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Category: Nature

The pearl of Keuka Lake

In keeping with my personal philosophy of always staying at least 18 years behind everyone else, about a week ago we watched the 2003 film “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Colin Firth is the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson is the shy chambermaid who becomes the subject of one of his most-famous paintings. It’s a costume drama, so the people of Delft are wearing clumsy headgear, dark cloaks and drab, ankle-length dresses as they stroll through the muddy streets and inspect butcher stalls filled with decapitated pigs. The cinematography is excellent. Many scenes borrow the smoky colors, pure window light and random household contents found in Vermeer’s work. That’s not a lot of source material. A meticulous artist, he did only about three dozen paintings.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” also enjoys superb supporting actor work from its dogs. Wandering casually through the streets, loping through courtyards of chickens. Unlike the humans in the film, who go about their arcane business with the quaint social interactions we’ve learned from movies to expect of that era, the dogs look and act like 21st-century dogs. Nothing has changed about dogs since they worked their way into the fabric of human society, a relationship that anthropologists believe goes back more than 15,000 years.

Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Dogs have always lived simple, uncomplicated lives. They are creatures of routine. We should follow their example. And in doing so this week, I realize I have drifted from the routines that once made me…

Well, dog-like happy.

(Writer’s Disclaimer: Today’s blog is not about to evolve into one of those “A Year in Provence” style essays about my visit to the oh-so-charming countryside, smugly dispensing my sophisticated superiority, while learning valuable lessons myself from the bumbling yet lovable locals.)

Let’s set the scene. Five of us are here for a vacation week, including the dog, Abilene. The road creeping along this portion of the west bank of Keuka Lake is an eternally temporary arrangement of potholes, band-aid filler gravel and dead twigs and squirrels crushed beneath the wheels of passing pick-up trucks. The house we’ve rented is a rambling decor of knotty pine walls, board games stashed on a shelf, mismatched wine glasses, strategically placed box fans, the ugliest rug I’ve ever seen and a perfect deck overlooking the lake.

These Finger Lakes are long, skinny bodies of water, tree-shrouded grooves in the terrain created by the retreat of glaciers during the last Ice Age. It’s 17 rickety wood steps from the road down to the house perched precariously – in my non-architectural judgment – on the edge of a steep hillside. And then another 42 steps leading to the lake.

The lake is an impossible lens of light. The Sunday morning after our arrival, the sun is reflecting so brightly off the water that it leaves a temporary orange scar on my retinas. From our deck on the west bank, we can easily see the houses on the east bank. The real-estate developers have done their work well. Those houses are packed in, side by side. Many have personal docks for their power boats, their motors snarling like hornets. The kids hot-rod around on jet skis, owned or paid for by their rich parents. This lakeside smells like one long stretch of entitlement.

The following morning is a completely different landscape. Gray and calm. Human activity is limited. Sitting on the deck in our rural outlier of Keuka Lake feels like we’re living in the trees. Their green branches nicely frame our view of the lake. This section of shoreline is not at all like what I’ve been seeing on the other, overdeveloped east side. What neighbors exist among us are hidden from view by a thick growth of trees and brush. A slight breeze carries cottonwood seeds from above, like tiny paratroopers. Small, dark caterpillars descend from the trees on invisible threads. Ducks drift wherever the rippled water takes them. Turtles sit atop posts from a long-decayed wharf that barely breaks the surface of the water. On this relatively untamed shore, there could be dangerous wildlife as well. Perhaps a future encounter with a bear that’s exhibiting aggressive territorial behavior over the wheeled garbage tote stationed at the side of the road.

He can have it.

When time slows, anything passes as entertainment. At mid-week, a street sweeper went up and down the road a few times. I thought that was a courteous, if futile, gesture on the part of the local officials. But it was merely preparation for the next day, as a crew of workers with a road grader, dump trucks filled with asphalt and a steamroller, began loudly creeping along the road, filling in the low spots. There seemed to be twice as many workers in yellow hardhats than was needed, but I’ll give them credit for doing a lot of pointing, picking up rakes as if something interesting was about to happen, and in general trying to find something to do.

As morning slips into afternoon, we abandon the hypnotic sound of powerboat-generated waves crashing into the stony shore and turn to the satellites for music. Sirius radio is tuned to Mojo Nixon’s “Outlaw Country” show, playing quietly amid the hushed whisper of breeze in the tree branches. Until Nixon interrupts the calm to bellow something obscene about a song he’s just played.

Wednesday morning, the intense sunlight creates thousands of short daggers of light, dancing vertically across the water. The silver reflections closest to me appear to be the same size as the ones furthest from me, on the far side of the lake, as if they’re on a one-dimensional plane. I point this out to My Friend Scott. He agrees, this is a very odd phenomena of refraction.

Or perhaps it happens all of the time out here.

