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A Yankee Notebook

November 28, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Each of us, I maintain, should try something new each week: something we’ve never done before – a new mountain or a new country; a street protest or an evangelical church service; a new book or piece of music; a foreign language or body-surfing. Something suited to our age, abilities, and infirmities. It’s hard to forget the order of nuns who were found to live well beyond the age of 100 at a much higher percentage than the average. Their distinguishing characteristic was a commitment to learn new skills and languages even in extreme old age. Their autopsied brains were said to show healthier and more numerous intraconnections than those of much younger people in the general population. So bring it on!

This week’s brief trip to southern New Jersey should do me for at least three weeks. I went with a Public Broadcasting crew to shoot pieces of a film about the interactions between people and wild birds; and even though I was supposed to be an actor in the story, there was so much new information pouring in that I felt like a wide-eyed little kid, just trying to absorb it all..

A morning flight out of Manchester got us into Philadelphia at midmorning. The crew rented an SUV; they packed it full of equipment and luggage, and off we went – to New Jersey, I think; more of that later. We grabbed hot sandwiches at a Wawa (new experience #1; I’d never heard of it), part of a chain of gas stations and convenience stores across the mid-Atlantic. Their logo features a Canada goose, and they’re named for the town where the business started, Wawa, Pennsylvania, which in turn got its name from “Song of Hiawatha,” in which Longfellow coined it as an authentic Indian name for “wild goose.” Catchy, but bogus.

The Garden State Parkway ran like an arrow through flat, soggy-looking second growth for another hour, reminding me that in a very short time, geologically speaking, New Jersey is going to lose a lot of real estate as the sea rises and overwhelms most of what’s now prime summer home property and the East Coast’s best bird-watching spots. We crossed a few bridges over lagoons inside the barrier beach and pulled up at a viewing site in the whimsically named resort town of Avalon. A line of dedicated birders and an official Audubon Society counter stood by the shore in a comradely line, chatting and peering through spotting scopes. Surf crashing on shoreside riprap (riprap that came a long way to get here; bedrock on Cape May is about 5000 feet down) and wind-driven rain were slowly drenching them, but they stayed chirpy, calling out new sightings – “Big flock of scoters with about a hundred red-throated loons right behind them!” They invited us to take frequent peeks and explained what we were looking at. Waterfowl migrating south from their summer nesting grounds on Hudson Bay, or in Newfoundland and Labrador, follow the coast south. Cape May sticks out like a thumb into Delaware Bay at the southern end of New Jersey. The birds – hundreds of thousands of them the week we were there – funnel past the cape close to shore before tackling the crossing, and the watchers, armed with spotting scopes and clickers like theater ushers, try to get an accurate count as they pass. After a while we retreated soggily to our hotel not far away for supper and a Patriots game.

Next morning brought something really new and, I hope, unique in my experience. Our other reason for traveling to South Jersey was to interview a birdwatcher serving a life sentence for murder at the state prison in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Robert Gerson is 59, lean, fit-looking, and apparently contained and laid-back – until you notice the constant nervous tapping of his reading glasses case on the palm of one hand. He’s been in prison 37 years. He’s so clearly intelligent and seems so philosophical about his incarceration that, if I were on his parole board, I’d probably vote yes. But when I asked the information officer assigned to us if he’d ever be getting out, she answered, “ a bag.” Her years in Corrections have left her cynical to the bone.

We were there to talk about birds, not crimes; so we stuck to the subject. Robert’s bird-watching began in a different prison. Surrounded by woods and a wide perimeter road, it harbored birds everywhere. Now he’s in a new maximum-security prison with sealed windows, so his birding days are pretty much at an end; but he writes touchingly about them in an article titled “Bird on a Razor Wire,” which appeared in the newsletter of the American Birding Association. With his mind no doubt on birds, he always ends his letters with, “Cherish your freedom!” After a couple of hours inside the prison – its architecture designed to discourage any unapproved impulses, everyone alert and suspicious, the routine unchanging and oppressive as a sledge hammer – it was clear that those of us who enjoy freedom can have no appreciation of its pricelessness.

One more new thing: I consider myself as open and welcoming to change as anyone my age – new church rituals and prayers, people walking about absorbed in images on tiny screens, and the accelerating expansion of civil liberties. (Since I read somewhere, however, that a driver on a cell phone is as likely to wreck as a drunk, I do draw the line there.) And now still another challenge – the global positioning system. When the crew and I got back to New Hampshire, I realized that I had almost no idea where we’d been. I had to go get a map to find out.

Maps are great if they’re what you’re used to. Not only can you locate where you are at the moment, but you can see it in context, as well. Not any more. The moment we picked up our rental vehicle, the driver whipped out his GPS and punched in the address of our destination. The tiny screen depicted our vehicle on a moving road, while an electronic woman’s voice instructed us to “Go point-seven miles, turn left, then right.” At the end of two days I felt like a caterpillar crawling through a garden hose. Much as I welcome change, I think I’ll stick with maps for a while.

Photo by Willem lange