Tag Archives: cicada

States that begin with vowels

Most New Englanders have a poor sense of geography. We have always had difficulty distinguishing between the states west of the Connecticut River (technically, Vermont is a New England state, but it is inhabited chiefly by New Yorkers and people who pronounce the letter “r” oddly). We New Englanders know vaguely that there are Appalachian mountains, then a big flat place where they grow corn and soybeans and all the states have names that begin with vowels, and then west of that there are mountains and deserts and big square states. We pity those New Englanders who have to go live in California, because they will be so very far from the ocean.

Corn and soybeans along I-80 in Illinois

Corn and soybeans along Interstate 80 in Illinois

Today, Carol and I drove through flat states whose names begin with vowels. We started driving this morning in Ohio, drove through northern Indiana, across midstate Illinois, and then across the Mississippi River into Iowa.

Crossing the Mississippi River along Interstate 80

The landscape was fairly flat in Ohio, sloping gently down towards Lake Erie; it was heavily developed south of Chicago, covered with industrial buildings, big box stores, and housing developments; it was fairly flat through midstate Illinois but even here it rolled gently; and here in Iowa, the landscape consists of low, rolling hills with winding creeks in the valleys between the hills. In short, the landscape is far more diverse than New Englanders think it is.

We are spending the night just south of the Amana Colonies in Iowa. We had some Schild Brau Amber lager beer at dinner, brewed locally by the Millstream Brewing Company. Carol comes from Iowa, and as we walked around, she said it felt somehow familiar: the cicadas, the fireflies, the silos half hidden behind the low hills, the fields of corn. And tomorrow we will continue driving across the flat states, getting farther and farther from the ocean.


The gulls woke me up at the crack of dawn. Every morning they sit on the rooftops around our building screaming: Auw! Auw! Kee! Kee! Kee! Kee! Kyoh! Kyoh! Kyoh! Kyoh! With an effort of will I tuned them out and went back to sleep. I don’t know when Carol got up.

A cicada wakes me up much later. It must be sitting on the volunteer maple that sprouted up right next the the building behind us and which is now twelve feet tall. This cicada sounds just like the cicadas I listened to on hot summer afternoons when I was a kid. It almost lulls me back to sleep: zzzZZZZZ…. It seems to go on forever.

When it stops, I get up. I happen to glance in the mirror. If I’m not going to kid myself, my hair is more gray than blond now. It’s my day off and it’s still summer, so I forget to shave.

I stand in the kitchen. A cicada buzzes in the tree across the street. I hear a gull screaming in the distance. We bought a blueberry pie yesterday at the farmers market, and there is one small slice left this morning. I know I’m going to eat it for breakfast. There’s one slice of pie left, I say to Carol. It’s yours, she says, and looks back at her computer. I make a pot of tea, and slide the blueberry pie onto a dark green plate.


I had an hour to kill in the middle of the day, so I parked at the old rifle range, and walked up the abandoned railroad bed to White Pond. The air was thick with humidity, and everything looked incredibly green from all the rain that’s fallen in July. Cicadas buzzed. A few birds braved the heat of the day. I passed through swamps caused by beaver dams. In places, the railroad bed was almost overgrown and only a thin path led through exuberant green shrubs and grass and poison ivy. Brilliant green leaves brushed against me from head to toe on both sides. At one point I noticed where a stand of white pines had dropped enough needles and shed enough shade to kill off most of the undergrowth; aside from that, I didn’t think of much of anything at all. Once the swamp ended and the woods began, the undergrowth mostly disappeared.

On the way back from White Pond, a Golden Labrador Retriever lay panting at the side of the trail, attended by a white-haired woman.

“That dog has the right idea,” I said. “It’s too hot to walk.”

“He’s gone lame,” said the woman. She had an English accent.

“What, does he have something in his paw?” I said.

“He walks a few yards, and then he stops and lies down,” she said. “My friend has gone to get the car.”

