Friday, August 23 2013
I put a first coat of John Deere green on my new five foot wooden tower while Eleanor and Ramona stared at me impatiently. They know the rules; the first thing that happens every morning after the cats get fed is that someone takes them for a walk. That someone is usually Gretchen, though when she's not around they know that someone is going to have to be me. Meanwhile I was listening to MP3s on my headphones.
For some reason I'd put a bunch An End Has a Start period Editors on my my headphones' SD card, and, since I hadn't heard these songs in a long time, I was really enjoying them. There's just something inherently compelling about the fast atmospheric guitar strumming coupled with the vocalists' deep (almost Ian Curtisesque) voice. The chorus lyrics are often extremely clever and come with layers of possible interpretation, allowing them to more than make up for the generally low-quality of the verse and bridge lyrics. For example, in the song "An End Has a Start," the chorus is, "You came on your own, that's how you'll leave. With hope in your hands and air to breathe." That could be about someone you're respectfully dissing at a dance party, or it could be about being born into the world.
There's a cheesy quality to the music, but on this particular morning it was perfect. It was so perfect, in fact, that I sort of wanted it to judged as objectively perfect. I didn't just want other humans to like it; I wanted other creatures to like it. Indeed, I wanted aliens from another planet to pick it up somehow in their spacecraft radios and like it too. I was, or course, asking for far too much. Appreciation of music is an inherently subjective thing, and there is no reason that aliens would like Editors more than, say, Billy Ray Cyrus. This gets at something that makes the Universe an even lonelier place than it is already after having realized we're on floating speck with no supernatural agents to help us. All of the art, music, literature, and other creative works we value is only valuable because we say it is. But who are we to judge something that we ourselves made? Ideally, we'd have an outside observer, someone with less bias. And that someone shouldn't include dogs or dolphins either; they're really just yet more family with a probable intergalactic bias in favor of (or against) their distant cousins.
This problem of having no objective entity to judge our Earthly creativity is similar to another problem: judging the feelings and thoughts inside our own heads. When we are overwhelmed by strong feelings (such as love, revulsion, anger, and even contentment), it's common for people to see this as evidence for a bigger force looking down and causing things to happen. Indeed, the existence of "love" is often given by theists when trying to convince atheists that there is a god of some sort somewhere. But who are we to judge the strength of feelings in our own bodies and brains? We are those bodies and brains and we make the possibility of having those experiences possible. Surely it would take little more beyond the environment of experience (that is, us) to make that experience feel like anything that could be experienced. As for "love," it doesn't take much of an understanding of Darwinian natural selection to get why the potential for it needs to be within our range of possible feelings.
Eventually I took the dogs for that walk. I decided to take mostly the lowest trails, starting on the Gullies Trail, crossing the Valley of the Beasts using the Mountain Goat Path, and then going south on the Canary Hill Loop (with its view of the Esopus Valley to the east). As I neared a place (41.920481N, 74.101152W) along the trail where Hurricane Irene brought down a large White Pine (its roots needed to be trimmed out of the way to keep the trail open), I saw vision crossing the path in front of me. It was reddish-brown dog whose colors so perfectly matched the leaves that, had it happened some distance further away, I might have mistaken it for a floater in my eye. Initially I thought it might be a fox, but, being about the size of a small German Shepherd, it was too big. I stopped in my tracks and watched the place where it seemed the dog had gone; it hadn't been moving quickly, so I thought maybe it had stopped. And then I saw it again, walking casually parallel to the trail in the opposite direction perhaps 50 feet away. It stopped and turned to look at me and, for the first the first time in my life, I got a good look at a living Coyote. It was mostly redddish-brown, though its belly and neck where cream-clorored. It didn't seem particularly frightened of me or the dogs (whose collars could be heard tinkling in the distance). When it sauntered away, I was particularly struck by how silent it moved through the forest. It's easy to see how a culture might come to regard such creatures as supernatural ghosts. The dogs never noticed it at all, though I had the feeling this Coyote was familiar with them and probably Gretchen, me, and our forest-hiking neighbor Crazy Dave as well. As silent and invisible as it was, it could have observed me hundreds of times without my ever becoming aware of it. (Gretchen, who has hiked these woods much more than I have, says she has seen coyotes on a few rare occasions.)
This afternoon there was a smallish Buteo (hawk) perched on a branch sticking out of one of the tall White Pines just east of the house. It might have been stalking Marie (aka "the Baby") who was lying on a chair out on the east deck, though the intended victim was more likely a mouse or a squirrel. I managed to get a couple good photographs, which I immediately posted on Facebook. Leticia, the younger of the two Brazilian Girls from Big Fun (who is now an entomologist at Cornell) saw the pictures and identified it as Broad-winged Hawk, which made sense given how small it was.
(Click to enlarge.)
