Archive for the ‘meanderings’ Category

Requiem for a Beetle

I hiked recently on a strange November day – where the sun and warmth made silly the layers of clothes I’d brought to keep warm. And on a snack break, sitting on a rock amidst a breadth of identical pines, I noticed a moth skim by. And then, in a patch of sun in the grass, a small beetle moving sluggishly through an obstacle course of criss-crossed vegetation. And as I stooped to examine his progress, I started to wonder about him. This, a November day… one of his last, perhaps? I’m no expert on insects, but I know that for the most part, these exothermic little critters don’t survive the first real cold of winter. Something about the body freezing and the irreversible rupture of cell walls and all. There are exceptions, of course, some of the butterflies (Mourning Cloaks come to mind) actually survive freezing temperatures and emerge in the spring … and maybe some moths too, but in the case of my little beetle friend, prolonged freezing temperatures are a death knell. And this is Montana. But on this November day, a beetle out on a walkabout.

And as it sometimes happens, I began to wonder. What is that like? Imagine going to sleep every time you get cold. The slowing of everything to a crawl, until you can’t move, you barely breath, your heart barely beats. Perhaps even the stop of everything, but then the reawakening on a warm day like this day. A reprieve. And imagine knowing that death comes in this way… the slowing to a stop, the wondering if this time would be the last. The wondering if this sleep will be the final sleep. Wondering if the cold would stay and you would go. It seems so poignant and sad. But I suppose, in a way, it is true for all of us. Death comes, there’s no denying that. And we are left wondering when.

But it’s dangerous to dwell on thoughts of death. Shaky ground. Unsettling. Instead I turned to wondering what he was doing on this day. No point in eating, I suppose, and hardly a need. Hoping to mate? A final coupling before the cold. It seemed unlikely, too. In the end, it seemed like my little insect friend was simply wandering around in the sunlight while he could. Gripping the ground one last time, tasting the air with antennae flicking.

And finally I was sated on insect ponderings, and moved along. There was a trail to walk, after all, and a creek nearby with the promise of trout. And air to breath, and sun warm on me. Life to taste.


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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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Being in Boliviafor any length of time has the effect of curing you of any inclination to take a hot shower for granted. It also makes you begin to consider the value of safety laws and building codes. But then the less fearful side of your brain comes back and says… yeah, but it seems to work down here. And it is true… for all of the chaotic traffic, there are few accidents. For all the exposed wires and lack of fire alarms, you don’t hear much about electrocutions or fires. Maybe I should start reading the papers…

When I first got toBolivia, the first showerhead I saw looked much like the one pictured above. And mind you, this was in one of the most gringo hostels I’ve slept in down here. I turned the water on, was pleased with the pressure, but noticed that the water was lukewarm at best. Being an enterprising, curious person, I examined the device. There were three settings. Maybe, I thought, someone had changed a setting. I reached up and clicked the knob to the right one slot, and was rewarded by a somewhat unpleasant tickle of electricity in my finger and hand. Yikes. The water got colder. I braved the lick of current one more time to return the knob to its original position. The water warmed ever so slightly.

Eventually my brain caught up with the world and realized that there were coils inside the showerhead heating water as it passed through, and that maybe, just maybe, if there was less water, there would be more heat. I tried this experiment with success. Less pressure, more heat… more pressure, less heat. And so I was indoctrinated into the culture of standing beneath a trickle of pleasantly hot water… the Bolivian shower.

Since then, I have used many a bathroom and shower in Bolivia, mostly compartido, some privado. The bathroom is usually a small, completely tiled room with a toilet in one corner and a showerhead in the other. Usually this space is less than 6 feet across. In lieu of a shower curtain, there is a 6 inch high border around the base of the shower area. There is a drain in the shower, and also a drain in the center of the room. As you take your shower, the 6” high “curtain” does very little, and you tend to splash water all over the room, including the toilet and the toilet paper, if there is any (which is rare).

