Jul 09 2020

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Judy’s Hummingbirds

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With the pandemic raging, Judy and I have been spending a lot of time in our backyard lately. Oh sure, I’ve been getting into the woods some. Earlier this week I hiked into the Breadloaf Wilderness to find a camping spot that I intend to use in a week or so, and I’ve done a little trout fishing to boot. But with hummingbirds visiting on a regular basis, our backyard seems like the place to be.

For years Judy and I have tried to attract hummingbirds, but only this year have we succeeded. Judy brought home a couple large hanging plants with red, tubular flowers. We hung them from wrought iron shepherd’s hooks not far from our patio, along with a couple feeders. We displayed all this early in the season, and Judy has been diligent about keeping the sugar water in the feeders fresh since then. Lo and behold, the hummingbirds came! First they came once or twice a day, then all day long.

Living a few miles outside of town, with our home backed up against some woods, we’ve had plenty of other visitors as well. Barred owls hoot in the evening and have flown across our yard a couple times. A flock of turkeys passes through daily, taking whatever grubs they can extract from our grass. Woodpeckers and various songbirds visited our feeders in early spring. Deer, skunks, raccoons, garter snakes, dragonflies, toads, field mice – we have plenty of visitors. But the hummingbirds are something else.

What is it about these little creatures that make them so attractive? Is it the sheer beauty of their iridescent feathers, the way they hover in mid-air, or the sheer speed in which they come and go? Whatever it is, hummingbirds captivate us – not just Judy and me but a good number of people. Go to any hardware store and you’ll find a wide variety of hummingbird feeders there.

I have every intention of getting in the woods again very soon, midsummer heat or no. But I won’t expect to see as many creatures up close and personal as I do in my backyard. The hummingbirds now feed while Judy and I are sitting on the patio only a few feet away. And that feels pretty special.

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Jun 27 2020

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Matika Put to Rest

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Yesterday afternoon Judy and I bushwhacked along a mountain stream to a favorite old campsite of ours. We were on a mission. In my daypack was a can holding Matika’s ashes. Matika was a wonderful, long-haired German shepherd dog who played an integral part in our lives for twelve years. A year and three months after her death, we decided that it was finally time to put her to rest.

Before leaving home, we buried a handful of her ashes in our Buddha garden just to keep part of her close, and to ward off the squirrels invading the back yard. I swear there are times when I can hear Matika barking from her ashes whenever the squirrels are scurrying about. She never had any patience for those pesky rodents.

Upon reaching our old campsite, we each took some of her ashes and released them into the brook. The ashes clouded the water for a few moments, looking rather ghostlike as they floated downstream. Then the water cleared. We both shed a few tears in the process.

After that we buried the remainder of Matika’s ashes at the base of a maple tree, next to where the ashes of our other German shepherd dog, Jesse, are buried. Two stones now mark their graves. In the future I’ll stop by occasionally to visit our deceased canine companions. As for Judy, well, she had a hard time reaching the old campsite so there’s no telling if/when she’ll be back. All the same, this is where she and I both want some of our ashes buried when we die. Then the whole pack will be back together again.

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Jun 18 2020

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Order and Chaos

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I have a lot of time on my hands, thanks to the pandemic. As a result, I’ve been doing two things a lot more than I usually do: reading and gardening. And in a strange way, these activities are related.

A month and a half ago, I finished putting together my latest book, Campfire Philosophy, for publication. Since then I have been hard at work, reading and doing research for a brand new book project about nature and the Absolute. Central to this project is the dance of order and chaos that we find in nature – something that has always fascinated me. To what extent is nature designed, subject to immutable laws? To what extent are the forces in it utterly random? Needless to say, these questions have taken me all over the place, from German Idealism, Indian philosophy and microbiology, to Natural Theology, evolution, and quantum mechanics. My latest stop: chaos theory. Egads!

