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  I have been messing about in boats all of my life, spending hours rowing my dory into sea marshes full of greenish mud and hermit crabs and sea gulls and herons. I fished for flounder and eel with a drop line and trawled for mackerel with a shiner. I caught blowfish for my mother, who considered their lower regions a great delicacy, and captured horse shoe crabs for my Aunt, who ate their stomachs. As a teenager, I sailed with my friends up the New England coast, learning what it feels like to capsize, what tearing a hole in the hull sounds like as you go over the rock, and how bleak and cold and utterly without hope you feel clinging to the mast in a northeast gale. Read more

Rivers of Birds

 One night last week, self-isolation blues were getting to me, so I went to look at the stars. There was a full March moon, and, while I stood gazing at it, a concatenation of bugling and cackling reached me from way high up. I wouldn’t have known what it was if I hadn’t heard Sandhill Cranes at the same time last spring, flying north on the rivers of the sky. Thousands of them pass through Michigan along The Mississippi Flyway, migrating from their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to breeding sites in Canada.

I I would have jumped up in the air and clicked my heels if I could (I did it mentally, anyway).

In these lonely days, we are allowed to get fresh air and exercise if we keep 6 feet apart and upwind from each other (rumor has it that dread Coronavirus droplets can be carried on the wind). Chance conversations with real human beings who stop to chat always lift my mood, and watching birds on their spring migration rachets me right out of my funk.

The Rouge River runs through Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, where Canada Geese are sorting themselves into mating pairs amid clamorous lunging and imprecation. (With their people-watching curtailed, New Yorkers have taken to goose goggling.) If you aim your binoculars away from the shore, you often see migrating ducks resting on their journey.

Last Saturday (March 21), I got into one of those arcane bird watcher’s conundrums trying to figure out whether the little ducks gliding and diving in the middle of the lake there were Buffleheads or Hooded Mergansers, only to come back on Sunday to discover both species present. From that distance, the males with their prominent white head markings looked quite similar: the key was in their mates. The female Bufflehead has a small, round head and is brownish all over, but the female Hooded Merganser has a wild rusty mane that looks, my bird guide says, as if she had attacked it with a hair dryer.

Figuring out the intricate details that Mother Nature bestows on her creatures focused my mind wonderfully, and helped me rise above my gloomy preoccupation. There is something reassuring in the way birds migrate on predictable routes and schedules. In my back yard, for example, a Red- winged Blackbird has appeared around March 5 (my mother’s birthday) every year since I started keeping feeder lists in 1982 (my family has always thought we might come back to each other as birds, maybe it is her?)

Bird species tend to migrate through our area at set times. If you happen along the riverside path in Birmingham’s Linden Park during the first week in May, a bunch of us with binoculars around our necks and frantic looks on our faces will be scrambling about in the bushes tallying migrating warblers, teeny tiny birds given to darting about way high up in the treetops (warbler neck is a significant muscular affliction of this season.) These little birds travel at night, descend at dawn, and don’t fly in the rain: if we have had a wind from the south and a nighttime rainstorm, we might get the warbler “fallout” that we have waited for all year long.

Between 1992 and 2010 we kept records for Oakland Audubon in Linden Park and Quarton Lake, 112 species of year-round and summer residents and 26 varieties of warblers passing through on their spring and fall migrations. Tired and hungry on flights from as far away as South America, they spot the glittering currents of the Rouge River and descend for restorative stopovers on their way to Canada and the Arctic Circle.

I think most of us became nerdy listers as the secondary effect of the sheer delight of bird watching. Just looking at birds is a mood lifter, as I first discovered as an anxious ten year-old New Yorker when a kindly Audubon Club maven plopped me down in the middle of a Central Park multi-species fallout with colorful, active, and excitedly chirping birds perched on the trees and bushes in every direction.

Although climate change and destruction of stopover habitat has led to a sad decline in bird numbers, Scientific American reports that it is also shifting the timing of bird migrations, but only by two days each decade – not enough to throw them off their seasonal feeding schedules. It is heartening, too, that so many of our fellow creatures are adapting themselves to global warming.   The Scientific American notes “a study of 52 species published in Ecology Letters found that birds’ bodies are getting smaller over time while their wingspans are getting longer, apparently in response to rising temperatures. The smaller size may allow the animals to lose body heat faster as the climate warms, the researchers suggest.”

Are you interested in taking up bird watching? Here’s a great Cornell University Site to get you started.

Guess what? On March 29, the Kinglets were back! Tiny and darting swiftly in the undergrowth, they are the first migrating birds to alight along the Rouge River every year.

* visit Linden Park off of Lincoln at Shirley and Douglas Evans Nature Preserve off of Evergreen between 14 and 13 mile roads.

Everything is Talking Back

We are all locked up in our houses now – well, not exactly locked up, though it feels like it – self-isolated is the correct word. It is a weird situation for those of us who derive so much of our well-being from engaging with real live people; is it any wonder that we are beginning to converse with our teakettles?

