Tag Archive 'contemplation'

Apr 23 2015

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Slow Bushwhack

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PrestonBk.gorge.early springYesterday I visited a favorite mountain stream, taking a break from work and all other concerns. My dog Matika accompanied me, of course. First stop: a small gorge on the stream, where whitewater squeezed between rock walls on its way down to the already swollen Winooksi River.

Patches of ice clung to the rock walls of the gorge and nearby ferns were still pressed to the ground by snow that had just recently melted. Here in the mountains, the spring season is just beginning.

Above the gorge I meandered upstream following the semblance of a trail cut by deer, as small piles of scat indicated. Eventually I lost even that, finding my own way across the forest floor. I slipped between the trees without any sense of urgency, happy just to be in the woods – a slow bushwhack to nowhere.

As I walked, my thoughts wandered. Or to be more accurate, my thoughts gave way to a series of impressions: the fresh green verdure coaxed from the earth by warmer temps, the rusted remnants of early settlers, and ephemeral rivulets of snowmelt everywhere.

“Walking is not a sport,” Frederic Gros states outright at the beginning of his book, A Philosophy of Walking, though many people treat it that way. Walking slow and solitary, through the woods or in the city, opens the mind to introspection. Many thinkers have had their most profound ideas while walking. I know that is certainly the case with me. I do my best thinking while on the move towards nowhere in particular, slow and steady, with no trail underfoot.  After a while, it becomes a sort of mobile meditation.

A mile or so beyond the gorge, I found a nice spot to sit next to a feeder stream for a while. There my thoughts became more focused even as my eyes still wandered. Matika sat next to me chewing a stick. Time passed. When finally rain clouds gathered overhead, I got up and finished my walk, heading back towards my car. And that,my friends, is what I call a good day in the woods.

 

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Jul 30 2014

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Brook Walk

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BlackFallsBrookAfter helping a friend move some stuff, I weighed my options for the rest of the day: do some work, sit and read in the backyard, or go fishing? I asked my dog Matika for her input. She made it clear that heading for the hills was the best choice. So off we went.

I parked my car along a dirt road then slipped into the woods. It was a short hike to the stream. With cool temps and a clear sky overhead, I expected the fishing to be half decent. But the brook roiled with runoff from two days of steady rain. The first few casts yielded nothing. No matter. I walked the brook anyway, casting into promising pools along the way.

Matika was in her glory. She ran through the woods, sniffed around, and negotiated the rock-strewn stream with surprising agility. I stumbled along feeling every one of my 58 years, thinking how much easier it was to brook walk back when I was in my 30s. No rises to my fly but I didn’t care. While grumbling to myself that fishing this brook was a waste of time, I listened to the tumbling water and inhaled the dank smell of the wet forest. My eyes feasted on the green foliage all around me.

Philosophers make lousy fishermen, I kept thinking. If I was serious about catching fish, I would have come out later on when the aquatic flies were hatching. But all I really wanted to do was walk the brook on a late summer day and contemplate the intricacies of wild nature.

The hours passed quickly. As I made my way back to the car empty-handed, it occurred to me that this would have been a great outing had I not been carrying a rod. Then, for a moment, I was almost as happy as my dog.

 

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Aug 22 2012

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Backyard Lounging

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Contrary to the image that I create with this blog site, I’m not always on the move. Quite often I sit still – especially when I’m between busy shifts at the hotel. On those days, the shade beneath the old maple tree in my back yard is the place to be. Beats staying indoors, anyhow.

I usually have a small pile of books, notebooks and papers on the table next to me. I do a lot of light-duty literary work beneath the old maple: reading, letter writing, journaling, planning, and so on. Sometimes I just sit and think. Sometimes my dog Matika entices me to get up and throw the ball for her. On the weekends Judy joins me and we talk. I’m never bored.

A squirrel scurries along a nearby fence. Crickets chirp steadily. A cardinal or robin breaks into song every once in a while. The town bustles in the background. A gentle breeze rocks the rope swing dangling from a thick branch, reminding me of busier times with the grandkids. These are the sights and sounds of late summer, pleasant yet inducing a slight melancholy. Here in northern Vermont, the warm season is short indeed.

