LOCAL VIEW —signs and omens—


There are signs and omens all over the place, if you care for such things. I used to care, but have lost interest over the years, largely because I could see little advantage in glimpsing the future. I never got a glimpse clear enough to tell me what stocks to invest in, I suppose. Rather I’d get a vague sense of whether I was in for tough times or easy times, and there was no way to avoid either. Lastly, when tough times did come, they were never as bad as worry made them out to be beforehand, and actually turned out to be the times I brag the most about surviving, when reminiscing. (When I remember the good times it is often with the wistful sense I blew it, in some manner.)

The one time signs are helpful is when you are very discouraged, and in need of an encouraging word. Our fellow man sometimes can be pathetic, when it comes to encouraging us. Even the people trying to be kind will  propose some ridiculous diet or regime of exercise or ask you to contort yourself into yoga poses, when all you really need is a kindly glance. In such situations helpful friends can be downright depressing, and it is then that some sign, some bluebird landing on a nearby branch and singing, can be like a rope to a drowning swimmer.

Of course, if I became dependent on such signs I’d never get going in the morning. I have enough trouble getting started as it is, and if I needed a good omen before I proceeded I’d likely never get out of bed.

There was actually a time when I was young that I did demand life made sense, before I’d proceed, and I wound up very nearly paralyzed. I was deeply involved in the study of psychology, and at the slightest sign my behavior wasn’t adult I’d stop everything and analyse my every twitch. It was a good way to avoid getting a real job, and also acquainted me with the wonders of the subconscious, however in the end I had to get a real job even if life didn’t make sense.

At one point, before I got a real job, I was studying my dreams from every angle I could think of, and had a wonderful revelation. When you study dreams you, in a sense, make every action and every object within the dream be a symbol, and thus a sign. For example, if there is a road in the dream, it may symbolize “being-walked-upon”, (and you might even burst into tears when you have the insight that you feel trodden upon). The problem is that, before you get the first dream figured out, you tend to get tired and go to sleep and have another one. Studying all the symbols can get to be exhausting, and there is definitely no time left to look for a real job.

I had managed to arrange my life, as a young poet, in a way that allowed me to study dreams for days on end. Now I cringe, thinking of all the wasted time, but some good did come out of all the study. For one thing, I don’t waste time so much. I also suppose I understand the subconscious to some degree. However the revelation I wish to describe came after I had an overdose of dream-study, and decided I needed some fresh air, and went for a walk.

Because I’d been spending so much time analyzing objects in dreams, I was in the habit, and found myself analyzing the real objects in the real world as if they were symbols in a dream. I wasn’t trying to do it. In fact I was trying to stop. Yet I couldn’t. There wasn’t a leaf that fell that didn’t have some symbolic meaning. Maybe I didn’t know what the meaning was, but the meaning was there, as loud as thunder. I had wanted life to make sense, but now there was too much meaning, in every twig, in every birdsong, in every face in every passing car. It was a glorious and wonderful revelation, but I felt over my head and wanted it to stop. When it wouldn’t I went and bought a six pack of beer and got ossified, not to get high but rather to come back to earth. Then, when I awoke the next morning with a headache, I wondered why I had run away from the revelation. It was largely gone, though enough lingered to reassure me that life does make sense.

Due to that one event, forty years ago, I don’t scoff at people who gaze at stars, seeking astrological sense, or at teas leaves, or at the lines in palms, or at the entrails of goats. God really is in everything, even in the most dark, deplorable, and dismal situations. That is how the poet Wilford Owen was able to write, from the hideous trenches during World War One, “I too have seen God in mud.”

While I don’t scoff at those who seek to read things, I don’t have the time to follow them. Knowing the future doesn’t matter as much as how you behave when it gets here. The only time I adjust my behavior due to someone seeing the future is when I hear a storm may come, in a weather forecast, (and even then the forecast is often wrong. Also, these days, it is often absurdly sensationalized).

Rather than attempting to figure the Creator out, and know what He is up to, I tend to rest assured He knows what He is doing, even if I don’t particularly like it. This seems to open my eyes to beauty I’d otherwise miss. I don’t particularly like cleaning up after a snowstorm, but that doesn’t mean I can’t lean on my shovel and admire the view.

In this manner I’m able to admire the recent eclipse of the full moon, and the current conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars in the morning sky, without getting all worked up and worried about  what it all means. I can watch the leaves change and fall without getting all worked up about the onset of winter, (though I don’t forget to stack the wood).

The glory of what I call “Sugar Autumn” is ending, as we move into the less brilliant but still  beautiful foliage of “Oak Autumn”. In parts of the woods without oaks, it is starting to be “Under-story Autumn,” where the tall maples have lost their leaves, but the young ones beneath are just starting to change.