Actually, talking to household objects isn’t all that strange. Travel writer Jan Morris, who at 90 is done with traveling, engages in “morning conversations with my toothbrush” and “night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture.” She also likes to “thank a good omelette.”

In a round of texting with my (self-isolating) friends I discovered that Sharon thanks each object as she throws it in the trash or recycles it, and that Marie was so struck by the beauty of her fried egg this morning that she took a photo portrait.

Years ago, when Yorkshire pudding was a staple of our household, I would congratulate it when it rose crisply from the sides of the pan, but I would never forget to commiserate when it fell flat.

One day, when I was about twelve years old, I let myself into our New York City apartment so quietly that my mother kept up her animated conversation with our dog Tuffy. When I asked her if she was all right, she replied that I should only begin to worry when Tuffy began to talk back.

I am beginning to worry.

This morning, the wallpaper in my bathroom, which has a pattern of tiny pink flowers on tiny green stems amid even tinier polka-dots, asked me if I couldn’t be more cheerful; but then the scale wondered if I had been eating too much peanut butter. My bed chided me that I hadn’t made it yet, but after I tidied the sheets and patted down the duvet it declared, with a kind of smug complacency, “Now aren’t I all cozy?”

Has my lack of human contact alerted me to the way these things have been carrying on all along? Maybe I should follow Poet David Whyte’s advice in “Everything is Waiting For You” to “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/ The conversation. The kettle is singing/ Even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots Have left their arrogant aloofness and Seen the good in you at last.”

On the Silence of Winter

There is a silence to winter that is a being in and of itself. If you still the chatter in your head, you can sense the fields and forests humming quietly to themselves under the snowpack, way down below the roots of everything.

Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness?

Listen! Beneath the frozen lawn and the icy layer of leaves on the garden, can you here faint singing? Did you think that the silence of winter portends emptiness? Can you hear the field mice pattering in their intricate maze of pathways? How about chipmunks scurrying between cleverly discreet chambers, some for sleep others for storage or giving birth or private little bouts of copulation?

There is a deep hole dug into the brush pile, whose occupant remains unknown, a winter mystery.

Just below the frost line night crawler worms are waking in their slime-lined nests to quietly arrange themselves, side by side, in hermaphroditic alignments.

Today it is all mud and muck boots; tomorrow there will be snow and snowshoes, but winter is breaking up, don’t you worry.

Listen and attend! While silence sorts, nature cavorts.

SATURDAY MORNING WITH COFFEE AND THE NEW YORKER

When I sat down to read the cartoon issue of the New Yorker with my nice, hot cup of strong coffee one Saturday late in December, I found an article by my favorite prose writer about my favorite cartoonist. Adam Gopnik is wonderful at what used to be called a “turn of phrase,” like describing a reference book he likes as “an atypically larksome encyclopedia.” He is also good at juggling ideas in a way that gets right in amongst us:

“People who don’t want high speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains . . . these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals.”

Here he is on the difficulties cartoonist Roz Chast experienced when she cared for her aging parents until their deaths, which she chronicled in her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. She found herself “caught in a permanent meta-cycle of well-meant gestures, torn between compassion and exasperation, having to be kind when you just want to be gone.”

And on the Brooklyn of Chast’s childhood: “the world of the receding New York middle class: scuffed-up apartments, grimy walls, round-shouldered men perched n ratty armchairs and frizzy-haired women in old-fashioned skirts…marked by a shared stigmata of anxiety about the eyes.”

Gopnik’s take on Chast’s “Sad Buildings in Brooklyn” took me straight into a bittersweet but gentle nostalgia for the tiny Manhattan apartment where I grew up in the 1940s. It was filled with cigarette smoke, presided over by neurotic parents, with soot-encrusted sills at every window, in a dimly lit wartime neighborhood that was in every way distinctly pre-Big Apple.

Chast’s characters have escaped her sad Brooklyn for what Gopnik describes as “a kind of timeless Upper West Side of the mind,” her preferred New York neighborhood which became mine as well. I have found a place to stay in a brownstone apartment on West 81st Street and when I gaze into the windows of tiny apartments chockablock with books and dust and people having intense conversations amid take out boxes from Zabar’s, I feel poignant regret at my midwestern exile from a life I might have lived.

It seems miraculous that Chast’s sad Brooklyn buildings not only failed to overwhelm the little girl with their grimness and miasma of anxiety, but provided her with the settings and characters that gave her a successful career and a wonderful life. The key, I think, is immersing yourself in the sad oddities that life doles out, working through and with them rather than complaining about  and pretending they didn’t happen. We are all broken in some way; the trick is to fill our cracks with whatever gold we can glean to create our uniquely idiosyncratic wholeness.

