind his past, and concentrate on his present and the future.  As a man who grew up with abuse, I understand that the best way to live is to concentrate on the next step….on the now and the places you’re going.  Yes, we can learn from the past, but we can also be made prisoner by it.  So we took what we could from Will’s past and then dumped it.  It no longer mattered. 

One of the reasons I like this photo from yesterday is because it speaks of possibilities. 

It looks simple enough.  Will is doing something a lot of animals like to do.  He’s sitting outside on a picturesque summer day, enjoying the shade and the breeze and the way he feels.  But when we first met Will, he didn’t sit.  He couldn’t sit. 

He gets massages.  I stretch him out.  He gets many warm baths and cold river soaks.  He may be deaf and mostly blind but I concentrate on his senses with textures, scents, tastes, and vibrations.  Do these help?  I like to think it all contributes to his quality of life but I refuse to be absolute in understanding everything. 

But what I do know is that he now he sits.  Not often and not for long, but it’s so damn good to look at him doing something we all take for granted that was once robbed from him. 

Will cannot run and bound through the yard or the forest, or even leap up onto the couch.  He has physical limitations.  But the again when I’m around a hundred, if I live to be that old, I’ll have them as well.  Heck, at only fifty-three I have many. 

I can do many things that Will cannot.  I take some of them for granted.  But here’s something Will and I do have in common.  It’s possibility.  The gift of now.  No matter what happened yesterday, or two years ago, or when we were young, what we have today is what matters most.  We always have a choice to elevate the day, as Thoreau once mentioned.   

I don’t know all the answers to the puzzle of Will.  But day by day, through friendship and empathy, we seem to find our way.  I teach him, he teaches me, together we learn and grow.  He and Atticus are as different as their ears are, but what’s powerful about each of their stories is that it is unique.  Not one is more special than the other.   

So on this morning, as I sit next to Atticus who is watching me, and Will snores a few feet away, something he’ll do many times throughout the day, I ask one simple question for the three of us knowing that each of us is different yet connected.

What can we unwrap today? 

Gifts are everywhere, even if they are wrapped in mystery and challenge, in scars and fear.

When I look at Will, I smile because of his quality of life.  There are many things he cannot do.  But there are so many that he can.  He can now trust.  He can be happy.  He can love.  And he can accept love. 
So while I do not know everything about Will, what I do know is what I see.  It’s called life.  And Will’s is a good one because he's made it so.   

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A River Runs Through It

Will drinks from the Ellis River with a little help from my hand that offers
him balance.  Notice the gentle ripples emanating from his lapping tongue.
When you are Will's age challenges come and go.  It's natural.  It's the cost of admission for being elderly.  I understand that.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Nothing.  So we take each day as it comes. 
On some of those days, he's sleeping so soundly, I check him to make sure he's still breathing because one never knows.  On those days we take each hour as it comes. 
Our contract is a simple one.  I've told him from the beginning that I like having him here, that he's welcome to stick around for as long as he wants, but I also remind him it's always up to him.  This is his life to live and to leave when he wishes.
Last night he stumbled out of the bedroom. He was having a difficult time with his breathing.  Outside the air was hot, thick as syrup, even after the sun went down.  Inside, the air conditioners had been on all day.  It was cool but not cold. 
I had been sitting on the couch with Atticus but when I met Will halfway he wanted to be picked up.  I held him and he looked me in the eyes.  It's ironic, those cloudy, old, mostly-blind eyes say so much when we come face to face and he's in my arms.  People talk about how beautiful Will's eyes are, but mostly they are talking about his lashes.  But his eyes, those cloudy orbs that don’t work very well, really are beautiful on their own. 
I came close to texting Rachael to ask her to meet us at North Country Animal Hospital, but I held off for a few minutes.  Instead, I took him outside.  He coughed and he choked.  We got Atticus, stuffed a few things in my backpack and led by my headlamp, we walked through the ferns and the undergrowth down to the river. 
I lit candles and placed them on some of the rocks.  Some were Citronella to ward off the bugs.  I turned on music on my iPhone and plugged it into a small wooden speaker.  Lately, I've been listening to various soundtracks over and over again.  The melodies help my writing.  The music flows into me, just as the Ellis River flows down from of the mountains and over my ankles and by the yard. 
Atticus sat on his flat rock and watched as fireflies flashed and glowed around him and all over the river.  They are like stars among us, dancing, daring to be closer to us than to the rest of the heavenly firmament. 
I held Will.  Even in the darkness I could see his eyes looking into mine.  I could hear the rattle of his chest. 

