Notes From Underground*

September 3, 2022

*Apologies to Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I’ve been musing about the changes in telephone customs over the course of my life.

In the 70s (in Ohio) social performance around phones centered on etiquette. Except in an emergency or when expressly invited, you called between 9:00 am and 9:00 pm, except between 6:00 and 7:00 pm, the supposed dinner hour. Calling during dinner hour was height of rudeness. Calling after 9:00 pm was unthinkable. The only permissible ways of answering were to state your name or to chirp “hello?” in a pleasant voice. If it was a wrong number, you politely informed the caller and assured them that they were forgiven before gently replacing the receiver. You limited your phone call to 30 minutes max. Other people might be trying to call.

As teenagers we made fun of these rules, dreaming of the day when we had our own number. Smartasses who took Spanish class said “Bueno” when they answered the phone. What rascals we were.

Rich people had lots of phone extensions. See, the house had to be wired for each extension. The richer you were, the less steps you took to answer the phone. Really rich people had a separate phone line for the children. I don’t think I knew anybody who had a maid answering their phone. If somebody other than family or friends or babysitter answered the phone, it was some kind of nurse and that person was very sick.

Rich people also might have answering services. It was considered reasonable for people, even important people like doctors, to be unavailable for hours at a stretch. When babysitting, the parents might leave a number of a restaurant or other place they would be going, but they usually didn’t. If there was an emergency with the child, you had to call your own mother.

Innovations in phone usage trended toward choice and convenience. The first big one I recall was being able to own your telephone, instead of renting it from the phone company. It was a small step toward freedom. Then it became common for houses to be wired with multiple phone jacks from the start, so convenience spread to more people. It wasn’t odd anymore for someone to have a phone in their garage or basement. The biggest step toward freedom was the answering machine. No longer did you wait by the phone for a call that never came.

Call screening answering machines upped the game considerably. You didn’t have to talk to friends and family if you didn’t feel like it, and you didn’t have to talk to bill collectors at all.

Car phones (big bulky things) came in the 80s, again for rich people (and realtors). In 1990 I got my first “you’ll never guess where I’m calling you from” call. It was a group of friends, driving a mucky-muck’s borrowed car, calling from my driveway as a lark.

The package of premium phone services that appeared in the mid-90s (call waiting, speed dialing, caller ID, etc. etc.) was again geared toward convenience. Little did we know that we had reached the turning point.

Cell phones became accessible to everyone, and we began a journey back to inconvenience that was disguised as cutting edge.

At first most people just had a cell in addition to their landline. Or people who couldn’t have a landline, due to homelessness or illegal activities, suddenly had phone service. An improvement. During the era of the flip phone, you didn’t give your cell number out to everyone. People who had your cell number tried you at home first and didn’t call unless they truly needed you at that moment.

Then students and others on a budget decided to drop the landline and just use the cell. It didn’t make sense to pay for both. People with hot deals in the works or with expensive gadgety phones that had to be justified said “Just call me on my cell.” A phone became something that was not necessarily a few steps away, but something that had to be dug out of a purse or backpack or briefcase, usually in another room if the call came while you were at home. Even worse, the phone was often forgotten or mislaid or even stolen or out of range. All the money spent bringing phone service to rural customers became pointless, as rural areas became “dead zones” with no cell reception. Some people think the answer to dead zones is more cell towers spoiling the landscape. Telephone lines themselves are an eyesore, but do we really need or want to be connected all the time? The last time I summited Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York, almost everyone had their cell phone out saying “Guess where I’m calling you from?” What is wilderness really about?

Domestic violence abusers buy phones so they can track the movements of their victims. Amateurs just call on the half hour, but real pros know someone who can track the phone. Bosses, of course, love cell phone technology, which brings me to my personal grievance against the cell phone.

When mobile phones first became available to the masses, I was employed as a psychiatric social worker. I worked in children’s residential treatment. I wouldn’t say anyone ever abused my availability, but I didn’t enjoy hearing from them. When someone from work was trying to reach me, it was never good. Never ever. And there’s something about a stressful job where you have to be available 24/7 that raises your base anxiety level. You can never truly let your hair down.

Later I worked on-call at a hospital emergency department, and again it wasn’t good news when someone needed to reach me. In this job, my times on-call alternated with time truly off, so it was less stressful. But still, I began to savor the times when no one could reach me.

When money became tight several years ago, I dropped the flip phone and kept the landline. A lot of people would have done the opposite, but I live in a rural area where there are a lot of dead zones, and I hear tons of complaints about cell tower outages, dropped calls, cell plans that only work with certain towers due to cutthroat business practices of mobile phone carriers….on and on. Plus, I usually don’t need to make a phone call if I’m not at work or at home. Yes, I have friends, but they can leave a message on my machine or online. They can call me at home, where I have mutltiple phone extensions and am never far away.

