Tag Archive 'awareness'

Jan 13 2011

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Planetary Awareness

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Recently my doctor prescribed an antibiotic for me that had to be taken four times a day.  I chose four easy times to remember: first thing in the morning, noon, dusk, and bedtime.  My wife Judy laughed when she heard this.  “Dusk?” she said incredulously, “Most people go by the clock.”  Perhaps so.  But dusk is a major event in my day.  Especially during the winter.

Dusk is when the world takes on a decidedly spiritual aspect, when it is easiest to comprehend the simple fact that we live on a planet.  On cloudy days this fact can be overlooked, but a clear or partly clear sky makes it hard to ignore.   At such times, the sun sets in a blaze of glory, the moon shows itself, and the first stars come out.  Sometimes it is quite the show.

At dusk I often stop whatever I’m doing and take a moment to acknowledge what is happening to the physical world.  My dog, Matika, is finely tuned to my habits and usually gets excited around this time of day.  She knows that we’ll be going out soon, and if she’s lucky I’ll toss the ball for her a few times while gazing towards the sky.  But not always.  Sometimes I like to just stand in the middle of the yard, taking it all in.

A few years back, when I dove into astronomy with reckless abandon, I eagerly awaited dusk.  When conditions were just right – clear sky with a late moonrise – I would set up my telescope just as the sun was setting.  While twilight faded, I would print star charts from my computer and map a route to some incredible deep-sky object: a nebula, star cluster or galaxy.  Now I’m not quite so fanatical about my viewing.  All the same, I still cultivate planetary awareness on a regular basis.  After all, it’s so easy to do at dusk.

During my brief sojourn in the Alaskan bush many years back, I enjoyed one sunset that seemed to go on for hours.  It was high summer and sun dipped beneath the horizon with great reluctance.  Then I experienced with full force the reality of being a creature living on a planet.  It might seem like a silly thing to say, but when you truly feel your presence on a sphere spinning on its axis, just being alive in this world seems absolutely remarkable.  The sky is suddenly a window to the cosmos, and planet that you inhabit is incredibly fecund.  Even in the dead of winter there trees, bushes and other kinds of vegetation patiently waiting for spring.  Even when this world seems cold, dark and hostile, the air you breathe seems to be made for you.

This is my planet, I often tell myself at dusk as if uttering a prayer.  This is the exact place in the universe where I belong.  And no matter how alienated I might become during the course of daily events, nothing can take this sense of belonging away from me.  I am a man on Earth and that is enough.  Everything else is superfluous.

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Dec 09 2010

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Winter Arrives

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It happened while I was busy getting ready for the holidays and my wife’s upcoming birthday.  Winter arrived, just like that.  The inch or two of snow that the weather forecasters promised us turned into a foot, and I spent the better part of a day shoveling it.  Then temps suddenly dropped into the teens.  Oh sure, the Winter Solstice is still two weeks away, but there is no doubt here in the North Country that winter has already arrived.

While tossing a ball for my dog at dusk, I noticed the brown remnants of my flower garden sticking up through the snow.  I usually cut them back before the snow flies.  How did that simple task escape me this year?  Like I said, I’ve been busy lately.  Very busy.  It’s becoming a bad habit, actually.  I cram too much into any given day.  I try too hard to make each day count, and they fly by all the same.

I like the way the flower remnants look against the snow, especially as the last light fades.  I don’t particularly like the way the frigid air stings my face, but I know I’ll get used to it.  I put on my thermals today.  It seems a little premature for thermals, but it is that time of year.

The UPS guy just dropped off a proof copy of a book for me to review.  That’s one more thing demanding my attention – one of a half dozen literary projects that I currently have in the works.  Like I said, I’ve been very busy lately.  Maybe too busy.  When is there time to stop and smell the roses?  Right now, only the dried stems of roses protrude above the snow.

My dog lives in the moment.  She plows through the snow, chasing the ball as if it’s the only thing that matters.  While tossing the ball for her, I catch myself thinking about what I’ve accomplished today and making plans for tomorrow.  I’m too busy to lose myself in the moment as she does.  And to be perfectly honest, I barely notice the cold north wind blowing my way.

Winter arrives and I turn inward in more ways than one.  Winters are long here in the North Country, so it’s easy to get lots of indoor projects done.  Yet times like these, when I’m outside and looking around, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to appreciate nature in winter the way I do during the warm season.  Probably not, but I’d sure would like to try someday.

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Aug 18 2010

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Seeing, Not Seeing

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The slight rustle of leaves catches my ear.  I know that sound well, so I stop and look around.  At first I see nothing.  Then looking closer, I spot a garter snake slithering beneath the ferns.

