Jul 19 2018

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New Adirondack Book in Print

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Five years after the release of The Allure of Deep Woods, I now have a second Adirondack book in print: The Great Wild Silence.  It consists of a dozen short narratives and essays about backpacking in the Adirondacks, along with one rather long narrative about my 5-day sojourn in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness last year.

The Great Wild Silence is the juxtaposition of movement and staying put, of hiking and abstract thought. The main narrative in this collection, “Deep Forest Ruminations,” is a series of meditations on nature and our place in it, braided with observations and routine activities while camped alone at a backcountry lake – just me and my dog Matika, I should say. That’s the second half of the book. The first half sets the stage, recounting various excursions in the Adirondacks over the past 25 years, both alone and with others. Some of the latter pieces first appeared in the ADK publication Adirondac and other periodicals but haven’t been seen since. I’ve extracted others from previous collections of mine. It’s a curious mix to be sure.

If you’re as enamored with the Adirondacks as I am, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can order it at my website: woodthrushbooks.com, or you can find it at Amazon.com. Be forewarned, though: there’s a lot of philosophical speculation in this book. It isn’t just about walking in the woods.

 

 

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Jul 09 2018

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Cool Brook Afternoon

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After months of not feeling so great, Judy finally came to me and said she wanted to go into the woods. In particular, she wanted to spend a little time sitting on a mountain brook with no one else around – just her, me, and our dog Matika. No problem, I told her, so we headed out yesterday late morning for a place that fit the bill.

It was a short, easy hike to the brook, mainly because Matika can’t handle much. Old dog on her last leg. The slightest obstacle, like a downed tree, is a major challenge to her these days.

When we reached the brook, Judy found a nice spot on a large rock to sit and groove on both flowing water and the surrounding forest. She took off her shoes and dipped her feet into a crystal clear pool. It was colder than expected – a pleasant sensation on a warm day in July.

Matika rested on a gravel bar next to the brook. I sat a few feet away, propped against another large rock. The stream rushed by incessantly, clearing our heads of all urban workaday noise. A slight breeze wafted up the brook occasionally, rustling the leaves in the green canopy overhead ever so gently. We eased into dreamtime.

When leaving the brook, we were surprised by how hot the afternoon had become, and by how much time had passed. Before reaching the car, Judy said she wanted to get into the woods again soon. Next weekend if at all possible. We’re both looking forward to the backwoods retreat we have planned next month. That can’t come fast enough, even though each of these long days of summer should be cherished.

 

 

 

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Jun 27 2018

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Architecture of the Wild

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Walking in the woods on a cool, early summer day, I take note of the trees around me. Some are relatively young, thin, and pushing straight up towards the sky. Others are strong, solid, well established, with limbs branching into the canopy. Still others are bent over, partially sheared away, or on the ground. But what catches my eye are the gnarly ones at least a hundred years old, maybe two hundred, with twisting limbs and thick bark. They are few and far between, and for every one still standing there are remnants of a dozen others scattered across the forest floor.

The bulges and scars in the trunks of those old fellows tell an incredible story of survival, as do the tortured branches reaching every which way. It is the architecture of the wild – proof positive that some life forms do not give up easy. Throw decades of heat, drought, frigid temps, heavy snowfall, torrential downpours, bacteria, fungus and insects at them, and they still keep going. Every one of them is a testament to the efficacy of wild nature, to the relentless urge of all organic things to live and grow. God only knows why.

Look around and you’ll see some trees losing the struggle to survive and slowly dying. Last week I hired a fellow to drop and remove a nearly dead one still standing in my yard – one too close to the house for comfort. I suspect another might be on the way in another year or two. Meanwhile the rest of the trees on my lot sway in the wind as if they don’t have a care in the world. It’s baffling, really, the way some trees stand up to the stresses of daily life and others succumb.