Along with the entirely ordered gardens around the house that are full of utterly domesticated plants, Judy and I have cultivated a patch of forest floor in our back yard that we call the Buddha Garden. A stone Buddha lords over this somewhat haphazard experiment in what I call unnatural selection. In addition to a dozen or so domestic flowers that we’ve planted there – some of which are found naturally in the wild, like false Solomon’s seal and foamflower – we have allowed many of the native plants to stay. Among these are trilliums, baneberry, trout lily, and some rather aggressive asters. So you could say that this so-called garden, wilder than most, is a curious blend of order and chaos.

At any rate, while transplanting more flowers into it this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what the laws of nature are and to what extent they dictate what happens in my semi-wild garden regardless of my tinkering. Meanwhile, the stone Buddha just sits there, seemingly detached from my pondering and handiwork, staring into oblivion as if there’s something about simply being in the world that guys like me completely miss.

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Jun 04 2020

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Campfire Philosophy Is Now in Print

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Back in 2006, I self-published excerpts from my field journal in a slender staple-stitched chapbook. Last winter I added more excerpts to that collection, expanding it to this 138-page paperback. I call it Campfire Philosophy because these are all wild moments, reflections and insights written while I was in the woods – quite often while sitting next to a campfire. One can almost hear the campfire crackling in them.

The fragments in this book span 30 years. They have been drawn from the field journals of every major excursion I’ve taken into the wild, along with a good number of smaller outings. And while my worldview is worked out better in other books of mine, this writing best captures the spirit of decades of woods wandering. It is also presented here in nice little snippets that the reader can digest at his or her leisure.

At any rate here it is, Campfire Philosophy, my latest offering to the world. It’s available at the Wood Thrush Books website, and Amazon.com, of course. I hope it inspires some of you to get out and enjoy wild nature while the pandemic rages in the more developed places.

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May 21 2020

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Three Trillium Camp

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What a dramatic change in weather! Frost warnings one week; temps climbing into the 70s the next. At long last, I can go into the mountains overnight without freezing my ass off. And no rain in the forecast, either. So without hesitation, I load up my pack and am out the door.

With a desire to avoid people altogether (pandemic or no), I head for the Calavale Brook. It’s located somewhere in northern Vermont and that’s all I’m willing to say. The access road to it is too heavily eroded for my little car so I approach the brook from another dirt road a mile away. Sort of. Actually, I drive that road until it becomes a track, then walk that track until it ends at someone’s deer camp. Then I bushwhack along a NNW bearing through the woods. Eventually I hear water. Then I see it.

I find a relatively flat spot near the brook and set up my tarp amid wild lilies. Then I create a campfire circle a little closer to the water. Home sweet home, with three painted trilliums marking the boundaries of it. A good place to relax, meditate, and scribble in my field journal. The constant sound of water rushing past is quite soothing. The black flies aren’t too bad. The sun slowly settles into the ridge behind me and soon I am staring into a campfire. Once I’ve had enough of that, I go to bed. The naked trees (leaves not yet unfurled) point to a thousand stars illuminating the heavens above. And it’s good to be alive.

Despite my tossing and turning, I manage to get a fairly good night’s sleep. But getting out of bed and into the chilly morning air is a bit rough. Temps dropped significantly overnight. I snuggle next to a morning campfire and life is good again. When the black flies come back out, it’s time to go. After making the campfire circle disappear, I head out the same way I came. Only now I’m in a much better frame of mind. A solo overnighter is good for that.

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May 09 2020

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Return to Fisk Quarry

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Following the governor’s orders during the pandemic, Judy and I went off the beaten path, midweek, midday. We went back to Fisk Quarry on Isle La Motte for a short walk. Six years have passed since we last stopped by. Time flies.

This was Judy’s first time seeing the quarry, actually. She stayed in the car during the previous visit, while I raced to the top of the quarry to check out the fossils embedded there. We were on our way somewhere else back then. Can’t remember where.

