Jan 18 2019

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Nature Writing

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It’s a strange thing indeed to be a nature writer. My subject is the great outdoors – that magnificent wildness – but I do most of my work indoors while staring at a computer screen. Hard to imagine a more contrary vocation. There are times, especially in the dead of winter, when I question my motives, my own sincerity regarding this. Is writing about nature really what I’m all about? Then comes the great thaw at the end of winter and the reawakening of the natural world in early spring and there’s no doubt in my mind where my heart lies.

It’s my obsession, no doubt. While I read all kinds of books, few subjects captivate me the way a good piece of nature writing does. I’m inspired more by Emerson and Thoreau than by eminent philosophers like Kant, Hegel or Rousseau. The essays and narratives of John Burroughs, Farley Mowat, Richard Nelson, Annie Dillard and the like edify me more than the best fiction writers ever could. I take Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein more seriously than the greatest sage, and the poets who celebrate them are my prophets. There are the innumerable worlds that we can imagine, then there is nature – the world as it really is. I have an insatiable appetite for the latter.

Whenever I am not tramping through the wild lands of the northeast, I work with books. As a bookseller, I sell all kinds of books, but I make only nature-related titles available at my website, woodthrushbooks.com. There I sell every kind of nature writing imaginable, including what I’ve written myself, or what some of my friends and favorite writers have written. Through my small press, Wood Thrush Books, I publish the same. Every once in a while I put together an anthology of contemporary nature writing, if only to bring to light some of the lesser-known writers in the field. And I love doing all of it – bookselling, publishing, editing, and writing about nature. I’m lucky that way, I guess.

Yeah, it’s a strange thing to be a nature writer – to write about the natural world as if it really mattered. There is also the human world, of course, but what I find interesting about that is human nature. And what I find most interesting of all is how we humans interact with the natural world. Is there anything that better illustrates what we are all about? I think not.

 

 

 

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Jan 10 2019

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Baffling the Squirrels

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Now on the backside of a winter snowstorm, the temps are falling rapidly. Soon they’ll be in the single digits, then below zero for days on end. Those kind of temps make it hard for birds to survive. They need high-energy food to do so. With that in mind, I shelled out a little extra cash this morning for bird food that’s rich in black sunflower seeds to replenish my feeder. That and the suet will go a long way. There’s one problem, though. The grey squirrels in our heavily wooded neighborhood will empty the feeder in a matter of hours. Once again.

There’s a bunch of fat squirrels that have become emboldened lately by my old dog Matika’s inability to give chase the way she has in the past. I call them the Gang of Four, led by one particularly corpulent yet acrobatic rodent who has been known to hang out at the feeder all day. Literally. A week ago, my wife and I decided that enough’s enough. We ordered a handy device appropriately called a squirrel baffle, which is simply a conical piece of sheet metal that can be affixed to the bird feeder pole. It came via UPS a couple days ago. Today I affixed it to the pole.

Is it wrong to anticipate the squirrel’s frustration as eagerly as I do? Does that make me a bad person? While refilling the feeder, I threw a little seed on the ground to assuage a creeping sense of guilt. That’s for both the mourning doves and the squirrels, I told myself. The squirrels being what they are, though, the doves won’t get much of it.

A strong wind blows the baffle around, along with the feeder and suet. Once the wind subsides, the birds will return: woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches and chickadees. I look forward to that. But, I must admit, I’m even more exited about the Gang of Four to showing up again. That should be quite entertaining.

 

 

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Dec 26 2018

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End Year Ramble

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After lounging around the house all day yesterday, I awoke this morning with a tremendous urge to get out and make tracks. Didn’t have to talk my old dog Matika into it. She was right on my heels the moment I put on my boots.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one needing to walk off the holiday feast. The trail at Niquette Bay had plenty of boot prints in it. All the same, I had the place pretty much to myself late in the morning.

With so little snow on the ground, I didn’t bother bringing my Microspikes with me. That was a mistake. Icy patches caught me off guard a couple times and down I went. Other than that it felt good to ramble – to stretch my legs, keep a leisurely pace, and breathe in the frigid air. Hiking can be just as pleasant in December as it is in June.

The sun burned halfheartedly through the clouds. At midday it felt distant and the surrounding trees casted long shadows. There’s no doubt in my mind as to what time of year it is. Not that I’m complaining. As long as I can get out and walk every once in a while, I’m okay with it.

Back home now, I’m surprised by how quickly dusk has come around. Surprised once again, I should say. Still I wrap up the year’s business and make plans for the near future. Soon the calendar will turn and I’ll be back to my literary work with gusto. All the same, I’m daydreaming about a rigorous trek on the Cohos Trail – something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. This coming summer I’m going to make that happen. Every walk between now and then anticipates it.

 

 

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Dec 19 2018

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Winter Sunrise

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It’s that time of year again. Half of our hours awake take place in the darkness or twilight, and there’s all this talk about being merry. I just roll with it. A friend of mine told me that he thrives on the darkness, so we toasted to that the other day. But I must admit, I don’t quite relate.

I’ve already done a couple hours work in my study by the time the sun comes up. Over breakfast, the eastern sky reddens towards dawn. I visit my favorite weather website to verify what I already know: sunrise just shy of 7:30 and sunset around 4:15. The Winter Solstice is still two days away but we’re pretty much there. Already we’ve seen the earliest sunset, thanks to Earth’s elliptical orbit and other astronomical technicalities. Soon the days will start getting longer again. The latest sunrise takes place shortly after that.

Being neither pagan nor Judeo-Christian, the holidays always feel a little strange to me. That said, I’ve put up a fir tree in my living room and hung some lights outside. The darkest day of the year is about to pass, and that’s something worth celebrating.

Now comes what another friend of mine calls The Long White. We’re already well into it, but there’s a lot more winter ahead. The deep cold comes in January, and we get plenty of snow after that. A good time of year for doing literary work, that’s the upside. All the same, I go for a long walk every other day. It’s important to get outdoors no matter what.

 

 

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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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