Marching Forth

A mini-manifesto, and a photo essay you might like.

I’m trying an experiment. During the month of March I am avoiding Instagram, which has become unbearably laden with ads. Depending on how it goes, I may extend my “insta-cleanse” by a few months. (For some reason, the ads on Facebook don’t annoy me quite as much.)

I’m enjoying the peace and quiet, and the sense that I’m not addicted to my iPhone. I miss my friends’ lovely photos and movies, but I’m hoping to find better ways to keep up with people’s lives than seeing them play out against a backdrop of talking llamas selling car insurance, and other inanities greedily vying for a slice of our attention and money.

Frank Chimero wrote a superb essay that articulates how I’ve been feeling about the web. In the beginning, the web had such an amazing potential to develop into a public space that prioritized art, education, civic responsibility, and enlightenment. But lowbrow capitalism seems to have outpaced the loftier aspirations of the human spirit. Much of the web is now inundated with ads and other desperate attempts by people to take money from each other. It’s intrusive. It’s gross. And in a way, it’s irrelevant. I’m here for connection with humanity. Won’t you join me?

There has got to be a better way.

I enjoy the slow, deliberate process of crafting a blog post. I often tell myself that I should do it more often. It’s more like a handwritten letter than an email. More like a slow-cooked meal than a fast-food binge. More like a library than a dollar store. I’ll spend hours writing, editing, reading aloud, preparing visual accompaniment, double-checking everything, taking a deep breath, and then hitting the “publish” button. How often do I put this much care into an Instagram post?

I don’t know that publishing here on my independent blog is the answer, nor if it’s going to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. I certainly won’t enjoy the same degree of immediate feedback (likes!) from my audience of friends. But this feels like a small step worth taking—a miniature protest of sorts. A tug in the right direction. Will 2018 be the year that the zombie blog returns from the dead? We will see.

Felling a dead tree

Speaking of tugs in the right direction…

Up until recently, there was a dead tree on the edge of my property, leaning toward my neighbor’s land. I needed to figure out a way to bring it down safely and affordably onto my own property. Hiring a professional tree worker would have been too expensive. And I like doing chores like this myself, whenever possible.

In order to give myself leverage, I tied a string to a baseball and threw it as high as I could through a place where the tree trunk branched into a “Y” shape. This enabled me to guide a heavier-gauge rope around the tree, midway up. Then I used multiple ropes and pulleys to pull the tree as far as I could toward my yard. Once I had stabilized the leaning tree, I used my chainsaw to make the standard front notch and back cuts near its base. But the final act was a brute tug-of-war, which I documented in the video at the bottom of this post.

Tug-of-War with a Dead Tree
Playing tug-of-war with a dead tree. I had leverage on my side.
Force Multiplier
I used a system of ropes and pulleys to multiply the force of my pull.

Thankfully, it all worked out. Now I have some cleanup to do.

Treework

A short film documenting the felling of a tree.

There was a tree in my yard that was leaning about 20 degrees off its vertical axis. Years ago—maybe decades—someone who lived here before me had apparently used this poor tree as a fencepost. There was a three-inch wide ring carved out of the bark a couple of feet above the ground, extending around the girth of the tree. I feared that someday a combination of heavy snow and strong wind would bring the tree crashing down, crushing one or more of my peach trees, and possibly taking out a corner of my barn. I knew I needed to fell the tree, before it fell on its own terms. Because of its height, I knew I needed to take the tree down in sections.

I thought about calling a professional tree service, but in the spirit of Matthew B. Crawford’s excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft—wanting to be “a master of my own stuff”—I set about to do the job on my own. I already had the necessary tools on hand, and I didn’t want to spend money on something I thought I could reasonably do on my own. (Don’t worry, when I need a new roof I will call a pro.) I won’t lie—there were moments when I questioned the wisdom of doing this job myself. But now it is done, and I am pleased with how it turned out. I filmed the process and edited it down to a bite-sized nugget of a film, which I hope you enjoy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go:

  • Take a shower
  • Sharpen my chainsaw blade (there’s a rotary tool bit for that)
  • Make dozens of wood-burned log slice trivets as gifts for my friends and family (and for my Etsy shop)
  • Split logs for next year’s firewood
  • Make chainsaw sculptures
  • Plant some new trees, to replenish the stock
  • All of the above.