Understory Autumn IMG_0813

It seems that the Creator set up the ecosystem around here in a way that gives the young trees a little time to enjoy the sun free from the shade of their elders. The sapling maples  pop their leaves out a week before the taller ones in the spring, and lose their leaves a week after the taller ones in the fall. I’m sure a scientist can explain the reasons for this happening, but it doesn’t take anything away from the fact it is a wonderful design, and does allow the young time to grow, or at least subsist, until the old decide enough is enough and politely remove themselves from the sky by becoming increasingly rotten and the home of woodpeckers, or perhaps becoming firewood.

That is the sort of thing I contemplate, as I gaze upon Creation, and it seems wiser to me to appreciate beauty in this manner than to become worried, and in a sense to get in a fight with Creation. Too many people spend their entire lives avoiding what may never happen, and isn’t all that bad when it does happen. The reasons people give for the lessening of their lives are many, but it still remain a lessening. Some of the best advice I ever got may be the crudest, “Get over it.” For there are many ways to look at the moon.

And then the moon went on, westward through trees
Now bare of leaves, with a glance back towards me
Inviting. How could I follow? What frees
My feet to walk where the moon walks? What plea
Would it hear? All I could do was stand and yearn.

Once in a dream I walked those pearled highways
But for fool’s reasons felt I should return:
My mundane friends frowned on what disobeys.

Now like a grounded dodo I stand sad
As all wear armor and only in dreams
Does one walk nude in public. This world’s mad
And burdened by leaden get-rich-quick schemes.

But the moon’s not burdened. Midst the mad glow
Of cities it beckons those in its shadow.


I had plans to finish up some work on the clapboards at the end of my 250 year old house today, but awoke to temperatures of 23° (-5° Celsius) and frozen slush coating everything. I was pretty grouchy. October 18 is too darn early for snow. However the sun was brilliant on the horizon, and there wasn’t a breath of wind.First Snow 5 IMG_0760

It is hard to remain grouchy when it is so gorgeous out, but I tried my best. If I am to achieve my goal of becoming a cantankerous anachronism, it will require hard work and practice. So I put on my sourest expression and looked for things to gripe about.  I noticed my wife had left my granddaughter’s baby carriage had out, and it was all soggy with snow.   First Snow 2 IMG_0755Also the phlox flowers in the garden were frozen.First Snow 1 IMG_0753 Furthermore, the above photograph was suppose to be artistic, with the snowy car in the background, but it only reminded me I have to trim that yew. Also rake the leaves, and it’ll be harder with them wet.

Even as I was grouching to myself about that the leaves began falling. There wasn’t a breath of wind, but sometimes they are merely frozen to the twigs, so that the first beams of sun melts them free, even in a complete calm. In fact one leaf, as it falls, can jar others free, and a slowly developing slow motion avalanche of color crisply slides down the side of the tree. Formerly I’d sigh, and wax poetic, but as a practicing grouch I now grumble about how all the leaves are covering my firewood and keeping it from properly drying. The heap of firewood is to the right of the road, in this picture.First Snow 4 IMG_0756 You can see all those messy leaves all over the road. It’s enough to make you roll your eyes to heaven.First Snow 3 IMG_0758

Oh well. I figure Sunday’s suppose to be a day of rest, anyway. I’ll get back to practicing my grouchy expression first thing on Monday morning.


I spent a Saturday doing my usual Saturday chores, which include a trip to the bank and a trip to dump, which we now call the “recycling center.”  I hate recycling, because there is always some sort of slime I get on my hands as I sort stuff. I can get very haughty, in a Rodney Dangerfield sort of way, about how inconsiderate my household is when they throw stuff away.

Today some rotten potatoes somehow wound up in the recyclable paper, and someone threw out a glass bottle of Thai peanut sauce that wasn’t empty, and I got it up to my elbows, as I sorted the glass to green, brown and clear bins. However worst were my granddaughter’s diapers. Someone just chucked a bag into the back of my pick-up truck, and the bag split, and the diapers spilled out and froze to the bed of the truck in a way that required a pry-bar to remove.  It was a chance for me to be spiritual and humble, and I totally failed.

It actually was a beautiful morning, but there is always some shadow that can spoil the beauty, if you allow it to. I knew I should focus on the brighter side of life, but sometimes I just get grumpy, and feel put upon, and then it seems best to remember Rodney Dangerfield, and to make a sort of exaggeration out of my mood, and reduce it to absurdity.

What I really wanted to do was be lazy, and write poems and study weather maps, but today was the day we get and decorate the Christmas tree, and that meant I had to start a second fire in a second stove, because I seem to be the only one who knows how to lay a fire correctly. (I might have turned up the heat, but I’m in the dog-house for forgetting to order propane, and we have to be careful before the truck comes on Monday, or we will run out.)

