October Bridge

October Bridge

A walk on the Erie Canal Trail last night revealed a new aspect to some of the wildlife that has managed to adapt to our urban environment. Year round there are plenty of waterfowl, songbirds, chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, and the occasional fox to be seen. These critters frequent the strip of woodland that runs next to the canal’s steep embankment. Walking along the trail last night I noticed two players converge that I hadn’t appreciated before: insects and fish.

Heading east toward a rising Harvest Moon, I caught wispy blurs of motion against the diffuse but growing light ahead. Tiny night flyers had gathered in roiling, spherical swarms. The evening was cool with a taste of growing autumnal chill. Summer was definitely over…at least for today…and these latecomers had found their way into the shadowed cleft that ran beneath the nearby highway. To these frail creatures the bright glow of the tall prismatic lamps that clustered above the interstate must have seemed like the shout of some ancient god.  If not that then I wondered what drew them here. Perhaps the heat from the paved trail or something that is only relevant to their quicksilver lives?

Walking along, soft traceries brushed my nose, brow, and ears. Tiny ethereal beings skimmed the air just above my skin, gently colliding and then spinning back into the air behind me. I walked slower to give them some warning of my approach. Trees and brush grew up around me and shadows clashed. From the murky water of the canal I heard the occasional soft splash. Glancing down the rocky embankment I saw curvilinear patterns form on the surface of the water. There were many spirals forming with a languid, liquid grace. In the shallows I saw the occasional torpedo-shape of a ghost fish. Where the little night-swarmers had been careless the dark swimmers took advantage. There was a feast going on in the moonlight!

I continued onward and the fish seemed to follow me eastward. Were there many in the canal or did some combination of my headlamp, the moon, and the insects draw them along like a living tide? The path was bordered now by young, slim maples and the wide trunk of an oak. Amid parchment-dry leaves greenish husks lay in witness to a walnut tree’s scattershot attempt at immortality. A shadow loomed in a wide, geometrically straight line where a bridge cut across the dark sky.

I paused and looked up at the bridge’s archway of perfected, modern truss-work. Red and green lamps glowed like old-fashioned lanterns to show any boaters the navigational right-of-way. The bridge was new and it had only opened near summer’s end. Its form stood large and was a tribute to the months of work that had gone into its design, planning, and construction.

The old bridge that was replaced had been narrow and weathered. Cars and trucks would cross in a cacophony of jarring bumps and lurches as busy wheels encountered potholes or the scars of hasty repair work. Those sounds are just memory now. The traffic above crossed the new roadway with a barely discernible hiss. That relative quiet seemed like a shout of triumph. Canal and bridge stood together like an intersection in time, old and new but both full of utility.

I walked up the pathway to the avenue, leaving history and entering the modern. The sidewalk stretched wide and I continued homeward. Crossing the new bridge I heard the distant slap of water. Below, tiny clusters of iridescent wings glowed within the street lights. All just a passing signature of a night that might never come again.


Remembering Seattle Mornings

Remembering Seattle Mornings

Smudged dawn behind rain clouds.


A raven worrying an unseen object on the lawn.

Slant and Desolation Angels displaced on my bookshelf as if they were half the night fighting one another for space.

Making toast but remembering those Sunday breakfasts when she took me over to Mae’s.

Bike tires hissing along damp pavement.

That dream where I’m writing with a laptop on a Washington State ferry.

Watching X-Files with my Scully on the old B&W we rescued from the guts of a Bellevue dumpster.

Green Lake.

The smell of coffee.

Some old person down the hall at work this morning playing the Singles soundtrack for no apparent reason.

Nostalgia for the 90’s, unbidden.

But really, I do know better.

My Seattle boy of coffee and computers.

My Rochester girl of lilacs and Asian dreams.

Walking the spine of a mountain with ocean on one side and mountains crowding the other.

Sitting with my backbone against a rock ledge at 9,500 feet, shivering, and then…

…the sun, swaddled by Pacific-laden rain clouds, finally peeks out at the world with all the radiance of a newborn babe.

Here in the bosom of my beautiful, beloved, and welcoming university I sip from the cup of the global Starbucks diaspora.

Okay, then.

