Friday, January 27, 2012

Here's a link to my VPR interview:

And yes, I mispronounced stymied. Hope that doesn't stymie my chance for future interviews! nyuknyuk

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An issue near to my heart, on which I'm being interviewed on Vermont Public Radio tomorrow morning.

   Thetford — Vermont patients suffering from cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis or chronic pain or nausea have been able to get medical marijuana prescriptions since 2004. But veterans and others who find that cannabis helps them better cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have to either use the drug illegally or rely on standard medications like Zoloft or Paxil to help them sleep at night and forget the trauma emblazoned in their memory.
      That may be about to change. A new House bill sponsored by a handful of Upper Valley legislators seeks to make Vermont the third state in the nation to add PTSD to the list of conditions eligible for a medical marijuana license, after New Mexico and Delaware. In New Mexico, PTSD is the top diagnosis for medical marijuana prescriptions, accounting for 25 percent of all cases, according to state reports.
      State Rep. Jim Masland (D-Thetford) hopes that New Mexico’s experience will help inform and persuade his colleagues in Vermont to move his bill forward. But so far, Masland — who introduced bill H.568 earlier this month and also voted for a bill that will implement medical marijuana dispensaries later this year — hasn’t run into anyone who needs persuading. He said the people he talks with are more concerned with the recent Vermont Yankee decision than a bill that will help trauma victims smoke pot.
      “Certainly there will be some pushback from people suspicious that every Tom, Dick and Jane is going to go to a doctor and get diagnosed with PTSD so they can smoke dope,” Masland said. “But that’s not a reason for the legislature not to consider this. It’s a reason for the legislature to be very careful in our deliberations.”
      So far, Masland has the official support of representatives Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich), Alison Clarkson (D-Woodstock) and Teo Zagar (D-Barnard) as well as several others. He also said that several members of the Mental Health Council at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, of which he is a member, have privately expressed their support, as have some of his constituents.
      “I know anecdotally there are some vets that have PTSD who have a little supply of medical marijuana and they use it because it helps them,” Masland said. The impetus for the bill came from a local vet who asked Masland if there was anything he could do to help get PTSD on the list of approved medical marijuana conditions.
     But representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which includes both the VA hospital and The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are prevented from discussing medical marijuana as a viable option for victims of PTSD, because regardless of state laws, marijuana is still illegal at a federal level. Qualified physicians from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth Medical School are also affiliated with the National Center for PTSD, officials there said, and the VA did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.
     Andy LaCasse, spokesman for the White River Junction VA, also couldn’t provide how many veterans in Vermont are currently being treated for PTSD, though it’s estimated that nationally, one in five veterans suffers from the disorder.
     Whatever the number is, if Masland’s bill passes, none of them will be able to receive a medical marijuana prescription or even advice about it through the VA, though they will not be denied other VA benefits if they legally receive medical marijuana through an outside provider, LaCasse said.
     Michael Krawitz, executive director for the group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, thinks such limitations are a mistake, and prevent veterans from learning about the full range of options available to them. Treating PTSD with cannabis is far more effective than the therapy promoted by the VA, he argues. It also has fewer side effects and treats a broader spectrum of symptoms than traditional prescription drugs.
     “I think the bottom line is those things just aren’t as effective,” Krawitz said in a telephone interview from Virginia. “Imagine just never being able to shut your eyes because every time you do, you’re right back where you were when the trauma happened. If you can just sleep for a period of time, it’s an absolute godsend. That’s something that cannabis can deliver.”
     Krawitz, a disabled Air Force veteran who does not himself suffer from PTSD, also noted the high suicide rates for returning war veterans, and the violence that can sometimes accompany flashbacks. “We’re dealing with some half-lit firecrackers out there,” he said. “If cannabis can alleviate that and make them more mellow and less prone to a violent response, that goes a long way.”
     But the problem with gauging the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD lies in the fact that though anecdotal evidence abounds, there’s no hard scientific research. A joint research venture between the University of Arizona College of Medicine and the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is hoping to soon remedy that, if they can clear the federal hurdle of legally obtaining marijuana for their study.
     If they’re successful, the first-ever clinical study of the benefits of marijuana use for victims of PTSD will test fifty veterans in a triple-blind, placebo-controlled environment.
      With Vermont’s progressive history, it seems well poised to offer those suffering from PTSD the choice to treat their symptoms with marijuana use. But given the number of other items on the legislature’s plate, Masland isn’t optimistic that his bill will rise to the top of the barrel and get passed by both houses and signed by the governor in the next year. It may have to be re-introduced in 2013. Nonetheless, Masland is glad the conversation is happening.
      His work with mentally disabled veterans at the VA has helped him better understand the issues at stake, he said. But just in case anyone was wondering: “I didn’t try it out for myself for these purposes,” he said with a laugh. “Not since many zillion years ago.”

As always, reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

 This is an oldie that I never put up on here, because I didn't like the final edited version that made it into the paper. But here's my version... from sometime in June.


In the aftermath, there's nothing left in the Zacks' front yard but the muddy scars of tire tracks, piles of rain-soaked woodchips and the gaping expanse of a stump the size of a kitchen table. Six feet in diameter, the stump is all that's left of one of what was just days ago one of the largest elm trees remaining in the state of Vermont.

“This is just surreal,” says Mary Beth Zack, standing on her front steps with a camera, stealing one last picture as truck full of massive logs backs out of her driveway, carrying with it the last pieces of the tree she's looked out at for the past twenty years. “It's surreal to look out and not see it there.”

It took Stuart Rice and his crew at Rice Tree Service two days to remove the behemoth, which he estimates was over 100 feet tall, 16 feet around and spread 150 feet from “tip end to tip end.” Four men with massive chainsaws, bars three feet long, tackled the tree from the top down, taking care at in the final hours to make sure the trunk toppled in the only direction it safely could without crushing the Zacks' home. When it was over, there was little left of the landmark that Rice's family has been tending for generations.