A Tree for All Seasons

A fond farewell to my old friend, the oak tree.

This is the last photograph I will ever publish of this old oak tree, and the lovely meadow over which it presides. I’m not bored with the subject; who could ever tire of looking at clouds like these? No, the reason I will never photograph this place again is that it is slated to become a Walmart store.

I was devastated when I learned the news. I have come to revere this old tree as one would an elderly person sitting on a park bench, seemingly marginalized and passed over by a fast-paced world, but exuding a quiet confidence that tells a thousand stories.

This is not an indictment of Walmart. Despite criticisms that one could (and many do) levy against the giant, Walmart is a business. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do; exactly what we the people tell it to do. Nor is it an indictment of the host city. Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would benefit (at least in the short term) from the jobs and the tax revenue. This is more of an indictment of a modern society that values convenience over open space and natural beauty. And in this sense, it is an indictment of myself. I have shopped at Walmart before, and at some point I probably will yet again. Every dollar I spend is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in. In my own small way, I will have helped to kill this tree.

I generally prefer to support independent local retailers over “big box” stores. Sure, the service at a small business might take longer and cost a little bit more, and the selection of products may be limited. But the overall quality of the shopping experience feels more human, as does the sense of shared connection with our community and respect for our environment. But is it enough to support our local retailers? Or do we need to more closely examine the impact of satisfying all our commercial desires? At some point way back in the Twentieth Century, Walmart started out as the quintessential local retailer with one store: Sam Walton’s Five and Dime. And now, scaled up by orders of magnitude, look what “shopping local” hath wrought.

I am under no illusion that I’ll be able to stop the relentless forward march of the bulldozer. Our modern, convenience-addicted society demands more goods, lower prices, and stores that are closer to us. Never mind that we already have everything we need: the Holyoke Mall, a CVS pharmacy, a Kmart, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Petco, a Barnes & Noble, and a Stop & Shop grocery store are all located within a mile of this soon-to-be Walmart. Competition is the name of the game here. My hope is that Walmart and its developer will see a little bit of the same magic that I see in my friend the oak tree, and will find a way to spare it. Can you imagine parking lots peppered with old-growth shade trees? I can.

To be perfectly honest, my photos of this meadow are somewhat fictional. What you don’t see—what I prefer to exclude with my camera’s lens—is the yucky stuff: the “no trespassing” sign at the field’s border, the impenetrable brush, and the doubtless thousands of mosquitoes and ticks that it harbors. The surrounding neighborhoods are nothing special either: some modest ranch houses on small lots; a few downtrodden apartment complexes; a handful of businesses; a fire station. And hidden beyond the precipice at the far end of the field is yet another shopping center. The whole place is sort of an oxymoron: a busy road in the middle of a pseudo-industrial limbo that used to be farmland.

But I find such oxymorons intriguing, and I have learned to train my camera on them at every opportunity, building a repertoire of images of a fleeting world I’d love to hang on to.

When the world exasperates me (as it often does), I like to invoke the wisdom of others to guide and inspire me. There is one thought in particular that has been resonating with me lately, in all sorts of situations:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

What, then, will be the new model that I build? Will I relocate next to a cemetery, an ocean, or even further out into the sticks where no one would possibly want to plop a big box store? Will I simply acquiesce, accepting thoughtless commercial expansion as an unavoidable by-product of a cancerous capitalism? Or will I intensify my efforts to photograph the dwindling natural beauty that I find in unlikely places, creating an illusionary cut-and-pasted paradise that represents “the way we could have been”? I’m liking this latter approach.

It is with much gratitude and great respect that I have had the privilege of photographing this particular meadow over the years. Now I will move on and find another willing subject. Farewell, my friend the tree. I will see you in the cosmos.

Boneyard

An oil painting I made in the 1990s

I painted this peaceful, melancholy scene based on a photograph I took in the old part of Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. I worked on this oil painting while studying under the late Richard Yarde at the University of Massachusetts, in the early 1990s.

