Three unrelated conversations

The drive up from New Bedford north towards Boston took me through the flat south coastal plain of Massachusetts. Along the highway through the plain, red maples seem to be the dominant trees where the ground is a little lower than the surrounding terrain; white and red oaks, and white and red pines, where the ground is a little higher. The red maples were bright with reds and yellows and oranges; in the lowest ground where I could see there was a swamp many of the trees were already bare. The oaks were still mostly green, although here and there a branch with brilliant red leaves stuck out of the dark green of the oak and pine woods; and here and there I saw a white oak fringed with brownish gold leaves.

I had lunch with dad, and we talked mostly about photography. Dad, who is an avid photographer, has been using digital cameras for the past three or four years. But recently, he said, he’s turned back to using his old single lens reflex film camera, a classic Pentax K-1000. He stood in the window of his condo in West Concord and used four different cameras to shoot the same picture of a sugar maple in full autumn color: three different digital cameras, and the K-1000. He got the film processed commerically, and he printed the shots from the digital camera using the same paper and printer. Then he compared the images all four sources. His conclusion: the images from the film camera had better color saturation and richer reds than any of the digital images.

Photo buffs would probably say that images from a professional-quality digital camera printed on a top-notch printer could surpass the images from commercially-processed film. But that’s not the point; dad was comparing images from cameras he had access to and that he could afford. Forget the photography buffs; dad and I agreed that film cameras are superior. We got into a satisfying discussion of which color film is best, and how both of us would kind of like to get back into a darkroom to print black-and-white film.

Dad had to go off to teach a computer class, so I went birding at Great Meadows. I worked my way down the central dike, stopping now and then to scan the water for ducks. Another birder, a man carrying a high-end telescope, was making his way down the dike at roughly the same pace as I. Somewhere in the middle of the dike, I said to him that I had got some sparrows, and he came down to see. We wound up talking while we waited for sparrows to break cover and come out where we could see them.

He asked where I lived, and I said New Bedford, and he told me about a house that his grandparents had had on Hawthorne Street in New Bedford. I said I hadn’t seen any ducks yet this year on New Bedford harbor, and he said that the wintering ducks had already started moving in to the Barnstable area. He lived down on the Cape during the warm months, and had just moved back up to his house in Weston on Tuesday. He asked how it happened that I was in Concord that day, and I said I grew up in town, and it turned out that his daughter had married a man who was best friends with Steve S—- who had lived down the street from us when I was young.

We finally saw Swamp Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows (and I was pretty sure I had also seen an immature White Throated Sparrow). But most of the ducks we saw were Mallards. “It’s so quiet out here,” he said. “Listen to those geese. I can even hear that tika-tika-tika sound they make when they’re feeding.” He scanned the ducks with his binoculars. “Twenty years ago, you’d see ninety percent Black Ducks and only a few Mallards. Now it’s the other way around. I used to shoot ducks,” he continued. “What I liked was using the calls to bring the ducks, and working with dogs, and being outdoors. I ate everything I shot. But I stopped in 1982, and haven’t been duck-hunting since.” He put his binoculars up to his eyes for one last scan of the lower pool, hoping to see the Pintails he had thought he had seen earlier; and then he headed back to Weston.

I spent another two hours at Great Meadows. I walked way around to the other end of the lower pool, where I did see eight or a dozen Pintails half obscured in the middle of some wild rice. An hour later, up at the sewage treatment plant, I did see a flock of White-Throated Sparrows, along with a Palm Warbler bobbing its tail, and some other sparrows that I couldn’t be sure of because it was getting dark by then.

It was still too early to brave the traffic on the drive into Cambridge. I decided to stop at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. They had moved Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’s body back to Concord, to rest beside her husband Nathaniel Hawthorne, from where she had been buried in England, and I wanted to visit the new grave. Across the path, a man was crouched down, taking a picture of Henry David Thoreau’s grave in the dim light; a woman stood next to him watching. I asked if he was a fan of Thoreau, and he allowed that he was. I told them why I was there. The man asked where Louisa May Alcott’s grave was, and I pointed it out.

They said they had driven ten hours to get here today, and I asked where they were from. “London, Ontario,” said the man. And now as I listened for it I could hear the faint accent of central and prairie Canada: the slight differences in the vowels, especially “o” sounds, and the more precise consonants. “We already have snow on the ground up there,” said the woman. “What’s the climate like here?” I said that we used to have snow on the ground for most of three months, but it was definitely getting warmer. “What with global climate change, you’re probably living in the right place,” I said. “Soon your climate will be temperate.”

As we walked back towards town, we wound up talking about North American politics, particularly the way that both Steven Harper and George Bush have strong ties to the religious right. “But it’s a minority government,” said the man. “Canada is still pretty much liberal,” he continued in his soft Canadian accent. “Harper’s going to have to moderate his views or he could wind up facing an election.” The woman added, in what was not quite a non sequitur: “After all, Elton John came to Canada to get married.” I told them I was counting on the Canadians to hold out against the influence from the south. What I didn’t say was that as a religious liberal, I actually do worry about the United States turning into a theocracy of the religious right, and it would be nice to have a place to flee to.