Saturday, October 27, 2012

My Green Manifesto (a book review)

David Gessner, My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism (Minneapolis: Milkweed Edition, 2011), 225 pages.

I am a sucker for any book on paddling rivers.  A few weeks ago when I was on the campus bookstore at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, this book jumped off the shelves and into my hands.  David Gessner teaches in the Creative Writing at the university.  In this book, he explores what it means to be an environmentalist as he and Dan Driscoll, a longtime friend and former Ultimate Frisbee teammate, paddle the Charles River through eastern Massachusetts.  Dan works for the state and his project has been cleaning up the Charles River so people can enjoy it again.   His efforts have earned him the nickname “River Dan.”   The Charles River isn’t very long.  Its source is only 26 miles from Boston (but there is a lot of winding before it gets to the city).  Like most rivers, it has been dammed and used as a way to get rid of waste.  But in the past few decades, the river has become cleaner and much of the property along side it has become available and is now a part of a green belt that allows people and animals to flourish even in a heavily populated area.  

Gessner is troubled with the way the message of the environmental movement is often filled with doom and gloom and the need for immediate action.  He suggests that for most people such an attitude won’t lead to action but resignation.  Instead of pushing for the impossible, Gessner suggests a different strategy.  Before someone burns out on the impossibility of saving the earth, have them connect with nature and experience its beauty and awe.  You fall in love with a “place,” then you will want to fight for it.  That’s why projects like Dan’s work on the Charles is so important for there are many people who are able to make a connection with nature along a river that dissects an urban landscape.        

Gessner starts out alone on the first day.  Dan had work to do so after stopping for coffee and donuts, he drops his friend off in a kayak at the headwaters of the river.  The solo paddle gives Gessner a chance to share with his reader a conversation in his head about the environmental crisis.  It is in these personal thoughts as well as the later discussions between David and Dan that the story unfolds.  Along the way, other characters are brought into the conversation.  Gessner is reading Break Through, by Ten Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  These two environmentalists are critiquing the movement, yet Gessner finds their solutions lacking and in a way their book serves as an antithesis to his own thoughts.  Other environmentalists are brought into the conversation include  John Hay, who Gessner knew in his later years on Cape Cod when he was studying osprey, and Ken Sleigh, who inspired Edward Abbey’s character “Seldom Seen Smith” in the Monkey Wrench Gang and who Gressner had met in the La Sal Mountains above Moab, Utah.   In addition to conversations with those he knew, Gressner also carries on a conversation with those who had blazed the way such as John Muir, Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau.   He also draws insight from Bill McKibben, Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry.  Toward the end of the book, he tries to avoid mentioning Thoreau, feeling that he is overused, but is unable to stop the conversation as Thoreau is so important to how he experiences the natural world. 

Of course, as in any good river trip, Gessner can pull away from what’s going on in his head to appreciate the flight of a great blue heron or the sighting of another bird or animal.  The trip ends, ironically, in the Boston basin on the fourth of July, with fireworks.

I enjoyed this book, not just because of the interesting debate Gessner carried on in his head, but because he now lives where I was raised.  Occasionally, his mind will wander back to his new home.  I have paddled the same creeks behind Masonboro Island and have camped there on the deserted beaches.  And I also have a daughter about the same age and am interested in helping her experience the joy that comes from being outdoors.  Although Gessner isn’t writing from a religious perspective, I couldn’t help but think of the Christian concept of stewardship, especially as it is interpreted from a Calvinistic theology.  The world belongs to God.  God gives us the responsibility to care for it.  However, we’re not to care for it as a way to earn God’s approval, but out of a joy and thanksgiving of having experienced what God has done and is doing for us.   In a similar vein, Gessner envisions a new wave of environmentalist arising out of the experience of joy and love of creation.   Such joy gives us excitement as we “sacrifice toward creating something much larger than ourselves.”  There is hope in such a message.  

 I recommend this book.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ranting about the debates

Mission Point Lighthouse

The photo at the left is of Mission Point Lighthouse, located north of Traverse City, MI.  It has nothing to do with what I'm writing, but I was there last week and decided it looked peaceful, something we all need a bit off these days. 

I think it may have been providential or at least a divine hint West Michigan was hit with a major thunderstorm last night during the debate and the dish kept losing the signal from the satellite.   I could have attached a regular antenna or have gotten the debate off the internet, but instead I took naps between the interruptions.   What little I heard sounded like the first two debates.  These spectacles have become a great platform for our two candidates to spout off their talking points and platitudes.  We got to hear the President’s claims about hunting down Bin Laden and other bad guys and Romney’s five point plan and how he is going to create 12 million jobs.  Personally, from what little I saw of the debates last night, I’m beginning to think Romney has a god-complex.  He makes it sound like he will, single-handedly, regardless of what anyone else does, create these jobs.  Obama was a little like that in 2008, but he’s been humbled by his four years in office.  Both of these guys use way too much “I” language.  They should be talking about what we can do together, but that would mean hardwork is expected from everyone, but it seems no one wants to hear that.  I also felt that this “foreign policy debate” was anything but.  Maybe a better format would be a geopolitical quiz where they play each other in a trivial pursuit type game.  At least then we might learn who has the best understanding of the world.   Or, we should invite at least one third party candidate into each debate.  This third clog in the wheel would serve as the loose cannon on deck, forcing each candidate to jump off their well-scripted talking points and maybe we’d actually learn something new.