The first inkling that I was losing my lone battle against the cell phone was after I bought my last car. I discovered there was no music player in the car. No CD or mp3 player, and in my area radio reception is iffy. The saleswoman explained that the car was equipped to work with a cell phone for music streaming or satellite radio. Oh well, it worked with an iPod.

Next I found a workaround for those people who say, “Don’t call or leave a voicemail or an email. Send me a text.” I don’t need those kind of friends, but one of the people saying this was my landlord. I discovered you can text to a phone from a desktop or laptop, using Google Voice.

There’s probably no workaround for the increasing tendency of businesses and organizations to dispense with flyers and leaflets in favor of info that’s scanned into a smartphone. Because everybody has a smartphone, right? A phone that works with cell towers in my vicinity and streams music that can be stored offline (because the phone doesn’t work in most places) costs $700. It is guaranteed for software support for two years, meaning in about five years it will be obsolete, so it makes more sense to lease the phone through the wireless provider. This, to me, brings a disquieting taste of deja vu. Though there are certainly cheaper phones without my own set of limitations (or my own reasons for even having a cell), this is not a good option for low income people.

Venmo is the stickiest problem. Itinerent retailers and lots of ordinary people only want to be paid by Venmo, and you can’t pay with Venmo from a computer. Smortphone seems to be the way we’re moving to a cashless society, and there’s an entrance fee.

When I started my last job everybody wanted my cell number. They were aghast when I said I didn’t have one. “What if we need to reach you?” The thing about cell phones is they give you no excuse for being unavailable (although in my case I suppose I could claim I was out of range of the tower). It’s a small step from being able to reached at all times to being required to be available at all times. The cell phone is a leash.

Apple recently announced they are discontinuing the iPod. I see another workaround in my future.

I get asked for my cell number at least three times a week by someone who is not a potential friend. That used to be a rude question. The last time was by my insurance broker. I guess there conceivably are times when an insurance agent would need to call me on my cell, but wouldn’t I initiate the call in that kind of emergency?

I don’t have a cell phone; I am at a secret location.

When I moved into my latest apartment, it was not even wired for a landline. In what is certainly a bone-headed move, the phone company charges a lot of money to wire a building and to turn on new service. Don’t they realize that times have changed? Though I concede that I will eventually lose this battle, I found a workaround by using home phone service through the Internet company. The landlord explained that he didn’t think anyone would want a landline in this day and age when everybody used cell phones.

At least he didn’t ask to be paid in Venmo.

Getting There

August 26, 2022

It’s amazing how putting books on the shelf makes you feel settled.

A corner of my kitchen.

There’s about a zillion outlets in my new place.

Samhain is settling in nicely.

Still no phone service.

I’ve moved 31 times in my life. This is only the third time I’ve lived on a hill. The other two times I was living in San Francisco.

I’ve never felt such a strong urge to make a break from the past. I think it’s about not wanting to stay wallowed in feelings of victimhood, after the way I was treated in Keene Valley.

What I love most about the country is seeing the stars. Take a look outside tonight on this Virgo New Moon, if you can.

This is a NASA photo from the Space Station

The Owl’s Heads I have known

August 19, 2022

The other night a huge owl flew across my windshield.

I didn’t know what it was at first, just a streak of brown, like a darting deer, swooping a few feet above the ground. A flying deer?

I usually don’t drive at night because I’m worried about deer. Most longtime Adirondack residents share this concern, and it’s one of the reasons you don’t see many cars on the road after sundown. Although my last motorized encounter with a deer was in the middle of a hot humid day, so go figure.

Anyway, the owl got me thinking about the many Owl’s Heads I have known. There’s Owl’s Head Keene, a short popular hike with views of the High Peaks. It looks like something out of Middle Earth from below.

The Owl’s Head in Elizabethtown is referred to as Owl Head Lookout. It’s in the Giant Wilderness Area, a large tract of state land that it’s best not to get lost in.

In Hamilton County there’s an Owl’s Head with a fire tower. Considered one of the “easier” peaks, it’s still not easy, and I climbed it one afternoon with people who were fit and people who were suffering.

Photo: Marc Wanner

The goddess Ishtar was worshipped at one time as an owl goddess. (Her sister Inanna probably started out as some sort of water bird, now extinct.) To me, the sign of the owl is a scintillating reminder of the presence of the Goddess.

A day on Mt Philo

August 5, 2022

Many people think the Adirondacks are lovelier viewed from Vermont. The High Peak mountain ranges are part of the charm of western Vermont.

On a hot day, the short drive up this mountain south of Burlington is just the ticket for relief. Lots of picnic areas near the parking lot. Plus, the view.

A little hazy on this day, from the heat. Vermont is more settled than the Adirondacks, with a lot of farms. The state animal is a domestic beast, the Morgan Horse. I don’t know of any other state that has a domestic animal for a mascot.