Stuart Rice was matter-of-fact about it. “I'd like to say it's the biggest tree I've taken down, but it's not,” he said. “I've done bigger and taller. But it's right up there.”

“It's sad to see those old guys go,” said Diane Weber of West Fairlee, who drives down Route 113 in Thetford twice a day on her way to and from work. “That tree is the first thing you see when you come up that hill. What a shame.”

Difficult though it may be for some, it was time for the tree to be removed. Like thousands of other elms, the last big tree in Thetford had finally succumbed to Dutch elm disease.

It was a little scary, having that big dead tree so close to the house,” Zack said. When she and her family moved to the neighborhood 20 years ago, they had no idea what they were taking on. "This has been an enormous undertaking, ” she added, referring to her family as the "keeper of the tree."

Every year, the elm needed maintenance from Rice Tree Service, including regular injections with a fungicide to ward off Dutch elm disease. But in the end, the injections weren't enough. Dutch elm disease, which decimated American forests and elm-lined streets in the mid-1900s, won the battle.

Along with other introduced pathogens, Dutch elm disease changed the landscape of the northeast. Instead of the straggly, second- or third-growth forests we see today, the region was once covered with a towering canopy of chestnuts, beeches, elms, white pines and hemlocks that spread their branches over a soft, nearly brushless forest floor maintained by regular forest tires.

Each of the trees that once dominated northeastern woodlands has been hit in some way by pathogens introduced from other continents. Just as Native American populations had no resistance to introduced human diseases, American trees had no resistance to foreign insects, fungi and disease.

Some tree species, like the American chestnut, have been so thoroughly eliminated that little hope remains for reintroducing them. For the fast-growing American elm, though, even as individual trees like that in Thetford fall to age and disease, there's hope that the species will experience a comeback.

For one thing, the dense concentrations that once facilitated the spread of Dutch elm disease no longer exist, so younger trees have a higher chance of survival. Additionally, the Elm Research Institute in Keene, N.H. has propagated a disease-resistant elm hybrid that, it claims, preserves the traditional shape and hardiness (of the American elm), unlike European or Asian hybrids.” By 2007, more than 350,000 “Liberty elms” had been planted, and less than 1 percent had succumbed to disease.

Though some scientists are concerned that the genetically-identical elms, grafted from a single resistant tree, have little chance against a new strain of the disease, there is nonetheless hope that they will reproduce with other native elms, producing a genetically diverse, resistant generation of the stately trees that were once symbolic of the American dream. 

In Thetford, Mary Beth Zack sits at the table in the newly renovated kitchen of her 1801 farmhouse, no longer hidden behind the great elm that once dominated the property. As she posts pictures of the tree's removal on Facebook, friends, family and neighbors immediately post comments or call her cell phone.

We hope we don't get run out of town now that the 'hallowed' elm is down,” Zack says jokingly.

She gets up and stands in her doorway in the rain, surveying the newly-bare front yard. She said she'll probably plant another tree, something that grows quickly, but she's not sure what yet. Maybe a Liberty elm.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

heartache in the second person

As you grow older, the loneliness becomes different, the silence of the house as noticeable as a baby crying. This is the tradeoff you have made. You thought you could be different, you thought you could have it all, and so you refused to settle for the hometown boy, the easy catch, the certainty and commitment that comes so easily to some people. You wanted more. There would be romance and risk and adventure, the kind of life one could write about, but you believed too that in the end there would be a deep and abiding love. You were driven by some great unspoken need to prove – to whom? – that you were strong and independent and interesting. You didn't realize when you set off down this path that independence sometimes means loneliness; that strength is a double-edged sword; that you can't have one thing without giving up another. You didn't realize that you cannot be an artist or a poet without suffering, and that sometimes, the suffering is self-inflicted and yet cannot be stopped.

For a while, getting on a plane or staring down the barrel of an open highway seemed like the answer. But you cannot run away from this life you've chosen. It's no better a way to stave off loneliness than having a baby at 16. And though you feel bold and confident, now -- most of the time -- you are as vulnerable as any 16-year-old girl when you are in love. So when another heartache carves out a sliver of your resolve and optimism with the precision of a surgeon's blade, you hold your head high and pack your bags, hoping that someday, someone will want to go with you. You look out the window, your eyes alone seeing what's on the other side. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

This is quite a departure from my usual topics on this blog, but I'm about to become extremely busy and not sure how much personal writing I'll have time for. So this is for my super techie friends who got all fired up over this issue.

