Sunday, May 8, 2011

Keswick "Porcupine Hunter" and His Recent Painful Adventures

After some weeks of feeling like I was running in circles, a few storylines are - finally - starting to emerge. I'll post a proper letter soon, but, in this case, the title tells it all. (I was too distracted photograph the goatee of quills; the photo is simply the recovering victim.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

North Ocean Highway (Hokkaido)

Over a large enough series of events, something unlikely is bound to happen.

I was here to give a lecture for the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of Japan during the largest earthquake Japan has experienced in recorded history. I was also in Sapporo, one of the safest parts of the country.

The room swayed a bit for several minutes. It felt like being on a ship. After that, if I didn't turn on the TV or look at newspapers, everything has been perfectly normal, except that my "global" cell phone mysteriously stopped working for a day or two.

I'm still working on a storyline, but perhaps the only thing I need to say is that I have been very lucky this week.

All for now,

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fitchburg Line

When your office is more than five miles from the nearest convenience store, there is no way to avoid commuting. 150 years ago, it might have been possible to enjoy rural life while walking everywhere, but, these days, services are so consolidated that living in the country means a lot of driving.

I decided to balance my love of the forest with my dislike of driving by renting a tiny apartment in the middle of Boston, spending one day a week on campus in Cambridge, spending two nights a week at an apartment at Harvard Forest, and traveling from the city to the country twice a week by commuter rail. I dislike suburban car culture so much that I sometimes shop at my neighborhood grocery store in Boston, and then use my rolling suitcase to carry groceries by train to my field station apartment.

From my office in the Forest, it’s a 25 mile drive to the nearest train station, at the end of the Fitchburg line. The line used to extend through Athol, the town with the convenience store. According to Wikipedia, they have started rebuilding the line, at least in terms of breaking ground for one more station (Wachusett), which would be an easy 20 minute drive from my office. I am cautiously optimistic.

Now, the Fitchburg line runs from Fitchburg to Boston through picturesque New England countryside…

… and towns:

I get off the train at Porter Square in Cambridge, from which it is only one stop on the “T” (subway) to my office on campus, and only four stops to my apartment in Boston. They allow dogs on the train and on the T … at the discretion of the conductor.

In spite of the dog policy, the Fitchburg line is not entirely convenient. The earliest morning train leaves Boston at 9 AM and arrives in Fitchburg at 10:30. In the afternoon, I have a choice of leaving at 3:15 or 6:45. According to Wikipedia, the Fitchburg line “ranks as one of the worst lines in terms of on time performance”. This general trend must be compounded by 2011’s record-setting winter snows. I’ve learned to be ready for long waits in cold and sleet. I’ve also learned to carry a shovel in my car. But if no one rides the train when it’s inconvenient, there will be a lot less momentum to improve public transportation.

When I get frustrated with commuting, I wonder if it might make sense to settle somewhere between the country and the city. Concord seems to be the sweet spot along the Fitchburg line. It’s a pedestrian-friendly town just outside the city traffic. There is better train service between Boston and Concord than between Concord and Fitchburg. Concord also appeals to the history buff in me, as the starting point of the American Revolution, and the former home of literary greats like Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. (The plaques on the houses tell you who first lived there in the 18th or 19th century…)

Right now, there happens to be an Elizabeth-house for sale in Concord: small, cute, historic, within a mile of the train station, and with an obvious project or two to keep me entertained. Hmm…

Full disclosure: One of the reasons I can’t quite find the time to seriously shop for houses, or even decide where I’d want to buy one, is that, in the same year as I was offered a job at Harvard, I was also awarded two large research grants. One grant is to study endangered butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, and the other is to compare wildflower populations in Montana and Finland. Harvard was happy to accept the grants, in spite of the geographic complexity. But it’s a bit overwhelming. One advantage of my apartment in Boston is that it’s a 20-minute ride on the T from there to the airport.