There is always some variation, of course. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some kind person has wrapped the water handle with electrical tape… so that you don’t get shocked a little when you touch the metal handle (I forgot to mention that this is also somewhat common and unnerving). And of course, notice how the breaker is conveniently located within splashing distance of the showerhead. At least there is a breaker…

Above is a luxury bathroom. Note that they have installed a shower curtain to shield the toilet from water, and see that brown pipe coming in from the left? That’s hot water! Note the normal showerhead… this shower is fueled by a water heater somewhere. No chance of electrocution here. Hotel Alem inLa Paz… a very good deal at 40 Bolivianos a night.

Sometimes I find it a wonder that there is electricity at all inBolivia. While on a stroll in the nicer part ofLa Paz, I happened to look up at all of the lines crossing and re-crossing the streets. And when I looked at the utility poles, well, let’s just say that being a lineman here in Bolivia looks to be very hazardous and frustrating work…

a typical utility pole in La Paz

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I noticed a couple in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Some more in Cochabamba. There were probably a few in Sucre, but it was Potosi that had me really noticing the Landcruisers in Bolivia. And I don’t mean the ones I was used to seeing occasionally in the United States… the elongated SUV kind. I mean the old ones. The ones that look like Land Rovers, like square jeeps, like they could get you anywhere. The ones with the curved glass windows in the back.

think this might be a Nissan Patrol

note the Che sticker...

Once I started looking, these things were pretty common. They’re cool, people. I want one. It’s almost enough to make me move to Bolivia. Maybe I could start my own tour company, with 4 seats instead of 6… Wait, that might not work.

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After an early spring of frustrated days of casting fly after fly into unforgiving waters, I can, at last, dispense some words of wisdom to those spring fishermen of the meandering and plentiful rivers of Vermont and New Hampshire. Have patience.

Have patience because the stocking trucks will eventually arrive. If you’re lucky enough, they will even dump bone-headed hatchery fish into a river near you, saving you the trouble of driving to find them. If you peruse the Vermont website, they will even tell you the exact size of the fish being dispensed into your local river, to the decimal inch. What is a 9.3″ fish, anyway? The New Hampshire authorities are a little more circumspect, but here’s another hint… they dump a lot more fish than their compatriots in Vermont. They just don’t give you the precise statistics.

I will preface the following comments with this disclaimer – I am by no means an expert fisherman. I am, however, a fast learner and someone who pays attention to things that interest me. I also learned my beginning lessons of fly fishing in the West. I was the beneficiary of a patient tutor, who repeated a few important maxims to me in the course of waiting while I fumbled through my knots and pondered the difference between leader and tippet. “90% of their diet is underwater,” he explained as I complained about nymphing when we could be casting dry flies. He smiled and shook his head as I insisted on the purity of dry fly fishing as he pulled fish after fish out of a Colorado river using nymphs and a “strike indicator” (fly fisherman for bobber).

Eventually I relented and studied what he was doing. Cursed and swore when I repeated his motions without catching a damn thing. Waist deep in frigid waters a 6 hour drive from home, no waders. No fish. The high country of southern Colorado. Absolutely beautiful. After a few days of learning to mend line and make sure of a dead drift, it finally began to happen. Fish. And not just any fish, but big, fat fish. Full of vitality and color and fight. I held the first one in my hand, and there were rolls of fat rolling over my fingers. They don’t stock the river we were fishing. Native fish… wild fish… wary fish. A good day for me was catching two. But they were big, and the wildness of the country and the river was as much of a reward as touching a denizen of the watery underworld.

And so, when I returned to my home state of Vermont after more than 15 years away, you might understand that my expectations had a distinctively western flair to them.

In April, with the water temperatures finally breaking 40 degrees, I began to test the waters with no luck. The nymphs that had worked just fine out West snagged no waiting lips. The days were empty. And of course, I began to doubt myself. I had heard and read about the discriminating fish of the eastern waters, that could only be fooled by a perfect presentation by a skilled practitioner. But there was this, too… as I patrolled the local waters, I wasn’t seeing fleeting shadows of fleeing fish. It was as if the waters were just strangely empty.

