Mar 18 2019

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Matika Passes Away

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A couple days ago, Judy and I said goodbye to our long-haired German shepherd, Matika, as we put her down. The paralysis in her hind legs, due to a disease called degenerative myelopathy, started causing all kinds of problems. We decided against taking it to the bitter end, which would only make her suffer.

Matika had accompanied me on nearly all of my excursions into the woods during the past 12 years. I nicknamed her Wilderness Dog back in 2009 during our arduous trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness in northern Maine. She impressed me with her endurance on that hike.

Matika loved the woods almost as much as I do. She would start dancing about excitedly whenever I pulled out my hiking boots. Towards the end I occasionally snuck out for a rigorous hike alone, but it wasn’t easy leaving her behind.

She got into trouble a few times – with raccoons, skunks, porcupines, etc. – and on many occasions I had to sleep under my tarp with her soaking wet and caked with mud. Swamp dog. But she was a great hiking companion overall. It’ll be a big adjustment hiking without her.

Truth is, I won’t be hiking without Matika for a long while. Her ghost will accompany me, I’m sure. It’s like that once you’ve bonded in the wild with another creature. Matika wasn’t my pet, she was my canine companion. A companion in wildness. A free spirit. A happy dog. Yeah, she’ll be with me in spirit for many more hikes to come.

 

 

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Mar 09 2019

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A Taste of the Wild

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All week long I worked on my book about wildness and being human, effectively scratching the itch of wildness. Come Friday, with temps reaching into the 20s and the sun shining, I dropped everything and headed for the woods.

The big question these days is whether or not to take my old dog, Matika. She can barely get around now so any walk with her is bound to be a short one. But she’s been cooped up for days as I have. I decided take her. No need for a big outing, I told myself. Just a taste of the wild would do.

I headed for a favorite mountain brook that runs parallel to an unimproved dirt road that’s closed for the season. A beaten path made walking on the snow-covered road easy, especially with Microspikes on my feet. Matika crept along – her legs, weakened by a debilitating disease, giving out every once in a while. I stopped and waited for her every fifty yards or so.

While Matika was catching up to me, I left the path just long enough to post-hole down to the brook for a look. The stream was covered over. There were a few open leads of water but mostly snow piled on ice. All the same, I grooved on the sound of water gurgling softly over the rocks below.

Back on the beaten path, I continued forging uphill, past a beautiful gorge nestled in hemlocks. Then the tracks of previous walkers came to an end. I went a bit farther but Matika was having a hard time of it so I turned around. No matter. The blue sky, mild temps and fresh air lifted my spirits. It was good to get out, if only for a little while.

 

 

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Feb 25 2019

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Owl Fest at the VINS Nature Center

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Although freezing rain made us hesitate, Judy and I drove down to the VINS Nature Center in Quechee, Vermont yesterday to attend the Owl Fest. Since Judy relates to the spirit of owls in general, it seemed like the thing to do. Besides, we were both suffering from cabin fever – a late-winter affliction common among those of us who live this far north.

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) does a great job educating both children and adults alike about the wonder and beauty of the natural world. They also maintain a Raptor Center where nearly twenty eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey are kept on year-round display in somewhat roomy, outdoor enclosures. It’s worth visiting any time, but on this particular weekend the Owl Fest was on, with plenty of activities for kids and several owls perched on the thick leather gloves of their handlers for viewing up close and personal.

We marveled at how well the screech owl blended into the background when the bark of a tree was put behind it, and how small it is along with the saw-whet owl. A barred owl was on display, of course – a common sight the Vermont woods. I’ve seen it more often then all the other owls put together, anyhow. Judy had her picture taken with Frederick, a Eurasian eagle-owl that’s related to our native great horned owl but runs much bigger. I got the attention of a snowy owl comfortably sitting on the ground in its enclosure and tried to psyche him out, but he was unruffled by my antics. All the same, it was great seeing a snowy owl in the flesh. I’ve never seen one in the wild. What a beautiful creature!

Despite being pummeled for hours by freezing rain and catching a chill, Judy and I both agree the trip was worth it. I think I’ll be better at spotting owls and other raptors in the wild as a consequence. And we’ll certainly be going back to the VINS Nature Center during the warmer months. I highly recommend a visit. Go to the VINS website to learn more.

 

 

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Feb 12 2019

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New Book Release: Camping in the Galaxy

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I am pleased to announce the release of Helen Ruggieri’s collection of haibun and nature essays, Camping in the Galaxy. Helen and I have been working on this book since last fall, getting it just right. Without a doubt this is one of the best books ever published by my small press, Wood Thrush Books. And it feels good adding a new name to an imprint so cluttered with my own publications.

A couple years ago, I published several of Helen’s haibun in a Wood Thrush Books anthology of nature writing. Before she submitted that work to me, I didn’t even know what haibun was. But I immediately became a big fan of it – of hers in particular.

Haibun is a literary form that combines a short, dense piece of prose or a prose poem with haiku. It was popularized by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho in the 17th century. Helen is an award-winning, internationally published haiku poet. But, if you ask me, haibun is what she does best.

Along with haibun, there are a dozen essays and other short prose pieces in this collection that celebrate the natural world while creating a strong sense of place. Helen writes with grace and clarity about the Allegheny bioregion of Western New York, both past and present, as well as her upbringing in Pennsylvania coal country. She also writes about the joy that the landscape elicits when we behold it, the plight of Native Americans and early white settlers alike, Japanese gardens and her own green endeavors, the folklore surrounding Groundhog Day, the charm of old maple trees, and even the mess we often make of the natural world. Helen’s words follow her passions, and her passions are diverse.

Camping in the Galaxy is available now at both Amazon.com and the Wood Thrush Books website. Check it out. There’s something in this collection for nearly everyone who loves both the landscape and the literary arts.

 

 

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Jan 29 2019

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A Good Grip

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Late last week temps crept up above freezing for a day, giving those of us here in the North Country a break from the subzero cold. As a result some of the snow covering the ground turned to water. But when the cold returned, that water hardened into ice.

I went for a short hike in the woods with my dog Matika yesterday despite afternoon highs in the single digits. Matika has a thick coat of fur so she didn’t mind it at all. But I had neglected to put on my thermals. More importantly, I had neglected to put on my Microspikes even though I now keep a pair in my car at all times. That made for some rough going.

The trail beneath the thin veneer of snow was solid ice. I did not enjoy the walk. Nothing ruins an outing so effectively as constant slipping and the fear of falling down. Not long ago I hiked Aldis Hill with the Microspikes over my boots and the icy trail was as easy to negotiate as bare ground. You’d think I’d learn.

Well, from now until the spring thaw, I’ll make sure to have this highly effective piece of equipment on my person whenever I venture into the woods – in my pocket if not on my feet. I’m not gear-obsessed like some outdoors people are, but Microspikes are something that no hiker living in this frigid clime should be without. They are as important as snowshoes.

 

 

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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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