Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Woodswoman::Woodsman - A Tribute & A Call

Two wonderful Earth-lovers and unabashed tree-huggers, one still in his youth, one in her elder years, departed from us within only a few days of one another at the end of June. There is both a tribute to make and a call to issue on their behalf.

Anne LaBastille's passing on July 1st at 75 may have come to your attention as this news was carried by media outlets all across New England including the NY Times, the on-line site Huffington Post, and by numerous others around the world as her lifelong environmental activism touched so many lives. My acquaintance with her came, as it did for many, through reading her first book, Woodswoman, in which she described her Thoreau-inspired life on a small lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. Her empowering story bolstered countless numbers of young women to be bold in their lives, especially on behalf of ecological issues and preservation of the wild.  As Utica Observer-Dispatch columnist, Dave Dudajek put it, "Yes, there had been tough mountain women throughout history, but few managed to channel their passion for the wilderness into encouragement that empowered others."

I count myself as blessed that in the late 1970s I heard her speak about her life and passions, and still vividly recall her bright eyes and smile and the infectious energy she imparted that evening. My own environmental work was already well-grounded by then, but as still a young woman, she gave me yet more "fuel for the Fire."  The marvelous work that poured through her over these several decades is well-documented and can be easily found through an on-line search. Something of her visionary outlook was captured in an interview Dave Dudajek recalled.  She'd spoken of her 17 years as a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency this way, "I use two points of reference. I look back 100 years and try to envision what the park was like then. With that past in mind, I then try to look ahead 100 years and try to imagine what it might be like then. Will there still be clean air, the clean water, the loons, the osprey for the next generation to enjoy? Then I make my decision." 

Brett Armstrong was a young professional forester and logger, the youngest son of our neighbors, Marna and Keith. I remember the day they brought him home from the hospital to begin his life on their family farm. My kids and he were playmates all their growing up years just outside our small village of Unadilla Forks.

His choice of  the College of Environmental Science & Forestry at Syracuse University was in perfect keeping with his deep and passionate love of the outdoors. Following college he and his wife, Emily, built a beautiful log home and welcomed two children; their third child is due in September. After several years of working for others, Brett launched his own business, Back Forty Habitat and Timber Management. The name of his company speaks eloquently of his highly ethical approach to this work, striving to maintain a balance of harvesting trees while minimizing long-term impact on the woodlands in which he worked.

But it is a dangerous profession even with all safety measures followed, and on June 15th, Brett was tragically killed by a falling tree. Few deaths have shaken me more than his when word came. It still is and always will be impossible not to remember him as a sweet-faced little boy at play or the sun-tanned teenager driving their tractor past our house on a summer's day, giving me his jaunty wave.

While in a certain sense he was just getting started in life, he nonetheless touched so many. Over 575 people came to the calling hours in his small hometown. His obituary began "Brett Armstrong, lover of the woods and wildlife..." To prepare for the funeral, his minister, Pastor Betty, came to see the farm where he had grown up. His parents told me she walked the fields and went down along the Unadilla River that runs through the farm to get a clear sense of this place that Brett so loved. Weighted with the task of helping everyone through his funeral, this visit surely fortified her for this most daunting of days.

I was not able to attend the service, but my daughter spoke of how moving it was and of what Pastor Betty said of Brett's legacy. I offer this paraphrase: "Brett loved the land passionately each and every day of his life. This is what he passes on to us. It is up to us to carry on this legacy in our daily lives. To love the land, the fields, the woods, all of Nature, with this same passion."

So these two are no longer among us. For their loved ones it will a long period of mourning their absence. In addition to Pastor Betty's thoughts, those of Wendell Berry, the farmer-philosopher poet and Earth advocate, serve to clarify the call these two tremendous Earth stewards, Anne and Brett, send back to us. "The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope." 

Thank you, Anne. Thank you, Brett. We hear you, and we will do our very best.