Like most wild creatures, the snake is well camouflaged in its natural environment.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I almost missed it.  For every snake I see while I’m hiking along the trail, I miss ten.  Perhaps a hundred.

While wandering through the woods, I am happy enough stretching my legs, breathing heavy and breaking a good sweat.  The green infinity soothes my eyes.  The forest quiet calms my frazzled, urban nerves.  A whiff of something dank yet vaguely sweet makes me smile.  That’s the smell of the forest itself.  And I traipse along in a daydream of sorts, only half paying attention to the world around me, enjoying the mental vacation.

Should I be paying more attention?  Should I break through that deceptive veil of forest sameness and see the myriad creatures occupying it?  Should I stop and admire the occasional flower, or is it enough just being footloose and free for the day, clearing my head?  Those who love wild nature scowl at the obliviousness of day-trippers like me.  Yet I wonder how much time they spend each day in front of a computer screen.  Isn’t it enough just being here now, detached from the cyberworld?

I shudder to think how many things I fail to see as I go about my daily affairs.  Then again, you can’t see it all.  I have lounged next to a quiet pond for a full day just trying to take it all in.  But that’s impossible.  Even in the quietest place, there is too much going on.  So what can we do but see what we can see and leave the rest unseen.

The trick, of course, is not to miss too much.  Lost in my thoughts, I often miss the better part of days . . . weeks . . . dare I say months?

Life slithers past while we’re busy daydreaming.  That’s enough to give pause to even the most hardened, non-Thoreauvian soul.  What is it that we’re so busy thinking about?  Whenever I spot a snake on the forest floor, I silently congratulate myself for having seen it, resolving to pay better attention from now on.  But the daydreams always return – a virtual reality that plays in my head without end.

Thank god for the occasional rustle of leaves.

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May 12 2010

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Matika Misses the Moose

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Yesterday my dog, Matika, and I headed for the mountains, taking full advantage of springtime sunshine.  A hard frost covered everything at dawn, but temps had reached into the fifties by the time we reached the trailhead.  I shouldered my rucksack and charged up the trail, ready for a good workout.  Matika kept a few yards ahead of me most of the time, occasionally bolting after an unsuspecting chipmunk.  Yeah, Matika is fixated on chipmunks.  And nothing I say can change her mind.

It felt great being back in the mountains again.  Over breakfast, I’d read an article about that big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico so my stomach was in knots.  I know better than to let morning news get to me that way, but I just couldn’t help myself.  There are so many things wrong about that disaster and how it’s playing out that I go nuts thinking about it.  Why did we let this happen?  Why can’t we come up with a better solution to our energy woes than drilling a mile deep into the ocean?  Anyway, it was good being back in the mountains, breaking a sweat and breathing fresh air, with no one else around.  I reveled in it.

A mile and a half into the hike, I reached a point on the trail that felt to me like the edge of spring.  By then I’d climbed to about fifteen hundred feet so the canopy overhead had thinned considerably.  A few patches of snow, left over from a recent storm, underscored the transition.  I pulled out my camera to snap a picture of the scene.  While I was doing that, a moose strolled leisurely across the trail.  It even stopped a moment to check out my dog and me before stepping back into the brush.  Matika was looking the other way, fixated on chipmunks.  I called for her to look around.  By the time she did, the moose was gone.

My dog isn’t stupid, nor is she a stranger to the forest.  It’s just that she doesn’t always pay attention to her surroundings.  She often gets fixated on chipmunks and squirrels, thereby missing larger quarry.  In that regard, she reminds me of some people I know.  “Drill! Drill! Drill!” they say, and there’s no getting them to seriously consider any other alternatives, let alone the consequences.

Matika missed the moose but I didn’t.  After years of not seeing one, it felt good to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with ol’ Bullwinkle again.  And I’m glad I got a picture of it.  Now I have proof.  To this day, there are still people who think that moose are rare in the Vermont woods.  But they’re all over the place.   Look down the next time you’re hiking in the Green Mountains and chances are good that you’ll see their tracks pressed deeply into the trail.  All you have to know is what a moose track looks like.  Then pay attention.

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Nov 13 2009

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Looking for the Wild

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I went for a long walk around noon yesterday, after a round of writing.  No surprise there.  I do it once a week, at least.  I drove out to Green’s Corners and walked my favorite section of the Rail Trail – one that passes through the woods and beyond a wetland before reaching a cluster of houses.  Matika was excited about getting out.  I’ve been working a lot lately so she’s hasn’t had much woods-romping time.  A few yards down the trail, I told myself that I really should get out more.  Yeah, right.

