Bicycling

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Somewhere in southern Michigan, Summer 1975. Photo by Steven K. Smith

Spring has finally arrived, flowers blooming, gentle breezes, warm rains, birds singing, and all the other pleasant clichés that attend it. One of those other signs of spring is that I got my bicycle out and tried going for a ride for the first time since last fall.

Let me explain how embarrassing it was for me to write that last sentence.

While a junior in high school I saved up my money and got a membership in the League of American Wheelmen, an organization that promotes bicycling and dates from the late 19th century, and was a major force for promoting the construction of good roads in the US, among other things. It’s now known by the less sexist title, “League of American Bicyclists” but when I joined it was still “Wheelmen.”

The summer after my high school graduation I took a solo bike trip from my home in central Ohio to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, just north of Cadillac, about 500 miles (800 km) or so. I went with about $35 in my pocket, camping behind bushes in stands of trees along the road at night. Admittedly, $35 went farther in 1975 than it does today, but still.

The trip up there took five days. One of those days I had a tail wind most of the day and went about 150 miles (240 km). My bike broke down in a manner that I couldn’t repair on the road shortly before I got to my destination. The last 50 miles (80 km) were slow and uncomfortable with a wobbly rear wheel missing four spokes and a serious flat spot on the rim. My father and my older brother came to rescue me. What remained of my $35 dollars wouldn’t have covered a new wheel.

In my last year at Ohio State University I didn’t bother getting a parking sticker for the student lot. Rain or shine, snow or ice, I rode my bike to school from my off-campus apartment. I calculated that for every time I drove to classes the previous year, that had I parked illegally in the student lot, got a ticket each time, and paid the ticket, it still wasn’t as much as what the parking sticker cost.

I was a veteran of many invitational club rides in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and was president of our local bike club one year. I used to think of a twenty mile ride as a “short” ride.

Biking gradually decreased, partially due to knee and back problems, but also (let’s be honest) because of general laziness and the advance of other interests. My music “career” began taking up much of the time I used to spend biking.

My inaugural spring-time ride the other day was about seven or eight miles. A positive change I may have I’ve noticed: It seems that fewer motorists are overtly hostile toward bikers these days. In my early experience it wasn’t uncommon to be honked at aggressively, cursed at, and on one occasion I had a car full of young delinquents make several passes throwing peaches at me. (A peach going 50 miles per hour hurts. I had bruises.) It’s been years since I’ve seen that sort of thing. I can’t deny the possibility, however, that maybe I’m just not seeing it because I’m on the road less these days. I hope not.

Back in the seventies and early eighties the etiquette on crowded invitational rides was to announce, “On your left,” when passing a slower rider. This convention also applies for pedestrians on multi-use trails.

While I was doing my ride the other day, part of it did occur on such a trail, one reclaimed from an old railroad right of way. When I passed the joggers on the trail I dutifully called the warning, which has become practically a reflex for me. It seemed that few of them heard it, however. Most of them had earbuds from their smartphones in and were not exactly engaged with their surroundings. I avoided hitting anyone, but I came close once. It’s a narrow path.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for someone to develop a cell phone app to detect the sound of a biker approaching and give a warning over the music. Maybe it could use GPS and distributed network technology to keep track of approaching hazards. I don’t know.

I offer this idea for free to anyone who’d like to develop it. It could potentially prevent many injuries.

Or they could just remove the earbuds and engage in the environment they’ve taken the effort to put themselves into. But that’s crazy talk.

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Burning the Flag

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Photo by Steven K. Smith © 2009

Last spring I burned an American Flag.

I’d found it behind one of our raised beds while I was cleaning it out to make ready for planting the vegetables. It had apparently blown there some time the previous year and was mostly hidden in the grass that the mower won’t quite reach at the base of the garden bed.

It was a small flag, the type one might have bought at a department store with a package of Independence Day decorations. The red stripes had faded to the point that they were nearly gray, and at one of the points where it had been stapled to a stick there was a rip extending into the star-field. It was maybe six by nine inches, as I recall.

I could have just put it in the trash with the rest of the debris I’d raked up, but that wouldn’t have been respectful. I’d learned in Boy Scouts, back when the continents were closer together, that the proper way to dispose of a worn-out flag is to burn it.

I had to clean out my little stainless steel fire pit to do that, a chore I hadn’t counted on doing that day. It took a little bit to locate enough dry twigs to do the job, but I managed to find some in the wood pile we use for our occasional backyard fires, that were dry enough. Getting the fire going took some time too, but I didn’t want to use charcoal lighter to do it. Somehow that didn’t seem respectful either.