Dead saplings are not uncommon in the forest – most losing the race to sunlight. And yet the occasional mature birch, maple or oak grows only thicker and tougher with time, sometimes losing a huge limb or two yet still persisting. What moral can be taken from this? No, it’s best if we don’t go there, trying to uncover the secrets of their woody success. It’s best if we don’t even look at old trees that way, but simply admire them for what they are: bastions of life force, beating all odds, both relentless and remarkable.

 

 

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Jun 18 2018

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What Makes Us Human?

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For the past year and a half, I have been pondering human nature and its relationship to wildness. I have read dozens of books on the subject, and have approached the matter from various angles: philosophical, anthropological, biological, historical and naturalistic. The more I look into the matter, though, the more befuddled I become, often getting bogged down in the morass of morality where the vast majority of people plant their flags then forget about the matter. It has been a daunting undertaking to say the least.

Wildness, I am certain, is the key to understanding who/what we are, for we are creatures as natural as any other. But there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is the rise of civilization a little over 5,000 years ago. What happened to us then?

To some people being civilized is what makes us fully human. That has been a convenient excuse, anyhow, for the subjugation of more primitive peoples through the millennia – those with less sophisticated means of conducting war that is to say. But I don’t abide by that prejudice. In fact, I suspect that more primitive peoples, living closer to the earth, are much more in touch with their humanity than those of us living indoor, urban lives, staring at our electronic devices, largely removed from nature.

It is now widely accepted in scientific circles that anatomically modern humans have been around over 100,000 years. That is, people who look pretty much like humans living today. About 50,000 years ago, our species underwent a great cultural transformation that resulted in behaviorally modern humans. That is, people who think, behave and interact with each other much the same way we do. Up until 10,000 years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers with an intimate understanding of the flora and fauna around us. In that regard, our being agriculturalists and urbanites – the two pillars of civilization – is a relatively new development with little bearing upon our basic humanity, if any at all.

I don’t believe for a second that pre-civilized life was some kind of Eden where human beings lived in peace with each other, always prosperous, healthy and happy, and in complete harmony with nature. The human bone and skull fragments our archeologists have dug up pretty much rule out all that. But there is something about those living closer to the earth that undercuts the arrogant and grossly misleading presumptions that we highly civilized folk have about ourselves and the world.

Soon I will try to write about this subject, if I can muster the humility, honesty and courage to do so. But I don’t think the resulting book will be very popular, even by the modest standards of my somewhat dubious literary career. Generally speaking, those of us firmly ensconced in today’s complex, industrialized and digital world do not respect our distant ancestors, or the remnant bands of hunter/gatherers who still live as they did. Our collective arrogance in that regard is profound. We civilized folk think we have it all going on.

 

 

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Jun 07 2018

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A Woodsy Walk

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After three days building shelves to expand my book biz, I figured it was time to treat myself. So I loaded Matika into the car and headed for a patch of nearby woods for an easy hike.

It was more of a walk, really, since I had my old dog in tow. I don’t break a sweat any more when I’m with her. That’s okay. I’ve started hiking without her whenever I want to get some real exercise. But this morning it was all about the two of us just being in the woods together, grooving on the wild.

We’re in the cusp between spring and summer now. The dames rocket flowering in ditches along the highway are proof of that, as is the sudden appearance of Canada mayflower and dewberry in the woods. “Days of heaven” is what I call this time of year, because it doesn’t get any better than this: ideal temps, vernal green, flowers blooming, and all the delights of summer directly ahead.

I love a woodsy walk. I love the play of shadow and light in the cool, green understory, along with the rich smell of forest growth and decay, and the sound of leaves rustling in the canopy overhead. I stopped by a beaver pond long enough to listen to veerys, thrushes, and other songbirds while basking in the joy of simply being alive. Oh sure, I have my concerns – doesn’t everyone? – but they didn’t phase me in that moment. And that’s the great thing about a walk in the woods. One draws quiet strength from it.

Matika was panting heavily by the time we finished our walk. All the same, I know she enjoyed being in the woods as much as I did. It doesn’t take much to make her happy. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, either. A patch of nearby woods does the trick.

