Dec 04 2017

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Geese Lingering

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A couple weeks ago I noticed that about fifty Canada geese had taken up temporary residence in a nearby quarry. Last week I saw them there again, only their numbers had increased to well over a hundred. Yesterday they were still floating on those placid waters, but this time I counted two hundred of them. What’s up with that? Why haven’t they all gone south by now?

Oh sure, the first two snowfalls of the year didn’t amount to much and they melted off quickly, but it’s December for chrissakes. No matter how mild a winter it’s going to be, northern Vermont is not far enough south for them. Or is it?

I am inclined to seriously question this notion we have of instinct. If wild creatures blindly follow instinct, then why aren’t these geese hundreds of miles south of here? Do they have enough intelligence to make a serious error in judgement?

There is another possibility of course. The birds might know something that we don’t, although the word “know” might not be the best way to explain what’s going on here. We’re the knowing ones – Homo sapiens and all that. Their relationship to the natural world is quite different from ours. So then… who’s making the serious error in judgement here, them or us?

I watched the geese for a while, admiring their wild beauty. They were smart enough to keep a good distance away from me even though I posed no real threat to them. I’m still expecting winter to strike with a vengeance soon. I hope these waterfowl are gone by then. Whether they depart or not, they have already given me much food for thought. Perhaps I will soon know what’s going on.

 

 

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Nov 26 2017

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Woods, Words, Worldviews

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Every once in a while I stop and take a long, hard look at my life. I consider myself perfectly normal, but my wife likes to remind me that I operate way out of mainstream. She’s right, of course. I fill my days with tramps through the woods, writing, publishing and selling books, and philosophical speculation – very little of which is good for the economy.

Lately my mind has been firing on all cylinders. I’ve written a few new essays, put the finishing touches on my pantheism book, and edited a manuscript of Walt Franklin’s that I’ll publish next spring. In addition to this, I’ve been reading lots of books and papers on human nature while working out the intricacies of wildness and being human. All this literary work keeps me busy, to say the least.

What’s it all for? I look at the long row of books my bookshelf that I’ve written and/or published and wonder who cares about my thoughts beyond a small group of faithful readers. Who will care a hundred years from now? More to the point, does the world really need another worldview? Aren’t there enough of those already?

Funny how I break into a fit of self-doubt every time I put on my philosopher’s hat. But response to my work during the past 25 years has made it clear to me that philosophy – my philosophy in particular – doesn’t sell. What the world wants from me are hiking narratives, not rumination. So I drop my pen and go for a hike long enough to get out of my head, to see what the wild has to say about all this. And that’s how it happens. That’s how I become a philosopher of wildness. All nature wants me to forget about economics and focus on what’s real.

As a self-proclaimed philosopher, I have no credentials. I wander, I wonder, I write. That is all. The forest is my university and its inhabitants are my teachers. I dismiss everything I find in books or on the Internet that refutes the wild. I embrace Nature with a capital “N,” and seriously question whether anything exists beyond it. In addition to this, I live my funky life despite what’s good for the economy. And that, I suppose, is what makes me a heretic.

 

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Nov 16 2017

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Validation

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Today I have put the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript that explores the relationship between God, man and nature. After going through it several times, I can now see the argument as a whole. It doesn’t feel like I’ve done the subject justice, though. I question whether it can stand up to serious scrutiny. No matter. I pull on my boots and go for a hike to clear my head…

My dog Matika and I wander about a nearby town forest between bouts of rain, just as the sun breaks through the clouds. The grey trees, stripped of their leaves, cast long shadows across the forest floor at midday. My eyes drink in the remnant green of ferns, moss and clubmoss as the few dry leaves still clinging to branches rattle overhead. The leaves on the ground crunch loudly as I walk.

A pileated woodpecker sweeps through the trees at eye level. Matika catches the scent of something interesting and wanders off trail. I call her back. While standing on the trail waiting for her, I listen intently to the forest silence, marveling at the interplay of order and chaos all around me. And that’s it – all the validation I need. Pushing away from my desk after so many hours of abstract thought this morning, I harbored doubts about my pantheistic worldview. But while tramping through these woods, it makes perfect sense.

“So there is one thought for the field, another for the house,” Thoreau once wrote, “I would have my thoughts, like wild apples, to be food for walkers, and will not warrant them to be palatable, if tasted in the house.” I can relate to that. My wild thoughts regarding God, man and nature don’t make a lot of sense indoors. But on the trail, where such thoughts were born, nothing else does.

Reason has its limits. At some point one needs a direct encounter with the wild to fully grasp it and thereby see things as they really are. Thoughts and words are abstract. Wild nature is not.

 

 

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Nov 07 2017

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Time Change

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It’s no big deal, really. In late autumn we all set our clocks back an hour, back to standard time, thus eliminating daylight saving time. It’s just a social convention that we all acknowledge, or so we tell ourselves. But one look out the window late in the afternoon tells us otherwise. Time change leaves its mark on us – especially on those of us sensitive to the slightest changes of light.

