West Concord, Mass., to Paoli, Penna.

From my dad’s condo, I drove along Route 117 to get to the interstate highway. In Stow, I remembered I needed to get gas before I got on the highway, so I stopped at the little gas station at corner of Hudson Road. Ed and Nancy used to live just up the street from there, and it was a little disconcerting to remember that they now live in Wisconsin, and that I would be seeing them at the end of the week. I bought a copy of the local newspaper, the Stow Independent, to bring to them; a quarter of a mile down Route 117, I stopped at Applefield Farm to buy blueberries and carrots, but those will get eaten long before I get to Wisconsin.

The drive down to Pennsylvania is not all that interesting. Traffic is always heavy enough that you can’t really look at the scenery, when there is scenery worth looking at. You also have to figure out which route you’re going to take: from Hartford, will you take Interstate 84 or the Merritt Parkway through Connecticut? from the Tappan Zee Bridge, will you take the Palisades Parkway or the Garden State Parkway to get to the New Jersey Turnpike? when the Jersey Turnpike divides, will you go on the cars-only side, or the cars-buses-and-trucks side?

I passed by one of New Jersey’s refineries, and the smell brought back memories of all the trips my family took to Staten Island to visit my grandmother. In the 1960s, the highway system was not as well-developed, and the drive would take nine hours. Dad would take a day off from work, we’d pile in the car, Jean and I would annoy each other in the back seat (“I’m putting up an invisible shield, and you can’t get me!” “There! I put my hand through your invisible shield!” etc.). We’d pull in Friday night, Grandma would give Jean and me each a big hug, and we’d sit down to dinner. On Saturday, Dad would work the whole day around the house for Grandma, and Jean and I would play in the basement, or read books in the little room off the stairs. Grandma’s next door neighbors Dave and Alice would usually stop in for a visit. Dave was a big man, over six feet tall I think, a New York City cop, and when I started to get tall he told me that I had to learn to stand up straight instead of slouching over. Then on Sunday we’d drive home. We’d make this trip two or three times a year, and we all got to know that drive pretty well. Mom and Dad would debate whether to take the Merritt Parkway, or the new route, Interstate 84. When the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island opened, we drove across it — but just once, and never again, because going through Brooklyn took forever. Sometimes we’d get to stop at a Howard Johnson’s for lunch, though mostly I remember Mom packing lunch for us. And when we drove past the refineries, in New Jersey, Jean and I would loudly exclaim that it stank, and we’d roll up the windows until we were past.

Driving in the northeast corridor is not like driving out in the Far West, where traffic is almost always light and people do not routinely drive like maniacs. I remember the radio raconteur Jean Shepherd talking about driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, and looking in his mirror only to find that the driver behind him was so close that he was using Jean Shepherd’s rearview mirror to shave. When I finally got to the New Jersey Turnpike, I was feeling a bit frazzled. I pulled over at the Vince Lombardi Service Area to relax for a few minutes. The Vince Lombardi Service Area was huge, and not particularly relaxing. Hundreds of semi-trailers filled the truck parking lot.


The parking lot for cars was also active, with cars and people coming and going constantly. The last time I had stopped at the service area was in the 1990s, and back then they had had Vince Lombardi memorabilia on display. But now the entire service area was devoted to retail sales, fast food joints and a coffee shop and a travel store. more and more, this is the fate of our public spaces: they are dominated by sales of consumer products, or advertisements featuring consumer products. I missed the replica of the football stadium Vince Lombardi’s team played in, a model built entirely of matchsticks. It was kind of stupid, but definitely worth looking at.

The rest of the drive was more of the same. I was glad to pull into Steve and Cheryl’s house in Paoli, and sit down to a peaceful dinner with uncle and cousins.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

The old time Universalists were fond of saying that “God is love.” That statement may be true, but not in any sentimental sappy sense. Many years ago, Tennyson pointed out that he who might place trust in the belief that “God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law” needed to remember that “Nature, red in tooth and claw … shriek’d against his creed.”

On our walk today, Abs and I saw a butterfly that had lost much of its left hindwing, and a part of its left forewing. We speculated that perhaps a bird or other predator had attacked the butterfly, and somehow it had gotten away, and was still flying:


Living things need to eat, and as often as not they eat other living things in order to stay alive. And this is true of you, too, O human being who think yourself an apex predator: there are plenty of microorganisms and parasites and biting insects who feed on you.

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:


It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

Rensselaer, N.Y., to Saco, Maine

A short drive today, so by three o’clock I had set up my tent, and started walking up the beach. Very light rain fell off and on, but that didn’t reduce the number of people on the beach by very much. In the short stretch of beach between Ferry Beach Camp and Conference Center, and the entrance to Ferry Beach State Park, I passed a dozen families set up with towels, three different guys casting bait in hopes of a striper coming by, a dozen people walking up or down the beach, and half a dozen people tossing a frisbee around.

As soon as I got away from the beach, and onto the trails in the woods of Ferry Beach State Park, I didn’t see another human being. Probably the mosquitoes kept them away. There is plenty of open water in the woods behind the dunes this year, plenty of places for mosquitoes to breed. And then I heard a Veery singing, that strange downward spiraling song that is one of the most haunting and beautiful bird songs I have ever heard: a bird song worth driving three thousand miles to hear.

Geneva, Ohio, to Rensselaer, N.Y.

Of course I awakened late. First of all, I hadn’t gotten into the motel room until 11:30 the previous night. Second of all, the time I awakened might seem late in the Eastern time zone but in the Pacific time zone I got up at six o’clock. When I finally got to Erie Bluffs State Park, it was half an hour before noon.

