Archive | August, 2013

A Serving Nature

31 Aug
Redtail Hawk crop Acadia 8-24-13

Red-tailed hawk perched atop pine at Arcadia Audubon parking lot.

The sign outside the Arcadia Mass Audubon Visitor Center said the center was open, but the desk was closed.

This could spell trouble. Waking up feeling a bit directionless and disconnected, I’d driven an hour from Worcester to Easthampton to see something I was sure would lift my spirits: an American bald eagle nest.

Inside, I noticed only an older gentleman, stooped over a rather basic broom and dust bin, intent on cleaning duties. Just the same, he turned as I walked past to the restroom, asked if he could help.

“Yes,” I said. “Where’s the restroom?”

Coming back out, the man was still sweeping. At the counter, I grabbed the Arcadia Mass Audubon map. Trails were named for all manner of flora and fauna except the bird I was looking for – possibly because only this year did a bald eagle couple hatch and raise its young.

Clearly, I was going to have to trouble the guy who was probably just trying to finish cleaning up. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for the eagle nest.”

Great Blue Heron on sandbar of the Oxbow, which branches off the Connecticut River.

Great Blue Heron on sandbar of the Oxbow, which branches off the Connecticut River.

He quickly set aside his broom and dustbin. He started giving directions that were, well, nature-specific, right down to the sumac that might be blocking the view so late in the season. Sensing I needed the visual aid, he circled the spot on the map – then cushioned me for disappointment, reminding me there was no guarantee I’d see eagles right now, since the young had fledged. I was clearly in the presence of a birding expert; he was, in fact, a card-carrying naturalist. (He would hand me said card after our conversation ended.) But his love of nature and birds led him to do cleanup duties two days a week.

I felt like Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. In that film, Bruce is surprised when God, played by Morgan Freeman, disguises himself as a janitor, only to then knock the disbelieving protagonist across the room with an infinitely long file drawer of records on humanity. Only this man’s drawer was in his head. Sometimes his tours stall right outside the door of the visitor center, if only because he could see or hear  25 bird species in the parking lot.

The Morgan Freeman Effect would multiply a few minutes later, after I run into a woman and her two young nieces, all toting binoculars. She’s driven from Boston – twice the distance I traveled – and picked up her nieces, hoping to get them into the natural world. They’re focused on what’s either a redtail hawk or an eagle, sitting large and still atop a pine. Unable to resolve the issue, I look inside for our expert, whom I find whistling as he sweeps a back room. He comes out to help, then, instead of going back to finish up, says, “I wonder if we have a scope inside!” Rushing back  inside, he emerges again with a telescope with tripod, and uses it to educate us on the subtleties that tell him it’s a juvenile redtail hawk.

The woman pulls out her paperback Sibley Guide to Birds, with its lush illustrations of birds from various angles and stages. They commiserate. “People will say they saw five different kinds of seagulls,” he said, “and it’ll turn out they just saw one kind, just in five different stages of development.” At no point does he talk down to her, or her to him – and, in a more transcendent accomplishment, they both avoid talking down to me, the novice.

After a quarter hour of connecting, and swapping of contact information, we go our separate ways. I feel I’ve already gotten more than I’d hoped for from my trip; my spirits have risen from sharing a passion with others, even if I didn’t know them an hour ago. But their enthusiasm energizes me further, so I still drive out to the spot he suggested, park the car and walk across a wide field of mown hay, trying to find the nest, which is supposed to be visible in spots through the tree line. At a great distance, I think I see an eagle – I note the suggestion of the white head – but it’s flying along the road, giving no clue on the nest.

Acadia path 8-24-13

Trees and marsh to left, grasslands to right, Mt. Tom dead ahead.

I see no trace from the field, so I walk back to my car, edge down a road by a crew club; the Oxbow of the Connecticut River glitters perhaps a hundred yards away, and I note a heron on a sandbar.  I note a second path running along the shade of the tree lines, and realize this was the turn my friend had suggested. So I parked again, walked down the tree line, got to what I was guessing was the spot – and looked in vain through the tree trunks and the sumac. Oh well, he’d warned me that the sumac might have grown in too much.

I give up, but as I approach my car, an earphone-wearing, power-walking man waves hello; encouraged by the friendliness at the visitor center, I ask about the nest. “Here! I think it’s this way,” he says, going back down the path I just left.

At first I think he’s just going to walk a dozen or so strides, then point me onward, but he keeps going.

“You don’t have to interrupt your walk,” I holler.

“It doesn’t matter which way I walk, as long as I’m walking!” he yells.

Along the way we learn we’re both college professors – only he in the considerably headier subject of artificial intelligence. He shows me a coupe of subtle spots where folks have cut branches off through the brush toward the marsh, and leads me part way, but the remaining brush seems to wall us off. We part ways, and I start to head back to my car –  only here comes one more man, toting a small scope, so yet again I ask. This one leads me back yet again – only he helps me bushwhack almost to the water’s edge.

“Watch out for the stickers in this one spot,” he warns over his shoulder, but he’s the one who gets nailed by the plant. (I’m the one who gets stung by a bee.)

