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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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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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