 

 

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May 26 2018

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On the Beach

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By the time Judy and I reached Goose Rocks Beach, we had been on the Maine coast for several days and were already chilled out. The night before we had lounged in our room at the Breakwater Inn overlooking the mouth of the Kennebunk River, watching lobster boats come and go for hours while googling the lobster trade and all it entails. So the beach simply took us to the next level of relaxation.

Mid-week in late May, we pretty much had that long strip of sand all to ourselves. A dozen other people were there when we arrived but most of them cleared out before noon. This is why we like to visit the Maine coast off-season. I can only imagine how crowded the beach must be in the middle of summer.

Judy first came here in 1985 – the year she and I met. Her mother had just died so she came to the coast to be alone and process her grief, to seek solace in salty air, the call of gulls, and water washing endlessly to shore. The ocean is to her what the forest is to me. So she walked the beach by herself again while I stayed with our folding chairs and other beach accouterments. In her absence, I stared out to sea.

When she returned we sat together on the beach, enjoying a gentle breeze on a mostly sunny day. In contrast to the shady forest where I usually roam, the sun beat down relentlessly, and our gazes towards the thin blue horizon went farther than our thoughts. In other words, we became beachified, utterly incapable of intense intellectual activity. And sometimes, yes, sometimes that’s a good thing.

 

 

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May 13 2018

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Springtime Overnighter

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A couple days into a run of relatively warm, dry, sunny weather, I decided to take full advantage of the situation. I set all work aside earlier this week, packed a few essentials into my old rucksack, and headed for the Breadloaf Wilderness.

There’s a nice spot on the headwaters of the New Haven River where I’ve camped several times before. After leaving my car at the trailhead, I hiked there. It didn’t take long to reach that campsite, even with my old dog Matika hobbling along slowly behind me.

No bloodsucking bugs this early in the season so I set up my tarp without attaching the mosquito bar. Gathering wood was easy since I was camped off trail. I fashioned a small campfire circle that I would make disappear when I left. With that bright yellow orb beating down through the leafless canopy, I didn’t start a fire right away. It was enough just to sit next to the stream, listening to the endless rush of water breaking over rocks while basking in sunlight.

When the sun finally slipped beneath the trees, I put a match to a tipi of birch bark and kindling in the campfire circle. I was startled by how quickly the fire took off, and made it a point to keep it very small and controllable with bottles of water close at hand. Matika entertained herself by chewing up some of the sticks in my woodpile.

Spending a night in the woods was just what I needed after a long winter of philosophical speculation. Temps dropped fast once the sun went down, though, and Matika crowded me off my foam pad. Not the best night’s sleep, but arising to the song of a waterthrush, a refreshing mountain breeze, and early light breaking through the forest made me thankful to be alive.

I lingered for hours over a morning campfire before slowly packing up and hiking back to the car. I was giddy all the way home, rolling through the Champlain Valley as the trees slowly leafed out. Springtime in Vermont, after a long snowy winter, is absolutely wonderful.

 

 

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May 04 2018

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A Necessary Walk

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My dark rant came way too early this morning. Judy fled the room before breakfast was over to escape it. And that’s when I knew how badly I needed a walk in the woods. So I squeezed one in, right between a trip to the post office and a round of book promotion. Some things just can’t wait.

All winter long I have been pondering the human condition, trying to figure out what exactly it means to be human, how wildness and civilization factor into that, and how we’ve become the highly cognizant yet deeply flawed creatures that we are today. This isn’t a matter for the faint of heart, and I’ve found myself bogged down in the morass of morality more than once. Yeah, everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to human nature, how good and/or bad we are, but the irrefutable facts are few and far between. So my quest has put me in a surly mood, even as spring unfolds.

To walk in the woods and blow the stink off my thoughts I didn’t have go far. A quick jaunt up Aldis Hill did the trick. I knew there would be early spring wildflowers in bloom, and that would improve my outlook on things if anything could. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Bloodroot appeared amid the boulders, purple trilliums and trout lilies lined the muddy trail, and Dutchman’s breeches strutted its stuff near the top of the hill. I stopped to admire the wildflowers almost as much as my dog Matika stopped to sniff around. It’s like that sometimes. My primary task as Homo sapiens, it seems, is to simply admire God’s handiwork. That’s when I feel the most like myself and at peace with the world, anyhow.

