Dec 10 2018

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The Human Condition

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Several years ago, when I first started thinking about wildness and being human, I looked for a way to sync what I feel while tramping alone in a wild place with something that can be said about humankind in general. In my naiveté I thought I could do this without delving too deeply into the human condition. I was dead wrong about that.

We are inherently wild, I believe, because our prehistoric ancestors were wild and the only things that separates us from them are the trappings of civilization. But civilization doesn’t change who/what we are. It is merely a way of life different from how we lived for tens of thousands of years, namely hunting and gathering.

What exactly is civilization? It is the promise of a better world based upon collective action. Agriculture was the first great success in that regard. We work in concert with each other and we all prosper as a consequence. That’s the intention, anyhow. But somewhere along the line, things have gone wrong, terribly wrong.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that pre-civilized life was “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” That seems to me more like a commentary about how things are now than the way things were. Not for you and me, of course, because we are the Haves. But the Have Nots are acutely aware of civilization’s broken promise.

In all the world’s biggest cities, there are slums. In the newly industrialized countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, some of these slums run upwards to a million people. A few places even more. Orangi Town of Karachi, Pakistan is currently considered the biggest slum at 2.4 million, bumping out Dharavi in Mumbai, India. By some estimates, over a billion people live in these “informal settlements” without adequate means to support themselves, sufficient food, health care, sanitation, or clean drinking water. And the numbers are growing. Habitat for Humanity claims that by 2030 a quarter of humanity will be living in squalor.

When Mahatma Gandhi heard someone call him a friend of the poor, he felt humiliated. “My friendship for them should be a sorry affair,” he said, “if I could be satisfied with a large part of humanity reduced to beggary.” Yet that seems to be what most of us are willing to accept: the unintended consequences of our industrializing, globalizing civilization. Collectively speaking, are we really better off than we were fifteen thousand years ago? Wealthy people think so, but they’re in the minority. The rest of us are just glad we don’t live in the slums. Not yet, anyhow.

 

 

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Nov 27 2018

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Snow-laden Trees

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As the early morning light illuminated our back yard, Judy and I enjoyed the white beauty before us – snow gently falling from the sky, adding to what remained on the ground from last week’s storm, and clinging to the branches of trees. No doubt four months from now, snow will lose all its charm. But now, at the undeniable beginning of winter, it pleases the eye.

Opening the door, I marveled at the stark contrast between the naked, dark gray branches and the snow gathering upon them. There is something about snow-laden trees that borders upon the mystical. Or perhaps they just bring out the romantic in me. I looked up to see the treetops kissing the formless sky, sensing the sublime there, and knowing full well that I do not possess the skills to capture such things with either camera or pen. Some aspects of nature cannot be transmitted. They can only be encountered.

Having already done a couple hours of literary work before breakfast, I heard the computer keyboard calling my name from the study upstairs. It was time to stop admiring Mother Nature’s handiwork and resume the task awaiting me. But as soon as that was finished, I stepped outside with a shovel in hand to push around the heavy, wet stuff. By then the tree boughs were bent over from the burden they carried. The power went out then quickly came back on again, bringing to mind the image of a fallen tree branch somewhere down the line. Sublime, indeed. Even in her quietest moments, Mother Nature still flexes her muscles.

 

 

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Nov 17 2018

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Instant Winter

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Winter arrived with a vengeance yesterday, as sudden as the flip of a switch. A big storm crept in from the west at daybreak, dropping a foot of snow in these parts. So I did what Vermonters do whenever this happens. I put on a jacket, hat, boots and gloves then set to work shoveling.

The first task was to clear a path in front of the garage and at the bottom of the driveway so that my wife could get to work. That was no mean feat. By the time I finished that and cleared the walkways around the house, I was exhausted.

My plow guy showed up late in the afternoon. I think he was taken by surprise by this storm. I know I was. Less than a week ago I was still raking leaves. In fact, a few leaves popped up even as I was shoveling – burnt orange splotches against the white. What season is this, anyhow?