Erie Bluffs State Park, the largest undeveloped stretch of Lake Erie lake front in Pennsylvania, is mostly fields and woodlands. There is a boat launch, and there’s a tiny beach at the mouth of Elk Creek.


But, as I say, it’s mostly fields and woodlands. I walked down through the woods to the shore. The trees were mostly maples and oaks, with some nut trees and sassafras — typical woodlands of the middle Appalachian region, and very similar to the woodlands I got used to growing up in eastern Massachusetts on the eastern edge of the hills of central New England. The woods felt familiar, more familiar than the town I grew up in which has been so altered by development and gentrification, and so many of the woodlands built up with very expensive houses, that it no longer feels like the town I once knew. But there were still surprises in the woodlands of Erie Bluffs. I came across a downed tree covered with some kind of insect I had never seen before, coming out of its larval stage to its adult stage.


There wasn’t much to see at the shores of Lake Erie except people on personal watercraft bouncing over the chop raised by the northeast wind. I got tired of their buzzing, and the faint stench of two-cycle engine, and head back up the bluffs to the fields. The eastern fields at Erie Bluffs cultivated, with what I think was an annual rye grass, some kind of seed-bearing grass that probably provides good foraging for migrating birds. The western field is not cultivated, and it was filled with birds: Field Sparrows, Blackburnian Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and many more birds took advantage of the ecotone, the edge zone between the woodlands biome and the field biome.


Then, all too soon, it was time to go. I started driving east, and kept driving east.

After dark, I stopped at a rest area somewhere in upper New York state. By that time, there was little traffic on the highway, and few people in the rest area. Just one other person was waiting for coffee at Starbucks, and she and I got into a conversation with the two workers at Starbucks. I asked the workers if they got time and a half for the holiday, and they said they did. But, they said, no benefits. I told them I thought Starbucks had good benefits, but they said they were actually employed by the company that runs the rest area, a company which pays minimum wage, provides not benefits, and does not allow them to take tips. The other customer and I commiserated with them. She — the other customer — said she drove that stretch of highway regularly, because one of her children was involved with Circus Smirkus. We both said we love to drive, and we both agreed that the best time to drive was after dinner, after the crazy drivers got off the road. When I left, I told one of the workers that I wasn’t leaving a tip, because that wasn’t allowed, but it looks like I left some money on the counter by mistake so they better keep it.

Joliet, Ill., to Geneva, Ohio

It was not a pleasant day of driving. I left my rain coat at the motel, and lost over an hour driving back to get it. Traffic on the interstate south of Chicago was bad, as usual, made worse by the beginnings of holiday weekend traffic. It’s tough to get off the toll road through Indiana and Ohio, and I hadn’t had time to stop at a supermarket, so I was stuck eating bad fast food in dreary highway rest areas — not just ordinarily bad fast food, but really bad fast food: french fries cooked in slightly rancid grease, quasi-Chinese orange chicken where there is a tiny little speck of chicken meat surrounded by thick deep-fried batter and slimy sauce, iced tea from Star-yuck that had a faintly foul aftertaste. And after eating bad food, it was back on the gray interstate highway.


Day gradually turned into night. The moon came up, rising right in front of me, but it was orange like the mercury vapor lamps and it got lost in the street lights.


I tried to think back to the morning, when I had managed to spend an hour walking at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and another half an hour talking with a woman who worked for the U.S. Forest Service (the Forest Service manages Midewin) about how we were each trying to develop programs that got kids outdoors to experience other living organisms and learn stewardship for the land. But the swarming traffic somehow managed to drive out the memory of the vivid blue Indigo Bunting which sat on the highest point of a bush in the middle of the prairie and sang. Nor could I quite remember the sound of the high water rushing down Prairie Creek to the flooded Kankakee River.


I need to get some sleep.

Avoca, Iowa, to Joliet, Ill.

I was sleepy today, and had to stop twice in rest areas to take long naps. I tend to drive myself pretty hard at work, even when I’m on sabbatical, and I suspect my body is constantly putting out a little adrenalin to keep me moving fast. Now I’ve been away from work long enough that the adrenalin has stopped, and it makes me sleepy. Because of the naps, I got in late tonight, so this will be a short post.

In the middle of the day I stopped for a walk at the Kuehn Conservation Area in Dallas County, Iowa, three and a half miles along well-graded gravel roads from the interstate. A cold front had gone through last night, with thunder and lightning, and the day was cool and gray; the grass was wet, and the sky still threatened showers. There was not another car in the parking lot. I walked around the upland meadows, looking and listening to the birds, all from the eastern half of the continent — no more Chestnut-backed Chickadees, now there were Black-capped Chickadees; no more Scrub Jays, now there were Blue Jays; no more Western Bluebirds, but rather Eastern Bluebirds.

I walked down a wooded bluff into the Bear Creek valley. The rolling grasslands near the creek were damp and unbelievably green to an eye which has become accustomed to dry, drought-ridden California. You could see the humidity in the air, turning everything a faint blue.


But what really captured my attention were the variety and number of butterflies. I must have seen ten different species (not that I could say what species they were, but they were so obviously different), and a great many individuals: flittering through the grass, basking on the mud or gravel, dodging in and out of the brush in the woods, sitting half hidden in the leaves.



The rest of the drive was uneventful. I drove, it rained off and on, I stopped in Grinnell, Iowa, to find Chinese food and a bookstore, I drove some more, took another nap, it rained, and slowly it got dark. I knew when I was getting close to Chicagoland because there were more buildings, more cars, more people. I have now left behind the lightly settled western two-thirds of the United States, and entered the busy, crowded, bustling eastern third of the country.