Another Goshawk

July 9, 2022

I’ve blogged a few times about my encounters with the Northern Goshawk, a denizen of the mature forests in northern latitudes across North America and Eurasia. For some reason, the Goshawks of North America are particularly aggressive, threatening those who come in vicinity of their nests with screams, dive bombing, and occasional outright attacks.

Photo: Karen Laubenstein, USFWS

I was threatened in 2018 while walking through a popular wooded shortcut, and it was the most frightening experience I’ve had in the woods, my encounters with Mountain Lions and mama bears notwithstanding. I was not attacked, but that mama Goshawk came veerrryy close. I felt traumatized.

I’ve always wondered what I would do if a Goshawk threatened me on a trail where there was no escape route. If I was coming in from the parking lot, I could just retreat immediately. Goshawks are not predators of humans; they’re just hysterically overprotective of their nests. But what if I was on the way out? And there wasn’t a back trail?

They like open places in the deep dark woods.

A week ago, I asked myself this question after hearing what sounded to me like a Goshawk while I was relaxing at Moose Mountian Pond, a place I’ve blogged about before. I thought the sound came from across the pond, but I forgot how tricky sound can be around hills. Also, I had already hiked in, so I would have expected the Goshawk to threaten me earlier. Anyway, I thought of the perfect escape: I could just wait until dark, and then walk out unmolested. I had a headlight, and hawks cannot see in the dark. Perfect.

Photo: Kirill Lapin

To my surprise, a Goshawk did threaten me going out. I dug in my backpack for sunglasses, because then, as in the previous encounter, I was concerned about my eyes. The Goshawk came at me screaming, repeatedly flying closer and closer to my head. Despite my earlier resolution, I didn’t turn back.

In fact, I got a bit angry. I thought to myself: I’m am NOT sitting in the buggy woods next to a buggy pond for the next six hours with nothing to do because of this overreactive feathered bully. I pressed on. I prayed. I began flailing my hiking poles above my head and in front of my face. I walked quickly. The Goshawk continued darting toward me, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t break through the moving poles.

I was surprised at her persistence. It seemed like she followed me for a few hundred yards. Anyway, I scurried a long ways before she desisted. I kept moving quickly, but I didn’t see or hear any other Goshawks on the three miles out. It was the fastest hike out I’ve ever done.

Moose Mountain Pond

But this time I wasn’t traumatized. I won’t say I wasn’t frightened, but I felt okay. I didn’t feel anxious by the time I got to the car. I didn’t have nightmares or flashbacks. I didn’t play the tapes over and over again in my head. I was able to think about other things. There has been no thought of staying indoors, though I have chosen popular trails and will avoid isolated trails in the High Peaks for a few more weeks, until goslings have left the nest.

I have seen and heard probably a half dozen Goshawks in the woods, and most have not threatened me. A few weeks ago, I heard one screaming in the parking lot to the east trail to Giant Mountain, and I saw her flying around, below the canopy, but she didn’t get in my face. A friend of mine said, when I related my story, “Well, you were encroaching on their territory.” No. That’s the kind of thing a city person will say. Just no. I wasn’t bothering the Goshawk in any way, and no other human is bothering their nests, which are high up in the tallest tree. I was on public land, there for all creatures. I stood my ground.

And you follow ’till your sense of which direction completely disappears…

July 2, 2022

Regular readers of my blog may recall that a few weeks ago I mentioned that I had come upon Bobcat scent in the woods – so strong that I postulated I was near a den.

The Bobcat theme remains omnipresent in my life. A few days after that post, I came upon a dead Bobcat in the road as I was off to another hike. Never seen that before. It was a melanistic Bobcat, like many animals in the Adirondacks.

Then, earlier this week, another sign. I hiked to a secluded spot on Lake Champlain, with a beautiful view of Camel’s Hump Mountain in Vermont. A small boat trundled by, and as it passed me the sounds of the music the people were playing drifted back to me: Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat.”

As I explain in Divining with Animal Guides, animal signs come in a variety of ways, not just the physical sighting of the animal. Still, I probably would have thought nothing of the Al Stewart song, though I’ve always liked it, if I hadn’t been getting other signs of Bobcat. Multiple signs, especially close together, are a strong indicator that the animal sign is an important one to consider carefully.

Taking the signs one-by-one, I note that the first has to do with scent: picking up scent, ascertaining that something is close by. Then, my own conjecture that I was near the place where the mother Bobcat lived. Scent is a very primal form of communication. Humans use scent to signal sexual availability (perfume) and for camouflage (the scents that mask odors). In a Bocat’s world, scents announce presence, most of all.

The second Bobcat was dead in the road. Death is about moving beyond physical limits into the spirit world. The mysterious seldom-seen Bobcat is considered to move between worlds anyway, so this accentuated this aspect. The body was in the road – my road – so the intimation was that this encounter with Bobcat energy is a part of the direction my life is taking.