Hanover -- Proponents are calling it the largest Internet protest in history, albeit without citing precedents. But the blacking out of scores of websites yesterday was enough to attract the attention of Upper Valley residents, many of whom lauded the protest of two anti-piracy bills currently being considered by federal lawmakers.
     Websites as popular as Wikipedia and as obscure as, a Dartmouth-based technology research lab, essentially went dark yesterday to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, in the House of Representatives, and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, both which are being heavily pushed by Hollywood to prevent the illicit streaming and downloading of movies, TV shows and music.
     Opponents say it's not that they support online piracy, but rather that the legislation poses larger threats of censorship and does not allow for due process.
     “We're following other large groups that believe in free speech on the Internet,” said Tiltfactor founding director and Dartmouth digital media professor Mary Flanagan, who also blacked out her personal website. “It's really important that we have a larger discussion before (legislation gets passed) that nobody really wants except corporate interests.”
     Even those who passionately support intellectual property rights, like Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, say they cannot get completely behind the bills.
     “I think payment of and fair compensation for intellectual property is a huge issue,” said Craven, who noted that he was in Bejing recently to promote his film Disappearances and was offered a bootleg copy of it for 80 cents. While piracy hurts him financially, Craven doesn't believe that the bills adequately address the real issue for independent filmmakers, which is a national distribution model that favors blockbuster films and hurts independent filmmakers financially.
    “Ultimately, I think the piracy bill is largely tied up with commercial media. It does not solve the problems of what I call cultural media producers,” he said.
     But supporters of the bills such as the Motion Picture Association of America counter that the legislation will help save some 300,000 jobs, $16 billion in earnings and $58 billion in economic output that are lost each year because of copyright infringement and pirated content.
     Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is chief sponsor of the Senate bill, which some feel is less controversial than SOPA. Leahy said in a statement that many of the websites blacking out sites yesterday, including Wikipedia, would not be affected by his bill, and that much of the information being propagated is “flatly wrong.”
     “Hiding behind the black box of self-censorship does not resolve the problem that is plaguing American businesses and hurting American consumers,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is American businesses, American consumers and American workers that are feeling the brunt of this problem.”
     But instead of aiding American businesses, the bill could actually hinder them, said Sukie Punjasthitkul, a project manager at Tiltfactor.
     “I think the way it's worded is very vague, and it's almost guaranteed to get abused,” Punjasthitkul said. “Not only is it going to stifle innovation, it is basically a form of censorship because there's no provision to say what sites get taken down. There’s no due process at all.”
     Though the intent is to protect U.S. companies, “if it does go into law I think that companies are just going to go overseas, ” Punjasthitkul said.
     Librarians are also rallying against the bills. Norwich Public Library director Lucinda Walker was at a Vermont Library Association meeting yesterday and said SOPA and PIPA were among the hottest items on the agenda. “Many librarians are absolutely against SOPA as it's currently written,” Walker said. “It's a matter of free speech, like the Patriot Act or any of these broad laws. We’re taken aback and concerned.”
     On the plus side, Walker noted, librarians from across the state joked that with Wikipedia down for the day, patrons might be inspired to visit their local libraries. “Can't live without Wikipedia? Call your public library!” she said with a laugh. Another round of blackouts is said to be planned for Monday.
     At Dartmouth's Baker-Berry Library, sophomore Eddie Zapata was initially confused when he was blocked from looking up information on Warren Buffett on Wikipedia yesterday morning, but the self-proclaimed film buff said the inconvenience would be nothing compared to being blocked from watching copyrighted movies online.
     At the help desk, student volunteer Josh Cyphers said the campus was abuzz with the issue. It was the first thing he heard about from his roommate when he woke up in the morning.
     But other students said that while there's been a huge pushback against the proposed legislation, no one fully understands the implications if the bills get passed.
     And that, in a nutshell, seems to get at the heart of the problem. Despite all the fuss, no one really knows how the bills might affect the future of the Internet. Many of those opposed, including some Senate Republicans, are simply asking for time to figure it all out. Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) said he hopes the conversation can continue, but that the bills need work before they're passed.
     “No one questions that online piracy and counterfeiting are real problems with detrimental impacts to rightsholders, their employees, consumers, and the U.S. economy,” Bass said in a statement.      “However, I have serious concerns that the Stop Online Piracy Act goes too far in undermining the critical freedoms and functions of the Internet in the name of stopping this illegal activity and I am opposed to the bill as it is written.”

Friday, January 13, 2012


     The school is a low cement building with railroad car rooms, one classroom after another, palm-sized spiders on the walls, geckos behind the tattered hand-me-down books. In my memory of this moment, I'm teaching sixth grade. What are we studying? Was it the English words for animals?      
     “Bird,” I say, pointing to a drawing of a bluebird.
      “Bird,” the class repeats. But that's too convenient.
      There's a commotion. The kids jump up and run to the open-air windows, crowd at the door to see. I stand in their way, keeping them inside.
      Outside, on the clay basketball court, a group of students cluster around something. They throw it into the sky, a blur of white, and it falls, spiraling. What is it? I wonder, squinting.
It's a bird, a sea-faring bird with sharply angled wings made for gliding, pure white feathers marred by a red gash. One of the boys, skipping class, had knocked it out of the sky with a single, well-placed rock and ran back to school to show off his fine work.
      Everyone takes advantage of this unexpected distraction. The teachers lean against the wall in the shade making small talk, and I watch in horror as the children take turns grabbing the tropicbird by its one intact wing, swinging it and flinging it high into the air. Where it belongs. But it comes spiraling down to the earth again and again, a white body streaked with red. It lands hard on the concrete, still alive.
      My sixth grade students are indignant that I won't let them join in the fun. They mutter as they file back to their desks.

      Do I get used to the violence, after six months on this island? Do I get used to the sight of a sea turtle tied to a palm tree, bleeding and gasping soundlessly in the sand, flies landing on its eyes, children poking it with sticks? The sight of a dog getting kicked?
    Maybe I do. My skin becomes leathery, calloused. But one afternoon, Junior walks up to me with his own tough brown hands held out, closed like a flower in bud. When he opens them, a tiny brown bird is revealed, cupped in his palms.
      No heavier than a ping-pong ball, it was robbed from its precarious nest in a swaying palm tree, eighty feet up but not high enough to be safe from the curiosity of eight-year-old boys who could climb a greased pole. Stolen, this weightless bird with shiny black eyes and a long curved beak is a thing to be treasured.
      Two hours later I peek in the box I've left it in.
      I walk outside, puzzled, apprehensive. And there is two-year-old Capital, a feathered neck clenched in his sticky fist, while his mother praises him in a cooing tone for wringing the neck of a baby bird.
      I pry his fingers open, cradle the bird. Capital and his mother watch in surprise. The bird's head hangs from its little body like it's attached with a rubber band; a rubber band that snaps and recoils as I bring a machete down swiftly, blood spurting across the table where we'll eat dinner.
      No, I'm not used to this.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

temporary homelands*

(*from an Alison Hawthorne Deming book )

“I confused living with leaving, and vowed that when I got my freedom, I would be the one to do both...”