As we get older, silliness becomes an existential necessity. The trick is to stay silly, be silly, and find silly things to do. These days, I am knitting mice and then knitting little sweaters and skirts for them to wear; Roz Chast has learned to play a turquoise ukulele and performs (at the Carlisle, yet!) in band called the Uklear Meltdown.

A PHILOSOPHY FOR CLIMATE GRIEF

Dear Friends,

There is so much downheartedness in reading the news about climate disasters, ecosystem collapse, and species destruction that we sometimes fall into so much Climate Grief that we lose all will to act.

I am sure that we have all been there, so I wrote this article for Impakter.com, a European online magazine where I am a columnist, to try to encourage us to look deep for ways to buoy ourselves up.

 It took a long time to write it, because just thinking about it made me want to run away and hide under the bed.

https://bit.ly/2sUuGeq

Inside Two Bubbles: Some Thoughts on Jonathan Coe’s Middle England

  On the night after the first Trump Impeachment Hearing, I picked up Jonathan Coe’s 2018 Middle England. It is a really good read – well written, with engaging characters, and a fascinating account of England right now. I was startled by the realization that England and America are going through strikingly similar crisis.

In Coe’s England neither Conservatives nor Labour have figured out how to deal with Brexit, which they voted in by referendum in June, 2016. Parliament is so consumed by the issue that nothing else is getting done. People are locked into Leave or Remain positions that have broken friendships and family ties. The country is full of anger, not only about Brexit but against immigrants and non-whites, giving rise to violent attacks. The nation’s mood of surly, punitive xenophobia seems to have been fueled before the Brexit vote by bitterly divisive social media traceable, in part, to the Russians.

In the United States, neither Democrats nor Republicans have figured out how to get bills through Congress in the face of violent differences about President Donald Trump, elected in November, 2016. Families are estranged by Pro- and Anti-Trump convictions, locked into positions over his campaign against immigrants and non-whites. Hate crimes against African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants have occurred every few months since his election; the xenophobic rage that fueled them was promulgated during the election campaign, much of it coming from Russian misinformation fed into social media.

Even I, who consider myself as rational as anyone, found my head spinning during Republican attacks on the distinguished diplomats at the Impeachment Hearing as they testified about Trump’s pressure on the President of Ukraine to give him dirt on the Biden family (along with proof that the Ukrainians, rather than the Russians, were responsible for the 2016 electoral interference). The Republicans worded their accusations with such forceful illogic that they aborted my thinking process and went straight to my (appalled) gut:

“Well what’s the deal,” one sneered, “they got their arms without doing the investigation, didn’t they?”

Legally, an attempted crime is still a crime: if you assault someone you go to jail, even if you don’t actually kill or wound him. And that’s the actual truth.

The impressively dignified and professional  Ambassador to Ukraine, the target of screeds of invective, gave the best possible response; she just sat there and smiled, as we would like anyone to do, in the face of total nonsense.

But no, not anyone. In Russia, fake information has long been employed to reinforce a dictator’s appeal. The New York Times cites Peter Pomerantsev’s “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” about the “transgressive thrill in strong leaders thumbing their nose at the facts.” While Pomerantsev is writing about how the Russians feel about Putin, there are plenty of Americans who just adore the way Trump stands up in front of thousands of people and tells one lie after another.

In the interest of a balanced view I have made several attempts to get myself inside the Republican bubble. I tried to watch Fox News, but its spins left me nauseous. Then, at my gym, I found a treadmill with a Fox screen just to my left and MSNBC blaring away on my right, enabling me to juggle both bubbles simultaneously. They were discussing the July 25 telephone conversation between Presidents Zelensky and Trump, with Fox twisting Trump’s ask to investigate corruption in general, while MSNBC insisted it was about Vice President Biden and his son.

Each side was rendering its viewpoint in an entirely believable manner. It was easy to see how, as the New York Times puts it, “a loss of shared facts can be corrosive for rational discourse.”

As for me, I find what is happening to words and to reason, and to truth itself, profoundly disheartening.

Jonathan Coe’s newspaperman character, Doug, meets every few months with his source, Nigel, who is a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron.

“We’re going to win an overall majority,” declares Nigel. “We’re confident of that. That’s what the opinion polls are telling us.”

“But you just said you don’t trust opinion polls.”

“We don’t trust most people’s opinion polls. But we do commission our own. Which we trust.”

*New York: Knopf, 2018

The Joy of Nature Writing

In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, we who write about our love for nature are accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against the grim reality. What is the point of taking joy in forests and meadows that we have already doomed by our greed and folly? How can we go on fiddling about the wonders and beauty of our beloved planet when it is burning all around us?

Is nature writing a retreat from activism or a weapon against climate change?