Nearly running out of Propane gives me something else to grouse about. Having four full-grown children at home, and a baby granddaughter, means long, long showers, and all sorts of cooking in the kitchen, and an excuse to turn up the heat (the baby), and the propane tank which was 60% full sank to 10% full with amazing speed.  I don’t even know why I checked it, this morning, but when I did my eyebrows shot past my receding hairline. I knew I’d be in really big trouble if we ran out on Christmas day. So, rather than sitting back and writing a poem, I had to track down the propane people on a Saturday when no one is available. Then I discovered they’d charge $200.00 simply to show up. I decided we could wait until Monday, but that meant I had to get the wood fires going.

It is ironic that the kids wanted to go out in the woods and get a tree. They sure didn’t have that attitude when they were small. I’d try to make the event be like something you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting, but they always wondered why we didn’t just buy one like other people did. (Usually I was basically broke, after buying gifts.) I’d tell them they would remember the event fondly, but they assured me they would require therapy to recover from the scars. Bears used to be woken from hibernation and poke their heads from caves in wonder, as the kids passed in a chorus of complaints, trudging through the trees.

I remember one time it started snowing, and snowed an amazing three inches in around an hour, and my youngest was a baby wailing in a back pack, as my three-year-old somehow lost both a boot and a sock and hopped about on one foot, and just then a loud helicopter slowly passed over, and could be dimly seen up through the falling snow, and my oldest daughter, (who was thirteen and thought “family-stuff is dumb” and answered “whatever” to anything you said,) looked up and cried out, “We’re saved!  We’re saved!”

The next year I bought a tree.

But now they want to go out in the woods? They want an absurd tree, like the ones I used to get?  They speak fondly of the tree that was narrow at the bottom, and expanded like an inverted pyramid until it was wide by the ceiling? They are sentimental about the time I wove a white pine, hemlock, and spruce together to make a facsimile of a balsam fir?

Bah humbug.

All I wanted to do was study weather maps and the radar, and try to figure out why the promising mass of moisture to our south didn’t bloom into a nor’easter, but instead slid harmlessly out to sea.

20141219 rad_nat_640x480 20141219B rad_nat_640x480_12

The interesting thing is that we did get a hint of the nor’easter that never happened. Where you see the thin blue bit of snow over northern Virginia in the second radar view above there was a plume of moisture from the southeast, and even far to the north in New Hampshire our sunny day suddenly saw purple scud come rolling up from the southeast, and it went from a day of bright sun and long shadows to a day softened by gray, with no shadows at all.

Not that I’d have time to write a poem about it. I had to get fires going, and then it would be rude to just sit at my computer, and not join the family to decorate the ridiculous tree my kids dragged in from the woods. I was just glad there was no nor’easter, and no shoveling to do.

20141219 satsfc

20141220 satsfc

(In the second map above you can see a mass of clouds pushing past Cape Cod. That is the nor’easter-that-failed-to-be.)

I have to confess that, even though I was feeling a bit tired, and bloated from the trays of snacks and goodies that was served instead of a wholesome dinner, there was something nice about trimming the tree.

Nor can I say I didn’t write a sonnet, after the house got quiet.

The shortest days grow the longest shadows.
My pest leaps along beside me at noon
Copying but not helping. It elbows
My concentration like some thuggish goon
Blotting darkness across a bright, clear day
Otherwise made wine-like by soft blue skies
And windless air and feathered, flitting play
Of small winter birds with thin, piping cries.
Go away, shadow. Who invited you to come?
You turn sunshine harsh, and make me glad
Low purple rolls in from the sea to numb
And turn the winter landscape gray and sad.
He never answers. I cross the gray lawn
And look beside me, and see he’s gone.



Local View —Popple—

Tonight I’m going to talk about Popple, because the map and radar-view below show that nothing is happening, weather-wise. I figure nothing happening is a good thing. It frees up time, and one can “make hay while the sun shines.” It wasn’t stormy, so I cut some wood with my chainsaw, including some Popple.

Of course, if you are a true weather geek, you have no hayfield, and can’t make hay while the sun shines. Your life is devoid of meaning, and therefore you have to seek the maps below for storms, even before they exist. Why?  I suppose it is because storms cancel school and work, which are situations that may give one the sense one doesn’t mean much, and instead places one in a situation where every helper counts and every man has meaning. (Or, even if you can’t be helpful with the shoveling, at least the humiliations of the classrooms and workplaces cease.)

In other words, storms give life meaning.

Looking at the map below you can see a very weak northern branch low over the Great Lakes with a very weak southern branch low to its south. A week ago computer models saw those two inconsequential features “phasing” into a big storm off the east coast. It gave weather geeks hope. Maybe school and work would be cancelled.

20141218B satsfc 20141218B rad_nat_640x480

That storm-cancelling, work-cancelling storm isn’t going to happen. Weather geeks are hurting, smarting from disappointment, and they express their rage by sneering at those models that disappointed them. In fact it feels good to sneer at someone else, after getting sneered at by bullies at schools and workplaces.