The writer’s life is a contemplative one. This is true even for those of us who write about the great outdoors. Experiences have to be processed. Ideas need time to ferment. An essential part of woods wandering is not wandering at all.

 

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Nov 30 2011

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A Place to Ponder

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Every once in a great while, I go up to Aldis Hill to sit on a downed tree and just ponder matters. Usually I have a cigar in hand, which I smoke in celebration of some small accomplishment. In this case, I was celebrating the publication of the latest Wood Thrush Books anthology – no mean feat considering how busy I’ve been keeping myself lately. But maybe this celebration was just an excuse. It was an unseasonably warm day in late November and I badly needed to get out of the house.

Remnant patches of snow from an early winter storm remained on the ground despite several days of thawing temps. A pile of wood chips at the base of a dead tree caught my eye. Evidently some hungry critter had been digging there for bugs. I’m guessing a raccoon. My dog Matika watched intently as a squirrel ran the branches overhead. Some unseen bird squawked unrecognizably from a nest.  I couldn’t make it out in the twilight. The sun had set a half hour earlier, just as I had entered the woods.

My mind wandered as it does on such occasions. I congratulated myself for completing yet another literary task, pondered current projects, then considered what the future holds. Then I thought about matters on a grander scale: the people I know and love, and the human condition in general. It doesn’t take me long these days to leap from the personal to the universal. For better or worse, I’m in the habit of philosophizing.

Funny how these woods-sitting sessions of mine always end with a thanksgiving. I can’t help but count by blessings whenever I stop moving long enough to consider my place in the greater scheme of things. The pursuit of happiness breeds unhappiness, I think. Only when I stop and think about what I already have do I start feeling good.

I walked out in darkness, feeling my way along the trail.  A galaxy of city lights sparkled through the naked trees as I meandered downhill.  I delighted in it.  A half hour later, I was back home and busy doing things again.  But this time with relish.  I had been miserable about something earlier in the day, but couldn’t for the life of me recall what it was.

 

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Sep 01 2010

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Morning Walk

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Early morning walk on a hot and humid day.  A short hike, actually, up the local hill.  Just enough to break a sweat, get a few bug bites, and cough out the last of a head cold.  My dog, Matika, runs ahead and sniffs around.  She’s happy to be on the trail again, if only for an hour.  So am I.  It’s been a while.

Next week I’ll be footloose on the Appalachian Trail, doing some serious trail pounding.  But for now, this’ll do.  All I need is a little down time in the woods before going to work – a chance to reconnect with the wild before immersing myself in the world of commerce.  Yeah, this’ll do.

Already reddish orange maple leaves litter the trail.  Wood asters and jewelweed are in full bloom – summer’s last hurrah.  Temps in the high 80s this week.  This comes as something of a surprise.  Not that I’m complaining.  Probably the last of the summer heat.  The warm season doesn’t last long here in the North Country.

The trail underfoot is dry.  On the west side of the hill, forest shadows abound.  On the east, bright yellow sunlight cuts through the trees.  No one out here yet.  Just me, my dog, and my thoughts.

Thoughts?  Yeah, I turn pensive in the fall.  And while the leaf season hasn’t really started yet, it’s not too early to exercise the gray matter left largely unused since last spring.  One look at wood asters triggers it.  Not sure why.

Seasons change, the years slip by, and my body gradually loses its resilience.  But not my mind.  In fact, I’m a better thinker now than I was twenty years ago.  Not as fast or sharp, yet better.  I have more to think about – more dots to connect.  The big picture is easier to see now.  Much easier.

Thoreau once wrote in his journals that thinking seems to make people sad.  I think I know why.  Because all deep thought begins with an acute realization that nothing last forever.  And most of our energies are misdirected.  If the average person fully realized how short life is, he/she would spend more time going for morning walks and less time driving in circles, trying to get things done.  That’s how it strikes me, anyhow.