The good news is that we’re going to have a good World Series (and if the Tiger’s win, it’ll be a great World Series).  The bad news is that every inning will bring more political ads…    

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hking in the Porcupines, part 2

This is the second part of my week hiking in Michigan's UP this summer. For part one, As I indicated in the first part of this story, this is my first backpacking trip after being diagnosed as a Type-1 diabetic (Insulin dependent).  In addition to hearing about the hike, you also get to hear about how my body is doing.  After leaving the Porcupines, I headed to Picture Rocks National Lakeshore for another hike.

Big Carp River
A distant rumble wakes me a little after 1 AM.   I look out through the screen and see a distant flash from an approaching storm.  It’s still warm and I crawl out of my tent and pull the clothes I’d washed in the evening off the line.  They’re still damp.  I look around and make sure everything is secure and then crawl back into the tent where I watch the lightning for a few minutes.  There are no bolts, only bright flashes.  The air is still and heavy.  I reluctantly zip the rain cover over my head.  I hate to close myself up, but if I don’t do it, I’ll get soaked.  I fall back asleep only to wake up a little later.  It’s 1:30 AM and it’s rainy hard.  The wind has picked up, but with my cocoon so closed up it doesn’t really help.  With the damp clothes I’d pulled off the line, the tent now smells like a locker room.  I continue to wake every hour or so, hoping I can open up the tent, but the rain is relentless and doesn’t stop until 5:30 AM when I am finally able to open up the fly enough to allow for good ventilation.  It’s cooler now, after the night’s rain.  The wind is still strong, blowing the water off the leaves.  I stay in my tent, waiting for things to dry out and sleep to 7:30 AM.  There is an old backpacker’s greeting that goes, “May your rains come at night.”  I have been blessed.

I get up, struggling to free the zipper on the screen which is hard to unzip due to the dirt that has been kicked up into it from the rain.  I roll up my sleeping bag and pad, and check things around the camp.  Everything seems to have survived the storm and the wind is drying things out fast.  I leave my tent up to dry and fix coffee and oatmeal for breakfast.  My blood sugar is at 103 and knowing I’ll soon be hitting the trail I decide not to take any insulin with my meal, only the regular long acting insulin that I take every morning.  After breakfast, I attempt to make a few casts into the deeper holes of the river, but the wind makes it difficult.   When I get back to camp, I sit and write in my journal as clouds begin to move back in.  I decide to go ahead and roll my tent even though it’s still a little damp and am on the trail by 9:20 AM.   I am a little stiff from yesterday’s hike, but surprisingly not as sore as I feared.

Surf on Lake Superior
The trail continued on the south side of Little Carp Creek for a mile or so, and then crossed over to the north side.  Trapper Falls isn’t much of a fall, just a two foot ledge that runs across the stream bed with some nice pools.  After passing it, the trail climbs high up the embankment on the north side.  From the top, I hear what I assume is a much larger falls ahead.  The wind is strong and I press onward into it, wondering if the falls are near the mouth of the river.  As I hike on, the lake in the distance becomes more prominent.  The trail leaves the embankment and descends to the river and I began to wonder where the rapids are.  There is a nice footbridge over the river, but no rapids.  I continue on paralleling the river and come into a clearing where there are several campsites and realize the roar I’d been hearing for nearly a mile isn’t a rapid, but the angry surf of Lake Superior.  

At 10:30, I’m at the mouth of Little Carp and look around.  There is one tent here, but no campers to be found. I assume they must be off fishing or hiking.  I walk out by the surf and watch the powerful display of nature as the waves crash on shore, then retreat back to a more protected area where I take a break and catch up with my journal.  Despite not having taken any insulin with breakfast, and having eating a few raisins and a granola bar while hiking, my blood sugar is only 139.  I leave the campsite and follow the lakeshore trail north, making good time as I pass a number of campsites and cabins.  There is a group hiking out (at Presque Isle) that I pass and they tell me that the storm was incredible from the lakeshore.  The sat out on the beach and watched the lightning approach, but then fled to their tents before the torrent of wind and rain assaulted them.  Luckily, their tents were protected and not exposed to the full onslaught of the storm.