(And don’t think I am fooled for an instant by the efforts of the politically-correct to “end bullying” in schools. All it does is replace one sort of bullying with another. As long as a form of behavior is deemed “incorrect,” noses will wrinkle as if sniffing a stench when faced with that incorrect behavior, and that nose-wrinkling is a sneer, and the sneered-at will feel bullied.)

In any case, the sneered-at weather geeks, if not sneering at the failure of the current storm to develop, are looking ahead with hope to the next storm, a possible “Santabomb” on Christmas day. They refuse to become stagnant. They keep their minds ever-active.

I know all about this, because I was a wimp for a time in school, and, because no one would listen to me talk, I learned about the withdrawn world of writing. However after a while that got old, because no one would read my writing, either. I had to get the hell out, or become one of those fellows who slowly goes mad, living in their mother’s basement.

As a teenager I wrote a poem that began,

No policeman came and told me
I had harmed society
But every poem became an oldie,
Echoing a tragedy.
Hiding down in my bomb shelter
Words once bloomed like spring for me
But now words fall flat, helter skelter:
I have lost the harmony.
I have never fed the poor
Or helped the helpless live a day
So then what do I do it for?
Unless it’s an escapist’s play:
Working midnights without pay…

It was obviously becoming obvious, even back then, that I had to get out into the sunshine and make some hay, but that is more easily said than done, especially if you are determined to be a writer, (which gives you an excuse to withdraw). However, thank God, I did get out into the sunshine. (And discovered it didn’t stop my writing.)

Because I was forced (against my will) out into the sunshine, I was forced to spend time with old Yankee men who seemingly spent all their time making hay, and had no use for poetry. I found them incredibly dull, because they had no use for Shakespeare or Keats or Shelley or even Robert Frost, and had no interest in sonnets or alliteration or iambic pentameter or assonance. All they wanted to talk about was wood, wood, wood, wood, all the live-long day, it seemed. If they ever ventured away from the subject of wood it was to talk about saws, but that led to axes, and then back to the best wood for an ax handle. The only reason I paid attention to them at all was to create a sort of sneering parody of the way they talked. Fortunately I worked hard on my parody, and accidentally learned a thing or two about wood in the process.

Today, as I took advantage of the briefly open winter to chainsaw some wood, I got to thinking about those old guys, now long dead and gone and largely forgotten. I was feeling a bit sad I didn’t listen, as I cut some popple. I wished they were still around, as I had all sorts of questions.

“Popple” is a wonderful, but pretty much extinct, verb. (Notice how I, as a writer, veer away from the actual subject of the wood?) It comes from an old, forgotten word “popul” which may come from the Roman “populus”, and which, when combined with a somewhat mysterious Dutch root that created “poplen,” created a hybrid-word that specifically described choppy water when the chop was small, more of a pointed lapping than waves.

Of course we never spend enough time in small, open boats to need such a word in our modern world. However it is a rather neat word, nonetheless.

How did it shift from describing water to trees? Actually it is rather obvious, if you have ever been outside and watched cottonwood, aspen or poplar in the sunshine. Quaking aspen are called “quaking” for a reason. The leaves are designed to flutter in even a slight breeze, (perhaps to shake dust from their surfaces), and, because the upper surface of the leaves are shiny, the fluttering makes them flash and twinkle in a manner reminiscent of water. What’s more, they make a noise like water sometimes does, which is a little reminiscent of many clapping hands, and applause.

In any case, the tree was called “popple” in New England, by the old-timers. I knew enough to deem it a trash tree. Of course the old-timers didn’t call any wood “trash”, and would go on and on and on at great length about the uses for popple. The fact they could call a trash tree useful seemed worth sneering at, when I was young, and the only reason I know of popple’s uses is because I learned how to parody their learnedness.

It is a trash tree because it decays swiftly, if it stays wet. It would not make a good fence post, as the part in the ground would rot in a couple years. Also, perhaps because it grows so swiftly, the branches are not as deeply embedded in the trunks as other trees are, and can snap off with ease. Where an oak branch joins a tree with a strength boat-builders once coveted and used for ribs of ships, popple has no such structural integrity, and in fact they are a dangerous tree to climb, as I learned as a boy, when branches kept breaking off beneath me when I was far up a tree, to my great alarm.

Actually branches may break off easily for a reason, as they can easily re-root and form a new tree. Some old farmers actually used popple as fenceposts, because, if one took care, they would re-root and be living posts. (Willow was even better for such living posts.)

Under the right conditions popple can send up shoots from its roots, and grow an entire grove of trees from what began as a lone seedling. This is often seen out west, where an entire mountainside may be covered by what looks like hundreds of aspen, but is actually a single organism. In this respect some popple might be bigger than sequoia and older than bristle-cone pines.