Fisk Quarry Preserve is part of the Chazy Fossil Reef – a National Natural Landmark located on a large island in Lake Champlain. Chazy Reef is one of the oldest exposed reefs in the world, dating back over 400 million years. The fossils of thousands of gastropods, cephalopods and other ancient marine creatures are embedded in its grey rock. Being there is like stepping back in time. Way back.

The last visit inspired me to write the first chapter of my book, A Reluctant Pantheism. The swirl of gastropod fossils reminds me of hurricanes, galaxies and other natural phenomenon, convincing me that such a thing as order exists in nature. How? Why? Some organizing force is at work, no doubt. God or simply the laws of physics? Either way, I drop to one knee in deep reverence.

Judy noticed it, as well – the incredible passage of time that makes one feel so small and inconsequential. Meanwhile, red-winged blackbirds flew overhead, a pair of mallard ducks swam in the quarry, and turtles sunned beneath a partly cloudy sky. All very much alive, like us, and living in the present. Wild strawberry, pussytoes and other wildflowers bloomed, while the first tree leaves slowly unfurled. Life goes on. Hundreds of millions of years later, life still goes on. It’s humbling to say the least.

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Apr 22 2020

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Hope Springs Eternal

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The snow flurries blowing across my yard this morning are disheartening. It’s late April and I’m in desperate need of springtime’s consolation this year, as the harsh realities of the ongoing pandemic and the related economic downturn sink in. Yesterday I finished reading The Great Influenza, which paints a dark picture of how the 1918 flu pandemic unfolded. What we are dealing with today will most likely follow a similar route, with the outbreak coming in waves over the year to come.

So far it has been an unseasonably cold April here in the northeast. More than once I have dressed for late March weather during my long, midday walks. The other day I was chilled by my own sweat while raking the yard, and the cold stung my hands as I mulched the garden. Then I spotted two tiny wildflowers – spring beauty – pushing up through the soil. Their petals had not yet unfurled but promised to do so very soon. Then I found round-lobed hepatica in full bloom, half-hidden in the detritus covering the forest floor.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” the poet Alexander Pope wrote 300 years ago, and it still rings true. While there are always pessimists and doomsayers among us, humankind is hopeful even during the darkest times. We look for positive signs. Things will get better. It’s only a matter of time.

Those who know me well would never call me an optimist. On the contrary, I tend to focus on the darker side of human nature with a steely eye, and know all too well what the wild can do. Yet there is in springtime an undeniable reawakening, the natural world coming back to life after a long dormancy, a rebirth. It has happened every year for as long as we can remember – longer than humankind has existed. And we are in the thick of it right now, despite all diseases and disasters.

After hepatica comes an explosion of wildflowers, the trees leafing out, and everything greening. Despite the snow flurries right now, spring’s glorious unfolding is only a few days away – a fortnight at the most. Then we’ll open our windows and go barefoot again. None of this will make the pandemic or the economic downturn go away, but they’ll be a lot easier to deal with as a consequence. I’m looking forward to it.

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Apr 10 2020

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A Walk Around the Reservoir

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A couple days ago, Judy and I drove to Essex Junction to pick up some cotton dinner napkins. Before delivering that material to those making face masks, we stopped at Indian Brook Reservoir to walk the two-mile loop trail there. We hadn’t done that in a while.

The parking lot was full of cars when we arrived mid-afternoon. No surprise. With the pandemic raging and people “sheltering in place” for weeks on end, the urge to get out and stretch one’s legs becomes irresistible. Trails like this, close to Burlington, are a good place to do that.

The crowd was expected, as were the dogs accompanying them, but I was not prepared for the flood of memories. My canine companion Matika accompanied me on many walks around the reservoir. She died a year ago, but her spirit was still with me during this walk.

Judy was horrified by the wear and tear of the trail. After thinking about it, we realized that half a dozen years have gone by since she was here last. Yeah, the trail has taken a beating since then. Too close to Burlington and too well known.