When the fire was going well I draped the little, worn-out flag on top, jerking my hand back, having singed some hair on it in the process. For a moment I thought the flag might damp out the fire, but then it caught again as the flames consumed the cloth. I stood by the fire until it burned out, which wasn’t all that long. I hadn’t built a large fire. The cloth must have been nylon, or something similar, because it shriveled and melted into a black lump, rather than burned.

That done, I went back to my garden work.

I don’t consider myself a particularly “patriotic” person. I don’t make a big display on Independence Day, and I was never in the military service. (I flunked the physical for ROTC.) I did work for the Air Force for more than thirty years as a civilian engineer.

Symbols have a significance over and above their physical manifestation. Flags of every country represent the ideals of their respective nations. I’d have treated a Canadian flag the same way, for example. It’s a matter of respect.

The American flag I burned was just a little piece of cloth of no intrinsic value. It represents, however, a great ideal put forth in the constitution of the United states, one for which millions have fought and died to achieve, and then to defend. That’s what I was respecting when I burned that flag, not some little piece of printed nylon cloth.

Flag burning has come up in the news again as I write this, something that seems to happen periodically. Those who burn flags to make a political statement do so at the risk of having the substance of their protest overshadowed by their chosen means of expression, in my opinion, and therefore are not effective advocates for their cause.

And yet, one of the core principles enshrined in the constitution is freedom of speech, which has over and over again been interpreted as freedom of expression by whatever means. Even though I may feel that flag-burning as protest is less effective at conveying a point than other methods, a person’s right to make a statement in that way is a constitutionally protected freedom of expression.

Those who would call for imprisoning ones who burn the flag in protest are suggesting that a person who expresses an opinion they don’t like should be jailed. This is by far the greater desecration to what our flag represents. I cannot believe that our Founding Fathers would countenance such a proposal, and the decision of many Supreme Court justices supports me in this, including an opinion by the very conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

The proper method of disposing of a worn flag is by burning. If one would jail a person for burning a flag for a reason they don’t happen to approve of, then they are proposing that people should be jailed for expressing a belief.

That is NOT what our constitution is about.

That is NOT what patriots should support.

Learning

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Steve at Bardstown KY, January 2008

In my career as a musician I sometimes give concerts and other performances, and teach workshops at dulcimer festivals. See my musician website, www.sksmithmusic.com for more details, if you’re interested.

At dulcimer/folk music festivals I often take workshops as a student as well, which sometimes seems to surprise some of the other attendees. Occasionally it surprises the workshop leaders as well.

I’ve always found that odd.

Apparently, once I reach the point where festival organizers will hire me to teach workshops, I’m not expected to need to learn anything further. This is an attitude that I find hard to understand.

Last August, I taught at the Fort New Salem Dulcimer Festival, at Salem WV. My good friend and mentor, Jerry Rockwell, taught there too, and I attended one of his workshops during the course of the weekend. At least one of the other attendees seemed to be surprised by this, I don’t know why. Of course, Jerry is an overflowing wellspring of knowledge about the mountain dulcimer, and music in general, but I have often taken workshops from other players, if I found the subject interesting, regardless of the skill level the workshop is pitched toward.

Last June, at the Kentucky Music Week festival in Bardstown KY, I took a workshop in Cajun music that was geared toward intermediate players, and a couple of workshops on improvising pitched to advanced players. My store of knowledge increased in each case. I try to take the attitude that everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to teach, as well.

When I play at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, doing the “wandering minstrel” thing in the lanes around the grounds of the fair, I will often have people ask me some variation of, “How long did it take you to learn to play that?”

My standard answer is, “I don’t know. I haven’t finished yet.”

This is what I think is the core of my personal philosophy. There’s always something more to learn, whether about music, writing, gardening, or astrophysics. I hope never to stop learning, and that one of my very last thoughts, just before I die, is, “Not yet! There’s still more I need to know!”

The Swimming Hole

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Photo SKSmith ©2006

In a flash fiction piece of mine due to be published soon, there’s a scene set in a place I visit occasionally, not far from my home. I bicycle there sometimes on mornings during good weather. It’s a little swimming hole in a local creek, and while the event I describe in the story is totally fictional, the place is real.

There’s a gravel bank by a bend in the creek, with plenty of flat stones perfect for skipping. Depending on how dry it’s been, the water gets deep enough that I can’t touch bottom for a small area. Maple and sycamore trees line the stream, but the gravel bank is bare of vegetation. I often see deer and herons around it, and a couple of times I’ve seen snapping turtles sunning themselves on the bank in the spring.

Most of the time when I go there in the morning I have the place to myself, but occasionally I’ve seen tents set up there. I just leave, trying not to disturb them in that case, if they haven’t seen me. Otherwise, I exchange a brief greeting before I go.