Here in the east popple is most often spread by their seeds. The trees bloom like pussy willows in the spring, but the blooms get as long as big caterpillars and then produce huge amounts of pollen that can make a black car yellow, if the car is parked beneath. Then popple free seeds that float like dandelion seeds do, but in such enormous amounts that it can look like it is snowing.  The drifting of such fluff ensures that popple are the first tree to sprout in any abandoned field, or in the meadow that appears when an abandoned beaver dam breaks, and the old pond vanishes. Within five years, the beavers can move back, and repair their dam, because popple is one of their favorite foods.

Because the trees grow so swiftly, (most don’t survive fifty years, and a hundred-year-old popple is rare,) the wood is very light when dry. It has little flavor, and was once used to box cheese and for kitchen implements, but its light weight meant that it was used a lot for the wooden chassis of old time wagons, because horses preferred lighter wagons. Despite the fact branches break easily from trunks, the wood (when straight grained and knot-free) is surprisingly flexible and bouncy, and difficult to break.

I don’t really understand how the same wood can first snap easily and later refuse to break, but have seen the toughness of the soft wood cause me trouble. One time I was stuffing popple into a wood chipper, thinking the chipper would grind up the soft wood with ease, but instead the chipper ground to a halt. The popple had turned into long, flat strings which were so flexible they utterly bound up the guts of the machine. I had to spend an hour laboriously cutting away the strands with a knife, and pulling them out, before I could restart the chipper and get back to work.

Having described how surprising tough the wood is, whether as a kitchen spoon or a wagon chassis, I hasten to add it has to be to be dried swiftly, because if given half a chance popple reabsorbs water like a sponge, and then is swift to rot.

Robert Frost wrote a poem about a farmer who buried his young son in a casket of popple wood. The farmer was so insensitive that he was surprised when his wife got upset, because he remarked, (about the wood, not the son), that it was swift to grow and swift to rot.

All these thoughts were passing through my head as I chainsawed up a popple to use in the pasture campfire, at the Childcare today. Old facts wandered through my head, such as: Popple only makes good firewood if you can keep it out of the rain. Even bone dry wood can swiftly become so sodden it is nearly unburnable, if it is left in the rain.

I was cutting the lower half of a tree that lost a large part of its top in an ice-storm six years ago. The lower half lived on in a hopeless sort of way, and finally died last year.  The upper half, sprawled at the edge of the pasture,  was a favorite playground toy of the children, which they called “the monkey tree.” I have been told I can’t cut up the “monkey tree” for firewood, but the lower half was mine. It thudded to earth, and I was busily cutting the trunk into 18-inch-sections, but stopped sawing as the children came out to play.  As they clambered all over the new trunk and played with the sawdust (and informed me I wasn’t allowed to use the new trunk for firewood,) I looked over at the nearby “monkey tree,”  thinking how it had proved me wrong.

I figured the “monkey tree” would swiftly rot,  and therefore have quite regularly put the entire weight of my body on its barkless branches, testing them, (preferring them to break under my weight than to snap beneath an unsuspecting child.) Much to my amazement the tree hasn’t rotted a bit. Likely it is because it has stayed dry enough.

However there is another thing about popple I probably should mention. It may explain why the “monkey tree” is not rotting the way I expect a trash tree to rot.

The word “popple” actually is used to describe three different species of tree, here in New England. The old-timers, talking on and on and on about wood, likely knew which one they were talking about when they used the word “popple,” and likely would state this popple is a popple that rots more slowly than other popple.

I, however, didn’t listen. I can only wonder how much they knew has been lost by fellows like me.



(click to enlarge, and then click again to be there.)


They say, “You can’t fight city hall,” however city hall has it’s own saying, somewhere along the lines of either, “Beware of kissing pissing babies,” and “Don’t stamp on King Kong’s toes.” This is due to a sad truth bureaucrats learn early: “People don’t get mad, they get even.”

“Getting even.” It is an odd expression, especially in a society that doesn’t, officially at least, accept the idea of Karma. However people say things such as, “What goes around comes around,” and even in Christianity there is the statement, “You reap what you sow,” while science states, “Every action has it’s reaction.” Unofficially, at least, Karma is alive and well, and while young officials think they can outlaw Karma, older officials know better. Even if you make a law against getting even, people will get even, one way or another.

“Getting Even” is the Old Testament idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It is not like the New Testament idea of “turning the other cheek.” It is not a nice concept, for it basically states that if someone hurts you, you are allowed to hurt them back to the same degree, so that the two hurts are “even.”

In other words, two wrongs do make a right, on some primitive level.

It is due to their awareness of this unspiritual side of human nature that anyone who has any experience with public relations is cautious, and indeed walks on eggs, when delivering any sort of official and officious “cease and desist” order. In the inner city injudicious injunctions can trigger a riot, while in the wealthy suburbs you may run up against the wrath of snobs, and either find you are mysteriously laid off or else denied an expected raise or promotion, because someone talked to somebody “behind the scenes.” Out in the country, however, all you are liable to see is a dangerous glint in a bumpkin’s eye, and you’ll immediately know, deep down, you had best apologize, or else risk walking about wearing a target called “reputation.”

