Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Book Stack ~ December 2021

  A monthly post about my progress toward finishing a very large stack of books. Past months' posts:



As 2021 drew to a close and I realized I was never, ever going to finish reading all of the books in my stack if I just read books based on what I was in the mood for, I decided to take a different approach, and prioritize reading books that were given or loaned to me. My reasoning was that even if they weren't books I might have chosen for myself, they came from people who care about me and who had good reasons for thinking I might like the same books they like. So I resorted my stack into two piles: "purchased" and "given/loaned to me." (If you see a book come up in a post that you loaned me and that you want back, let me know! I might've forgotten.) From here I'm going to plow forward and read those books in the second pile, with occasional forays into the other pile (and a really strong effort to not buy any new books until both piles are depleted). So without further ado, here's what I read in December:

Nonfiction
Shrill by Lindy West. This one my brother and sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. I wasn't familiar with West before reading this--she's a humor writer who takes on internet trolls (specifically misogynistic and fat-phobic trolls) in her work. She managed to take on a lot of difficult subjects in this volume--fat shaming, abortion, rape "jokes" in the comedy world--and make an entertaining read at the same time. I'm now watching the series by the same name. I see West also has a new book out, which I'm not allowed to buy (see above) until I've made a reasonable dent in the stack.

Fiction These books were both given (loaned?) to me be the same friend. Which is interesting because they're extremely different.

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. After a school bus accident, a town splits in half over who to blame and how to extract payment. It's written from many different viewpoints (I think around five or six) with one really long chapter per POV character. It's an interesting look into human psychology and kind of a relevant take on today's divided world, only from a nonpolitical standpoint. I can't say I enjoyed it, because it's about dead children, but I was carried along by the story and definitely moved by the characters.

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli. This is a reimagining of the Adam and Eve story, which is definitely not something I'd normally pick up. I found it a little silly, especially the way Adam and Eve discovered/invented about 10,000 years' worth of human developments in their first year out of Eden (sort of like the way Ayla makes all of the human discoveries/inventions in Clan of the Cave Bear, only Eve's not as charming as Ayla and Adam's not as smoking is Jondalar). But, if you like fantasy and reimagined mythology, this might be right up your alley.

Poetry
Goldenrod by Maggie Smith. I did buy this book, before I (re)committed to not buying new books. I admit to being sold by the cover (goldenrod flowers on a blue background). But the poems inside are lovely and moving. I read a little of this each morning in November during my trip to Colorado and finished it up in December after I got home. The poems were a grounding and meditative way to start each day, and each one gave me pause for thought. I'd like to read it again to really drink it all in.

I read a total of 59 books in 2021 (including 4 audiobooks), which should have been enough to make a serious dent in the book stack, but only about 20 came from the stack. Still, that was more of a dent than I thought I'd made. Now if I can double that number, I might be able to see my floor beneath all those books!

Friday, January 14, 2022

Flash Friday ~ January Twilight

It is what I call the blue time of year--even on a gray day the clouds are tinged with blue, as are the snow and the trees. Yesterday the wind blew so hard the tree trunks made animal sounds where they rubbed together. Today is so calm I can hear the traffic on the next road over, a dog barking across the river, the shifting of a board back by the garage. My ice spikes crack and crunch on the glazed driveway, each step a pistol shot. A faint breeze sends the leaves of a young beech shivering, a dry, papery, gothic sound. Otherwise the world is still. The birds and squirrels away to their roosts and nests, the predators awaiting dusk. 

The air is cold. Not the bitter, biting cold of earlier in the week, but a damp insipid cold that makes inroads at cuffs and seams, anywhere layers of fabric overlap. Even on a short walk my mind flickers to other places--conversations from earlier in the day, vegetables that need chopping, the evening's plans. I try to yank it back to the blue world. The here and now. 

Back at the house, I see the Christmas tree propped against the doorframe and remember that today is January 13, St. Knut's Day, the day Scandinavians take down their trees. I believe they burn theirs in Sweden, but I can't stand the thought and instead we return ours to the woods it came from, where it can be a refuge to small birds and animals. 

I lift the tree by its slender trunk and set off through the woods, off piste. In the chiaroscuro of a winter's evening--white snow, black twigs and branches--it's easy to find a pathway among the trees to the field below, where the dried stems of tall white aster stand chest high. I find a trail across the field, the one the boys use to get to their skating rink on the river, the snow trampled and refrozen in icy footprints, and I follow its winding route through the trees. I feel rushed by the lateness of the hour. It will be dark soon, I have places I need to go this evening, things I need to get ready. So I don't take the tree all the way to the river bank, but set it in the snow beside the trail, thank it again for bringing warmth and light and green into our house in the darkest part of the winter, and turn toward home.