Something on this dampest of July mornings tells me it’s time for that road trip.

Yeah, Frodo, the mountains are calling.

“The Genesee”

“The Genesee”

I took a walk along the Genesee River at lunch today and came upon the Swinburne Rock. It is named for Thomas Thackeray Swinburne who attended the University of Rochester and was a member of the class of 1892. Although Swinburne took classes up until his senior year he did not complete his degree. Yet he was voted Class Poet by his cohort and made many literary contributions, including poems, articles, and editorial work in the student newspaper. Later, Swinburne was named City Poet during the city’s 1912 centennial celebration. At one gala that year he read a 30-stanza poem that featured a chat between the Genesee and the statue of Mercury that was atop a downtown building.

Swinburne, Thomas Thackeray
Rochester poet T.T. Swinburne (1862 – 1926)

Swinburne owned a printing company and published many books including some that featured his own poems. One book was called Rochester Rhymes. Published in 1907 the book was dedicated to his sister Rose. Sadly, Rose passed away in 1926 and Swinburne, distraught by this loss, took his own life by jumping into the river’s icy waters in December of that year.

The Swinburne rock is a memorial to this poet. It features a large plaque with his poem The Genesee.  The poem serves as the alma mater of the University of Rochester. It was later set to music by Herve Dwight Wilkins. The memorial plaque is affixed to a large glacial boulder. The plaque is made of bronze, now tinged green, with the words of The Genesee boldly inscribed. Overlooking the river next to the University’s Interfaith Chapel, the memorial has a timeless feeling. It is nice to take a moment, breathe the air, and read the words.genesee 2

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

43.1610° N, 77.6109° W

Today, on this big spaceship called Earth, we are all participating in the summer solstice. It doesn’t matter where in the northern hemisphere we are, it started at dawn and will run until a very late sunset. The northern pole of our planet is tipped the full 23.5 degrees toward the Sun. Seen from the latitude and longitude above in Rochester, NY (and elsewhere) our parent star is as far north in the sky as it ever gets. As the planet turns the Sun’s path below our horizon is very short. This day is the longest of the year and consequently our night will be the shortest of the calendar year. Bad day for astronomy devotees!

If you are a stargazer (or stargeezer, as in my case) and live above the Arctic Circle you will have no starry night this time of year. Right now, in the far north, the Sun never sets. Many people flock to destinations in Alaska and the Yukon to partake in this event. In their devotion they remind me a little of the ancient Druids at Stonehenge. Solstice tourism has seen a spike in recent years and I’ve considered going myself. And at an opposite extreme, if you are based in one of the many Antarctic outposts the night of June 21st will last a full 24 hours.

The summer solstice is the time of year when the Sun stops its northern ascent, pauses, looks around, and then trudges downhill again. It’s interesting that the word solstice comes from the Latin sol-stitium. This word literally means “sun-standing.”

Venture outward tonight into those short hours and look at the stars. Unlike the wintertime we can go out in tee-shirts and relax in lawn chairs. If the mosquitoes aren’t biting we might catch a meteor or two and see a few satellites stray past overhead. All while we enjoy a cool drink.

Happy Solstice, everyone!


(Note on illustration: “Stonehenge at Solstice Dawn” from the book Astronomy: The Cosmic Journey by William K. Hartmann, 1978, C. Wadsworth Publishing Co.)

Time Trail

Time Trail

Many hiking trails are like narrow, linear time machines. This is certainly true for a place like the Grand Canyon or the Adirondacks, where even a little progress upward or downward can take one across geological epochs. There are also some trails that are defined by human interactions. Some of our local trails are like that but I can think of nowhere that this stands out more than on the Lehigh Valley Trail (LVT) and Genesee Valley Greenway (GVG).

I started out Sunday morning around 8:30 at the parking area just off East River Road in Rush, NY and started walking the trail toward the river, which is around 2.5 km west. This part of the LVT is a segment of the old Buffalo rail line. It is so nearly perfect a straight line that you can almost see down the trail to the river itself. Stepping from the parking area I entered the 1890s. That is the era when the rail line and trestle were established. The trail passes many tall abutments that were part of the railroad’s trestle bridge. This bridge stretched nearly 2 km, crossing the Genesee River and its wide floodplain. Part of the old bridge is now a crossing for hikers and cyclists. It is a big and bulky trestle bridge and even when the Genesee is running fast the bridge remains strong under your feet.

