Tag Archive 'nature writing'

Oct 21 2013

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Autumn Walk

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Autumn trailThanks to recent strong winds, most of the leaves are down now. I kick them up as I walk, stirring up memories of greener days as well as the pleasant, dry rot smell of foliage becoming humus. I revel in it.

These are golden days – a feast for the eyes. Yet the long slumber is fast approaching, as shadowy trunks of largely denuded trees attest. The sun rises reluctantly these days and sets surprisingly fast. But that only makes the warm glow at noon seem all the more precious. It’s the season of mixed feelings to be sure.

I walk in shirtsleeves, breaking a sweat that chills me when I stop. This is sweater weather but I’m not ready to go there yet. Haunted by memories of winters past, I cling to any hint of summer. The slightest leafy green in the forest understory encourages me to do so.

My dog Matika frolics through the forest, finding new and interesting smells everywhere. Meanwhile I slip in and out of the abstract. Lost in thought, I barely notice the rummaging squirrel or the V of geese honking overhead. Turning inward now. I do my best writing during the colder half of the year. Being an outdoor/nature writer for the most part, the irony of this is not lost on me.

Towards the end of my walk, I feel a sense of urgency similar to what squirrels, geese and other wild creatures must feel this time of year. What do I need to do to prepare for the dark months ahead? I’ve gathered books like nuts, and cleared away as many distractions as possible. I’m just about ready to sit down to work, to reactivate the life of the mind. My warm season frolic is almost over.

 

 

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Jul 25 2013

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Identity

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Walt, trail's endI stepped away from my desk this morning to go for a hike.  It wasn’t a long hike – just long enough to remember who/what I am.

The moment I slipped into the woods I felt a tremendous sense of relief, as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  It’s always this way.  I am a denizen of the forest, first and foremost. Not so much a trekker, naturalist or adventurer as a simple woods wanderer. I wander, then wonder, then sit down to write about it all.

The other day a newspaper writer asked me to send a photo of myself to to accompany a short news release about my new book. She wanted a shot of me backpacking through the woods – an action shot, I suppose, or something where I look the part. I sent her  a photo of me sitting against a rock at trail’s end, instead. Lost in thought and scribbling in my journal, with by my dog Matika by my side. Yeah, that’s who I am.

A big part of book promotion, or any kind of promotion for that matter, is branding the work and its creator. In our culture of media hype, this cannot be avoided. That said, it is important to remain true to oneself, otherwise one can quickly become lost. The forest keeps me oriented. I can’t imagine trying to make sense of the world without it.

My dog knows who I am. She was with me during that grueling hike across the 100 Mile Wilderness. She has been with me on countless excursions since then. If she could be my publicist and speak for me, I’d be all set.

My wife Judy also knows who I am. After all, she’s the one who took that photo of me at trail’s end. She caught me by surprise that day, before I struck an inauthentic and self-conscious pose. Spouses are good at that.

 

 

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May 31 2013

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Adirondack Book Now in Print

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ADWcoverMy narrative about hiking the Northville/Placid Trail, The Allure of Deep Woods, is now in print. I couldn’t be happier. The folks at North Country Books did a fine job with it.

The NPT passes through some of the most beautiful country in upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, traversing one wild forest and four wilderness areas. I was wet and muddy during most of that two-week trip but didn’t care. Just thinking about it makes me want to plan another big outing. What’s wrong with me?

As most of you know, I can’t walk a mile without making an observation about the natural world, commenting on the importance of wildness, or breaking into some historical rant. This book is chock full of it. I didn’t hold back.

You can order a copy by calling North Country Books at (315) 735-4877, or going to my website: woodthrushbooks.com. Enjoy!

 

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Mar 06 2013

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Long Trail Book

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FUMF coverThe Long Trail book, Forest under my Fingernails, is back in print! Three years after buying up the last copies of the Heron Dance edition, I have reprinted this hiking narrative under my own small press, Wood Thrush Books. It is now available at Amazon.com as either a paperback or a kindle download. Rod’s illustrations are gone but the words are all there for any hiking enthusiast or nature lover to enjoy.

In the mid-90s, I had the distinct pleasure of backpacking Vermont’s Long Trail end-to-end. The rather elaborate cache system that I devised kept me on the trail for the entire month. The experience was transforming. I managed somehow to capture it in my journals, then later in this narrative.

I couldn’t be happier about having FUMF back in print. Its re-release is timely. My Adirondack hiking narrative, The Allure of Deep Woods, will soon be released. Those who enjoy that book will have something similar to read. Besides, the hiking season is right around the corner. What better way to prepare for it than to read something that elicits the sights, sounds and smells of the forest?

Those of you who have been following me through the years know that I have all sorts of books in print now: backcountry and travel narratives, poetry, philosophy, and assorted essays. I’ve edited several anthologies as well as the works of Emerson and Thoreau. But FUMF remains a favorite among readers. I’m sure that newcomers to my work will get a kick out of it.

 

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Jan 17 2013

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Call of the Wood Thrush

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In the summer of 1980, on the second day of a solo trek into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, I stopped for lunch. A wood thrush landed in nearby bushes and began singing its flute-like song. Intoxicated by that melody, I left the trail shortly thereafter and wandered for hours through alpine meadows before making camp for the night. And there I stayed for two days, grooving on wild nature in what felt like the lap of God.

That same year I self-published my first chapbook. Five years later I started up Wood Thrush Books, naming it after the bird that has called out during so many of my deep woods excursions. As I see things, the wood thrush symbolizes life and hope and joy and beauty. Its song is mystical. It is nothing less than the call of the wild.

