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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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Mar 03 2020

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WTB New Release: Wings Over Water

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When I published Franklin’s Streamwalker’s Journey, I told him that it would be the last book of his to appear under my Wood Thrush Books imprint. Time to give other writers some attention. Then he sent me Wings Over Water once he had completed it and, well, I just couldn’t resist. That was last summer. Seven months later, I am pleased to announce its publication.

Wings Over Water is similar to Franklin’s previous collections of personal essays, delving deeply into the sport of fly fishing and the riverine ecosystem. But the focus of this book differs significantly from his other work. This time around, Franklin draws attention to the flora and fauna around him. His passion for fly fishing is matched by a lifelong interest in birds, and nature in general. There are times when his observations of the natural world make his angling endeavors seem like just an excuse to be outdoors. Then he regales us with a bit of fishing lore, or his own streamside adventure, and the familiar Franklin is back. It’s a nice balance. This is unquestionably some of his best writing.

You can get a copy of this book at Amazon.com, or order one directly from me at the WTB website: WoodThrushBooks.com. Those of you already acquainted with Franklin’s work won’t be disappointed. As for newcomers, this is a great place to start. Or you can learn more about the man before getting into this book by visiting rivertoprambles.wordpress.com. He blogs there on a regular basis.

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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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