Now we have now entered a world where my 13-year-old, 95-pound Weimaraner lies on the deck, dozing beneath the freckled sunbeams penetrating the tree branches while the internet explains the world to us. Winner of Best Supporting Dog on a June Afternoon. My Friend Sue is examining a virtual map of the Brood X cicada invasion as it spreads across the United States. We didn’t have virtual maps the last time the cicadas emerged from hibernation en mass, 17 years ago. From the internet vantage point, we appear to be doomed.

All are signs that gently suggest: Slow down.

So we do.

Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Margaret and Sue are in the house, laughing, mixing cocktails. The wineries only add to the beauty of the region. Our Friend Dan is a singer songwriter, but what matters this week is he is the chef at The Park Inn, in nearby Hammondsport. He’s created a menu that takes everything three steps beyond the norm. Grilled asparagus with parmesan custard and roasted garlic vinaigrette. Fried oysters with creamed spinach, house-smoked bacon, parmesan cheese and Tabasco aioli. The restaurant looks out onto the town square, where the local government has wisely decided that the best way to re-invent tourism lost to the coronavirus pandemic is to close the street and allow businesses such as The Park Inn to set up a huge, cozy tent. It works, time stops for us. We stay well past 10 o’clock that night.

With cosmetology slowed to a virtually imperceptible crawl, there is room for small, magical things to happen. Opportunities for cosmic occurrences emerge. Sue has been working on one of the Sunday New York Times Magazine word puzzles. She is stumped by the name of a Marty Robbins song. Two words, starts with the letter E. All I can think of “Streets of Laredo.”

My geography is off. A few hours later, the deckside satellite radio is playing a Marty Robbins song. “El Paso.”

This is the kind of synchronicity that happens in a world cleared of clutter and distractions. More will reveal themselves. Our Friends Kit and Alexis show up for the last two days of our week on Keuka Lake. We haven’t seen them since the pandemic started. She’s brought a book with her. A 1999 historical novel, set in 17th-century Delft, written by Tracy Chevalier. It is, “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

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Rocking out with Black Sabbath Bernie, and Erskine Caldwell’s bag of turnips

The country appears to have united behind the Bernie Sanders meme. Bernie sitting in a folding chair, in his dazzling mittens, huddled against the cold, waiting for the start of the Biden inauguration.

Perhaps the pearl-clutching narrative of an American divide is overblown. In its first few days, we’ve watched the Biden presidency take on COVID-19, send relief to Americans whose lives have been upended by the loss of jobs, sign executive orders to protect the environment and reverse climate change, open pathways to racial inequality and transgender rights. Build a humane immigration policy. And, perhaps most importantly, level with the American people about the challenges we face, both in what he says and through a press secretary who seems to not be lying.

No one should have a problem with any of that. Biden’s merely building on four years of Trump accomplishments that include…

Oh, dear…

…a virus that has killed nearly a half-million Americans, cities on fire, white nationalists among  the “very fine people on both sides,” tear-gassing those who dare assert that Black Lives Matter, conspiring to overturn election results, embracing murderous dictators, urging crowds at political rallies to beat up protestors, ignoring science, responding to a hurricane wiping out much of Puerto Rico by tossing paper towels to people who had lost their homes, referring to the porn star that he had an affair with as “horseface,” holding the country hostage through the longest government shutdown in history, hiding his tax returns, mocking the disabled, ignoring domestic terrorists bringing their automatic rifles to state capitol buildings and threatening to kidnap and perhaps kill the governor of Michigan, urging a mob to ransack the United States capitol and hang the vice president. And, at our southern border, turning back people fleeing poverty and unstable governments, and sending them back to Guatemala. And keeping their kids locked in cages.

And lying repeatedly about all of this.

And on and on and on. It will only get worse as we learn more of what the most corrupt presidential administration in American history has been up to over the last four years. Thanks for trying to lighten things up a little, Bernie. But seeing you on the cover of a Black Sabbath album sets the right tone.

As honest, responsible adults, people who care about others, and who are still the majority here, what’s the secret to dealing with an America that has become one of those “shithole countries,” as Trump once so delicately characterized African nations?

Crazy. Prove me wrong, but it’s a Republican thing. Most recently, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose many batshit beliefs include her tweet in 2018 that it was Jewish lasers from space that ignited the worst California wildfires in memory.

Bernie! She’s talking Jewish lasers!

Crazy. Again, prove me wrong, but it’s mostly Republicans who adhere to the QAnon conspiracy that Hillary Clinton leads a cult of baby-eating pedophiles.

No sane person can survive in such an environment. There are times when I have to come up for air. Make it a practice to tune out the news for a while. Sometimes for a day or two, sometimes an entire week. I’m just now emerging from such a period.

I’m not alone in this practice of self preservation. Here’s something I read in cnn.com:

During a crisis and isolation, many take an inventory of their lives and dare to be themselves, and engage in weird, creative, and non-conforming patterns,” said Judith Zackson, a clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut, via email.

Some of her clients are more outspoken than they were pre-pandemic, Zackson said. They have experienced changes in personal style, weird sleeping patterns and hobbies, and even sillier humor.