It’s November now, and the length of day here in northern Vermont has just slipped under ten hours. The time change drives this home, leaving us in the dark all evening before going to bed. It’s now dark before I quit working for the day. After the long days of summer, I find this a tough adjustment to make.

It’s November now, and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. Even though this has been an unseasonably warm autumn, we all know what’s coming. I keep reminding myself that I have to get the snow tires on my car soon, real soon.

While the hunters are still tramping around the woods, I’ve called it quits for the most part. Oh sure, I hike or snowshoe during the colder months, but not with the same vigor that I do during the warmer ones.  This is the time of year when I do more writing than hiking. Everything in its season, I suppose.

Still it feels like the sun is setting on the growing season, on the season of lush vegetation. The barefoot days are long gone, and nature’s fecundity is giving way to its dormancy. That’s hard on a guy like me who’s constantly cultivating the wildness within. Now that wildness feels somewhat abstract. I’m spending an inordinate amount of time indoors, looking out windows. And the green world is slowly fading to brown. The heat and sweat of summer is but a memory.

 

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Oct 27 2017

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The Roots of Humanity

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For quite some time now I have been pondering what it means to be human, and what exactly our relationship to wild nature is. Recently I read books by E. O. Wilson, Joseph Campbell, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker and other thinkers on the subject, and I’m still going strong. But it’s a book called The Cave Painters that really got me going. In it I learned that the Chauvet cave of southern France has figurative drawings on the walls that date back over 30,000 years. That rocks my world.

When we think about Cro-Magnons, or other cave-dwelling people living during the Ice Age, we naturally assume that they were inferior to us moderns in every way. But the art they left behind tells a different story.

The more I look into cave art, the more I question the word “civilization” and everything that we associate with it. Did we suddenly become more human when we settled down into towns, domesticated plants and animals? I think not.

There are distinct advantages to being civilized, no doubt. Food security is at the top of the list. Still I can’t help but wonder what was lost in the process. “Progress” is the byword of those who always want things new and improved. But experience teaches us that there’s usually a trade off whenever one way of doing things is exchanged for another.

Civilization – the first agriculturally based towns – came into existence about 10,000 years ago. Before that the lives of human beings were inextricably entwined with the natural world. The cave art left behind is proof of that. The big question is: how far back in time does our humanity go?

Some say Homo sapiens took a great leap forward 50,000 years ago. That’s when we started seriously outpacing our more thickheaded cousins, the Neanderthals. Others say that we have been anatomically human well beyond that, putting the roots of our species back over 100,000 years. Our distant ancestors, not even human by our standards, captured fire and used it half a million years ago.

Where should we draw the line between what is human and what is wild?  Does such a difference exist apart from our preconceptions about ourselves? Whenever I go for a long walk alone into deep woods, I begin to wonder. Cave art makes me wonder even more.

 

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Oct 16 2017

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A New Place to Hike

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Sunday evening I slid into a funk and my wife Judy had to deal with me. Once she realized how deep my funk was, she emailed me the info for Milton Pond. When I get this way, the only solution is a good hike.

Milton Pond is located in Milton Town Forest. I’m all the time complaining that I’ve hiked everything close to home, but somehow I missed this place. When I parked my car at the Carriage Barn trailhead, I knew why. It’s not well marked and easy to miss.

The trail itself is very well marked, almost to a fault. It crosses a field, enters the woods then soon reaches Milton Pond. Passing maple sugar lines along the way, I got the feeling that this place isn’t so wild. There are power lines crossing the pond as well. But the fall foliage was beautiful and I had the place all to myself – just me and my dog Matika that is.

I hiked the trail circumnavigating the pond, which is a little over two miles. While it showed some signs of wear, it became clear to me that this town forest is a fairly well kept secret. On the far side of the pond, I took a side trail down to its edge for the view. I stumbled upon a beaver lodge there that Matika found very interesting. But I quickly became chilled in the cool autumn air so I urged her to keep moving.

The terrain becomes a bit more rugged on the east side of the pond. There I felt the wildness stir within me despite the syrup lines, power lines, and new trail signs. When that happens, I know I’m onto something. So I made a mental note to come back here soon and hike the rest of the trails in this area. It’s always good to have a new place to hike.

 

 

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Oct 07 2017

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Breaking Away

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Yesterday I awoke with a powerful urge to drop everything and head for the hills, but instead of doing that I set to work on my book biz. New acquisitions had to be listed and orders needed to be filled. Then I moped through the first half of the afternoon thinking it was too late to break away.

2:30 pm. With only a few hours of daylight left, I pulled on my hiking boots and hopped in the car. Then I drove as deep into the Green Mountains as I could get in an hour. Some things just can’t wait.

After parking the car, I hiked up a logging road for twenty minutes before bushwhacking over to Basin Brook. Felt good to be in the woods. Felt even better to be sitting next to the brook, listening to the endless murmur of water finding its way downhill.

My dog Matika chewed on a stick as I smoked a cigar. I pondered matters both great and small while sitting there. Eventually I felt the urge to get moving again. So I wandered through the forest with no particular destination in mind. Then I tagged the logging road and headed back to the car well before sunset.

