In the first few pages of her newest book, "The Human Age," Diane Ackerman draws the following sketch of human history: "People who are recognizably human have walked the Earth for roughly two hundred thousand years. During those millennia, we survived by continuously adapting to our fickle environment. ... After a passage of time too long to fully imagine, we began rebelling against the forces of nature. We grew handy, resourceful, flexible, clever, cooperative. We captured fire, chipped tools, hewed spears and needles, coined language and spent it everywhere we roamed.
A recent conversation with a friend about the pros and cons of buying precious metals unearthed a mother lode of boyhood memories, all centered upon the actions of our next-door neighbor, Mr. Nielsen, and his intriguing quest for gold. At the time, our family lived in northern Illinois and the Nielsens lived across the street from us in a pleasant house with an attic. Like many other Long Lake dads, Mr. Nielsen took the daily commuter train to and from Chicago, where he worked as a Linotype operator. But his real passions lay elsewhere.
In his excellent book Second Nature, A Gardener's Education, Micheal Pollan offers some intriguing insights into a subject which has aggravated mankind for thousands of years: weeds. He begins by recounting his experiences as a novice gardener in love with "nature," dreaming of living off the bounties of the earth. At this stage his understanding of the natural processes is decidedly romantic. He will simply plant seeds and a magical garden will spring up. What springs up instead is a bumper crop of weeds.
March, as everybody knows, is a changeable time of the year, chock full of surprises. Of all months, March seems the most volatile. Each day brings something unexpected, now raising one's yearnings for spring, now dashing one's hopes in a sleet storm. But those who make records of things have found through the years that many events are in fact predictable during March. Reading Janine Benyus's 'Northwoods Wildlife', I discovered that much of what happens in March is upbeat and life affirming. According to Benyus, the reason for March's notorious snowstorms is rooted in rising temperatures.
Browsing through some yellowed clippings in a notebook the other day I came upon something by my old mentor, the late journalist Sydney Harris. Titled "How to Understand What's Going On," it offers a 10-question guide toward making sense of what's happening to the world today. 1. Start by taking a long, hard look at yourself to determine whether you have significantly altered your views or stance in the last 20 years, or even in the last decade. 2.
All good gardens start in February. Fortunately, this aspect of horticulture is not only the cheapest and least strenuous, but also the grandest, in that one's dreams may grow toward greatness unfettered by such paltry things as crabgrass or an insufficiency of fertilizer. This is the Walter Mitty phase of gardening, a wonderland of bumper crops and blue ribbons, a utopia unmarred by any blemish. In the garden of one's February dreams, the cabbages grow green as dollar bills and round as basketballs, undefiled by moth or worm.
Like many guys of my vintage, I grew up believing that a woman's place was in the home, keeping things tidy, cooking the meals, washing the clothes, supporting the husband and always being there for the kids. True, there were a handful of exceptions in our little town. My friend Pete's mom commuted to work full time as a proofreader for the World Book encyclopedia company.
It started with a question from grandson Jack, age 7. "Grandpa, did you ever have a model train?" "An electric one?" "Yeah. The kind that goes round and round on a little track." "I did. But that was a long time ago." "Do you still have it?" "If I do, it's upstairs in the garage. But I haven't seen it in years and years." And then another fateful question: "Can we look?" The train, it turned out, was pretty much junk.
It happens every year, just before Christmas. Having put off the search for gifts until the number of remaining shopping days dips into the single digits, I find myself standing in line surrounded by hundreds of fellow procrastinators. Yuletide Muzak bleats forth from the stores' loudspeakers. The temperature hovers around 90. Trapped in winter clothing, Sorel boots awash with sweat, I clutch the handle of the shopping cart like a castaway clinging to flotsam. Excellent, whimpers my fevered brain. Way to go. Way to plan. Way to execute. Way to suffer.
Over the eons a lot has been written about learning, almost all of it positive. Were it not for our ability to learn, life would probably seem colorless and boring. And as the famous futurist Buckminster Fuller often observed, we can't learn less. This simple fact serves to cheer us on in the aftermath of our various mistakes and misunderstandings. If we are willing to remain reasonably humble, we can view our failures and shortcomings as simple opportunities for learning.