Thursday, January 30, 2014

Brochen Spectre

"Brochen Spectre" (Wikipedia)
I could write about the cold: it is unusually as cold as it usually used to be. However, the span of one life it not enough to prove that the climate is changing. The scale of a planet’s time is so large that the span of one life in it is essentially invisible, but only nothing is invisible. An accumulation of essentially invisible things can certainly have an impact.

 I could write about how satisfying it is to read passages from Thoreau’s journals to students who don’t quite get him, but could. That “could” fires my enthusiasm because his is a voice full of carefully observed and considered ambiguity. I always (or like to think it is always) read the whole of the passage from his journals that the anthology titles “Seeing.” In it, he references the Brochen Spectre, the obscure optical phenomenon of observing your shadow contained in a rainbow and reflected back in the water droplets of fog or cloud. It is apt because observing nature is a constant battle between self and other: the proper balance is essential. And what is proper? In a mobile the balance point is not always the center, so it is possible that under some circumstances, perhaps a little less of me is called for, though in my little world I will never be able to approach invisibility.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I drove in possibility

Driving in imaginary snow is demanding.

When we left Amesbury, MA for the 440 mile trip to Wellsboro, PA early Sunday morning with four or five inches of new snow on the ground, it was snowing and in the thirties (F). Our street had been plowed in a way that increased its treacherousness—not quite clearing the street and compressing the wet snow undersurface into ice. Elm Street, an important artery in the city of 16,000 , was essentially clear with some snow in the gutters, but it was very wet. A percentage probability of rain predicted for that morning had been long ago proved wrong and silently changed.

The route we were taking, angling down through central New York, is notorious for snow, and a 50% probability of snow showers through there (Oneonta, NY was our metonymic location) seemed like a slim chance for a smooth trip. I was gripping the wheel tightly, anticipating a Buddhist-nightmare drive where the ambiguity of the road surface would require me to be alert for danger that more than likely did not exist except in my head.

We went from icy and snowy on our street, to very wet and slightly slushy on Elm Street to wet on I 495. As the miles on the wet-but-possibly-icy-at-anytime interstate (driven at closer to the speed limit) passed under us, the wetness of the road became less puddled until light strips of dry pavement showed where vehicle tires had gradually peeled off the moisture in the right lane. Eventually, the road dried completely, and the sun shone intermittently. On a dry road, I let go of the threats posed by the road and settled back into the threats posed by the drivers on the road, me included. The dangers posed by sentient beings seem more manageable, primarily because there is a chance that the negative effect will be softened by rational motivation. The probability of that characteristic in the weather is zero.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Owl Be There

Photo by Madalene Murphy
On our way home from walking (and in the case of our dog Terra running) along in the sand of Salisbury beach along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, we drove through the fjorded salt marshes lining the road where we saw an SUV pulled over to the side, and standing behind it a man looking through a telescope out into the marsh. We knew there were Snowy Owls in the area, driven south of their usual range in search of food. 

Friends of ours had seen (and photographed) one back in Pennsylvania, and we were frankly a bit jealous. We stopped and asked the man along the road what he was looking at; he gestured toward a white spot in the distance and offered to let us look through his scope at the Snowy Owl. As we looked, he noted that this was the purest white one he had seen. While we looked and talked, cars began to arrive and disgorged people with tripods and cameras with lenses as big as their arms. 

When we left there must have been ten cars parked along this stretch of the road with people looking at and photographing the distant Snowy Owl, who was serenely combing the ground for rodents. The next day that we came, a Snowy Owl on a lump of snow quite close to the road also attracted a seeing frenzy. The group photographing the owl was the subject of the front-page picture on today’s paper: "Snowy Owl Draws Crowd." Who was the big news?