So There’s a Dog in My Floorboards

Before you start to think Bella has somehow gotten lost and found her way under my house, don’t worry. She’s fine, apart from some minor digestive complaints she’s had lately. The dog to which the title of this article refers is another one entirely, one I only discovered recently due to unusual circumstances and close observation. But before I get to that, I have to do some explaining about a particular piece of art.

The piece in question is The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s a double portrait of two Frenchman, Jean de Tinteville and Georges de Selve, who visited the court of Henry VIII at the same time Holbein was making his second visit to London. The piece is widely considered to be the most ambitious of this phase in Holbein’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of detail invested into every seam, fiber, and surface is astonishing. The garments of Jean de Tinteville, on the left, are enough to make a status-conscious individual in any era start salivating. Similarly the artifacts — which include a globe, a lute, and an astrolabe among other things — are testaments to the wealth of the two men portrayed and the skill of the artist who portrayed them.

But not long after looking at this painting, you’ll probably start to realize that something isn’t quite right. In fact it seems as if Holbein has made a gigantic goof — which looks like some sort of inartistic smear — and has had the ill luck to place it at the bottom center of the painting. “How could anyone with his level of skill and experience make such a catastrophic blunder?” — one might reasonably ask. The question, however, is immediately resolved when the viewer adopts a very awkward angle at the extreme top right or bottom left of the painting. When the viewer does this, something emerges out of the apparent blunder.

The meaning of the skull on the floor sitting in plain sight between two powerful men regaled by symbols of wealth and status is easy to infer. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is in your vault, no matter how many fur coats you have, no matter how many signifiers of wealth and power you possess, you too will ultimately die and leave it all behind. It’s a sobering message, and its presence in the painting assumes added significance when one considers the swathe of bloodshed left in the wake of Henry VIII, at whose court Holbein worked during his stay in London.

“Now how in the world does this relate to a dog in your floorboards?” — you might be asking at this moment. The answer will make more sense if I explain how I came to it. As it turns out, I was sitting on the couch in my living room one day in January, eating a snack before recorder practice, when I happened to glance toward my practice room, which is about fifteen feet from the couch’s position in the living room. Because I was at such a low angle and because there’s no wall between the two rooms at that point, the apparent texture of the wood floor in my practice room was dramatically skewed. It was so skewed in fact that I noticed something I’d never noticed in the ten years I’ve lived in this house. There, in the floorboards, staring back at me with lopsided ears and a silly grin, was the likeness of a dog.

It may be hard to believe, so I’ve included three photos of the wood floor in my practice room, starting with a perpendicular angle and moving to a more sharply acute angle with each frame. (Basically I went from shooting a photo while standing up to shooting a photo while lying on the floor.) The effect is startling.

How exactly this came about is beyond me. I would have to guess it was done by accident, though I suppose there’s a very small chance that the placement of the two boards which comprise the dog’s face was chosen specifically by the foreman who oversaw the installation of the floorboards as a kind of practical joke or Easter egg for anyone living in the house. Perhaps he was imitating Holbein, perhaps not. It’s impossible to say for sure. At the end of the day, nature must take the greatest share of credit for this portrait, which demonstrates more clearly than ever that the best way for us to gain a new appreciation of our surroundings is to adopt an unconventional angle from which to view them.
Image Credits:

1. Cutest Face in the Room (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533)

3. Tilted Close-up of The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein, 1533)

4. The Face Emerges I, II, & III (Mark Miles, 2017)

Online Love and Betrayal at Valentine’s Day

A year ago around Valentine’s Day I had the worst breakup of my life. There was a period of time in the months following when I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I’ve encountered depression after traumatic occurrences in my life, but this was something else. It felt as if a piece of my soul had been stolen, as if someone had taken from me the ability to breathe, as if I had lost the one person in my life who understood and cared for me better than anyone else. The feeling is best captured by the song above, which I recorded not long ago.

When Bobby Rolando and I started dating, I never imagined in a million years what lay in store. We became acquainted through Instagram in January of 2015, and I was tentative about getting involved with him on that basis. As much as I use social media, I fully recognize that there are very concrete limits to the fulfillment it can provide and the opportunities it can offer. I’ve seen firsthand how friends of mine have been lured into online relationships with people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of the same thing happening to me. So I kept him in the friend-zone for several months.

Despite our distance from one another — Bobby lives in northern New Jersey and and I live in central North Carolina — we nonetheless had many common interests on which to base our virtual friendship. I love photography, and so does he. I love hiking, and so does he. I love classical music, and so does he. I love animals, and so does he. I love running, and so does he. I love baking, and so does he. We had so much in common that I secretly began to wonder if Bobby wasn’t simply agreeing with everything I liked in order to ingratiate himself to me and make his way out of the friend-zone. To this day I’m not entirely sure how much of what he said was true and how much was a lie.

In any case, he had the pictures on his Instagram account to prove that he was indeed interested in photography and hiking, and I became acquainted with some of the places he enjoyed hiking through his photography. I began to feel as if the forests, hills, and mountains of northern New Jersey were in my own backyard. And with that sense of shared landscape, it was much easier for me to think of Bobby as a kindred spirit, as someone who cared about the same things I did and would respect me because of that. Little did I know at the time.

So we continued to get to know each other through an entirely virtual forum, never meeting in person, never establishing the physical existence of the other person, never getting to look each other in the eye without a screen coming between us. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but slowly I was starting to consider Bobby a good friend, perhaps even a better friend than people I’ve known in real life for much longer. It was a curious and irrational phenomenon, but it was inescapable at the time.

After we’d known each other for six months on Instagram, Bobby finally started to make his move. I’d previously gotten the impression that he wasn’t entirely heterosexual, but it was only a feeling. There was no way I could substantiate it. Then, out of the blue one day for no apparent reason, he asked me if I was “into guys.” I explained that I was, and that was when he really started to turn up the heat.

