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Archive for January, 2012

West

from history.com

Today I crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis in a crowd of traffic. Between the dirty sides of tractor trailers and over the troubled stares of the daily commuters rose a giant arch. St. Louis. The gateway to the West. What a place this must have been once, with the steam ships plying the waters of the big muddy and crowds of people arriving daily with obtuse dreams of a verdant west waiting for them. The bustle of industry and optimism. The last stop for supplies and information. Now reduced to a serpent’s twist of highways looping around and over each other, each choked with the carapaces of us… the motorists. Smoke spewing out of tailpipes, tension in the air.

But that arch reminds us that this is the place where the west opens up before us. As it did once and still does. I’ve been in this same place several times. If you’re coming from the northeast, you pass through St. Louis on your way west, no matter your final destination. As I did 16 years ago as a young man going west for the first time. Then, I didn’t see a historical locus of this repeated journey, but rather as a fascinating sculpture visible from the highway. But what I lacked in appreciation I made up for in anticipation and excitement. I was away from home, really away from home, and headed into the unknown. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I remember filling the gas tank every time it drooped below half full.

Now I don’t even have a gas gauge that works, and the excitement and terror is gone. This is familiar ground, this heading into the unknown. I have become comfortable in not knowing, while confident that whatever will come will come and things will work out just fine. And most of the journey that brought me to this confidence started on a June day in 1995, driving by that arch in St. Louis for the first time.

Early this morning in Cleveland, I looked across several lines of traffic just in time to see a feathered body, brown and white, get bounced high into the air. A red-tailed hawk had made a fatal misjudgement at the approach of a high-fronted garbage truck. The body flailed and spun high into the air, and didn’t even touch the pavement before the hood of another car bounced it up again. As the bird touched pavement the first of many tires crushed it down. And it disappeared. Forever.

It was shocking and fast and violent and heartbreaking. A beautiful beating heart snuffed out so quickly and without notice. I had noticed other hawks dead along the highway in Ohio… I suppose the winter brings an influx of first-year birds south and they have to deal with cars and roads for the first time. Maybe they even get outcompeted for the spaces away from the roads. They learn quickly or they die. But it made me pay attention for the day to the carnage of the highway. The blood stains and crumpled bodies pushed to the shoulder and rotting. Deer. Porcupines. Coyotes. Raccoons. Hawks. Owls. Dead among the discarded beer cans and shopping bags and coffee cups. Edward Abbey famously defended his (alleged) habit of flinging beer cans out the truck window by saying that it wasn’t the beer cans along the highways that are ugly, but rather that the highway itself is ugly. Maybe he was right.

 

 

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Leaving Vermont

My name is Daniel Harrington. I’m 38 years old, and I just left a steady job, my family and friends, health insurance, and many belongings in order to pack up an old Toyota truck and drive West. Again. It is a recurring theme in my life, this migration. It first happened in 1995, when I had just graduated from college with a biology degree and narrowly escaped unemployment by being offered a job out west. In southern Utah, working with Mexican spotted owls.

And now I find myself looking at my own footprints, watching the lingering ghost of myself driving ahead of me. I drive west again, to work with spotted owls again.

This morning a 22 year-old Toyota pickup with 232K of experience carried me rattling over the dirt and potholes of Route 121. Headed west, out of Vermont, into New York and beyond.

Vermont is a conundrum. According to the experts, the Green Mountains once soared like the Himalayas, or maybe just the Rockies. But they were big, and sharp, and high. That was thousands of years ago, and now the rounded, worn ridges  we see are the eroded remains of those giants. So you would think, while wandering around Vermont, that one would get the sense of the land being old. And that might be true of the hills, but not of the landscape.

Those hills are old, but the trees cloaking them are young and naive. A little over a hundred years ago, Vermont was a hilly land of sheep pastures and stone walls, with only a few trees left for shade or aesthetics. So the forested landscape of Vermont is one that is young, wounded, and recovering. When Europeans first arrived in Vermont, they were greeted by giant pines. White pines over 200 feet tall that looked to them like perfect masts for sailing ships. And so they cut them down. And then they tried to farm, tried to raise sheep until better lands elsewhere pulled the people away and the trees started sprouting again.

This is what I was thinking about, this time, as I left Vermont driving west. I  couldn’t help but look through the skeleton fingers of the winter deciduous trees reaching up, but falling short, as around them the solid pines outgrew them. You see them all around, once you start looking… white pines clearing the canopy and getting taller again. Those pines, those someday giants, patiently reaching up through those young, naive trees, the orphans of an older forest.

I didn’t know it then, but that was what amazed me when I reached the carved canyons of Utah 16 years ago. The presence of that landscape, an ancient presence. Even the twisted junipers and fields of sage.

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