Category Archives: Summer

On the Fairhaven side of the hurricane barrier, what looked like three generations of one family stood along the edge of the water: three girls ranging from a preadolescent to a teenager, a middle-aged man and woman, and an older woman with gray hair and a big sun hat.

As I walked by, a small little drama unfolded. The tip of the oldest girl’s fishing rod started to bend down. She looked at is as if not quite sure what to do. Then it bent down even more.

“Dad!” she said. “Dad! I’ve got a fish!”

Dad, an energetic, friendly-looking man, bounded over the rocks towards her, calling out advice: “Now don’t drag it over the rocks, you’ll cut the line. Come down closer to the water. That’s it, now bend the tip of your rod down….”

By the time Dad had gotten to her, she had pulled the little silver fish up out of the water. “I got it!” she said triumphantly. While all this was going on, the older woman with the gray hair calmly pulled a slightly larger fish out of the water — but since the younger girls and the man were all watching the oldest girl, I think the only ones who noticed the older woman’s catch were the woman and me.

Dad helped the oldest girl unhook the little fish and throw it back, saying, “Now it’s my turn. It’s my turn to catch something.”

The littlest girl chanted in a singsong voice, “Daddy hasn’t caught anything, Daddy hasn’t caught a fish.”

Fifty years ago, I probably would have been thrown off by the fact that the family members had all different shades of skin from chocolate brown to palest white. Perhaps we have made some progress in this world, because I didn’t even notice that until after the oldest girl landed her fish. What I really noticed was that I just can’t get used to watching people fish in the ocean.

Saltwater fishing confuses me because I learned how to fish on rievers, lakes, and ponds. Saltwater fishing obeys the daily rhythms of the tides, whereas freshwater fishing obeys the daily rhythms of the sun. The seasons of saltwater fishing have to take into account the migrations of fish populations through the ocean, whereas the seasons of freshwater fishing (in this climate, anyway) depend on ice, water levels, and things like temperature inversions.

I suppose the father of that little family, who seemed to be the self-proclaimed expert on fishing, was teaching his children things like how to be aware of the tides. When we were kids, my father always took us fishing on freshwater. I have no awareness of tides. I’m acutely aware of the hour before sunset when the calm surface of a pond will be dimpled with hatching insects which will attract hungry trout; and some mornings I still awaken an hour before sunrise, ready to go down to the river and cast a lure into the lilypads trying to attract the hungry bass and the voracious northern pike.

Sometimes it seems that our adult attitudes are fixed by certain childhood experiences. I can’t get excited by the tides, but the evening and morning hours give me a thrill. And it never seems right to go fishing in the middle of the day, when any self-respecting trout will be sleeping on the bottom of the stream. And if I don’t even notice a mixed race family at first, maybe there’s real hope for the next generation.

Local vegetables

On my way to my sister Abby’s house, I stopped at a farmstand near where Carol and I used to live in Concord. I bought some asparagus to bring to Abby and Jim — cut that day, most of the stalks about as thin as a pencil and so tender you could eat it raw. The locally-grown produce is really starting to come in now: traditional spring vegetables like rhubarb, peas, strawberries, and asparagus (Concord used to be famous for its strawberries and asparagus); cool-weather vegetables like broccoli, kohlrabi, and bok choy; and the first of the summer squashes, zucchini, patty-pan, and yellow squash.

I not only bought asparagus for Abby and Jim, I also bought broccoli, zucchini, bok choy, and about five pounds of rhubarb. Rhubarb has become my favorite spring food. I like to cook up a pound of rhubarb with maybe a teaspoon or two of honey, just enough to thicken up the sauce but not enough to take the edge off the sourness of it.

I told my dad how I make rhubarb, and he made a little sour expression with his mouth. You have to understand that dad grew up on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, with no lack of sugar. Once when he went to my mother’s house for dinner when they were still getting to know one another (the way she told it, it was the first time he went to her house to meet her family), mom cooked up some rhubarb with only a hint of sugar. She said that when she watched him eat it, she could tell is was too tart for him and she knew he must really love her when he ate it all. So when I told dad how I like my rhubarb, he screwed up his mouth a little, then smiled and said, “You take after your mother.”

“I guess I do,” I said, at least as far as rhubarb is concerned.

Summer on the road

The drive up from New Bedford to Cambridge this afternoon was a real summer drive. The car was already hot from the sun. Driving with the windows rolled down didn’t cool it down much. Even though it wasn’t that hot today — only up in the eighties — I thought I could feel my head getting hot from the sun beating on the roof of the car. My shirt was damp with perspiration. I’m not used to the heat yet, and I swear I got a headache from the heat. But in a month or less, a day like today will seem cool and comfortable.