Nothing is guaranteed.  Nothing but this moment.  And that doesn’t go just for the elderly.  It goes for all of us.  I was reminded of a sign in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club Huts: “Remember, you are dying.”    

Under an orange moon seen through a gap in the shadowy trees above us, I carried Will to the middle, where the land rises and the water is shallow.  It's the same place he sat yesterday in the high heat during late morning.  I slowly lowered him.  The way his body relaxed into my arms reflects the trust he's regained in the two years he's been with us. 
I placed him in the cool water and then I sat in it behind him, my legs on either side of him to give him balance.  Slowly he sat as well.  Then lowered the rest of his body.  I could hear his little tongue lapping at the mountain waters, drinking it in. 

Then there was nothing.  We just sat.  His body pushed up against my right leg and he lay his head atop my right shin. 
His body relaxed. HIs breathing slowed. 
Just upstream an owl hooted at us.  Mostly though, it was just the music from our little speaker and the song of the river playing together.  A sweet symphony made by man and nature.
I have no idea how long we sat in the water but by the time we stood up and I wrapped Will in a towel, everything was good again.  Will was breathing regularly.  His body shivered as I carried him up the slight hill, through the ferns and the fallen trees, over the small tumble of rocks, on the same path Aragorn and the other bears often take to our yard from the river.

We climbed the stairs, Atticus in the lead.  Right outside our door, a large spider was hovering overhead. I remind her she can stay, but to give us space and I do this by blowing softly on her.  She retreats to this little roof above our deck and each morning when I arise, her web never seems to get in our way, as it did the first few nights.  Now she keeps it above our heads. 

Inside, I dried Will off and sat on the floor with him.  My back was to the couch and Atticus lay his head on my shoulder to watch.  I picked up the water bowl for Will to take another drink.  Then I passed it up to Atticus.  When they were done we all sat together.  Then we all fell asleep together.  Atticus above us, Will in my arms.  Me on the floor. 

I woke up a couple of hours later, Will still in my arms, Atticus’s chin still on my shoulder.  There was a heavenly noise outside.  Loud and powerful and relentless.  A deluge of rain on our metal roof above us.

This morning, when we woke up, the air was crystal clean, the humidity gone.  Blue skies and bright green trees glowed before six in the morning.  Fresh morning mountain air.  The grass was still damp when we went outside.  Upon returning upstairs I was happy to see our spider kept her boundaries.  I opened the windows, turned off the air conditioner, turned on a fan in the other room to draft everything through. 

After a treat, Will retreated to the bedroom for a few more hours sleep. Atticus and I left for the woods to take advantage of the temperature and the lack of humidity and he walked in front of me, breathing easily for the first time in a while.  The forest was beautiful.  Alive and brimming with excitement.  We encountered a large spider web across the trail and since this isn’t our house and we have no agreements with this particular spider, we left it where it was and I walked around it. 

In the forest, in the river, in the mountains . . . all is as it should be and the song is always a reminder, “Remember, you are dying.” 

There are no guarantees.  So the only answer is to live.  At this very moment.

PS:  I know people will want to know music lovers will want to know what I've been listening to.  It varies, but mostly it's been the soundtracks from James Howard Newton's "Maleficent" and Mark Isham's "A River Runs Through It".  Both are beautiful and haunting.  Especially this song, which comes at the close of "A River Runs Through It"
in this poignant scene.