“He’s hot, too,” I said, watching him pant. “It’s very humid.”

“It is clammy,” she said. “I’ve just come over from England last night. We’ve been having some of the same weather over there.”

We chatted a bit, and then I said, “I’ try to carry him up to the road for you, but I think he’s a bit heavy for me.”

She laughed. “Oh, I didn’t expect you to offer to carry him up. He’ll be fine.”

Of the whole hour-long walk I took, most of what I can tell you about is that three-minute conversation. Aside from that, there are only general impressions of walking hard, sweat, gentle heat, damp air, greenness, small animals in the underbrush, flies, smell of grass and leaves — but there wasn’t much to be said about such basic physical impressions.

Nature and City: a preliminary checklist

How do you find Nature in the City? I’ve been developing the checklist below to help focus my own thoughts on this question. I suspect some of you may be thinking along the same lines and may have things to add. So even though this is merely a preliminary checklist, I’d thought I’d publish it here and see what you can add or correct.

Basic assumption: City isn’t separate from Nature or divorced from Nature; rather, City is an ecosystem (or collection of ecosystems) that is a subset of wider Nature. (Corollary: humans are not separate from Nature, they are an integral part of Nature.)

Purposes of the checklist: To remind me of what to look for to stay aware of the City ecosystem. To remind me of how City ecosystem affects my emotional and spiritual mood.

  1. Astronomical phenomena
    • Sunrise and sunset times
    • Sun’s angle of declination
    • Moonrise and moonset
    • Phase of the moon
    • Length of daylight and its effect on mood
  2. Meteorological phenomena
    • Precipitation: departure from seasonal norms
    • Temperature: departure from seasonal norms
    • Major weather events and their effects on mood
    • Climate and its effect on organisms
    • Climate and its effect on mood
  3. Plants
    • List of plant species
    • Trees: when they leaf out, when they lose leaves (N.B.: not just deciduous trees, conifers lose some needles every year) (include impact on mood)
    • Annual plants: when sprout, when flower, when go to seed
    • What organisms eat the various plants
  4. Birds, mammals, and other vertebrates
    • List of species observed
    • Birds: times of migration, breeding, nesting, molting
    • Mammals and other vertebrates: times of breeding and raising young
    • Predator/prey relationships, and/or food sources; times and locations of feeding
    • Habitat for each species
  5. Invertebrates
    • Seasonal appearances of invertebrates (e.g., cicadas)
    • Eating, breeding, other
  6. Interrelationships between humans and other species
    • Humans as food sources (e.g., squirrels and human trash, pigeons eating bread crumbs, etc.)
    • Humans as habitat providers (e.g., raptors which nest on skyscrapers, rats living in subways, etc.)
    • Species humans kill (e.g., roadkill, rat traps, etc.)
    • Emotional and spiritual effect of other species on humans
  7. Other?

Thanks to Mike for prompting me to post this.

Day hike: Across the Middlesex Fells

Yesterday was another perfect summer day in New England: low temperatures in the 50’s, dry air, perfectly clear, and a forecast for a high temperature below 80. What better way to spend a perfect day than to go canoeing with Abby and Jim. Except that my car wouldn’t start. The rest of the morning was spent getting the car towed to the garage. After lunch, I finally cleared my head enough to decide that I was going to up to the Middlesex Fells to go hiking.

You can take the subway to the Middlesex Fells reservation — the Orange Line all the way to the last stop, Oak Grove. The subway comes out of the ground at the Charles River, and you ride through a stark landscape of heavy industry, a major railroad corridor, and highway ramps leading to the Central Artery. When you get past that, light industry and unrelieved inner suburbia stretches along the Orange Line the rest of the way to Oak Grove. The train emptied out, and I could hear the African American man several seats away as he answered his cell phone: “Yo, what up.” Except that there was a soft New England flair to his words, so they came out: “Yo, wha ‘tup” — the “t” sound moving to the next syllable in just the same way that older New Englanders still say, “Ih ’tis” instead of “It is.”