British nature lovers and writers are particularly anguished about the utility of their pursuits in these darkest of times; In Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too late? Mark Cocker worries about nature writing in the context of species loss and land degradation: “The danger is that it is a compensatory, nostalgic and internalized re-creation of what was once our birthright and is no more… without the underlying biodiversity, these responses will be like the light from a dead star: they will persist for a while, maybe even decades, but they will travel onwards into the darkness that will eventually consume them.”

When I read such catastrophic forecasts I sink into a kind of will-paralyzing dread.  Actually doing something on behalf of nature, however, always gives me a spark of hope. So, in recent years, I have written and lobbied on behalf of our beloved planet by dividing my work time down the middle, allocating half my week to nature writing and the other half to environmental activism.

Last winter, lighting my little candle against the encroaching darkness eventually  burned me right out: too many committee meetings, too many town halls to sit through and legislators to lobby; on the writing side, there were letters to editors, administration of three activist Facebook pages (@CCLDetroitMetroNorth, @BUCGreensanctuary, @annisvpratt), and exhaustive research for articles in the European magazine where I am a columnist. That is why, when May came around, I decided to restore my soul at my Betsie River cabin in Northern Michigan

Summer on the Betsie

I lolled on the banks observing fishes swim by, observed the intricacies of damselfly courtship, listened to what the eddies had to say to each other, puzzled over warbler repetoires and the mysterious projects of bank beavers. As  always, my soul was restored by nature’s intricate beauty: there were patterns in mushroom gills, chickadees’ wings stuttering overhead, and the startling green when black moss resurrects itself after rain.  

 

I always like to read a book at my my favorite spot, down on the dock with the river chortling by.

My Favorite Reading Spot

Robert Marfarlane, who is considered one of the best nature writers in England today, focusses on the sounds of locally used words for landscape attributes. In Landmarks he talks of creating “a work of words” that embed the particulars of nature, de-desecrating” them from mere objects, its rather than thous.

Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.” Macfarlane believes that what comes off the tongue reflects natural phenomena; he relishes words that you can chew on. In unearthing forgotten terms he hopes “that the words grouped here might I small measure re-wild our contemporary language for landscape;” that is why and he calls his landscape glossaries “counter-desecration phrasebooks.”  

In his collection of essays about British nature writers Macfarlane gives examples from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain  about the Scottish Cairngorms:

• The “coil over coil’ of a golden eagle’s ascent on a thermal,” “the minute scarlet cups of lichen,”

•  The sound of moving water: “The slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate.”

 Shepherd considers the mountains “’not of myself, but in myself,’” (italics mine). As Macfarlane puts it, she finds in landscape an “inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.” “Shepherd is a fierce see-er,” he concludes, “and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”

“Mysticism! I told you so,” we can hear our nature writing skeptics exclaim: “Mysticism has nothing to do with science, it’s pure escapism!” I feel quite the opposite:  it seems to me that the mind/matter interaction fostered by close nature observation makes a reader  environmentally “woke.” Clearly, a few definitions are in order:

• Empiricism assumes that our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world, then proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment. For nature writers it involves attention to the minute particulars of nature and an intellectual understanding of their interaction in material processes.

• Mysticism understands nature as suffused with divine spirit. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 Gospels purged by the early Christian church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While institutional Christianity declared the human soul existentially flawed and the natural world the enemy of the spirit, this kind of nature mysticism nonetheless persisted in the human heart.

• Immanentism: The belief that the natural world is pervaded with divinity. Like Transcendentalism, immanentism understands divinity as simultaneously present in and extending beyond materiality. It should not be confused with super-naturalism, which locates divinity entirely outside of nature, or with pantheism, which takes nature as all that there is.

Full disclosure: I am a flaming nature mystic.

The nature writers Macfarlane describes bring their readers into tune with their joyous syntheses of empiricism, mysticism, and immanentism by embedding the touch, feel, sound, and sight of natural phenomena into words.

To Pippa Marland, for example,  contemporary nature writing is a call to rather than a retreat from environmental activism: “I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.”

For a stunning example of how nature writing leads to environmental activism,  a single book for children had a significant impact on last summer’s climate march.

The Lost Words, Permission from Jackie Morris 

Two years ago, Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris, was published as a deliberate act of linguistic anti-desecration.

A new edition of a standard British classroom reference work, The Oxford Junior Dictionary, had dropped forty words about nature – otter, acorn, bramble, and dandelion, heron, newt and willow among them. Their space was needed for words from modern technology like cut-and-paste, blog, and bullet-point. I had been following Morris on Twitter; her paintings of natural beings like wrens and otters against gold wash backgrounds fascinated me. 

Then my Twitter feed filled with news of classrooms where the book had been assigned; all over the UK, children were rushing into the countryside and “re-sacralizing” nature in their own drawings,  poems, and stories.