Temps dropped into the teens a few days ago, and snow flurries have fallen a couple of times this year already, but who could have expected such a sudden and heavy snowstorm? The weather forecasters warned us but, hell, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.

Half a dozen Vermont ski areas just opened. The skiers must be ecstatic. I wish I shared their enthusiasm for the white stuff. But I’m a woods walker through and through. Snuck in a good hike a couple days before the storm hit and am glad I did. God only knows when there will be bare ground underfoot again. Maybe not until March.

There’s no sense fighting it. The seasons change in this part of the world and winter is inevitable. So after shoveling yesterday, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate and drank it while staring out the window at the illuminated landscape. White is easier on the eyes than gray. That counts for something.

 

 

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Nov 07 2018

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November Wind

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After shipping out packages, I head for the nearby town forest to stretch my legs. No rain today – a rare event lately – with temps up around 50. Not a day to be wasted.

I put blaze orange on myself then on my dog Matika. Not likely that hunters will be in the woods in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, before rifle season opens, but why take the chance? The extra layer is no big deal.

I kick up dry leaves while hiking along the barely discernible trail. The forest smells like autumn, like so many leaves slowly rotting away. A sliver of blue sky peeks through the otherwise gray sky overhead. A strong November wind kicks up, clattering the naked branches and rattling the beech leaves still clinging to trees. The wind feels ominous, but not as a mere threat of rain. It feels like winter is blowing in. I’m not fooled by the warm temps. That’s temporary.

The forest is lit by muted light. Daylight Savings Time started last weekend so now the sun sets at 4:30.  That’s less than 2 hours away. A short day. And a parade of long nights directly ahead.

Pensive and quiet, I finish the hike a little sooner than expected. My old dog has a hard time getting back into the car. I help her up, then get in and drive away.

Shortly after cresting French Hill, I catch the sun breaking through the clouds in the western sky, illuminating Lake Champlain in the distance. The wind is still blowing but it doesn’t matter so much now. I’m okay with it, with the prospect of winter. Yeah, bring it on.

 

 

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Oct 24 2018

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First Snow

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The first snow of the season always comes as something of a surprise, but when it comes in October it’s downright shocking. Snow is to be expected in the mountains this time of year, powdering the summits as a fair warning of things to come. But here in the Champlain Valley, it’s rare to see the white stuff accenting the brilliant reds. oranges and golds of autumn, while leaves are still clinging to the trees.

It was beautiful to behold – a light flurry of snowflakes falling to the ground early in the morning, slowly accumulating. It didn’t last long. By noon most of the snow had melted away in temps well above freezing. Now in late afternoon, sunlight finishes the job, illuminating the foliage and thereby redeeming the season. Still I can’t help but brood over the rapid passage of time. The clock on my computer screen conspires with the calendar on the wall to keep me off balance in my gathering years. And now this!

One shouldn’t take it personally, of course. Father Time, unlike Mother Nature, treats us all the same way. But the seasons slip past faster in our advanced years than it does in our youth. It’s hard to keep pace.

I don’t remember how it came up, but this morning my wife Judy asked me if I fear death. My answer was ambiguous. “Yes and no,” I said. Being the cognizant, self-aware creature that I am, I naturally fear death. I know its coming and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. That said, more than death I dread the prospect of living to a hundred. There’s a time to live and a time to depart. I wouldn’t want to be immortal.

All Hallows Eve is right around the corner, followed by the Day of the Dead. Different cultures call it different things, but it amounts to the same thing: a time to stop and remember those who have passed away. Darkness pervades as winter approaches. The harvest is nearly complete. Soon we will hunker down for the long cold season. This is a good time of year to reflect. It’s also a good time to put on some blaze orange and go for a hike – while there is still soft earth underfoot. There’s no time to lose.