Just what the doctor ordered. Though I’d be hard pressed to explain what it is exactly that I get from a wild place when I visit it, there’s no doubt in my mind that it fills a need deep within. I returned home feeling much better, and ready to resume work.

 

 

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Sep 28 2017

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First Autumnal Walk

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A long bout of unseasonably warm weather broke last night, with a cold front ushering in autumn. Never mind that the Autumnal Equinox took place nearly a week ago. For all practical purposes, the season began today.

The trees started turning weeks ago, of course. But the real color won’t come out until we get a few frosty nights. That should happen soon.

I went for a walk in the woods this afternoon, trying to get my bearings after a ten-day road trip back to Ohio to see my dying mother. A dysfunctional health care system, rude drivers on the highway, credit card fraud, and the madness of civilization in general – there was plenty to keep me off balance during the trip. But all that dissipated during my short walk on the trail. Then there was only sadness.

The first fallen leaves scattered across the trail. Acorns dropped as a gentle breeze whispered through the trees. A touch of color. What usually brings me joy this time of year, brought only sadness.

I might see my mother again before she dies; I might not. If I could have a wish granted right now, it would be to walk through the woods with her one last time, enjoying the early autumnal color together. But there comes a time when one must simply let go. So I walked in sadness.

No matter the season, the forest is always beautiful. And always there are fallen trees on the ground even as others reach towards the sky. The forest, in all its beauty, is full of living and dying. So it goes.

Hard to say when exactly the first frost will come. But it will come. I look forward to the colorful display that will follow. Then I will go for another walk. Perhaps the sadness won’t be weighing so heavily on me by then. Perhaps it will be worse. The autumn forest will be beautiful regardless.

 

 

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Sep 08 2017

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Forces of Nature

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Well, it’s that time of year again. Hurricanes are brewing in the Atlantic and making their way towards the Americas. One recently devastated Texas. Another is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and headed for Florida. More are on the way. Six years ago Hurricane Irene reached as far north as Vermont and did a lot of damage here, blowing out streams and rivers with ridiculous amounts of rainfall. Seems like there are more of great storms now, and they’re bigger and more powerful than ever before. But our climatological records only go back 150 year so it’s hard to say.

There are huge wildfires out West. Mexico was just hit by a big earthquake. Iceland is expecting one soon. Here in the North Country, we get our share of nature’s wrath in the form of winter blizzards. Tornados are common in the Midwest where I grew up. Nature flexes its muscles everywhere.

I was living in Oregon when the volcano Mount St. Helens blew. I heard it that day, even though I was hiking in the woods 200 miles away. The next day everything was covered with a blanket of light grey ash. In the 1800s the much bigger volcano Krakatoa erupted in Indonesia, creating a tsunami far worse than the one that ravaged that part of the world a few years ago. The planet is a dynamic system. Not nearly as intense as it was 4 billion years ago, but active all the same.

Some of the big natural events happening today are the same ones we’ve been dealing with for thousands of years. Others have more teeth. We all know why. It’s getting harder and harder to deny climate change, even though some folks believe they have a vested interest in keeping their heads in the sand. Then again, Homo sapiens isn’t quite as sapient as advertised. Not collectively, anyhow. Even as individuals, some of us do some really stupid things. I can’t help but wonder why anyone would buy oceanfront property in this day and age. As arctic ice sheets melt, sea level rise, making storm surge much more devastating. Can our engineers build any kind of barrier that can adequately deal with what lies ahead?

A hurricane is just a swirl of wind, but it’s big enough to be seen from the moon. And in the near future, they’re likely to get bigger. I’d take that bet, anyhow, if I could find anyone willing to bet otherwise.

Maybe someday we’ll get it – we’ll finally figure out that despite our cerebral prowess and very busy hands, we aren’t in the driver’s seat. The mind-blowing, dynamic system that we call Nature was here long before we came along, and will be here long after we’re gone. Yeah, maybe someday we’ll finally find our place in that system. But I’m not holding my breath. Human nature hasn’t changed noticeably during my lifetime.

 

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Aug 27 2017

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The Promise of Another Day

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Morning sun breaks through the trees – the promise of another day. Forget the madness of civilization on full display throughout the media, and focus instead upon here and now. A calm, clear, azure sky. And you are alive. Cherish it. Your days will not go on forever. So whatever your troubles, however distressing the human condition may seem, there is this day. And you are alive.

It’s hard to believe that Nature has no agenda, that all this living and dying all around us isn’t to some good purpose. The sun burns brightly, suggesting divinity. Or am I just imagining it? Each and every one of us walks the fine line between reality and illusion. Only the truly mad amongst us think that they are completely sane.

The sun, moon and stars move across the sky, marking time. Together they hint at something eternal – something that we call the universe. But that’s of no consequence to us really. Our days are numbered. From the first hominid to the last there are only so many days. So we should make good use of them. What then should we do? More to the point, what should I do today?

The promise of another day. Each and every day is fraught with possibility. Perhaps I will do today what I couldn’t do yesterday. Perhaps the passage of time is all that’s needed to beat the long odds and accomplish something truly remarkable. Perhaps today I will truly understand the world and my place in it. Stranger things have happened, haven’t they?

 

 

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