By the end of the summer the book had become a best seller, and the tremendous reaction to The Lost Words phenomenon culminated in a program at the Proms (a hugely popular London concert series), a video shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and CDs of songs inspired by Macfarlane’s poems and spells. The book contributed to the thousands of marchers participating in the September 20 Climate Strikes, bringing new energy and hope to the succor of our ailing planet.

London Climate Strike 2020

And it was children, many of them “environmentally woke” by a single piece of nature writing, who led them.

MICE AT THE COTTAGE

                                         Mouse Menace 

Every spring, when I arrive at my northwestern Michigan cottage, I have to roust dozens of deer mice from winter complacency. Although I am quite fond of the peppy little creatures with their blazing white tummies, I draw the line at droppings on my kitchen counters and in my refrigerator, at gnawed-over soap, toilet paper shredded for nests, and neat gifts of shiny black seeds under my pillow, not to mention the pathos of little corpses all curled up in coffee cups.

Too, they can be carriers of the deadly Hantavirus, so I owe it to my family and guests to evict them.

Until this year, opening the cottage has always begun with an hours-long task of cleaning up their kitchen depredation, especially in the refrigerator: If I leave it open, there are mouse droppings; if I close it, there is mold. Then a very nice lady in the supermarket line gave me the secret password for cottage over-wintering: Bounce!

“Leave your fridge open, just fill it with sheets of Bounce – you can use them in your cupboards, too!”

The next spring, my refrigerator and cupboards were blessedly clean of both mice and mold.  

Then there was the glorious May day when, delighted to be back Up North, I popped a piece of raison bread into my toaster, only to be assailed by the odor of toasted mouse. That’s what I thought I smelled when I used the oven for the first time, but when I searched inside I didn’t come up with a single baked mouse. Nonetheless, every time I turned on the oven, the sour, musty odor filled the kitchen, so I called in the appliance man.

“Mouse all right: not mouse mouse, I mean—mouse pee.”

“What!”.

“Thing is, it’s the insulation along both sides: they like to pee in it. Get in there, pee over and over, all winter long. What you need is a spray bottle, see? You could try bleach, or maybe white vinegar, or Cs-4? White vinegar, I think—one part in four. That should do it.”

That did it very nicely. When I turned up the oven for my meatloaf the odor had vanished, and after cleaning every surface with Lysol and plugging in zappers, I settled down for a mouse-free summer.  Deterred by the odor of Bounce, they never crawled into the oven insulation again.         

                                      Musical Mice ♬ ♬ ♪ 

A mouse zapper is an electronic device (therefore of no use in the winter when the electricity is turned off) that emits exquisitely high-pitched sound waves inaudible to the human ear, but excruciating to a mice. Since they refuse to enter a room with one in it, these are humane devices to make sure mice stay outside of my cabin, all summer long.

Then I discovered that the acoustical sensitivities of these very same deer mice extend to musical appreciation. Very late on a moonlit spring night, a Canadian biologist recording bat communications picked up a lovely little trilling melody.* Almost supersonic, it was the mating song of a deer mouse singing his little heart out at the edge of the forest. After an interval (of assessing the musical quality of the love song and comparing it others she has heard?) a female took up her strain in an exquisite duet.

I began to worry about what my zappers might be doing to the sensitive and fine-tuned ears of these lovely little creatures, not to mention their emotional lives?                                  

Alas, my skittish houseguests convinced me to leave the zappers plugged in.

                                                   Soul Mice

I used to cut down the winter mayhem with a better mouse trap made from a large plastic bucket with three right angled entry tubes set in the lid. I filled it three quarters full of sunflower seeds and put it on my kitchen floor; the poor little things crawled in and ate themselves silly, perishing by dehydration.

“On the night that you were born,” my mother used to tell me on my birthday eve in a tone of lilting wonder, “there was a mouse in the wastepaper basket. Just as I went into labor, I saw his little pink ears sticking out.”

I’ve often wondered about that little creature, his ears translucent with the first dawn of my life on earth. Was he my herald angel?

In some cultures, there’s a belief that when you die your soul escapes in the form of a mouse. One terrible spring when my husband lay dying, I took a brief weekend away from the hospital to open the cottage. There was no hope at all, and before the week was up I would have to remove his life support.

On that bleak Easter morning, emptying my mouse bucket by the woodpile, I was offering words of regret and apology over the pathetic corpses when one tiny soul aroused itself to scurry away into the forest, as the sun dawned translucently through the golden veins of its ears.

*Canadian Biologist Martina Kalcounis-Rueppell, in Rob Dunn, “Singing Mice,” Smithsonian.com (May, 2011).

