Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mountain Meditations

I love hiking with friends and family, but sometimes I just have to get out there alone.  When a free 60 degree sunny day presented itself, and Bill was away at a conference, I headed to one of my go-to places, Alander Mountain in the southern Berkshires.  Not only is Alander a great little mountain (5 mile hike round trip with 800 feet elevation gain), but the drive is pretty too. I know all the back roads.

A friend of mine once told me, "As soon as I get in the car to go somewhere nice, or on the train, I start finding solutions to my problems." I didn't have any problems that I was looking for solutions to, but my mind was a jumble of emails, telephone conversations, and in-person interactions.  Going to a quiet place in the woods seemed like the perfect getaway.

I had been on a Sierra Club state-wide Energy Committee conference call the night before, which addressed disturbing gas drilling and nuclear concerns. I had talked recently about current environmental topics with Jackie, a friend and environmental educator.  She had asked wistfully, "What can we do to stay optimistic?"  I stumbled on the question, but today, I knew what might work for me. 

Alander Mt. is in the Mount Washington State Forest, just over an hour from home in Western Massachusetts. The trail begins across a meadow with a pond in the distance on the left and a Cape Cod style house behind stone walls on the right--a fitting New England scene.  In minutes the trail descends to a lively brook.  There had been a bridge here before Hurricane Irene, but I did a little rock-hopping and got across easily. 

From here the trail rises gradually on an old farm road, the woods riddled with tumble-down stone walls.

I thought of the emails and personal interactions I had had over the past few days.  Some had accomplished tasks, or been pleasant conversations, others had seemed less than satisfactory.  An internal dialogue of "what I should have said," went through my mind.

Small streams with tiny waterfalls ran on either side of the hill as the trail climbed.  This early in March not a leaf was on the trees, and a few patches of ice remained on the ground. Sunshine beamed unbroken by foliage.

I walked slowly.  I had no reason to hurry. The air had the humidity of a warm Spring day; there was no sense in raising a sweat. I took time to soak in the aromas of pine and hemlock, and the sounds of babbling streams.  As the trail rose, mountain laurel edged the path, its leaves dark green all winter.  In a couple of months, laurel blossoms would brighten the woods with pink and white.

Just below the summit, I stopped by the cabin built here for hikers to use.  Damp and unappealing, it never looked preferable to me to camping in a tent. 

 Still, I went inside and looked around.  Someone had been here very recently, even leaving a few graham crackers that mice had not yet found. 

(a few leftovers for the next campers)

 Maybe a wood fire would make the cabin cozier than I gave it credit for.

The trail took a turn for the last 1/4 mile to the summit, through blueberry bushes that offer a boon harvest in July.  Reaching the open ridge, I admired views to the south and west towards Connecticut and more of the Berkshires.

(view towards Connecticut)

Opposite, behind a row of bushes, another view opens to the town of Copake below and to the Catskills beyond the Hudson Valley.  I like both sides, but I chose to have my lunch on the Catskill side.  A thick haze made the mountains barely visible, but I knew they were there and that they were still snow-covered.

Looking down on the village of Copake with my binoculars, I could see a cluster of houses and a church along the main street.  A truck went by on the road far below.  How many generations had seen this view almost the same as I was seeing it today?  My environmental mind thought of the old Iroquois premise that we should look seven generations ahead whenever we make decisions.  This land where I was sitting had been saved by forethinking preservationists.
(Catskills barely visible in the distance)

I lingered at the summit with the warmth of the sun on my head, the wind at my back, and the earth beneath my feet. Standing on exposed rock, I closed my eyes and soaked in these natural energies.

A hiker came from the other direction, the first person I had seen all day.  He walked quickly with ear buds on.  As he passed me, we remarked on the beautiful day.  I stayed a few minutes longer and then headed back down the path.

It was still early in the day and I had put all of my earlier mental conversations behind me.  Now, I looked for animal tracks, listened for birds or running water, and searched the woods for moss-covered stone walls, as the sun created deep shadows across the trail. 

Often I hum or whistle on the trail.  I do this at home, too.  I am rarely completely quiet, but today I thought of a Co-op friend whose husband was spending three weeks on a silent retreat.  A few of us had said, "He can't talk for three weeks!"  Our friend responded, "he gets to not talk for three weeks," making us understand that his weeks of silence were a privilege rather than a chore.  Right now, on this trail, I felt privileged to make only the sounds of my footsteps on stones and leaves.

Eventually, I was again low enough on the mountain that I could hear the trickle of little streams.  I sat down by one of them and listened to its gentle voice.  My elderly next-door neighbor had once bought a small bowl of rocks for inside the house that made this sound when it was plugged in and a continuous gurgle of water tumbled over the stones.  An electrified stream wouldn't work for me; I would have to be content with carrying this in my memory.

