Today, actually, is the final day of spring. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. The day after that, our fifth wedding anniversary. A gift made of wood is traditional for the fifth anniversary, so hiking into this protected-for-perpetuity forest seems a good start to celebrating our eternal union. Last year, on the big day, we attended a Star Trek convention with my daughter; I’m pretty sure trellium-D is not the traditional material for the fourth anniversary.
And yesterday, since we’re time traveling, I joined my brother Sumner for the keynote speech at a conference he attended at Harvard Law School. The speaker, mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, contended that evolution proceeds as much by cooperation as competition. In a basso Germanic accent, Nowak referred to cooperation as an “extraordinary creative force” that’s crucial in this era of planetary resource depletion and climate change – problems that technology alone can’t solve. Rather, we have to “manage the planet as a whole” if we are to “to win the struggle for existence.” Great stuff, but the joke he told had me scratching.
You see, a mathematical biologist runs into a shepherd. If I can guess the number of sheep in your flock, he says, I get one of them. The shepherd agrees. So the scientist calculates, calculates, calculates and says 207. Correct! And he grabs a sheep. Okay, says the shepherd, I get my sheep back if I can guess your profession. It’s agreed. You’re a mathematical biologist, says the shepherd. Wow, you’re right, says the man. How did you know? Because, says the shepherd, you picked up my dog.
The economists and lawyers in the hall just about split their kishkes they howled so merrily at that one. My brother gave his signature guffaw: hhrrr, hhrrr, hhrrr. I chuckled, too, but I’m not sure why. Because the academic was exposed as stupid? Because the shepherd knows about mathematical biology? And why did he settle for return to equilibrium – why not demand the sheep plus the scientist’s shoes? Was this a joke about cooperation? Huh?
We sit on a rock and munch Trader Joe’s trail mix. A couple dozen women in their 20s come up the trail, speaking in foreign accents and wearing sneakers in green, yellow and orange fluorescent colors. I ask one of them, a tall blonde, if they’re a group. Yes, she informs us, they are au pairs. “A day off from the noisy kids,” I call out to the nannies as they trip by, and there’s much nodding and laughter. “And from the demanding mothers,” says Elahna – more laughter and zippy comments. “And from the grabby dads,” I almost chime in, but think better of it.
You know, I say to my wife, these candy-covered chocolate discs in the trail mix have thicker shells than M&Ms. Probably to forestall crushing and melting in the great outdoors. She tries one; well, maybe. Definitely, I counter, and vow to take two baggies of trail mix on my next hike in July, one with real M&Ms and one with Trader Joe’s variety. Elahna advises me to augment my field test with a laboratory experiment. Put a handful of M&Ms in the microwave, nuke for 20 seconds, then check for mushiness and cracks in the shells. Repeat with the TJ generics, 20 seconds, compare…
Spring has sprung but good up here. Spruce branches are growing fat, yellowy tips – “Evergreen expansion pods,” states Elahna – and we come across smatterings of white flowers, like miniature daisies, and red flowers in clusters on shrubs. Hard green berries grow on a vine, promises, promises. On a sloping rock shelf I photograph a single white flower – reminiscent of magnolia, but not – set in a bed of leaves. And then I look up – wow, just look at that! The hills and valleys to the west are a rhapsody in green, sunlit, shadowed, rolling to a hazy turquoise horizon.
Guilt, says Elahna, guilt made them do it.
She gives me three kisses and resumes. The trail is steeper now, and rockier, and we traverse first a granite extrusion that looks like a dinosaur spine and then a rock projectile that resembles an enormous water droplet/pointy breast/spilled ice cream cone (you choose). Mosquitoes release from their lairs and swarm about our ankles. Elahna’s getting cranky as she searches for hand and foot holds – “I don’t know how the short people do it,” she mumbles” – and then, “Owww!” What’s wrong? It seems my wife has twisted her ankle – a “forward twist,” she testifies – and she takes off her boot and puts on an ankle sleeve from her day pack. Once we resume, she banishes the twinges with a song about a rogue meatball, to the tune of “On Top of Old Smoky.”
