Archive for October, 2011

Oct 27 2011

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Hard Choices

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Critics here in Vermont say that the huge wind turbines atop our beloved Green Mountains are not just an eyesore, they kill birds and disrupt the forest ecology as well. Solar power is viable as long as the sun is shining, but it’s expensive, isn’t it? Biofuels threaten our food supply. Hydro power screws up our streams. Coal and oil are both dirty, of course. Natural gas is clean, as fossil fuels go, but fracking pollutes the ground water. Nuclear power is both clean and cheap… until the plants leak and it’s time to shut them down. Burning wood is great until you run out of trees. So what does that leave? Tidal power? Hydrogen? Cold fusion?

Have to get our power from somewhere. There are seven billion people on the planet and counting. The demand for power is growing much faster in industrializing countries like India and China than it is in the highly consumptive West. In the near future, humanity will need more power, not less. So where are we going to get it?

Climate change is the sword of Damocles hanging over us. The more we mess with Mother Nature, the more she messes with us. It’s just a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. Can we avoid global catastrophe? Collectively we seem to lack the political will to do so. Besides, denial runs strong and deep among those who immediately benefit from the status quo, and they cast just enough doubt on the subject to keep the rest of us complacent.  More to the point, it’s hard for the average person to think beyond what he or she is paying at the gas pump.

So what are we to do? Gnash our teeth and say we’re all doomed? Protest our least favorite energy source? Blame those whose economies are stronger than ours? Simply ignore the situation?

Clearly we have plenty of choices, there’s just no perfect solution. The big question is this: Do we have moral courage enough to make the best possible choices for our great grandchildren? I’ll leave that for you to ponder, dear reader, and keep my cynicism to myself.


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Oct 16 2011

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Autumn Walks

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It’s that time of year again.  The leaves are turning and tourists are streaming into Vermont.  Or has it passed already?  The foliage season is fast and furious, often leaving folks with the feeling that they’ve missed the better part of it.  That is why I made it a point to walk the Rail Trail several times during the past few weeks, camera in hand.  I wanted proof that I was there when the colors peaked.

Too warm, too dry, too much green this year.  Those were the common complaints.  A run of cloudless days made a lot of people happy, but the autumnal brilliance didn’t quite live up to the advertisement.  Mother Nature was off her game this year.  Not that many snapshots of blazing leaf color were taken.  Not as many “oohs” and “ahs” as usual.

A few days ago, the chilling October rains began.  Then a rowdy wind knocked some leaves off the trees prematurely.  Oh sure, there is still plenty of color – especially here in the Champlain Valley – but the season is past peak now.  And it won’t be long before all the trees are naked.  Like springtime, when the wildflowers bloom, this season is brutally short.

While walking the other day, it struck me how marvelous the world is – peak color or no.  Every day there is something special to see and feel.  And smell.  What I like most about autumn is the smell of fallen leaves drying out and rotting slowly.  Here’s the smell of eternity.  Here’s sensual proof of endless growth and decay.  But that can’t be packaged, can it?  I find this thought consoling.  It’s nice to know there’s at least one thing about the season that can’t be bought and sold.


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Oct 08 2011

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Walking the boreal forest, I feel the tug of wildness stronger than anywhere else. It’s the starkness of the landscape that brings this urge out of me, I think.  I grow fangs when I’m in it.  The forest itself makes me want to drop down on all fours.

This isn’t a forgiving landscape. You don’t come here to groove with benign nature. You come here to howl.

Mostly bogs and conifers, it’s easy to get turned around in the boreal forest. And hypothermia is an ongoing concern. Even in the summer, it’s often cool and damp. Because the landscape in Vermont turns boreal at higher elevations, it’s often shrouded in mist as well. That only adds to its mystery.

The closer one gets to the equator, the greater the diversity. But in the lean, cold northern latitudes, only the heartiest life forms survive. Even then by a dangerously thin margin. Think spruce and fir. Think pitcher plants, club moss, and the ghostly white Indian pipe. Think moose, wolf, bear.

There are only patches of boreal forest in Vermont’s Green Mountains. There’s a bit more in the mythical Northeast Kingdom. But northern Maine is mostly boreal, as is a good part of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Alaska is utterly boreal. In other words, the places I like the most are boreal. Clearly I’m a creature of the north.

More than once I’ve been chilled, wet and almost lost in the boreal forest. “Almost,” I say, because the disorientation is intentional. I have my ways of getting out of the woods in a pinch, but I’d rather go deeper and get just a little bit more turned around. The dread of not knowing exactly where I am is a tonic that I imbibe on a regular basis. It keeps me from being too civilized. It keeps me from taking my lofty, philosophical notions too seriously. It keeps me in touch.

Go ahead and tell yourself how great humanity is – what we’ve done both individually and collectively, and what we are still capable of doing. Then go spend a week or two alone in the boreal forest and feel yourself whittled down to size. Granted, it’s not for everyone. But I can’t think of a better place to gain perspective on computers, cars and everything else. When the forest itself howls, you either run for cover or howl with it.


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