Feb 23 2020

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Late Winter Snowshoeing

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After thinking about it for days, I finally dig out my snowshoes and head for a nearby snow-covered forest – the Sheldon Town Forest to be exact. Here in northern Vermont, we’re into freeze-and-thaw temps now so there’s no time to waste. Odds are good that March will give us at least one good dump of fresh snow, but it could melt off quickly. Best to get outside with my snowshoes while I still can.

Yessir, my trusty Green Mountain Bear Paws. All leather and wood. I’ve had them over 25 years and have repaired them four times. Looks like another repair is just about due. No matter. I wouldn’t want to have anything else strapped to my boots when I get into deep snow. They’re three feet long and ten inches wide. They keep me on top of it for the most part.

It’s been two weeks since the last big snowfall so most of what’s on the ground now is compact. Still snowshoes are needed to negotiate it without post-holing. I follow a set of ski tracks passing through the conifers, slightly widening a path that others have made. No cutting tracks today. That’s fine by me.

Recent strong winds have shaken a lot of detritus loose from the trees. In a couple places I skirt fallen branches and downed trees. But travel across the snow isn’t difficult. I break a sweat and breathe heavily all the same. It’s a workout. With temps in the 30s I feel overdressed with only a thermal shirt, a wool shirt and an outer shell.

When the perimeter trail I’m following passes out of the conifers and into some hardwoods, I spot 4-wheeler along with a fellow tending to maple syrup lines. It’s that time of year. With day temps getting into the 40s this coming week, the sap will start running, no doubt. That gets me daydreaming about spring. Yeah, I’m ready for it. I’m more than ready. Snowshoeing is good, but I much prefer tramping across open ground. Soon, very soon.

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Feb 13 2020

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Staying Home

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There’s a huge pile of snow at the end of my driveway and the walkways around my house are knee-deep trenches. We’re not exactly snowbound, but it definitely feels like winter is going to hang on a while longer. These are ideal conditions for staying home. I’m happy enough being in my office all day, working on various literary projects, anyhow.

With this much fresh snow on the ground, I’d usually be grabbing my snowshoes and heading for the mountains, but I’m just not in the mood to drive anywhere. I was on the road last Friday when the big winter storm hit – the one that delivered most of this snow. It was a white-knuckle drive all the way.

I drove for hours over icy roads, with freeing rain, sleet and snow coming down entire time. I was hell-bent on attending a big library book sale a hundred and thirty miles away. When finally I got there, the library was closed and the book sale was postponed until the next day. I ended up killing the afternoon and evening in a hotel room. The power went out half an hour after I checked in. That’s when I realized that I had made a really bad decision venturing out. Should have stayed home.

I was lucky to return home in one piece. Accumulating ice busted a windshield wiper during the trip, and a headlight blew out when a passing truck threw a sheet of slush at my car. Winter travel can be treacherous.

Eventually I’ll get over it. The urge to be outdoors will trump the dread of driving, and soon I’ll be cutting fresh tracks through snowy woods. But for now, I’ll settle for staying indoors… longing for spring, when driving won’t be an issue.

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Jan 28 2020

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What Is Human?

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After nearly a year away from it, I am back to work on my book concerning wildness and being human. That’s a good thing, but I must say that I’m intimidated by the sheer magnitude of the subject. What do we really know about ourselves? What do we know with absolute certainty about our own humanity?

To be more specific, where do we stand in relation to nature? No doubt we live in the natural world and have always been a part of it. That much is obvious to anyone who takes paleontology and archaeology the least bit seriously. But when did we become fully human and how did that transformation take place? More importantly, what does it mean to be fully human? The more one delves into this subject, the more mind-boggling it becomes.

I imagine that all this seems rather academic to most people. What relevance could such questions have in the Digital Age? The stone tools and cave art of our distant ancestors seem rather distant indeed. Yet therein lies the key to who/what we are, and what we must do in these dangerous times to preserve our humanity.