I remembered myths where gods, goddesses, fairies, saints, or ancestors, came out of the earth through hillside springs like this. No wonder the musical sounds of water almost seemed to speak from beyond. I sat in the dappled sunlight and listened. 

One time my friend, Maggie, said to me, "But you can't always be in antiquity. You have to apply those universal thoughts to today." I supposed she was right, but I liked hanging out with the early Native Americans and ancient Celts here in the woods.

I passed a strong lively stream.  The little ones had gathered up and made a more significant brook and a more urgent sound.  Once more I sat down in the leaves and listened.  This time, I thought of John Muir and John Burroughs, naturalists of nearly a century ago who changed the country's views on conservation and preservation.  They sat in places like this and wrote poetry or essays. And I couldn't forget Thoreau.  He walked all over these mountains absorbing nature and applying it to his life.

And coming up to almost the present day, my mind wandered to my favorite Adirondack author, Anne LaBastille.  She soaked in the water, mountains, and forests just a few decades ago and declared that we all needed to look for the spirit of Thoreau amidst the spectres of the modern age.
Finally, I decided to walk on out of the woods.  A Buddhist prayer popped into my mind and I winged it out in generic fashion to all the people who had been passing through my mind: May they be happy; may they be peaceful; may they be free from suffering.  I certainly was relaxed, peaceful, and full of early Spring.

 The car was hot.  I took off my boots and socks and put on my Birkenstocks.  Tossing my long sleeved shirt on the back seat, I opened the car windows, got in, and drove away.  I turned on a CD and Mendelssohn's festive 5th Symphony accompanied me on my drive back through the countryside.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Winter Reading: Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I had not intended to become an Anne Morrow Lindbergh scholar.  It all began innocently enough last September when I was packing for a few days in Maine.  I should have gone to the library, I thought.  I browsed my bookshelves and said to myself, what could be more appropriate than re-reading Gift from the Sea while at the ocean?
I had read the book a few times, finding something new in it with each reading, but it had been at least seven or eight years since my last reading.  In Gift from the Sea, Anne studies relationships and compares them to shells she finds on the beach.  The pictures she paints as she describes the shells and her insights into marriage and other relationships are thoughtful and compelling.

While still in Maine, I googled her and decided that I wanted to know more about her life.  When I got home, I took out the biography, Anne Morrow Lindbergh by Susan Hertog, from the library. Raised as a daughter of the American Ambassador to Mexico, Anne grew up in a wealthy and privileged family with frequent travels to Europe and South America, eventually graduating from Smith College.  While in Mexico visiting her parents over a Christmas vacation, Charles Lindbergh joined the family as a guest of the Mexican government.  Anne developed an immediate crush, later claiming that life for her began when Charles came on the scene. 

I had seen Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" hanging in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but I was not aware of what a celebrity he had been in his day.  Papparazzi followed him everywhere. The public was totally charmed and he walked comfortably amidst the throngs.  Anne knew that if she wanted to be part of Charles's life, she would not be able to maintain the privacy and solitude that she craved. 

But she loved to fly.  After her first ride with her sisters in Charles's airplane, Anne found an instructor back in her college town and began flying lessons.  The next year when Charles again came to Mexico, he let her fly his plane.  Imagine what flying was like in those days.  Just Anne and Charles in an open two-seater cockpit, cruising up the sides of mountains in Mexico and dashing down the next.  Anne sensed a huge freedom, had no fear in the plane, and relished time alone with Charles.  Flying gave them the opportunity to land on isolated beaches and meadows, far from the press.  

Marriage brought a new perspective on duty.  Devoted to duty and God, her parents had instilled in Anne the need to be of service to her community and family.  As Anne flew with Charles to different parts of the world, she shared her vision with an adoring public through books and articles.  I was surprised to learn that Anne Morrow Lindbergh had been a huge best-selling author in the 1930s and 40s. 

The tragic kidnapping of their first child, Charlie Jr., dramatically changed Anne's and Charles's lives. After a frantic three-month search for the baby with Charles convinced he would eventually bring Charlie home alive to Anne, the baby's body was found a mile from their home, killed within the first day or two of the kidnapping.  Anne responded by blaming herself--the baby was stolen right out of his bedroom while she was in the house.  Previously convinced of the basic goodness of man, she now had to confront evil, a major crisis of faith.  Charles blamed the press and a chaotic democratic society.