There’s a half mile walk past suburban houses and renovated brick mill buildings, and then suddenly you’re on the Cross Fells Trail in the green trees of the Middlesex Fells. The occasional broken liquor bottle testifies to the fact that you’re not in the wilderness. But as I climbed up a rocky ridge, what I really noticed was how loud the cicadas were.

From one rocky prominence, I could see the skyline of Boston, the Hancock Tower with Great Blue Hill beyond it, and elsewhere the trees of suburbia with an occasional building showing through the leaves. The low-bush blueberries were bare of fruit, except for one last shriveled blueberry. A few leaves on some of the bushes had turned bright red. Across the paved Fellsway East road, I did see quite a few huckleberries still on the bushes, but they, too, were shriveled and past being edible. In one little open spot, Goldenrod and Purple Loosestrife bloomed right next to each other, with nodding Queen Anne’s Lace in front of them, all flowers of mid-August.

It was a shock to reach Highland Avenue, a four-lane highway. I lost the Cross Fells Trail here. The trail is poorly marked:– the old blue paint blazes are badly faded, and several of the new blue plastic blazes have been torn off trees. So I wound up taking an unintended detour to the shores of Winchester Reservoir, shining in the afternoon sun. I saw a few sailboats, some kayaks, and even one skinny-dipper slipping illegally into the water.

I managed to rejoin the Cross Fells Trail, following it along the paved Fellsway West under Interstate 93, but then I lost the trail again — the blazes were completely missing. I realized I should have brought a map. AFter another unintended detour, I managed to rejoin the Cross Fells Trail, but the sun was getting lower and lower and I knew I would probably not be able to get to the far end of the trail. I made it across South Border Road and up to the top of Ramshead Hill when I decided to turn around — I didn’t want to be looking for faded blue paint blazes after the sun had gone down.

The trip back was much faster — I didn’t stray off the trail for any unintended detours. It was after seven o’clock by the time I got back to the start of the trail, and since it is mid-August the sun had already slipped close to the horizon. During the whole of my walk in the Fells, I saw only half a dozen people who were more than a couple hundred feet from a paved road.

Nine or ten miles, depending on how far off the trail I actually got.

The Quail and the Bird called P’eng

Part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story is from the Taoist tradition: adapted from section 1 of Chuang Tzu, from translations by Lin Yu tang, and by Burton Watson. The closing paragraph is derived from a line that may have been lost from the text (see note 5 in Watson).

The Quail and the Bird Called P’eng

Copyright (c) 2006 Dan Harper

Many years ago in ancient China, the Emperor T’ang was speaking with a wise man named Ch’i.

Ch’i was telling the Emperor about the wonders of far off and distant places. Ch’i said:

“If you go far, far to the north, beyond the middle kingdom of China, beyond the lands where our laughing black-haired people live, you will come to the lands where the snow lies on the ground for nine months a year, and where the people speak a barbaric language and eat strange foods.

“And if you travel even farther to the north, you will come to a land where the snow and ice never melts, not even in the summer. In that land, night never comes in the summer time, but in the winter, the sun never appears and the night lasts fro months at a time.

“And if you go still farther to the north, beyond the barren land of ice and snow, you will come to a vast, dark sea. This sea is called the Lake of Heaven. Many marvelous things live in the Lake of Heaven. They say there is a fish called K’un. The fish K’un is thousands of miles wide, and who knows how many miles long.”

“A fish that is thousands of miles long?” said the Emperor. “How amazing!”

“It is even more amazing than it seems at first,” said Ch’i. “For this giant fish can change shape and become a bird called P’eng. This bird is enormous. When it spreads its wings, it is as if clouds cover the sky. Its back is like a huge mountain. When it flaps its wings, typhoons spread out across the vast face of the Lake of Heaven for thousands of miles. The wind from P’eng’s wings lasts for six months. P’eng rises up off the surface of the water, sweeping up into the blue sky. The giant bird wonders, ‘Is blue the real color of the sky, or is the sky blue because it goes on forever?’ And when P’eng looks down, all it sees is blue sky below, with the wind piled beneath him.”

