Apr 30 2021

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Going a Little Wild

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April is a bit early to go backpacking in the Adirondacks. I expected to see snow. So imagine my relief when I parked my car at the trailhead to the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, looked around, and saw no white stuff. With temps in the 50s and a partly cloudy sky overhead, it was a good way to start the outing.

I traveled fast and light along the OK Slip Falls Trail with only a 30-pound pack on my back and 20 pounds less flab on my body. My trekking poles clicked against the roots and rocks along the trail, flushing a ruffed grouse. Not much in the way of wildflowers in bloom, and evergreen wood ferns were still pressed flat against the ground. Evidently, the snow cover had just recently melted away.

Three miles back, I caught a glimpse of the impressive OK Slip Falls through the trees – one of the highest falls in the Adirondacks, tucked away in the woods. After that I hiked another mile to the Hudson Gorge, where the Hudson River cuts through the mountains. Backtracking past the falls, I made camp along a feeder stream to OK Slip Brook. There I fired up my stove and fixed dinner. No campfire this time out. The forest was too dry. Too dry, that is, until a steady rain commenced, which lasted all night long.

Arising the next morning, I felt the strange calm that usually follows a night spent alone in deep woods. Mist gathered in the trees as I fixed breakfast. Stream rushing along, otherwise silence. My joints ached as I arose from my seat along the brook, reminding me of the passage of time – decades doing this. I looked around, marveling at the growth and decay all around me, wondering as I have so many times before how it all came to be. Nature is inscrutable.

I took my sweet time hiking out, stopping frequently to scan wetlands for wildlife, admire hundred-year old hemlocks, and listen to chickadees, nuthatches and other songbirds. I tramped the muddy trail – mostly dry the day before – and left boot prints on the banks of ephemeral streams. Not much else to report. I went a little wild for a short while, and that’s all that mattered.

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Apr 17 2021

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The Unfurling

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It’s too soon for this, or is it? This morning I spotted wild oats emerging from the forest duff – one of the first wild lilies to unfurl in the spring. This is only the middle of April. Usually I don’t see this flower until the end of the month. But all bets are off this year.

Yesterday it snowed. Before that temps soared into the 60s. I knelt down and sniffed spring beauty in bloom a couple days ago. Before that, round-lobed hepatica bloomed. Right before that we got half a foot of snow. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen from one day to the next.

We like to think of seasonal change as a steady progression: temps consistently getting colder as we approach mid-winter, then consistently warming up through mid-summer. But that’s not how nature works. Overall nature is predicable. Here in New England, for example, we can expect four distinct seasons each year. That said, temps can fluctuate wildly over the course of any three or four days picked at random. This is normal.

Flowering plants anticipate what we humans cannot accept. The unfurling is a long, slow process. The first wild lilies press upward and, if temps suddenly plummet, they die back only to be replaced by a second wave. Some wildflowers take forever to bloom. I’ve seen purple trilliums on the verge of opening for weeks on end before they finally strut their stuff. Wildflowers, like most life forms, hedge their bets one way or another. When I stop and think about what’s really happening all around me in the spring, I am astounded.

“False spring,” I heard someone say when it snowed yesterday, unwilling to call it spring until snow is impossible. Yet we get, on average, two snowfalls every April here in northern Vermont. It’s all part of the unfurling, and that’s a beautiful thing to behold. Unpredictable on the short term, yet inevitable in the long run. That’s nature for you.

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Apr 06 2021

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Springtime Illumination

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Deep in the woods, I return to a familiar a place along a mountain brook that I’ve visited many times before. This has become an annual ritual for me. Early in the spring, I come here to celebrate the unfolding of yet another growing season, well before the first lilies arise.

There’s a boulder twice as tall as I am and much wider, not far from the stream. Half of it is covered with moss coming back to life after a long, cold season. The sun illuminates the moss, along with evergreen ferns sprawled across the top. Icicles still dangle from the rock. Beyond it, patches of snow still lurk in the forest shadows.

This is the very beginning of it – a mere hint of what’s to come. Nearby rivulets full of snowmelt rush towards the brook, which is now a silted green torrent. The leafless trees creak in a faint breeze. The sun beats down upon the forest floor, turning the frozen earth into mud. Soon this forest will be teeming with fresh verdure.

I put my hand to the moss while giving thanks for simply being alive, for still being able to reach this place. Days away from turning 65, I no longer take anything for granted. I squint into the sun, feeling its heat. And the spirit of the wild washes over me while I do so.

Whether God exists or not I leave to others to contemplate. When I am alone in a wild forest, such matters seem moot. In springtime I know that Nature is unfolding in all its glory, and I am a part of it. That is enough.

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Mar 26 2021

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Glorious Springtime

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Spring has come early here in northern New England, and what a glorious unfolding it is! Temps have shot into the 60s during the past week, reaching into the 70s twice. Needless to say, the snow cover has melted away. Only a few snow piles remain, like the one at the top of my driveway, to remind us that we were still in the grip of winter a mere ten days ago.