“The Year of the Cat.” This song is about a man who allows the allure of a place and a woman to distract him to the point that he has lost his exit route. He is not a prisoner, exactly: he knows someday he’s “bound to leave her,” but he’s content with the situation for now. This underlines the idea of the Bobcat I saw in the road being about encounters that are unavoidable. And the song came from a boat, another means of travel. Furthermore, the sweet refrain “Year of the Cat” came across water. The Bobcat is one of the felines that likes water, swims well, and even hunts creatures around water holes. Water is symbolic of travel to the spirit world.

Photo: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

Multiple signs can give information that make interpretation easier. This is why I believe that the best response to an ambiguous sign is to wait for another sign, rather than looking up the meaning in a book. I mean, go ahead and do that, but keep your mind open to other interpretations and be ready to readjust your conclusions.

What are these three Bobcat signs, taken together, telling you?

Clear Skies and Quiet Water

June 24, 2022

Happy Solstice everyone!

A wonderfully cool summer is upon us in the Adirondacks. We’ve had some hot ones in recent years. Yeah, I know: every place is like that now. But this is an area with long very cold winters, so we deal poorly with the hot weather. I encountered the opposite problem when I lived in Tucson: houses were not properly heated for the few months of cold weather.

Hammond Pond seems to be a place I visit a lot, mostly because it’s a short easy trail on the way to Vermont. It was conceived as an accessible trail that disabled people could access via ATV. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been maintained to those standards. It remains a popular trail, however. On this last visit Red-Winged Blackbirds and Pine Warblers filled the air.

My favorite birdsong is the Winter Wren, which is active where I live at the Summer Solstice.

An energetic Winter Wren kept us company on a hike yesterday near Whiteface Mountain. He wouldn’t stop for a minute.

If you’re planning to visit the Adirondacks this summer, the place I recommend is Wilmington, the village at the base of Whiteface Mountain. They have lots of outdoor athletic events, mostly foot racing and cycling. It’s a great place for mountain biking. Trout fishing is popular here, which I don’t partake in, being a vegan. The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge is here, which I find more interesting. Whiteface is the only “high peak” in the Adirondacks that can be accessed by car, although I won’t wear out my brakes on the steep route. I prefer the trail.

Whiteface Mountain

Bobcat Way

June 17, 2022

I lived for a time in the Sonora Desert with a friend who had a swimming pool. It was a great outdoor pool, Olympic size, and it didn’t get the use it probably deserved. One dedicated fan was a bobcat who regularly jumped the concrete walls to drink from the green-blue water. We didn’t think that was good for the cat, so we started replenishing daily the tap water that collected under the outdoor faucet. The honeybees (Africanized, this was southern Arizona) would also drink from this standing water.

Photo: Larry Pace, USFWS

The bobcat seemed to understand doors and windows, and was content to drink with one eye peeled at us while we stared at him through the glass screen door only a few cat lengths away. Doubtless he would have scampered away if we had opened the door. My pet kittycat Misha also liked to watch the bobcat, her tail swishing furiously back and forth as she stood behind the glass door. The bobcat disdainfully ignored her.

I have seen only a few bobcats since moving to the Adirondacks. They are shy creatures, and the cover is better here than in the desert. This week, I was walking through some woods when I caught a familiar and instantly identifiable odor. You see, bobcats really really stink. They spray to mark territory like a domestic cat. The odor was so strong that I wondered if I was near a den or if the area had been marked recently. Perhaps the animal herself was nearby. I wish I’d investigated now, but there were black flies swarming around me, and I was not wearing protective clothing, so I moved on.

Bobcat urine is sold as a rodent repellant and used around farm buildings. I have no idea if it’s ethically sourced, although I would guess it’s not toxic to the environment. The chemical in the urine that rodents avoid has been isolated. I imagine eau d’bobcat pee is not the most appealing of fragrances to anyone.

Photo: Grayson Smith, USFWS

I have become adept in discerning animal scents and can usually distinguish skunk vs. fox vs. coyote vs. wildcat odors. A little known fact about people born in the sign of Aries is that we have a rather developed sense of smell. Ask an Aries about the smells encountered on a recent trip and wait for a detailed response. I’ve known Aries who brag continually about their sense of smell, something people born under other astrological signs think is a strange thing to boast about. One of my favorite books is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez because of the rich descriptions of smells.

As I explain in Divining with Animal Guides, an animal omen does not necessarily have be a physical sighting. Tracks, sounds, scat, pellets, and scent markings also count, as does an encounter with the name itself, such as finding yourself lost on a road called Bobcat Way. I might begin calling the trail where I met that unmistakable odor Bobcat Way. It’s a sign to begin working magically with the wildcat again.