I spent most of this past week at a retreat center in western Massachusetts where there was no internet service, and my cell phone service was spotty. I was staying in an isolated cabin. And there was hardly anyone else at the center the whole time I was there. Just me and the wood stove and the outhouse, and a hundred acres of woodlands.
I went there to do some reading, but I also found time to do some winter botany. Turns out you can identify trees in winter by looking at their bundle scars, stipules, and bud scales. Then I had to learn what bundle scars, stipules, and bud scales were.
There was only an inch or two of snow on the ground, so I could also look at moss. I found Dicranum sp., Thuidium sp., Callicladium haldanianum, and several others.
So even though it’s winter, you can still do botany.
We walked through the Nelson Homestead at Woolman Hill Conference Center. This is where Wally and Juanita Nelson lived the last couple of decades of their lives — off the grid, growing their own food, refusing to pay taxes that funded the war machine of the United States. Carol remembers Wally and Jaunita Nelson coming to the annual conferences of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Massachusetts, back when she served on the NOFA Mass board, but she had no idea that they had both been civil rights activists and peacemakers.
Both of us liked the sign that Wally Nelson used to carry at demonstrations and rallies. The message is simple, but it makes you think: “You Don’t Gotta.”
Four Sandhill Cranes have been frequenting Arcadia Audubon Sanctuary in Holyoke. We don’t see Sandhill Cranes in Massachusetts all that often. But I had a long talk with a woman staffing the visitor center at the sanctuary, and she said these four seem to have been around all summer, and there’s some who think they might be getting ready to breed in the area next summer.
I’m on a brief road trip to the Connecticut River Valley. After driving through heavy and slow traffic along the Mass Pike — there must have been a lot of people going away for the weekend today — I arrived at Mount Tom State Reservation with just three hours before the park closed. I got up to Whiting Peak, then walked along the New England Trail with dramatic views over Easthampton west to the the Berkshire Hills.
I’m spending the night in a motel in Ludlow, and tomorrow I’ll be on a Mass Audubon botany field trip. I would have liked to have more time to explore Mount Tom today. But it’s good to get away for even this brief time, just to recharge my spirit.
Alex, Patricia, Carol, and I took a walk toady across Saco Heath, a peat bog that’s owned by the Nature Conservancy. We walked most of the way across the boardwalk, stopping frequently to look at unusual wildflowers — wild cranberries, pogonias, bog orchids — and other plants.
The fog, low clouds, and light drizzle made it feel like an alien landscape. We wanted to spend more time there, but we only had an hour. Sometime I want to come back and spend half a day enjoying this unusual ecosystem.
I particularly appreciate their wide selection of mid-twentieth century pulp novels. I was just in MKE a week and a half ago, and bought a 1960s paperback reprint of Ian Fleming’s thriller Casino Royale from 1953. Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, is a wonderful example of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction: you simply can’t believe the amount of sexism and implicit racism, the plot creaks, and there are weird dominance and submission games going on throughout the novel. It reveals the strange paranoiac Zeitgeist of the 1950s better than any history book. But I digress.
Basically, it’s a bookstore that should not exist. So it kind of feels like Spider Robinson’s fictional Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, except that it’s not a fictional place. Here are some key excerpts from the Twitter thread to explain:
“On my way home from Milwaukee yesterday I did a triple take when I saw an ancient used book store, IN THE AIRPORT!!! I felt like I walked through a portal to a world where everything was a little bit cooler. I was so enthralled I went up to the register and was like ‘hey, I’m fascinated by this place, can we chat?’ A man with an orange hat, orange glasses, and an orange shirt pushed aside his laptop and said ‘oh, heavens yes.’ His name is Orange Mike, and he’s worked here since 1979. Every employee of the shop, including Orange Mike, makes exactly ‘8.125 dollars’ an hour to keep this place going. They are also all in their 60s. Orange Mike himself comes from the local pen & paper community, and used to review games for Dragon magazine. The stock here is eclectic and weird and not remotely curated. Half of it is giant history books that have probably been here since the 80s….
“The store’s existence comes down to the airport taking bids from local bookstores to occupy the space, and accidentally including used bookstores in the list. The owner shrugged and submitted the high bid. The airport tried to stop it but after six months of legal spats failed…. This store just shouldn’t exist. The airport doesn’t want them there, it makes no revenue, they have a hard time moving product, and all of its underpaid employees are at retirement age. And yet it persists. AT A MAJOR AIRPORT. I am blown away by this place existing. If you’re ever at MKE, go check it out while you can. It seems like something way too good for this world, which means it may not be there next time if you skip it.”
I spent four hours at Renaissance Books one day last year, due to travel plan complications. That bookstore turned what was an otherwise unbearable trip into something almost enjoyable. I was so grateful that now every time I’m in MKE (which is not very often), I spend as much money there as I can (the limitation always being: How many books can I fit in my carry-on luggage?).
Some people here at the retirement community in Wisconsin measured up to 15 inches. But the temperatures are above freezing now, and the snow on Ed’s balcony is already starting to slump. People who live here are saying, “This is the last storm of winter. I hope.”
I woke up around seven o’clock. We were still in Pennsylvania. The sky was a dull gray. My roomette was on the north side of the train, and I kept hoping for a sight of Lake Erie. I finally thought I saw the lake in the distance.
It started snowing. The blowing snow made verything I saw out the window look faded. It was hard to tell the difference between the sky and the ground — both looked white.
We had a quarter of an hour layover at the Buffalo-Depew station, so I got out to stretch my legs. A few smokers got out and miserably puffed their cigarettes while the snow swirled around. The people getting on the train bent their heads down to keep snow out of their eyes.
The train passes quite near the lower end of Onondaga Lake. Through the falling snow, I saw a Bald Eagle sitting in tree near the water, and half a dozen Canada Geese swimming out in the lake.
The Lake Shore Limited seems to carry quite a few people in plain dress. Maybe they were Amish, but the Amish aren’t the only group that wears plain dress; there are Mennonite groups who wear plain dress, Hutterites, and still others. I asked one of the train crew about them. He said lots of Amish (as he called them) took the train, and sometimes they took over a whole car. I said I had heard at least one couple speking what sounded like Pennsylvania Dutch of Low German to me, but that wasn’t something he had noticed.
When we got to Albany, I had to move to a different car. There’s a one hour layover in Albany. After I stowed my luggage in my new roomette, I stood outside the train, just to be outdoors. A young man was taking photographs with what looked like a film camera, and I asked him about it. He was shooting outdated Kodak Gold color film, which he processes and prints himself to get certain specific artistic effects. I was suitably impressed. He wandered off to take more photographs. I talked for a bit with the sleeping car attendant, who grew up in Dedham.
Then I fell into conversation with a man from Australia. He and his wife had taken the train from San Francisco, with a stop in Denver, and a two day layover in Chicago. He loved both cities, and was looking forward to seeing Boston, and then New York. It turned out that he was a retired air traffic controller, and so I asked him about the recent FAA shutdown of air traffic in the United States. He said that of course once you have a glitch like the FAA had, you have to shut down all air traffic. But he also said that problems like that do arise when you outsource certain functions.
We got back on the train a minute before it started up again. By now, it was starting to get dark. But the light lasted long enough for me to see the Berkshires off in the distance.
The train arrived on time in Framingham. I got my car out of long-term parking just as it started pouring rain. I was thankful that it wasn’t cold enough to turn the rain to snow.
Now I’m home, and I still feel like there’s a train moving under me….