None of which seems to matter a lot when he points across the water and through some trees. I don’t see it at first, but he’s patient. Finally I find the nest – with the juvenile bald eagle sitting so large and still, I mistook it for the top of a dead tree trunk. My guide hangs around long enough to talk herons and eagles, and the effect of one on the other. We don’t exchange names, or occupations, or any of the other superficial information we use to pigeonhole one another – and yet I feel a kind of connection as we gaze, vegetation pressing in from all sides.

In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the spiritual delight of the woods, arguing that the “power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”

Me, I’m certainly feeling more, well, harmonized. I migrate on down the road into Northampton, intending to celebrate my outing at an outdoor beer garden. I perch on a stool in the shade, continuing to observe birds and humans – happily waiting for the next sighting, and the next connection.

Juvenile eagle across marsh in its nest, likely awaiting a parent with some food.

Juvenile eagle across marsh in its nest, likely awaiting a parent with some food.

Kitchen and Bridges

26 Aug

Ginny White with Rev. Bryan A. Tomes of Crossroads Community Church at annual cookout to support her homeless outreach program. (Photo by Betty Jenewin, Telegram.)

In an intriguing progression of kindnesses, Ginny White of Leominster somehow went from cooking for her children to feeding residents of a rooming house above her kitchen who could smell her cooking – which led to her feeding folks sleeping under bridges in Fitchburg.

For the rest of the remarkable story of Ginny’s ministry to “guests of the street,” please read the article by Gail Stanton in the Monday Worcester Telegram.



On Nick Hornby and Neighborliness

20 Aug

Hornby window

Most people probably know the novels of Nick Hornby through the witty  films they have inspired. In High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a record shop owner who responds to a breakup by visiting past girlfriends, trying to understand the path to where he’s wound up; in About a Boy, Hugh Grant portrays a charming rogue who befriends a boy and pretends to be his father, in order to impress a woman. As in most comedies, redemption comes for protagonists almost despite themselves, with plenty of levity to ward off even a hint of corniness.

While I’m fond of both films, this summer I finally got around to reading two of Hornby’s novels, given to me a while back by a friend. Well, by “a while,” I mean “years ago,” and by “given,” I mean one was definitely a present, and the other might’ve been lent – and I sincerely hope the one I cluttered with scribbles and underlines was the gift. (If not, it is now.)

While Juliet Naked is a satire of the on-line personality cults that form around obscure rock musicians – to be too well-known would make a musician unworthy of such fans’ attention – How To Be Good is more obviously relevant to the theme of this blog. I am a believer in avoiding spoilers whenever possible – I’m the type who closes his eyes during overly detailed movie previews – so I’ll strive to avoid that sin here. Suffice it to say that someone in a troubled marriage does a sudden midlife crisis reverse-course and becomes consumed with doing as much good in the world as possible, turning the life of the family upside-down in the process. It’s dark and hilarious and darkly hilarious, and brings into the light every bit of guilt and doubt any reflective, caring person harbors about whether their lifestyle goes far enough in helping others. As the great satirists always do, Hornby’s verbal wit and comic staging does more to delve into the issues than the deadly earnestness of the average sermon.

So there. Go read it.

The point of this blog, however, is the circumstances in which I read the last third of. How To Be Good – sitting outside in a collapsible canvas chair, the kind people usually tote to the beach. Only, where their feet might’ve  been sunk in sand, mine were digging into cedar mulch. In front of me was a short trim shrub, behind me a larger one, and behind that the apartment of one of my neighbors, whose name I didn’t know.

Why was this happening? Why was I now proceeding down the road to becoming the crazy old man of the complex, and getting there 20 years earlier than planned?

Perfectly logical. The lock on my mailbox was broken, so I had no choice but to sit outside, in the only shade available, waiting for the postman to come.

The first day, he didn’t.

This is what happened instead. For a while I read my Hornby, mostly about a quest to talk neighbors into taking in homeless children – the first obstacle being the fact that the organizers didn’t even know their neighbors’ names. The irony was just too obvious, so I actually broke from the reading to talk with my own neighbors. A young couple had a mattress strapped to the roof of their car, and a child atop the mattress – clearly hoping he could talk them into letting him ride there. One lady talked with me from her balcony about nothing in particular. A younger woman I’d never seen popped her hood to pour in some coolant, and since she was far more nicely attired in her work clothes,  I lent my services and my funnel. In the process I learned that we shared the same mailbox issue.

Finally, a fiftyish man, bald but wiry and energetic, arrived in a pickup and carted a box up to the front door, pausing there to find his keys. He glanced over and said hello; it dawned on me that I had on my hands not only a new neighbor, but one whose first impression of me would forever be that of the eccentric who reads novels amid the shrubbery.

Some level of offsetting social engagement was required, and, since I could not very well ignore my neighbor’s move while reading  How To Be Good, I toted him several armloads from his pickup truck. Promisingly, two boxes I toted were his home beer-brewing kit and the corresponding equipment for wine-making – he promised samples from both. He turned out to be my next-door neighbor, so I showed him into my apartment, so he could see my own approach to the layout.