In the business of Childcare you run into young bureaucrats eager to show off stuff they learned in college, who walk up to wise grandmothers who have a hundred grandchildren and blithely inform the matriarch she knows nothing about raising children. When politely asked, “How many children have you yourself raised?” these young whippersnappers quite cheerfully respond, “None, but I’ve been to college, and also was a student teacher for a whole semester and a half.” At that point I have noticed grandmothers behave oddly.

Rather than clouting the whippersnapper, the grandmother’s face fills with an expression of compassion and concern, and they take the young bureaucrat under their wing, and try to keep them from hurting themselves. In fact, while it has been my experience that the laws that bureaucrats write, concerning Childcare, are as impractical, obtrusive, obstructive and absurd as the laws written concerning other businesses, the Childcare bureaucrats themselves have a wonderful streak of common sense, and, on occasions when they could “throw the book at you,” are far more likely to “guide you through the red tape.”

I assume this happens because children are the first to probe any law for weakness and any rule for exceptions. It takes far longer for intended good to become unintended bad, in other industries such as wood cutting or chicken farming. Kids can show you that what you thought was a good idea is actually dumb in around thirteen seconds.

Therefore I will skip Childcare bureaucrats, for the remainder of this essay, and instead focus on water-level bureaucrats.

Water-level bureaucrats are the guys in charge of something most would assume God is in charge of. However, in certain cases, the level of water is not determined by rainfall or drought, but rather by a gate on a dam. By adjusting the gate, water is at the right level for docks by summer cottages. With tourism such an important part of the New Hampshire economy, the guy in control of the gate has power.

However it just so happened that one fellow, who I’ll call Hyrum Hoppinmadder, who lived by one lake, decided his property would be much more valuable if he just raised the water level of a pond by a mere four inches. He could barely dock a canoe at his dock, but a mere four inches would enable him to dock a small motor boat. So he decided he would do a dark deed in the dead of night. He crept to the outflow of the pond and replaced a six-inch-wide board with a ten-inch-wide board. Furthermore, he tiptoed on to the stake that measured the water level of the pond, and slightly vandalized that stake, by raising it four inches. Raising the stake was not wise, for the stake soon tilted drunkenly to one side, which caused dawn to break on the brows of others, who noticed strange changes to their own waterfront property.

You would not think a mere four inches would matter, but barely-adequate beaches disappeared, waterside trees sickened and looked likely to die, toilets that once flushed ceased flushing, and indeed the quality of the pond’s water changed and fish stopped jumping, as an four extra inches of soil leeched into the pond. While some blamed Global Warming, others blamed Hyrum, who seemed perfectly happy about the change, and who strangely had a motorboat at his dock when he’d always had a canoe, before.

Obviously the situation was a delicate one, to be handled with kid gloves, because to serve Hyrum with a cease and desist order would spark a feud between pro-Hyrum and anti-Hyrum locals. Fortunately a wise head oversaw the situation, and did the wise thing, which was to pass the buck to an “outsider.” A engineer from the State came in and, even though the tilted water-level gauge stated the level was the same, by looking at the stains on waterside rocks, he determined the water had risen four inches. He went to the outlet gate and, after carefully looking at the aged plank, determined it was a counterfeit and not quite the same as the original. He announced state regulation 87B492 sub-clause 56C had been violated, and replaced the ten-inch board with a six-inch board. Beaches reappeared, dying trees came back to life, toilets again flushed, fish began jumping, and everyone except Hyrum was happy.

I tell this tale to show a situation where a bureaucrat can butt in and actually make things better. Of course, as a meddling “outsider” he expected nothing but blame and abuse, however the State engineer was surprised in this case, because his department got few letters from incensed taxpayers, though he and his department did get six furious threats from some fellow he didn’t know, called Hyrum.

Usually, however, water levels are not so stable. There are reletively few pristine lakes in New Hampshire whose levels don’t change. Those few, (and usually very large,) lakes fill the drowned valleys scooped out by long-ago glaciers, with outlets over solid granite that cannot be raised or lowered, whose water levels may briefly rise in floods but soon return to their constant and steady levels, allowing old pines and oaks to grow on their shores.

Pines and Oaks are not all that interesting to another engineer, whom the State Engineer knows personally, and knows is more powerful than the State, because this other engineer is God’s Engineer, also called the “Beaver.”

Beavers raise water levels all over New Hampshire not four inches, but four feet, and have done so for thousands of years. They create ponds out of streams and lakes out of small ponds, and are part of a rather neat three-step-succession of vegetation.