I was interested to learn that kidnappings were more common during the Great Depression of the 1930s than at any other time in history.  Perpetrators thought they could make big money quickly.  The kidnapper of Charlie Jr. apparently intended to hold the him for ransom, but was so terrified by the hoards of policeman and press, who descended on the area in droves, that he killed the baby and hid the body.  A year went by before the kidnapper was caught. From hereon, Anne and Charles saw the press as a threat to their existence.

More than ever, Anne wished for a peaceful life away from the public eye.  In time she and Charles had five more children, but the media attention persisted.  To escape, they lived in ten different parts of the world over a fifteen year period.  At the same time, Charles became more adamant than ever that Anne should accompany him on his flying missions.  While she loved flying and writing about these adventures, she was torn between the duty she felt towards Charles and her love and duty to her children.  During this period Charles came to value Anne's writing; he became her most intuitive reader and editor.

As I read the biography, I couldn't help sharing some of it with friends.  While at the Co-op one day, I mentioned my reading.  A few people said, "I love Anne Morrow Lindbergh!"  My friend, Lynn, said, "I've read a few of her books. They have meant a lot to me."  Another woman told me, "For years, my husband and I gave Gift From The Sea as a part of our wedding gifts to each of our friends."  Lynn became interested in reading the biography; we even held a book club meeting at the Old Chatham Country Store! 

Since much of the biography focused on Anne's writing, I decided that I should read two of her best-selling books, one, Listen!The Wind, about flying with Charles, and the other, Dearly Beloved, her only work of fiction. 

Listen! The Wind describes ten days out her six-month journey across the North and South Atlantic with Charles.  They had been commissioned to map routes and winds for possible future commercial air travel.  How incredibly exotic this book must have seemed to her readers.  Landing on islands with native people, gauging the winds--first too much, then too little--and Anne's complete fearlessness in the air over thousands of miles of ocean.

Anne didn't just write while traveling.  She also had work to do.  By hanging an antenna out of a hole in the bottom of their tiny plane, Anne was responsible for reading and sending coded messages to and from land.  She enjoyed the camaraderie with people on the ground who connected to her in the air.  Once she made radio contact with a ship on the ocean.  Charles dove down close to the ship, waved to the sailors, and then flew steeply back up to the clouds.  Anne's other job was to fly the plane for periods while Charles monitored readings and maps. As I thought about flying in 1933, I could understand the public's fascination with Anne's books.  Nothing as surreal as flying across oceans had been done before.  In addition, Anne and Charles were an attractive couple that made them darlings of this new frontier.

Since I had now read three books by and about Anne, I knew her novel, Dearly Beloved, would be a change of pace. The story is a spin-off of Anne's startling discovery that Charles no longer belonged on the pedestal where she had held him for fifteen years.

Charles's fascination with Nazi Germany, when he was invited to inspect the Luftwaffe, did not seem problematic.  He was justifiably awed by the German engineering and precision of their air force. What upset Anne and the American public was his position in the America First campaign, a white supremacist group with Nazi leanings. Scholars claim that his anti-democratic sentiment came from his reaction to the kidnapping of Charlie Jr.  He held overt American freedoms responsible for allowing heinous crimes.  As his anti-semitic speeches grew louder, Anne faced a dilemma.  At first she stuck by her wifely duty and wrote articles politically similar to Charles's speeches, despite her convictions that he was wrong.  Eventually she had to break away to keep her voice and sense of truth. During this tumultuous period, she and Charles both had affairs.

Anne retreated to a house in Connecticut and began writing about her own marriage and marriage in general. What came out was Dearly Beloved, a story in which a young couple stands at the front of the church to get married. The narrator describes the thoughts of the different friends and family who are watching the ceremony, each character viewing the wedding vows from his own life experience.  Anne's fictional exploration resolves into a positive endorsement of communication, oneness, and endurance through marriage.

I thought I had finished my study of the Lindberghs and reported this back at the Co-op.  Lynn said, "Did you read Bring Me a Unicorn?  That was my favorite.  I give it as a gift regularly."  Should I bypass Lynn's favorite book?  I requested it from the library.

 Bring Me A Unicorn brought me full circle back to the young shy introverted woman with a fierce need to express herself through writing. My picture of Charles came full circle, too, from the confident young aviator to an older reflective man, who would visit the Smithsonian just to watch the tourists' expressions as they gazed at his planes hanging there.  Bring Me A Unicorn, a compilation of Anne's letters and journal entries completed my Lindbergh study.

As she grew older, Anne found time for solitude, a love of nature, and more time to nurture her writing.  She and Charles continued to live in the Connecticut house where they had regular visits from family.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh outlived Charles by 27 years and died in 2001 at age 94.