Archive for the 'Out Beyond the Beauty Strip' Category

Jul 05 2012

Beyond the Beauty Strip: More Trash Talk

Nobody admits to getting off on garbage. Well, nobody I know, anyway. But if your backcountry haunts are anything like my home waters, you just can’t get away from it. With apologies to the Troggs, garbage is now all around us. And no, I’m not talking about the Big Issues here: huge gyres of eternal plastic waste swirling ceaselessly in the mid‑Pacific, endless tailbacks of creeping cars belching carbon dioxide, methane clouds bubbling up from thawing permafrost, gender‑benders dumped in lakes and streams insidiously transforming bull gators into meek momma’s boys… These things all have profound implications for the continued well‑being of our own species, of course, but they are (mostly) invisible. So we find them easy to ignore.

And I’m ignoring them, too. Instead, I’m talking ordinary, everyday trash. It’s right there for all of us to see and (often) smell. In your face and up your nose. Like I just said, it’s all around us. Still, when I allowed my feelings on the subject to spill over onto these virtual pages a while back, I figured the column would elicit little or no response. Or, if anyone did bother to write, the letter would likely be something of this sort: “Eww! Why do you have to talk about such negative stuff, anyway? If you can’t say something nice…”

I’d have understood that. I’d even have sympathized with the writer. I don’t enjoy talking trash all that much, to be honest. Given my druthers, I’d rather natter on chirpily about sleek boats, glorious sunsets, singing birds, and dancing waters. Who wouldn’t?

Of course, the garbage would still be there, whether I talked about it or not, and as I explained in my earlier column, I haven’t learned the Art of Not Seeing. Nor am I interested in trying. So the bile that rises in my gullet whenever I confront the trashing of my home waters eventually bubbled out into virtual print, though when Farwell asked me about it, I confidently predicted I’d be talking to myself. But I was wrong. The article generated a lot of mail — the most mail I can remember around a column, not to mention the longest letters. And I don’t think a single writer took me to task for my negativity. Quelle surprise, as they say on the Champs‑Élysées.

Well, I asked for it, didn’t I? Yes, I did. My column concluded with these words:

Have you ever revisited a favorite spot in the backcountry, only to find it transformed into a passable imitation of a poorly managed landfill? That’s been happening more and more often to me these days. Now I’m wondering if it’s just a local phenomenon, or if the problem’s bigger. The upshot? I’ve spent this week talking trash. Let’s hope that it’s just the start of a long and productive conversation.

Not that I expected anyone to take me up on the implied invitation. But since so many folks did, I figured it was incumbent on me to keep the conversation going, so to speak, especially as my correspondents made it abundantly clear that the trashing of woods and waters wasn’t simply a local problem, confined to my corner of the northern Adirondacks. I got mail from folks all across the continent. I even got letters from foreign parts, places where I’d imagined that things like picking up the garbage were better organized than they are here in Liberty Hall.

Anyway, here goes: A small sampling of the mail I received, reprinted by the kind permission of the writers. And just to prove I’m not wedded to negativity, I’m going to begin on a positive note, with the words of a man who does a good deal more than point with alarm. In fact, he takes the direct approach: Picking up other people’s garbage… Read more…

Oct 25 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for October 2010
Hidden in Plain Sight

When we’re behind the wheel, it’s easy to fall into “Don’t look, don’t see” mode. A car enwombs driver and passenger alike, insulating them from the many of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. Not long ago a driver ran down a cyclist, dragging her several hundred yards. The driver continued on without stopping, thinking, she later said, that she’d just hit a deer or a dog. Only when she got home and discovered a bicycle lodged under her SUV did it dawn on her that she’d struck a human being. (The cyclist died of her injuries, by the way, but the driver wasn’t charged. Apparently, this was a mistake any driver could make.)

Only a deer. Only a dog. Only a cyclist. Life is cheap on America’s highways, and the open road is littered with the bodies of the ones who didn’t get away. Not many cyclists are left where they fall, of course. We still have enough respect for human life to collect their remains, if not enough to prosecute their killers. (A mistake anyone could make.) But our other victims mostly remain on the asphalt where they died, food for crows and other scavengers. Which is, after all, only the natural order of things. Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the evidence of the automobile’s power to kill and main.