The sky was mostly blue but clouds were moving in from the southwest.  A few patches of green enlivened an otherwise brown landscape.  The air temp was around 40 degrees, neither warm nor cold.  A couple chickadees flitted about nearby trees.  That’s all.  Other birds were conspicuously absent.  Not much to look at, so a hundred yards past the wetland I stepped into the woods.  The “no trespassing” signs didn’t stop me.

I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, but I stepped into the woods looking for the wild.  I stepped off the trail and into the woods because I felt an urge deep within to connect with wild nature, and not just pass through it like an ipod-wearing jogger.  I kicked up a few dry leaves as I walked, releasing their intoxicating fragrance.  And that was it: I was off and running.  By the time I reached a deer trail following a low ridge through the woods, Matika knew that we were on an impromptu adventure.  She smiled from ear to ear.

I didn’t wander about those woods very long.  I don’t like tramping across other people’s property, especially when they make it clear that I’m unwelcome.  I bushwhacked a half-mile loop that ended at a very small pond.  I tossed a few rocks into the pond, breaking the thin layer of ice covering it.  Then I tagged the Rail Trail and hiked out.

I caught a whiff of swamp gas as I walked past the wetland.  A caterpillar less than an inch long struggled across the path.  Clouds rolled overhead as if to remind me that this year’s first winter storm is overdue.  Matika sniffed the grass.  I broke a sweat as I picked up my pace, already thinking about the many things on my to-do list at home.  Then I resolved to take a much longer excursion in the woods soon, very soon.

Yesterday I went looking for the wild.  It’s as real as the air we breathe and the ground we trod, yet the most abstract of all philosophical concepts.  The wild is both everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet ethereal.   Can’t say I found it, but it certainly found me.

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Sep 18 2009

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The Passing of Days

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You aren’t supposed to talk about it.  You’re considered a pessimist if you do.  But when the leaves start to turn in early autumn, I can’t help but consider the fleeting nature of things, the passing of days, my own mortality.

Three weeks after leaving the trail, my right knee still complains.  My ankles are still shaky, as well.  My body just doesn’t spring back the way it used to.  In my 50s now, I suppose it’s unrealistic for me to expect that it would.  Still, these nagging joints are constant reminders of a fact I’d rather ignore: I’m not going to live forever.

Unlike me, my 4-year old German shepherd dog, Matika, is stronger now than she was when we hit the trail a month ago.  I toss a rubber ball, it bounces on the hard, dry ground, and she leaps into the air after it with unbridled joy.  I vicariously enjoy her blatant demonstrations of physical prowess.  But deep down inside, I know how temporary it all is.  I’ll have to be lucky to have her by my side on a hike ten years from now – real lucky.

Moving stone.  I helped my neighbor cart and shovel two tons of drainage stone this week, placing it around his mobile home in a foot-wide skirt.  It serves no purpose but he likes the look of it.  The job made me feel like Sisyphus but he was happy in the thick of the task, as if having something to do was reason enough to get up in the morning.  I suppose that, at 86 years of age, one takes one’s small pleasures wherever one finds them.

A literary friend of mine died recently.  I read about it in the newspaper.  We weren’t close, but we liked to get together on occasion to talk about nature, literature and politics over tea.   I’ve been meaning to call her.  Where did the time go?  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Yes, the leaves are turning now.  I find the transition between summer and fall both sad and beautiful.  I want to go for a long walk in the woods soon, kicking up the brilliant red, yellow and orange leaves with each step, and smelling it – smelling the passing of days.  Strangely enough, I’m not nearly as afraid of it as I was as a young man.  Back then springtime was the only season I could really appreciate.  But things change.

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Aug 09 2009

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Unexpected Encounters

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Earlier this week my granddaughter, Kaylee, and I found a couple crayfish in a sinkhole next to a stream.  While sitting on our porch, my wife and I spotted a yellow flicker in nearby trees – a bird I haven’t seen in years. I saw some kind of blue orchid in full bloom while hiking Jay Peak the other day.  A barred owl suddenly appeared a few yards off trail while I was hiking Aldis Hill a few weeks ago.  I saw a red fox and her two kits there once.  I want to say that such sightings are uncommon but that’s not the case.  They occur on a regular basis.  It’s just that they always catch me off guard.  Why is that?