Since moving to Massachusetts at the beginning of January, I’ve already flown out of Boston-Logan airport twice. I spent the past week in Oregon and Washington, looking at potential sites for our butterfly research. It was raining every day, so I don’t have pictures from our soggy search for checkerspot caterpillars. (Maybe I need to invest in a waterproof camera.) But one of my collaborators has a family cabin on the Puget Sound, and we spent a slightly drier weekend there, analyzing data and writing research papers:
My other Oregon collaborator said, “My kids have a book that you have to see.” And so – in Portland, Oregon – they read me a story about 19th century philosopher-naturalist Henry David Thoreau and the train to Fitchburg.In some ways, Thoreau and I have a lot in common. We are both opinionated, we both live alone and like small houses, and we both spend a lot of time walking and writing and thinking about forests and butterflies. On the other hand, Thoreau wrote, “I might take the cars and go to Fitchburg to see the country. But I am wiser than that…” Unlike Thoreau, I am not quite ready to settle in Concord. Or Fitchburg. Or Cambridge. Or Athol. Or Boston. Instead, I am feeling rather committed to the Fitchburg line.

Staying in place just long enough to post this letter…

…but writing with love,

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Interstate 90

Here is the story of how I drove from Montana to Massachusetts:
It started on the morning of December 14, when the movers called to say they were coming the next day to load the van. I told them they were scheduled for Dec 17, and my cousins were coming on the evening of the 15th to help me pack and organize. They said they would do the organizing and paid for my cousins to stay in a hotel. I wondered if this meant the movers were very good, or that they were very bad…

Everything was packed on the 16th. On the 17th, we set off, and headed through Montana to South Dakota. My cousin and his wife drove my car, while I slept, recovered from packing up my Montana life, and shared the back seat with their son and my dog. It snowed every day during our drive across the country. Four days in a Jetta with 3 adults, a 4-year-old and a dog have given me a new appreciation for good stories and fast food.

We took a day off from eastward progress and drove around the Badlands. The owners of the B&B where we stayed said, “You can understand Mt. Rushmore from pictures. You have to see the Badlands…”
From the Badlands, we drove to Mason City, Iowa. We picked Mason City because it happened to be halfway to Michigan. We found out that it’s claims to fame include Meredith Willson, “Mason City native and internationally renowned composer” (The Music Man, for example) and “Prairie School architecture” (buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, for example).

My cousins stopped to spend the holidays with family in Michigan. I turned on the cruise control and drove 756 miles in one day, to spend the holidays with my sister in Saratoga Springs, New York. We went shopping, had our nails done, watched videos, and ate a gourmet Christmas dinner prepared by my brother-in-law. One of the girls in the nail salon asked, “Which of you is the professor?” We said, “Both of us!” My pictures get less complete at this point, because many of the photos above are from my cousin-in-law, Millie. But I can share a glimpse of the Victorian architecture, and document that dogs are allowed in nearly every shop in Saratoga Springs.

Back at the beginning of December, I learned that I wouldn’t have a place to live when I got to Massachusetts. Staying in a hotel would have been awkward because it wasn’t clear whether Harvard or I should foot the bill. In the end, I called a friend’s brother who lives in Melrose, a suburb of Boston. Staying with my friend’s brother was also a little awkward because (a) I’d never met him, and (b) his wife had left him about a year and a half ago, and he was working through an unexpected divorce and part-time single parenting. Screenwriters might take this situation and turn it into a romance ... or a drama … or a thriller (“he’s sharpening his knives…”). In fact, it turned out to be a comedy. He told his story, and I was inspired to reveal my most socially awkward and eccentric life experiences: trombone lessons, country-western square dancing, obsessive home renovation, some first-hand knowledge of LARP. We laughed and laughed. The kids cooked breakfast for me and loved my dog. I didn’t remember to take any pictures of Melrose, or of my temporarily adopted family, so here is the image that came up when I googled the address in December, and had to imagine what I might find.

Then the moving van arrived, and it was time to continue on. The movers turned out to be awful: Nearly every piece of wood furniture was scratched or broken. Some boxes were delivered to the wrong address, and others are missing. My parents came up for a few days to help sort through the delivery, and I have been spending more time unpacking boxes and filling out insurance claim forms than settling into an ordinary routine.

So the story of a new job and new life is still on hold, and I have only a few scattered photos of Boston and Harvard Forest.

Still, all in all, it was a pretty good trip. From Massachusetts…