Unless, of course, you choose not to see. But this easy option isn’t open to cyclists. We can’t help but see what lies on the road we ride on. And if the dead have lain in the sun for very long, we can smell them, too.

Which means that many cyclists only know our rarer and more elusive species of animals because they’ve seen them lying dead on the highway—or struggling to get across a busy road before a speeding car crushes them beneath its wheels. How many riders have seen a snapping turtle anywhere except on the highway? Or a living shrew, darting in and out of the deep forest duff, in its never-ending quest for enough food to fuel a heart that beats hundreds of times a minute?

Me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I know these animals when they’re “at home.” But I still see far more of them dead on the road before me. Maybe you’ve never made the acquaintance of a shrew. OK. Here’s one that didn’t make it:

Too Small to See

Or maybe you’ve never seen a weasel going about his business, sinuous and sleek, patrolling the rocky shore of a river or hunting under the pines? Well, if you haven’t, it’s not really a surprise. Weasels move fast, and they hunt by stealth and guile. They’re not easy to see. But this one—a least weasel—had no trouble holding still for my camera:

To Hunt No More

Then again, he didn’t have much choice, did he?

And what about birds? Cedar waxwings aren’t rare, and while they prefer wild fruit, they’re sometimes seen at feeders. But they’re shy. It’s hard to get near them. I didn’t have any trouble getting close to this one, though:

To Sing No More

He died in my hands after being struck by a car.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I like riding. I really do. But each ride adds to an already overlong list of absent friends. And each small body that I scoop up and carry off the road to some grassy patch on the verge reminds me just how vulnerable we all are. A fumbled cell phone, a flirtatious tickle in the ribs, the cry of a colicky child in the back seat… Too many drinks, too many hours without sleep, too many pills,… And then it’s Did I hit something back there? Must have. Helluva bang. Still, it was probably just a dog or a deer. Too late to stop now. Couldn’t do anything, anyway. I’ll check out the damage when I get home. Have to keep the wife (or the boyfriend or the boss or the insurance) from finding out, too. Damn!

Meanwhile, a few miles back, something unseen drags itself slowly and painfully toward the refuge offered by nearest roadside ditch.

 

Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were it’s teeth concealed?
You seem to ask. …
        I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws your were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

      Philip Larkin, “Myxomytosis”

 


How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
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Sep 20 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip, September 2010

 
The weather was so pleasant when I was cycling along one of my regular routes last week that I decided to extend the ride, and I took a detour onto a road that I hadn’t traveled down before. I hadn’t gone far before a dirt track led away from the road into a woods. The sign at the intersection said Cemetery Road. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

Chickadees called from the trees, and I heard a turkey clucking softly in a field just visible through the woods to the south. A quarter mile or so further on, the track suddenly came to an end. And sure enough, there was the cemetery. Ranks of neatly tended gravestones reposed on a gentle hillside, shaded by towering spruces. I left my bike at the open gate and entered the cemetery.

Resting Place

I walked the rows of stones and wondered about the lives of those who were buried there. Several graves marked the resting places of soldiers from the American Civil War, and a Marine who’d died in Korea kept them company, sharing a plot with his brother, who had fought in World War II. Most of the graves bore no flags or bronze markers, however. I saw the headstones of parents and their children, of octogenarians and of infants who’d died within days of being born. It was as quiet and well-tended a cemetery as any I’ve explored.

Rest in Peace

That impression stayed with me. But then I turned back to return to my bike, walking along the very boundary of the cemetery. That’s when I found the all-too-familiar informal dump, a heap of trash imperfectly concealed by leaf litter, fallen branches, and pine cones. Broken bits of artificial flowers were strewn across the ground, along with the plastic vases that once held them. All had been tossed haphazardly into the woods. It seems that “perpetual care” doesn’t extend to carting trash off to the landfill. Out of sight, out of mind? Perhaps. At least the dead can’t see the dump on their doorstep.