Beaver love poplar and alder and willows and birches, but tend to eat themselves out of house and home, and eventually have to abandon their dams and lodges and look for new groves of poplar, alders, willows and birches. Once they stop caring for their dam it rots and washes away, and the pond is replaced by a grassy meadow. The very first trees to move in and colonize the meadow are, (you guessed it,) poplars, alders, willows and birches. Therefore, when beavers return to the exact place which they once denuded of poplar, alder, willow and birch, they find a feast. In a sense they have but left the ground fallow, and seen it be enriched.

This succession of pond, to meadow, to grove of trees happens over and over again. In some places it has happened several hundred times since the last ice age ended. Because silt collects in their ponds and fails to fully wash away before the next pond is built, beavers gradually build up flat areas of rich topsoil in once sterile, notched valley bottoms. Also, because they tend to rebuild their new dams on the low rotted remenents of old dams which cross valleys, these mounds gradually grow larger until even when the beavers are gone they form dry walkways across swampy areas.

Then along came man, who preferred a meadow to remain a meadow. Beavers were hunted as edible vermin, unwanted except for their valuable fur, which became especially valuable when top hats such as Abraham Lincoln’s became all the rage and were made of such fur.

Beavers all but vanished from New England, but their geology remained. Their old dams were used as the foundations for roads, with the stream passing under the road in a culvert. Upstream, where the pond had been, was a lush meadow. Often it was a “ditched pasture,” with some of the ditches a memory of the “canals” beavers dig. In places such idyllic farmland thrived, beaver-free, for close to three hundred years, before farming started to become less profitable, and the fields began to be abandoned, and the trees returned. So did the beavers, though their recovery was more slow, primarily due to the Great Depression. People had families to feed, and not only is beaver fur valuable, but their meat is edible.

Then came the post war boom, and much farmland outside cities turned into suburbs. People no longer had to eke by on hardscrabble farms, barely scraping up enough to pay the mortgage and taxes. (In my town the money made by children picking blueberries during the summer vacation often made the difference between a farm that was merely impoverished,  and homelessness.) Instead people made far more money commuting and working nine-to-five jobs, and many became wealthy enough to move from hardscrabble farms to plusher, suburban developments. Left to themselves, the beavers thrived. They too became wealthy, in a beaverish sort of way, and consequently they too decided to move to the suburbs.

A beaver sees a suburb differently than a human. Where a human sees a road with a culvert, a beaver sees a forefather’s dam, and where humans see a farmer’s meadow turned into a twelve-unit housing development, a beaver sees some really yummy flowering crabs, cherries, and some less-desirable lilacs and Japanese maples that will do for dinner in a pinch, and serve well as building material. So the beaver becomes as busy as a beaver, and, because he has only a culvert to block, rather than an entire valley, he can literally raise the water level four feet over night.

This outrages the humans, who can awake to driveways awash and feet of water in their basements. Their first and foremost impulse is to kill the over-sized rat, and that was what was done when I was young. (It does no good to remove the dam, firstly because doing so is very hard work, because such dams are amazingly well-built of interwoven branches, tangled weeds and twigs, and well-packed mud, and also because, even if you remove the dam, the beaver can once again build another overnight.) The only real solution is to remove the beaver, however nowadays bureaucracies step in.

In some places, where beaver were once rare, they are a “protected species,” even though they are no longer endangered, because they bred like only rodents can do. Also, as soon as a beaver floods lawns, lawns become “wetlands,” and a whole slew of other rules and regulations kick into effect. Furthermore, when you break a dam you create a brief down stream flash flood, and alerts and warnings must be issued. There are likely other bureaucracies involved as well, that I can’t think of, at the moment, involving other permits and forms and red tape, which a man doesn’t want to deal with when water is about to pour into his basement and destroy his furnace and hot water heater, and perhaps even make his home condemnable. He wants to act and to act swiftly, and if you tell him he must fill out form 264B and bring it to an office six towns away, you are liable to see a dangerous glint in the man’s eye.

It is situations such as this that separate the good bureaucrats from the ones who wonder why they never get promoted, and instead get transferred to Siberia. The good ones know about loopholes in the law, and about “waivers,” and about obscure “emergency stipulations.” The bad ones….

Well, rather than writing any more I will just quote two letters I found floating around on the internet. They say what I could try to state better than I ever could:

This is a copy of an actual letter sent to Ryan DeVries, from the
 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, State of Michigan. Wait
 till you read this guy’s response – but read the entire letter before
 you get to the response.

Mr. Ryan DeVries
 2088 Dagget
 Pierson, MI 49339
 SUBJECT: DEQ File No. 97-59-0023; T11N; R10W, Sec. 20;

 Site Location: Montcalm County

 Dear Mr. DeVries:

 It has come to the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality
 that there has been recent unauthorized activity on the above referenced
 parcel of property. You have been certified as the legal landowner
 and/or contractor who did the following unauthorized activity:

 Construction and maintenance of two wood debris dams across the outlet
 stream of Spring Pond.

