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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Deception in the Wind

June 19th, 2015

Finally we got a chance to comfortably put our kayaks in the water. My husband and I had been visiting the Finger Lakes region of New York for days, hoping the weather would improve. Our bags were packed with warm-weather clothes (shorts, tanks, sandals) but the only outfit each of us had worn so far consisted of a fleece sweatshirt, a pair of boots, and a raincoat.

This day was different. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far better, and we smiled as we pulled into Keuka Lake State Park. Yet, even in the satisfaction of doing what we had traveled so far to do, the day became another lesson in the need to remain flexible, accept what comes, and learn from our mistakes.

The problem was the wind. Had it not been for the constant blowing, the temperature might have reached 70 degrees. More than the chill, the swiftly moving air made it unpleasant for floating, at least when compared to times of quiet stillness, when water could be glass. No, today we would have waves and churning and noise in our ears. I tightened the band on my hat, just enough so it would stay (hopefully); loose enough that it wouldn’t hurt.

We unloaded the kayaks and carried them 100 yards to the stone beach. A couple crouched together on a bench as their dog stretched its leash, searching for our displaced scent. With lifejackets on, water bottles filled, and sunscreen applied, we were ready to tour a portion of the shallow Keuka Lake.

Getting ready in the sunshine

The clear water of Keuka Lake

“Let’s go that way first,” Glenn suggested, pointing to the north, into the wind. He had read my mind. Do the hard work while we were strong, and let nature blow us back home when we were tired.

We shoved off. Since I’m not an experienced paddler, the waves made me a little nervous as they tossed my boat around. But once I got the nose facing directly into the wind, I became surprised at how easily I could glide through them. I began to relax and admire the shoreline as I paddled along. Boats of various sizes were tied to docks of various sizes—some long and fancy; others short and weathered—which led to houses of the same description. Shoulder to shoulder, shacks stood next to luxury homes, each one quiet, as if everyone was someplace else.

A solitary man fished from a small-but-well-equiped motor boat. I crept past him, being careful to stay in the opposite direction of his cast. I navigated the choppy water, again with surprising ease. We stayed near the coastline, because it was more interesting to look at than the wide open expanse of churning lakewater, and the surface was calmer and the air quieter.

At a productive pace, Glenn and I found ourselves at the north end of the lake in no time. There the waters transitioned into a small, lazy stream, just deep enough to get a shallow motor boat through. Nearby trees on the shore and tall reeds in the marsh acted as a wind break, so it was pleasant and peaceful there. I let the kayak drift against a rock inside an eddy to rest. Glenn brought his boat against mine and we drank some water and shared a bag of cashews.

That sure was easy, I thought to myself. I barely felt tired at all, and we had crossed a fairly long stretch of lake.

I watched the breeze occassionally life up the edges of the lilly pads, making them look as if they were waving to me. Red-winged Blackbirds hovered and then landed on the five-foot high reeds, bending the vertical stalks 90 degrees, then hopping sideways down toward the ground. They were feeding on something I could not see, and they clicked and called to each other, hovering, landing, disappearing into the tall grass.

Glenn went ahead of me as we explored the marshy area. Then, I heard a sudden and alarming honking noise. When I turned to look, I saw expansive wings, laboring to get into the air. He had stirred a Great Blue Heron and was receiving a scolding for doing so. When it disappeared into the tall grass, I assumed it regained its statuesque position, rendering it camoflauged once again.

Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a beautiful day.

“Ready?” Glenn asked, meaning he wanted to go back.

Not really, I thought while my mouth said, “Okay.”

We were now on the western shore, the opposite side of the lake from where we had started.

“Let’s row to that point, then cross,” he suggested with a wave of his paddle. I followed agreeingly. We hugged the shoreline again, where we passed a small marina filled pleasure boats.

I smelled charcoal, proving someone else was enjoying this windy Friday afternoon. Boatslip owners had setup patio scenes--complete with furniture and canopies--on the docks by the most luxurious looking boats. Sailboats rocked and clanged in rhythm with the wind and waves. Under the awning on one boat, I saw the soles of two. Ankles were rested on top of a tan leather captain’s chair, crossed in relaxation, the body hidden from view.

Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a peaceful day.

Then, we had reached the point where the hard trek would begin. I dug in my paddle and began to row. My eyes spied a place, north of the beach, in the middle of the lake, where the waves settled into a pattern of two directions, one southwest, the other southeast, the latter being exactly where I wanted to go. I expected it would be difficult to get through the wavy chaos in between, but I could taste the reward of reaching that point: a wind-powered push home.

A calm period between gusts

But as I paddled, it seemed as if I could never reach the spot. Was it a mirage? Why was my boat so keen on laying against the waves instead of obeying my southbound steering? Fortunately, the sun’s energy kept me warm as some of the waves splashed over the sides of my kayak, spraying water across my legs.

