I have been on a quest lately to find a swimming hole within biking distance of my house. Living in Maine, and with the multitudinous rivers, streams and ocean inlets in my general vicinity, this would seem to be an easy task. But not so. Of course there are various places to swim, but I’m looking for a place a little more secluded, if you know what I mean. Thoreau and Ben Franklin are on my side in this quest for a place where I can indulge in an “open-air bath.” But there’s always the chance that I might get caught and viewed as some kind of freak. I had an experience last summer where I drove out to a secluded pond near my home. I hiked about a mile into the woods, and jumped into the water. Not seeing anyone around, I took off my bathing suit and threw it onto the rocks onshore. It was dusk, and the chances of anyone happening along were slim. And yet, who should appear out of the woods but four women. I was floating about twenty yards offshore and they called out to me, asking if I would mind if they joined me. Of course I agreed. What else could I do? They didn’t notice my state of undress, and, clad in their various swim attire, they jumped in as well. So here we have a great moral dilemma. Does a man, floating naked in the middle of a pond, admit to his newly manifested female companions that he is in fact naked and that perhaps they would like to take their leisure elsewhere? Or does he pretend that everything’s fine, just fine, nothing to see here? Well, I opted for the latter choice. But when the sun started to go down and the water got chillier, I had to make a decision. I slowly paddled towards shore, and gingerly retrieved my suit from the rocks at the water’s edge. You probably don’t know how difficult it is to put on a swimsuit while you are trying to tread water, but let me tell you, it’s not easy. As I climbed out of the water, clothed, I heard giggles behind me. They knew what had happened. I distinctly heard one of them say, “That must have been a thrill for him.” As if I was some kind of pervert. As if it was my plan to go skinny-dipping in a remote pond and hope that some women came along. Please. And yet, they had come out of nowhere, intruded on my privacy, and here I was, feeling like the creep. I remember swearing to myself that I would never let this happen again. But here I am, one summer later, looking for some kind of swimming hole utopia. I’m a married father of two, not some weirdo hiding in the bushes. All I want is someplace where I can be alone and feel close to nature. People can legally go off into the woods, drink a few Buds, and fire shotguns at innocent animals, or tear across frozen lakes on loud, belching snowmobiles, or plow through the woods on ugly, dangerous ATV’s, and all this is legal. And yet I, with my low carbon footprint, am some kind of freak. A man who goes into the woods with a gun to kill animals is called a sportsman. But a man who goes into the woods to swim unencumbered in a secluded pond is just a creepy naked guy, apparently.
I baked two loaves of bread the other day. This might not seem like such a radical thing. People have been baking bread for centuries. I got the idea from the book I’ve been reading, The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson. In it, he says “if you can make bread, you can do anything. It’s amazing how much confidence baking bread gives you.” My family and I have been eating this bread, which is so much more substantial that supermarket bread, for three days now, enjoying it with our dinners or toasting it for breakfast. It’s a gratifying sight to see your three-year-old son eating the bread you baked. I’ve cooked many meals for my family but for some reason making bread has been the most fulfilling cooking I’ve ever done. And it’s thrifty. Another of Mr. Hodgkinson’s mantras is to “reject waste, embrace thrift.” He advises us to throw out the telly and stop buying magazines. These devices just entice us to buy things we don’t need. Ride a bicycle, the thriftiest invention ever! I just saw an ad on television for Lowe’s, a chain of home improvement stores. Spring is here, and so now we must start our “outdoor projects” Gene Hackman, their paid spokesperson tells us. We are forever working, even during our leisure time. “Let’s build something together” Mr. Hackman exhorts. More like “Spend a lot of money at Lowe’s, using your Lowe’s credit card, and then go home because now you’re on your own, friend.” Commercials never tells us that spring is here and now it’s time to lay in the grass, do nothing, and watch the clouds pass overhead. For the stores, there’s no money to be made in promoting idleness. But it feels so much better to be thrifty than to shop. Shopping will never gratify us. That’s why we keep doing it. If we were ever really gratified, we’d stop shopping tomorrow. But that’s not in the stores’ best interest. To always keep us wanting for more is their philosophy. But what a sweet victory thrift is over waste! For example, I found a free book in a donation bin a few days ago, a guide to identifying trees of North America. It’s one of these old fashioned Golden guides, with colorful drawings instead of photographs. I didn’t pay a cent for it, and yet my children and I have been enjoying looking at trees and trying to find them in the book so as to name them. We found out that the tree in our front yard is (probably) a Norway maple. We’ve lived in our house for almost ten years and never knew that. For the longest time the tree in our front yard was just named “tree.” But now it has a name. And just yesterday my son said that when he got out of preschool he wanted to “look for trees.” Now that’s much better than television.
This happened before dinner tonight. The sun was just beginning to set. The bottoms of the bare trees were in shadow, but the tops were bathed in the otherworldly pink light that you only see for a few minutes each day. The air was cold. But a cold that was, combined with what was left of the sun’s heat, invigorating and life-giving, not the numbing cold we’ve been experiencing during the last four months here in Maine. This was a cold that made me feel like I could walk ten miles or more without tiring. We had about a half-hour of good daylight left and my six-year old daughter was asking to be taken to the church playground, across the street from our house. The playground isn’t much more than a Cedarworks playset nestled in the trees behind the church, but its proximity and relative seclusion makes us feel like it’s our own private realm. There is also a hill to climb that in the winter allows us a view of the Kennebec River, and woods to explore. I never miss an opportunity to make my children aware of the wild nature that is all around them, and the fact that beauty can be found even in the simplest things. Never miss the chance to do this if you are a parent. If children (and adults) are never taught to appreciate and find joy in the simplest things in life, they will never be able to get enjoyment out of the complexities, and when times turn bad as they sometimes do, they won’t have the inner strength to make it through life’s austerities. To be able to feel at home wherever you are, rich or poor, with not much more than a toothbrush and the clothes on your back is a good thing, I think, and Henry would agree. But I digress. So we walked over to the playground and as I was swinging next to my daughter, she asked, “Where do snakes come from?” I said that this was a very good question. Why was she asking? “Well, in school, the teacher was reading a story about snakes and one of the kids asked where the first snake came from and I know it didn’t just fall out of the sky.” “Well, I said, some people believe that god snapped his fingers and made everything appear all at once. But other people believe that all life started from very simple organisms that changed over a very long time and turned into all the animals and people we see today. This process took millions of years. It’s called evolution.” My daughter seemed to accept this as the more reasonable answer. Then the sun started to disappear and my ears got cold, so we went home for dinner. You just never know when you might get asked about snakes falling from the sky a half-hour before dinner on a Sunday afternoon. Today I was poor, but I had this moment with my daughter, and the pink sunset.