 

 

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Oct 13 2018

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A Fairly Good Hike

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I thought I could fake out my old dog Matika by taking her for a walk in a nearby park first, but I had my hiking boots on so she expected a lot more. After the walk, while I was back home taking care of business, she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. Finally I patted her on the head then left without her. I had in mind a hike that I knew her hind legs couldn’t handle.

Mt. Philo was on the way to Vergennes where there was a book sale going on yesterday afternoon. Yeah, it was a combination work/play outing. I’m doing more of those these days. Was the book hunt an excuse to go for a hike, or vice versa? Good use of gas money, either way.

The parking lot at the base of Mt. Philo was full. I soon found out why. While a few patches of green lingered in the canopy here and there, the autumn color was fast approaching its peak. A thin layer of fallen leaves covered the road climbing to the top of the oversized hill. Too beautiful for words, really. I took it all in while ignoring the steady stream of people. Usually I hate hiking busy paths. This time I didn’t mind it.

I barely broke a sweat during the mile-long, road-grade ascent, but it was still the most rigorous hike I’d done in a month or two. Mt. Philo is a monadnock – what used to be an island in an interglacial sea – so it rises quite dramatically from the Lake Champlain valley floor. When I reached the top, I gazed across the sprawling lake and rolling farmland below to the not-too-distant Adirondack Mountains. A great view for relatively little effort.

The descent went quickly. Soon enough I was driving again and attending that book sale. I collected a box of new inventory for my book biz then headed home. The traffic going into Burlington was pretty intense but I didn’t care. I had squeezed in a short hike during a workday and was feeling very relaxed as a result. Not the kind of deep woods outing I prefer, but good all the same.

 

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Oct 04 2018

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Reflection and Walking

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It has taken nearly a week but I’m back into my routine now. Back to writing, publishing, and running my book biz. Back to cooking, hanging out with Judy, and going for the occasional short walk between errands. Two weeks ago, I drove to Ohio to visit family and friends. That took something out of me since I do not pace myself when traveling alone. It feels good to be back.

The leaves are turning. Cool temps are common now. The days are noticeably shorter. All this is to be expected when we turn the calendar to October. Still I am a little shocked by it. The clock ticks away while I’m busy doing stuff, and I’m left wondering where the days have gone. That’s especially true this time of year, when the rows of pumpkins at the nearby farm stand make it clear that the growing season is over.

My eyes feast upon the splashes of color in the trees as I walk the Rail Trail. Most of the trees are still green but that’ll quickly change now. Note to self: take down the air conditioner still protruding from the bedroom window. Yeah, those days have passed.

I stop several times just to look around. Blue asters still bloom along the trail’s edge. Most other wildflowers have withered away. Still a touch of goldenrod, of course. And a few fallen leaves. I walk in shirtsleeves because, well, because I can. Not too many of these days left, either.

We all know what’s coming. “The long white,” a friend of mine calls it. The colder half of the year is when I do most of my writing. I look forward to that. But I’m also thinking I should go for a long hike or two soon, very soon – before the snow flies. October is a good month for that kind of thing. October is a good month for reflection and walking.

 

 

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Sep 20 2018

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A Welcome Chill

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With the Autumnal Equinox fast approaching, I go for a walk in the woods to celebrate seasonal change. Yesterday’s high was 85, but this morning I’m wearing a flannel shirt and barely breaking a sweat. My long-haired German shepherd isn’t even panting. We both welcome the chill.

It’s been a hot, dry summer here in northern Vermont with near-drought conditions. The run of 90-degree days back in July reminded me of my childhood in Ohio. Some of the flowers my wife and I planted in the spring have burned up. I’ve watered them more than usual but hesitate to do too much of that since the water comes from a well. No, I can’t say I’m sad to see the warm season coming to an end.

There are patches of color in the forest understory but more brown in the leaves than usual. Overall the early fall foliage looks a little bleached out.  That could change dramatically during the next couple weeks. While more summer-like heat remains in the forecast, temps can drop fast like they did last night. This time of year is full of surprises.

