Aug 15 2018

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Back on the Brook

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Judy and I wanted to go backpacking but Matika is in bad shape these days. After agonizing about what she could or could not handle, we decided to risk it, walking our old, nearly lame dog into the woods less than a mile.

The three of us crept along, following the path of least resistance through the trees and across broken ground. We soon reached a sweet spot on a favorite brook and, thankfully, Matika was no worse for wear. There we put up our tent and hung out for a while.

Judy badly needed the forest time. When she told me that 5 years have passed since she last spent a night in the woods, I could hardly believe it. The biggest obstacle has been her hip pain, so we acquired a “luxury” Therma-rest pad to take care of that. It worked quite well.

The brook was surprisingly low, even for August, but our camp was so close to it that we could enjoy the soothing sound of water rushing over rocks all the same. Off trail and tucked into the woods, we had the place all to ourselves.

Judy started decompressing right away – reading, napping, and just sitting next to a brook that washed away all concerns. I puttered about camp – tending a small fire, boiling up tea, or simply grooving on the wild as I usually do. Matika chewed up a lot of sticks.

Our second day in the woods was perfect with lots of sunshine breaking through the forest canopy, temps in the high 70s, and few bugs. We lounged about all day. That evening, as clouds moved in, we secured our camp against rain. Sure enough it came in the middle of the night, making our world a pretty damp one when we crawled out of the tent the next day. No matter. We took our sweet time eating breakfast then packing up.

Matika slipped in front of us a few times during the hike out, sniffing around then smiling her big wolfish smile. Yeah, it was a good outing for all three of us.

 

 

 

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Aug 05 2018

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On the AT Again

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Once again I accompanied my old buddy John Woodyard in his decades-long quest to hike the Appalachian Trail one section at a time. A couple years ago we hiked together in southern Vermont. Before that, I joined him on the 40-mile section of the AT between the Connecticut River and Sherburne Pass. This time we started at Route 25 in New Hampshire and hiked south to the Connecticut River.

It was a tough hike with plenty of elevation change. Originally we had planned to do it in 4 days, but soon found out that we needed more time. With a bad right knee making it hard to train, John wasn’t in as good a shape as he usually is. As for me, well, I’ve never been a strong hiker, and my sedentary bookselling lifestyle isn’t helping matters. Whatever. We shouldered our backpacks and did the 46 miles in 5 days. Not bad for a couple of 60-somethings.

While we were on the trail, about a hundred northbound thru-hikers in great shape blew past us with little effort – a few of them being our age. That psyched us out. We kept telling ourselves that for every thru-hiker whizzing by, another ten had left the trail between here and Georgia. Still we huffed and puffed uphill, grimaced at our joint pains going downhill, and sweated all day long wondering why we had let our bodies go. It’s hard, sometimes, to keep from comparing yourself to others.

The weather was great for the most part. The bugs weren’t bad, and the wild, forested landscape was just as beautiful as ever. I thoroughly enjoyed being out there hiking hard for a change, and I’m sure John also enjoyed the trek. But it would have been an even more enjoyable outing if we had been in better shape. Ah, well…

John will be back, I’m sure. He has hiked three-fourths of the AT so far, and is not the kind of guy to be satisfied with that. He still has the better part of New Hampshire’s White Mountains to do, along with most of the Berkshires is western Massachusetts. So he’ll be asking me to join him for another leg, no doubt. I’d better be ready.

 

 

 

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Jul 19 2018

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New Adirondack Book in Print

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Five years after the release of The Allure of Deep Woods, I now have a second Adirondack book in print: The Great Wild Silence.  It consists of a dozen short narratives and essays about backpacking in the Adirondacks, along with one rather long narrative about my 5-day sojourn in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness last year.

The Great Wild Silence is the juxtaposition of movement and staying put, of hiking and abstract thought. The main narrative in this collection, “Deep Forest Ruminations,” is a series of meditations on nature and our place in it, braided with observations and routine activities while camped alone at a backcountry lake – just me and my dog Matika, I should say. That’s the second half of the book. The first half sets the stage, recounting various excursions in the Adirondacks over the past 25 years, both alone and with others. Some of the latter pieces first appeared in the ADK publication Adirondac and other periodicals but haven’t been seen since. I’ve extracted others from previous collections of mine. It’s a curious mix to be sure.