I am convinced that the dynamic relationship between wild nature and human nature did not go away when we started building towns and engaging in agriculture on a grand scale. Contrary to what is generally assumed, civilization does not define us. I am also convinced that wildness is an essential part of our humanity. But these things I know on a visceral level, after spending considerable time alone in wild places. Making a convincing case, a rational argument to this effect, is another matter altogether.

I am working on this but it isn’t any easier than trying to understand the meaning of those 30,000-year-old drawings in the Chauvet cave or elsewhere. Were the people who drew them, long before civilization, as human as we are? I believe so, but proving that is turning out to be a much greater challenge than I thought it would be.

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Jan 17 2020

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Frigid Walk

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When the temperature outside got up to zero this morning, I put on my thermals and other warm clothes then went for a walk. Nothing special, just the local loop. A couple miles. Just enough to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.

The sun shined brightly through an azure sky. The naked trees cast blue shadows over snow that had fallen the day before. I cut fresh tracks through the woods, then walked the road as an occasional car passed. No one else was stirring otherwise, neither man nor beast.

My eyeglasses frosted over as I walked making it difficult to see. When a gentle breeze kicked up, it stung my exposed cheeks. I usually scoff at wind chill, but not today. Yeah, any kind of air movement when the temperature is zero degrees Fahrenheit gets my attention.

I crept along slowly, unwisely having left my crampons at home. I had expected the road to be clear. Slipped and fell once, causing more embarrassment than injury. Like it wasn’t silly enough for me to be out walking on a day like this.

Ah, but stepping back inside after a frigid walk was a true delight! And I’ll enjoy being indoors the rest of the day as a result. Sometimes a little exposure to the elements is just the thing to make one appreciate the comforts of home.

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Jan 07 2020

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Solitary Ascent

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I strap on crampons at the trailhead then set forth on the Long Trail, north to Prospect Rock. In my office there’s a plaque that says: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” I felt that urge while working this morning, so here I am this afternoon.

A light snow is falling, obscuring the tracks of hikers passing this way on previous days. It also clings to tree trunks and weighs down the boughs of surrounding conifers. Beautiful to behold.

Layered in synthetics and wools, I sweat during the ascent despite the winter chill. White blazes show the way. I have a headlamp, a compass, and a few other essential items in my pockets just in case I get turned around. It isn’t smart for a sixty-something like me to be hiking alone in January, but sometimes a woods walk is a much-needed meditation. I leave behind the world’s troubles, left only with a creeping sense of my own mortality.

My thighs burn as the trail steepens. An easy hike in the summer, the six inches of snow underfoot make this climb a little harder. No matter. The forest silence makes it all worthwhile.

Near the top, a couple signs tell hikers to stay away March 15 to August 1st because peregrine falcons nest in the cliffs here. I wonder why there isn’t another sign at the trailhead. I trudge past the signs, reaching the summit lookout just as a squall partially obscures the view.

I linger at the lookout long enough to catch my breath, then head back down the trail. Good thing I’m wearing crampons. The icy crust beneath the newly fallen snow makes the descent a bit dicey. But the wintry woods aren’t nearly as dangerous as the slick road back home. And nothing is as dangerous as ignoring the soul-crushing effects of modern living – electronics, consumerism, bureaucracy, and all that. Glad I ventured out.

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Dec 21 2019

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Winter Solstice Hike

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Midmorning. With temps still in the single digits, I strap crampons onto my boots and head into the woods. Just a short hike today – enough to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Today is the Winter Solstice. That means the days will only be getting longer during the next six months. That’s music to my ears.

Technically, this is the beginning of winter, but it has been winter-like here in northern Vermont for well over a month. And it’ll stay that way for another three months. I can’t complain though. I do my best writing this time of year. If I lived in a place that’s warm year round, my literary output would be cut in half.

I tramp a well-beaten path up Aldis Hill. I like this pocket of woods because it’s close by, albeit right on the edge of town. On a cold morning like this, I have the place to myself for the most part. A few people and their dogs are out, that’s all.