I went there again last Saturday morning, arriving about 10:00 AM. It was the first time I’d been there since last fall. When I pulled off the bike path there was a tree down over the trail to the swimming hole, but I was able to get around it. A little farther along there were another couple trees down, ones that appeared to have been cut with a chainsaw and felled beside each other in such a way that they would block the path. I parked my bike there and continued on foot, carrying the water shoes I’d brought with me. A little farther along another tree was down, cut the same way. They seemed to have been cut recently, probably only a few days ago.

The spot itself wasn’t disrupted, except for the remains of a campfire on the gravel bank. It was littered with beer bottles, potato chip bags, and the remains of firecrackers. The Fourth of July was only last week. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a campfire there, but this one was particularly messy.

The sky was clear, but the bank was shaded and the air relatively cool for early July. I was alone this time, and swimming alone is a remarkably bad idea. I waded some in the shallows, skipped stones, and generally relaxed for twenty minutes or so.

I think I’ve figured out why the trees were cut across the trail. I’ll bet the farmer that owns the bean field that flanks the trail got tired of people going back there to party, and worried that if one of them got hurt, he could be liable. The firecrackers probably pushed him over the edge.

If true, I can see his point, given today’s legal climate. Still, I think it’s a shame that all of those who had peacefully enjoyed that spot over the years are punished now for the inconsiderate behavior of a few. Ideally, people that take a woodland trail to a secluded spot should be responsible for their own safety, and be considerate of the land they use. Packing out their trash seems like the least they should do.

With everything dire and important happening in the world, it seems trivial to complain about this small restriction of my recreation. I suppose it is. Still, I’m reminded of the adage, “If everyone swept their own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Why is it so difficult to think about others, about how what you do affects your neighbors, or the planet as a whole?

I hope I don’t have to stop going to this place altogether, but I guess that’s a possibility I need to consider. I’ve enjoyed my visits to this little swimming hole over the years, and it provided a scene for a story of mine, after all. I’ll always have fond memories of it.

 

The flash piece, “Loops”  is due to be published in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue, of “Children, Churches, and Daddies” ( http://scars.tv/perl/ccd.htm ) See my piece “Night” in the current issue, June 2016.

“My” Pond

My Pond_1There’s a place I know near Black Hand Gorge, west of Nashport, Ohio. You pull off the road and into a parking lot by a public hunting area, walk down the path into the woods, take the first fork to the left to a little woodland pond surrounded by pine, maple, and oak trees. It’s a big enough pond that it has fish, though mostly the blue-gills there are small.

I’ve been going there now and then on sunny afternoons for nearly twenty years, when I could take an afternoon off. In the spring I see painted turtles and occasionally some snappers sunning themselves by the shore. There are beavers around, though the pond doesn’t seem to have been created by a beaver dam as far as I can see. There are patches of spring beauties and bluets carpeting the clearings around it in the spring, wild roses, queen anne’s lace, and daisies in the summer, and goldenrod in the fall. I’ve seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks, blue heron, red-tail hawks, ducks, bull frogs, and blacksnakes there, in addition to the beavers and turtles.

I’ve found this a relaxing place to read a book and to work on poetry. I have enough poems that I’ve written at that location over the years that I’ve visited it that I could put together a chapbook of them, if I chose. Some of those poems have already been published, or have had favorable responses at readings.

In the past, this spot has had more visitors than it seems to get now. This has good and bad aspects. While I enjoy the solitude when I go there, the trails around the pond are becoming more and more overgrown. I’m having to pull poison ivy from around the spot where I like to sit and read.

I suppose I’m trying to have it both ways. I want the solitude, but I want it to be free of poison ivy, and something to keep the mosquitoes down would be nice.

This is exactly what I fear will happen. It’s become a special place for me, one I’ve started to think of as “my” pond. If it became well known and popular, then before you know it the muddy trail leading to it would be paved with interpretive signs explaining the local features. A visitor’s center would pop up with concessions for ice-cream and sandwiches and souvenirs, and uniformed park rangers would guide groups of school children around on educational tours.

That’s why I’ve lied about the location of this pond at the start of this post. It’s actually in a different part of the state altogether.

Selfish of me…

 

(Thanks to Robert A. Heinlein)

Urban Farming

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My wife and I, somewhat jokingly, call ourselves “urban farmers.” On our small suburban plot we have several garden beds, a few dwarf fruit trees, some grape vines, and blueberry bushes. We try to do everything organically and use heritage seeds.