I haven’t figured it out yet. My query into human nature is unfinished business, to say the least. But I’m already convinced that our relation to nature is critical to understanding who/what we are. So these walks of mine are necessary in more ways than one. We go into the wild not so much to escape the trappings of civilized society as to find ourselves, to make a primal connection and remember, on some level of awareness, where we came from… and thereby figure out where we are going.

When I get a good bead on human nature, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on wandering and wondering and scribbling down these little absurdities that I call philosophy. If nothing else, it keeps me from being one of those self-righteous fools who engage in unrestrained violence. Yeah, a walk in the woods is absolutely necessary.

 

 

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Apr 26 2018

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The First Green

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You know it’s spring when you come across a brilliant green patch of wild leeks growing in the woods. It’s the first real green of the season, emerging rather suddenly from the thick brown duff covering the forest floor. Technically speaking, moss is well ahead of it, coming back to life long before the snow melts away, and grass starts greening in the open places as soon as early April snow turns to rain. But nothing says welcome to spring like a patch of wild leeks. One bite of their pungent, oniony leaves and there’s no doubt in my mind, anyhow, that winter is history.

I know, I know – it has been a long, cold April this year with more than the usual ration of springtime snow here in the Northeast. And the cloud cover has been relentless at times. All the same, the spring season is well underway. The songbirds are back, peepers are making quite a racket at dusk in the nearby ephemeral pools, and coltsfoot is already blooming in the roadside ditches. Catkins are unfurling from the tips of tree branches. Those who know me well would hardly call me an optimist, but this time of year I see nothing in nature except good omens. And the appearance of wild leeks is one of them.

False hellebore also grows thick and bright green in wet spots in the woods, and is sometimes confused with wild leeks. It has no oniony taste, though – that’s the dead giveaway. Good thing. False Hellebore is poisonous. I take a small bite whenever I’m in doubt.

The mottled leaves of trout lilies are also coming up, along with a host of other wildflowers that will soon be strutting their stuff. I haven’t found any round-lobed hepatica in bloom yet, but I’m sure I will in the days ahead. Wild leeks are not alone on the forest floor. They’re just the most obvious.

Most people long for sunny, t-shirt days, but let the change come slowly, I say. Let spring unfold as slowly as possible so that we can enjoy every little bit of it. Unfortunately, that’s not how things usually go in this part of the world. A few warm days followed by a couple days of rain and suddenly we’ll be in the thick of it. There are worse fates, I suppose.

 

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Apr 13 2018

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Landscape All Brown and Gray

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“April is the cruelest month,” the poet T. S. Eliot said, and we northern New Englanders know all about that. The funk of winter persists in our hearts despite the first green shoots pushing up through the newly thawed earth. And when the weather forecasters warn us about a coming snowstorm, those among us dreaming about t-shirt temps are outraged. It shouldn’t be this way, some say, but this is par for the course around here.

Snow, or the lack of it, is the main reason why I enjoy a simple walk along the Rail Trail this time of year. The landscape is all brown and gray, but it feels good just being able to move freely again. No slogging through slush, sliding over ice, or post-holing in deep snow. Only a relatively effortless foot-to-the-ground forward movement again. I had almost forgotten about it.

The starkness of April is the mirror image of November, only now the prospects look good for lovers of growing things. The days are getting longer, the birds are back, and soon the grass will be greening. After that, well, we all know what’s coming.

So I’ll take it. The grey skies, morning fog, and all-day rain – yeah, sure, bring it on. Even a little snow thrown into the mix, why not? It won’t last. This time of year, even a hard-nosed realist like me leans towards optimism. The great vernal bloom is inevitable. The growing season is already underway, though one has to look hard to see it. And these brown/gray days have a certain dismal charm. I revel in it.

 

 

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