Taking the Acela

As I get older, I sometimes treat myself to an upgrade when I travel— a slightly better (though far from luxurious) hotel than the motel I usually go to; or business rather than coach class on the train to Chicago. It was a bit more of a leap than that when, for the Washington-New York leg of a trip east, I bought myself an (expensive) ticket on the Acela. (This is an older blog, but I suspect it still reflects the difference between taking the coach and the Acela)              

I had first seen this marvel of a train one summer when I was boarding the Lakeshore Limited in Boston’s South Station on my way home to Detroit. The first leg of that trip involves a slow haul over the Berkshires at maybe twenty miles an hour, huffing and puffing all the way like the Little Engine that Could. But there, right on the other side of our boarding platform, sat an engine crafted out of gleaming steel, looking down at us lesser travelers with a long, streamlined nose. It was reputed, I remembered, to accomplish what in France they term TGV—“très grande vitesse”—a speed of 120 miles an hour.  ” I’m going to take that someday,” I promised myself; and so I did.

I was traveling to New York City after a heart-warming visit to an old friend in Richmond, so I had to take the  regional train that runs between Newport News and DC to catch the Acela.  The coach seemed pleasant enough; I found an empty seat and settled down next to the window, gazing at reeds blowing in the wind in a broad, misty marshland. As the conductor approached I got out my ticket and noticed that this train continued on to New York. Ever nervous about my travel arrangements, I said

“I see that we go all the way to New York City. Can I stay on if I miss my connection to the Acela?”

“No problem, if we have a seat for you. Worst case scenario, we put you off in DC and you catch the Acela when it comes through.”

I sat there doing mental arithmetic, which I was never good at.                1.They put me off in DC.   2. The Acela, much faster than this regional, comes whistling ‘through.’  3. If both get to New York City at 5:45, won’t the Acela accelerate itself past where I am put off before we get there? 4. This depends on how late the regional is. Recalling puzzlers like “Train A goes at 60 miles per hour and train B goes at 120 miles per hour. If a little old lady is put off of one to catch the other, how many minutes can train A be late to allow her to catch train .”  Answer comes there none.

At Fredericksburg, I acquire a seat mate.  At Quantico, there is an announcement that the train is now full. I resume my calculations on time/motion train A vs train B problem, but still to no avail.  At Woodbridge, I climb over the knees of my seatmate, only to discover that the toilet is out of paper.

The Prospect of Catching the Acela Becomes Ever More Alluring

My favorite meal on Amtrak is a Hebrew National Hot Dog so full of sodium that I wonder what would happen to me if it raised my blood pressure and triggered a stroke? Nevertheless, I would really enjoy one just about now.   

Announcement resounds though the car that the café is out of 1. Sprite and 2. hot dogs.

I would like to take out my knitting, but the seats are so close together that I might find myself elbowing the nice but rather capacious lady sitting next to me. There is a lot more talking now, some of it quite loud, and children are skittering up and down the aisle. The car is beginning to feel close packed and stuffy; and what is that smell?  

“We are sorry Ladies and Gentlemen,” comes the announcement, “We are out of toilet paper.”

At Alexandria, I look at my watch and discover that it is an hour before my confirmed ticket on the Acela, so I decide it will be well worth the effort to make the switch and enjoy my treat after all.   I haul my suitcase into Union Station with plenty of time to lug it to the bookstore where I buy a Wilson Quarterly, a journal so full of wonky articles and well reasoned book reviews that it is always good for a train journey. 

Union Station DC- Acela Gate

 I am sitting in the waiting area absently scanning the announcement board when time/motion problem is solved:board lists hourly Acela departures. It must have been the next one I was supposed to “hop on” to, though how to achieve that without a reservation is not entirely clear. Perhaps these luxury trains never fill up entirely?

I love walking down the platform alongside a train, refreshed by air so much cooler than inside. This time, there is the gratification of glancing up at the gleaming, streamlined engine I had so envied in Boston. As we get underway through the rail yards and begin to pick up speed in Maryland, we move along the tracks like a knife through butter, so different from the regional’s bumps and grinds,  Soon everything is going by so fast that I don’t have a chance to identify the duck on a particular pond or what crops are at what stage—the landscape seen from an Acela is more prototypical than particular, affording the general idea of meadow or forest, like a kind of Platonic ideal. The seats are capacious and comfortable, with a surfeit of leg room and plenty of space between, though I am without a seat mate at the moment.

Perfect, I realize, for knitting! I am working on a little yellow baby sweater for a friend’s first grandchild and need to get on with it as I am hosting her granny shower right after I get home, so I take to knitting and purling in blissful comfort.  That is, until I notice rows of finely tailored trousers relaxed between seats and elegant shoes on foot rests all around me. Good heavens! My car is occupied by men in elegant, well fitting (bespoke?) suits, who must be Very Important People. I recall that the Acela is much frequented by Senators and Congressmen—Joe Biden and all that—and isn’t that Brent Scowcroft sitting across the aisle, glancing at me with mild surprise before politely averting his eyes? It must be unusual among this dapper crowd to spy a lady in red blazer, pink blouse, and pearls carrying on with her knitting.