If you’re as enamored with the Adirondacks as I am, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can order it at my website: woodthrushbooks.com, or you can find it at Amazon.com. Be forewarned, though: there’s a lot of philosophical speculation in this book. It isn’t just about walking in the woods.

 

 

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Jul 09 2018

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Cool Brook Afternoon

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After months of not feeling so great, Judy finally came to me and said she wanted to go into the woods. In particular, she wanted to spend a little time sitting on a mountain brook with no one else around – just her, me, and our dog Matika. No problem, I told her, so we headed out yesterday late morning for a place that fit the bill.

It was a short, easy hike to the brook, mainly because Matika can’t handle much. Old dog on her last leg. The slightest obstacle, like a downed tree, is a major challenge to her these days.

When we reached the brook, Judy found a nice spot on a large rock to sit and groove on both flowing water and the surrounding forest. She took off her shoes and dipped her feet into a crystal clear pool. It was colder than expected – a pleasant sensation on a warm day in July.

Matika rested on a gravel bar next to the brook. I sat a few feet away, propped against another large rock. The stream rushed by incessantly, clearing our heads of all urban workaday noise. A slight breeze wafted up the brook occasionally, rustling the leaves in the green canopy overhead ever so gently. We eased into dreamtime.

When leaving the brook, we were surprised by how hot the afternoon had become, and by how much time had passed. Before reaching the car, Judy said she wanted to get into the woods again soon. Next weekend if at all possible. We’re both looking forward to the backwoods retreat we have planned next month. That can’t come fast enough, even though each of these long days of summer should be cherished.

 

 

 

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Jun 27 2018

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Architecture of the Wild

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Walking in the woods on a cool, early summer day, I take note of the trees around me. Some are relatively young, thin, and pushing straight up towards the sky. Others are strong, solid, well established, with limbs branching into the canopy. Still others are bent over, partially sheared away, or on the ground. But what catches my eye are the gnarly ones at least a hundred years old, maybe two hundred, with twisting limbs and thick bark. They are few and far between, and for every one still standing there are remnants of a dozen others scattered across the forest floor.

The bulges and scars in the trunks of those old fellows tell an incredible story of survival, as do the tortured branches reaching every which way. It is the architecture of the wild – proof positive that some life forms do not give up easy. Throw decades of heat, drought, frigid temps, heavy snowfall, torrential downpours, bacteria, fungus and insects at them, and they still keep going. Every one of them is a testament to the efficacy of wild nature, to the relentless urge of all organic things to live and grow. God only knows why.

Look around and you’ll see some trees losing the struggle to survive and slowly dying. Last week I hired a fellow to drop and remove a nearly dead one still standing in my yard – one too close to the house for comfort. I suspect another might be on the way in another year or two. Meanwhile the rest of the trees on my lot sway in the wind as if they don’t have a care in the world. It’s baffling, really, the way some trees stand up to the stresses of daily life and others succumb.

Dead saplings are not uncommon in the forest – most losing the race to sunlight. And yet the occasional mature birch, maple or oak grows only thicker and tougher with time, sometimes losing a huge limb or two yet still persisting. What moral can be taken from this? No, it’s best if we don’t go there, trying to uncover the secrets of their woody success. It’s best if we don’t even look at old trees that way, but simply admire them for what they are: bastions of life force, beating all odds, both relentless and remarkable.

 

 

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Jun 18 2018

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What Makes Us Human?

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For the past year and a half, I have been pondering human nature and its relationship to wildness. I have read dozens of books on the subject, and have approached the matter from various angles: philosophical, anthropological, biological, historical and naturalistic. The more I look into the matter, though, the more befuddled I become, often getting bogged down in the morass of morality where the vast majority of people plant their flags then forget about the matter. It has been a daunting undertaking to say the least.