 

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
Send a Comment

Aug 23 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for August 2010

As the days grow shorter and evenings become more chill, the crowds of fair-weather hikers thin out. So I’ve been walking the local woodland trails more often. A favorite path leads me through a garden rich in the delicate wildflowers known as touch-me-nots, or jewelweed.

The flower stalks grow as high as my shoulders here, attracting countless insects. Songbirds and small mammals find plenty to eat, as well. Before long, I emerged from the woods into a clearing. Beyond that point, the trail widens and continues on toward the town road. This wider track has been badly scarred by ATVs, whose riders have left the usual mementos of their passing: crushed beer cans, broken bottles, food wrappers, and discarded oil cans. The wild creatures who call the woodland home can’t move to a quieter neighborhood, of course. So they cope as best they can. And as I continued along the rutted track, I noticed a barely perceptible stirring in a patch of scraggly grass that the wreckreationists had somehow spared. I looked closer and saw a mole going determinedly about his business, pink nose quivering. He—I’ll call him a “he,” anyway—was a colorful fellow, too, with a white muzzle, forefeet, and tail.

He didn’t stop to talk. He had places to go and things to do, and before I’d had a chance to snap more than a couple of pictures, he’d vanished into the taller grass at the forest’s edge. Luckily, no ATVs were tearing up and down the trail just then. (For the most part, their drivers are nocturnal, scurrying back to their solitary dens with the first rays of the morning sun.) So the chickadees and the pileated woodpecker could chatter and hammer undisturbed. For now. But the brief calm would soon be broken. The hours of daylight are getting shorter, and the creatures of the night were already waking from their fitful slumbers.

Gentlemen, start your engines…

 

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
Send a Comment

Jul 19 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for July 2010

It’s often difficult for me to wrench myself away from The River, with its dramatic falls and tranquil pools, but the bordering woodlands have an allure all their own. So I made the most of a cool day not long ago, climbing away from The River on herd paths and side trails in search of subjects for my lens. I wasn’t disappointed.

I kept climbing, following an informal trail that I knew would take me to a seasonally maintained dirt road. As I crested the last rise, the trail opened up into a clearing. Formerly a staging area for logging operations, this opening in the woods boasted a profusion of berry bushes—a favorite spot for berry-pickers of every species, including man. No longer, however. The canes of the berry bushes had been stripped bare of their leaves by the passing and repassing of ATVs and trail bikes, and in the now-barren heart of the clearing was a large fire ring.

Fire Ring

Spent shot shells covered the ground, and…

Spent Shot Shell

Tangles of rusty wire were everywhere.

A Tangled  Tale

So the despoiled berry patch had become a sort of temple to Adirondack North Country ideals of beauty, with the fire ring serving as high altar, an evocative heap of ash, plastic trash, partially burned paper, charred wood, and still more wire—heaps and heaps of wire.

The High Altar

And the high altar of this sylvan temple is a truly impressive structure, nearly 30 feet wide at its widest point and almost three feet high. The congregation of worshippers have every reason to be proud of their handiwork.

On This Foundation...

But the wire continued puzzle me. Not for long, however. I realized that I was looking at a blending of two religio-aesthetic elements: one or more burnt-out innerspring mattresses and a large number of incinerated steel-belted radial tires. I applied my somewhat rusty anthropological skills to deciphering the underlying rituals, but beyond noting that the bedsprings and tire belts were emblematic of two activities sacred to nearly all North Country indigenes, I was left with little except fruitless speculation. The details of this newly-discovered, contemporary pyrolatric cult must await more expert analysis than I can bring to bear.

Abandoning my attempt to reconstruct the cult’s ritual life from their charred artifacts, I continued on my way through the woods. Soon the fire-pit altar was no more than a discordant recollection.

Avid cyclist and kayaker Mark, of Spokane, Washington, was inspired to write about this month’s “Beyond the Beauty Strip.” I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments:

Your question about how many of us want to look “beyond the beauty strip” reminded me of a quote that I once read regarding Ansel Adams’ photography. “It’s not that there aren’t empty beer cans in his photographs, it’s just that he chose not to see them”. His were powerful images and it kind of makes you wonder what kind of impact they would have had if he had chosen to see a few empties.