Monday, July 07, 2014

We Walked Away from Facebook for Ten Days and Something Amazing Happened . . . We Were Happy and It Was Still Here When We Returned


“Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening
to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering.” ~ A.A. Milne  
These past ten days we enjoyed a different kind of social media. 

We fed chipmunks in the backyard by hand, and let the bears come and go as they pleased.  Father fox stopped by at night and did his hoarse cough-bark until we came out and sat near him.  Blue jays came and went.  So did the cackling crows.  All three of them.  Aragorn once more walked up to our little deck and sniffed the flowers and stood with his front paws leaning against the railing watching cars go by, but once again the roar of motorcycles startled him and he was off and running.

We took long drives to small towns in the White Mountain region to imagine what it would be like to live there with a small, out of the way, and private farm.  At one point, while driving a backcountry road, Atticus and I stopped a man walking with his two dogs.  I liked him immediately because of his relaxed nature, his ease of conversation, and the fact that neither of his dogs were on leash.  I asked him about the town.  He asked me about our lives.  I returned the favor.  We chatted on for a few minutes and he invited us back to his house to sit on the front porch to talk with him and his wife and to sip lemonade.  It was somewhere around the second glass of lemonade that he figured out who we were. 

On the night of the Jackson fireworks, we didn’t climb to the ledges of Doublehead as we’ve done nearly every year we’ve been here.  Instead we watched them from our backyard.  Well, Atticus and I did.  Will was sleeping, his head flat against my chest while I sat in one of the Adirondack chairs.  I had the 1812 Overture playing in the background.  That’s about as cliché as we get around here.

On some of the warmer days we walked across the backyard, down through the tangle of trees, to the banks of the Ellis River.  Atticus took his place in the shade while I carried Will out into the gentle current.  The Ellis doesn’t run high very often.  In spring melt and during and right after major rainstorms it roars, but usually it’s quiet and peaceful.  At its deepest it comes up to Will’s belly.  He likes the water, as do I, but even though the current isn’t wild, it’s tough for him to keep his balance on the river stones beneath his feet.  So I stand with him offering a hand when he needs one.  He lets me know when he’s had enough, but more often than not, on the very hot days, he never has had enough. 

We stopped by Dutch Bloemen Winkel twice to get flowers from Carrie, then again this weekend at night to help her celebrate the tenth anniversary of her business.  As I write this, three hopeful sunflowers adorn my writing table and peer at me from their vase just behind my computer screen. 

There were a couple of wicked storms.  One at night, another lasting an entire day.  During the rain we stayed inside and I read.  Heck, I read throughout the heat of the day, too, and at night.  I’ve rarely had the television on.  Instead I’ve been re-reading Louise Penny’s mysteries getting ready for the next one, due out in August.  It’s like comfort food for me.  “Comfort reading.”  I’ve also been reading essays by Tom Robbins, George Orwell, E. B. White, Ann Patchett, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

One of my favorites was Emerson’s on his neighbor, Henry David Thoreau.  There’s no one at all like Henry David, just as there is no one like any of us, but I found myself in close kinship with him through some of Emerson’s observations.

“He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.”

“If he slighted and defied the opinions of others, it was only that he was more intent to reconcile his practice with his own belief.” 

“He declined invitations to dinner-parties, because there each was in every one’s way, and he could not meet the individuals to any purpose.”

“The men were all imitating each other, and on a small mould.  Why can they not live as far apart as possible, and each be man by himself?”

“His intimacy with animals suggested what Thomas Fuller records of Butler the apiologist, that ‘either he had told the bees things or the bees had told him.’”


People often ask me if I’d like to hang out with Thoreau and Emerson.  Or with the likes of William Wordsworth, Mary Oliver, and John Muir.  My answer is that I already do.  The best thing a writer can offer you is his or her words and I have those with me for the rest of my life.  I don’t imagine I’d get much more from them with personal interaction.

