Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

2.11.2017

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Uncategorized, Wisdom on February 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

We’d been camping in the Laguna Mountains for a few days and had the place to ourselves. We had no internet and no cell coverage. Our days were lazy and we filled them with books, walks, and the occasional nap. Breaking the habit of connectivity is difficult and a thing probably best experienced only when forced on you. Like many habits, it takes time to break the back of it but is worth it if you can manage. I spent a good bit of time photographing the Acorn Woodpecker. Sibley says to “Note clownish face pattern, red crown…” and so on. Clownish indeed, with a bold yellow cheek, a bright eye ring, and a white forehead patch. They were in abundance in the field in front of us, a field of less than a dozen trees, half of which were dead.

I took a biology class in college, the final project of which was to write a report of long-term observation on a patch of ground we’d chosen, a spit of earth three feet square. We had to log so many hours–I don’t recall exactly how many–and share what we observed. The project taught me many things, all of them unexpected, the greatest of which was the power of simply being still. Being still is not a thing we often experience, nor does it warrant much currency in modern society. Yet the simple action of no action can be quite something, boarding on profound even.

There was perhaps an hour before the sun would set behind the ridge. (A fist held to the horizon represents about an hour, two fists between horizon and the sun and you’re looking at about two hours before sunset.) Once the sun disappeared the temperatures dropped and darkness spread across the valley faster than you could out walk it–at lease it seemed that way. I had been standing for perhaps an hour, not moving. I focused on the birds and attempted to better hear the sounds surrounding me. I concentrated on simply being still and observing. Once years ago while meditating in a woods, seated on a stump, a white-tail deer approached, sniffing the air curiously, nostrils flaring. Closer and closer she drew, then, with a shift of wind, she leaped as if suddenly released by gravity and bolted off across a meadow. When you sit in a forest things happen. On this afternoon, camera resting on my tripod in front of me, my hearing turned ever so effortlessly into listening. It is a subtile difference, hearing and listening, and I cannot say when it directly turned. You can’t really pinpoint such a thing. There was a chirping in the tree in front of me. It had been there but I’d not listened to it. I lifted my eyes and from a bore-hole the head of a fledgling appeared. It looked around, up and down, then hopped from the hole to a branch. Suddenly mom and dad woodpecker dropped from the sky screaming. They reprimanded the youngster and ushered him back into the nest. I could only imagine the discussion over dinner that night.

Despite my well documented appreciation of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists, I have never been able to truly nurture an appreciation for things metaphysical, spiritual, or transcendental. Yet, as I grow older and as my stubbornness yields to experience, I find peace in considering such things. There is no conclusion to draw from that, other than the lesson of stillness and the woodpecker.

 

12.25.2016

In Dogs, Memoir, Travel on December 25, 2016 at 7:56 pm

There was a surprising number of people at the trailhead this Christmas morning. Some of them wished me a Merry Christmas, which I returned. A few simply nodded and smiled. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and clear. Yesterday’s rain in the valley dropped as snow in the Catalina’s in front of me. These are rugged mountains, not particularly tall, but jagged and naked. Over the ridge is a Bighorn sheep refuge and dogs are not allowed. So Lucy and I kept just shy of that. I had her tethered to me by a rope I’d stowed in the truck. I’ve kept her leashed in this manner since coyotes paraded through camp two days ago, heads down, eyes glancing here and there, totally insolent and bold. It’s a long rope and she gets to sprint every so often, as is her nature, while I have the comfort of keeping her safe. A month or two ago, it was in Colorado, I think, she was off leash and lost to my sight when I saw a big eight-point buck come storming out of a little copse of woods down by the water. Lucy was giving chase. She was easy to spot, a little black dog against the white field of snow. The buck wisely headed up hill and Lucy’s short legs soon gave out on her. She has the heart of a giant but the body of a simple dog.

I’ve had dogs all my life and I’ve written about them here plenty. Where it not for my dogs I would probably not have the morning walks. It’s as simple as that. And my morning walks are close to a fashion of prayer for me. I guess, if logic holds, my dogs have been personal prophets, pointing a way, sparking a thought, instilling wonder. Before Lucy was Maggie, and before her, Cleo, and Punkin before that–all assured of my morning attention, thankfully. Emerson said of Thoreau that his thought and writing was in direct proportion to the length of his daily walk. Thoreau himself claimed a need of at least four hours of sauntering. He called it sauntering which I particularly appreciate. He did not need a dog to make him get up and get going, but then he was a different type of human being altogether. Me, I prefer the companionship of my dog. I am never far from the thought that they, my beloved canines, are rushing through life by a factor of seven. Such future sadness is, for me, a motivation to remember each morning and moment.