A hairy woodpecker pecks away at a dead tree, but no other forest creatures are stirring. No tracks in the snow, either. Whenever it’s this cold, there’s not a whole lot happening in the woods.

I walk with memories flooding into my head – what has happened during the past year as well as those who are no longer with us. Bittersweet thoughts for the most part. I’ve become rather sentimental in my later years. But 2020 is right around the corner, so memories morph into hopes, dreams and big plans for the year ahead.

The hike goes by quickly. Then I head home to attend to my book biz. There’s a cup of hot chocolate in my future, I think. That and a long winter nap.

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Dec 11 2019

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Long Walk on a Short Day

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The snow that had blanketed northern Vermont since early November melted off during the past few days. That gave me a chance to get out and really stretch my legs this afternoon, before it snowed again. So I did just that, heading for the wilder section of the nearby Rail Trail to hike hard and fast across barren ground.

Mid-afternoon and already the trees casting long shadows. The days are short this time of year. No matter. The nearly cloudless, deep blue sky lured me out of my warm car and into the seasonably cool air.

I became a little melancholy yesterday, while listening to holiday music during a book-hunting road trip. My mother loved Christmas so I couldn’t help but think of her, and my father as well. They’re both gone now, along with my canine companion Matika who walked the Rail Trail with me countless times during the past twelve years. But there’s a time to grieve and a time to get on with life. This afternoon, I chose the latter.

There was still ice in the wetlands this afternoon, and patches of snow lingered beneath the trees. It won’t take much for winter to reclaim this landscape, but for an hour I walked with a warm-season gait, leaving faint tracks in the partially melted surface of the trail. I crossed paths with a chipmunk that was also taking advantage of the day. This time of year, it’s wise to get out while one can.

Back home now, I’ll soon return to the work I was doing this morning. But first these words jotted down while savoring the last bit of daylight. The sun is sinking fast into the western horizon. Less than nine hours of light today. The Winter Solstice approaches. Glad I got out and soaked up some rays while I could.

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Nov 27 2019

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A Few Thoughts Concerning Climate Change

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For decades I have consciously avoided giving my opinion about climate change, not wanting to undercut the fundamental belief of climate change activists everywhere. That belief goes something like this: we must radically reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses that we kick into the atmosphere, as soon as possible, to avoid a global warming catastrophe.

Unlike climate change deniers, who have their heads in the sand, I don’t shy away from the overwhelming amount of scientific facts that point to climate change, or the climatological realities on this planet during the past 4 billion years. I simply believe that it is already too late to avoid global warming, that it was too late when we first became aware of the problem in the middle of the last century. After all, industrialization has been underway for hundreds of years. All we can really do now is damage control, and it may be a while longer before we even get serious about that.

The last thing I want is to be called is a prophet of doom. That’s why I avoid writing or talking about climate change as a general rule. But a recent article in BBC News paints a picture of the near future that is as bad if not worse than anything I can imagine. The amount of greenhouse gases we are kicking into the atmosphere is increasing, from year to year. And 15 of the top 20 richest, most industrialized nations don’t even have a net zero target. Add to this the harsh reality that the two biggest polluters, China and the USA, are effectively doing nothing, and it’s a fine stew indeed.

The problem, in a nutshell, is human nature. There are 7.7 billion of us on this planet – a number that keeps going up – and we all want the finer things in life, such as automobiles. Some of us have these finer things, others are just now getting them, and still others are waiting to get them.

There exists the technology now for us to manufacture and operate these finer things while making a much smaller impact on the planet, but the costs will go up if/when we go that route and we don’t like that. More to the point, retooling not just one industry but all of them, in addition to completely changing our infrastructure, well, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. The fact that humankind is subdivided into 200 nations and countless religions, ideologies and other opposing worldviews doesn’t help matters either. It would take cooperation and commitment on a scale never before seen in human history to pull off even a modest reduction in greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. A tall order, indeed.