There would be no rhythmic paddling: right, left, right, left. It was only a hard left. Another hard left. Followed by a rudder-like dip on the right. No matter how hard I fought, I could not get the wind behind my back. I grunted and rowed and then began to curse. I had reached the halfway point. The waves were rolling right toward home, yet still I had to dig in and compensate and dig in again.

My notion of an easy ending had been smashed into a frustrating fight with nature. Only near the shore did the pressure ease. I landed the kayak and disembarked, not with the pleasure of a satifying tiredness, but with the damning of plan gone bad.

As I watched Glenn glide in and looked out over the lake, I tried to determine the error of our ways. Then, the only answer I could think of came to me. Keuka, like all the Finger Lakes, drains to the north, toward the Great Lakes and Canada. The wind was blowing toward the south. I had been fooled by the southbound wind into ignoring the northbound current. We had reacted to what was happening on the surface, without considering what was happening underneath. And suddenly the experience had become a string of metaphors.

• When planning, base your strategy on consistent fact (current), not fluctuating trends (wind).

• Don’t let the loud and boisterous distort your respect for the quiet and strong.

• Be willing to adjust your plan, keeping tuned to your instincts. I should have changed course when I realized how easy it was to paddle into the wind. Or at least I should have stopped to ask why it was so.

• Be prepared for a plan not to work. Luckily I was not tired from the first leg of my trip. I had taken water and a snack, thus I had the strength to fight my way home.

• Do not curse what beats you. Learn from it instead.

We hauled the boats back to the truck, uphill this time. I tried to shake off the frustration and center myself again on the pleasures of the day and of the entire trip, rain or shine. Such as...

With cold rain outside, we explored the indoor wonders at the Museum of the Earth

We walked to places special enough to be considered sacred, such as the 215-foot Taughannock Falls ...

and looked inside the earth at Watkins Glen Gorge

Outside the woods and off the lake, we investigated the best of what the region offered...

including a few stops for some very good beer.

We visited the institution that recorded the birdsongs I first listened to as a child, setting in motion my lifeling appreciation for nature.

Yes, it isn’t perfect, it isn't always easy, it isn't always what we expect, but life certainly is wonderful.

Among the Stones

April 29th, 2015

A slight stretch for meeting my commitment to walk outside every day, I am posting here, on this lengthier blog, after wandering among stones of a different nature:

A warm, spring-scented breeze blew my hair across my face as I passed over a manicured lawn. I broke the peaceful silence when I began to call out names to my mom. Almost all were German. We were looking for Lauchnor, the parents of my grandmother.

Although my mom had suggested we go there, she told me that she never visits cemeteries. "There's no one here," she observed. Still, I was glad we came. Up and down the rows I walked, thinking about the connections in the names, so many the same. This had been a community. This was a land of immigrants with a shared culture. This was where Pennsylvania met Germany, where Brobst knew Oswald and Fenstermaker and Hunsicker.

Among barely legible markers, many written in German script, I finally found the one we were there to see. Not having known my great grandparents, they did not reside in my memory. I only had stories in my mind. In a box below my feet lay only minerals and cloth of the past. Yes, there was no one there, but still, these were powerful stones.

With their plot they had purchased perpetual care. Their stone was clearly inscribed and new, even though the dates were more than a century old and all the local descendents--the sort of people who would replace an aging headstone--were gone. There before me was the representation of two people who, because they were, I am. And that marker will be in that place for perpetuity.

Most of their direct descendents were buried in places other than this. As the world grew smaller, and Germans met Irishmen and Italians and Hungarians, they moved away. The cultural thread has been frayed.

Regardless, next to Cora and Isadore on the breezy hill, and next to their son and his wife, were the small, unnamed markers for the infants. Only the born date appeared as if each one lived less than a day, although from stories I know they did not. Tragedy and sorrow, this too will be here for as long as there is a caretaker in the church. And this too reminded me of the delicate connection that is my existence. Had they not died, who like me would be?

The seeds of our ancestry have been scattered by the winds of progress. There is no need today for such tight, little, self-dependent communities in America today. Or is there? Might history someday repeat?

We walked back to the car. I felt the energy from a history of pain in this place, but stronger still I felt the energy of praise. This was where they came, lived, married, and created a future for me.

As we drove out of town, through the field covered hills, we passed the road signs: Oswald and Fenstermaker and Hunsicker...every one suddenly became not a symbol of where we should go, but a symbol of where we have been.

Lost Without Recollection

April 17th, 2015

Here comes another attack on technology. I can't help myself; things have gotten absurd.