Summer in the city

Walking down the sidewalk on a hot summer you day, you see small red and black splotches. Look up: it’s a mulberry tree, and if you’re lucky there will be ripe mulberries within reach, and you can pop one in your mouth for a burst of tart and slightly foxy flavor.

But when I looked up, the only berries within reach were red or white, underripe. Higher up, out of reach, were the deep red and black mulberries. Someone had gotten to the tree before me.

Lost on Hawk Hill

The map showed a narrow trail that ran up one side of Hawk Hill, meandered three quarters of the way around its broad low peak, and descended quickly to the other side. I walked up the dirt road to where the narrow trail should have begun. I saw nothing but a small cairn on top of a large rock and no evidence of a trail. At last I decided that the trail must go up beside the cairn, and I headed up the hill in the general direction the map showed.

For a while it seemed as if I might be on a long-abandoned trail, until it petered out. The woods were open, and I thought if I kept going perhaps I would happen onto the trail. The hill got steeper; in places the hillside was strewn with rocks, in other places it was open bedrock, but mostly it was tall trees with a few lowbush blueberries growing underneath. Once or twice I struck a deer trail that I was able to follow for a few hundred feet until it disappeared.

The ground began to level off, as if I might be approaching the top of the hill. The ground began to be covered with low, shrubby oaks, which I had to fight my way through. I gave up on finding the trail, and enjoyed being mildly lost. I came upon an open area with a view of another hill, which I decided must be Buck Hill; for Buck Hill had had a brush fire this past May Day, and the hill I looked at showed several places recovering from effects of fire.

I climbed further up, walking across more bedrock, pushing through more shrubby oaks, coming across little openings and hidden glades here and there: a shady glen under a tall dense pine which cast such a shadow that nothing grew under it; a stretch of open bedrock with lanky late summer grass and little scraps of pineweed growing in its cracks; an odd little peak of stone almost hidden in the trees; some more open bedrock which, when I got close, turned out to be part of a well-worn narrow trail marked by a low cairn and a faded blaze painted on the rock.

So I followed the trail down the other side of Hawk Hill. It wound around the broad top of the hill, through an open ledge from whence I could see Buck Hill again, and further off the Interstate highway, and further still two reservoirs split in two by a narrow dike. Then the trail dove down into the trees, and brought me out on the other side of Hawk Hill.

On my way back to the car, I walked along that same dirt road from whence I had begun walking. I stopped and looked around the little cairn again, but no trail did I see. The ancient Greeks said that Hermes, god and guardian of the traveler, lives inside cairns to help guide people along. Hermes was also a mischievous god who even tricked the great Apollo; it would be no trouble for him to fool me. I considered taking down the little cairn so that others wouldn’t be fooled by it, but decided I better hadn’t.

Nor did I see any hawks on Hawk Hill; just an immature Peregrine Falcon at the top of nearby Chickatawbut Hill, starting out on it first trip to the south, who swooped down and sat in a tree top surveying the woods while all the other birds kept quiet and hid.

A walk in the valley

I had intended to stay off the hilltops. My hamstrings were sore, and tropical storm Ernesto hovering to the south was making all my joints stiff. When I got to the Blue Hills, I avoided the steep climb up Hancock Hill and sauntered along the gentle grades of Wolcott Path, a gravel fire road that winds through the valley between Hancock and Hemenway Hills on the one side, and Houghton and Great Blue Hills on the other.

The sun occasionally shone brightly enough through the cloud cover that the trees cast shadows on the road. My muscles complained, and I slowed down even further, admiring the lowlands filled with bracken stretching on either side of the road. An intense smell of bracken, the smell of late summer, filled the air. A trail bore off to the right; the map showed it was fairly level; I turned off to follow it.

The woods were lovely, bright, and still. I hadn’t seen another person since I left that parking lot, and even the birds were quiet, except for some chickadees here and there. I turned right, and right again. The trail I chose wound upwards less gently than before, up to the low broad top of a hill, rocky and grassy with scrubby oak trees and a view of Great Blue Hill. I turned away from the view and followed the narrowest trail I could find down again into a valley.

The trail turned abruptly about halfway down the hill, and skirted a drop-off that appeared to grow steeper and steeper. I followed a small path to the edge of the drop-off: I was standing at the top of a rock face some thirty or forty feet above a small stream bed with a little thread of brown water babbling down it. The path dropped down to the stream, and I looked back up at the rock, heaved up I guess in some distant past when the strata had been nearly molten. Now it was impossibly picturesque, shaded by hemlocks and pines.