Two mornings ago I hiked up to ruins left behind by the indigenous people of this valley fifteen hundred years ago. When the sun crested the ridge the plateau came alive. Birds sang around me. The sun suddenly warmed to the point I took off my down jacket. The morning light turned from steel grey to warm amber. I don’t go to church but if I did it would have to be like this, out of doors and without doctrine, pure and undefiled. These people, the ones who existed here, I’m told, had to make multiple trips down to the valley each day to get water and forage for food. I’m sure their existence was hard and my morning ritual would have been lost on them. Modern existence is not without challenges but the rudiments of existence, for most us, have been addressed and for that I am grateful. Merry Christmas, friends.

10.16.2016

In Adventure, Memoir, Nature on October 16, 2016 at 8:00 pm

All That is Solid Melts into Air

Last Tuesday, three days after my 61st birthday, I was thigh-high in the Blue, just outside Silverthorne, Colorado. The water was cold, in the low fifties. The air was about the same. I had been fishing the bend in the river for an hour to no avail. I know there is a trough to the freestone bottom at this spot, holding nice trout. I worked it with a prince nymph. But nothing.

The wind picked up and I looked upriver, to the north, over the mountains. A front was moving in. Dark clouds were approaching. The air temperature dropped and the sky opened. Big juicy drops of rain began to fall, then snow, then sleet, roiling the river surface. Suddenly, around me in every direction trout began to rise. Big fish, thick as your forearm, rising to sip from the river’s surface insects, midges and such, that were being knocked out of the sky. Flashes of pink and red and steel grey, these fish. My heart raced.

I drew in my line and breathed into my cupped hands. My fingers were stiff and half-frozen. The fish continued to rise, in front, behind (I could hear them), up and down stream. I switched flies, struggled to tie on a dry fly. The river around me boiled with rising fish, rolling like porpoises against the surface. I flipped my fly upstream. Fish on! I pulled in a nice rainbow and released it. I tossed my fly into the river again. The sleet-rain continued to pock the river surface. Another fish. Then another. Then the rain stopped. The sky opened. The sun came out. The river grew quiet, the door closing. The fish disappeared, becoming liquid and melting into the invisible. I was, again, thigh-high in moving water, but everything, though the same, was now different.

8.7.2016

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on August 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

It is commonly accepted that one should strive to “live in the now,” to “be present.” I don’t dispute this wisdom. There is a great deal of distraction in life and given enough rein, distraction will eventually snuff out the vibrancy that is life itself. Memories, it seems to me, are often put into the category of distraction. “Oh, she’s living the in past.” Or, “All he has left are his memories.” I am probably universally wrong on this, but it seems to me that we have been trained to keep our memories at arm’s length, that in some fashion memories are guilty pleasures that we are wrong to enjoy. The Proustian in me says, that is bull shit.

I sit this evening in the mountains of Colorado. The air is chill, even though it is August. Indeed, it is growing cold. I am outside and remembering summers past. I look through old notes and read old blog posts to jog my memory. Sometimes I feed memory like sometimes I pour myself a second bourbon. I know I shouldn’t–there’s that guilty pleasure–but I do because I want to. Tonight I am thinking of Maine on a summer evening and I miss it, even though this afternoon I photographed an elk with a five foot antler span.

I dreamt of my father last night and that is a form of memory, I think. I suspect experts know better, but I’ll not be dissuaded. Regardless, I have dreamt of my parents more often than not these days, certainly more than when they were alive. I have no idea what that means. But again, if that is a fashion of memory, then I embrace it. Is part of growing old the breaking down of resistance to reflect on the past with nostalgia? Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, for return home. That seems at the core of many things.

No doubt these thoughts are sparked by four months on the road with no prospect of returning home any time soon. My father used to say that a certain place felt like home. He never said, as best as I can recall, that such and such a place was home. He desired to return to his roots, though he did not have a complete understanding as to what such a place was. He was eternally restless in such matters and I am restless too. To use a word my mother used, He was discombobulated. I am somewhat discombobulated too.

I was reading Seneca today. “The fool with all his other faults is always getting ready to live.” A bit further on he continues: “…you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old?” What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I’ve read through this section repeatedly and cannot fully parse where he’s coming from. Yet, it seems to address this business of growing older and the attendant restlessness that I’ve noted. The wisdom of Seneca has withstood the ages so I’m going to give him the nod on this one. Yet it seems contrary, don’t you think? I suspect the old stoic would accept the fact in the mirror: You’re old. Face it. You’re not going to start getting ready to live.

