Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dog and Bob

This weekend was the first warm spell of 2013. We had winter coats in the washing machine, cardinals covering the bird feeder, and daffodils poking out along the borders of the garden. The big orange bike (Bob) had been in the cellar since the first snowstorm of the winter and was ready for a little Easter Sunday resurrection. Definitely a good day for a bike ride.

The Minuteman Bikeway begins about a mile from our house. It's a disused rail track which was developed into a cycle path in the mid-1990s, and it's hugely popular at weekends. A thru-route for everyone from mums jogging with baby-strollers, children on scooters, teenagers on roller-blades, wobbly fat men taking their creaky cycle for a slow constitutional, squads of high speed runners, and professional cycling troupes. Last year I had one of my best, and worst, cycling experiences on the Minuteman. I was feeling fit, riding fast on my roadster and over-taking everyone... well, nearly everyone. Along come two men on road-bikes wearing all the kit. When they overtook me I put on a sprint and stayed level. I was riding as fast as I had ever ridden and it felt fantastic. We rode together for nearly two miles. Then one of the  men turned to the other and asked, 'Enough of a breather?' and the other man smiled at me and said 'See you later, kid' (Kid!!??? KID!!!) and they disappeared. Literally disappeared into the distance. The lesson to learn is that sometimes it's better to look as though you are not trying.

Anyhow, today I joined the show by riding Bob and having Truff running alongside me. When I go out running with Truff, he merely walks quickly alongside me and occasionally gives me a baffled look as though to say, "Really? What are you doing? Is that your very best?" So, today was my chance to see how well he could really run. He's been doing well with his training and responds positively to voice commands - 'leave it!' (useful for squirrels, wild geese, and big dogs' balls); 'stay close' (which, in theory, turns him into my shadow... ); 'hi-five!' (less useful, but one of the girls' favorite commands and always useful for wowing small children who want to pet him); and 'dancing dog' (which means that he does figures of eights through my legs until I fall over).

Iola and Nathan came along on the tandem. The tandem was our wedding present from Nathan's grandmother. Over the past fifteen years it's been used for everything from romantic weekends, London commuting, adventures with the in-laws, and offering tours to friends of whichever city we have found ourselves living in. We even used the tandem to bring Uncle Sam home after he'd raced in the Great North Run. Now, for the first time, Iola's legs are long enough for her to really ride with her dad and her face beamed with absolute pride from the moment she climbed on board and began furiously peddling down the road.

Nathan and I have never quite agreed upon the, ahem, off-roading nature of the tandem. About a year into our marriage, he persuaded me that the tandem had front suspension because it was a mountain bike. There was a moment shortly afterwards - when we were skidding down a very steep hill towards a large pond with the bike lurching sideways at such an angle that I was sitting alongside him - that I realized that my love of cycling is dependent upon having tarmac beneath my wheels and a good pair of brakes within reaching distance of my own hands. Maya shares my view. Yes, we love going fast and we're happy to pedal far; but mud is for walking boots and steep hills are for skiers. In Iola, Nathan has finally found a partner in crime. Me and the Truff stuck to the cycle path, while Nathan and Iola appeared and disappeared among the trees and up and down the sides of the banks.

It's the first time that the dog has been able to run at his preferred speed for a sustained distance. We cycled for about six miles and stopped on the way home so that he could have a splash in the lake. I thought that he might be tired but when we passed the dog park, he played ball with another dog as though it was the start of the walk. And as for Iola, well she can't wait for the next outing - further, faster, and more furious. The girl has a mountain biker's soul.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Destination 2: Harold Parker State Forest

The best cure for the winter blues is to chase down signs of spring. We have the new-found freedom of a car, a young dog who likes a good walk, fairly young girls who need to see the countryside now and again, and an overwhelming desire to explore the area around Cambridge.  The destination for this weekend's walk was Harold Parker State Forest.

Saturday had a startlingly bright blue sky even though the ground was still snow covered. It was cold enough to need thick coats, but the hats were soon cast off and the dog decided that it was never too cold for a bit of a splash about.

It seems to me now, eighteen months into our American emigration, that New Englanders are decidedly seasonal. As with all the local national parks, tourist attractions, ferry services and many cafes, the Harold Parker state forest is staffed from Memorial Day in late May to Columbus Day in early October. The space between these two dates is the period when most New Englanders come out to hike, swim, camp and cycle. For the other half of the year, the forests and National Parks are virtually deserted. Despite Saturday's beautiful weather, we only saw one man in a bright orange hunting jacket walking two enormous orange bandana-ed dogs.