Judy and I have taken full advantage of the sudden seasonal change. We have ventured out three times this week in search of migrating birds, and haven’t been disappointed. In fact, we have seen so many Canada geese in so many different places that Judy stopped taking photos of them. Wherever there is a patch of open water between the retreating ice and the shores of Lake Champlain, there they are.

Along with geese, we’ve seen plenty of other waterfowl: mallards, goldeneyes, common mergansers, and the small, very energetic buffleheads. The latter skip across the surface of the water before diving for mollusks and other tasty treats on the lake bottom close to shore. We have found them particularly entertaining.

On land we spotted red-winged blackbirds and bluebirds, along with robins. A good number of the latter have wintered over here, but their numbers are way up now as their migrating kin have joined them. Woodpeckers are drumming and cardinals are singing from the tops of trees in efforts to secure mates for the season. In a well-established nest near Otter Creek we saw only the head of a bald eagle, most likely incubating new eggs. Regeneration is in the air.

Meanwhile the buds of red maples and other trees are swelling, and the first green shoots of fresh vegetation are breaking ground. The landscape will remain mostly brown during the next month – what we call mud season here in Vermont – but first wildflowers will be up soon enough. I love this long, slow reawakening of the natural world. Already I’m experiencing that euphoric, dreamy feeling commonly known as spring fever. Already I’m an April fool. And the more mud I get on my boots, the better. Bring it on!

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Mar 15 2021

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A Preview of Spring

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For four days last week temps spiked well above freezing here in northern Vermont, once getting into the 50s. I went out every day, and that severely cut into my literary productivity. Not that it matters. This time of year, it’s best to get out and enjoy balmy weather while it lasts.

Judy and I went birding one of those days, driving down to Addison County to see what we could see. A couple hawks, some starlings, and lots of crows were all that appeared. Still just a little too early for all the migrating birds to arrive from the south. Or at least it was last week.

On the warmest of those days, I slogged through half a foot of melting snow while exploring Silver Lake Woods, about fifteen miles to the south of where I live. Without snowshoes, that was a real workout. Didn’t mind it too much, though. That backcountry lake is a pretty one, even when iced over. I look forward to going back there when the ice is out.

Cold mud. That’s what I got into on the last day. With the snow melting off fast, the top layer of soil was exposed and thawed in places. It felt good to leave my boot prints in it. Messy but good.

Today we’re back into the deep freeze, with temps in the single digits at daybreak. But I’ve got a feeling this is the end of winter. The Spring Equinox is only 5 days away, and there are above-freezing temps in the forecast. Spring is the season of hope and rebirth, when the flowering plants come out of their deep, months-long slumber. I never tire of it. The cycle is complete, once again, and it all begins anew. Eternal nature. For a pantheist like me, early spring is a religious experience.

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Mar 05 2021

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Now Available at Medium.com

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A new day is dawning for yours truly. While I will continue blogging, publishing my books, and occasionally writing short pieces for printed periodicals, I have discovered a new outlet for my work.  Giving credit where credit is due, my wife Judy is the one who brought it to my attention. Anyway, I am now making some of my essays and short narratives available via an online publishing platform called Medium.com.

So far I’ve uploaded half a dozen pieces, both old and new, about my backcountry excursions, pantheism, wildness and being human, and related subjects.  More are on the way.  Check it out.  The first three articles you read at Medium.com are free.  After that, subscription is $5 a month.  You might find other interesting articles there, as well. I’ve done so, along with millions of other people.  It’s a whole new way to connect readers and writers.    

     

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Feb 24 2021

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Cutting Tracks in Deep Snow

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Late winter. I tramp the hard-packed trail leading into Honey Hollow wearing crampons until they clog up with snow. Then I take them off. Easier walking without them. With temps above freezing, it’s a pleasant hike in shirtsleeves and thermals. The sun peeks through the clouds as I pass the gorge.

Upon reaching a gate blocking the side trail, I affix snowshoes to my boots. From this point forward, the hike gets harder. I follow the snowshoe tracks of someone else who came this way a week or two ago – after the last big snowstorm. This takes some doing but it’s easier than breaking trail.

The older tracks go beyond the apple tree clearing. They turn around shortly after crossing a feeder stream tumbling down to Preston Brook. Then I’m on my own, cutting tracks in two feet of undisturbed snow. I work up a sweat in no time. I stop frequently to catch my breath. While doing so, I catch glimpses of open leads of water in the brook fifty yards to my left. That gets me thinking spring isn’t too far away.

It takes the better part of an hour to break half a mile of trail. Then I reach the tree along the brook where I pressed a fishing fly into bark last summer. That makes me smile. Not too far beyond that tree, I tamp down a spot to rollout my foam pad. Then I sit down for a while. It’s a lovely day in the snow-covered mountains. I eat a handful of nuts and an energy bar, and drink nearly a liter of water while listening to the deep forest quiet. The brook murmurs beneath the snowpack.