During my walk, I spot the yellowish-brown leaves of false solomon’s seal. Seems like I was watching the spring wildflowers bloom a short while ago. Yet here we are now on the other side of the growing season. With each passing year, it feels like summer goes by a little faster despite the number of hot days. But that’s only how I perceive things in my advanced years. Nature has a different sense of time – one I can’t even imagine.

Sunlight suddenly breaks through the canopy, illuminating the still mostly green forest. I was in a funk earlier this week, but now each step I take forward feels like affirmation that life is worth living. So it goes during every woods walk regardless of the season. The days are getting shorter but that’s okay. The natural cycles are a good thing. I celebrate them, reveling in the present.

 

 

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Sep 12 2018

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Between Raindrops

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An overnight rain soaked the area overnight, and for some strange reason I felt an urge to go for a walk in this wet world. After taking care of a little business in the morning, I did just that. I had my dog Matika in tow, of course.

We went for a short walk in the nearby town forest because that’s all my old dog can handle these days. Moving at her incredibly slow pace and stopping frequently, it was a contemplative walk. I barely broke a sweat, but my thoughts clipped right along at a good pace.

I inhaled the rich, dank smell of the soaked forest. My eyes feasted on its vibrant green foliage. A gentle wind rocked the treetops, shaking raindrops from them. I walked between the raindrops, it seemed, barely getting wet.

While meandering about I thought about work, family, friends, the future, the past, other tramps in the woods, life, death, other deep philosophical matters, and the most inane things. There was no real pattern to it all, much like dreaming while still awake. But the white bloom of wood asters drew me back into the here and now, as did the incessant chirp of crickets.

On the drive home, I paid close attention to patches of leaves turning here and there – mostly rust and gold. The change is just beginning. The cool, damp air rushing into the car window gave me a bit of a chill. I made a short list in my head of all the things that still needed to be done before day’s end, then I let out a great big sigh. Life, it seems, is what happens while we’re busy doing things.

 

 

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Aug 30 2018

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Wild, Not Wild

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A flock of turkeys wandered into my back yard yesterday morning. About a dozen of them fed along the edge between the mowed grass and where I have let my yard go wild. My wife Judy also saw the birds, as did our dog Matika who barked at them once. They weren’t much impressed by that.

Later on, as Matika was in the other room sleeping, I spotted a turkey trotting right along the edge of the patio, about 15 feet from the door. Several others followed. Clearly these turkeys have no concept of the difference between a wild landscape and a domesticated one. Either that or they simply don’t care.

A barred owl swooped across the yard the other day, landing on top of my car. When Judy and I poked our heads out the door to get a good look at it, the owl flew to the next door neighbor’s roof. We have heard owls nearly every night since then. I usually associate owls with the wild, but two miles from town my home hardly qualifies as a wild place even though it does back up against a good patch of woods. Evidently, owls aren’t as skittish around people as I thought they were. Either that or they find the hunting around here too good to pass up.

Deer passing through, spiders making webs in the siding of my house, hummingbirds at the planters, toads in the grass, and the occasional garter snake slithering into the garage – my turf is overrun with creatures that simply do not acknowledge the boundary between what is cultivated and what is wild. The other night I saw a bat flying in circles overhead, no doubt feasting on mosquitoes. Better than citronella candles to be sure.

Along the edge between the grass and the wild part of my back yard, I have planted a few domestic bushes and flowers that also happen to grow naturally in the wild. I have pulled out grass, dandelions and other undesirables there, as well, making room for the ferns and other wild plants that I prefer. “Unnatural selection,” I call it. Judy calls it “cultivating the wildness,” in a somewhat humorous reference to a book of mine. Yeah, I’ve muddled matters in my back yard to say the least.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering wildness and being human, trying to get a bead on exactly what it is that separates us from the rest of nature. It’s not an easy task. And the creatures wandering into my back yard don’t make the matter any easier. Perhaps the difference between what is wild and what is not wild is not nearly as distinct as we like to think it is. Perhaps it is just a matter of degree.

 

 

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