Cross that bridge and you’ve reached the westernmost extent of the LVT. The Greenway crosses the LVT and it runs north to Rochester and south toward Cuba, NY. The Greenway runs almost to the PA border. I decided to walk south. I’ve frequently cycled this route from Rochester so it is like an old friend. I suddenly realized that in turning left I had now dropped further back in time. The Greenway uses the original Genesee Valley Canal’s towpath. This canal, built in the 1830s and 1840s, connected with the main Erie Canal to the north. It was used to barge wheat to market in Rochester and points east.

Eventually the canal was replaced with a railroad. Even so, the ruins of several small locks can be found along here. The canal itself is now a deep ditch that occasionally runs parallel to the hiking trail. I often wonder about the generations of horses and boys that helped to pull the barges along the towpath. I wonder who they were, what stories they might tell, and where life took them.

I walked down to Avon (Marker 17 on the GVG map) and then headed back. I saw several critters, but mostly birds. Low flying turkey vultures and loud jays were a real surprise. Near a marshland I noted several downed trees resting in the old canal. I’m pretty sure based on the cuts that they were dropped by beavers. Box turtles were out sunning themselves on many of these fallen trees. That gave me real pause. I’ve never seen this along the GVG and it is sort of cool to think about the New York State mammal making a comeback along the Genesee. I know they’ve reintroduced river otters south in Letchworth State Park. I wonder about these curious critters. Will they build a lodge and dam somewhere?

I eventually returned to the car and the 21st century. (OK, my car is a ’99 Corolla…but even so). It was a good hike and great practice for the bigger hikes I plan to do later this season. RT: 12 kilometers. Not a bad outing!

March Is A Riddle

March Is A Riddle

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold—-when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade. —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Chapter 54)

March is a riddle. I’m sure there are meteorological and climatology-based explanations for the inherent fickleness of this month.  But to me March has always offered winter’s last hurrah. In Rochester, we sometimes get what I like to call a false spring. It begins mid-February and wraps up near the end of that month. Like February, false spring is short. We might get a few consecutive days where the thermometers edge upward and the thermostats are lowered. And after January any outside air temperature in the 40s Fahrenheit seems downright balmy. Then we all make the Mistake and tell ourselves that March, and therefore spring, is just around the corner. Many conversations in the department break room center on this hypothesis. There may even be reports of robin sightings.

This year March First started out warm but then a blast of wintry wind pummeled the city. In the days following the temperatures dropped below freezing and a few passing flurries powdered our area. It was pretty. And perhaps a sign that winter was giving up but just making an effort for show. But by that first weekend rumors abounded that more winds were on the way. Soon, we heard ominous warnings from that most modern of oracles: the weatherman. High winds and gale warnings. Squirrels going to ground. Trouble! Harbingers, harbingers everywhere! It was as if we were all in that first chapter of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes when a strange, wizened little man has limped into town carrying lightning rods for sale. We all held our breath.

Tuesday, March 7th, saw a beautiful beginning with the brightest, bluest sky. Cloudless and clear. Yet the winds came and strengthened all day. The Rochester Airport recorded gusts of 81 MPH and the last flight was allowed to land at noon. Power lines and infrastructure succumbed and by that afternoon my son called me at work with a report of no power.

I arrived home late and our entire block, several square miles, was dark. We opted to go out and have dinner. We searched amid darkened intersections where nervous cars stopped and started. Above us hollow traffic lights swayed uselessly in the high wind. Standing against the growing night our old haunts seemed entirely abandoned. Had we really, ever, eaten there? It seemed like another age now. We made desperate calls and to our surprise found that our favorite Thai restaurant remained valiantly open. We drove a half mile to this little oasis of light and warmth and enjoyed delicious phad thai and panang tofu. Like two idlers in a far-off land we laughed about not having to cook dinner. Around us in the dining room the lights flickered and dimmed with each passing gust.