It’s 11:30 AM when I arrive at Big Carp River.  I meet a family who are staying at the cabin and spending the day hiking up Big Carp canyon.  I drop my pack and spent some time fishing the holes around the bridge over the river, but have no luck.  Then I sit and eat lunch: crackers with cheese and peanut butter and raisin bread.   From Big Carp, the trail to the north climbs to a bench high above the lake and continues this way, occasionally dropping down to the lakeshore.  Most of the trees along the lake are birch, which are waving freely in the high wind.  I pass a number of hikers and stop at the campsite for lone rock to catch up in my journal and to attempt the capture in my camera the power of the waves breaking on the surf.  A mile beyond lone rock, I stop and set up camp in one of the double sites that are protected from the offshore wind by a layer of thick vegetation that parallels the shore.  In the site south of mine is a couple from the Traverse City area.    After putting my tent up and preparing the site, including getting  a supply of wood in for a fire, I string my hammock up and spend some time in it reading Somebody Told Me,  a collection of Rick Bragg’s newspaper essays.  Before fixing dinner, I start a small fire.  

My dinner consist of brown rice with curried red kidney beans and tea.  The rice and the curried red beans are in pouches that I boil together.  I figure that I have a 110 carb meal, but only take enough insulin for a 75 carb meal knowing that I am burning a lot of calories.  An hour after dinner, I am surprised to learn that my blood sugar was at 91, so I eat a little more (dried fruit and raisin bread).  After sunset, when I check myself again, my sugar has risen to 131, which is a little high but not as high as I would have assumed having eaten such a large supper.  I watch the sunset and talk to my neighbors about places we've both have hiked, and then I head to bed around 10 PM.  The wind is still howling, but has slowed a bit.  Mosquitoes are certainly not a problem and it has cooled off.
Lake Superior at Sunset
Lake Superior at sunset
I wake up several times in the night, dreaming weird dreams.  One had in it an older woman I knew who had died nearly two  years ago and she asked me to speak at a friend's funeral.  The second dream was even weirder as I had stored a boat in the living room and it had fell through the floor and into the basement and I was trying to figure out how to get it out.  The last dream had to do with a woman I know who expressed interest in me and when I brushed her off, she said, “Shut up and kiss me.”  I woke up at that point. I always wake up at that point!  I get out of the bed at 7 AM.  My blood sugar is at 101, so it had continued to drop throughout the night.    The wind is still blowing but no longer at gale forces, but it’s still a stiff breeze.   Most of the clouds from the previous day have blown away.  

After breakfast, I pack up everything but my hammock and lay there until I’ve finished reading Bragg’s book.   Then I roll up the hammock and head out.  The trail hangs close to the shoreline for maybe a mile further, then turns sharply to the right and then begins to climb the ridge.  Although the elevation gain is greater than my climb on Tuesday, it doesn’t feel so bad. 

 By 11:30, I’m near the top, on a ridge with open areas and great views over the lake.  I spend some time here, not wanting to leave the woods.  While standing in awe of the beauty,  I hear the clicking of walking sticks and observe a group of twenty-some scouts (boys and girls), and a number of leaders.  I find it strange that every member of this group is hiking with two walking sticks that click and give a interesting rhythm to their step.  Talking to one of the leaders, I learn they are a Boy Scout and Venture Scout unit from Wisconsin.   The Venture Scouts are older and co-ed.  I also talk to a couple from Chicago who recently married.  She is from Taiwan and he is from Poland.   I hike on a ways and find a grassy area where I stop and have lunch.  My blood sugar has dropped to 89.  I have a 55 carb lunch and no insulin.

I am back at my truck around 1:30 PM.  I spend some time at the overlook, taking in the wilderness around Lake of the Clouds before driving down.  Along the way, I pick up my neighbors from the night before (they had started at a different trailhead and had a three mile road walk.  After dropping them off, I drive across the park on Boundary Road to Presque Isle, where I hike around and photograph the falls and then back across the park to the Union Mine Trail, which is a mile long and explains some of the mining history in the region.   Then I leave the park, heading north toward Ontonagon, hoping I can find an open gas station before I run out.  To be continued…   
Sunset on Lake Superior

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tonight (when it rains it pours)

Generally there is nothing I’m interested in on TV, but tonight was different.  There was a Steeler game, a Tiger playoff game, and the Vice Presidential debates.  I kept jumping back and forth…  While watching the debates, I couldn’t help but to think that Paul Ryan looked like an adult Eddie Munster.  So I googled Eddie Munster, looking for a picture, and found that this wasn’t an original thought as this August article in Salon shows.  So as I listened to the debates (with jumps back and forth to the Steeler’s game), I created this photo. Now that the debate between the arrogant is over—I don’t like either of them—I’ll go back to flipping back and forth to the ballgames.  
I also think that I figured out how Romney is planning on making America energy independent.  One of the most promising untapped oil field in America in on his running mates head.  As for Joe, he could go a long ways to making wind energy a viable option.