For a few months after that, we dated. It was never official: he never asked me to date and I never agreed to it. But there was an unspoken understanding between us. We started to talk on another app called Kik — which is primarily text-based and allows for better conversation — and before long we were spilling the beans about everything. I told him about the guy who’d cheated on me in my previous relationship; he told me about the girl who’d cheated on him. I told him about the time I was assaulted in a parking lot; he told me about the time he was assaulted by a roomful of frat guys. I told him that I wanted to be in a loving and committed relationship; he told me that he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” I still remember those words to this day, if only because no one other than Bobby Rolando has ever said them to me in my entire life. He was the first person to say them, and I have a feeling he’ll also be the last.

So we kept getting closer and closer without ever meeting. I can’t say definitively when we went from dating to a relationship, because once again nothing between us was ever official. Bobby never asked me to be “the one,” and I never agreed to be “the one.” But at some point around September or October of 2015, we became monogamous. He stopped talking to other guys, and I started incorporating him into my fantasy life. We started talking almost every day, and frequently we had conversations that would extend for an hour or more. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, but that was only because I didn’t yet know the ending.

In December I finally blurted out the big question: “When are we going to finally meet?” There was no definite answer from Bobby, and I probably should’ve taken this for a warning sign, but I didn’t because I believed his lies with the naive innocence of a child. As ridiculous as it sounds, I was beginning to think he was the love of my life. I’m not prone to flights of fancy, and I’ve only felt similarly for a handful of people in my three decades on this planet. But I felt it for him, and I felt it was time for us to make the big step from an online relationship to a real-world relationship. By this point we’d known each other for a full year, and it only seemed natural.

Then, in January of 2016, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Bobby disappeared. He stopped responding to my texts; he stopped responding to my snaps; he stopped responding to my comments on Instagram. This was utterly shocking to me because there’d been nothing to precipitate such a radical shift. We’d been getting along just fine; we’d still been having great conversations; we’d still been planning to meet. I was paralyzed and heartbroken for weeks. I didn’t know what to do. Then, over a period of weeks, a plan materialized.

On Valentine’s Day of of 2016, I put up a post on my Instagram account telling the story of how we fell in love. I tagged Bobby in the photo and mentioned him by name to ensure that he would know I meant it for him. I thought he’d be happy about my display of affection, that he’d come back to me with open arms, that he’d tell me that all he’d wanted from me was a definite sign of my love, and that now we could be in a real relationship. It’s embarrassing to admit in hindsight how deluded I was at the time, but I believed him when he told me he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” And if he’d been telling the truth, how could that have changed after a mere month? I couldn’t accept the possibility that he was a lying and deceitful scumbag, and so I acted on my gut.

The answer I got left me dumbstruck. Bobby’s words were, “You’re hurting me more than you know. If you love me, let me go.” It was as if he’d stolen prepackaged lyrics from a Katy Perry song and then dumbed them down for a preteen audience. Not only were the words insulting to the English language; they simply didn’t make any sense at all. How could I be hurting him when all I was trying to do was reciprocate the feelings he’d expressed for me on more occasions than I could count? And beyond that, how did my honest and gentle words come to deserve a warning from Instagram that my post had “endangered” another user and that it had to be removed as a result? None of it made any sense, and I was getting desperate.

So I took an unplanned step. I sent a group message on Instagram to a number of Bobby’s friends and family members explaining to them everything that had happened and asking for an explanation for his increasingly erratic and nonsensical behavior. In response to my honest and gentle words, I received numerous allegations that I was a “fake,” a “stalker,” and “spam.” I didn’t know what to do. I’d given these friends and family of Bobby mere words to prove our relationship, but that obviously wasn’t enough. I had to give more. So I gave what I had: a picture of Bobby in a position of partial nudity, in which he told me how much he wanted me and how perfect I was in every way. It was a sudden decision and one that I didn’t have time to think out. All I knew at that moment was that I had one chance to prove my case and that I had to do it fast. If the group decided informally that I was a fake, they would’ve ignored me and destroyed my one chance to get an answer from Bobby.

Finally Bobby started to talk. He was seriously angry now, and he called me (for the very first time coincidentally) to give me a piece of his mind. I was more terrified and relieved than words could say. I was terrified that he would say he never loved me, but I was relieved he was at least talking to me. We spoke on the phone for fifteen minutes, and in that time he broke down in tears and explained what he was dealing with. He explained that he lived in an extremely religious family who would never accept the prospect of his being in a relationship with a man. He explained that he’d seen his cousin Henry effectively kept under house-arrest by his own family after it became known that Henry had been in a sexual relationship with a man. He explained that he was terrified of what would happen. And most importantly he told me that he loved me.

Whether or not Bobby was telling the truth about any of this is anyone’s guess. After this brief conversation, he and I got back together briefly on the condition that I delete the message that I sent to his friends and family. This I did without delay. For three days, I was happy. Then all hell broke loose again. It turned out that his sister Jess had seen the message that I sent, and she confronted Bobby about it. He decided at that point to tell his family about our relationship, revealing for the first time to his extremely homophobic relatives that he was not in fact perfectly heterosexual.

A day or two later, he texted me to tell me that we couldn’t be together. I asked for some explanation, some rationale for his erratic behavior, but all I got from Bobby was a static monophonic line: “This is my choice, nobody forced me to make it.” It was like he was a robot repeating a mechanically predetermined dictum. There was no thought, no feeling, no conviction in it whatsoever. And so I asked him to call me the following day.