Back home, we climbed into our winter kit and read books by flashlight. We snuggled into these amazing arctic bags, one a gift from my Dad and another a gift from my wife. I received the first when we started our winter camping adventures many years ago. You know a woman loves you when she spends $300 on a sleeping bag. My son and I talked about finally being able to enjoy a night “in the mountains.” The next day it was chilly in the house. I opted not to shave, which seemed like a bonus despite everything, and headed into work. My son joined me as there are things to do in warm places at the University of Rochester. Also, we assumed, ample connectivity. Ah, these first world problems.

Dinner that night was at the fabulous Texas Roadhouse. We don’t often eat out but without power it seemed like a good bet. The block was dark but the few shops around the restaurant were lit up. The sight of 30 power company trucks in the parking lot was quite impressive. Although we laughed that maybe the crews restored the power here first so that they could have a good meal. Who can blame them? They came from all over the Northeast and eastern Canada to help restore light to our beleaguered city. We were very thankful for their help.

Dinner was yummy. Our waitress was very nice and we all empathized about our new lives without electricity at home. Camping was definitely a theme. Aidan and I enjoyed dinner under the watchful gaze of Gene Autry posters while country music twanged from the overhead speakers.  Occasionally the wait staff would gather around a patron’s table to dance, sing happy birthday, and conclude the short festivities with a mighty yee-haw. There is now a strict and inviolable agreement between my son and I that this will never be something we experience at any eating establishment. We shook hands on it as another diner was serenaded. But boy, the steaks were really delicious.

Power remained out for two days. We got up on a very chilly Friday morning and talked about a story we had read aloud the night before. The Forgotten Enemy was written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1949. It’s about the last man alive in London’s urban snowscape during the onset of a new ice age. It opens with furs thudding to the ground as Professor Millward is startled awake by the distant booming of glaciers. Later our hero is even chased out of Piccadilly by a polar bear and must seek shelter in the abandoned Underground. The story seemed very topical. We quickly got dressed and wandered out in search of coffee.

Work was quite busy and we stayed late. Maybe to catch up, maybe just to stay warm. We then headed home. There was the promising sign of street lamps as we pulled into our parking lot but our building was quite dark. Resignedly, we went through the main door and just as we got up the stairs to our apartment the lights went on. Perfect timing! We were very happy for electricity but kept those arctic bags close as it took awhile for our little place to warm up. We took it easy with whatever we switched on, avoiding the high amperage stuff like the microwave. Neither of us wanted to be the guy who overloaded the strained system and caused a regional blackout.

A week later power was almost fully restored to our area. And yet the weatherman returned with more grim news. An incoming storm was predicted. It was called Stella. Like hurricanes, winter storms have names now. The name reminded me of A Streetcar Named Desire and I put it on reserve at Netflix. Yet experience now led me to ask whether the power would remain for me to watch?

Stella did indeed arrive. Yet many are now calling it the Ides of March storm. Like an over-eager conspirator this weather pattern decided on an early start. It began on March the 14th and we all knew to beware. By noon the heavy snow started really coming down outside my office window. The University is on Spring Break so it was quiet to begin with. The snow just added to the hush. By mid-afternoon people were being encouraged to stagger their departures from work to help minimize traffic delays. I left around 3PM and was very grateful for the shuttle bus home.

By the next day I experienced what might best be called my first snow day in 12 years at the University of Rochester. All non-essential personnel were asked to stay home. As I don’t do surgery or keep the University’s power plant operating I decided I was non-essential. Hard to believe it was Spring Break. Glad the students all got away when they could. It was nice to stay indoors, have tea, and watch it pile up outside. The facilities people at our apartment did a great job keeping up with it. However, by the end of the day 26.3 inches of snow had fallen. It was amazing!

A week later Rochester is still cleaning up and the snow banks are still quite high. I walked home last night and there were some challenges. But perhaps not the ones experienced by poor Professor Millward in the Clarke story! I warily check the calendar on my computer’s desktop. March still has ten days before some distant midnight turns over and brings us the month of April. Yesterday spring arrived.

We’ll see if it is for real this time.

Note on photo: The Sphinx emerges from the snow yesterday near Rettner Hall at the University of Rochester.