Dispatches and Epistles

My pet oak.

My Pet Oak: Learning How To Properly Love My 25-Foot-Tall Canyon Live Oak

“Oak tree, spread your branches, you know what to do.”
–Morris Day, “The Oak Tree”

There’s a 25-foot-tall Canyon live oak in the front yard of the house my family now calls home. We moved here in December, and shortly afterward a friend in the neighborhood told me of some minor dramas he faced when getting his own old oak trimmed.

Because this is the first time I have been charged with caring for a protected species, I decided to dig into the Do’s and Don’ts of oak tree stewardship in Los Angeles County. And this required the assistance of the Tree People.  (more…)

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Books On Trail: The Transcendent Glory of Listening To Literature In Nature

I have heard the western canon. I have not seen it, but its echoes live in my ears.

I have read maybe like, um, five books on the Modern Library list, but I have listened to nearly all of them on audiobook whilst hiking, traveling, trekking, night driving, and camping. Without the counterforce of human ingenuity humming in my ear as the great range of the Earth’s topography surges up with such terror-inducing majesty, something inside me would have ruptured.

I listen to audiobooks read by no-name character actors with rich voices. It started with the Harry Potter books—I could no longer stand the centurion tone of public radio broadcasts during my hour-long commute, so I started with something I wanted to know about but didn’t want to physically read. Hearing Jim Dale’s take on the scraggly voice of Hagrid and intone the authoritarian iciness of Ms. Umbridge, I discovered that I was really fucking on to something.  (more…)

Leaving the road, taking the railway.

Stand By Them: A Minor Adventure On the Old Railroad Tracks

County Line Nissan, in Middlebury, Connecticut, ends all of its ubiquitous radio ads with the slogan “Twenty minutes from everywhere.” This insipid four-word mantra, sometimes recited simply as “T.M.F.E.,” is a telling summation of the way we think about geography in our largely suburban nation: With our places of employment ever more dispersed, we lead archipelagic lives: home is an island, work is another island; the gym, the grocery store, and the bar are all dots on the sea, and the ferry that carries us among them is a car.

I will avoid the debate about whether the driving life is a good one or not. The suburbs and the country have their charms, and I have needed an ambulance or a new mattress enough times to appreciate the utility of the internal combustion engine. But there is something to be said for remembering that what separates Here from There is not minutes, but miles. And each mile is several thousand paces. There is marvelous mystery in the in-between, and at least a day’s worth of pleasure in picking a place twenty (driving) minutes away and walking there. The destination doesn’t even matter. As proof, I offer my own modest adventure: On the first day of spring last year, feeling deeply that strain of claustrophobia brought on by New England winters, some friends and I set out to walk from where we live—Hartford, Connecticut—the equivalent of a half-hour drive up Interstate 91 to to Springfield, Massachusetts.

With all due respect to Springfield, it is not a place most people want to go to in a car, let alone on foot. Once an industrial center of note, it is now to Hartford what Hartford is to New Haven, and what New Haven is to New York: a nearby backwater not worth the trip. So why walk there? Because what separates that city from mine is 26 miles of walking. And best of all, our region’s glorious industrial past and current economic decay have a happy byproduct: Our little cities and sprawling suburbs and struggling farms are knitted together with woods, and through those woods run forgotten train tracks—quiet, leafy pedestrian byways to everywhere. Not as quick as the interstate, but infinitely more enticing. (more…)

Train's Eye View.

Walking the Railroad Tracks Through Connecticut’s Industrial Ruins

Joshua Michtom has a habit we like: He wanders down old railroad tracks in Connecticut, takes photographs, and posts what he sees. “Part of the seduction of these long walks in quiet places is the possibility of finding something beautiful and forgotten, a treasure,” he writes. “The industrial ruins and other detritus that have accumulated along Connecticut’s railroads lend themselves to this seduction, for they have the custom of looming up unexpectedly from the woods, waiting patiently to appear until I have nearly stumbled over them.”

If you are from New York, or Boston, or really most anywhere outside of Connecticut and Rhode Island, you’ve probably never heard of Willimantic, Connecticut. Being 30 miles east of Hartford and with a population of less than 18,000, there’s no reason Willimantic should be well known. It’s well off the interstate, and isn’t one of those lucky small towns where someone decided to build a massive amusement park or corporate headquarters. But if you want to understand Connecticut—what it was and what it is—Willimantic is where you should go. (more…)

Perfectly agreeable environment.

Notes From Nipton, California (Population 30)

When I moved to the desert full-time in 2008, I sent a friend a link to show her where the little house was that I’d rented for the summer. I got a horrified response. I’d been looking forward to the move as a clean break, post-divorce; a way to start over in a new place. She clicked on the link and then zoomed out a bit, and then she zoomed out a bit more, and then the machine noise that heralded the arrival of her instant message sounded much more urgent, somehow.

“You can’t survive out there,” her message said. “No one can survive out there. Humans need human companionship. You will lose your mind.” (more…)