Tag Archive 'change'

Dec 02 2013

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Time and Change

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December brookNow it is December. My dog Matika and I walk the Rail Trail early in the morning, leaving tracks in fresh snow beneath a dull sun. Seems like I was doing this not long ago, but the snow geese urgently heading south make it clear that nearly a whole year has passed since I last saw the sun this low in the sky. This passage of time makes me shudder. As I grow older, the years seem to slip by faster.

The trail crosses a small brook partially iced over. In due time, this brook will be completely covered with snow and ice. And yet it will still flow – a muffled trickle reminding anyone who pays attention that the passage of time is relative. Compared to my dog, I live a long life. Compared to this brook, my existence is only the blink of an eye.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that we can never step in the same river twice. While squatting along the edge of the brook, I ponder this. The stream before me rushes incessantly, never pausing. I constantly change, as well, in much more subtle ways. So does everything around me. The whole world is in flux –  the entire universe for that matter. Nothing stands absolutely still.

I continue walking the trail, following a set of tracks laid by someone else a day or two before. When the trail clears the trees and enters a field, I notice that a snowdrift has obscured those tracks. In due time, the boot prints that I press into the snow will also fill in or blow away. Then there will be only my memory of having been here.

These are the reflections of an old thinker, of course. The young live in the present, as do the thoughtless. As I walk the trail, countless others prepare for the holidays, feeling the press of time in a different way. For them, December 25th is all that matters, and the rituals surrounding that day seem eternal. Nature reminds us that they aren’t, of course. Ah, well… I’d better start my Christmas shopping soon, anyway.

 

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Mar 26 2012

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Resilience

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Here in northern Vermont, we awoke to a dusting of snow today. It is ever so slight and will burn off by mid-morning, no doubt. Yet it comes as something of a shock to us after a week of summerlike temperatures.

I go out and check the bright green shoots of my day lilies to see how they are doing. The warmth from the plants has already melted the snow clinging to their leaves, so my lilies take it as a watering. Had the temperature dropped a little lower overnight, there might have been a little browning along the edges and tips of them. All the same, they would have survived – if not this wave of green shoots then certainly the next one. Lilies, as delicate as they may seem, are hard to kill.

I marvel at the resilience of early spring flora and fauna. If a little misfortune comes their way after the promise of an easy start to the season, they bounce right back. Oh sure, they take a hit, and some individual plants and animals are hit hard, but collectively they survive. In fact, setbacks are expected. They are built to withstand them. I admire that.

The other day my sewer line broke. Suddenly the nasty stuff was ankle deep in my basement, my yard had to be dug up, and I had to shell out a hefty sum to have the pipe replaced. A hit, no doubt, but I’m trying to take it like a day lily. Life is full of setbacks, I tell myself. The big question is: how well do we weather them?

Some hits are so hard there is no quick and easy recovery. That’s what we are alluding to when we use words like “crisis” or “disaster.” The word “apocalypse” means there is no recovery at all. Yet Nature with a capital “N” persists even when a meteor hits the planet, taking out the dinosaurs. It’s all just a matter of degree, I suppose, of individual perspective.

I wish I were more resilient. I take my setbacks hard. That said, I watch carefully how everything comes back to life in the spring and am deeply impressed by it. No, not just impressed – I’m inspired. Nature says there is no such thing as a hopeless situation and, even in my darkest moments, I’m inclined to believe it.

 

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Aug 26 2011

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Geologic

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Some aspects of wild nature are more mesmerizing than others.  I can walk a trail all day long without seeing anything more than “the green tunnel,” but a stream walk usually produces at least one geologic formation that gives pause. The most dramatic is a great fist of rock hanging over a favorite stream in northern Vermont – one that never fails to make me stop and think.  It appears at the end of a mile-long section of water that I often ply for trout.

More than once I have hiked to the overhang just to sit at its feet and question the ways of the world, much like a pilgrim seeking out a guru.  It never fails to impress.  Sometimes I ponder its incongruity, marveling at the fact that such a small stream could carve out a formidable wall of rock. Other times I wonder how many years will pass before the overhang collapses.  Either way, past or future, the rock’s story dwarfs my own.