I've been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods to Iola and the walk through this forest gave us a sense of what those forests might have looked like. According to the websites, the trees are American hardwoods, hemlocks and white pines. Unfortunately, my arboreal knowledge is extremely limited and the only intelligent observation I can make is that the trees are enormous - we estimated that many of the trees are the size of at least 8 daddys standing on top of one another. For Iola, at seven, this is about as big as anything one might imagine! Iola hoped that she might see a panther (there is a very exciting bit in Ingalls Wilder when the aunt and uncle are pursued by a panther), but we had to satisfy ourselves with sightings of chipmunks. We hoped to glimpse a groundhog or two, but the winter is still cold and they're probably still hibernating and hiding from the sight of their shadows.

Despite my usual Google researching, I have been unable to find out who Harold Parker was or is, but the state forest has an interesting history. The forest is relatively new, having only grown up since the mid nineteenth century when the agricultural development of this area was abandoned. The forest was a stopping place on the Underground Railroad and many local houses apparently have secret doors and hidden chambers in which fugitive slaves were hidden on their way up to Canada. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe were regular visitors to this area. It continues to amaze me that the American Civil War only concluded in 1865 - less than one hundred and fifty years ago. This was after the first steelworks was built in Scunthorpe (okay, you might need to have grown up in North Lincolnshire to think that this is a significant historical landmark!), after Victor Hugo had written Les Miserables, after Lewis Carrol had written Alice's Adventures in Wonderland...

As a family, we strongly believe that it is never too cold for a picnic. In a patch of sunshine in a snow-filled forest, we laid out our coats on a large boulder and scoffed cookies and cheese and then headed home. We'll be back again in the summer - sometime after Memorial Day - when the ponds are filled with people swimming and the campsites are packed with tents. And we'll remember when we had the forest to ourselves.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Homesickness, and the uniform face of facebook

I have been feeling a bit homesick, experiencing a nostalgia for an 'Englishness' or a place in England which I can't quite pinpoint. We've moved about so much that it isn't one location which I crave. Instead there is an accumulation of sights and sounds and smells that create some kind of essence which, to me, is England. Of course, in small doses, there is a pleasure to be taken in homesickness: it allows you to muse upon things that you wouldn't ordinarily notice and to carefully construct the details of your rememberings which are, by their very nature, more perfect than any reality.
Specifically, I miss:

  • the sound of the dawn chorus. For a couple of years we lived on the edge of a RSPB bird reserve in the Lake District. In terms of birdsong, it was probably the equivalent to having an apartment next to a recording studio on Abbey Road.... We slept with the windows wide open and, each morning at this time of the year, we were treated to a symphony of song. It is possible that there were mornings when I complained about the volume, but now I miss it. Here we have cardinals which shout 'theodore' and jays which just shout, there are blackbirds who are too big and need singing lessons, and there isn't a song thrush to be seen. It's reaching a point when I might have to search out one of those prototype digital radio stations which only play birdsong. They always seemed pointless to me before, but now I think that I understand. 
  • the smell of English rain. I almost feel that I ought to apologize for this one, having watched the forecasts of the English weather over the past year, but I really miss English rain - that soft damp drizzle which creates pearl drops over one's coat, which dampens one's cheeks, and which smells damp and earthy and full of the promise of spring. Boston has big, brash American rain which falls in an urgent way, as though it has an important job to do and then, when the job has been completed, stops. There is no in-between, no halfway house, no subtle differentiation between downpour and damp. I grew up in Lincolnshire where the rain pours, siles, drizzles and mizzles. In Cambridge, it just rains. 
  • the look of spring. I miss the subtleness of the English spring: the steady progress from the whites of the snowdrops through the yellows of the daffodils and aconites and forsythia and the fields suddenly filled with dandelions. There are snowdrops under the snow in a few Cambridge gardens, and finally I understand that they might be called snowdrops not because they look like snow, but because they endure beneath the snowdrifts. There are tulips in the local florists that have been imported from Holland. The leaves of daffodils are visible in patches where the snow has melted. I know that when the New England snow melts there will be a week - maybe two - of spring and then the temperatures will ratchet up towards summer. In England, it seems to me, there is more time to look at the spring. Here in Cambridge, we just look forward to the summer. 
I miss climbing over the back of my garden fence and running across the Fells and seeing no-one, just a few sheep, the occasional hare, and a lone red deer; I miss the stretch of Tynemouth Longsands where the sea meets the sand in a new way each day; I miss the take-for-granted history of Lancaster and Edinburgh and London. There are many, many things that I don't miss about England, and many things that I would now miss if were to leave Cambridge. But for a few days now, I have been missing something essentially English. 