My hands are sticky with balsam sap, and I bring them to my face, breathe deeply the scent of solstice and Christmas, family and winter, life and light.

This is a new series, where I plan to write a flash piece (nonfiction for now, but maybe fiction later) every Friday of 2022.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Rare Birds


I don't often chase after rare birds. If I happen to be in the neighborhood where one's recently been sighted, or if a friend invites me on an expedition to seek one out, I'll happily go. I've seen a red-billed tropic bird this way, as well as a redwing, a dickcissel, and Icelandic gull. I've had less luck with the snow goose, roseate spoonbill, and black throated grosbeak. The rare birds are a thrill, but I'm equally content to wander the woods behind my house in search of the annual cycle of migrants or watch everyday chickadees and nuthatches on my feeders.

Yet when I heard heard about the Stellar's sea eagle making an appearance in Maine, I knew I needed to at least try to see it. My first indication that this giant raptor was in town was in a New Year's Eve social media post from a friend of mine, which showed his field sketches of the bird's massive yellow bill and fierce gaze. Despite its ice-age splendor, the sea eagle looks a bit like the giant bird that falls in love with the professor in my favorite childhood book, Professor Wormbog in Search of the Zipper-Uppa-Zoo, by Mercer Mayer. I wanted to be there the coast, trying out my Christmas gift spotting scope, sketching this prehistoric bird. The place it had been sighted was only an hour from my home--practically in the neighborhood. Besides, when would I ever have the chance to see this far-from-home visitor again? I made plans to drive down the next day.

The Stellar's is the largest of the sea eagles (members of the genus Haliaeetus, which includes bald eagles). Standing around three feet tall and weighing up to twenty pounds, it's the size of a toddler, a toddler with an eight-foot wingspan. This massive bird doesn't normally hang around in Maine. Its usual stomping grounds are along the coast of Siberia, particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula, with winter forays south to Japan. This particular bird is believed to be the same one that appeared in Alaska in August and has been hanging around Canada's Maritime provinces this fall, with a foray into Massachusetts last month and one unsubstantiated sighting in Texas. In other words, it's far from home and doesn't seem to know how to get back, although it could be forgiven for mistaking Maine for Siberia.

As I made my way down the peninsula--not Kamchatka, but Georgetown--on a foggy New Year's Day, I began to question my decision. There were cars--a lot of cars. Far more cars than should be driving toward Reid State Park in the wintertime. I saw Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts license plates. My butterfly teacher, Bryan, has written about birders and our carbon emissions in pursuit of the next grand thing. Now I was one of them, a member of a smog-emitting flock. 

But I'd come this far. There was not turning back. As I neared eagle ground zero, I noticed cars heading back the other way. I pulled over and asked a passerby, "Any luck?" He told me the bird hadn't been seen in a while and everyone was heading over to the state park. Good, a chance to pee. I joined the flow of cars heading back inland and into the park, where I availed myself of the facilities. But now what to do? The park has miles of coastline. Birders appeared to be milling around, heading in multiple directions, no apparent direction of migration. I overheard someone saying it was back at Five Islands and watched the crowds return to their cars and head back down peninsula. It reminded me of something, this ebb and flow of birdwatchers. Murmuration of starlings, perhaps, or, more likely, characters in an old slapstick movie directed by Mel Brooks.

Yet here I was, a member of the ridiculous cast, and I joined the stream of cars, found a place to park beside the road, walked down to the dock and found myself a rock on the shore to sit on. All of the other birders stood on the hillside above and behind me, and I wondered if I was missing something by being lower and closer to the water. The crowd was quiet, birders being a sedate lot, and I pulled out my journal and sketched the islands in front of me, stopping every few minutes to scan the trees with my binocs. The fog had lifted some, and I saw a bald eagle perched on at tree at the edge of one island. I realized that even if the bird did make an appearance out there, it would look like little more than a smudgy dot. I'd left my scope in the car up the hill. Would such a sighting even "count"?

An unpainted lobster boat tootled out toward the farthest island, a handful of birders on board. Sound carries over water, especially on a foggy day, and I could hear the pilot tell the people on board that no other fishermen were transporting birders because of the liability, but he just wanted people to see the bird. I supposed I could have hung around the dock, hoping to catch a ride on a later foray, but I didn't have any cash with me--I imagined he was charging--and while I don't have a great fear of water, I do have a strong respect for the North Atlantic Ocean in wintertime. And while it was nearly flat calm, I still didn't relish the idea of heading out into the fog in a lobster boat with no transom, and likely no lifejackets, in January.