This unusual rock formation is not indicated on any maps that I know about.  Surely others have seen the overhang but I’ve never seen anyone else near it.  Nor has anyone I’ve talked to ever mentioned it to me.  Does it exist outside of my imagination?  The moment one asks that question, one has reached a sacred place.  So I often go to the overhang to exorcise my personal demons.  It’s a good place for that.

Geo-logic.  The natural world makes sense in a way that mocks the human capacity to reason. Certain rock formations are especially good at this.  We are good at making tools, designing systems, building grand structures, and manipulating our environment.  But we often miss the obvious.  We fail to see the big picture, or simply ignore it.  We act as if a five-year plan is really thinking ahead, and relegate everything that happened fifty years ago to the history books.  But certain rock formations have been works-in-progress for millions of years.  More to the point, nothing about the natural world is static on a geological time scale.  Given enough days and nights, everything changes . . . and changes profoundly.

Newspapers are chock full of stories of little or no importance, yet my overhang tells a tale that everyone should take to heart.  I take it to heart, anyhow.  And when I walk away from it, all my troubles diminish.  It is good to think beyond the human scale of things every once in a while.  It’s instructive.

 

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Dec 30 2010

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Life Goes On

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It is customary, I suppose, to reflect upon the past while anticipating the future this time of year.  After all, one calendar year is ending and another is about to begin.  But this time around, circumstances have made that process a little more poignant for me.

Scout Thibault, my next-door neighbor and friend, died three days ago.  87 years is a full life, certainly, but that doesn’t make his passing away any easier to accept.  It happened so fast.  He and I were in the driveway silently shoveling snow together just last week, as we have every winter for the past ten years.  Now, all of a sudden, I do the task alone.

While cleaning the clutter out of my office the other day, I sorted through several year’s worth of letters.  Some were literary; others were personal.  As I have grown older, the boundary between the two has blurred.  Truth is, there are no such boundaries.  Not really.  We all march through life together, and it matters little whether our interactions with each other are professional or otherwise.  We carry the marks left on us by others.  And vice versa.

Living in such close proximity – with a shared driveway no less – I made an effort to be as civil as possible to my neighbor Scout.  That civility slowly transformed into friendship despite the many differences between us.  Suddenly I found myself shedding a tear for someone I had once considered an annoyance.  These things happen.  For better or worse, we all leave our marks on each other.

Each year Judy and I gather together all our grandchildren for a three-day summer camp – no parents allowed.  For Christmas we gave both families a small photo album of the last get-together.  While Matt’s family was going through it, our youngest grandchild Tommy exclaimed: “Me not there!”  That’s because he was too young last summer.  But that will change this year.  Tommy’s day in the sun is approaching fast.

Hard to say which impresses me more:  the many people I’ve known and things I’ve done in the past, or the prospects that still lie ahead.  As I grow older, it becomes increasingly more difficult to separate accomplishments from plans, the personal from the merely civil, fond memories from sad ones, the future from the past.  Yet one thing remains crystal clear: the planet spins about its axis and new generations come along no matter what happens, no matter who passes away.  This is a prospect I find both deeply disturbing and wonderfully consoling.  Life goes on.

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Nov 05 2010

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Stark Landscape

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Suddenly the leaves are gone.  They’re on the ground, that is, and the lush forest has turned into so many sticks.  At the same time, we are now spending a third of our waking hours in the dark, and daylight is muted by clouds that appear to be more common this time of year.  The surrounding countryside, ablaze with color just a few weeks ago, is suddenly all brown and gray.

Here in northern Vermont, the harshness of November comes hard and fast.  I’m never quite ready for it.  I raked leaves yesterday, thoroughly enjoying brisk air while doing so, but a cold rain began a few hours after I finished.  Good chance that the rain will turn to snow today.  That means I got that task done just in time.