The first suggestion of a different state of fishing came when a friend listened to my mentioning of fishing in late April and responded that I was fishing for “holdovers.” This was new to me, but I found it again mentioned in a worn edition of a guide to fishing Vermont’s waters (copyright 2001) that some pitying person had bequeathed to me. After some study, it became clear that they were talking about stocked hatchery fish that had, somehow, miraculously survived the winter. A few weeks later, over a beer with a stranger in Chester, I heard him say that there weren’t any fish in Vermont rivers anymore. The Williams, the Saxtons, he said… all used to have fish when he was a kid, but he hadn’t pulled a trout out of them in years. They don’t stock them, he said.

And it appears that this is the case. The rivers of New England are dead zones. Perhaps some lingering brook trout wriggle in the top waters at the heads of hidden creeks, but the big waters are inhospitable to trout. Be it warming waters, pollution, fishing pressure, or a deadly combination of these elements… without the state dropping fish into the waters, there would be no trout here.

And this, my friends, is an incredibly sad statement. What has this come to? There are no native trout left?

As a fisherman, it lessens the experience. What glory is there in fooling a fish that grew up on protein pellets and brushing fins with his neighbors? What skill in catching such a fish? What satisfaction in hooking a fish that would not survive the winter anyway? There is something wrong with the world when the skilled fisherman is the one who keeps abreast of the stocking report or who has inside information about where and when the trucks have been sighted.

And I begin to wonder about the people that profess their own skill in finding and landing the elusive, picky trout of the east coast. I am tempted to whisper to them 90% of their diet is underwater and hand them a couple of copper johns. I wonder if describing these fish as cryptic and difficult is just the fisherman’s way of pumping his own chest.

But then again… maybe there are some hidden pools out there. The undisclosed headwaters of some long forgotten stream without a name, nestled in the shadow of the Green Mountains. Maybe there, in the deep, cool water, are some monster fish that will look with disdain at my meager copper johns and wait for something better, something more real. Who will only rise out of the depths for the absolutely perfect presentation of the correct flies. Maybe that’s the ticket.

cold river, nh

ashuelot river, nh

ashuelot river, nh

black river, vt

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It’s not every day that I see a spotted salamander. As a matter of fact, I spent a lot of time as a kid in the woods around here turning rocks over, poking sticks into holes, and generally looking everywhere I could for things that creeped and crawled. Plenty of red efts, plenty of newts, toads, and snakes. But never a spotted salamander like this one. And maybe for good reason. A quick google of Ambystoma maculatum tells me that the adults spend most of their time nearly underground, in moist, hidden places, eating earthworms and other such things. Only on warm, rainy nights do they venture above ground to go to a mating pond.

A careful study of the above picture though, might leave you wondering just what is going on here. Is that snow??!! Yep, that’s snow all right. This is a photo I took of a spotted salamander as he sauntered out on a fine day in late December, with plenty of snow on the ground. It was a sunny day, but not particularly warm, when I snowshoed up to a small, dark, moving mass in the snow. Stuck in a footprint, as a matter of fact.

There he was, on a groomed cross-country ski trail, stuck in a footprint. I was bemused, to say the least.

What in the world was a salamander doing out in December? I really have no idea. But I do know that due to my inquisitive nature and tireless tracking abilities, I could reconstruct part of the story. For on the uphill side of the ski trail, I picked up the track of the salamander.

How many people can say that they have followed the tracks of a salamander in the snow? Probably not too many. I found myself chuckling at the strangeness of it all while I carefully back tracked the footprints and tail drag of a spotted salamander in December snow. How far had he gone? How long had he been walking? Luckily, after only twenty yards or so, I had my answer. My quarry’s trail led back to a hemlock sapling that was just poking its head up through the snow. On the underside of the tiny trunk was a little tunnel where the tension of the bent twig had probably pushed against the snowpack just enough to create a little salamander highway. And that where the tracks came out of.