No matter.  Every walk, long or short, eventually comes to an end.  I step out of the woods a little sooner than expected and unconsciously pull out my car keys.  Enough fooling around already.  It’s time to go to work.

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Jul 20 2010

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Close to Home

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A few days ago, I wanted a taste of the woods but didn’t have the time or inclination to drive to the mountains, so I did what I usually do in this situation: I hiked Aldis Hill.  It’s just across town – not more than a mile away.  I live the better part of my life in the shadow of it, often forgetting that the wild is no farther away than that.  Not deep-woods wildness, but wildness enough whenever I get the craving.

I’m always amazed at how good it feels to step off the pavement and into that tiny pocket of woods.  It’s only half a mile square, with no more than two miles of crisscrossing footpaths.  But on a hot, sunny day, its winding, shaded trail system provides welcome relief.  There I can escape my daily routine for an hour or so.  In that regard, Aldis Hill never disappoints.

Halfway up the hill, there’s a lookout cut from the trees.  From it I can see the Adirondacks on the far side of Lake Champlain on a clear day.  But even on an overcast day – or one thick with humidity – the city of Saint Albans sprawls at my feet like a child’s model village.  Sometimes I just sit at that lookout, gazing upon the town below as if seeing my life from afar.  A little elevation, along with the stark difference between town and forest, is all I need to detach myself.

While my dog Matika terrorizes squirrels, I compare whatever I was doing a half hour ago to the surrounding woods.  Sure enough, I gain perspective from this.  In deep woods, I bemoan the fact that the wild can’t be bottled and taken back home.  But a short hike around Aldis Hill is close enough.

None of this is news, of course, to those who live in the country.  But those of us living in urban areas often forget that a taste of the wild is no farther away than the nearest town forest or city park.  Sometimes a taste of wildness is all we need.  Sometimes a taste is all that’s necessary to motivate us to venture farther out.  Many of my grandest outings have germinated in a moment of inspiration on Aldis Hill or someplace like it.  All that’s required is a little exposure.

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May 28 2010

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Sitting in the Woods

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After hiking hard for several hours, I leave the groomed trail and bushwhack along the brook until I’m way back in the mountains.  Then I drop my rucksack on a knob of high ground next to the brook and start making camp.  It’s an unseasonably hot day in May.  The leaves of birches and maples at this elevation are just opening up, so I’ve taken cover beneath a copse of conifers.  The terrain around me is rough but I’ve found a relatively flat spot to pitch my tarp.  After doing that, I fashion a small campfire circle then sit down to rest.

The black flies are out and looking for blood.  My dog, Matika, and I retreat beneath the tarp where the mosquito bar keeps the flies at bay.  By early evening, the temperature has fallen dramatically and the black flies are gone.  I make a seat out of my foam pad, leaning it against a big rock so that I can sit for a while, grooving on the wild.

At first I am busy cooking dinner, but when daylight fades to twilight I just sit, throwing thumb-sized sticks on the campfire and jotting down my thoughts in a journal.  Tightly wound nerves slowly unravel.  The incessant rush of water helps.  Soon I’m looking around, admiring the woody chaos all around me and wondering why I’m so lucky to be alone out here.  Why aren’t these woods full of other people doing the same?

Darkness slowly consumes the forest.  My modest woodpile has dwindled so I call it a day.  Matika is already lying in front of the tarp, ready for bed.  As I settle in for the night, the stars come out.  They twinkle through the canopy.

In the morning, just before sunrise, a gentle breeze sweeps down the mountain.  The forest smells like clean rot.  I go down to the brook to splash some cold water into my face and fill my pot.   It’s time for breakfast.  The small tepee of twigs bursts into flames in no time.  Soon I’m sitting in the woods again, journal in my lap, coffee in hand.  A wood thrush sings in the distance, as if to remind me that this is where I belong.    A wood thrush is always singing, it seems, when I am happiest.