The physical landscape isn’t the only thing that looks dreary.  The political landscape these days is just as stark.  An angry, frustrated electorate voted out Democrats and voted in Republicans this week, causing a transfer of power in the House.  Why?  Because of the bad economy, of course.  Wall Street might be doing okay, but unemployment still hovers around ten percent, consumer confidence is still down, and foreclosures continue.  Uncertainty persists.  The general sentiment is that the Democrats have failed us.  Can the Republicans do better?  Probably not, but some kind of change is needed.  The desperation is palpable.

If I had any solutions to our country’s woes, I’d run for office.  But I’m fresh out of ideas, as most thinking folks are.  All I know is that Washington gridlock will only prolong the pain, preventing any significant change from occurring.  Democrats and Republicans will drag out the same old ideological arguments, and the economy will limp along for another two years.  Yeah, a stark landscape to say the least.

The seasons change and most of us find ways to adapt.  That much is certain.  Not being a big one for winter sports, I’ll do more thinking and writing in the long months ahead, and get outdoors less.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As for the bigger picture, well, I’ll try not to stress out about it.  We had our chance to vote.  Now things must simply run their course.  Enough said.  Just don’t expect be to break into song when the Powers That Be offer me a tax cut.  I know all too well that, in the long run, that won’t fix a damned thing.

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Aug 10 2010

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Identifying the Culprit

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About a hundred days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, it became clear that the cap on the leaking wellhead would hold.  Millions of barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by then, but at least we could breathe easy again, knowing that the mess wouldn’t get any bigger.

Various officials have assured us that most of the oil has been burned, collected, or otherwise disbursed, so what the heck. . .  No sense crying over spilled oil, right?

Everyone is tired of hearing about it.  Consequently, the media is slowly relegating this story to the back burners.  Soon it will slip from view altogether.  Everything but the litigation, that is.  And then it’ll be business as usual, until the next big environmental disaster captures the headlines.

Meanwhile, greenies like me traipse off to the woods to escape the madness of civilization.  How do we reach the trailheads?  By car, of course.  My car runs on fossil fuels.  How about yours?  I figure it takes a gallon of gas to reach the nearest trailhead and another to get home.  That’s about 4 or 5 gallons of crude oil.

Short of buying an electric car or living off the grid (neither one of which I can afford), I have little choice.  The socially responsible thing to do would be to carpool, but I’m not that social.  So I’ll either drive to the trailhead or stay home and hike Aldis Hill again.

How many decades have we been on this merry-go-round?  Too many.  And there’s no end in sight.  Oh sure, I could tell you about the many promising clean tech companies I’ve discovered during my research, but since I’ve lost half of my nest-egg investing in them, I probably shouldn’t go there.  Fact is, the much-touted alternatives to fossil fuels aren’t really valued.  Not yet.  I figure it’ll take a few dozen more world-class disasters before they are.  Looks like H. sapiens isn’t as sharp a thinker as he/she used to be.  Or maybe all the political rhetoric is clouding the matter.

We can blame the BP executives for their gross negligence, Transocean for operating the rig, or Haliburton for the nebulous role it played.  We can blame the government in general for their slow and ineffectual response, or blame Obama in particular for endorsing offshore drilling last year.  We can blame those who drive gas guzzlers, the greedy guys on Wall Street who trade in black gold, or OPEC for controlling the global flow of oil, thereby forcing us to desperate measures.  The list goes on.  But Pogo said it best, I think:  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

As long as we keep pumping gas into our cars, we are screwed.

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Nov 27 2009

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Tipping Point

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When I was a teenager, I firmly believed that the Apocalypse was at hand, that the end of the world as portrayed in the Bible and interpreted by Christian Fundamentalists was just about to take place.  This belief framed my worldview until I studied enough history and philosophy to convince me otherwise.  Now I see things differently.  Now I realize that the world is constantly changing.  Now I see that the Apocalypse occurs every day for someone somewhere on the planet.  Every time a culture perishes or a species goes extinct, it is the end of the world as we know it.

Like all other apocalyptic narratives, Global Warming is predicated upon a set of inflexible beliefs.  It goes something like this:  The amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is rapidly increasing, and soon it will trigger a wholesale collapse of the entire planetary ecosystem.  Most of that increase is due to human activity.  We have to change our ways and radically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we emit before it’s too late.  The most important part of this narrative is the last part: before it’s too late. No apocalypse worthy of the name omits that disclaimer.

