Sunday, June 25, 2017


            I first fell under the calming influence of the ancient primal forests of the Pacific Northwest some years ago when I first learned about the “stories” waiting to be found in a little-known roadside park on Oregon’s highway 26. Made famous not so much by the pioneer family who gave the place its magical name, as by a giant tree which had for 750 years called that generous nesting ground nursery and home, it has been for me a spiritual magnet ever since. Struck by lightning years ago, and then felled by hurricane winds that followed in December of 2007, the giant first lost its majestic top which has since become a “nest” log for future descendents even now taking shape, leaving behind a many-scarred but still majestic “monument” to a history reaching back to the journeys of Marco Polo, spanning the birth and death of kingdoms.
            At its zenith the giant Sitka Spruce at Klootchy Creek reached 200 feet in height, with a diameter of 18 feet and a circumference of 56 feet. Over it all presided a crown of 93 feet casting a rain shadow which effectively protected it from too much competition while fostering the growth of nitrogen-producing undergrowth. In its day it is believed to have been the largest tree in Oregon and perhaps the largest Sitka Spruce anywhere.
            My father was himself a product of this country, and in fact had grown up in a family of timber men and in the remote timber camps of an era which had shaped him inside and out. After being flooded out of one Skagit County home, the young family had lived for a year inside the hollowed-out trunk of a huge fallen Douglas fir, not unlike some of the “monsters” with which I communed in my Klootchy Creek visits. Perhaps something in the strings of DNA encircling my own chromosomes were speaking to me in the fetid silences which embraced me here.
            It was raining lightly but determinedly at the time of my farewell visit, and I took the occasion to walk beneath the towering evergreens on a path virtually clogged to overflowing with new life. So fertile and fecund is the soil and the community of growing materials which fill every square foot of environment that one can’t help but feel touched by the fullness and promise and enthusiasm through which you walk and whose essence fills each breath you take.
            Back in my car, writing in my sodden note book and attempting to pat my camera dry, I paused to consider the emotional artifacts which cannot be ignored when I am “at home” in places I love. Out of curiosity I had been noticing that almost from the moment of our arrival at our destination, with the sound of the nearby surf in my ears and the kiss of salt air on my face I found my usual high-speed mental activities being slowed and “gentled” and my underlying doubts and apprehensions being replaced by a sense of peace and harmony. Testing, I found my blood oxygen levels in the mid 90s, my heart beat slowed and my blood pressure itself “better than normal;” even after a 1,260-mile drive.
            Another branch of my ancestral family settled on another coast, that one carved roughly by the less accommodating and welcoming cold North Atlantic, buying Nantucket from the Indians and pioneering Maine coastal and island-towns where they built ships, went whaling, and farmed the sea, woods and fields of Maine’s “Down East” country. They also wrote books and poetry. Their DNA also twists its way through my cells. There are places on a particular peninsula in Maine’s mid-coast where my body and soul experience the same sense of being “home”; where just being there has the power to bring tears to my eyes and contentment to my heart.
            One sad fact slows the dance of joy both destinations hold out to me: Last week’s Klootchy Creek adventure may well be the finis to both.