I hung out on my rock for about an hour, until I got cold and a little bored, and headed home. Later in the week my great birding friend Cheryl invited me to go on a hunt for the eagle. It hadn't been seen in a couple of days, and she and another friend of ours had hatched a scheme to search a nearby island (car accessible), in hopes of finding the bird. We spent the day on the island, and I got to try out my new scope. We saw some sea birds and tree birds, and even a red-shouldered hawk. We hiked all through the enchanted forest of a preserve I'd never known was there, we chatted and laughed together, and we discovered a new bakery on the way home. But we never found the Stellar's sea eagle. And I'm okay with that.

Because the thing with rare bird sightings is that, as exciting as it is to see and learn a new bird, it's unspeakably sad to see a creature so out of place. The dickcissel looked cold, puffed out like a dandelion in a multiflora rose bramble in Portland, rather than a jungle in Central America, where it peered out from its yellow-rimmed eye and tried to fit in among a noisy flock of house sparrows. The redwing, a visitor from Iceland or Eurasia, looked less cold, but still confused. An oversized, disheveled robin, it arched its skeptical white eyebrow and stretched its wing, playing to the crowd of migrant birdwatchers who'd flocked from as far away as Tennessee. And the tropicbird could break your heart, beelining each summer from parts unknown to a cold, barren North Atlantic rock, only lobster buoys for companionship. 

Wherever that sea eagle is today, I hope it finds its way back home, nearly halfway around the world.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Turn Toward the Light


We usually celebrate the Winter Solstice with stringing popcorn and cranberry garlands and birdseed ornaments on the spruce tree out front followed a walk into the woods and a small fire on the bank of the Eastern River. Sometimes we take Christmas cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate to enjoy by the fire, and once we had a picnic of cheese pasties. This year, though, the turn from darkening days back toward the light passed with barely a notice in our house. The boys were off on a last-minute shopping adventure and I was on a conference call. Such is the pull of capitalism and obligation that the rhythms of the earth get shunted aside. This is nothing new--back in those hot cocoa and cheese pasty days, we often practiced "Solstice, Observed," as if it were a federal holiday landing inconveniently on the calendar whenever work or a school concert or an ice storm interfered with the actual moment the earth turned back toward the sun.

The arrival of the shortest day of the year, however slight was my notice of it, did clarify for me why I've been so tired lately (other than, you know, the apocalypse); it's the time of year for burrowing, for hibernating, for settling into the subnivian zone with a cache of seeds and avoiding owls. It's not the time to scramble to finish my "21 in '21" list or to endlessly shop to fulfill an open-ended Christmas list. A cashier asked me yesterday if I was "almost done" and I answered truthfully, "I'm never done, I just keep shopping until Christmas." Much of that comes from having teenagers who can't think of a thing they want until a week before Christmas, but the rest I can attribute to an anxiety around not being enough, not "doing it right." Oh, yes, and a slight problem I have with buying myself a present for every two I buy for other people.

When I'm not out single-handedly propping up the economy, I try to get into the holiday spirit by watching cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. I don't know who got the idea that Christmas was somehow an ideal setting for romance (I suppose Bing Crosby in White Christmas was the first culprit), but it is a thing, and most of the movies in this genre are painfully awful. I did, however, enjoy Holiday in the Wild, in which the protagonist (actress I didn't recognize) goes to Zambia on her second honeymoon--alone, because her husband leaves her the minute their kid heads off to college. (There's a recurring theme in these movies of characters planning elaborate, expensive trips without the buy-in or knowledge of the other person involved; see A Very Brady Christmas.) Once in Africa, she develops an attraction/antagonism for a bush pilot played by Rob Lowe. She ends up working on an elephant preserve and staying through Christmas. As far as the storyline goes, it was almost as cheesy as other holiday romance movies. But there were elephants. And Rob Lowe. And it wasn't the romance that fixed her life, it was the meaning brought to it by doing important and valuable work. It makes me think there's another, better way to do the holidays. Like rescuing orphaned elephants.

But unless tickets for an elaborate and expensive trip to Africa that's been planned without my knowledge appear in my stocking Christmas morning, I don't think baby elephants are in my future. I probably wouldn't be all that good at taking care of them anyway (I have issues with poop). But perhaps there's some other way of turning off the money spigot and finding meaning not only in this season, but in life in general. Maybe I'll start with a "Solstice, Observed" hike into the woods with my family, after the ice storm, were we can sit in the dark and listen to what each other has to say and what the trees have to tell us.

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