So there was a touch of sadness in our walk. All the same it was good getting out, good ambling through the woods on an early spring afternoon, seeing the handiwork of industrious beavers and watching the natural world slowly coming back to life. We aren’t too picky these days. We take our small pleasures wherever we find them.

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Mar 27 2020

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Getting Outside

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Judy and I have been staying home for a while now, staying away from other people that is, as strongly urged by the Vermont governor and health authorities. It’s the best way to slow the spread of Covid-19. But “social distancing” doesn’t mean staying indoors all the time. That can drive a person stir crazy, especially in the end of winter. So we’ve started getting outside and walking more.

Yesterday we hiked in the Milton Town Forest. We left our car in a full parking lot then set forth on a fine gravel trail that soon became a wide, muddy path. Seeing all the boot prints in the mud, and passing several groups of other day hikers, it soon became clear to us that this trail is being used more this spring than usual. That’s bad for the trail but good for everyone’s mental health.

Temps crept above fifty degrees in the middle of the afternoon, quickly melting off the patches of remnant snow. Evergreen woodferns still pressed to the ground were a welcome sight, as was the bright green moss on rocks and downed trees. Spring runoff filled the brooklets – their trickling over rocks being music to our ears. The grey, leafless trees still had the taint of winter about them, but the occasional bird calling out softened that.

Halfway to Milton Pond, it became clear to me that the spring season is unfolding in all its cold-mud glory. I love it! But Judy was too concerned about the slippery trail underfoot to enjoy it at first. Not until we reached the pond did she start grooving on the wild. Then I had to be patient. On the way back to the parking lot, she stopped several times just to look around. I did my best to keep from rushing her.

Today won’t be quite as warm but we intend to get outside and go for a hike again. The pandemic rages on tv, but the forest retains its eternal calm. The latter is the better choice. There’s no doubt in our minds where we’d rather focus our attention, anyhow.

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Mar 16 2020

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The Dark Side of Nature

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When people call themselves nature lovers, what usually springs to mind are golden sunsets, glistening rainbows, magnificent mountains and sublime landscapes, along with the many wondrous plants and animals that inhabit our planet. But nature has its dark side, as well. Even venomous creatures, poisonous plants and severe weather events have their fans. But life-threatening microbes are hard to love. Foremost among these are viruses, which have caused humanity untold grief through the millennia.

Today humankind is under assault by a severe variety of coronavirus called Covid-19. It is similar to SARS-CoV and MERS, two other 21st century coronaviruses that have transmuted to us from animal viruses. With an incubation period between 2 and 14 days, and a mortality rate somewhere between 1% and 4%, this is a particularly nasty bug that spreads faster than the flu. According to the World Health Organization website, over 168,000 people in 148 countries and territories have been infected to date, with roughly 6,600 deaths. And these numbers are increasing exponentially. Cause for concern, to say the least.

The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic last Thursday. This virus has become so widespread that containment is pretty much out of the question. Humankind now has to mitigate the effects of the spread of the disease. Most importantly, we must avoid a potential spike in infections so that our health care system isn’t overwhelmed by it. The goal here is to lessen the overall mortality rate. The best way to do that is social distancing – staying away from each other for several weeks or more. China went into lockdown a month ago. To flatten out the spike in infections to a mound over time, the rest of the world will have to do something similar. That won’t be easy, and the consequences of this could be economically catastrophic.

As someone who values freedom and mobility, I am not happy about any of this, but I understand the necessity of it. So I am hunkering down. I will do my best to stay out of social settings during the next few weeks, anyhow. Spring is upon us. I intend to spend more time outdoors, in what my friend Walt Franklin calls “the society of trees,” minimizing any kind of interaction with other people for a while. And if enough people do the same, then perhaps this particularly dark side of nature won’t be so dark.

For more information about this disease in the United States, visit the CDC website.

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