Archive for July, 2013

We’re back from a week’s camping trip at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod. The weather was a 70-30 blend of sweltering, nauseating heat and torrential rains. Fortunately, the Cape is a big giant sand bucket, so the rain drains away relatively quickly. And if it has to be 92 degrees and humid, I don’t think there are many better places to be than in the pine needle carpeted barrens up on a rise above the Bay. It was from my hammock under an oak tree that I most enjoyed listening to our neighbors at the next campsite. The Louds, as we dubbed them, were a family of four who arrived in a minivan groaning under the weight of their copious gear. Mrs. Loud, Mr. Loud, Pre-Teen Loud and Little Loud emerged, Mr. Loud looking enthusiastic and sprightly, the remaining Louds looking bewildered.

What followed was several days of bickering, radio playing, and inexplicable inflations and deflations of an air mattress. By contrast, on all other sides, our fellow campers were quiet, deliberate, middle-aged couples, fastidiously avoiding speaking to anyone else. In New England fashion, we typically only nodded to each other in passing.

This is my spot.

This is my spot.

The first night, I heard someone yelling at Mr. Loud from the tent, “I want an Arnold Palmer! I’m thirsty!” Mr. Loud offered a glass of water instead. “Fine! If you won’t bring me an Arnold Palmer!”

Arguments about hydration continued, as days later, Mr. Loud reminded Pre-Teen Loud to drink water, given the heat. “That doesn’t even make sense! If I drink water, I’ll just pee it out!” she screeched. Like most adolescents, she speaks primarily in italics. That same day, P-T Loud stood on the path to the bathhouse and yelled, “I hate camping! It’s boring, it’s lame, and it’s stupid!” I can only imagine that she saw a look of hurt on her father’s face, because next she yelled, moderating her tone, if not her volume, “I might like it more if it was cooler! Like in the fall!”

The Louds made it through the night of heavy rain, but after that, they largely abandoned the campsite. The last night we were there, they never came back in the evening. Yesterday, as I was packing up, Mr. Loud pulled up alone in the minivan to do the same with his tent, screen house, travel camp kitchen, and so on. I was alone at our site too, having sent the boys and Christophe off on a walk so I could administer my elaborate packing system alone. As I packed, and Mr. Loud packed next door, I thought, “Some families have a camper. He’s a camper, and I’m a camper. The rest of them, what are they? The campees. The people who get camped.” In my case, my campees, my boys, (husband included) are at least content to camp, and generally even enthusiastic. Mr. Loud, it appears, is not so lucky.

The only trace we left: a tent-floor shaped dry patch in the pine needles.

The only trace we left: a tent-floor shaped dry patch in the pine needles.

When some people drove up scoping out sites for the coming week, they stopped to talk to Mr. Loud, asking if the site gets a lot of ponding in the rain. “It does, but we kept our tent up on the highest spot. The kids loved it! The rain coming down on the tent at night…It was great.” Mr. Loud is putting a brave face on it. I know how that goes, having taken my family on overly ambitious hikes and backpacking trips from time to time. The narrative must be revised to stave off despair.

Mr. Loud knew better than to try that with me, I suppose, because as he readied to go, he called over to me, “Safe trip home! We’re cheating a little–we’re staying three more days in a motel down the road. Heated indoor pool. The girls love it.” I wished him the best, trying very genuinely not to appear smug, because I genuinely wasn’t feeling smug. We can never align the desires of four different people entirely. A family will always be threatening to fly apart from the centrifugal forces* governing each member. Mr. Loud was giving it a good try, and if they all end up by the pool eating take-out sandwiches and drinking Arnold Palmers after all, I raise my own glass to the spirit of the effort.

*sticklers for scientific accuracy, I am aware this does not exist in actual physics, and that we merely perceive it because we falsely perceive ourselves to be in a non-accelerating state when rotating. But in a literary sense, it works.

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There is a layer of grime on my skin so thick I can scrape it off in long curls. On my pants, which I have been wearing for three days now, there are coffee and syrup stains, and the long gray and white streaks of gull feces. A few flecks of blood have dried to brown. The pants are a catalog of our two activities on this island: banding gulls, and eating. We do sleep, but not well and not long, given the heat and the cacophony of the gulls.

We are here on Appledore Island in Maine for one week to band gull chicks and to take blood and other unmentionable samples for a study at M.I.T. As of this morning, we had captured, banded and sampled over 400 birds.

This island is home to breeding colonies of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, and to a full field research station called the Shoals Marine Lab. Birds and undergraduates, PhD students, and high schoolers all manage to coexist here, though not entirely peacefully. Out in the colonies at the cliff verges on the Atlantic, you can get clocked in the head with concussive force for approaching a gull’s chicks too closely. We are always approaching too closely.

A07. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

A07 patrols the porch. (Photo by Nick Lovasco)

Nearer to campus, the gulls are more accustomed to human comings and goings, and are less wary and defensive. Some grow so habituated to humans that they acquire names. At least, human-given names. There is an old bird who stands on the porch of the dining commons most of every day. He has lost most of the feathers around his eyes, giving him a crazed aspect. The colors of his bill are faded and washed out, and the webs of his feet are shot through with holes. He was banded several years ago, and wears a green anklet reading A07. For his habit of stealing the food of unsuspecting porch diners, he has been called “Peanut Butter Cookie.”

Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning before my departure for the mainland, I sat under the baleful glare of A07 and wondered if this might be the last time I ever see him. He has a mate again this year, and young, but he may not make it through another winter.