“You must take on faith that those severed places cohered, too – the dozens of desks, bedrooms, kitchens, yards, landscapes – if only through the motion and shed molecules of the traveler. You take it on faith that the multiform and various lighted latitudes and longitudes were part of one world, that you didn't drop chopped from house to house, coast to coast, life to life, but in some comprehensible way moved there, a city block at a time, a highway mile at a time, a degree of latitude and longitude at a time, carrying a fielder's mitt and the Penguin Rimbaud for old time's sake, and a sealed envelope, like a fetish …. You take it on faith, for the connections are down now, the trail grown over, the highway moved; you can't remember, despite all your vowing and memorization, and the way back is lost.”
-Annie Dillard

1. The first place I ever lived away from home was a “holiday house” in Cork, Ireland, where I spent a semester in college. The holiday homes were neat brick buildings, built in maybe the 1960s or 70s, with manicured lawns and shady trees about a half mile from the University College Cork. To this day, it's the only time I've lived in a real city, and I had neither bike nor car. I walked everywhere, miles every day, rain or shine, through the winding roads and alleys late at night, half-drunk, up steep hills and past iron gates.

There are two memorable things about the house where I lived. One was the gift basket. When I arrived in Cork I'd been traveling for 12 hours and had awoken to find myself in a gray, rainy foreign country, away from home and by myself for the first time. It was a Sunday, and I couldn't cash my travelers checks or convert my American dollars to buy food, and it was much colder than I'd planned for. I walked the Sunday-quiet streets, hungry and lonely, turning against a cold stone wall to hide my homesick sobs whenever someone passed by.

When I returned from my miserable walk, there was a gift basket sitting on my doorstep with a jar of Nutella in it. I brought it inside suspiciously, and dipped my finger in, hesitant. Then heaven exploded on my tongue. I'd never heard of this Nutella business before. I thought it was a fine Irish delicacy, sent from the Celtic gods to cure hunger and homesickness.

The other thing that stands out, this many years later, was the size of the shower. It couldn't have been more than two square feet, with an accordion folding door. One of my three flatmates was a very large American girl, and she couldn't fit in it. When she'd get out, water would be pooling out of the bathroom and into the hallway, slowly creeping toward the front door.

2. The second time I left home was to go to the Marshall Islands. How to capture an entire year, an entire culture in a few lines? My home was on the edge of a turquoise lagoon, a square, squat building of whitewashed cinderblocks with open windows and a rusty corrugated roof. There was no furniture except a table and my cot covered with a bloodied mosquito net. My host parents, Jola and Rakki, and their five children slept sprawled on the cement floor engulfed in the smoke from mosquito coils, too hot for blankets.

Next to the little house was the cookhouse: some two-by-fours holding up a corrugated metal roof, under which was a brick fire pit, a spider-ridden shed for holding the endless piles of dried coconut shells used for cook fires, a wooden cabinet for keeping food away from dogs and chickens, a machete hanging from a nail, a blackened kettle, a few broken plastic chairs, and an ancient, sturdy table once painted green but that looked as if someone had attacked it with a battleax. I remember my one-year-old host brother having violent, orange-colored diarrhea all over the table, and my host mother wiping it up with a wet cloth, then serving dinner there.

In front of the house was a deep, swampy taro patch, as well as a banana patch, a lime tree and a papaya tree. Beyond that was the island's one bumpy road, on which everyone walked or rode bikes to get anywhere, lugging a heavy fish or an upside-down chicken or a bag of rice or a baby on one hip. On the other side of the house was a patch of bristly grass fading into white sand, sprinkled with palm trees; the black pig tied to a frayed rope, the clothesline, the water cachement, a wooden rowboat and the lagoon, impossibly turquoise, dropped like a bright pebble into the flat ring of islands. Every morning I would stare at it as I brushed my teeth, unable to believe the luminescence of that blue.

What else is there to say of a place? It is strange, now, that I once knew every rock on the road and now have been gone for years and will likely never return. The same people are there – the ones who watched me fail miserably at strumming a ukulele, grow frustrated to no end with other teachers who didn't care, shit my brains out over the cockroach-infested toilet. They watched me learn their language and struggle and triumph and then climb onto the tiny plane that materialized out of the big blue sky and disappear from their lives forever. They go on grating coconut and drinking instant coffee on rainy days and gutting fish in the middle of the night. Who's died and who's been born? What has changed? Do they wonder about me too? It was a mysterious place, shrouded in dreams, that became real for a brief while and then faded again into a veiled memory.

3. When I returned to the states, I was appalled by the choices at the supermarket, the waste I had once considered normal. I had to get away. So I moved to a little apartment above a garage on a steep, quiet dirt road in Vermont. It was tasteful and well-built, nearly brand new: wide hardwood floors, shining steel appliances, recessed lighting and lots of closet space. There was a big window that looked out over my own little patio and my landlords' bigger one, the small mowed lawn and the big field that stretched beyond, full of grasshoppers and birds and foxes that stole across it on moonlit nights. Beyond the field rose a single mountain that I never once climbed. I always got distracted by the maze of woods and streams below it. About a half-mile from my door was a quiet beaver pond that no one seemed to visit except me and a bull moose. I set up a hammock by the swampy edges of the pond, in dappled sun and shade, where I would sit with my notebook and a field guide for hours and watch the crafty beavers and the salamanders; note the skunk cabbage and fiddleheads poking through the brown mat of spring leaves, the trillium and trout lilies shining briefly before being overtaken by shadbush and the unruly tangle of the northern forest in its burst of summer song.

4. When I broke up with my boyfriend, that apartment became too expensive to afford on my own, and so I found East Hill, by pure serendipity. North Hill Road was the most direct route home to Andover, Vermont, where I lived, but one day, discouraged by an unsuccessful apartment hunt full of blah, overpriced rentals, I took East Hill Road home instead, and immediately fell deeply and unequivocally in love. It was everything a road could be. Wooded hollows and sudden mountaintop vistas bathed in long evening sunlight; funky, out-of-the-way houses; pastures filled with sheep and cows, and a pair of Great Pyrenees that rose, barking, from their nap in the middle of the road as I slowly drove past with my mouth agape.