Wildness, I am certain, is the key to understanding who/what we are, for we are creatures as natural as any other. But there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is the rise of civilization a little over 5,000 years ago. What happened to us then?

To some people being civilized is what makes us fully human. That has been a convenient excuse, anyhow, for the subjugation of more primitive peoples through the millennia – those with less sophisticated means of conducting war that is to say. But I don’t abide by that prejudice. In fact, I suspect that more primitive peoples, living closer to the earth, are much more in touch with their humanity than those of us living indoor, urban lives, staring at our electronic devices, largely removed from nature.

It is now widely accepted in scientific circles that anatomically modern humans have been around over 100,000 years. That is, people who look pretty much like humans living today. About 50,000 years ago, our species underwent a great cultural transformation that resulted in behaviorally modern humans. That is, people who think, behave and interact with each other much the same way we do. Up until 10,000 years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers with an intimate understanding of the flora and fauna around us. In that regard, our being agriculturalists and urbanites – the two pillars of civilization – is a relatively new development with little bearing upon our basic humanity, if any at all.

I don’t believe for a second that pre-civilized life was some kind of Eden where human beings lived in peace with each other, always prosperous, healthy and happy, and in complete harmony with nature. The human bone and skull fragments our archeologists have dug up pretty much rule out all that. But there is something about those living closer to the earth that undercuts the arrogant and grossly misleading presumptions that we highly civilized folk have about ourselves and the world.

Soon I will try to write about this subject, if I can muster the humility, honesty and courage to do so. But I don’t think the resulting book will be very popular, even by the modest standards of my somewhat dubious literary career. Generally speaking, those of us firmly ensconced in today’s complex, industrialized and digital world do not respect our distant ancestors, or the remnant bands of hunter/gatherers who still live as they did. Our collective arrogance in that regard is profound. We civilized folk think we have it all going on.

 

 

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Jun 07 2018

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A Woodsy Walk

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After three days building shelves to expand my book biz, I figured it was time to treat myself. So I loaded Matika into the car and headed for a patch of nearby woods for an easy hike.

It was more of a walk, really, since I had my old dog in tow. I don’t break a sweat any more when I’m with her. That’s okay. I’ve started hiking without her whenever I want to get some real exercise. But this morning it was all about the two of us just being in the woods together, grooving on the wild.

We’re in the cusp between spring and summer now. The dames rocket flowering in ditches along the highway are proof of that, as is the sudden appearance of Canada mayflower and dewberry in the woods. “Days of heaven” is what I call this time of year, because it doesn’t get any better than this: ideal temps, vernal green, flowers blooming, and all the delights of summer directly ahead.

I love a woodsy walk. I love the play of shadow and light in the cool, green understory, along with the rich smell of forest growth and decay, and the sound of leaves rustling in the canopy overhead. I stopped by a beaver pond long enough to listen to veerys, thrushes, and other songbirds while basking in the joy of simply being alive. Oh sure, I have my concerns – doesn’t everyone? – but they didn’t phase me in that moment. And that’s the great thing about a walk in the woods. One draws quiet strength from it.

Matika was panting heavily by the time we finished our walk. All the same, I know she enjoyed being in the woods as much as I did. It doesn’t take much to make her happy. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, either. A patch of nearby woods does the trick.

 

 

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May 26 2018

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On the Beach

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By the time Judy and I reached Goose Rocks Beach, we had been on the Maine coast for several days and were already chilled out. The night before we had lounged in our room at the Breakwater Inn overlooking the mouth of the Kennebunk River, watching lobster boats come and go for hours while googling the lobster trade and all it entails. So the beach simply took us to the next level of relaxation.

Mid-week in late May, we pretty much had that long strip of sand all to ourselves. A dozen other people were there when we arrived but most of them cleared out before noon. This is why we like to visit the Maine coast off-season. I can only imagine how crowded the beach must be in the middle of summer.

Judy first came here in 1985 – the year she and I met. Her mother had just died so she came to the coast to be alone and process her grief, to seek solace in salty air, the call of gulls, and water washing endlessly to shore. The ocean is to her what the forest is to me. So she walked the beach by herself again while I stayed with our folding chairs and other beach accouterments. In her absence, I stared out to sea.