 A permit must be issued prior to the start of this type of activity. A
 review of the Department’s files shows that no permits have been issued.

 Therefore, the Department has determined that this activity is in
 violation of Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resource
 and Environmental Protection Act, Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994,
 being sections 324.30101 to 324.30113 of the Michigan Compiled Laws

 The Department has been informed that one or both of the dams partially
 failed during a recent rain event, causing debris and flooding at
 downstream locations. We find that dams of this nature are inherently
 hazardous and cannot be permitted.

 The Department therefore orders you to cease and desist all activities
 at this location, and to restore the stream to a free-flow condition by
 removing all wood and brush forming the dams from the stream channel.
 All restoration work shall be completed no later than January 31, 2002.

 Please notify this office when the restoration has been completed so
 that a follow-up site inspection may be scheduled by our staff. Failure
 to comply with this request or any further unauthorized activity on the
 site may result in this case being referred for elevated enforcement

 We anticipate and would appreciate your full cooperation in this matter.
 Please feel free to contact me at this office if you have any questions.

 David L. Price
 District Representative
 Land and Water Management Division


Dear Mr. Price,

 Re: DEQ File No. 97-59-0023; T11N; R10W, Sec. 20;
 Montcalm County

 Reference your certified letter dated 12/17/2000 has been referred to me
 to respond to. First of all, Mr. Ryan De Vries is not the legal
 landowner and/or contractor at 2088 Dagget, Pierson, Michigan.

 I am the legal owner and a couple of beavers are in the (State
 unauthorized) process of constructing and maintaining two wood “debris”
 dams across the outlet stream of my Spring Pond.

 While I did not pay for, authorize, nor supervise their dam project, I
 think they would be highly offended that you call their skillful use of
 natural building materials “debris.” I would like to challenge your
 department to attempt to emulate their dam project any time and/or any
 place you choose. I believe I can safely state there is no way you could
 ever match their dam skills, their dam resourcefulness, their dam
 ingenuity, their dam persistence, their dam determination and/or their
 dam work ethic.

 As to your request, I do not think the beavers are aware that they must
 first fill out a dam permit prior to the start of this type of dam
 activity. My first dam question to you is:
 (1) Are you trying to discriminate against my Spring Pond Beavers? or,
 (2) do you require all beavers throughout this State to conform to said
 dam request?

 If you are not discriminating against these particular beavers, through
 the Freedom of Information Act I request completed copies of all those
 other applicable beaver dam permits that have been issued. Perhaps we
 will see if there really is a dam violation of P! art 301, Inland Lakes
 and Streams, of the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act,
 Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, being sections 324.3010,1 to
 324.30113 of the Michigan Compiled Laws, annotated. I have several
 concerns. My first concern is aren’t the beavers entitled to legal

 The Spring Pond Beavers are financially destitute and are unable to pay
 for said representation – so the State will have to provide them with a

 The Department’s dam concern that either one or both of the dams failed
 during a recent rain event causing flooding is proof that this is a
 natural occurrence, which the Department is required to protect. In
 other words, we should leave the Spring Pond Beavers alone rather than
 harrass them and call their dam names. If you want the stream “restored”
 to a dam free-flow condition – please contact the beavers – but if you
 are going to arrest them they obviously did not pay any attention to
 your dam letter (being unable to read English).

 In my humble ! opinion, the Spring Pond Beavers have a right to build
 their unauthorized dams as long as the sky is blue, the grass is green
 and water flows downstream. They have more dam right than I do to live
 and enjoy Spring Pond. If the Department of Natural Resources and
 Environmental Protection lives up to its name, it should protect the
 natural resources
 (Beavers) and the environment (Beavers’ Dams).

 So, as far as the beavers and I are concerned, this dam case can be
 referred for more elevated enforcement action right now. Why wait until
 1/31/2002 The Spring Pond Beavers may be under the dam ice then, and
 there will be no way for you or your dam staff to contact/harass them

 In conclusion, I would like to bring to your attention a real
 environmental quality (health) problem in the area. It is the bears.
 Bears are actually defecating in our woods. I definitely believe you
 should be persecuting the defecating bears and leave the beavers alone.

 If you are going to investigate the beaver dam, watch your step! (The
 bears are not careful where they dump!)

 Being unable to comply with your dam request, and being unable to
 contact you on your answering machine, I am sending this response to
 your office via another government organization – the USPS. Maybe,
 someday, it will get there.

 Stephen L. Tvedten
 The University of Texas at: Austin
 Office Community Relations/Accounting unit
 P.O. Box 7367
 Austin, TX 78713

 O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand; Between their loved homes
 and the war’s desolation; Blessed with victory and peace, may the
 heaven’s rescued land; Praise the power that hath made, and preserved us
 a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just; And this be
 our motto,

 “In God is our Trust”; And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall
 wave, O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave. (last verse of
 the National