One could argue that the problem began with agriculture practiced on a large scale at the beginning of civilization 10,000 years ago. That’s what enabled our population to grow. A little Malthusian math makes it clear that we can’t keep having babies and growing more food for them indefinitely. Forget the finer things in life. How are we going to feed everyone without having a major impact on the planet? But that’s a longterm problem, isn’t it? Maybe not. Climate change could make it difficult to grow food. Food will be a lot more expensive in the near future, to say the least.

“Bleak” is the word used by the authors of the latest UN report on carbon emissions, so don’t call me a prophet of doom. I’d love to be proven wrong in my assessment of human nature. In fact, there’s nothing I’d like more than to see all of humankind come together to tackle the problem while our efforts can make any difference at all. But I’m not holding my breath. We still have climate change deniers to contend with, not to mention determining whose fault all this is. Yeah, once the deniers are gone, then we’ll get serious about playing the blame game. That is, after all, how humankind goes about things.

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Nov 18 2019

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Early Winter Hike

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Last week a big storm dumped 8 inches of snow on northern Vermont, and temps haven’t warmed up enough since then to melt it off. Not unusual for this time of year, but it caught me off guard all the same. I still haven’t put winter tires on my car.

Snow or no, I had to get into a pocket of woods and stretch my legs yesterday. Too much time staring at a computer screen makes me cranky. So I grabbed my boots, pulled the a set of crampons called Microspikes out of my closet, and headed for Niquette Bay State Park. I went into Burlington to meet a friend for breakfast, actually, and stopped by the park on the way home.

By the time I reached Niquette Bay, it was late morning and temps had already reached into the twenties. The sun was shining brightly, as well. Without a doubt, it was going to be a pleasant walk.

I pulled the Microspikes over my boots and voila! Excellent traction despite packed snow and ice. I hiked along the trail effortlessly and shot up the icy ledges as if walking across bare ground. The air was crisp and clean, and the climb just rigorous enough to get my blood up. Descending the ledges on the other side, I came upon three people struggling on all fours to negotiate the treacherous, icy slope. Their crampons were still in storage.

Upon reaching the beach, I was surprised to see nothing but open water in the bay. The lake hasn’t even begun to freeze over yet. Then again it’s only November. A few ducks floated close to shore. Why are they still here? Evidently, they haven’t received the memo yet: winter has arrived.

I could have kept going, but a couple miles was enough. I looped back on a shorter trail and reached the parking lot about fifteen minutes later. I’m not a big fan of winter but crampons sure make it a lot more tolerable. With them I can stretch my legs just about any time the snow isn’t deep enough for snowshoes. So I think I’ll keep them in my car until spring.

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Nov 08 2019

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Walking the Shoreline

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Taking advantage of a two-day, off-season special at a hotel appropriately called The Seaside, Judy and I escaped the leafless landscape of Vermont for the late-season foliage and slightly warmer temps of the Maine coast. As far as Judy is concerned, it’s all about the water, of course – her passion for the ocean matching mine for wild forests.

We arrived on the coast in a driving rain at dusk so we simply went out to dinner then settled into our hotel room for the night. But we stepped out on the beach first thing in the morning, before breakfast. By then the rain had passed, leaving the rising sun all by itself in a calm, clear blue sky. Light jackets were all we needed to keep the early morning chill at bay. We walked the length of Kennebunk Beach, taking in the sight and sound of waves breaking gently to shore, between encounters with a few dogs and their owners. We collected pieces of sea glass as we meandered along, deeply inhaled the salty air, and basked in the negative ions emitted by the sea.

During the middle of the day we did a lot of nothing – window shopping, a nap, another meal, a little cafe sitting. When the sun sunk towards the western horizon, we went back out to walk the shoreline again, enjoying the play of light over water, rock and sand, happy enough to keep things simple.

The next morning we went out for one last oceanside walk before checking out of the hotel and driving back to Vermont. With temps in the 30s, we were bundled up. Still ours was a pleasant, late autumn stroll along the beach. What a shock it was, then, to return home later that evening and find two inches of snow on the ground. From one season to another in the same day. Good thing we got away when we did.

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