Eventually I grow restless.  I want to start hiking again, so I break camp and pack up.  By the time I have bushwhacked back to the trail, I’m sweating heavily.  Yeah, it’s going to be another warm one.  But I don’t care.  It’s a glorious, summer-like day and I am footloose in the forest.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

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Aug 14 2009

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A Sacred Place

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I visited a sacred place the other day – a place I hadn’t visited in a long while.  It’s a wild and beautiful place tucked away in the woods.  Oddly enough, it’s not far from a road.  I’m sure others know about it but I’ve never seen a boot print there, much less another person.  It’s hard to say whether I intentionally sought out the place or simply ended up there.  As soon as one uses words like “sacred,” the mind unhinges from a strictly rational view of things.

A place isn’t sacred just because it’s wild and beautiful.  An aesthetic reaction to a place shouldn’t be confused with deep reverence.  I’ve made that mistake many times.  Yet you know a place is sacred when you sense the presence of the divine in it – the presence of something unspeakably real.  You know you’re in a sacred place when suddenly you sense life’s merry-go-round coming to a screeching halt.  It’s best not to ignore this signal.  As such times, in such places, the world itself is calling you.

A sacred place can be a mountain outcrop, a meadow, or a gorge along the brook.  In such a place I find it very easy pray, meditate, reflect, or simply contemplate existence.  I’ve found many things in a sacred place: morsels of insight, a good idea, a sense of perspective, sometimes even a profound sense of well being.  But sometimes I find nothing at all, and that’s okay.  What you won’t find in such a place is that self-destructive madness that some people call sin.  That’s why the word “sacred” is appropriate here, I think.

What’s that I hear?  – More rational minds are scoffing.  A psychologist tells me that it’s all in my head.  A logician points out the apparent flaws in my thinking.  Others insist that I’m just being emotional.  Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  But none of this means anything on those rare occasions when I stand face-to-face with the divine.  At such times, I put my faith in the unspeakable, fully aware that reason has its limits.

I didn’t linger the other day.  I stayed in that place long enough only to reacquaint myself with the real.  But when I walked away, my life began anew.  When I was younger, I used to think that every encounter with the sacred necessarily triggers great change.  Now I know better.  It only signals a fresh start, similar to getting out of bed in the morning.  Yet somehow that’s enough.

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Aug 24 2008

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A Quick Jaunt up Aldis Hill

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I slipped into the forest shade at midday, getting away from abstract literary matters for a while. The smell of earth, lush vegetation, dried leaf matter and rotting wood worked its magic on me. It was the smell of wild happiness, reminding me of more remote places I would soon visit. The trees welcomed me with open arms.

To make the short hike last, I cut my pace. A spider’s web glistened in a shaft of light. Leaves rustled ever so quietly in a gentle breeze. A katydid sang its late summer song. The boulders and downed trees scattered about the forest floor seemed timeless and unchanged. I’d seen them all many times before.

The green infinity extending from me in every direction was an illusion to be sure. Aldis Hill is, after all, less than a square mile of forest located on the edge of town. A mere pocket of wildness.

Much to my dog’s disappointment, no squirrels stirred about the forest floor. No bird sang in the heat of the day either. I followed the well-beaten path underfoot all the way to the top of the hill, past the lookout, past secondary paths trailing away. I reveled in the sweaty pant uphill even though it went by all too quickly. My reward was a patch of white asters in bloom near the summit and a passing view of larger hills to the east. A two-note whistle to Matika, who had wandered off, put her back at my side without hesitation. Good dog.

Everyone should have a place like this – an arboreal sanctuary only a few minutes away from home where wild nature can be sampled, triggering memories of more adventurous outings. Some of my best ideas have come to me on this hill, along with a number of unexpected insights. The mind needs lots of space in which to expand if it is to reach beyond the commonplace. Fresh air feeds it. The surrounding forest encourages contemplation. Sometimes an hour is all it takes.

The easy ramble back to the car was one long daydream. I returned to the starting point and popped out of the woods faster than expected. A glimpse through the trees at Lake Champlain in the distance, then into the car I went for the drive home. Back to work. But I’d visited a familiar haunt and was better off for it. Not a deep woods experience, but good enough for the time being.

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