Gretchen had returned in the early afternoon, and she spent the afternoon alternating between watching teevee and preparing food for the big party we'd be having here at our house on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile I was doing a few little cleanup-related and home-maintenance-related tasks. After stubbing my big right toe on the top of a tiny finishing nail that had been foolishly used to attach the decking to the east deck, I went around with a claw hammer and pulled out as many such nails as I could find. Then I walked around with a screw gun installing fresh new deck screws as replacements. One of the planks on the north end of the deck had warped so badly it had snapped the head off the deck screw I'd used to secure it many years earlier. So, using my bare foot, I put the weight of my body on the warped board while trying to install a brand new deck screw. But then it happened, the phillips point of the screw gun slipped out of the screw head and slammed down into the top of my foot just a short ways upstream from the gap between my left pinkie toe and the my left "right" toe. I immediately stopped the power to the screw gun, but not before it had torqued a deep quarter-inch-wide hole. Somewhat surprisingly, the hole didn't immediately start gushing blood and it was much less painful than I would have expected. Evidently the spinning phillips screw bit had somehow worked its way down into my foot while pushing plumbing, nerves, and other sensitive things out of the way. Not knowing what else to do, I dumped some hydrogen peroxide on the injury, squirted on some antibacterial salve, and wrapped it in bandages.
This evening, Gretchen and I drove out to Olive Bridge to participate in the first annual "Summer Hoot." Some weeks ago Gretchen had talked to either Ruthy or Mike (the duo who had arranged the event) and been asked to provide food for the artists in exchange for free admission. So of course she'd gone all out and made a big tray of vegan mac & cheese and another of vegan brownies.
The Summer Hoot was being run like a tiny version of Bonnaroo. There was first aid tent and a couple of guys in orange vests directing cars in a big open field. It being the first night of a festival with no history, there were only a few dozen cars in that field, but the system in place seemed capable of parking many hundreds.
The Hoot was being held at a place called the Ashokan Center, a large (300 plus acre) complex that used to belong to SUNY New Paltz. It occupies the site of an old mill that had been powered by the nearby Esopus (which occupies a gorge in the back, just downstream from the Ashokan Reservoir). There are numerous old buildings and considerable open space. The story is that before funds were raised for the Ashokan Center, the plan had been to raise all the buildings and then, well, who can say. A lot of the money for the Ashokan Center was raised by folk-music power-couple Jay Ungar and Molly Mason (whose daughter, Ruthy, is half of Ruth & Mike, the couple who started the Summer Hoot).
After dropping off the food and chit-chatting with the various Hoot staffers in the building that had been set-aside as a hangout for the musicians, we went outside and ended up stuck in the vortex of one of Gretchen's distant friends who likes to talk about her problems but doesn't like to either listen or to explain her problems sufficiently for those who aren't familiar with them to derive any understanding of the things she is saying. That went on for something like a half hour, but eventually we were saved by Mike and Ruthy taking the stage and beginning to play (he on guitar, she on fiddle, both of them sing). At that point we relocated to the side of "Hoot Hill" and listened. It was an hour-long performance and almost perfectly-suited to my serene mood. I often find myself being fidgety and bored when music isn't exactly of my preferred type, but somehow this folksy stuff about love and nostalgia just worked. There was even a poignant moment when Ruthy could barely make it through a song because she'd started to cry.
Mike and Ruthy had managed to assemble a respectable lineup for the Hoot, including the likes of AC Newman, Natalie Merchant, and even Pete Seeger. AC Newman (most famous, perhaps, as the better-sounding male voice in the New Pornographers) is the closest thing to a rock star we've ever had over for dinner at our house (unless Peter Schickele counts). He's an odd choice for the Hoot, given that he's more alternative rock than folk. Odder still, though, was something he told us on our way to look for beer: his backup band tonight would be Mike & Ruthy.
Concessions at the Hoot were clustered in a small field below and south of the stage, very near the edge of the Esopus gorge. Unfortunately, beer could only be drunk in the "beer garden" (with an exception for musicians such as AC Newman). Not wanting to settle down quite yet, we walked around to look at the other concessions. For some reason one of these included a blacksmith given to launching into extended metallurgical lecturers. He also teaches one-on-one blacksmithing classes at an affordable $200 for 12 hours (though he says few can do it for more than a few hours).
We eventually found our way to the tamale concession, where I made the mistake of ordering the vegan jumbalaya from the nice southern gentlewoman running it. The jumbalaya was full of vegetables that I don't much like such as sweet potato, although adding lots of habañero seemed to help. We ate our food in the beer garden. Unfortunately, the only beers available were my two least-favorite Keegan Ales: Old Capitol and Mother's Milk. I went for the former, which can be described as a very good alternative to Budweiser.
By now the sun had set and it was getting a bit cold for the way we were dressed, so we called it a night. We'll never know how AC Newman sounded with Mike & Ruthy as his band.
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