I have enjoyed all the reading of the past ten days, perhaps more than I’ve ever enjoyed reading.  There are so many more books to read and since I started late in life – around thirty – I have much catching up to do. 

I wrote letters.  All to people I care about, or have cared about in the past.  I said goodbye to a friend when it became clear our course was not as close as we had expected and it was obvious we have different priorities in friendship and life.  I did the same to a brother, a distant soul who hasn’t spoken to me (or contacted me) in years and I can imagine it will always be that way.  So I wrote him a letter to express as much and listed some of the things I value in my memories of him and congratulated him on some of the goals he’s met through life.  I wished him happiness.  While cleaning out the old, I’ve welcomed some new and continued to polish friendships I cherish.

We’ve enjoyed the fires outside at night and the way the fireflies dance like floating stars.  They often come to our bedroom screen at night and press against it to flash at us and I find a comfort in their easy manner. 

Music filled our home, as it nearly always does.  When the windows are open and the screens are down, the sounds splash out into our yard.  When the air conditioners are one, we rock to U2, Beethoven, and Billie Holiday quite privately.

Will continues to be Will.  He’s content.  No, more than that, I believe he’s happy.  We often stretch out together on the grass under the shade of the black ash tree in the middle of our backyard.   He holds his head us for as long as he can. Sometimes I rest my hand under his chin to help him out. The breeze finds us there, as does that sweet smell of summer shade.  Atticus watches from a respectful distance in his relaxed manner.  He knows he and I will soon be off visiting our local farm stands as they brim with healthy choices.  I’ve been eating watermelon, strawberries, and cherries; and drinking a new favorite juice I make myself of kale, pears, apples, and lemon.

Our Facebook break has been enjoyable and needed.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I like some of Facebook and dislike other parts of it.  Mostly, I think it can be good and the sites I visit I enjoy a great deal.  I particularly focus on those pertaining to nature, writers, vegan recipes, and spirituality.  I rarely comment or even “like” a post, but I sometimes share. 

On the Following Atticus page, I like writing about our days and what we do.  I’m not a big fan of people telling me how we should live or even thinking they’ve been invited to do so.  I’m told by those who practice these things that this is the way of social media.  They proudly say I need to expect their input.  They seem happy to educate me. 
Alas, that mindset keeps from enjoying our own page as much I used to.  So I no longer respond to most of the comments.  I let the moderators take care of all of that and I tell them the less they respond, the better.  We’re simply offering a glimpse of our simple lives and not looking for debate.  To keep our lives simple, we’re going to keep it simple.  I will make my posts and then just let them be and go on with my day.  (We have made a change to allow people to comment on other people’s comments.)  But for the most part I’m going to treat it as I treat a book I’m writing.  I write and put things out there and then let it go while moving onto something else.      

I so enjoyed our break that we will be doing more of these in the future.  It helps to put things in perspective and understand that Facebook is not life, but glimpses of it.  Our life is what we do when we’re not posting on social media. 

It’s healthy for me to remember that the most important social media is the kind that doesn’t rely as much on electronics.  It’s how we live in this world and share with each other on a more personal basis.  At least that’s what works best for me.  I like emails my friends send me, texts as well.  But phone calls where I can hear their voices, visits where I can see their faces and embrace them in my arms or shake their hands, and letters and cards that I can hold what they once held, and trace my fingers over words they have written, are more intimate to me.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me.  Atticus is reminding me that we have an appointment.  It’s getting close to two in the afternoon here and this is one of the times Aragorn has been passing through the yard on the way to somewhere else.  Atticus seems to know it’s time we sit outside to get a glimpse of him since he’s watching me with a definitive look while he sits next to the door. 

Nature calls. 

Enjoy our day and thank you for stopping by.

Onward, by all means,
Tom 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

It's a Perfect White Mountain Morning for Hiking

If there were a perfect day to hike in the White Mountains, this is it.  The world is brimming with life.  Birdsong is everywhere.  The trees and grass are lush green.  Wildflowers spring up and sprinkle the world with their joyful colors.  Even though the mosquitos and black flies have been terrible lately, a good wind exists to keep them away.  Temperatures will get to seventy degrees but no higher.  Views are boundless.
 