Environmentalists warn of a tipping point – a point of no return.  Once there are enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, an irreversible breakdown of the planetary ecosystem will occur.  But there’s still time, we are told.  If we act now, we can still stop it.  Hmm.  That sounds an awful lot like the kind of hard-sell pitch that hustlers make on television late at night.  Act now. . . before it’s too late!

How will we know when it’s too late?  Scientists are generating all kinds of computer models to tell us just that.  They assume that it’s possible to know all the critical elements of a planetary ecosystem as complex as ours.  Are our scientists really arrogant enough to think they can determine the tipping point?  Evidently so.

Clearly, for the thousands of species of plants and animals that have gone extinct, it is already too late.  For the glaciers that have disappeared in the north, it is already too late.  For those who want the weather to make sense again, it is already too late.  The sea level is rising.  It’s up a couple inches already.  Soon it will be up to mid-calf.   Will it be too late when it reaches our knees?  How about our waists?

The tipping point concept is more politics than science.  It smacks of high drama.  Like all apocalyptic narratives, it is designed to inspire us, to force a behavioral change that will save us from ourselves.  But the stark reality of our situation is much less forgiving.  If we act now, then maybe we can salvage what’s left of an ecosystem that has been so good to us for so long.  If we act now, then maybe we can reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the next hundred years.  Then again, maybe not.  Either way, we will continue suffering the consequences of industrialization for centuries to come.  Either way, the world will change.  There’s no going back to the way things were.

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Oct 07 2009

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Forward Thinking

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I recently read an article in Scientific American titled “Squeezing More Oil from the Ground.”   Since Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oil executive, wrote the piece, I approached it with great skepticism.  But Maugeri convinced me that another hundred year’s worth of oil can be extracted from the earth, using secondary and tertiary recovery methods.  Resourceful fellows, these oil barons.  As global demand increases and the price of oil rises, they’ll simply inject water, gas or thinning agents into the ground to push more oil to the surface.  So we don’t have to give up our gas-guzzling trucks and cars anytime soon.  That is, if global warming isn’t factored into the discussion.

Here in Vermont, we’re trying to decide whether or not to extend the license for our nuclear plant another twenty years, despite the fact that there’s been trouble with the cooling towers.  Those in favor of the extension argue that the cost of decommissioning the plant exceeds the funds allocated, so electric rates would have to go up to cover the difference.  What do you think?  How many things can you find wrong with this picture?

Meanwhile, a local newspaper is running a “green” section in its Sunday edition, celebrating the many different ways that individuals, cooperatives and small businesses are making the world a better place with their eco-conscious activities.  Rarely is there any talk about what large, “clean tech” corporations are doing, thus perpetuating the myth that the world’s environmental problems can only be solved by feel-good, grassroots organizations.

A year ago, the OPEC nations figured out that Westerners won’t grouse about the price of oil if it hovers around $70 a barrel, so now they are managing their supplies accordingly.  As long as the global recession persists, supply will continue outstripping demand.  Are we to assume that things will always be this way?

I could give more examples but this will do.  There is much talk in business circles these days about “forward thinking,” with all eyes towards productivity and profit, yet rarely is there any discussion beyond that.  In non-business circles, utopian dreams take the place of forward thinking, and people cultivate beliefs that business and government aren’t necessary, or that government can fix what business breaks.  Either way, they are sure to be disappointed.

When I step out of the woods, turning my attention away from mud, aching joints and biting flies, and towards what I find in the newspaper, I am amazed by the absurdity of it all.  The one constant in all the misery that humankind creates for itself is an utter lack of insight.  Forward thinking doesn’t really exist  – at least not in any meaningful sense.  So please excuse me for not taking a stand the next time some hot topic is being discussed.  It seems to me that, more often than not, we are having the wrong conversation.

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Jun 15 2009

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The Passage of Time

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Last week I hiked up Bamforth Ridge.  Stretching six miles from the Winooski River to the top of Camel’s Hump, this ridge is the longest, hardest base-to-summit climb in Vermont.  I figured it would be a good place to train for my upcoming Maine trek – a good place to test my limits, that is.  On that count I wasn’t disappointed.