It's not that the tool isn't good. For the right application, it can be very useful. However, like buying a field mower to maintain a center-city plot of grass, our chase for the latest and biggest has as run us right past common sense.

GPS. Global positioning systems. The Garmin. The talking dashboard. The I-can't-tell-where-I'm-going-without-her box that, in my opinion, is the new "boob tube," a nickname once reserved for the mind-numbing television set.

Yes, if you are a salesperson who must mow a large territory or if you are a scientist who needs to document your remote location via satellite, you should have a GPS. But if you are a parent driving back and forth between local rivalry soccer fields, you do not need a GPS. You need to have a friendly conversation with a live person who can tell you how to get there. You need to look at $5 map instead of programming a $200 machine.

Still, to each his or her own. Except that stupidity frightens me. Not only do I fear for my future, I worry about people. And today's overuse of dashboard GPS products is about as stupid as firing up a 70" tractor to pass over a 36" piece of ground. I've heard of stories in which drivers, following the digital instructor, have crashed after turning onto roads that didn't exist. A good friend of mine--an otherwise intelligent and perceptive gal--allowed her GPS to get her lost inside in a very harsh neighborhood, one that was so bad a police officer saw her, came to her aid, and escorted her out of town.

Logical intelligence is being traded for gadgetry dependence.

Both those examples were hearsay. But last summer I came face-to-face with a nearly tragic example. Were it not for the kindness of a brave bystander, the outcome would have been worse.

I was camping in a wooded Pennsylvania State Park with friends. So spread out were the hiking routes that you had to drive to the trail heads if you didn't want to spend more time hiking to them than on them. My friend, Jane, and I set off in her hybrid Ford for a short, late-afternoon excursion to see some of the park's most impressive waterfalls, including one that was 94 feet high.

We climbed the steep trail and oohed and awed and snapped photos and breathed in the lovely scent. Then, we climbed back to the parking lot. The sun was falling toward dusk. Exhilarated, Jane said, "Hey, while we're out here, do you mind if I stop by the payphone to check in at home? There's no cell service out here."

(For those who don't know, a pay phone is metal box with a wired handset and buttons numbered zero to nine. You put coin money into a slot so you can place a call.)

"Absolutely not," I said. "Sounds like a good idea."

The phone hung outside the park office, which was closed since it was after 7pm. Knowing the weather bulletin was accessible in the foyer, I walked inside while she dialed. I snapped a photo of the threat of thunderstorms to report to my friends back at camp. On my way out, I met a young man. Our conversation was a little chaotic, because he was a little panicked. Did I work there? Did I know how to reach a ranger? Could I point out where we were on the map? Isn't there some sort of emergency number to call?

The severity of his dilemma came out eventually. He was completely lost and nightfall was coming. The three others with him looked tired. "I'm never going to get my family back to the car before dark," he said hopelessly.

"Where is your car parked?" I asked.

"It's in the lot where you must cross the road and then there are bridges and then a trail...." None of that sounded familiar to me. I desperately searched my mind so I could help him.

By now Jane had finished talking with her family, and she walked up to see what was happening. "They need help and there is no way to reach a ranger," I explained. He repeated his story while his family rested on a wooden bench. The young girl swung her feet, the mom remained calm, sweaty, and collected, and the teenage boy showed no emotion at all.

"Well, I can give you ride," Jane said in the same emphatically helpful way she approaches most situations. While I was still trying to picture bridges to a trail, Jane dove right into a carefree and generous solution. It seemed obvious this was not a ploy to hurt us, but it was notable that risk or inconvenience never caused Jane to hesitate. Old-fashioned humanity came first.

I wasn't sure how we were going to fit anyone else into a vehicle stuffed with camping gear. Jane quickly determined that the best thing to do was to drive him to his car so that he could come back and pick up his family.

"Oh my God; thank you." He looked as if he might cry.

"So, where are you parked?" she repeated my earlier question.

"I don't know...bridges...cross a road."

"Is it the Beech Lot?"

"I have no idea."

"Hmm. Okay; it's probably the Lakeside Lot. Let's try. We piled in, waved to his slightly worried-looking family on the wooden bench, and yelled, "We'll be right back." In the review mirror, I saw them walking toward a water fountain.

But as we drove, Dad just kept repeating his description and nothing looked familiar.

"Jane, can I have that park map?" I asked. I scoured the 8 1/2 by 11-inch photocopy for other parking lots. "I bet he's parked down on Route 118." I turned to the stranger in the back seat. "Did you come in on 487 or 118?"

"I don't know; my wife used GPS and just told me where to turn."

"Did you come in from the north or the south?"

"I have no idea."

"What towns did you pass through?

"No idea...GPS."

"We gotta' give it a shot; he must be all the way down in that lower lot."