I debated whether to publish this blog, whether to be this honest about how I've been feeling. I have about 300 readers a month now for a blog which was initially intended as a means for keeping family and friends up-to-date. It's expanded from that to broader musings of what it means to be an English woman in New England. I love writing and many people have enjoyed reading what I've written: people I know and people I haven't yet met have contacted me to talk about things that I've seen, done, thought about and to share their experiences and thoughts. Other people - friends and family members - have defriended me from Facebook for expressing views that are different from their own. When you see people face-to-face, one can tailor one's presentation of self to fit with what another person wants to see - I wear a slightly different 'face' for different groups of friends and family members. When you exist virtually - through facebook, through blogs - it is not possible to tailor oneself to suit the views of everyone who might read what you say. My grandfather used to say that you could please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you could never please all of the people all of the time. He'd say those words in a rich Lincolnshire dialect which you probably don't hear in Scunthorpe anymore, let alone in Massachusetts. And then he'd put down his newspaper and go out into his garden to feed his English-singing birds. 

It's possible that I've been feeling homesick for an England that doesn't exist anymore. Perhaps it's all the more pleasurable because of that.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Destination 1: the dog in Dogtown

One of our plans for living in America was to explore a new continent but fate conspired to keep us in Cambridge for most of 2012. Now, at the beginning of 2013, it feels as though we have the opportunities to explore at last: we no longer need crutches or wheelchairs when we go out; we have a car so we can legitimately travel with the dog (rather than hiding him under a blanket in a zipcar); we have sat-nav so we can, hopefully, arrive at our intended destination without several detours and raised voices; and today the snow has melted enough to make a decent length walk seem both viable and attractive.

Dogtown Common is a great destination for a good dog walk. It's a three thousand acre abandoned wilderness close to the fishing port of Gloucester - about an hour's drive from our home. There are stone ruins of houses for Iola to explore, abandoned cellars for Nathan to poke about in, trails for Maya to map-read, lots of sniffs for the dog, and an assortment of stone boulders which were inscribed with edifying statements in the 1930s and which have fascinated me since I first read about them.  

Dogtown Common occupies the center of Cape Ann. In summer, the Cape is busy with tourists: think sandy beaches, kooky artists' colonies, whale-watching trips, cafes and lobster shacks with sea views. Even then, the interior of the Cape is relatively isolated. Today - the beginning of March - it felt as though we had stepped into a different world. There was an old, heavily bearded man leaning against his car who solemnly handed us a map and there was a person hunched over the steering wheel of a car with the engine running. I slowed down as I walked past the car, just to check that he was ok, and he must have seen me out of the corner of his eye because he bashed his horn a few times and then went back to sleep. We all hurried away but the man with the beard didn't move.

Gloucester, MA was one of the first areas of the United States to be settled by Europeans. The area was affluent: a sea port, well situated for trade, and surrounded by seas that were so filled with cod that one could almost walk on the water's surface. The interior of the Cape became home to the community who didn't fit into the mainstream: the rejects, eccentrics and paupers. It must have seemed a Godforsaken place: by the 1700s it was completely deforested. A barren landscape filled with granite boulders. Now the area is thickly wooded again: a little how I imagine Cumbria would look if there were no sheep. But the ground remains littered with enormous boulders and smaller piles of stones where walls and houses would once have stood.

The area was depopulated by the 1800s. In the 1930s, as the trees were regrowing, the area became popular with artists including, for example, the American modernist painter Marsden Hartley. This was also a period of depression and the rich industrialist and philanthropist, William Babson, put the local unemployed to work carving edifying statements on some of the larger boulders. In this way the landscape feels a little like walking through a sculpture park which harks back to the depression of the 1930s. Babson's intent was that people would read his huge rocks for a little lesson in self-improvement.

Always keen on an edifying experience, I encouraged the girls to carefully consider each statement. It didn't go quite how I intended: Maya tried to dramatically enact each word, Iola used each boulder as a climbing challenge, and we're all now convinced that the dog can read because he paid more attention to the writing than the rest of us.

When we returned to the car park, the man who had been 'asleep' over his steering wheel had disappeared but we thought that we saw the heavily bearded man lurking around in the forest. From it's first settlement through to the present day, this area has been heavily associated with witchcraft. There are runes and images and strange writing on the stone thresholds of each of the abandoned fallen down houses. Some trees are decorated with mirrors and symbols whose significance we do not understand. I'm not sure that I would want to visit this area alone: there is something sinister in the weight of the silence and the way that the leaves seem to move about on the ground even when there is no noticeable breeze. But the girls have been exposed to values intended to help them weather this new depression and sequestration, the dog had a fantastic walk, and we returned home (easily, by pressing the home button on the sat nav) with plans for our next walk. I know very little about fate and the forces that sometimes seem to transpire against us, but I do know that there is a bearded man wandering about among the trees and boulders who probably knows a lot more than me. Next time I see him, I'll wish him a 'good day'.