It seems a curse of modern times that we are prompted to embrace eternal youth. Surgery, drugs, yoga, trophy spouses, fast cars, money, whatever–all seem to be evidence toward this notion. You’re not old, sixty is the new forty. I am sixty. I am not young, yet, with deference to Seneca,  I still occasionally throw out a scheme or plan to do something new. Today, in fact, Carole and I discussed living in a foreign country and learning its language. We went down to Boulder, a college town, and I talked about getting more education, or perhaps teaching something or other. What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? Tomorrow I am going to spend the morning fishing the Big Thompson, here in the high Rockies. That is not getting ready to live; that is living. Seneca would give me a wink, I think. Maybe I get it after all.

3.10.2016

In Books, Memoir, The Examined Life on March 10, 2016 at 7:02 pm

It is raining this evening. And the cold has returned. I sit with a scarf wrapped around my neck. The oven is heating up, and with Carole out of town I am left, again, to my own devices. The pelting rain against the window is comforting. In Finland, where the winter nights are long and punishing, they have a word for such coziness, “hygge” (pronounced ‘hooga’). There is an aspect of hygge-ness to a night like this.

I packed up books today. I am no longer attached to my library as I once was. In a previous house, I had a carpenter build floor to ceiling shelves, end to end, maybe twenty linear feet by ten feet high. Once we had a party at the house and a guest, looking at the shelves, said, “You’ve read all these books?” It was the question by which the shelves came to justification. They were trophy shelves.  It was nothing less than ego exercised. A few books remain, but we don’t have room now. Nor does ego require them any longer, being the lesser thing than it once was.

We all have our trophies, no? They are, really, nothing but excess exemplified. And I don’t have time, patience, nor, most importantly, room for excess any longer.

I put Montaigne into a box with the other books, but opened him randomly first:  “I wish to be remembered as the man who accumulated nothing.” It was the perfect send off. I have always been able to count on my French friend for support. It could have been Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The best teachers speak the same language.

As the rain falls, and the books get packed away, as my literary friends go to a place of dark resting, I contemplate, as is my nature, the meaning of all this. I have no sufficient answer. And I am comfortable with that. I know this at least, that sufficient answers are rare and hard to come by. It is the question that is most important. As another significant teacher recently put to me: What is the most important thing? And what is most important about the most important thing?

 

 

1.31.2016

In Adventure, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life on January 31, 2016 at 9:30 am

I used to live in a house deep in the woods. Our bedroom had a vaulted ceiling and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows. We had no neighbors, there was no need. They were tall beautiful windows that spanned from almost floor to ceiling peak. Our bedroom was situated such that from my morning pillow I could, without twisting my head, look out the windows and see trees. I used to lie there and think that seeing my trees from my deathbed would be a perfect finish to a life well lived. I’ve since sold the house and moved on and my deathbed scene will have to be revised accordingly.

Last night, after taking Lucy on her last-of-day walk, I passed through our bedroom here in Maine and noticed the dappling of the night lights reflecting off the water and onto our bedroom ceiling. This too, like the trees, is something I can see from my morning pillow without effort. I notice it most every morning and it always makes me happy, like waking up on a boat in nice weather must make one.

I saw the movie The Revenant this week and in it there is a scene  where Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character is befriended by a native, an Indian who has lost his family to a renegade tribe. At one point the two of them sit under the night sky, leaning against a small tree, and stare into space. The scene goes on a long while, long enough for me to ask myself: When was the last time you pondered the night sky without distraction?

Last year, you may recall, I traveled to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp. Our adventure came to a halt, high in the mountains, ten miles from Everest, due to the earthquake. A week or so before that event we stopped for the night in Tengboche, deep in the Khumbu Valley. From there we had a view of Everest. That night I went to bed in a corner room of the hostel. There was a window over my head, through which I could see Everest with the light of the moon reflecting off of it. It was a terribly cold night and I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag. Then I heard voices and, propped on my elbow, looked out the window where I observed a couple of fellow trekkers. They were standing in the field below my window, wearing puffy coats, and moving back and forth like those who are really cold will do. They were staring at the illumined mountain. Immediately, I was ashamed, ashamed that I was in my bag and not outside in the high Himalayas appreciating the night sky and the great mountains. But try as I might, I could not muster the discipline to get my sorry backside out of my warm sleeping bag. Eventually I drifted off to sleep. To this day and for all days to come, I will regret that. I will regret that I rolled over and ignored the call of that night. We returned through Tengboche after the earthquake. The corner room was gone, collapsed in the quake.

So it is, that I pay special attention to what I see before I fall off to sleep, and what I notice when I first wake up.