I sit here typing this article on a new laptop, courtesy of a generous grant from the Sheldon Foundation. How wonderful it is. It has a new version of Windows. Yet sometimes I growl trying to find where things are hidden, figure out the new layout and commands, and how to do simple things.
I am grateful for the laptop; it is worlds faster and much improved over my last one. It is hard to get used to something new and different, though.
As I write this, the sun is gleaming off the first major snowfall of the season. The first one, the weekend before Christmas. I remember when the snow was deep enough by now to build igloos and snow forts big enough for five kids. I remember shoveling and shoveling and shoveling. I remember a winter when strangers graced our Christmas dinner table because such a terrific blizzard closed the interstate, and strangers were forced to take refuge with strangers because there were no hotels and travel was impossible. That sort of snow doesn't seem to happen anymore.
New and different are perennial in nature; things are always changing. I just spoke with someone about a couple old-growth trees, giants that have towered over the forest for hundreds of years. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy toppled them, like children's building blocks, without thought or feeling. We are made sad by such change; yet those toppled trees will now feed a new generation of forest residents. The forest is different now.
The beech trees across the East Coast are being devastated by beech bark disease. The hemlocks are being ravaged by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. The Emerald Ash Borer is targeting our ash trees. A century from now the forest as we know it will be new and different. You and I will be decades gone at that point - our memories of enormous hemlocks and titantic beeches gone with us. The world will still have forests, children will continue to be awed by them, people will still seek solace in them. They will simply be different, changed. Just as I will never stand under a cathedral of American chestnuts, my grandchildren will likely never walk into a magical copse of hemlocks.
It is worth noting that while it saddens me to watch the natural world change - with invasive species and diseases and climate change - it also puts quite a lot in perspective. Things change, but they continue. I have faith that the Earth will continue to thrive long after the human element has disappeared, and with that I find some comfort in the present loss of diversity.
We live in a stunning place at a remarkable time. Just the other night - one of those rare, perfectly clear, crisp, frigidly cold nights - I was walking out to get the mail, and I looked up into the heavens. The Milky Way winked at me and a million other pinpoints of light sparkled and shone. Not only did I stop physically, I stopped mentally and allowed myself a moment of immobility. I needed to go nowhere, think nothing, be no one. I just was, a single breath in such glorious beauty.
I don't always like change. And I don't always like new. I understand the need and the purpose, but I also like the constants, like the presence of the Milky Way and a familiar pattern of stars over my head. I ponder sometimes whether progress has progressed too far and if taking a step backward would be a good move. There are points of no return in our forward journey, however, for every u-turn we can make.
There are people who I can never get back in my life, regardless how much I might want them to be. I cannot bring back the chestnuts; no one can. Perhaps we can impact climate change, perhaps we already are, but in my short time on this planet I've learned that human impacts, while huge, are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The world changes. It must. That's how we got all this beauty and diversity to begin with.
There is a new year coming. It is a human construct, the calendar, but it gives us a waypoint in our journey and so the turning of the last month to the first is noteworthy in our lives. What will happen in this new year? What would I wish for? What will I try to hold onto and preserve? The excitement of a new year is that those questions are unanswerable. Everything is a possibility, and yet nothing is real. Change is going to occur, but it hasn't yet. And really, every moment in time is like that moment between one year and the next.
The new year is like that pause in my driveway, being lost in the stars. It is a single breath of freedom. We allow ourselves this weightlessness, but once a year, let's use it wisely. Love the beeches, try to save them, even as we bid them a fond farewell. Play in the snow, throw snowballs and tell nostalgic stories about the times when there was enough of it to build forts, too. Walk through the forests of today, remembering the forests of the past and dreaming of the forests of the future.
Have a happy new and different year.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open for hiking, skiing and snowshoeing from dawn to dusk. The center is open Saturdays and Mondays from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1-4:30 p.m. Stop in and visit, browse our website at jamestownaudubon.org or call 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.