The following day arrived, and Bobby called. I asked once again why he was breaking it off with me, and he finally spilled the beans. His family had been considering legal action against me, for what reason I had no clue. I was utterly shocked and flabbergasted. How could the act of explaining a relationship — which did include sexual elements but was not in any way pornographic on my part — constitute grounds for legal action? How could love be a prosecutable offense? I had no answer, and he gave none that made any sense. The conversation ended, and that was the last time we spoke on the phone to each other.

Over the following days, a series of threats and counterthreats passed between us that I still can’t explain or make sense of. We both became incredibly angry with each other, and it reached a point where I began to fear for my safety. Ironically, though, I wasn’t the one to tell Bobby never to speak to me again. No, on the contrary, Bobby was the one. He told me never to speak to him again, and I was crushed. After the conversation, I broke down in sobs. I was utterly heartbroken, and to be honest I still am.

Since that day at the end of February, 2016, I haven’t heard a word from Bobby Rolando, though he does still maintain his Facebook profile. He hasn’t asked me how I’m doing or if I’m okay or if we can be friends or if there’s anything he can do to make it up to me for all the needless pain and suffering he caused. He’s taken the easy way out; he’s done what his family wanted; he’s destroyed the love we shared, the equivalent of which he’ll probably never find for the remainder of his life.

In the aftermath of this experience, I’ve found consolation in some unlikely places. One of these was the song which I played at the very beginning of this article. It’s from the pen of a thirteenth-century female troubadour whose title was the Comtessa de Dia, or the Countess of Dia. She wrote her song about the man she loved, a man who abandoned and betrayed her after she had been true and loyal. Even though she died nearly a millennium before I was born and lived thousands of miles from my home, I still feel a resonance in her music that validates my own experience of love and betrayal.

Another source of consolation has been the relationship I’ve developed with the land around Occoneechee Mountain, where I frequently hike. I often think of Bobby when I go there because of our shared interest in hiking and because I wanted to take him hiking there for our first date. Something about the steep and craggy surfaces that predominate throughout the park reminds of the steep and craggy trajectory of the love that unfolded between us.

The final source of consolation that I found was less unlikely but still noteworthy. It was William Shakespeare. When I saw and heard the following sonnet in the Ang Lee movie “Sense and Sensibility,” I knew immediately that I had to adopt it for my personal anthem regarding love.

Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! It is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Image Credits:

1. Stream Along the McAvoy Trail in Ramapo Mountain State Forest (Famartin via Wikiwand, Date N/A)

2. A Tentative Proposition (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. Cracks Emerge Between Us (Mark Miles, 2016)

4. Forest of Memories (Mark Miles, 2016)

References:

Cheyette, Fredric L. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Lee, Ang. Sense and Sensibility. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Culver City, CA, USA: Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, NY, USA: MetroBooks (an imprint of Friedman/Fairfax Publishers), 1994.

Spring Arrives Early, Stupidity Stays Late

It amazes me that there’s any debate whatsoever over the existence of climate change. So much evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that our world is changing for the worst and doing so at an alarmingly unanticipated rate. Let me give a short list of examples. The polar ice caps are melting. Forest fires are becoming increasingly common and increasingly dangerous. Birds are migrating earlier in winter and later in spring. Cold-dependent species are being forced to higher altitudes and are becoming smaller in size. Plants are blooming earlier and losing their leaves later. Parasitic organisms that thrive in warm climates are slowly but steadily expanding their range into previously uninhabitable territory. In short, the world is being radically and detrimentally altered in front of our very eyes, and yet corporate media and the political establishment continue to engage in the highly refined art of calculated stupidity. Even the newly elected American president refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the devastating effect it’s already having on millions of people globally.

I’ve witnessed this change firsthand. In previous stories I’ve mentioned how I’ve been noticing the earlier arrival of warm temperatures, the earlier emergence of hibernating animals, the earlier growth of plants and trees. This year is no exception. On the contrary, it’s been a bigger verification than any year previously. Despite the shortlived snowstorm we had in mid-January and occasional bursts of cold in general, daytime temperatures in North Carolina have lately been hovering in the 50°-70° F range. This is unreal. In the months of January and February historical highs for the state of North Carolina have been in the range of 30°-40° F. Any temperature exceeding 50° F at this time of year is a veritable heatwave. Yet temperatures have exceeded that threshold by 20° F on at least three separate occasions thus far in 2017.

I’m seeing plants blooming now which aren’t supposed to be blooming until March at the earliest. I’ve taken a few photos over the past few weeks to give examples of the unseasonable conditions. Though I’ve tried to make the photos as appealing as possible, the fact remains that warm temperatures at this time of year promote the growth of parasites that can harm or kill plants in the coming year. Additionally the stress which plants endure by virtue of violently fluctuating temperatures can be damaging or fatal with repeated incidents.

More than a week before the first day of February I was taking an evening walk across the railroad tracks to the north of where I live, following the local highway. Passing a law firm, I noticed a shot of yellow to my left between the sidewalk and the road. At first I thought I was seeing things; dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) don’t start blooming in this region until March at the earliest. Yet there at my feet was the first blooming dandelion of the season, a full six weeks early.

On another walk during the same week, I’d made my way past the highway and the local elementary school to the corner of a street leading into one of the first residential districts north of the railroad tracks. I was rounding the corner when I noticed a burst of red to my right. Stopping to inspect, I once again found it hard to believe my eyes. There in front of me at waist-level was new growth on a swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). New growth is rare on these trees before early April. Yet there could be no doubt that new growth was present and that it was a full ten weeks early.

On the same walk I continued toward the local fire station and passed an abandoned house with an uncultivated yard that’s been allowed to grow haphazardly. There are plants of every size and shape, some wild and some domesticated, who’ve taken up residence at this spot. It’s a kind of urban wilderness sanctuary without the usual tending of a garden. By this time I was beginning to expect the unexpected and was less surprised when I saw a cluster of purple blossoms staring up at me. Leaning down to the ground, I found a purple dead nettle (Lamium purpurea)–which is much more eloquently called “purple archangel”–with fresh flowers and verdant stems. Once again the appearance was a solid six weeks early.

During the same week I decided to check my garden for any unusual growth from my herbs. The rosemary hasn’t gone into dormancy for the entirety of winter, which it normally does for at least two months. The sage and fennel didn’t become dormant until December, and with the growth of other plants in the area I expected they would be putting forth their first stems. True to form, my expectation was greeted with confirmation when I looked at my sage (Salvia officinalis) and saw the first new leaves of the season. Sage doesn’t generally start growing until the end of March in this region, so this was a full eight weeks early.

On the same day I decided to check my backyard for any early vegetal risers. It took a little bit of searching, but before long I’d spotted some birdseye speedwell (Veronica persica) between the black walnut tree and my compost pile. I stooped to the ground, in a position that was far more uncomfortable than I care to admit, and took several photos. Despite my happiness at how well the photos turned out, I couldn’t escape the fact that birdseye speedwell normally doesn’t bloom until late February at the earliest, making this appearance a full four weeks early.

All of this is fine and dandy, but there are still people who choose to engage in calculated stupidity by claiming that all of this climate change is merely an aspect of nature, a cycle of temperature fluctuation that has nothing to do with human activity. Either it’s el niño or la niña or a little ice age or a warm spell. Of course this is insanity, but it doesn’t stop people from believing it and from using this calculated stupidity as an excuse to do nothing.

The fact is that industry has collectively reengineered the planet by means of water, fire, and air. By clear-cutting forests and removing the bioregulatory cooling provided by their internal repositories of water, industry has gravely disrupted the natural means of cooling this planet. By burning fossil fuels in refineries, automobiles, and power plants, industry has added an appreciable input of heat to the atmosphere of this planet. And by adding greenhouse-gases to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, industry has increased the insulatory potential of the climate considerably. It’s the equivalent of turning off your air conditioner in the middle of summer, starting a bonfire in your living room, adding a few layers of fiberglass to the insulation in your house, and then pretending everything is fine. It’s complete insanity.

Of course there’s still a significant chance that temperatures will drop before winter officially ends. If that happens, corporate media and the political establishment will hail it as further confirmation that everything is normal and nothing should be done and we can all go home and zone out in front of our phones. Of course that’s what most people in our increasingly dissociated culture do anyway. And that’s precisely what we need to stop doing, because the fact remains that nothing of a sufficient magnitude is being done to stop the ongoing slow-motion cataclysm of climate change. No one in a position of power is willing to risk that power for the prospect of pursuing a course of action that will be beneficial for people but detrimental to profits. And once again the planet will be the one to pay the price.

And that’s why it’s up to us. The fact of the matter is that if we want to stop this planet from being turned into an uninhabitable wasteland with oceans of acid and continents of plastic, we have to do something. We have to hold our leaders accountable. We have to demand decisive action to stop this ongoing cataclysm before it reaches its conclusion in the extinction of our own species. We have to get out on the streets, stop the pipelines, end corporate personhood, defund polluters, and establish that people matter more than profits. We have to rebuild communities, reestablish alliances, regrow local food networks, support local businesses, foster landbased ethical practices, and make sustainability a way of life. We have to do something, anything, whatever it takes to stop this cataclysm before it’s too late. Because if we don’t, then no one will.

Image Credits:

1. A Drop of Sunlight (Mark Miles, 2017) Order this print

2. Point the Way (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Purple Archangel (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Soft Spring Sage (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Smile for the Camera (Mark Miles, 2017) Order this print

References:

Howard, Brian Clark. “Mountain Goats Are Shrinking—A Lot—Because of Global Warming.” National Geographic. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

Mooney, Chris. “The huge crack in this Antarctic ice shelf just grew by another 6 miles.” The Washington Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s a deadly parasite, and it’s spreading across lakes in the U.S.” The Denver Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

A Snow White Sea with Water Music in Mind

I’ve been thinking about arctic voyages lately. Two weekends ago was the big snowstorm, and with it came a volume of white fluffy stuff that I haven’t seen in more than two decades. There was so much of it that I began questioning my latitude; it was practically Nordic around here. Of course it didn’t last; the snow had melted by the following Wednesday, and temperatures exceeded 70° F before the end of the week. For a few days, however, we were surrounded by a snow white sea.

Around the same time I recorded The Merry Sailors by Telemann. It’s the last movement from his suite of dances called Water Music. He wrote it for the Hamburg Admiralty in 1723, and it comprises ten movements which depict mythical deities of the water and their associations with everyday life. It’s a remarkably evocative and accessible work that’s been a great pleasure to learn and play on my YouTube channel. Needless to say, that’s not true of every piece of music I commit to memory.

With thoughts of water and winter floating through my mind, I decided to take a hike through the snow. There were weather advisories warning against any transit that wasn’t absolutely essential, so I avoided driving to one of my usual hiking destinations. Due to the accumulation of snow and the incompetence of local authorities–who somehow managed to clear commercial thoroughfares but refused to do the same for pedestrian walkways–it was more of an adventure than I would’ve thought.

Crossing the railroad tracks that bisect downtown, I came to the first residential area north of the tracks. I wasn’t particularly interested in the houses, but the trees were something to behold. These were the first to really catch my eye. On the left an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and on the right a pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) greeted me with their outstretched boughs. Normally they draw the eye, but with a snow white sea on every side and a clear blue sky overhead they were phenomenal. I couldn’t help wondering if a winter voyage to Denmark, not far from Telemann’s stomping grounds, would’ve looked similar to the composer.

Down the sidewalk and to the right I passed a quaint field adjacent to the local elementary school. Rows of corn have graced the field in years past, but it was allowed to go fallow over the last growing season. In place of corn there were numerous opportunistic plants that filled the gap, and they added a rusty brown to balance the blue and white of sky and snow. A swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) in the background overshadowed the scene with silent magnificence, evoking a sense of grandeur which Telemann might have recognized in the fjords of Norway, not too far from where he lived.

Around another corner and down another block I sighted this stately sentinel, a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). I’m not sure of her age, but judging by height and width of trunk it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this pine has seen forty winters or more. It’s sad to say, but in this area that qualifies any tree for retirement–which has less to do with tender loving care than it does with the chopping block. I could only imagine how the evergreen forests of Sweden, near Telemann’s neck of the woods, looked in the composer’s lifetime by comparison.

After trekking for another half-mile through side-roads and snowdrifts, I came to this idyllic scene. Standing at the edge of a field extending another quarter-mile in the distance, I saw this lone tree, too distant to identify, looming over the crest of a small hill. With the play of sunshine and clouds overhead, the scene was constantly undulating with light and shadow, as if the snow white sea covering the landscape was more than mere snow. I had to wonder if some lone island off the coast of Finland could’ve aroused the same feelings in Telemann, who lived along shipping routes that frequented the Finnish coast.

Finally I said goodbye to the snow white sea extending toward the horizon. There were snowclad trees in the distance, but they were so far away that it seemed they were in another country, maybe even in another era. Being in such a place at such a time, I was overwhelmed by the sense of history that pervaded the land, the sense that so many people have lived and died and been lost in the mists of time, forgotten in our era of digital overexposure. I wonder if Telemann would’ve looked into this landscape and seen something of his own time and place, and I wonder if he too would’ve done everything in his power to preserve the land and the water for generations to come.

Image Credits:

1. Engraving of Georg Philipp Telemann (Georg Lichtensteger, 1745)

2. Greetings from the Trees (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Stately Snowclad Sentinel (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Lone Tree on Snow Hill (Mark Miles, 2017) Order this print.

5. Sea of Blue, Sea of White (Mark Miles, 2017) Order this print.

Climb to the Clouds

Hiking is always a good way for me to relax after a stressful week. Not long ago I was tempted to skip my monthly rendezvous with Occoneechee Mountain because of a hectic schedule, but I stuck to my routine and was glad I did. The landscape was barren of foliage for the most part, but the increase in visibility gave a real sense of scope that’s often lacking from the experience in summer and spring.

As usual there was a small crowd when I arrived but nothing unmanageable. I got out of my car and started down the main trail over a few hills on my way to the first fork in the path. Before I reached it, I was greeted by a pleasant southwestern exposure of the sun peeping gently through the branches.

A little further along, I reached Elephant Rock–which is not the official name but describes the formation well nonetheless–and decided that the lighting was too good to miss. I’m not generally one to take selfies on my hikes, but I couldn’t resist in this instance.

After passing by a stretch of the Eno that borders the trail for a quarter of a mile, I came to the ascent that leads to the Overlook. There are a number of stairs in this area that were put in place by an eagle scout some years ago for his community service, and they’re a welcome addition at this point.

On the way up the side of the mountain, the trail passes directly beneath a very large metallic powerline that bisects the land near the quarry. It’s an ugly sight, but I did manage to find a view of it that was at least symmetrical. Standing beneath it and staring directly upwards, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was caught in an oversized game of tic-tac-toe.

Huffing and puffing from the steep climb that leads to the highest point on the trail, I reached the Overlook itself. The view was incredible as always, though there wasn’t the same panoply of color that I would’ve found in late October. Still it was a refreshing end to a much-needed excursion that helps to keep me grounded in my daily life. And the best part about it is that anyone with a little time, initiative and wilderness can do the same.

Photo Credits:

1. Sun Peeps through Branches (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. All Smiles at Elephant Rock (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. It’s a Winding Way to the Top (Mark Miles, 2016) Order this print.

4. X Marks the Spot (Mark Miles, 2016)

5. Winter at the Overlook (Mark Miles, 2016) Order this print.

A Lesson from the Crows about Death

In the middle of December, a neighbor of mine–who I’ll call John out of respect for his privacy–nearly committed suicide. He’s a friendly and well-adjusted guy who I never would’ve expected to do such a thing, but he did. At very nearly the same time this took place, a group of crows began to make recurrent appearances around the neighborhood. I noticed when the crows began to show up and thought it was odd, but I tried not to read too much into it. It was only a week after the crows made their first appearance that I found out about John’s attempt to take his own life.

Though John has a good life and is well-adjusted, he had his reasons for wanting to end his life. His older brother committed suicide last year, leaving a wife and children without a husband and father. John felt guilty for not being able to stop his brother’s death and, in the absence of a reasonable coping strategy, became progressively overwhelmed by alcohol abuse and depression. John also felt a desire to be reunited with his brother, which he thought could be accomplished by his own act of suicide. All of this misguided reasoning conveniently sidestepped the fact that John would’ve left behind his own family to suffer needlessly if he had succeeded in his attempt.

Understandably his wife was distraught and had him put in a local clinic to help in his recovery. There was a great deal of pain and anger on her part, since she felt that John had made an implicit statement about how he valued his own family by his willingness to abandon them in order to rejoin his brother. Of course this had nothing to do with John’s rationale, but it’s easy to see how anyone could draw that conclusion under such circumstances.

A week ago, John returned to his family and seems to have recovered from the incident. He’s now taking steps to address his alcoholism and has outlets for his grief which he can access more readily than before. He’s been forgiven by his wife, and he has a renewed opportunity to honor the memory of his brother without ushering himself prematurely to the same fate.

Meanwhile the crows have departed. I haven’t seen them in two weeks, and as much as I love crows, a part of me is glad they’ve gone. Maybe their presence was merely a coincidence; maybe it was more than coincidence. I’m not inclined to think of them as omens of death, but the thought has certainly crossed my mind.

Another thought has also crossed my mind. Maybe the real lesson of the crows is not so much about death as it is about life and how best to live it. When they came, they were together in one group, cackling and cawing to one another with the relish of children on the playground. They were constantly communicating, interacting and enjoying each other’s company. They were a community, and from that shared bond they derived a strength that none of them would have possessed alone, a strength that gave their lives meaning in the face of death, a strength that we too can share if we will only make room for true community in our own lives.

Photo Titles:

1. Mouthful of Crow (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Helping Themselves (Mark Miles, 2016)

Heralds of the New Year

Holly has always been one of my favorite trees. Something about the vibrant contrast of red and green, the sharp and glossy leaves, and the endurance of harsh winter weather appeals to me. Perhaps because I was born in December I have a particular fondness for the chill air and long nights, and any other living being that can withstand them has my respect. I also feel a kindred sympathy with anyone who has such an attractive yet prickly personality. Perhaps those adjectives describe me from time to time, though I’m not sure I look as good in crimson red.

Holly Berries at their Peak (Mark Miles, 2016)

Beyond my kinship with holly, I also have English holly (Ilex aquifolium) in my front yard by the southeast corner of my house. I hadn’t trimmed the tree for a few years and consequently decided to remedy the situation a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t as hard to prune as I expected, but I did gain a new appreciation for the dexterity of the squirrels in my yard, who somehow manage to avoid the prickly parts of the plant with the skill of trained acrobats. When I was done trimming I took some of the branches and made a display of them, which is still sitting in my living room on the cold air return, somewhat unglamorously.

Holly Graces Cold Air Return (Mark Miles, 2016)

Another task that I’ve been putting off for some time that combines the attractive and the prickly sensibilities is the traditional song Greensleeves to a Ground. It’s a very, very old melody, traceable back to the late sixteenth century in England. Some have speculated that it was even written by Henry VIII, but the publication of the score decades after the monarch’s demise seems to refute that. In any case, attribution for the song is ambiguous, and the composer remains unconfirmed to this day.

Something about that ambiguousness of authorship bleeds into the mood of the music. Though there is a decided melancholy, there is sweetness too. The traditional lyrics for this–which have nothing to do with a child in a manger–express the longing and lament of a lover who has lost his beloved and wants to talk with her again, despite the fact that she apparently doesn’t share the sentiment. It’s as if the lyricist has taken a few lessons from the holly tree, combining the attractive and the prickly in a compelling combination that demands attention.

In addition, this piece is devilishly difficult in its transcription for recorder and requires a level of technical mastery of the instrument which is hard to hear but easy to feel if you ever try to play it for yourself. For this reason, the version which I recently performed and uploaded to my YouTube channel is truncated. I’ve only included the first half of the song, which is still a not-inconsiderable two and a half minutes of music.

Though there is much ambiguity and ambivalence in the song and the plant, they both point toward something that’s less ambiguous. The New Year is almost here, and it’s heralded by both the song and the tree. The holly tree is perhaps the more obvious herald of the New Year, since it’s crimson berries are usually the only source of vibrant color in the winter landscape. But the song is also a herald of the New Year, as evidenced by one of its alternate versions. Titled The Old Year Now Away Is Fled, the lyrics are as close to a benediction as I can think.

The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is entered;
Then let us all our sins down tread
And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this holiday,
And let us run with sport and play,
Hang sorrow, let’s cast care away.
God send us a merry new year!

In Search of Holden Mill

Last weekend I was finally able to explore the ruins of Holden Mill at Eno River State Park. I’d been wanting to for a couple months, but finding the requisite three hours of daylight proved to be more difficult than finding honesty in a politician. I made an unsuccessful attempt in November which resulted in my turning back before reaching the mill due to lack of daylight. As a result, some of the photos in this article have more autumnal color than others; those are photos from my incomplete November hike. The photos that have more wintry color are the ones that I took last weekend. And while most of this story will be a recollection of my December hike, there will also be minor elements of my November hike interspersed. With that covered, let’s begin.

I arrived at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday afternoon to find that there were a good number of other people who had the same idea. It’s not uncommon to find a crowd here, but I figured the 40° F temperatures would be enough to dissuade my fellow Carolinians from venturing into what’s considered by many southerners to be intolerably cold weather. My assumption was wrong, but I was right in assuming that I’d be the only one not wearing anything on his head. Being the son of two midwesterners well accustomed to blizzards and snowstorms, I’m inclined to regard 40° F in December as a heatwave. Thus headwear was superfluous.

Stone Staircase by the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

Starting northward on Buckquarter Creek Trail, I rounded the curve near Outhouse Ford and continued westward, encountering a few other small groups of hikers who were finishing the trail I was starting. Before long I came to Buckquarter Creek footbridge and crossed gingerly before coming to a fork in the trail and taking the northern course. I had now come to Holden Mill Trail, which consists of two closely linked loops. The first of these is considerably larger than the second and extends from the banks of the Eno to a neighboring hill which provides decent elevation.

Ascending Wintry Hill (Mark Miles, 2016)

Cresting the hill, I noticed how the lack of foliage increased the visibility of the area considerably. When I came in November, there was still enough foliage to obscure a great deal of the surrounding landscape, giving the sense that so much legwork had been for naught. This wasn’t the case last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by how invigorating it was to see so much of the surrounding terrain with the chill December air goading me to breathe deeply of autumn’s last days. The visibility increased further still, however, when I reached a clear-cut of power-lines, which looked as if a giant had used his scythe to scalp the land of her foliage.

Powerlines Scalp the Land (Mark Miles, 2016)

By this time I was getting close. The trail had turned from westward to southward, and Tranquility Creek came into view. The trail continued on a course parallel to the creek for a little way before turning right abruptly at a shallow ford and leading me to the last stretch before the mill itself. I was pretty excited by this time and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’d seen a few photos of the mill previously, but none of them had been particularly detailed. Thus my senses were fine-tuned and ready for anything.

The first thing to come into view was the defunct dam which once blocked this stretch of the Eno. It was very primitive and appeared to extend no more than ten feet in height, though it may have stood taller when it was intact. I wasn’t able to get any decent photos of it, but there wasn’t much to photograph in any case.

Ruins Loom in the Distance (Mark Miles, 2016)

Then came the good stuff. Looming amongst the bare sycamores and oaks was a considerable stone structure that looked as if someone had transposed a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall to central North Carolina. Standing twenty feet in height and leaning ever so slightly forward, it was an imposing sight and lent an air of dubious antiquity to the landscape. In front of it stood two other fragments of the same structure, the first of which was no more than eight feet in height and the second no more than twelve. Together the three stone structures formed a kind of maze that simultaneously invited and dissuaded exploration. On the one hand curiosity urged me to take a look for the sake of posterity, but on the other hand precaution urged me to watch for falling stones from a very old structure that’s clearly seen better days. I adopted the middle path, exploring what looked safe and avoiding what didn’t.

Not-So-Hadrian’s Wall (Mark Miles, 2016)

There weren’t any plaques or signs in the area to indicate what the ruins had previously been, but I have my own ideas. The tallest structure in the back appears to have been the site for the mill-wheel, which was probably considerable in size to provide sufficient force to power the internal mechanism of the mill. The second wall may have redirected water from the adjacent canal to a spillway which emptied into the Eno. The third wall might similarly have provided the means to retain water in an enclosed area without spilling into the river prematurely.

Mill Spillway after Two Centuries (Mark Miles, 2016)

All of this is guesswork of course, but I was also able to find something more substantial than guesswork in my research. As it turns out, Holden Mill was founded as a corn, flour and saw mill in 1811 by Isaac Holden. He owned and oversaw the mill for nine years before passing it to his son, Thomas Holden in 1820. Thomas Holden expanded the mill’s workload to include cotton, oil and threshing before passing it to his son-in-law, John Lyon, in 1851. John Lyon retained the mill until 1868, when the mill was closed due to financial difficulties. For fourteen years it remained shuttered. Then, in 1882, Samuel Cole reopened the mill and changed the name from Holden Mill to Cole Mill. He oversaw the operation of the mill until 1893, when the mill closed for the second and final time. The development of factories had rendered the water-mill obsolete, and its role in the economy had become a footnote in history.

As I began the return leg of my hike, I still had visions of decaying stone structures in my head, attempting to reconstruct themselves into their original form to show me how everything worked. I still don’t know if my guesswork is accurate, but I do know one thing. The river which was the real reason for the operation of Holden Mill is the real reason why anyone should come to Eno River State Park.

How the Eno Stole My Heart (Mark Miles, 2016)

On the banks of the Eno I can hear the running water and the voice of the land, leading me to imagine how our world would be without toxic industries poisoning the water and fouling the air. On the banks of the Eno I can feel the rush of a crisp wind on my face and the sharp pull of nature on my soul, whispering to me to respect all that’s green and good in this world. On the banks of the Eno I can see that beauty is everywhere and that another world is possible, expectantly waiting for us to join in common cause to end the reign of money once and for all.

Meditation on Theme and Variations

Over the past few months I’ve started dabbling in musical composition. I’ve been playing the recorder for a little more than three years now, and I’ve finally started to feel comfortable enough with the instrument to take some artistic liberties. I was hesitant about this at first, thinking that I’d never be able to write any kind of music that would be remotely listenable; but I’ve been surprised at how easily it’s come to me. The greatest challenge thus far has been picking up my pen, putting down my excuses, and doing the work.

Putting Pen to Paper (Mark Miles, 2016)

Since I’m obviously a novice at this, it occurred to me that one of the best approaches to learning would be simply to start from the work of other composers who’ve written music I enjoy. With the holiday season upon us, it only seemed natural that I should choose something with a holiday theme. Since I’m animistic in my spiritual tendencies and prefer to avoid reference to monotheistic religions and their authoritarian overtones, I decided to use the reasonably ecumenical song O Here We Come A-Caroling as a springboard for my first finished composition. As such, I’ve decided to call this piece Variations on O Here Come A-Caroling, and it’s now on my YouTube channel.

Composing this piece, however, got me to thinking about the history of the musical form that is variations on a theme. The earliest documented example of this form originated in the fourteenth century. Presumably there have been examples of variations on a theme for as long as music has existed, since there’s nothing more primal than taking something familiar and progressively embellishing it with meaningful details to make something new and unexpected. In a sense, this is the basis of all creativity. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the form had become reasonably commonplace, as evidenced by Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Mozart’s Twelve Variations on Ah Vous Dirai Je, Maman (better known in English as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star). Since that time, composers as varied as Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Glass and Williams have turned their pen to the form as well.

With this track record, it’s clear that theme and variations have have been pivotal to the historical development of music. But they’ve also been pivotal to one degree or another in other areas of human culture. Fields as diverse as architecture, literature, agriculture, seafaring, commerce, banking, fishing, mining, and industry have all been shaped at a fundamental level by the simple principle of variations on previously dominant themes of human culture. The Roman aqueduct, the Greek alphabet, the Viking longship, Chinese gunpowder, Native American corn (or maize depending on where you’re reading this), and Templar banking are just a few examples of variations on preexisting themes of human culture which have been progressively developed and transformed over time.