I thought about skirting the base of the next hill, but when I found the barely-visible trail to its summit, I couldn’t resist following it upwards. There wasn’t much to follow: a few places where the lichen on the rocks had been worn off leading to a narrow treadway still visible in the grass-covered ground between the rocks. In the next rocky stretch, I lost the trail, so followed the ridge line towards the summit. Then I saw a smear of black and gray paint on a rock. I looked closely, and saw the black and gray paint covered old orange paint. Had someone deliberately tried to paint out the blazes? Another smear of black paint, followed by a small cairn. Branches and bushes had grown over the trail.

Suddenly the faint trail emerged into an open area, exposed bedrock with grass and small plants growing in the hollows. I looked behind me, and there was Boston Harbor with the empty horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. I climbed higher, followed the open rock away from the trail, and found a place to sit and look. The towers of Boston were off to the left, looking somehow ominous today. Beyond them, I thought I could see the hills of the Middlesex Fells. A few white dots on the waters of Boston Harbor: I wasn’t sure they were boats until one disappeared behind one of the islands. Chimney Swifts soared idly overhead. I walked further along the rock and noticed a small plant at my feet. I got down on my knees to look at it: red buds carried on much-ramified, almost leafless branches of a plant that wasn’t more than a few inches high, growing out of cracks in the rock. A few of the red buds were just opening up into yellow flowers that were perhaps an eighth of an inch. It was Pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides) just beginning to bloom.

When I looked up again, the Chimney Swifts were gone. A moment later, I saw why: a Red Hawk floated by, not too far above me but high above the valley. The hawk flexed its wings and tail, riding the air currents; I could see its head moving back and forth, scanning the trees below it.

The trail continued up past a small sheltering oak tree. I say it was sheltering, although it had few enough leaves that it couldn’t have sheltered much under it; but the shape of its bent trunk and curving branches somehow reassured me and made me feel sheltered, for no reason at all. Beyond that tree, I lost the view until I emerged onto the main trail.

A small pond glistened darkly in the trees in front of me, and the trees had already begun to lose the deep green of midsummer; Great Blue Hill loomed off to the west; gray clouds mounted high into the sky beyond Great Blue Hill. To the south, towards where we live, the land was flat, and a line of gray-white cumulus clouds hung low on the horizon.

It was all almost too beautiful to bear. Abraham Maslow popularized the phrase “peak experiences,” meaning those moments in life when when you achieve sometimes unbearable clarity. Later in his life, Maslow wrote that he wished he had not concentrated so much on peak experiences, and I think he felt responsible to some extent for the excesses of the drug culture of the late 1960’s, with young people indiscriminately seeking “peak experiences” from hallucinogens and other more destructive drugs. So later on, Maslow defined “plateau experiences” as those times that fill your soul with wonder and awe but that extend beyond the momentary to fill hours; and he said the plateaus could be as intense as the peaks. The paradigmatic plateau experience is the mother who nestles quietly with her baby, lost in the baby’s smell and sound and new being; an experience far more intense than a hallucination from a drug, because it is real and because in some sense it never really ends. I headed back down a gentle path into a valley, having had enough of summits just then, even the low broad summits of the Blue Hills; I felt I needed a valley experience just then, not a peak experience.

But that gentle, downward-trending road was just as heart-achingly beautiful as the summit of the little hill I was coming down. The path followed an old woods road. The land had obviously been clear of trees not too long ago; it was now covered with coppice and small trees. Among the thickets of saplings, and the more open spaces under the larger trees, I saw a great slope covered with shattered rocks the size of my head; a small rocky ridge rose up into almost open sky on the other side, and the path wound around to the bottom of that ridge, which was covered with huge shattered rocks and slabs. In one area, the rocks appeared to have scales: loosely hanging dingy brownish-gray scales, lichen of a type I hadn’t seen before. I followed that path back down to the fire road from which I had originally diverged, passed the little road that had tempted me onto that detour, and kept walking.

Eventually I came to a small field that opened up in the woods. I stood quietly on its edge, admiring the huge gnarled oak that towered amid the goldenrod and yellowing late summer grass, comparing the openness of the field with the openness of the hilltops. Something snorted; startled, I turned, and two deer took fright, showed their white tails, and leapt into the trees. I could hear them crashing away through the brush.

The fire road intersected the paved road to the summit of Great Blue Hill, so I went almost to the observation tower at the summit, but there were too many people there. I had seen no one all afternoon, until I started up Great Blue Hill. Instead, I cut over to the head of the ski slope, and looked west from there. The course of the highways below me were marked out by the huge roofs of corporate and manufacturing buildings, gray and beige expanses sticking out of the tree cover, covering acres. Further off, three or four church steeples marked an old town center. Away off to the west stood Mt. Wachusett; beyond it to the north, a line of hills led up to the distant peak of Mt. Monadnock; and I knew that even farther north, hidden behind Mondanock, lay the White Mountains.