Technical details and availability

1994; oil on canvas; medium-sized; private collection (not for sale).

Farewell to Summer

A photograph I took of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in a favorite town in Massachusetts

One of the things I love the most about living in New England is the drama of the passing seasons. Each one has its own distinctive feel and intensity. For many years fall has been my favorite, but I love the others as well. This past summer has been particularly sweet in terms of temperature, weather, personal discovery, and accomplishment.

Shown above is a picture I took this past summer, of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I’m just getting started on a painting of it.

But summer is gone, and fall is gearing up to unleash its fiery glory upon us. I can’t wait for blustery skies full of sculpted clouds, red, orange, and yellow leaves crunching under foot, cooler temperatures, longer shadows, mosquito-free hikes, jackets, hats, and scarves, pumpkins, apples, chilly bicycle and motorcycle rides, earlier, longer nights, cozy cafés, and a couple of extra blankets. Fall is almost here.

Two Trees

Two maple trees at Mt. Pollux in South Amherst, Massachusetts.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is anything more gloriously beautiful than autumn in New England. Each of the seasons has its own particular beauty, but October—my favorite month—ushers in a perfect convergence of climate, emotion, and color.

The heat of summer tapers off and is replaced with a cooler ambient temperature. Gardeners lay their gardens to rest, and people and animals alike batten down the hatches in preparation for the winter to come. Dramatic, blustery clouds and azure skies set a pensive mood. Golden afternoon light illuminates resplendent, fiery colors that the region’s trees produce. All of this is draped over a stunningly-gorgeous landscape and an all too fleeting American Gothic architectural style. By mid-month, invigorating breezes will whip up the leaves that will have fallen. Crisp, sweet smells of composting leaves will waft about. And by the end of the month the show will be over.

One of the places that I most love to visit during this season is Mount Pollux, located in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Formerly an apple orchard, Mt. Pollux is a little knob just north of Mt. Norwottuck, the highest mountain in the Holyoke Range. It is a very romantic, dreamy, energetic place. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sits atop an intersection of some of the earth’s ley lines. Many weddings have taken place here. Doubtless many young romantics have wooed each other on its flanks. Many hands have been held, many picnics have been consumed, and many kites have been flown. I brought my Dad here when he visited many moons ago, and we ceremoniously remembered our departed loved one.

One of the unique features of Mt. Pollux is that from the top, on a clear day, you are treated to a nearly unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding land, which includes the Connecticut River Valley (a.k.a. the Pioneer Valley) and mountains as far away as New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. You can’t see Connecticut to the south, because the majestic Holyoke Range stands in the way. And you can’t see Rhode Island because it’s just so darn small.

Another unique feature of Mt. Pollux is its centerpiece: the two maple trees at the top. I have been told that some students from nearby Hampshire College refer to the place simply as Two Trees, which makes perfect sense.

Calling it Mt. Pollux makes sense too, as the trees embody an energy of “two-ness.” Recursively underscoring this theme, there is also a Mt. Castor in the area, but it is harder to find.

In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the Gemini (twin) brothers. As astronomy buffs will tell you, the constellation Gemini comprises the twin stars Castor and Pollux. (Incidentally, my aforementioned brother Trevor was born under the astrological sign of Gemini.)

In the myth, the twins shared the same mother but had different fathers (immortal Zeus and mortal Tyndareus), which meant that Pollux was immortal and Castor was mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together and they were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The pair were regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire.

One thing I like about these two trees is that they seem to tell a story. They are not classically “perfect” maple specimens. They are unusual and asymmetrical. They are a little bit messy, not unlike life itself. The tree on the left sports a protrusion that reaches out to cover a corresponding chunk that is missing from the tree on the right. Both of the trees lean away from each other, but they seem to be relating. Is the one on the left reaching out to help one on the right, which has been injured in an ancient lightning strike or ice storm? Or is it more of an antagonistic gesture, as might befit a bickering old couple? Is it presumptuous to anthropomorphize them thusly?

If you have a chance, visit Mt. Pollux and decide for yourself! In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph.