Fixing the bike
Hidden potential in a 40-year-old steel beast, the IPCC report, and plant of the week
Hello! I’ve been really busy. Calmer times are likely ahead. But for the past few weeks I’ve slowly been trying to restore order to my days. As I’ve been doing that, I’ve been fixing my bike.
It’s a 1980s ten-speed built by Marukin, and made of steel. My neighbor passed it on to me a number of years ago, so I don’t know much else about its origins. In trying to find out more info about the model I have, I came across a Facebook post by a vintage bike hobbyist that described a nearly identical 1980 Marukin bike as “heavy but attractive.”
When heaving this contraption up the stairs, the heavy part is what stands out. Steel-frame bikes lost their popularity many years ago, replaced by aluminum — or ultra-light carbon fiber for the Lycra-clad cyclists among us.
A few weeks ago, I thought it was finally time to replace this Reagan-era steel beast with a new aluminum frame model. I got as far as picking out a specific one — a so-called “adventure” bike that combines a road bike’s narrow tires and posture with some off-road capability. Ready for anything, etc., etc. But then I became entranced by the idea of taking the steel bike and making a Frankenstein out of it—new tires, new handlebars, a seat that doesn’t transmit every bump to my lower spine, anything it needs to give it a new edge, what a 19th-century ship captain might call a “fighting trim.”
At a bike shop, I described my gripes in vague terms — upper back pain from being hunched over the handlebars, sluggishness, a general malaise. A mechanic suggested something I hadn’t considered: an upright stem instead of the original flat one, which would tweak my posture a bit. He found a used upright stem and handlebars with a somewhat different shape for me. I brought them home and managed to install them without (permanently) breaking anything.
As I went deeper into the repairs, problems that seemed unresolvable revealed themselves to be fixable. The hand-brakes which had become arthritic, squeaky, untrustworthy? A little grease made them as good as new. (Duh!)
When I got the bike on the road with the new stem and handlebars, it felt like I was riding a new bike. The lumbering quality I had associated with the bike’s steel frame was really a matter of a poor fit of the bike to my posture, its shape working against me. Now, the place where my hands want to be when pushing up a hill is exactly where the sides of the handlebar are. When I crouch down to build up some speed on a flat stretch, the “drops” of the handlebars perfectly match the length of my arms. My back and shoulders don’t hurt from being hunched over the bars, and once I got a new saddle, I didn’t brace for impact every time there was a tiny fracture in the pavement.
Every little upgrade unlocked a little more potential the bike had retained for something like 40 years. Though I’m not really looking to match speed with the Lycra-and-carbon nerds, I’ve found that I can with a little effort. Especially on the flats, I feel a little hum emanating from the bike’s rear triangle, something a sports car enthusiast once described to me as the vehicle saying, “Want to go fast. Want to go fast.”
I’m sure this is all a metaphor for something, but I couldn’t tell you what.
I guess I look at having a dependable bike the way the previous generations looked at getting their driver’s license. A bike gets me to the places I want to go, I’ve always thought, whereas a car gets to me to school, work, the grocery store. Finding a bike-safe route between two places often feels like a revelation, knowledge with great potential.
Here in Providence, there are more bike routes than any other place I’ve lived. The East Bay Bike Path starts at the south end of Providence’s East Side, not far from where we live, and runs along the Providence River all the way to Bristol, 16 miles away. I got dangerously close to finishing the whole trail in one morning last weekend (I didn’t mainly because I wasn’t aware how close I was to the end. Probably for the best, though, since I’m still sore from that trip.)
I’m still getting to know our new home here. (Reminder—we moved to Providence from Quincy in May.) Still making sense of the place, getting the geography straight. So I don’t have much in the way of big-picture observations yet. But here are some places I’ve been so far:
Blackstone Park, East Side of Providence
Sachuest Point, east of Newport
The Brown University observatory
Hunts Mills Park, East Providence (which, by the way, is different than the East Side of Providence, something I had to learn)
Getting organized for climate change
I’m sure you’ve heard at least something about the findings of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) report released on Monday. As with previous editions, the report and its most insightful readers call for action to save what we can rather than giving things up as lost. As a mere ecologist — a humble, bumbling bird-chaser — I’d like to turn things over now to the climate specialists:
For her newsletter “Heated,” Emily Atkin lists several things you can do if you’re feeling inspired to act after the IPCC news. Notably, the things on the list aren’t “ride your bike to the store once a week,” but rather how to plug into existing movements, get organized, and take part in collective action. Spinning your wheels about your personal carbon footprint (a term popularized by BP and the fossil fuel industry!) can never do what collective action can to move the needle on climate solutions. “What’s needed today is sustained outrage at the powerful, by those with the time and resources to express it,” she writes.
Georgia Wright reminds us in “Hot Take” to take care of ourselves when the news is a nightmare. It’s hard to take part in a movement when you’re unwell, so stay focused on the endurance race and don’t get burn out trying to sprint. This is a hard week, and it’s important to recognize that.
For “The Frontline,” Yessenia Funes compiles responses to the IPCC report from several of her “climate heroes,” asking them how they process fear and anxiety and find ways to take action. There’s more than one way to respond, more than one way to help, and this issue of the newsletter highlights a range of approaches.
While I try to tie in climate change into my writing whenever it makes sense, these folks are the ones you ought to read if you’re looking to dive deeper into climate solutions. I’d encourage anyone and everyone to subscribe to their newsletters!
Plant of the week: Anise hyssop
A real hit with the bees, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) belongs to the mint family. While native to North America, a number of domesticated strains and hybrids are popular in gardening. Like many grassland wildflowers, the plant thrives in the sun and doesn’t need much help from the gardener once established. Bumblebees and butterflies visit when the spikes of purple flowers appear in July and August, and finches chow down on the seeds in the fall.
By the way, some of my “plant of the week” energy last month went into helping put together this episode of Bring Birds Back podcast on native plants and why they matter so much to birds. Our host, Tenijah Hamilton, helps out with a native wildflower planting session on Atlanta’s BeltLine, an urban rail-trail, and talks to an ecologist about how we can transform our neighborhoods to meet the needs of both people and birds. So, lots of the themes I’ve tried to foreground in this newsletter, bottled in a delightful podcast. Do check it out!
Questions or comments? Send it to the mailbag: firstname.lastname@example.org
Possum Notes is a weekly newsletter about wildlife and landscapes around where I live. It’s produced on occupied Wampanoag and Narragansett land.