I puffed halfway up the ridge before the hike became difficult.  Then I pushed myself another mile uphill, overcoming gravity by sheer force of will until reaching an exposed knob with a nearly 360-degree view.  Good enough.  I broke for lunch with the summit still looming large in front of me.  Then I turned back.

Going uphill was relatively easy – just a matter of will.  Going downhill was another matter.  Knees don’t lie.  With each step they reminded me that my strongest hiking days have passed.  A walking stick helped, but there’s no getting around the physical reality of a half century of wear and tear, as much as a forever-young Baby Boomer like me wants to deny it.

Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lester Brown called Eco-Economy.  It’s a rehash of his somewhat Malthusian notions concerning the limits of growth – concepts that I first encountered back in college in the 70s.  Industrialization and population are outpacing food production and other natural resources.  No big news there.  But what bothered me is just how little progress we’ve made during the past thirty-odd years.  Well into the 21st Century now, we’re still having the same eco-arguments.  Meanwhile, the math worsens and collective human misery keeps rising.  Being that I belong to the sixth of humanity that’s on top of the heap, I probably shouldn’t worry about it.  But I do.

My grandson, Mason, came to me the other day wearing a green bush hat and said with a great big smile:  “I’m just like you, Grandpa!”  I nodded my head, acknowledging that he is.  Mason loves being outdoors.  When he was three, he cried when his Mommy made him go back inside.  At five, he’s ready to plunge deep into the woods, to take on the world.  Soon he’ll be on the trail with me.

I still have work to do.  I don’t know how but somehow I have to help break the deadlock that exists in human affairs.  Old arguments, polarized stances and antiquated worldviews must be abandoned in favor of something that actually works – something that will make the world a better place for all the Masons out there.  The time has come to be pragmatic, meet enemies halfway, and get things done.  Thirty years of the same old eco-arguments, for chrissakes.  Talk is cheap.

Bamforth Ridge kicked my ass, but I’m ready to do it all over again.  I’m ready for another big hike.  I’m still moving despite the passage of time.  Hard to say whether my kind and I will ever get anywhere, but we’re moving all the same.  No sense stopping.  And when we’re done, Mason and his generation will carry on.  Why shouldn’t they?  Time passes, but it’s never too late to take on the world.

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Nov 06 2008

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A Seismic Shift

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Like most people living in America these days, I am deeply concerned about the state of the economy and have been closely following the presidential election as a consequence.  A seismic shift in the political landscape occurred two days ago – there’s no doubt about that.  But it remains to be seen whether or not this shift signals a real change in the way we do things in this country.  Maybe it’s just another swing of the pendulum.

Partisan fighting has been the standard operating procedure in Washington for as long as I can remember.  I worry about terrorism, war, climate change, the mass extinction of plants and animals, a failing social net, and economic collapse, but what I fear most is the kind of left/right squabbling that has paralyzed our country for decades.  If we do not snap out of it soon, we are doomed as a civilization.  I sincerely hope that the current regime change will lead to a major shift in the way we do business.

The whole world is watching.  It begs for leadership worthy of the name.  It hopes that we can overcome our self-righteous, self-absorbed, bullying tendencies and get the global economy moving in the right direction again while addressing planetary matters that touch us all.  There will always be terrorists and tyrants among us, but they can’t get very far until all hell breaks loose.  It is up to us to minimize their impact by making both our country and the world a place where every man, woman and child has a chance, at least, to live a long, happy and healthy life.

I am just a woods wanderer.  I amble about the forests and fields while pondering the human condition, then sit down at this desk to verbalize my take on things.  I am not a voice from the wilderness, a religious or political leader, or an expert of any kind.  But this much I do know:  Either we go to the bargaining table with our foes and work up some kind of deal acceptable to all parties involved, or we fight them to the bitter end.  So what will it be then – conflict or cooperation?  I suspect that more can be accomplished by the latter than the former.  But not everyone shares this view.  Time will tell what those in our new government think.

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