Archive for September 15th, 2013

To Every Thing, There Is a Higher Purpose

The last days of August were a flurry of activity as we prepared to leave Maine.  We would be returning to our home town for the month of Jewish holidays:  Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

I realized it was a week of “last chances” – – places to fish and swim; because upon our return in October it would be too cold to take a dip in the lake and fishing season would be over until ice fishing season began on January 1st (something I haven’t yet attempted).

I knew I wouldn’t have much luck fishing at Horseshoe Pond, but my rod and reel anyhow served only as an excuse to paddle my kayak around this beautiful place.  As its name indicates, it is shaped like the letter “U;” I paddled from one end to the other and back again.  I was the only one on the lake, alone in my thoughts on a warm and glorious day.

Horseshoe Pond

Horseshoe Pond (click to enlarge)  My house (not visible)  is just behind the middle hill in background.

I went for a walk with my dog near my house.  The foliage in the woods was so thick; yet despite the warm temperatures the air felt different, truly like the end of summer.  I noticed the sugar maples were just starting to turn, a few giving coy previews of the glories soon to come.

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Soon we passed the old West Stoneham one-room schoolhouse.  It was established in 1860 during Stoneham’s heyday, when the land was settled by farmers and loggers.  Shortly thereafter the population dwindled, victims of poor soil for farming; industrialization in the cities that offered better paying jobs; and the Spanish flu, which decimated entire families in this region.  Even though it was always small – – in 1880 the population was 475 souls – –  it’s hard to imagine our town as once bustling (the 2010 census indicated there are 237 residents, with a density of 7 residents per square mile). Yet in the late 1800s there were five such one-room schoolhouses spread throughout Stoneham.  Today the West Stoneham schoolhouse has been modernized somewhat and is used as someone’s summer cottage.

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The (former) West Stoneham one-room schoolhouse, ca. 1860

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Click to enlarge and see a closeup of W. Stoneham schoolhouse’s commemorative sign

On Friday morning, I decided to go fishing one last time at Virginia Lake.

While I was threading the worm onto the hook, I thought about how we humans tend to think of worms and bugs as the earth’s lowliest creatures.  Yet where would fish and birds (ergo us humans) be without them?  Although they may be an annoyance to humans, worms and insects clearly have a crucial purpose in life as part of the food chain and we would be lost without them.

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(It did not take long before the fish began biting. I caught seven: one was a yellow perch which is not a good eating fish; 2 were too small to keep; but four white perch were just the right size for our upcoming Shabbat dinner and lunch.)

While swatting mosquitoes back at home, the “bugs are beneficial” concept was further driven home by the arrival of the Bee Man.  He was there to harvest this year’s honey crop.  As noted in this article in the Portland Press Herald, this year’s honey crop was one of Maine’s all-time worst.  The Bee Man told me that he averages 1400 lbs of honey per year from his dozens of hives in bee yards spread over a 20 mile radius.  Last year he harvested 1700 lbs.  But this year, he will be lucky to get a meager 500 lbs.  The reason was mostly weather related:  bees prefer hot, sunny days, and 25 days out of 30 in June were rainy, with July and August not faring much better.  The bees were “thin,” he said, and not only could he not harvest whatever little amount of honey they had produced, he would have to add sugar cakes to the hives to feed them supplementally, lest they starve over the winter.

As I stood talking to Bee Man, I was busy swatting the bugs, and I pointed out that his bee suit was covered with gnats and mosquitoes.  “It’s about time!” he said with a smile.  “I’m telling you . . . something is going on.  Yours is the first place I’ve been to today that’s even had bugs!”  I frowned but Bee Man smiled.

“Usually when I empty the hives, I see a lot of ants.  This year I didn’t see any!  And if there aren’t ants, then there are earwigs.  But no earwigs this year, either.  Yep, definitely something is going on, and it’s not good.”  Translation:  pesticides have been introduced to some farms in Bee Man’s area.  True, there are fewer bugs, but the hives are in danger of colony collapse.  For Bee Man, bugs are a measuring stick for the health of his bees . . . and ourselves.