Intrigued by the strangeness of it all, I followed the tracks back down to the live specimen, still wriggling in the ski trail. He’d freed himself from the footprint and was now, very slowly, pushing himself forward one push of a leg at a time. The sun was soon to go down, he must have been getting colder and slower. I watched for a minute and he moved barely a foot.

These are the sort of times that can be a sort of test. I am a trained wildlife biologist, versed in the ways of data and statistics and study design. All of which train you to leave things be. To let things play out in a natural way without interference, for the good of impartial observing. And then there is also the school that believes that things happen for a reason, and that you should let nature take its course. That there is a sort of arrogance in thinking that we can change things for the better by sticking our nose into situations like this. I am partial to both of these schools, I will not lie.

But there is this, too. A kinship. I watched the salamander struggling, inch by inch, across the trail. It was now below freezing –  a dangerous time for an ectothermic being. The skies were clear, boding for a hard frost by morning. He was nowhere near shelter. Downhill, and in the direction he was traveling, were a string of beaver ponds that were probably his destination… a winter spent in a sheltering mudbath, I imagine. But I couldn’t imagine him making it that far before the frost crystals began rupturing living cells and putting a solitary end to his efforts.

I considered carrying him down to the pond. Too much? I am no reader of amphibian minds… maybe that wasn’t his destination at all. Besides, what about survival of the fittest and all that? Maybe this creature was not destined to breed again. Who was I to interfere? A leg reached out, the body serpentined and found meager purchase against the grains of snow. Well, I could at least get him off the trail. He stood some chance of being run over by a groomer during the night. My human interference might prevent human interference of another kind.

And so I picked him up and moved him off the trail, to the downhill side. And I hope he didn’t mind that I dug out the slightest of a hollow at the base of a tree for him, and finished by covering him with a handful of snow. Enough insulation, I thought, to help him survive the coming frost. I couldn’t help it.

Did he make it to the pond? Did he survive the night? I don’t know, but I hope so.

What I do know is that some day, years from now, I hope to be out in the winter with a friend, and come across a strange track in the snow. Not a beetle, not a mouse, but something different. I look forward to looking at it, smiling, and saying with confidence, “why, that’s a salamander track,” and then telling this story again.

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The view west from the Pinnacle

I can see my breath, barely feel my fingers, and it has been at least a half hour since the chilly waters of the Saxtons River have topped my Extratuffs  and soaked me to the thigh. But I’m happy. The sunlight reflects off the water, and fire colored leaves ripple in the breeze and make their final jump and flutter down into the river. I’ve been told there’s no fish here, and I mostly believe it, but I can’t help but try. The sun touches the trees on the western horizon and the day is fading. I’ll fish just up to that rock and then get out I think to myself. I get halfway there before fly hits line in midair and the ensuing chaos of silk-thin line, hooked flies, and rod sits before me. I breathe life into my fingers and spend the next ten minutes untangling line. It’s how fishing goes for me, and it is ok. No fish today. Water bubbles out of my boots as I find my way back to the truck.

My truck still has Washington plates. I haven’t had time to replace the windshield and get it registered in Vermont. Time is precious these days. I’m an embarrassingly new teacher at a private school, and it is quite an adjustment for me. When I can, I get outside.

My brother and I sit on “The Pinnacle”… a clearing with a restored cabin and a wide open view of southern Vermont. It would be the peak of foliage color, except that a dry summer and torrential fall rains have stripped the lovely leaves from most of the trees. But you can still see the hint of a torch on the landscape. And the blue-tinted mountains are topped with the first snow of the season. Summer fades.

I’ve been around a bit, and over the last twenty years or so have fallen in love with the wide open spaces and soaring peaks of the American West. But I find myself falling back in love with Vermont. Someone, Barry Lopez I think, once said that to truly know a place, you have to leave it and come back. I’m back in Vermont and seeing it in a new way. I see the cloaking forest that envelopes and hides the traces of civilization. I see the beauty of these old, old mountains that stand over these young, impertinent second-growth trees. I appreciate the pockets of wildness that linger so close to the towns, and the character of a people shaped by years of living through harsh winters.

This is Vermont, and I’m happy to be home.




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