A little gray dove and a little insect, a cicada, sat on the tree and listened to Ch’i tell the Emperor about the bird P’eng. They looked at each other and laughed quietly. The cicada said quietly to the dove, “If we’re lucky, sometimes we can fly up to the top of that tall tree over there. But lots of times, we don’t even make it that high up.”

“Yes,” said the little dove. “If we can’t even make it to the top of the tree, how on earth can that bird P’eng fly that high up in the sky? No one can fly that high.”

Ch’i continued to describe the giant bird P’eng to the Emperor. “Flapping its wings, the bird wheels in flight,” said Ch’i, “and it turns south, flying across the thousands of miles of the vastness of the Lake of Heaven, across the oceans of the Middle Kingdom, heading many thousands of miles towards the great Darkness of the South.”

A quail sat quietly in a bush beside the Emperor and Ch’i. “The bird P’eng can fly all those thousands of miles from the Lake of Heaven in the north across the Middle Kingdom, and into the vast ocean in the south?” said the quail to himself. “Well, I burst up out of the bushes into flight, fly a dozen yards, and settle back down into the bushes again. That’s the best kind of flying. Who cares if some big bird flies ninety thousand miles?”

The Emperor listened to Ch’i, and said, “Do up and down ever have an end? Do the four directions ever come to an end?”

“Up and down never come to an end,” said Ch’i. “The four directions never come to an end.

“That is the difference between a small understanding and a great understanding,” continued Ch’i. “If you have a small understanding, you might think the top of that tree is as high up as you can go. If you have a small understanding, you might think that flying to that bush over there is as far as you can go in that direction. But even beyond the point where up and down and the four directions are without end, there is no end.”

But the quail did not hear, for she had flown a dozen yards away in the bushes. The cicada did not hear because it was trying to fly to the top of a tree. And the little dove did not hear because he, too, was flying to the top of the nearby elm tree.

Downtown summer evening

As I walk across the street towards the art museum, three people, two men and a woman, walk across the street in the opposite direction. I can’t quite make out what they are saying, but their voices have slurred rhythm of people who are finishing up a day of drinking.

There’s a cicada singing loudly somewhere near the old Standard Times building.

A woman inside Cafe Arpeggio walks from behind the counter carrying a bucket and a rag. There is no one else inside.

Outside “Solstice Skateboards” on William Street, four people stand around a Piaggio motor scooter. They all look to be in their early twenties. One man and one woman stand smoking and watching the other two, who are bent over the scooter pumping at the kick starter.

“It should be starting by now,” says the one pumping at the kick starter.

As I walk past, I smell gas, and I bet to myself the engine’s flooded. All the way down William Street, I never hear the scooter’s engine actually start.

Three teenagers stand by the fountain behind the Customs House, doing nothing. Talking. They look at me furtively, and lower their voices a little.

Three people stand outside the back door to Dunkin Donuts. “Look, I can’t talk right now,” says one woman. “I’m at work, so call me back, OK?” I think I see a mop in a mop bucket inside the door, and I guess they’re getting ready to clean up. One of them, a man, is sitting on the step, smoking, relaxed.

As I walk back towards the church, across Union Street outside The Main Event there’s a man sitting on some steps. He’s talking loudly, but he’s the only one there. It’s dark, so I can’t tell if he’s talking into a cell phone, or if he’s just crazy.

Up on Maple Street, a woman walks her dog, a sedate-looking Golden Retriever. I hear crickets.

Robert Pirsig says, “The Buddha resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha — which is to demean oneself.” That’s a little too pat, and it makes me want to respond, “Yeah, but if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Don’t waste time on either explanation. Take a walk downtown on a weeknight at ten p.m.