The next day I left work early and parked at the bottom of East Hill Road and began walking uphill with my dog. Our shadows were long in the afternoon sunlight, etched against the chaffed August fields. I chanced upon a man who, upon my asking him of potential rentals, pointed out another man driving a tractor and told me to inquire with him about the old East Hill School. I walked across the field and asked the man on the tractor, and he gave me a ride up the road and dropped me off outside his mother's kitchen door. Ann, his mother, wiped her hands, looked me over, and showed me an apartment in an old schoolhouse. It was weirdly built, cramped corners and dark knotty pine, a big brick chimney and a chalkboard in the living room. The view from the windows stretched across fields where horses grazed, straight on to the purple mountaintops of New Hampshire. I told her I'd take it.

The school had been run by Ann's husband until his death in the mid 1990s. He hadn't wanted to send his mentally disabled son away to a boarding school – the only option in that rural area in the '70s – and so he had started an alternative school of his own. Farming and milking cows and carpentry were part of the curriculum, and so, over the years, the students amassed a collection of odd-shaped out-buildings scattered around the 350 mountaintop acres that had been in the Bliss family for generations. After her husband died and the school ended, Ann began renting out the cabins and the old schoolhouse. It became a community, intentional in some respects but without any degree of formality. We lived sustainably, were respectful toward each other and bartered, and no one had to post any rules about it. No one had to talk about building community: it just happened. Brook blew glass and her boyfriend Brigham kept bees and they both made delicious hard ciders and wines. Grace owned a gardening business. Lucy worked at a dairy farm and brought home raw milk, and Oliver at a cheese farm and brought home chunks of gouda. Andy fixed anything with a motor. John split wood and hayed and rode his bike unfathomable distances. Ann baked bread and kept chickens. Laura made pottery and kept horses and took her daughters to theater classes.

I stayed only six months. Autumn was full of rambles, discovering forgotten fields blazing with red maples, dragging rusty metal tools and interesting branches out of the woods and old furniture out of the barns to fix up my apartment. Winter, I'd come home in the dark and get out of my car on the frosty, bitterly cold mountaintop and drop my head back to stare at the hard, glittering stars. I'd carry an armload of wood up and stoke the fire, then rock in front of the woodstove or cook or read. In the spring, I watched the snow become mud, mud tracked up the stairs, settling into the grooves of my boots and hardening there, water dripping from the eaves. As the season turned, I fell more in love with the place, until the weekend came when I finally left, fraught with emotion, with the excitement of going west and leaving a my office job for the great outdoors confused with the pain of leaving the most beloved home I'd ever known, the comfort of my own space, saying goodbye to land and people that meant more to me than I did to them.

5. Next was Idaho. I'll never forget the first drive in, my first real exposure to the Rocky Mountains. From Boise, the fastest way to get to the old Moyer Helitack Base where I'd be living, smack in the middle of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, was through the dry, dusty town of Challis. But the road from Challis was still snowed in, and so we drove another hour north to Salmon and took the road from there until we reached Panther Creek. Our caravan of burly Forest Service trucks and beat-up personal cars climbed and climbed and climbed, past rocky crags and talus slopes and forests of deep snowy conifers until we reached the dizzying pass, and then we drove down again, slowly, zigzagging down the cliff, clinging to the mountainside. It is amazing that that drive, so utterly terrifying and stunning at first, became a routine, a three-hour-round-trip trek to the nearest town that Ben would take at least every other Friday to buy cases of PBR and cigarettes. We drove that road constantly. It prepared us for other “roads” in the Salmon-Challis National Forest where the Forest Service would sent us to investigate trails that hadn't been used in years. I vividly remember having recently learned to drive a stick shift and creeping alone along a road ridden with boulders and dangerously outsloped toward a gaping, distant valley thousands of feet below. I remember stopping, getting out and measuring the width of the road against the width of the car, using my sleeping pad as a measuring stick. Always to one side there was a sheer cliff. Always in the car we carried axes and saws to cut down trees that had invariably fallen across the road. The only music we could agree on was Old Crow Medicine Show and the Beatles.

Moyer Helitack Base, over an hour from the nearest town, nonetheless had electricity and nonetheless was about 15 minutes from the only other structure in the vicinity, which happened to be a bar. When the snows melted and it opened in late May, we were joyous. The Panther Creek Inn, as it was called, catered exclusively to hunters, fishermen and backwoodsmen (though Hank Williams Junior was rumored to have visited), and to us, a bunch of young environmentalists from other places. The Panther Creek Inn was an utter anomaly, a ranch-style bar in the middle of a rugged land void of people, a place of deep canyons and abandoned mine shafts and the highest concentration of mountain lions in the United States. There was a piano, a copy of Mein Kampf, a shuffleboard table and horseshoes outside. It was run by a couple with two toddlers and a puppy. Beers were $2 and they also sold tater tots and chicken nuggets.

Back at the abandoned helitack base, our quarters had initially been built by and for Russian loggers and smokejumpers, so in addition to very low-end, 1970s-style track housing, there were quirks like rough-hewn furniture constructed entirely of unsplit logs and a sauna built in the same fashion. The base was on a spit of land with Panther Creek stretching below on one side and a small mountain on the other that was perfect for a heart-pounding hike until we were instructed by the wildlife biologists to stay away from it because a wolf pack was whelping its pups there. At night, we sat around the orange sparks of a fire, listening to them howl and slugging cheap whiskey.

6. Somehow, a car, a bus and a ferry coalesced to lead me from the dry mountains of Idaho to my cousin's little red cabin on Halibut Point Road in Sitka, Alaska. It was October: rainy season. I only stayed a short while, riding my bike (bought for $5 at a police repo auction) in the cold and rain every day to my waitressing job above the harbor. One week, my boss let me borrow his red Hummer because he felt bad for me showing up to work dripping wet. I felt ridiculous driving it. Then I returned it and wound up on the ferry again, heading back south to Wrangell, Alaska.