Of course, she also hears from people annoyed by their partners’ stranger tendencies, which include apocalyptically hoarding food and supplies, and hobbies like collecting stones or walking their cat.

Collecting stones, she says.

I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, when my Uncle Joe gave me what’s called “A Golden Guide.” Profusely illustrated pocket books for kids, about things like fossils, the stars and zoology. This one was called “Rocks and Minerals” – Golden Guides get right to the point. They tell a kid how to identify a meteorite, although I never got that lucky. Most of my time was spent on pages 110 through 113. The igneous rocks. Granite. And pages 133 through 139. The metamorphic rocks. Gneiss and schist.

I still have the book. And I have never stopped picking up rocks and stones. It’s those years of walking my dogs. Following them on paths through the woods. Turning Point Park near my house is the usual place. Abbie will be trotting about 10 or 15 yards ahead of me when I spot an intriguing rock. She goes right on by it, intent on checking out something dead behind that tree. But I pick up the rock. There’s a lot of marble in Turning Point Park.

This weekend I was re-organizing some of the book shelves when I can across that old Golden Guide to rocks and minerals. And there, among those dusty books, rocks. Lots of them, tucked away behind Hemingway and Bukowski. Even a fossil of some kind of segmented marine creature that I found in the gravel parking lot at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.

So I sorted out all of those rocks, representing years of wandering with the dogs. And rocks I purchased as well. Seems crazy, buying rocks. But that’s how I got my trilobite, about the size of a pet mouse. And a couple of red garnets that came from a vein deep in Idaho. The guy who sold them to me said they’re half as old as the planet itself.

About a dozen rusty railroad tie-dating spikes were in the book case as well. Spikes I pulled from the ties on the tracks that pass through Turning Point. The spikes have the date stamped on the head, so railway workers know how long that particular tie has been in place.

Well, I guess they would know, if those dating spikes weren’t sitting on my book shelf.

Taking inventory, Zackson said, dare to be myself. The books. I started sorting through them as well. There are a lot of them, downstairs and upstairs. I guess if I can lay any claim to being a Renaissance Man, it’s in my reading material. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, friends have been giving me books. Like they’re afraid I’ll get bored. I have a half-dozen going at the moment. I read whichever one is closest at hand. My Friend Sue gave me the Richard Ford novel “Independence Day.” Ford’s like me, a former sportswriter, so I guess there’s always hope a guy can move on to something serious. And there’s “The Wild Trees,” gifted by My Friend Michele, A fabulous narrative on the biology of California redwoods. I’ve learned things such as, when climbing a tree, any fall of more than 60 feet is not survivable.

And how do you feel about omelets? From Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland,” which I finished a few weeks ago, I learned that in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest there is a fungus, mostly just below the surface of the planet, that is 3.7 miles in diameter. And it’s not an array of mushrooms. it’s one single organism. One. Humongous. Fungus.

Erskine Caldwell.

I’d be done with the job of organizing that shelf if I wasn’t uncovering miracles that I didn’t even know I had. On Saturday I found a copy of “Three By Caldwell.” Three novels by Erskine Caldwell, all in one book. I must have bought it at a used book store, because it has $4.50 written on the flyleaf. I started reading the first book in the collection, “Tobacco Road.” And couldn’t put it down. More than 100 pages in, and the only thing these Depression-beaten, broken, hopeless Georgians had gotten around to doing was fight over a bag of turnips.

So that’s one thing that’s come out of this quarantine, and my need to duck out of reality for a few days. Who knew a man could write 100 pages about a bag of turnips? But damn if Erskine Caldwell didn’t do it, and do it well.

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There’s nothing worse than a 500-pound drunk

If I was feeling a little worn out after a day of raking up dead leaves in the front yard, when I ran into Duncan at the bar Sunday night he set me straight. “I have to rake apples,” he said. Duncan lives in the outback, Naples. I guess he has some apple trees on his property.

“Why don’t you rent some pigs and let them eat the apples?” I said.

Duncan ignored my solution. “I have deer that come out to eat the apples,” he said. Duncan has a serious deer issue. He hits about three a year. In fact he’s got a brand-new car after the last one was totaled in a deer collision. I’m not sure if Consumer Reports rates vehicles for deer-collision survivability.

Duncan also has coyote problems. Yeah, they howl. But what’s really creepy, Duncan said, is when they’re hanging around outside his fence. “They communicate with each other in the same vocal range as humans,” he said. “They sound like humans partying.”

I guess Duncan would be fine with allowing the deer to eat all of the apples they want if it weren’t for the bears. They like apples as well. And it’s bear season. Someone shot a 500-pound bear near his house. Someone else got one that weighed 250 pounds.

Think of all of those apples rotting on the ground, fermenting. Now I’m starting to understand the dangers of country living. This is why I live in the city. I’m not interested in taking the dog for the morning walk and running into a 500-pound drunken bear.

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