The lowly insect  – – something so small and seemingly insignificant (not to mention annoying) – –  is in fact not inconsequential at all.  Everything, and I do mean everything that was created by G-d has purpose and meaning and is part of a Greater Plan, even if our small minds cannot grasp it.

Seen in this light, even a gnat can inspire us with awe.

It is said there is no such thing as an atheist farmer, because despite his best efforts, he is at the mercy of the forces of Nature, and he recognizes that ultimately his success is up to G-d.  May the New Year reignite our sense of awe and wonder and appreciation of all the good that has been bestowed upon us, and instill us with clarity to recognize Truth.

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The Country Life, ca. 1938

Several years ago I was on a camping trip in West Virginia and we got stuck in a storm.  Since it wasn’t pleasant staying in our water-logged tent, and we couldn’t do much in the way of hiking, we decided to go to “town” where there was an old warehouse that rented its space to a variety of antique and junk dealers.  Browsing, I figured I might as well have some reading material to take back to my tent, so I bought some old Life Magazines from the 1940s (which, thrillingly, pictured the LCI ships that my father had commanded in the South Pacific during WWII) and some Readers Digests from the 1930s which provided a fascinating read about various uprisings and aggressions by Soviets (the evils of communism and Stalin terror), Germans (the occupation and annexation of Austria) and the Japanese (horrific accounts of the Rape of Nanking) which had not yet been officially declared “war.”  While the writing style is “chatty” as only Readers Digest can be, the contrast between the quality of writing from those days and the present is shocking.  If you ever need proof we’ve dumbed ourselves down over the years, read the common man’s journal of the 1930s versus the present!

Included in the October 1938 issue (“$.25 a copy, $3 a year”) is an essay entitled”Week-End Pioneers” by Ralph Haley, originally condensed from The Forum.  Mr. Haley and his wife were dreamers living in New York City, who bought some land in New England which included a derelict, rotting farmhouse.  For the next seven years, he would travel there every weekend and holiday in a never-ending quest of blood, sweat and tears, “painting and scraping and carpentering and digging and still have nothing but a decrepit old house and a few uncertain vegetables.”   What, Mr. Haley asks, “is the driving urge behind us back-to-the-landers?”  He writes:

In most cases it is the idea that, with a few acres and some sort of habitation, one’s future is somehow more secure.  If you had to, you could raise vegetables, keep a cow, . . .  and some chickens, and cut your fuel.  You could “get along” like the pioneers, without money.

This might be termed the grand delusion.  For in the state of not having money, you can starve and freeze and die of appendicitis in the country quite as effectively as anywhere else.

. . . There are, nevertheless, compensations and genuine satisfactions to offset the illusions.  For one thing, you have more room in the country, and space inevitably brings an expansion of the spirit.  You are more of an individual here among the broad, quiet fields; you develop curious ambitions and skills, become mildly eccentric, and enjoy the process very much.

. . . Of course in the country there is water to be pumped, wood to cut and carry, the stove to be cleaned and intricately adjusted, the garbage to be buried.  None of these tasks is pleasant in itself; yet it is not a misstatement to say that pleasure comes from doing them.

In our urban existence we have few real “chores” left; but we make up for it in mental strain.   Household tasks in the country are hard on muscles but easy on the mind.  Somehow, substituting a certain amount of muscle strain for mental strain seems to add up to happier living.

That, after all, is the secret bewitchment of rustic living.  You work with simple understandable things, which you can master, or you deal with the great natural forces of sun and rain and wind, which no man can master and before which it is a joy to be humble.  In either case there is enjoyment and self-realization.

What was true about Mr. Haley’s experience in 1938 is still applicable today.  Even 75 years later, I guess certain things have not changed.