7. Upon landing, I didn't know where I would live, but fifteen minutes later it was decided. I found myself unpacking in a small, dingy apartment above a laundromat and across from a seafood cannery. The fishermen washed their scale-encrusted sweatshirts and woolen socks there, and the washing machines smelled like salmon and halibut. Upstairs, our linoleum and fluorescent-lit little home was always warm from the dryers humming below. There was a lot to be dried out in Wrangell; it rained for weeks on end. The four of us – female wilderness guides in our 20s – decorated with scraps from home we'd managed to fit in our backpacks or outrageous finds from the 50-cents-for-everything thrift store in town. Kate, who'd arranged the rental, slept in the downstairs bedroom. Jule, Daisha and I slept in the upstairs loft, dark as a cave, reachable through a hole in the kitchen ceiling via a creaky metal ladder. Another temporary roommate who lived with us later in the summer would try to climb down the ladder drunk one night and fall flat on her face on the linoleum floor, giving her two impressive black eyes.

But most of the time I wasn't there. It was a temporary homebase, a place to dry out gear and revel in the small pleasures between expeditions: the solitude of a rainy afternoon when no one else was home, the freedom to eat whenever and whatever you wanted, to cook it on your own stove, to sleep on a mattress and not have to pack it up and break camp in the morning. To walk to one of the three bars and feed money into the jukebox until the night swirled around you, surrounded by people whom you felt against all reason that you loved, though you hardly knew them.

8. Most of the time, I was out in the field: cold and wet, breakthrough moments of magnificent beauty, an endless slog onward. Always moving, always tying the same knots, setting up camp and breaking it down in the sun and rain, darkness and light, on snowy mountaintops and storm-strewn coasts, in plush green forests and gravely river banks, tundra and muskeg, wind and calm. For weeks on end I concentrated fully on the moment at hand, on the simple task of moving from point A to point B and securing food, water, heat and shelter. There was nothing else. I briefly registered this simplicity, crouching by a stream, collecting fresh water, and then I was absorbed by it again, just as I was absorbed by the land as I slept every night cradled among ancient trees.

9. After that it was several months on the road. Adam and I spend days playing board games on the ferry, walking in Seattle, reading on the train, hiking in Montana, relaxing in Minnesota, driving through Canada, a whirlwind visit to the East Coast, then back across the plains to the Midwest again. Time passes quickly. Has life not always been this way, a continuous cycle of packing and unpacking, trying to find something in the depthless trunk of Adam's white Pontiac, staring out the window at the eternal road, cramped legs against the dashboard?

We flew to Hawaii. We bought a maroon 1991 Mitsubishi Montero for $2,000. The brakes went out. It belched black smoke. There was a rusted out hole in the undercarriage that got exceedingly hot. But we could practically live out of it.

10. We did for a while, and then we found a place on the eastern side of the island, in the lawless region called Puna, where land is sold in cheap parcels, the jungle is impenetrable and it rains with a persistence that makes southeast Alaska look like the desert. Everything we owned grew coats of three-dimensional mold. Insulation didn't matter, permanence didn't matter: the land was so new, just a shallow layer of earth atop porous lava flowing seaward, that it contained no streams or waterfalls. The nascent earth absorbed every trickle of water. People built on whimsy, just to keep the water off their heads. There were no building codes or zoning regulations. Marijuana grew ten feet tall.

We lived in the town of Mountain View, which was a misnomer because we could view nothing there but the cloistering jungle, its elephantine leaves meeting overhead, vines tangling and curious flowers sprouting from the most unimaginable places. Our home, nicknamed the Jungalo, was a perfectly planned little cabin built of plywood and smooth, twisted guava- and ohia- trunks with bamboo accents. It was built by Jake and Alice, who used to run a movie theater in northern California but had moved to Hawaii in the 1970s and amassed two acres of twisting paths through the jungle, connecting a smattering of hoophouses filled with musty-smelling bins of junk and treasures. Jake was white-bearded and sinewy, always slightly stoned off weak herb. His most memorable characteristic was that he had eaten the same breakfast for 50 years: polenta, soy sauce, peanut butter and red pepper flakes. Alice, with long yellowish-white hair, understood the inherent sadnesses of life, but she knew how to get things done. They left to spend 8 months in a thatched roof hut on an island in Thailand. Lucky bastards. Hawaii wasn't nearly as idyllic.

Like so many things, the discomfort of the moment has grown into something to look back fondly upon. There was the endless mold. The rabid mosquitos. The frustrating inability to connect to the internet, even though Adam climbed on the roof and spent hours contemplating an elaborate antenna system. But there was total privacy. On the screened-in lanai, we watched geckos and peepers as we cooked on the propane stove and laughed at each other. Our water-cachement shower was in a separate hoophouse with a green-painted, wooden floor; it was heated by propane, screened-in, and after showering we'd dash down the pebbly jungle path back to the house, stark naked if we could stand the mosquitos.

11. Then in a flash it was back to New England. I had visions of East Hill in my head; but the saying is true, you can never go back home. Vermont wasn't as I'd remembered it. I had changed, and it had changed; or rather, I'd moved to a different part of it. I lived in three houses in quick succession. The first was a big, sunny old farmhouse on a dirt road in pricey Norwich; Adam and I rented a room and private bath with three other occupants: a snooty girl who restored old books; a younger guy who never cleaned up after himself and whom we secretly called Bob the Slob; and the nondescript guy whose mother owned the house.

12. We were very close to moving into another rambling farmhouse to care for the non-adoptable dogs from a New York City woman's dog rescue operation. There was a hyperactive bloodhound, a sad Basset hound with a deformed leg and an overweight, epileptic pitbull named Tiny. But at the very last moment, we decided against the idea, and instead began a temporary living stint with a woman named Bonna, who had driven across the country in a covered-wagon-pickup-truck-hybrid and given birth in a tent in Alaska. At 63, though, she was hard-up for company and money. Adam and I stayed with her for 5 weeks. Her solar-powered house relied on 14-year-old batteries that hardly functioned, and we rationed electricity like a Depression-era family rationing bread. Poor Bonna. Something always went wrong: the basement flooded, she lost her job, a renter bailed. She never failed to open her home and kitchen, hoping always that the communal living she longed for would materialize, but always, she was disappointed. She drew her housemates into her complex web of finances and housing woes. We couldn't escape her. We had no privacy, in those last weeks before Adam drove across the country and, ultimately, out of my life.

