Craig Nagel, columnist
What follows is a chapter of my newest book, "Looking Back," to be published in early August. Back in the 1950s, summer unfolded slowly and seemed to last much longer than its allotted three months. One of the high points was the Fourth of July.
When I was a young boy living in Chicago, my mom and I often spent time at Grandpa's summer cottage some 50 miles north of the city. Dad was gone overseas fighting some fellow named Hitler, and Mom had to work during the week to make ends meet, but on weekends, if we had enough gas stamps, we'd drive out to the cottage.
Trying to get Americans to agree on any given topic is like trying to form an orderly herd of cats or frogs or wood ticks. It's just not gonna happen - or if it does, it won't stay that way for long. Given that fact, I think it's nearly miraculous that our citizenry and its leaders were once inspired to set aside a sizeable amount of land in public ownership with the thought of keeping it that way forever.
By now you've probably heard something about Peter Wohlleben and his amazing book, "The Hidden Life of Trees." In case you haven't, read on. Wohlleben, a German forester of many years experience, has topped best-seller lists with his contention that our commonly held understanding of trees and their networks of interaction paints a distorted picture of the truth.
As we all know, life's not easy. Sometimes winter lasts much too long and treats us much too harshly. Given that fact, it may be childish to turn away from hurtful memories and choose, instead, to immerse your cranium in siliceous granules (put your head in the sand), but what the heck. Some of life oughtta be fun. I recently rediscovered a list of common phrases all dressed up in verbal finery and found the task of trying to decipher them a pleasant diversion. Like the long-awaited arrival of spring, spending time in the pursuit of trivia may help us heal emotional wounds.
Each year I find myself paying more attention to things I used to take for granted, and at the same time losing interest in certain notions I once found fascinating. There was a time, for instance, when I thought man's reasoning power was the greatest force in the universe. Now, whenever I hear someone tout the importance of the human mind, I feel embarrassed. Great minds, eh? Look around at the damage we have wrought upon the planet. Look around and weep.
Every so often, when the events of modern-day life threaten to shrivel my soul, I find refuge in reading the words of thoughtful people from earlier times. One of those people was Marcus Aurelius, ruler of Rome from 161 to 180 A.D. and known as the last of the Five Good Emperors. By nature a thoughtful and reflective person, Aurelius adopted the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which taught that the wise live in harmony with the divine reason that governs nature and are thus indifferent to the ups and downs of fortune as well as to pleasure and pain.
Everybody knows the universe is a big place. What's hard to grasp is how big. A few years ago I bought my wife a telescope for Christmas, figuring she could check out the moon and a few planets and get a fix on a star or two and help fill in some of the gaping holes in our understanding of what's around us.
Now that the calendar shows us that spring is right around the corner, it seems fitting to offer some thoughts about America's most popular hobby: gardening. As we all know, gardening takes many forms, ranging from a single tomato plant growing in a rusting coffee can to experiments growing plants in straw bales or floating in water or climbing up the outside walls of skyscrapers.
Today's youth may be suffering a serious disconnect from nature, thanks in part to the proliferation of electronic substitutes for the real thing. TV shows, computer games, PlayStations and smartphones all conspire to keep us dissociated from the world around us, forming a sort of filter that prevents us from experiencing life directly. As a result, many of us—and especially our young—are living in what might be called a secondhand world.