Yesterday, I was out tidepooling, picking up crabs and shrimp when I saw a green band rolling in the waves. It read H01, a bird banded a few years ago, and now, evidently, dead, its body decomposed and worried apart enough for the band to have fallen off the bone. For an unbanded bird, indistinguishable (by us) from any other bird, death is perfect oblivion, one more bird in millions who have lived, fledged, foraged, mated and died, unmarked and unremarked upon by humans. We knew a bit about H01, and slightly more about A07. Most birds have no name for us. Some few have a name in science, and fewer still a colloquial name. They all have a secret name, of course, or what passes for a name in their country and lets one bird know its mate and its enemies, its chicks or a stranger’s, at a far distance and among hundreds by its shape or its cry, its posture or its flight pattern. What they use for names, or rather, instead of names, is a pure and unsolvable mystery, species to species. Every year, we watch a short span and a thin sliver of their lives, another generation, until the young fledge and the adults move on, with no further apparent connection to their offspring. They each move off to their wintering grounds and their daily habits, one essentially identical to the next, at least to our eyes.

How little we know of the world.

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My two sons and I set out on Wednesday for an overnight backpacking trip. It was to be the very first for Simon, my four year old. The plan was a flat hike in the White Mountains to the Spruce Brook Tentsite along the Wild River. As we packed up at the trailhead, some folks from the Androscoggin Ranger Station showed up to post this:

and strongly urged us to take the High Water trail across the river via the only bridge for miles. We amended our plans as suggested.

After a short hike, we came to a brook crossing. Swollen with flood rains, the water was rearing and charging. Assuming I had made a wrong turn, as this could not possibly be something we were meant to cross, we backtracked and walked a few hundred yards up another trail, until I knew that that had indeed been the crossing we were intended to make. Backtracking yet again, we came back to the bank and looked across to a cairn marking the resumption of our trail on the opposite side. Scanning the water, my heart sank as I saw a perfectly serviceable and much used log spanning the water, its bark worn off from countless hiking boots. We were meant to cross on that.

I pointed to it, and said to my sons, “We’re meant to cross on that,” and an instantaneous thrum of anxiety became physically palpable in Simon’s body. Malcolm would follow me anywhere, but even he could not quite look at me straight. I watched the water and thought how that log crossing would barely give me pause were I on my own, but with the two of them, it may as well have been a wire over a chasm. Hemmed in by high water on one side, and a mountainside too steep for Simon on the other, we gave up any thought of hiking farther in, as the boys explain in this video. The revised plan would be to set camp in the woods the requisite 200 feet from the trail and then go spend the afternoon by the river.

We didn't get much beyond this, but one could do worse.

We didn’t get much beyond this, but one could do worse.

Once camped up on a ridgeline, we had more than four hours to kill before I could reasonably suggest we retire to the tent in a dank, sunless bit of forest. A little side stream of the Wild River, dubbed “The Calm Pools” by the boys, seemed the best place to stay. Relieved of their packs, both began rock hopping and chucking stones and building little rock pile forts. I began hyperventilating at the thought of all the hours ahead of me, requiring parenthood’s particular mix of boredom and vigilance, with no other adults for company.

But the hours did pass quickly enough; we found a berm of sand piled up by the floods that made for good digging and long jumping, and there were droves of White Admiral butterflies flying by or landing on our packs or drying socks, drawn to the urinous smell of small, filthy boys.

IMG_4116After our supper, we clambered up the ridge and back in to our tent site. I hung our bear bag of food, funny to the boys because the process inevitably involves my throwing a stick in the air and then getting struck on the head by it several times. We read until dark, late at this time of year, and they fell asleep to either side of me, one with a foot in my side and one with an elbow in my face.

Whenever people say, “Enjoy this time; they grow up so fast!” I try to be gracious and smile and be polite as my parents always taught me. But why people say such inane things is beyond my comprehension. I have gained immeasurable riches by the raising of my sons. But I have traded some of my most precious things away too: easy crossings of log bridges, hiking miles upon unbroken miles, and climbing mountains and lying on their tops in the quiet, and sleeping in a tent in a remote and difficult spot without a child’s limb in my ear or nostril. They will grow up, but it’s not really all that fast. Not when you’re watching every minute of it tick by from a rock on a riverbank,  in a cloud of black flies and the urine seeking butterflies.IMG_4108

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When last we saw Bad Blue, the roadside chair, he was lying on my basement floor flayed and partially eviscerated. Actually, that’s when you last saw Bad Blue. I have been looking at Bad Blue, lying there reproachfully, almost every day for the past year when I go to do laundry or run on the treadmill.

After months of inaction, I was having a bad day generally and decided that pulling staples from a dusty old chair was just the thing. The Bad Blue project began afresh.

The pace of work accelerated, and a couple weeks ago it was time to visit my favorite ramshackle fabric store on their $6/yard discount day. Forty two dollars later, I had Bad Blue’s new skin:



I have this fantasy where I take Bad Blue back to the house where I found him, and I walk with him up the driveway and up to the house. Bad Blue is nervous, but we knock on the door, and when the people open it, they don’t recognize their long-lost castoff at first, but then the light of recognition comes into their eyes, and they grip Bad Blue by his wings and hold him out to get a good look and make exclamations of disbelief. It’s just like Pygmalion. And then Bad Blue and I walk back down to the car while his old owners stand in the doorway smiling wistfully.

But then, what if they weren’t pleased? What if Bad Blue walked his stiff-legged walk up to their door and their guilt and shame at throwing him over were so great that they slammed the door in his face? I can’t subject him to that. So instead, I’m going to put on the finishing touches, and sell him. But I’ll slow down a bit when I drive by that house on the way to the shop.

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