These are the mornings I daydream about all winter long, the ones I desire for in the long, dark winter.  I imagine dipping into a vernal wood with expectation and excitement, swallowed whole by the forest where things are wild and mysterious and only the path beneath our feet is tamed.  Even then there are places in these White Mountains where the trail doesn’t seem tamed.  Many of them.
 
People in other regions where mountains are higher and without the rich green we enjoy, often laugh when they hear we climb mountains four thousand feet high.  “That’s nothing,” they say.  “We have real mountains here.”  But if those people ever make it here they no longer laugh. The trails are more rugged than what they are used to. There are few switchbacks.  You simply go up and along the way there are twisting roots and jagged rocks along the way.  They eat their words in between gasps for breath while trying not to sprain a knee or an ankle.  New York’s Adirondacks are even tougher.

Alas, this is not a hiking day for us.  We won’t be on a trail until after next Thursday’s appointment with Dr. Malakoff, Atticus’s cardiologist at Angell.  She’ll do an echocardiogram as she’s done for years. I’ll be by his side watching that amazing heart of his – full of life and blood and love – and she’ll show and tell me what she sees.  Interns will gather round.  If all goes as expected, Rebecca will start him on the heart medication we’ve been expecting for seven years now.  Each year she has told me, “He looks good.”  Each year she tells me there will come a time when if the murmur worsens he’ll need a medication to help his heart pump more efficiently.  I’m told it’s nothing life threatening and our days will return to normal.  I look forward to that. 
 
Until then, I pay attention to the other gifts found in these mountains.  The ones you don’t have to hike to. 
 
This morning, we were up early.  Right after the sun.  The solstice is just a collection of hours away and light comes early and burns past eight at night.  We went to Jackson Falls because no one was there.  Watched the rush of the water, listened to the song of the woodland spirits.  After that we went to a local beaver pond with some apples. I cut them up into sections and tossed them to the beaver family floating back and forth in front of us.  We’ve done this for years and when they see us by the shore they come closer. This morning I counted five in their flotilla.  One summer there were seven.  Last year I saw only three.   
 
I find peace and joy in watching the beavers bob for apples, like children on Halloween, then grasp them in their tiny claws and dig in with those giant teeth.  It’s a humble act, to feed and be fed, and a gentle one. 
 
This morning, one of the elders came out of the water and approached where were sitting on the cool earth.  Atticus was by my side.  They looked at each other, then the beaver looked at me. There was no more than ten feet between us.  I tossed him a wedge of apple. He picked it up, sat back on his plump rump, that giant, flat tail lying on the dirt behind him.  And he ate.  I tossed him another.  And a third.  When the apples were gone we all sat in silence letting the morning wash over us. 
 
He stayed where he was and watched us as we watched him.  All three wild in our own way, each enjoying the freedom, and this act of communion. 
 
I heard a car pulling down the road, gravel kick up from under its tires.  It slowed when it saw us with the beaver.  It stopped, a car door opened and a woman got out with a camera.  The beaver looked at her, got up, dragged his tail back into the pond and that was that. 
 
She was nice when she apologized for ending our moment but I told her not to worry.  “We were done anyway.”  The old beaver swam out, turned back and came towards us.  She took a few photos, and then he was gone.  Under the water, after a loud splash of his tail.  We’d see no more of him or the rest of his family.
 
Living in the mountains is not just about the views from the top or the mysterious trails we travel upon.  Often the little gifts are found by ponds and streams, in meadows with sweeping panoramic views, or in the wildflowers which rejoice and reach to the sun.  We came here to live a different life, to escape traffic and rush hours, time clocks and the laws of busier communities.  We came here to breathe and smile and to just be simpler – to own less and have more.
 
There will be no mountain trail for us today, but we’ve already packed in a lot of life and it’s not even nine o’clock.