The walk back to the car was short and uneventful; but tonight I think I will dream of mountains.

Dead gull season

The many flat roofs of downtown New Bedford host a nesting colony of Herring Gulls. By this time in the summer, the young birds have been out of the nest for some time, and they’re trying to figure out how to make a living. Some of them still cry at the adult Herring Gulls, trying to coax an adult into regurgitating up some nice fish. Herring Gulls are not particularly social, and the adults want nothing to do with the young gulls once they’re out of the nest. The young gulls turn to foraging for garbage. I was driving up Acushnet Avenue the other day. A young gull stood in the middle of the intersection with William Street, trying to tear open what looked like one of those brightly colored bags fast food comes in. I tooted my horn and slowed down, expecting the bird to fly, or at least hop, out of the way. It didn’t, and I narrowly avoiding running it down. The young gulls haven’t yet learned to avoid cars and trucks. On my walk today, I saw two corpses of young Herring Gulls, one in the middle of the swing-span bridge with one broken wing pointing up, and another one completely flattened in the middle of Route 6. From what I’ve seen along the sides of the roads, this year’s crop of Herring Gulls will suffer its highest mortality rate over the next few months; the ones that survive will have learned to hop out of the way of cars, no matter how enticing the smell that comes from the brightly colored paper bag.


The laundromat I go to, Marianne’s Laundry out Route 6 almost in Dartmouth, is right across from a cemetery. I put my clothes in the wash, and stepped outside. It was a perfect late summer evening, a clear blue sky, just the perfect temperature. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. I decided to take a walk in the cemetery.

I’d never been in that cemetery before. Just inside the entrance there are trees lining the roads, and the gravestones, lined up in rows and columns and all of a size, had been softened by wind and rain. Not that they were old gravestones; the earliest one I saw was from 1920. At the top of a little rise, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her baby looked down at me. She was made of some light-colored stone which had been darkened in places by soot and lichen.

Up ahead the graves looked newer and cleaner. The cemetery got much wider this far back, and there were no trees, just rows and rows of gravestones. A car passed me, stopped a hundred yards down the little road, and a white-haired woman got out and walked to one of the graves. I turned right down a gravel road to leave her in peace.

The far end of the cemetery backed up against an unmown strip of grass and goldenrod, with short scrubby trees beyond. I circled around the back edge, past some swampy ground. I could just see a family get out of their car to visit a grave, I could hear the voices of at least two children, and a black dog bounded through the gravestones.

It was time to head back to the laundromat. Back under the trees, I passed one grave with these words at the bottom: “Pray for us.” Why not? I offered a little prayer, for them and for everyone else. Of course it’s sad when someone dies, but it’s also inevitable. If hell is not part of your theology, death doesn’t seem so bad. Socrates speculated that either you get to go some place nice when you die, or you sink into an oblivion like the most perfectly restful sleep imaginable. Either option sounds fine to me.

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings chattered to each other in a small cedar tree off to the side of the cemetery. I watched a car speed out towards Route 6, going too fast for that narrow little road. By my left foot, a small bronze plate that marked someone’s grave was mostly covered over with grass now. Back at the Route 6, I pressed the button for the “Walk” signal, and while I waited for the traffic lights to change I realized that I felt refreshed. The sun was mostly gone, and I looked up at the moon, just a day or two away from first quarter.

Pickwick Papers

I’m in the midst of reading Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. For years, I couldn’t stand Dickens’s wordiness — he makes it all too obvious that he got paid by the word — and I refused to even try to read his books. But there’s no real plot in Pickwick Papers, which means I don’t have to suffer through a hundred pages to find out how and if a character dies. And the wordiness of Pickwick Papers is devoted to anecdote, not to unbearably long descriptions of, say, the road from London to Paris. In short, unlike some of Dickens’s other books, Pickwick Papers doesn’t drag.

Not only that, but this is precisely the kind of book that I believe would make a good blog: memorable characters having episodic adventures, adventures which appear in a serialized format. I’ve seen something like this trying to emerge in a few of the more adventurous blogs, but so far bloggers seem to think that blogging can only be non-fiction; or perhaps more to the point, no one with Dickens’s immense talent is yet writing a blog.

Yet why not? Why wouldn’t a modern-day Dickens write a blog instead of a print-based book? It is worth considering that technology allowed Dickens to write the way he did. Technical advances leading to cheaper printing and binding, and a more efficient distribution system, led to the serialized writing at which Dickens excelled. Perhaps in time the World Wide Web will produce its own literary geniuses to equal Dickens; though it seems to me that we have a long way to go.

In the mean time, I’m reading Pickwick Papers. While I’m reading it I’m not reading much of anything on the Web. Dickens’s book scratches whatever itch of mine was getting scratched by reading blogs.