I don’t feel unimportant to myself—Full Professor, Feminist Founder, Academic Author and all that—but I must look unimportant to them. I wonder if there is a car full of well-dressed, powerful women somewhere on this train, or can they afford it? Never mind—there are those lovely pastures streaming by and the intimate windows of cities to glance (fleetingly) into, so I turn my sweater to a purl row, though I am beginning to get awfully hungry.

Walking through the cars to find something to eat, I pass an enclosure with armchairs and little tables and a sign affixed to the glass that identifies it as a “Quiet Room—no Cellphones or Children.” There are elegantly suited women working busily at their laptops, and a dapper executive’s legs stretching out from his Wall Street Journal. I am surprised to find that the dining arrangements are the same as on the regional, just a café with no Hebrew National Hot Dogs on offer but adequate if plain sandwiches and good strong coffee. Returning to my seat, I notice right at the beginning of my car that a tiny lady, probably in her sixties, is perched on a stool  busily tapping away at her laptop while urgently telling someone at the other end of her cell phone how to prepare the room for a speech she is going to make at the Hilton.

When I settle down with my Wilson Quarterly I  notice that, as always on a moving train, I am suddenly capable of grasping concepts that otherwise elude me. Soon, however, I need to visit the bathroom (Toilet Paper! Clean Sink! Scented Hand Soap!) and on the way back walk slowly enough to read over the urgently busy lady’s shoulder. The masthead of her stationary reads 

                        REPAIRING THE WORLD!

Good for her, I say to myself,  she is restoring the world  like in  Tikum Olam, that marvelous creation story where God sent his light into the world with such power and glory that it broke all the jars he had set out to contain it, their shards scattering all over the universe,  leaving us to repair the world by gathering the thousand thousand things and returning them to their containers.

Good for the tiny lady  repairing the world with her laptop, I reflect,  and good for the women working on theirs in the quiet room and for all of these busy, dapper men as well, if they are of honest intent.

 And good for me too, traveling far and wide to renew the warmth of friendship. And so we streak through the wetlands of New Jersey at more miles per hour than I have ever experienced on a train, until the towers of the city where I was born rise in all their splendor out of the New Jersey marshes.

Catching the Midnight Sleeper

  “You went to Washington how? By train? I didn’t know people still did that,” my friends often ask, to which I answer, “Yes, but I always take the sleeper.”                           

What you do, if you live near Detroit, is get yourself to the Amtrak station in Dearborn, where a bus picks you up and zips down route 75 to Toledo and the Capitol Limited. The hardest part of the trip is the pitch dark drive down the Southfield Expressway, which turns itself into a concrete tunnel for much of the way. My night vision is not very good, and I am perpetually nervous that a flat tire will force me onto the practically non-existent shoulder, up against that high granite wall. So I zip along in my little blue car, coiled tight as a spring, chanting the mantra my husband would always used when I would bleat “Couldn’t you slow down, just a little bit?” And he would reply, “In a situation like this, you have to keep up with the traffic.” 

From a situation like that I am always glad to arrive in one piece at the  Amtrak station, its waiting room bright in the darkness and likely to be full of large, cheerful people in matched pastel pants and sweatshirts with cute sayings all over them, lugging fluffy pillows, carry-ons, shopping bags, toddlers, and babies. These Happy Campers all chat away excitedly, in stark contrast to the mood of the attendant, a curmudgeonly fellow who crouches balefully behind his glass partition and answers all our questions sarcastically.

I settle down on the tippy plastic chair and begin to feel, right down to my  pores, the beginning of a metamorphosis from a terrified night driver to wide-eyed, eager traveler.   If laughter is jogging for the soul, then my soul begins to stretch on the bus to Toledo, where the drivers are invariably loopy. When we have picked up our Detroit passengers and tooled off down the dark highway, this one turns on his speaker to declare:

“Okay, all you guys now, listen up—this is important. I know it goes against how you think of yourselves as manly men, but do not stand over the toilet. Take a hint from the ladies here and sit down for number one like you would for number two. This is a bus. The toilet is in the back where it bumps all over the place. You can get tossed around. I want you to know, here and now, that I refuse to stop the bus and come back there to retrieve your cell phone or your credit card case or your wallet that has fallen in because you think you’re too much of a man to sit down to pee!”

My day (that is, my night) is made. It may be half past eleven on a dark and rainy evening, but the Amtrak station in Toledo is always bustling with people catching the Lakeshore Limited for New York or the Capitol Limited for Washington. The Happy Campers sprawl over every seat not already occupied by their total opposites, the traveling Amish, who are not half as startled by the Happy Campers as the Happy Campers are by their large families of bearded, suspendered men folk, girls and women in homemade cotton dresses, and children so much better behaved than their toddlers, who are careening all over the station, that they seem to belong to an entirely different species.