13. After Adam left, I moved into a huge old house in White River Junction with five housemates. Our sagging, dilapidated house sat just below the confluence of the Connecticut and White Rivers – a place built on a history of transportation. The roads followed the rivers, and the railroads followed the roads. In its heyday in the mid-1800s, eight sets of train tracks crossed at White River Junction, and 50 passenger trains a day passed through, not including freight. It must've been an exciting neighborhood, once, filled with sawdust and the piercing whistles that brought fashion and money and the latest of everything from Boston and New York.

Our house, hugging the train tracks, had once been station master's house, the biggest in the neighborhood. Like the rest of the town, it had once been grandiose. But then drug dealers moved in and left behind broken glass and spray-painted obscenities. The railroads were reduced to a shell of their former glory, and the town fell into disrepair. Highways became the preferred mode of transportation, bringing truck stops and seedy motels and litter tossed out the window. But a group of artists, drawn to the industrial mix, moved in to revitalize things, and a man named Simon Dennis bought the old station master's house and began to fix it up. His plan was to turn it into an intentional community that grew its own food on two narrow acres stretching down to the brown Connecticut River, but the land had served as a waste site for years. Digging in the garden, we pulled up pieces of twisted metal like rotten, deformed carrots.

When I lived there Simon was away studying Buddhism. Without him, the community was less intentional and more haphazard, but we did grow a lot of our own food, until Tropical Storm Irene flooded our garden with overflowing sewage and drowned seven of our chickens. We rescued the remaining birds in my kayak the morning after the rains stopped, paddling through a calm lake of sludge with squawking chickens under our arms.

The railroad defined our life. I remember sitting bolt upright in bed at 3 o'clock in the morning on my first night there, feeling like a train was literally going through the house. It was like an earthquake. The glasses rattled. The walls shook. Breathing hard, I suddenly understood why rent was so cheap. The trains didn't just pass by the house: they screeched to a halt in front of it, metal grating against metal in a drawn-out, painstaking groan. Then bright lights came on. Men loaded and unloaded cargo. The trains backed up, and up, and up. They stopped again. Then inched forward. They did this for what seemed like forever, multiple times a day, on no schedule that I could discern. I learned to sleep if not through it, then to simply register it and sleep again. I grew fond of the train's whistle, the hollow, insistent sound through the early morning fog; the transient people who walked the tracks; the sight of the long, empty railroad stretching to the pink sunset, desolate and hopeful, the American symbol of progress and freedom and loneliness.

Each place I have lived is defined by something indescribable, unnameable, a feeling borne of all the mornings woken up there and the nights in bed; the meals cooked and the weather and the smells of the place, the mark of the people who lived there before; the play of light and the dreams and the mark people who shared this one place out of so many with you, the ones who happened to be there at that same brief moment in history. It is a feeling made of so many innumerable particles and scraps of days and memories that it becomes too large to describe, and yet this one simple feeling can recall the totality of a place even after its details have long faded from memory.

14. I move again, to Lyme, New Hampshire. I have more stuff, this time: more than a carload full. I use the furniture that's here, and I fill in the nooks and crannies with my own things, and this pleases me. I like to look at my stuff. It is all either beautiful or functional, and each piece has history. Provenance, my mother calls it.

This apartment, in the 6th state in this country I've lived in, the 14th place in six years, is quiet. I live here alone, and it is winter. During the day, the house is bright. Paned windows bring a flood of snowy light from the rolling fields outside. The walls are all white, the floors a wide, knotty pine. I go for long walks. I stand aimlessly at the windows. Darkness comes early, and I light candles and snuggle with myself, books, wine, tea, projects. At first, the solitude is welcome. And then it begins to wear on me: the dark winter of my soul, a friend calls it. It will end soon. I can only stay here until July, and then I will turn up the music and get packing, again. My mother told me that unless I write them down, I'll lose track of all these places I've lived.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Here is a beautiful place, a stream cascading between the emerald mountainsides of a deep, wet summer, a world dripping with sparkling green, water falling from rocks, sunlight hung like gossamer between the leaves, spiders spinning, trout swirling.

First, tiptoeing in, come the naturalists, careful and quiet, here only to observe. They find spiritual satisfaction in the bridges of tree roots and the trickle of water. They are purists, wanting to believe that they alone seek the wild places and understand their sanctity. They want solitude and peace, an escape; they want the gentle murmur of wind through the trees to soothe them into forgetting chaos and violence and stress. These initiated know that the natural world is meant to hold us in wonder and reverie, always, every piece of it a work of art, never to be desecrated by the base, ignorant pursuits of the sex- and adrenaline-starved masses.

Then, roaring in on dirtbikes to an AC/DC soundtrack come the recreationists, those who believe that hills and valleys exist to be conquered, that kayakers are speedbumps and tree-huggers are grizzly fodder, that government regulations are the root of malaise. The “great outdoors” is a playground for the rugged, existing for submission and pleasure. Though they love the natural world as much as anyone, their reason for protecting it lies largely in the value of its recreational benefit, for its capacity to set the stage for hunting and fishing and four-wheeling. Who needs wolves in this picture? There is no need for apology. Survival is not for the weak of heart.

Far on the other side of the political and social spectrum are the human-powered recreationists. They come sauntering in with Bob Marley on their earbuds. Better educated, they thus find themselves superior. They work all week in the city to buy the gear they need to get away to the climbing routes and rivers. There are rules here, some unspoken, some loudly broadcasted. Above all, leave no trace. No trace – we are separate from this place. Hike as quickly as possible carrying the lightest possible load. Anyone caught wearing cotton is to be silently scoffed at. Knots are practiced with religious fervor. There's a sense of awe and wonder, but it's overshadowed by the drive to be the first to ascend a particular rock face, to be the first to lay tracks in deep powder.