Often I venture into the woods with binoculars or a field guide in hand, looking for the rare and beautiful.  I am usually disappointed.  Nearly every attempt I’ve made to track down large animals – bear, moose, or deer – has come to nothing.  Yet I bump into wildlife frequently enough.  I’ve never been able to see a mink on cue, but I see them every once in a while as I’m fishing.  Same goes for eagles, otters and pine martens.  I can spot a chipmunk or squirrel a few minutes after stepping into the woods, but running into a coyote is always a fluke.  It’s almost as if I see more of the wild when I’m not looking for it.

Why are these encounters so unexpected?  I’m not sure but I suspect it has something to do with the assumptions that we make.  We go about our business, immersed in a world of our own making, going in and out of buildings, negotiating a complex network of streets and roads, entertaining ourselves electronically, and it appears that existence is all about us.  Everything else is peripheral.  Everything else is, well, inconsequential – there only to meet our needs.  The whole universe revolves around us.  Isn’t it obvious?  In this context, it’s hard to imagine plants and animals having a life of their own.

We go to zoos to see animals, and gardens to see plants.  But we venture into the wild to be surprised.  Sometimes we are surprised by what we don’t find there.  Almost always something pops up that we haven’t anticipated.  Remarkably, we often miss the unexpected because our thoughts are elsewhere.  This is the curse of having so much gray matter between the ears.  Our lives are more abstract than we realize.

As a philosopher – a ponderer of things to the point of absurdity – I am more guilty than most of missing what’s right in front of me.  Consequently, when I’m in the woods I am more surprised.  The wild never ceases to amaze me.  Waterfalls, rainbows, red efts on the trail, and bizarre-looking mushrooms arising overnight – all this should be expected.  Yet I’m surprised.  Oddly enough, encounters such as these are what I live for. Go figure.

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May 08 2009

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The Green Unfurling

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After weeks of alternating rain and sunshine, the grass is a fuller, deeper green than it’s been in six months.  But that’s not what’s captured my attention lately.  Not really.  I am awestruck by the leaf-out all around me – in the bushes, in the trees, and across the forest floor.  It is so sudden and overwhelming that I find it difficult to think of anything else when my eyes fall upon it.  And yes, it feels sudden, even though I had all of April to anticipate it.  Nothing could have prepared me for this kind of green, even though I’ve seen it fifty times before.

Vernal green, Kelly green, the green of a living landscape long since dormant and springing to action.  Wizard of Oz green – a brown and gray world bursting into Technicolor vitality overnight, too green to be real.  I first noticed the green unfurling while running my dog a week or so ago.  A maple leaf no bigger than my thumb rolled out of its bud and yawned.  All I could do was stand there amazed by it.  But now I’ve gone beyond that even.  Now I’m completely overwhelmed.

What kind of world is this, anyway?  How can there be so much green where there was only bleached forest detritus, dark mud and naked branches only a few weeks ago?  I go about my daily affairs the best I can, but all this green distracts me.  I fight back the urge to cast off my clothes and dance through the lilies like some feral naturist drunk on life.  I make a list for the day, look at my watch and pretend that I have it all under control.  But this green unfurling is making mincemeat of my reasoning powers.

Every other day is built around a stint of woods wandering, however brief.  The rest of my life is just some kind of muddling through, a sleepwalk of sorts, full of numbers, ideas and other abstractions.  Head down I start my walks.  Five or ten minutes into them, I look up and see the luminescent green.  Then and only then am I fully aware of being alive.  And my first impression is always the same:  This remarkable world is too beautiful for me to run roughshod over it the way I do.  What was I thinking?

But enough blather already.  A cardinal calls me out even as I write this.  I’ve gotta go.  And maybe, just maybe, after I’ve seen enough songbirds and wildflowers amid the green, I’ll be able to get something constructive done today.  Not that it matters.  Life needs no excuse to exist.  In that regard, I am no exception to the rule.

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Apr 10 2009

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Spring Arrives in the Mountains

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After parking my car where Preston Brook spills into the Winooski River Valley, I hike the narrow dirt road up a steep grade into Honey Hollow.  There’s a dusting of snow on the ground and flurries in the air, but I’m dead set upon finding springtime here on this early April day.  I follow a deer trail down to the brook once I’m above the gorge.  The trail empties into a small clearing a short while later, where a hungry deer have foraged beneath a lone apple tree.  From there it’s an easy bushwhack along the stream, back to the base of Camel’s Hump – my favorite Green Mountain.  I set a steady pace to keep from wearing out too quickly.

I’m looking for signs of eternal renewal but my dog, Matika, doesn’t care.  Any day in the woods is a good one to her.  She leaps over a feeder stream, does a 180, then leaps over it again for the sheer joy of leaping.  She scratches here and there, sniffs, and runs about wildly.  She couldn’t be happier.  As for me, well, I’m halfway between being in my body and in my head – between sensual awareness and philosophical abstraction.  I hope to tip the balance towards the sensual before day’s end.