Friday, June 23, 2017


            Shirley and I are proud great grand-parents of seventeen, each one of whom is a gift and a blessing in our lives. We delight in almost-daily reports from the “field” where life plays out and family adventures are the currency of everyday. Since the beginning of the current school year we have been noticing something new and exciting taking place in the lives of our three Denver-area kids:  Aged seven, ten and thirteen and all highly intelligent and doing well in school, their lives as “scholars” seemed suddenly to literally “take off” with their acceptance into Golden View Classical Academy.
            Golden View is a K-12 school founded and organized on principles and programs developed and supervised by The Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College with the aim of delivering a classical education with an emphasis on our own history and civic ethics and a sense of individual responsibility. Qualifying standards are very demanding and parents who end up requesting consideration for their children are generally highly motivated to partner with their kids in “going the extra mile”. And it shows everywhere we looked both on the campus and at home where our three have turned a serious circle in the enthusiasm and dedication to learning and achieving we all notice.
            After meeting the Principal, my wife and I together with our grand-daughter were invited to sit in as officially-welcomed guests to 10-year old Taj’s 5th grade history class, where I could see where his excited interest in the American Civil War had come from to bubble over in so many of our conversations. As the class of thirty or so students, obviously proud of their sharp, neat uniforms moved through their well-ordered discussion groups and class presentations, they would pause to greet or shake hands with us as they passed close by, perfectly at ease with our presence. Several individuals – including our Taj reported on the results of science projects they had just completed outside class, in which they had been challenged with a particular hypothesis leading them to a conclusion. I was impressed by their teacher explaining that they would be scored as much on their attitude as an attentive audience as they would as a presenter.
            Noticeable at every juncture in our school walking tour was the overwhelming presence of a patriotic ambience, including a large study area hung with classic art pieces illustrating the importance of the classical virtues in our national consciousness, and an education which places a heavy emphasis on an undergirding honor system. Young kids were anxious to stop and explain to us just what the iconic portraits stood for, including the qualities of courage, moderation, justice, responsibility, prudence, friendship and wonder; and they knew the stories behind them. It was also easy to see that this campus had rules and expectations. I was also impressed by the conspicuous absence of “big brother” computer stations at every bend and curve at the same time that cordial and happy conversations seemed to be welcome fare between students wherever we roamed; there was even an off-the-beaten-path corner where a kid could pause to touch the keyboard of a handy piano!
            Our most charming demonstration was put on by 7-year-old Asha who volunteered to teach the adults in our Denver home a lesson introducing the Riggs method of English pronunciation; a system which breaks down grammar-based phonetics into recognized mouth sounds. It was a revolutionary “discovery” for several of us, as we were practically mesmerized by our 1st grade-aged “professor” who understood “articulatory phonology” so well as to be able to explain it to us with surprising self-confidence. I wondered how much faster I might have progressed in the world of language, radio and public speaking if I had been exposed to this International System at so early an age.

            By the way it was little Asha who managed to place in humorous perspective for us all just how she digested these changes she sees taking place in her book-conscious older sibling, Taj.
            “I now have a brother who is one of those people who has to read all that stuff they print on cereal boxes!”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


            High on my bucket list of destinations worth visiting is a town (in fact an entire county) in West Virginia. Green Bank is not very big; in fact Pocahontas County is neither large nor famous other than for the facility which lies at its center. The rather remote area is not very well known itself other than to a particular scientific “community” for which it might as well be the center of the universe. So to speak. And that takes me back to a different – though related – story.
            On the night of August 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ellman was holding down the fort at Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in the town of Deleware when he noticed that a cryptic set of alpha-numeric symbols had crept mysteriously across the computer screen. So surprised and excited was he that he quickly made a distinctive scientific notation in red ink on the printout: WOW!  Both the symbol and its intensity represent a close approximation of the chemical formula for hydrogen, known to be the most plentiful – and most commonly-recognized chemical in the Universe. The event quickly became the closest evidence yet for intelligent life outside our own planet – this one emanating from somewhere near the constellation Sagittarius. The search for intelligent life (SETI) beyond earth thereafter became much more serious. Over the years following WOW, a whole new scientific importance was placed on the very expensive hunt for “messages” from a long distance away from home; for instance a four-hundred-eighty-feet tall tower in Green Bank, West Virginia.

            The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank radio-telescope is so sensitive it can detect the electro-magnetic arrival of a snow flake on earth one of the most alert “listening posts” anywhere, with a parabolic collecting area covering more than two acres in size. To make the “steerable” installation as efficient as possible, the entire surrounding area of more than 2300 square miles is officially defined as a “National Quiet Zone”, within whose boundaries electronic emissions are tightly restricted. Not only are CELL phones and other electronic signal sources restricted, but most micro-wave ovens and spark plug-equipped appliances and vehicles cannot be operated in many areas where they might interfere with operations; diesel equipment is therefore favored. In the interest of communications a single low-powered public radio station serves much of the region.
            What I find interesting is that when asked about their unusual limitations most of the residents of the “quiet zone” seem to like it just the way it is. What’s more, they may be among the first folks anywhere to know when we find someone listening somewhere out there.
            The very fact that intelligent contact from outside our solar system has not yet been demonstrated to have occurred, presents scientific “thinkers” with something of a puzzle. As physicist Enrico Fermi famously pointed out in his Paradox, given the billions of star systems similar to ours, many of which are far older, dozens or even hundreds of resident “earth-planets” ought to have visited us by now. He lists some very thought-provoking – even cautionary – reasons why this might be so.
            Oh, by the way, the current “favorite” prospect is a planetary system nicknamed Tabby’s Star in Cygnus. Stand by.