On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese
I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed
It rolled off the table and onto the floor
And then my poor meatball rolled out the door…
Eventually the meatball goes mush under a bush. Things, alas, fall apart. A couple of years ago, Elahna and I hiked for a few days on the Appalachian Trail and when her knees started aching she sang the entire score from The Sound of Music.
Soon we’re above Monadnock’s tree line, scrambling across swathes of bare rock. My wife reports ankle pain reduction and we diverge onto the Dublin Trail and from there spy the peak, where dozens of hikers congregate. Their voices tumble down. “Sounds like a cocktail party,” says Elahna, and, yes, I’m only reporting her snappy comments, not the boring or indecipherable ones. Not her soliloquies on coffee prices and Pluto's unjust demotion.
But why, I respond, as I hand over my iPod. “Because you guys,” she says, “look like you actually like each other.” The photo, wouldn’t you know, comes out dark and grainy. Elahna tells her that today we’ve observed parents who don’t appear to enjoy their kids. “I like mine,” she responds, pointing to a smiling young lady, maybe nineteen, standing nearby. “But she’s grown through it,” says Elahna. “She’s a human being.”
A few minutes later, my wife asks if I’ve made dinner reservations to celebrate our fifth anniversary. Oh, I say, did I volunteer for that? Yes, she says, in fact you did. Well, I haven’t gotten to it yet, I admit, but it shouldn’t be a problem on a Monday night. Where would you like to eat? Anywhere, she replies, it’s up to you. More minutes pass and she turns to me: “Why does the guy want the sheep to begin with? What the hell is he going to do with the sheep?” An excellent question, indeed. What the hell is that mathematical biologist going to do with the sheep? Keep it in his condo? Sign it up for SAT prep classes? Dip it and shear it and knit a sweater? Maybe, if not for the cagey shepherd, he’d have it divided into mutton chops for the annual mathematical biology department barbecue.
A while later I chat up a young man and his girlfriend. He’s got a small solar panel hanging from his day pack. It’s the Goal Zero Nomad 7, 13.5 ounces, foldable, and he uses it to charge his phone in the wild. Can it heat a stove? I ask. He laughs, says it works for anything with a USB. How ‘bout a blender, chimes in Elahna, for daiquiris. Now the girlfriend laughs; she’d like to be drinking a daiquiri right now, I suspect, in a Mexican restaurant. In Cancun.
When they move on, I inform Elahna that I want one of those super-nifty solar panels for hiking Israel. Her eyes widen. “I’ve only been telling you that for six months,” she retorts. Has she? Hmm, maybe she has.
Our final encounter is with a middle-aged couple going up. He wears an Employee of the Month t-shirt (“I’m self-employed,” he jokes) and a cap advertising the National Rifle Association, perhaps the most uncompromising, uncooperative single-issue group on the planet. It seems a violation to wear those hard letters on this unspoiled commons, this place of mutual striving and enjoyment. Behind him trails a woman (wife? sister? hostage?) crowned with an “I’ve Got Issues” cap. “I get the whiners award,” she yells, and claims to climb Monadnock every year. “You should try it every month,” I tease, and she growls, “Not from Manhattan.” Then she demands to know if we carry those energy gel packs. No, but we’ll share our trail mix. She waves us off, not good enough.
Near the bottom, the trail levels off and our pace quickens. I stop only to examine a fungal colony on a boulder, each fungus shaped like a tiny bat wing, black on one side, brown on the other. They’re bunched close, not touching, and I run my fingers gently across them; they feel stiff, but bend with a little pressure. They survive that way. We make the car before the sky, now darkly overcast, breaks open. I drive through rain. My wife sleeps most of the way back to Boston.
And really, you have to wonder. What the hell was he going to do with that sheep?