When she returned we sat together on the beach, enjoying a gentle breeze on a mostly sunny day. In contrast to the shady forest where I usually roam, the sun beat down relentlessly, and our gazes towards the thin blue horizon went farther than our thoughts. In other words, we became beachified, utterly incapable of intense intellectual activity. And sometimes, yes, sometimes that’s a good thing.

 

 

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May 13 2018

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Springtime Overnighter

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A couple days into a run of relatively warm, dry, sunny weather, I decided to take full advantage of the situation. I set all work aside earlier this week, packed a few essentials into my old rucksack, and headed for the Breadloaf Wilderness.

There’s a nice spot on the headwaters of the New Haven River where I’ve camped several times before. After leaving my car at the trailhead, I hiked there. It didn’t take long to reach that campsite, even with my old dog Matika hobbling along slowly behind me.

No bloodsucking bugs this early in the season so I set up my tarp without attaching the mosquito bar. Gathering wood was easy since I was camped off trail. I fashioned a small campfire circle that I would make disappear when I left. With that bright yellow orb beating down through the leafless canopy, I didn’t start a fire right away. It was enough just to sit next to the stream, listening to the endless rush of water breaking over rocks while basking in sunlight.

When the sun finally slipped beneath the trees, I put a match to a tipi of birch bark and kindling in the campfire circle. I was startled by how quickly the fire took off, and made it a point to keep it very small and controllable with bottles of water close at hand. Matika entertained herself by chewing up some of the sticks in my woodpile.

Spending a night in the woods was just what I needed after a long winter of philosophical speculation. Temps dropped fast once the sun went down, though, and Matika crowded me off my foam pad. Not the best night’s sleep, but arising to the song of a waterthrush, a refreshing mountain breeze, and early light breaking through the forest made me thankful to be alive.

I lingered for hours over a morning campfire before slowly packing up and hiking back to the car. I was giddy all the way home, rolling through the Champlain Valley as the trees slowly leafed out. Springtime in Vermont, after a long snowy winter, is absolutely wonderful.

 

 

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May 04 2018

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A Necessary Walk

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My dark rant came way too early this morning. Judy fled the room before breakfast was over to escape it. And that’s when I knew how badly I needed a walk in the woods. So I squeezed one in, right between a trip to the post office and a round of book promotion. Some things just can’t wait.

All winter long I have been pondering the human condition, trying to figure out what exactly it means to be human, how wildness and civilization factor into that, and how we’ve become the highly cognizant yet deeply flawed creatures that we are today. This isn’t a matter for the faint of heart, and I’ve found myself bogged down in the morass of morality more than once. Yeah, everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to human nature, how good and/or bad we are, but the irrefutable facts are few and far between. So my quest has put me in a surly mood, even as spring unfolds.

To walk in the woods and blow the stink off my thoughts I didn’t have go far. A quick jaunt up Aldis Hill did the trick. I knew there would be early spring wildflowers in bloom, and that would improve my outlook on things if anything could. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Bloodroot appeared amid the boulders, purple trilliums and trout lilies lined the muddy trail, and Dutchman’s breeches strutted its stuff near the top of the hill. I stopped to admire the wildflowers almost as much as my dog Matika stopped to sniff around. It’s like that sometimes. My primary task as Homo sapiens, it seems, is to simply admire God’s handiwork. That’s when I feel the most like myself and at peace with the world, anyhow.

I haven’t figured it out yet. My query into human nature is unfinished business, to say the least. But I’m already convinced that our relation to nature is critical to understanding who/what we are. So these walks of mine are necessary in more ways than one. We go into the wild not so much to escape the trappings of civilized society as to find ourselves, to make a primal connection and remember, on some level of awareness, where we came from… and thereby figure out where we are going.

When I get a good bead on human nature, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on wandering and wondering and scribbling down these little absurdities that I call philosophy. If nothing else, it keeps me from being one of those self-righteous fools who engage in unrestrained violence. Yeah, a walk in the woods is absolutely necessary.

 

 

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