If it were a business, it’d be a miserable failure. I’m sure we’ve spent more on buying plants and seeds, and on building the raised beds that are high and sturdy enough to use for seating, than any offset we get on the grocery bill. The planters I built are as much landscape architecture as they are garden beds.

Last year we planted some heritage popcorn seeds we got from the library’s seed exchange program. If you haven’t heard of this, some libraries have a program where you can “borrow” seeds for the growing season. Once the plants grow and the seeds mature, you collect some and take them back to the library.

Anyway, we planted heritage Seneca Red popcorn. Only a few plants came up and survived. (Young corn plants look an awful lot like grass, and I hadn’t been told they were planted there. My wife was very annoyed with me.) Came the fall, we got a few ears of corn and enjoyed a bowl of popcorn that we’d grown ourselves. A few kernels went into a bag to return to the library.

We didn’t get around to returning the seeds to the library until the next spring, but it was still early enough to sow them and have some ready by the fall. We were surprised, however, to find that the library wouldn’t accept them. The person at the library told us that if there’s another corn field within five miles it’s possible for that corn to cross-pollinate with our heritage seeds. Since we did not go to the extreme of covering the developing ears of corn and hand pollinating them with an artist’s brush, we weren’t able to guarantee that those seeds were still the heritage variety.

I see their point, but I wonder if something more is behind their reasoning. If they had happened to be cross-pollinated by a patented breed of genetically modified corn, it could become a legal issue for them, from what I understand. I hear that a number of farmers growing heritage, GMO-free corn have been put out of business when the patented genes blew on to their crops and cross-pollinated it.

What I don’t understand, is why is it that the farmer whose field was cross-pollinated by those patented genes is the one that’s at fault. Why is he the one that is sued in this case? If anything, it seems to me that it should be the other way around. After all, the crop of (formerly) heritage GMO-free corn is now less valuable, and that farmer has sustained a loss because of this. If any crop of patented GMO corn within five miles can do this, I don’t see how hardly anyone could grow heritage corn, certified GMO-free.

If I had a koi pond, and a neighbor sprayed insecticide on their plants, which then drifted on the wind to my pond and killed the fish, I’d think I’d have a valid complaint against them. However, if my neighbor’s corn crop cross-pollinates mine, making it less valuable, I would apparently be at fault for possessing the patented genes in my corn seed that my neighbor allowed to spread onto my crop without my permission.

How can that be right?

 

Mother’s Day

Iris picture_1So, Mother’s day has passed, and where I was the weather cooperated beautifully. My wife and I went to my son’s house, and he grilled hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch. My daughter-in-law had a “Mom off duty” button pinned to her shirt, and some of the time she even tried to take it seriously. I tried playing at soccer in the back yard with my son and grandson, and no one got hurt too bad. I noted a bruise on my calf the next day that I didn’t recall previously.

Early that morning I’d visited my own mother, at least symbolically. She’s been gone for more than five years now, and my father had passed long before her. I pulled some weeds from the border around their headstone and planted some periwinkle. The irises that my brother had planted are looking great: healthy and just about to bloom. The daffodils that my wife and I planted had flowered last month.

Mothers—parents in general, I suppose, but particularly mothers—have a grip on our lives that transcends understanding, a grip that death cannot break. I call myself a writer, but this relationship is not one that can be explained in words. Described, maybe, but not explained.

In one of my current writing projects, a short novel, there is a funeral scene, where the woman who died is modeled in part on my mother. She’s actually an amalgam of several people I know, in addition to components drawn from my own imagination. I’m up to version 27 of that novel, meaning that I’ve decided that revisions became sufficiently “significant” that I saved the work in progress as a new version 27 separate times. No, I don’t work quickly. I couldn’t guess exactly how many times I’ve read over that scene while polishing and revising the novel. Hundreds, I wouldn’t doubt. I still find my tears spilling over as I read the funeral scene.

The funeral I describe isn’t even anything like my mother’s. I doubt that the scene is all that remarkably moving to anyone else. Neither my editor nor any of those who read it in the Internet Writer’s Workshop made a particular comment about that, anyway. I think it affects me only because of what it brings to my own recollections. I’ve written other scenes where characters died, but none of them have affected me like this one, probably because they’re more pure invention, not rooted in that most basic of human bonds, the one between a mother and child.

My mother shared my excitement upon hearing that my chapbook of poems had been accepted, but she died unexpectedly before its publication. I was able to insert this dedication before the book went to press:

This book is dedicated to my mother, Reva Smith Shaffer, the one who introduced me to poetry to begin with. The hours she spent reading nursery rhymes, James Whitcomb Riley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others finally bore fruit in this volume. Though the words here are mine, I’d have written none of them without her influence. Thanks, Mother.

And I still thank her.