 

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.

In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” on the third Monday in every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.

 
Send a Comment

Jun 21 2010

Beyond the Beauty Strip for June 2010
Pleasant Mound Cemetery

Pleasant Mound. That’s a good name for a cemetery, isn’t it? Conjures up images of a properly bucolic final resting place, with a songbird chorus celebrating each new dawn and a gentle breeze whispering through the treetops. And the view from the road doesn’t belie the promise.

Pleasant Mound Cemetery

I came in search of two lonely graves, tucked into a hollow along the boundary of the county forest. I hadn’t been able to find out who was buried there, and I hoped to photograph the stones in order to facilitate further inquiries. A dirt road loops around the back of the cemetery. I followed it as it climbed gently. Then, just as I crested the hill, I was greeted with this sight:

Around the sBack

I’ve pieced this panorama together from several wide-angle photos, which explains the unusual perspective and the stitch lines. The cemetery proper is just out of sight to my right, with the nearest maintained graves at the top of the hill. The two gravesites I’d been seeking are hidden behind chest-high brambles, on the left of the panoramic photo. To their right, you can just see an informal dump for household refuse and garden waste trash, the whole scene dominated by a denuded hillside, a relic of heedless logging.

I started down the hill, wading through the brambles and swatting deerflies, very glad I was wearing heavy hiking pants and sturdy boots. I paused halfway to shoot a second panorama:

Through the Brambles

You can just see the periphery of the informal dump on the left. I was tired of doing battle with the brambles, so I changed tack, continuing downslope through an apparently open area, carpeted in leaves.

Back in the Brambles

It was a bad decision. The leaves weren’t so much a carpet as a trap. I sank to my knees, while branches buried deep beneath the surface snatched at my feet and ankles. I staggered and lurched back toward the brambles, but not before I shot this picture:

Final Resting Place

The object on the left is a discarded mattress and box spring, surrounded by more grass clippings, leaves, and pruned branches. Plus plastic flowers in plastic flowerpots, several broken statuettes, paper cups and plastic plates from a picnic, and scraps of plastic sheeting. My long lens captured this pleasantly bucolic scene:

No Bed of Ease

In Memorium

I turned away and headed toward my ultimate destination. More brambles lay in my path. By the time I reached the two lonely graves, my legs were bleeding freely, despite my pants’ heavy fabric.

Forgotten Graves

Here I found the small gravestones that I sought, lost among the brambles. One bore the bronze emblem of the G.A.R., marking the final resting place of a veteran of the Union Army.

A Veteran Comes Home

I shot a few more photos and spent some time with the graves, trying unsuccessfully to decipher the faded markings on their weathered stones. I was no closer to learning why they were set apart from all the others. Finally I pushed back into the brambles and up the hill, my original plan to walk out through the country forest thwarted by a seemingly impenetrable barrier of logging slash, the legacy of a recent clear-cut.

The sun shone down unabated, and the cool morning air was invigorating, but I couldn’t shake the pall of melancholy that had first descended on me while I fought my way down to the two lonely graves. Then I saw this:

Memorial Tribute

More trash, dumped along the roadside within sight of the town transfer station, free of charge to all residents. And the crowning touch? A discarded stuffed toy, a rabbit with eyes gorged out by some sick soul. I stared at the discarded toy for a long time, wondering who it had belonged to and how it had ended up here, a rotting discard among the emerging Canada mayflowers. Pleasant Mound didn’t seem at all pleasant now.

How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? How many of us really want to? Aren’t many of us, much of time, content to avert our eyes? After all, the things you find when you look behind the concealing curtain can be painful. Still, if you ride a bike, hike, or paddle, or even if you just walk to the store to do your shopping, you can’t help but see what lies before you. And that’s not really such a bad thing, is it?

We’d like to encourage everyone to open their eyes and look around them. To that end, every third Monday of each month you’ll find a new “Beyond the Beauty Strip” feature at Tamia Nelson’s Outside. But don’t make us do all the work. If you have an example of something hidden from view that you think ought to be brought into the light, please send it along. It’s bound to be an eye-opening experience.

 
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