After lunch I retrace my steps, improving the trail I’ve cut. I had intended to do a loop, but backtracking is a lot easier than cutting tracks. I stop frequently just to look around, grooving on the wild beauty of the Green Mountains in winter. So glad I came out for the day.

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Feb 17 2021

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Cohos Trail Book Now in Print

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For years I had wanted to venture north of the White Mountains, into what is sometimes called The Great North Woods. This finger of New Hampshire jutting into Quebec doesn’t look like much on a map, but it’s country as wild as northern Maine. So imagine my delight when I learned that a relatively new hiking route is being blazed there. It’s called the Cohos Trail.

A patchwork of old woods roads, ATM and snowmobile trails, and local trails all tied together by brand new links, the Cohos Trail is something else. Starting in the Whites, it soon ventures into a remote, sprawling forest where people are few and moose thrive. This trail system is so new that sections of it are still road walks. But in June of 2019, I hiked the wild heart of it. Then I wrote this book.

The Consolation of Wildness is more than just another backpacking narrative. A few months before doing this hike, my canine companion Matika died. Then my mother died. On top of that, my 63-year-old body gave me some unexpected trouble during the excursion. So this narrative is infused with meditations on mortality, death and dying. The confusing mix of emotions that I experienced, ranging from wild ecstasy to undiluted grief, was a real roller coaster ride. Consequently, this tale is different from anything I’ve written before.

This book is now for sale at the Wood Thrush Books website. You can also find it at Amazon.com, of course. If you read it, let me know what you think.

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Jan 28 2021

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The Suspension of Disbelief

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The mob storming the U. S. capital rocked my world as it did most Americans. “What the hell is going on?” I asked myself, “How could this be happening?” Weeks have gone by since that terrible day so now I’ve calmed down a bit and am able to see with some clarity how things have gotten so out of control in this country. In an aha! moment I’ve hit upon it: the suspension of disbelief has migrated into politics.

Yes indeed, the suspension of disbelief is now everywhere. The poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term in 1817. Back then it referred to one’s avoidance of any kind of critical thinking while enjoying a drama or fiction. In more recent times, this has become a prerequisite for enjoying science fiction, fantasy, or any other kind of speculative, far-fetched, or surreal work. Logic is set aside for a while. It’s fun! It’s gratifying! But now, it seems, folks are cultivating their worldviews this way.

While Trump was president, we never knew what kind of outrageous fiction would spew forth from his mouth or his tweets. Liberals, moderates and independents alike all tried to discredit his fictions with science and the mountain of facts that refuted his nonsense, but to no avail. Trump supporters wholeheartedly embraced it all.

News has become entertainment, or should I say “infotainment.” With the arrival of the Digital Age, most of the major news agencies have gone this route. After all, they’re competing with the flood of (mis)information coming over the Internet – from social media in particular. Most of this (mis)information is much more gratifying than reality, and reinforces the established biases of the viewer. Forget about the facts. What one wants to believe is only a few clicks away.

No belief is too outrageous. Even the Flat Earth Society is benefiting from the Internet. According to an article recently published online by CNN, they now have 200,000 followers on Facebook. I shudder to think how many followers QAnon has with all its crackpot conspiracy theories. It’s almost as if the more outrageous the claim one makes the better it is. How gratifying these simplistic answers are in such a complex world!
 
I often venture into the natural world to avoid, at least temporarily, the madness of civilization. Nature is real and I am consoled by that, regardless whatever harsh realities it throws at me. And the facts of the natural sciences validate everything that I encounter in the wild. But it’s obvious that fewer and fewer people are turning to nature, science, or simple facts as they formulate their worldviews. God help us all.
 

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Jan 16 2021

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Midwinter Sunshine

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We waited several days for it. When finally the sky broke open as promised by the weather forecasters, Judy and I went to Colchester Pond. Judy is still passionate about photographing birds, and a few interesting ones had been spotted there recently. But the main thing was to get out and enjoy the sunshine. That’s not an easy thing to do in the middle of winter – not this year, anyhow.

The parking lot was nearly full when we arrived. Evidently, we weren’t the only ones looking to get out of the house. Half a dozen ice fishermen were camped out on the pond. Mostly gray-haired folks like us were walking the trail around it – on a Friday at noon, of course.

I glassed a few cardinals and blue jays with my binoculars but Judy didn’t even raise her camera. She can see those at home. No matter. We soaked in the relative warmth as we meandered slowly along the beaten path. With temps above freezing, Judy actually broke a sweat. I was quite comfortable.

After the walk, we sat on a bench along the edge of the pond, not far from the parking lot. That’s when Judy’s cousin Rick hailed us. We met him halfway between the bench and the parking lot and chatted with him for half an hour or so, keeping our distance because of the pandemic. Then Judy spotted a bird landing in a tree not far away. I glassed it, telling Judy she’d better get a shot because it was a raptor of some sort – one I couldn’t identify. It turned out to be a merlin. A rare sighting. What a fluke! A nice finish to a very pleasant day.

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