The seating consists of extremely uncomfortable curved settees with rigid, upright backs. Over the years, I’ve mastered the art of stretching out along the slippery vinyl with my head on my overnight bag and my novel to pass the time when the train is late. Recently, however, it’s been right on time, and that’s when the real excitement begins.

At two minutes to midnight a rumbling wells up under our feet and shakes the whole building, accompanied by the heady announcement “Attention! Attention! Amtrak announces the arrival of The Capitol Limited for Washington, DC, with intermediate stops at Cleveland, Elyria, Sandusky, Pittsburgh….all passengers must step through the door and across the tracks. Please have your tickets ready. Coach passengers to your right, sleeping car passengers to your left.”

However tired I am, I become instantly elated (here we go!) and also sharply alert, remembering the time I headed left but the sleeping car was locked, its attendant fast asleep within. I ran back down the tracks to the mail car to find help, realizing that if the train started moving I was going to have to jump for it and perhaps have a heart attack in the process. These days, I never leave the side of a conductor until he points out my sleeping car attendant waiting down the track.  Then I’m off with my rolling suitcase, amid hissing brakes and rumbling engines.

“Berth for Pratt!”

“Berth for Pratt! Berth for Pratt,” a shout from the anonymous dark that never fails to lift my tired heart.  The attendant heaves my bags up the stairs saying “number five, to the right,” or “E, upstairs and to the left.” I find my room, draw the curtain, and sit my suitcase on the (in room) toilet, contorting myself into my pajamas and wrestling the sink down to brush my teeth before jamming my suitcase in the narrow space between bunk and door, to a muted chorus of groans and laughs through the wall as the Happy Campers attempt these maneuvers for the first time in their lives.

These are snug little rooms which, in daytime, contain two easy chairs and a fold out table, with a bottle of water provided, and free coffee and orange juice out in the corridor.

 At midnight, I usually find the lower bunk opened out with one thin blanket (I always travel with a second), two pillows, and, if it’s my lucky day, a square of chocolate-covered mint. There are last shouts of “all aboard,” then the tumble and lurch of departure, and we chundle chuck, chundle chuck out of Toledo, our whistle bleating with an odd mixture of confident assertion and diffident wailing as the engine cleaves the darkness.

I climb happily into my bunk, tension draining from my every muscle as, rocking along, I experience that wonderful state of mind induced by going somewhere purposefully without exerting the least personal effort. “There are some people,” writes my all-time favorite novelist Margaret Drabble, “who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery, as though each displacement of the body were a displacement of the soul”*

That is exactly how I feel every time. I have been coiled up like a spring and feel my soul unclinching, eager for new experiences and discoveries.   I have woken at night to watch thousands of stars over Sandusky; homebound, I have greeted the dawn over that same bay gleaming pewter in the dawn, where great blue herons glide close to the water on their enormous wings.

It isn’t just the scenery that stretches my soul. The meals (free with your sleeper ticket) take place in a dining car where the waiter always seats you with perfect strangers. “One of the signs of passing youth,” writes Virginia Woolf, “is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them,” a tendency that seems to pitch older train travelers (younger ones, I have noticed, are more likely to  stare sullenly down at their napkins) into interesting conversations. Over those (real) linen tablecloths, (fake, plastic) flowers, and copious breakfasts, I have participated in some stunning colloquies.

We are negotiating the Cumberland Gap and I am deep into my French toast, orange juice, and coffee when the man sitting beside me says “Look over there! We’re in Hastings—that’s where I grew up!” He turns out to be a Presbyterian minister, and, at my query about whether Calvin is still an influence, we eagerly plunge into theological discussion. He doesn’t buy the traditional concepts of original sin and any more than I do, but we agree that there is plenty of evil about and you have to be alert to it. Our dining mates across the table chime in at this point. They are Christian Scientists who believe that goodness is all around us, that we are surrounded by Spirit to the extent that we don’t have to worry about getting to heaven because we are there already. They are interested to learn about my Universalist conviction that we are born good and goodness will ultimately triumph.

I return to my berth, which the attendant has made back into a sitting room, to brood over a New Yorker article I couldn’t make head or tail of when I started it at home but which seems perfectly clear on the train, which not only calms my body and soothes my soul, but even perks up my brain. As we rattle along, I often arrive at sudden understanding of difficult concepts, and knotty family problems untangle themselves with astonishing ease.

The morning sun strikes a little white church on a country road and, an instant later, illuminates a farm, making black and white cows stand out like porcelain figures. I am enjoying my second cup of coffee when I realize we have reached the old riverside towns strung along the upper Potomac and will be in Washington on time, where there will be no a tedious wait for my baggage  followed by a long, dreary drive from the airport.  With a last triumphant wailing whistle, the Capitol Limited pulls into Union Station,  within walking distance of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building and, I am pleased to note, my own hotel.

*Margaret Drabble, “A Voyage to Cythera,” A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Houghton Mifflin (New York, 2011), pp. 23-24