Monday, July 25, 2011

After Words: Guardian at the Gate

By this writing we are nearing the end of July and my spider-neighbor is still contentedly re-weaving her web each day. (She certainly appears content!) My reason to add a further note is from the lively response the post drew from people and nearly all who did so announcing themselves as admirers of spiders! Betty R. wrote of her own house-dwelling spider who occupied a hall corner for several months and also reminded me of the story of Arachne and Athena.*  My nature-loving neighbor, Dorothy J., described how she relocates spiders she finds in the house outside to the "fresh air" via a broom. Shea R. sent a lengthy note after seeing the blog through the Facebook link (ah yes, through the W.W. Web!), and avowed that my largish spider-neighbor is no doubt female, not male as I'd felt s/he might be. And I had to chuckle when I noticed that my present blog avatar photo is of a dew-spangled spider web I photographed many years ago on a foggy Maine coast morning. It was back in the days of our Canon SLR camera and my experiments with the close-up lens. The morning's cool ocean breeze with its salty tang drifts back to me still over all these years. Thanks to all who shared their thoughts and stories!

*here's a link to a nice retelling of the tale:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guardian at the Gate

One morning not far into June, I opened the door here at Dragonfly Cottage to find a new resident moved in at the gate that's just a few feet from the front step. Click on the image to get a better look and hopefully you'll see the huge spider web spun during the previous night, cleverly anchored from the edge of the door's metal awning four feet above the fence. S/he chose the right-hand side of the gate, placing this shimmery insect-collector out of harm's way as to the human's coming and going. "Whoa!" I said aloud, stopping in my tracks to admire the engineering feat, marveling as I often do at the incredible diaphanous weaving swaying gently in the morning breeze. There was no sign of the Weaver, but several morning's in a row, I detected new reinforcing strands or repairs made to the previous day's wear and tear.

One evening I came home just after dusk had settled in, and as I came through the gate there silhouetted against the last light was the Weaver himself, (gender intuited) impressively large (not surprising given his web) and sitting (if spiders sit) in the exact middle of his beautiful creation. "Nice web!" I told him, "Good luck tonight." Not sure what he thought, but I felt it only courteous to speak, meeting up at last with what I'd begun to think of as the Guardian of the Gate.

I am charmed by my summer resident, honored really that such an impressive web-architect chose my front gate. It is now just past the 4th of July and my spider-neighbor is still very much "in residence".  Arachnophobic I am not, being one of those "types" who will gently remove spiders from the house by shooing then into a glass, capping it with a paper, then releasing said-spider outside in a more suitable (to my mind) habitat.

This is not my first long-term spider companion. Many summers ago, a smaller spider set up her home on the window ledge of my writing room. Her webs weren't the orb-sort but a lace mesh design that effectively got her what she needed. She was only two feet or so from where I sat to write, and I enjoyed watching her at her tasks, sometimes even at night busy with her spider-life. We communed now and then, since I know she was well aware of me on the other side of the glass, so close. I'd be away for a few days and when I returned was always happy to find her still there. It was a tumultuous summer for me, and more than once she was witness to a weeping woman and lots of muttered-aloud thoughts as I wrestled with the vicissitudes of my life. Calmly she carried on her spider-doings day in and day out.

The days shortened with Autumn's coming, and yes, there were two plump egg sacs carefully tucked in the upper corner. She still pursued her spider-life, a bit slower it seemed to me, and I spoke directly to her a time or two, knowing an end was approaching....I wanted her to know how much I'd come to enjoy her faithful company. Then a heavy frost, and I entered the room the next morning knowing what I'd find but dreaded to see. She lay curled up and unmoving. I thanked her a final time and moved her gently into the corner of the window casing. Some weeks later a cold breeze blew and the sill was at last completely empty except for the two egg sacs tightly secured for the future. I cannot recall the fate of those sacs....hopefully what she'd worked for all that summer happened exactly on schedule. But I remember her still, most fondly.

Not sure where this new spider-connection will go, but at the moment, he's showing himself a bit more often, in what I feel is a sense of trust. He's been witnessing my going-ins and coming-outs for a month so far, so our neighborliness is by now well-established. I've seen the sun's first rays shimmer through the dew drops in iridescent sparkles on the freshly-rewoven web, delighting me all over again at his artistry.

If there's one thing I know for certain, I am fortunate to be twice-blessed in this lifetime with such a fine journey-companion.