Mind you, this was NOT around the corner. He was probably parked on the other side of 13,000 acres. The road would take us six miles down to an elevation that was more than 1,000 feet lower than where we found him.

Along the way, he began to recognize things. "We were here," he almost shouted. "This is where we came out of the woods when we knew it was getting dark. We were told the trail would loop back down, but it never did. I had to get my family out of the woods. Then some guy told us to turn around. We should have kept walking."

I assured him that it was best he turned around, because we were only about a half-mile into our six-mile journey. "This is going to be a little bit of drive. The road veers away from the park for a bit."

The Ford's transmission hummed while the low gear prevented us from flying down the hill. We passed a ranger's truck with no ranger it in it as well as a runaway truck ramp (an uphill clearing onto which a truck that has lost its brakes could make an emergency landing). We passed trees and more trees until we finally got to the bottom, where we turned left in hopes that we were headed to the right parking lot. Still, since he hadn't walked all the way down the mountain, this section once again was unfamiliar.

"Let's hope you just came in from the other way," Jane said in a reassuring tone. I think she was trying to ease her own mind even more than the stranger's. People were likely wondering where the heck we were, and we were both in an unspoken thirst for that post-hike beer.

The backseat stranger said, "This is not like me. I know how to read a map. I thought this loop would be clearly marked. I've got to keep my family safe. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail soon, but I guess I'm going to have to get better at orienteering. There's no way we would have made it back to the car!"

The closer we got, the more he seemed to think this was the correct place.

"It should be coming up on the right," I said.

"Yes. Yes. This looks like it. Oh my God; I think this is it."

"Are you going to kiss your car when you find it?" I joked.

"Absolutely," he said. "There it is; that silver Jeep."

The next few moments were filled with a flood of sincere gratitude and relief. "How can I get in touch with you? I want to pay you."

There was no way Jane would have accepted it; her reward was already received. Heightened by his appreciation, the chance to make a positive difference in a stranger's day was more than enough payback for her.

"Do you know how to get back?"

"I think so."

I began describing the two turns, when Jane simply said, "Just follow us."

This time the hybrid complained, unable to exceed 35 mph. “Take your time,” I kept urging her. "You don't want to wreck your transmission over a good deed." We knew the silver Jeep behind us was anxious to get to its destination, but this was a hill that couldn't be rushed.

Once at the park office, we waved happily to the family as they climbed into the car, their ordeal finally over. I was proud of my friend. I'm not sure I'd have realized the gravity of their situation as quickly as she did or be as willing to get involved. I was still stuck on getting a ranger's help by the time Jane had clicked her seat belt.

But while it was all happiness and gratitude, I couldn't get over how an individual who clearly displayed a love for his family and a respect for his responsibilities as a father could not begin to describe where he had been beyond the scenery he witnessed when he got there. I began to understand why he, when we were looking at the map back at the ranger's office, couldn't figure out where he was. All he knew was that he was far from where he started and that he should probably head downhill.

Because Jane had a paper map and because I was familiar with that paper--my guide for the weekend--the three of us are not still driving around looking for a parking lot across the road from a trail with bridges.

In a society that continues to invent new tools to find its way, I see that we are becoming increasingly disoriented. Thankfully there are still a few map-reading humans such as Jane and me alive in this world, people who are willing to help when the way-finding computers fall out of reach.

Why Spring Cleaning Does More Than Make Things Look Nice.

April 2nd, 2015

Read more via my latest newsletter, SOS Signal March/April 2015.

Messing with the Time

March 6th, 2015

One great example of man's manipulative ways is standardized time. Timekeeping -- the incremental measurement of the position of the sun -- was created to support bureaucratic, religious, and social activities nearly 6,000 years ago. It partitioned day from night, morning from afternoon, and a year's shortest day from its longest.

Since America's pioneer beginnings, we have been messing with the time. Although the sun does not peak at the same moment across the continent, time was standardized in 1883 so that railroad companies could organize their schedules. Later, since the majority of us are awake longer into the evenings than we are earlier in the mornings, Benjamin Franklin determined that moving the time to accommodate our summer schedules would result in healthier, more productive lives. In 1973, when oil was scarce, Congress decided to extend this Daylight Saving Timeframe from six to eight months, reportedly saving 300,000 barrels of oil each year. And in 2007, it was moved again, with the intention of saving even more.

Our waking hour, eating hours, meeting schedules, birth records, and death records have all become dictated by man's clock, distancing our connection to the fact that time is what it is because the earth and the sun ARE. May we never forget that, like all technology, our inventions were created for societal reasons. They can measure, mimic, and adapt to natural law, but they cannot -- and shall not -- try to change it.

Want to know a few more facts about time, Daylight Saving Time in particular? Check out my most recent post at Today's Walk Outside.