Fall on the Banks of the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

And so lately I’ve been thinking about how variations on a theme have permeated through our lives in ways both good and bad. Since I love the outdoors and spend a good deal of time hiking around the Eno River here in North Carolina, I’ve begun to think about the variations to the river that have been caused by humans over the centuries. There’ve been dams, mills, drainage-systems, factories, reservoirs, and hydraulic fracturing to name a few. Virtually all of these variations to the river have been bad. Dams have obstructed the paths of migratory fish, mills have dumped residual industrial byproducts, drainage-systems have redirected pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, factories have guzzled huge amounts of water for cooling and cleaning, reservoirs have depleted local watersheds, and hydraulic fracturing has injected a whole host of highly toxic chemicals into the deepest sublayers of watershed to be leaked out progressively over the coming decades and centuries.

Whanganui River on North Island of New Zealand (James Shook, 2005)

But thankfully there have also been tiny victories, tiny movements in the right direction amongst disparate communities seeking to ensure that their variations on an aquatic theme are healthy and sustainable. In New Zealand there’s been recent legislation to recognize the personhood of nature, granting legal rights and protections to features of the land and water that have been traditionally revered by the native Maori for centuries. In New York there’s been a ban on hydraulic fracturing that recognizes the endemic risks of forcing toxic chemicals deep into the ground to slowly seep into the drinking water of millions of people. In North Dakota there’s been principled protection of sacred land and water by the Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock. All of these are powerful expressions of the pressing need to create new variations on what we do with the themes of nature. All that’s needed now is for us to support these movements and ensure they succeed and proliferate for the sake of future generations who will inherit the legacy of the variations we leave behind.

How Bella Got Her Groove Back

Bella is a notorious humper. When she was given to me by a friend of a friend who had a litter of unexpected puppies in 2007, I never would’ve guessed this. I’d never lived with female dogs prior to 2006–when I rescued the german shepherd of another friend of a friend–and I consequently had no experience with such amorous behavior. In truth, I was an avowed cat-man for the first twenty years of my life due to my experience of growing up with cats. Sadly there were no dogs in my family’s household, which meant I had no way of appreciating the finer qualities of canines until much later.

So when Bella started to exhibit her amorous side, I was unsure what to make of it. Also unsure was my dog Sebastian, a german shepherd who I’d rescued in 2006. He soon became the object of Bella’s amorous advances, and once Bella had made up her mind there was no unmaking it. Try as he might, Sebastian had no recourse. He was Boyfriend #1, and that was that. Despite the comical difference in size between chihuahua and german shepherd, Bella would nonetheless come up to Sebastian, sniff at his ears–which were nearly half the size of her whole body–playfully yank at them, jump on his neck, and start humping. Unfortunately I never recorded any of these episodes when they occurred, but I wish I had. There’s no way to see a tiny chihuahua making furious love to the neck of a german shepherd who’s doing his best to ignore her without losing one’s composure.

All of this changed however when Sebastian died in 2012. He’d been sickly when I got him in 2006, but he recovered and was fine for several years after that, and I figured that he’d be fine for many years to come. And then for no apparent reason he started losing weight. Then he lost more weight and more weight and more weight. Of course he’d always been skinny, but he’d never been this skinny. I could see his ribs, and no amount of eating would change that. I consulted my veterinarian, and the diagnosis was cancer. I knew I didn’t want to put Sebastian through chemotherapy, so I did my best to ease his last days. I carried him outside when he wanted to go out and inside when he wanted to go in, fed him by hand, cleaned the messes on the floor when he became incontinent, and finally said goodbye to him on October 11th, 2012. It was one of the hardest days of my life.

Needless to say, it was hard for Bella too. She didn’t express much in the way of emotional distress at the time, but she knew that Boyfriend #1 was gone, and she knew that he wasn’t coming back. Before long, however, Bella was on the prowl. From using Sebastian’s neck, Bella moved to using a candy-cane-striped stuffed bone that a friend had given as a gift. Of course said friend never would’ve guessed the amorous uses Bella had in mind. Soon Bella had Boyfriend #2, and his name was Boney Bone.

Though Boney Bone was admittedly inanimate and incapable of reciprocating anyone’s affections, this never dissuaded Bella. For all she cared, Boney was as good as any neck she’d ever had, and there was the added advantage that Boney never got up and walked away just when she was on the verge of having a really good time. In short, he was dependable, and that was good enough for Bella. But once again her choice of boyfriend was stymied. When the stuffings finally spilled out of Boney, there was no way I was going to try to salvage him. Trust me, if you’d seen the amorous adventures Bella had had with him, you’d know why. So into the trash Boney went, and from that moment forward Bella was on the prowl for a new boyfriend.

Then Heidi came into her life. I adopted Heidi in 2014, so it’d been some time since Bella had had someone capable of reciprocating her amorous advances. Heidi, however, has a mind of her own, and it didn’t take long for her to make that clear. Still, Bella gave it her best shot. Whenever Heidi would approach Bella in a friendly way, Bella would adopt her old amorous ways. Ears would perk up, tail would go into frantic back and forth motion, a leg would try to cross Heidi’s shoulder, and that was as far as it would go. Heidi never needed encouragement to stick up for herself, but I would intervene at this point to prevent any fur from flying. And so the prowl continued.

Then along came Pillow-Man. As the name indicates, he’s fluffy, soft, quiet, and entirely motionless. But as far as Bella’s considered, he’s solid gold. The fact that he’s made of cotton, polyester, and assorted synthetic fabrics has yet to bother Bella. All that matters is that when she’s ready to go, he’s there for a good time. As far as Bella’s concerned, that makes him Boyfriend #3. It doesn’t hurt that he won’t be getting up and walking away anytime soon, though how long it’ll be before Bella’s lovemaking leads to the spilling of more fluffy entrails is anyone’s guess.