Preston Brook roars as spring runoff cascades through the rocks.  It is a bank-full tumult of whitewater racing out of the mountains, teasing me with mere glimpses of its clear, green pools.  This stream won’t be fishable for another month, but already my thoughts have turned towards the speckled trout lurking in dark corners just beneath the surface.  Icicles dangle from the moss-covered trees that have fallen across the torrent.  I look for a stonefly shuck amid the rocks along the stream’s edge but don’t find one there.  Soon, very soon.

Beneath my feet, the ground is soft, spongy, and covered with forest detritus.  In wetter places, I sink up to my ankles in mud.  While stepping over blowdown, I notice tiny, club-shaped reproductive organs arising from a patch of moss – a sure sign that the growing season has commenced.  The Christmas ferns, polypody, and evergreen woodferns pressed to the ground by winter are starting to rebound.  Deep green clubmoss pokes through patches of snow, making me think of a different era when the growing season was very short, indeed. And for a split second I feel Neolithic – fresh from the Ice Age.

Coltsfoot appears suddenly before me on a mudslide.  I am shocked by its tight curl of yellow petals on the verge of opening.  Already?  A bit later I spot a robin on the branch of a young maple tree – something common in the lowlands this time of year but rare here in the mountains.  Looking around, I notice the hemlocks adding welcome color to an otherwise brown and gray forest.  I thank them for it.  My eyes hunger for green.

Miles deep in the hollow, I take a seat next to the brook and rest.  Matika has a cup of kibbles for lunch while I eat a handful of nuts, a granola bar and a few pretzels.  Before long I’m chilled by my own sweat, so I pack up then tag the narrow dirt road for a long walk out.  I daydream along the muddy lane, recollecting other walks here in years past – many, many walks.  Growing older isn’t so bad.  My vault of pleasant memories overflows.

Through a break in the trees, I see Bone Mountain in the distance looking very cold and gray.  No matter.  A gust of warm wind blowing up from the Winooski River Valley reminds me what time of year it is.  I pass a dozen green shoots of wild lilies breaking through the earth.  Then I smile.  Yeah, it’s that time of year and I can feel a vital part of me thawing.  And before I get back to my car, I’m already planning my next outing.  This time of year, I can’t get enough of it.

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Mar 13 2009

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Woodpecker on Mt. Philo

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I drove to Mt. Philo the other day on impulse, after running errands in Burlington.  I figured the remnant snow on the access road leading to the summit would give my legs a good workout.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Although the punky snow wasn’t more than a few inches deep, climbing the foothill was like climbing a giant sand dune.  Yeah, a good workout.

A strong March wind tossed the trees back and forth while I hiked.  The chill of it glazed my eyes with tears.  I walked with my head down for the most part, lost in the abstractions I had been writing about earlier that day, along with the sobering financial news that had streamed over the radio during the drive.  Only my own heavy breathing kept me linked to the here and now – that and my goofy dog, Matika, running back and forth as fast as she could, all smiles.

Towards the top of Mt. Philo, a pileated woodpecker cried out loud and clear, wrenching me from my thoughts.  I stopped to listen more intently but it didn’t cry out again.  Strange silence.  Only the sound of roaring wind.  Then I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and, sure enough, there was the silhouette of that pointy-headed bird etched against the gray sky.  It clung to a dying birch for a second or two then disappeared, making me wonder if I’d actually seen it at all.  I finished my hike to the summit, temporarily loosing sight of surrounding trees to a thickening fog.

What is important – the human condition, a drop in the Dow, or the brief glimpse of a woodpecker on a misty day?  Perhaps none of it is.  Perhaps the smile on my dog’s face, a bone-chilling wind, and my own sweat-soaked shirt is all that matters.

I gazed across the Champlain Valley from a lookout atop Mt. Philo for a short while before finishing the hike, slip-sliding back down the car.  Halfway down the hill, I heard the woodpecker again.  One call to greet me, the other to say goodbye.  I stopped and turned in the general direction of the call but saw nothing.  So much the better.  That way it melded into my abstractions and stayed with me the rest of the day.

It’s hard to say whether the current downturn in the global economy will end soon or continue for years to come.  I don’t know where all my philosophical abstractions will take me, either.  But this I do know:  the wind will blow through trees, dogs will romp in snow, and woodpeckers will call out long after I’m dead and gone.  Maybe I should focus on that.

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