It occurred to me that most neighbors never trod in these walls – something that, despite bouts of loneliness, I rarely thought of doing. And even though I’m friendlier than most, when the newcomer asked the names of a couple across the hall, I couldn’t help him.

Despite being disappointing in that regard, I must’ve made an impression, because my new friend – wow, I guess I can call him that now – promised to give me the bird feed from his old house. (I would find the bird feed, if not the beer, on my doormat four days later.)

By the time he took off, it was clear enough that I’d missed the postman –which meant having to do this whole routine again the next morning. But that was all right. I was actually looking forward to it. I would read more about “how to be good” – and visit with my neighbors, who would remind me that so often, goodness starts with connection.

Hope Floats

13 Aug
Nick Finan at work on 2011 Habitat house, smiley face courtesy of his co-workers.

Nick Finan at Habitat house, smiley face courtesy of his co-workers.

One thing about working on a college campus: Just when you think you’ve seen everything – and a few too many times at that – a student comes along and throws you a much-needed curve.

Take letters of recommendations. After 21 years, I’d come to think I’d  crafted them for every imaginable context: No letter left to write that I haven’t written already.

Enter Nick Finan – who this month gave me my first-ever opportunity to recommend a student to (are you ready for it?) the International Yacht Restoration School.

Given, my qualifications to evaluate someone’s potential for building seagoing vessels is, to put it kindly, limited. On a good day, I can drive every other nail straight; as for the water, this is the guy who, in Boy Scouts, flunked canoeing merit badge twice in three weeks. “I don’t know,” the counselor said with a tone of empathetic sadness that was somehow worse than the failure itself,  “you just can’t master the J stroke.”

But Nick had his reasons for asking – and they’re the same reasons I am writing about him in this blog. For Nick twice came to my hometown of Tuscaloosa as part of the Assumption SEND program, each time spending a week helping the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate rebuild a town struck by a devastating tornado that killed 54 people.

Service often gives students the valuable chance to explore possible vocations or avocations, while also exploring ways they can serve their communities. In Nick’s case, helping build houses tapped into childhood tendencies that had since been relegated to the back burner. Take the time that, as a child, he wanted a bow-and-arrow set: “In fifth grade I decided to attempt to make a ‘real’ bow rather than just a stick bow and arrow. It was to be made of a bass tree trunk. The project took me at least four months using mostly a hatchet, hand plane and chisels. When it was finished, it was stained and varnished.”

Nick smiles at autographs on board at construction site.

Nick smiles at student autographs on board at Habitat Tuscaloosa construction site.

A decade later, Nick found the same joys in working on the Habitat homes in Tuscaloosa. “Actually, my service in Alabama, especially this last trip, did sway me toward boat building in one way or another. Obviously there is a technical aspect of building houses when it comes to carpentry, just as boat building requires a high level of technical skills.” The first trip he worked under the supervision of Habitat’s Dewayne Searcy; the next time around, this January, he learned the craft of cabinet installation from Peter Salemme. On the second trip, he was a semester from graduating, and therefore all the more curious about the life paths of others – particularly those in construction.

“After working on hanging cabinets with Peter Salemme for most of the week, he asked me to work with him on a special project at the camp installing the electricity for RV docks. I learned how he had a family back home with a wife and three sons, but somehow he felt he needed to be with Habitat for Humanity working with volunteers to build houses for those in need. I thought that was interesting that he made a life changing decision to do what he felt he was called to do rather than what was expected by others.”  At the goodbye barbecue at my mother’s house, Nick got to talk with another Habitat worker, Steven, who had made a similar change.

This all gave Nick pause for thought, and not just about the need to serve others. “There’s something to be said about making a living doing what you are good at and are passionate about. Last summer while taking a solo trip on my dad’s boat, I thought about how I would love to start a boat-building business where I would design, build and sell relatively small boats. I dismissed this idea as far-fetched, for I had no idea where to start and was working on an unrelated degree.”

But with no job in his field in sight, Nick resumed his line of inquiry. “I found that many amateur boat builders use the stitch and glue method where you start with a plywood core and laminate the whole boat in resin and composite material. The result is a high-performing boat that is relatively quick to build in comparison to completely wooden boats. Although materials are slightly expensive, I decided to go for it. Even if my business idea was off, I would still end up with a boat – and much more knowledge about boat building.”

This led to his discovery that Newport, RI was a center for yacht-building, as well as home to the IYRS.

Nick says that, among other things, his Habitat for Humanity experiences “re-sparked that interest in creating something useful and beautiful out of nothing.”

Despite a challenging job market, it sounds as if Nick Finan is well on his way to doing that yet again.

Nick Finan's summer project.

Nick Finan’s summer project.

How CSL Can Test A Teacher

8 Aug

Careers First Person Illustration #2

I hope I’ve come a long way from my early Community Service Learning days at the University of Missouri to teaching CSL courses here in Massachusetts 18 years later. But this pedagogy, like all approaches to the classroom, can test a prof’s convictions now and then – as my column in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education indicates. To read how, try this link.

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