Once the idyllic emerald grove has been sufficiently trodden down, the paths worn deep, the parking lot made easily accessible – then come those who spend precious little time outdoors but like it anyway, and descend upon it in great droves. They wear Reeboks and carry a disposable plastic water bottle, a camera and a cell phone. Which is a good thing. They end up calling 911 because they took the wrong trail and didn't bring a headlamp and can't get back to their car before dark.

When they arrive, we start to look elsewhere, furtively, telling only the kindred spirits we've met along the way, hoping no one else will discover our new location. We begin again with the next great unspoiled place. But we can't help but see each other out there. We recognize each other. There are as many rifts among those who love the outdoors as there are religions among those who love god. But we rarely speak when we pass on the trail. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

workin overtime

At the age of 26 and with little professional training, I managed to get into a field that, if I live to be 80, I imagine I'll look back on much as a silent film star might look back on old Hollywood, or a logger upon the days when trees were the size of Volkswagens. It will be a relic of a different time, before daily print journalism changed irrevocably. Things change, of course, but the slow death of community journalism represents something greater than a single loss. Newspapers are as much a part of this country's heritage as cowboys, their history as romanticized as railroads'. We don't know what the industry or the medium will look like in 80 years, but there's no doubt that right now, it is on the verge of something monumental. And I get to witness it from the increasingly rare perspective of a daily community journalist.

The recent documentary Page One about the media desk of the New York Times is a good film for anyone interested in the future of journalism, but it focuses on the perspective of the big guys. While we as a society tend to place great value on world and national news – and the people who produce it – most of it doesn't affect us one bit. The world is becoming more globalized and it's important to know what's going on, we tell ourselves while reading the Wall Street Journal at the airport, sipping espresso and feeling sophisticated. Meanwhile, community journalism founders at our doorstep.

My foray into newspapers began with the comics of the Springfield Republican, spread out on my parents' mauve living room rug on Sunday mornings in a square of dusty sunlight. As I grew up, I began reading the paper voraciously, largely because there was always a copy sitting at the kitchen table and I found it impossible to eat a bowl of cereal without reading something. Newspapers were infinitely more interesting than the backs of cereal boxes. Later, I spent a year and a half at a company that digitized the pages of historic and current newspapers. When I was done, I could tell you the names of nearly every small town newspaper that had ever thrived in the U.S.. The names were lyrical, like the names of boats. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The Cleveland Plain-dealer. Oracle of the Day.

These newspapers told stories in a way no history book ever has. Our marketing line was that newspapers were the “first draft of history,” and after spending hours at my desk poring through digitized copies of old newspapers, I found it to be true. I could search nearly every newspaper printed between 1692 and 1922 for a single word or phrase. I tracked advertisements as they evolved from rewards for runaway slaves to automobiles to furs and Brillo cream. I found my ancestors in the obituaries and birth and marriage announcements. I saw the arc and fall of wars and of fashions, the bursts of breaking news – fires and strikes and scandals – the evolution of the form itself.

I worked there in 2007, when the newspaper industry was on the verge of a change still upending the world around us with no clear end in sight. No one knows what's going to happen. The company I worked for was weathering the storm pretty well, but they too worried about what the future would hold. Like the newspapers they dealt in, the company was built on the premise that people paid for reputable information. The internet is changing that.

Now I work for that dying breed, a daily print newspaper serving a largely rural area. My paper straddles the Vermont/New Hampshire border, and our proximity to Dartmouth College keeps us alive: it brings wealthy, educated people to a rural region, people who understand what's happening to community journalism and actively want to support it. We in the newsroom are derisive of the wealthy bubble they've created. But we're lucky.

I got in just in time. Twenty years from now, I don't know what the job I'm doing will look like or how many paid positions there will be. Right now, though, with the exception of the internet making research a thousand times easier, my job looks much like it has for decades. I approach strangers in the rain with a pen and narrow notebook poised, ready to scribble down the words that fly from their throat, hoping for the perfect quote, one that is regionally inflected, pointed, concise and witty all at once.

We cannot smoke in the office anymore, but we have John, who greets us every morning with a hearty “hey, gang” and looks like he belongs behind a smoky desk, and Jim, who is amicable but may win an award for most cynical man on the planet after David Carr dies. There is another John, who wears a plaid bowtie and pecks at the computer like its a typewriter. I try to be hard-edged, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I smile when I call an elderly woman on the phone and hear her delight in talking to the Valley News – her favorite out of the three local newspapers she and her husband get: us, plus the Claremont Eagle-Times and the Rutland Herald. She says she couldn't live without it.

Avid readers follow the staff writers and know our beats. I meet people at parties and introduce myself and they know who I am, recall an article I may have written months ago and reference it. “Which of my favorite Valley News writers are you?” asked a woman I met at a potluck several weeks ago. “Krista Langlois,” I said. “Oh, I'd hoped so!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms me like we were old friends. It's heartwarming to live in a place that values journalism, but is quick also to criticize, to keep us on our toes. Daily journalism operating out of a single, central location – rather than an unseen network of solitary bloggers sending off their work with a single key – is something to behold, a constant, churning machine. Reporters on deadline, the groan of the metal press, the bundles of papers loaded into trucks in the middle of the night, bleary eyed editors at their desks. It is nothing short of a daily miracle.

I've lived without news, too, for long stretches of time. I found it unsettling, in the Marshall Islands, to be stuck on a long, narrow crescent of sand and palm trees in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean without the slightest idea of what was happening elsewhere in the world. Once a month (if I was lucky), I would get a photocopied newsletter mailed to me with the month's headlines: St. Louis Wins World Series. More Than 30 Die in Virginia Tech Shooting. Wildfires Rage in California. That was it. World War III could have been going on and I wouldn't have found out until months later. But I knew everything that was happening on my island. Who was having a baby and who had gotten into a fight and who was flying to Majuro and would bring back new clothes and bags of candy. Which fish were running. It was hard to wean myself off the daily dose of global and national news I had grown so accustomed to, because it seemed important to be aware of what was going on in the world, but I knew what was going on in my world, and in the end that mattered more.

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