As any one who has attempted it knows, running a small press is a kind of holy madness. It’s a lot of work, plenty of frustration, very little recognition, and even less money. To call it a business is to miss the mark. To call it a hobby is to insult the publisher. Those who have done it as long as I have know it’s more than an occupation or a pastime – much more. It’s a vocation.

Last year was a dangerous year for WTB. I came close to calling it quits. Then I realized that I could no more give up publishing than I could writing or woods wandering. Together these three activities make me what I am, for better or worse.

Thirty-three years later, I still hear that divine, flute-like song. I hear it even when I am stuck in the developed lowlands, doing mundane work, trying to navigate the matrix that we call the modern world. I just cleaned out my office – WTB world headquarters – and am ready to take on a whole new set of challenges. Even now, in my late fifties, I still heed the call.

 

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Nov 26 2012

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Thinking with my Feet

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Some people sit down whenever they ponder any of the big questions. Others like to think with their feet. I belong to the latter group. When faced with a matter of life and death, or any other major philosophical problem, I take a long walk. That seems like the best way to start dealing with it.

Recreation is a form of escape to many. They go for a long walk, rigorous hike or good run to stop thinking altogether. Or they exercise their bodies to simply stay in shape, caring little for the mass of grey matter resting on top. But the mind recreates whenever the body does, and a refreshed mind thinks better than a stale one.

The thinkers I admire most – Emerson, Thoreau and Burroughs – were all big walkers. It is no mistake that they are considered nature writers as well. Nature teaches what indoor study cannot teach. While all three were avid readers, each recognized the importance of direct experience. Each learned as much from the elemental world as they did from books, if not more.

In the Information Age, it is easy to believe that anything we need to know can be found on the Internet. But the same mistake was made for centuries by those entering great libraries. Truth is, some things can only be learned viscerally. Some things can only be learned from wind, earth, trees, and water.

Yesterday I went for a walk on the nearby Rail Trail. I put on thermals before going out. The thin layer of ice covering pools of standing water along the trail convinced me that I’d done the right thing. The long shadows reminded me that dusk follows quickly on the heels of late afternoon this time of year. The sun was just above the trees when I finished my walk. A chilling wind numbed my cheeks. Half frozen earth crunched beneath my feet. By the time I got home, I was glad to be indoors again. But my head is full of fresh air now. I’ll think better today as a result.

 

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Nov 16 2012

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Still Reading John Burroughs

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For over a year now, I have been reading and rereading the works of John Burroughs, along with critical and biographical essays. He continues to fascinate me because he was a curious mix of contradictions: literary man and dirt farmer, naturalist and abstract thinker, recluse and socialite. His work is a sea of mediocrity seasoned with flashes of brilliance. He was deeply religious yet wholeheartedly embraced Darwinism. Few nature writers have ever been as popular as he was at the peak of his career, yet his work is largely unknown today. He chummed around with both Walt Whitman and Henry Ford. That alone makes my head spin.

“There is no light more mysterious than the light of common day,” Burroughs wrote in his journals. That sums up both his approach to understanding the world, and the man himself. In many ways he was a common man with many commonplace beliefs. Yet there is no mistaking the rarity of his vision. I have read a lot of naturalists and philosophers over the years. Few have been as scientific in their thinking as he was without discarding the concept of God altogether. Even fewer have speculated about the nature of the universe at large while growing grapes. He was a rare bird, indeed.

It is no mistake that I have been drawn to Burroughs and his work. His spiritual father was Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my latter years, I too have gravitated to Emerson’s way of seeing the world. All three of us have one thing in common: a deep and abiding pantheism. And while that word does none of us justice, it comes as close as any word can to explaining how they felt and I still feel while beholding the divine in nature

The danger in reading the likes of Emerson and Burroughs is that one loses touch with the spirit of these modern times. It’s hard to imagine either man yapping on a cell phone, watching television, or surfing the net. Burroughs drove a car in his old age but had a hard time keeping it out of ditches. That said, I think either one would make a good trail companion if they were alive today. Some things never change. Our relationship to the wild is one of them.

 

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Sep 13 2012

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Early Morning Bushwhack

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Too restless to sit down and focus on any literary work this morning, I went to French Hill with my dog Matika. I felt guilty about not working as I slipped into the woods, which is a little odd when you think about it. How else is an outdoor/nature writer supposed to gather his or her material?

A few minutes into the woods I was fine, though. The forest doesn’t give a damn about creative output. And when I’m wandering through it, neither do I.

After thrashing through a tangle of brambles covering what used to be a logging road, Matika and I broke into the relatively open forest. A deer path took us to a familiar gap in the old stone wall. From there it was an easy walk along the semblance of a trail, so I started daydreaming.

Soon I found a place to sit down and groove on the woody surroundings. The sound of leaves rustling in the gentle breeze cleared my mind of all thought. Then I was hypnotized by early morning light breaking through the green canopy. The shadows of trees danced across the forest floor. Time passed.

When finally I snapped out of my reverie, I got up and hiked out at a good clip, completing an unintentional circumnavigation of a largely unseen beaver pond. I picked up a turkey feather along the way and held it as if it were a quill pen. Then my brain kicked into gear and I started working.

The boundary between grooving on the wild and writing about it is vague indeed. Sometimes I slip back and forth over that frontier as if there’s no real difference between mind and matter. Sometimes I wonder if there is.

 

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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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May 18 2012

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Slabsides

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At long last, I made the pilgrimage to Slabsides that so many nature lovers make. I drove five hours south, walked a hundred-yard path through the woods, and there it was: a statement of rustic simplicity erected during the height of America’s industrial expansion. I could hardly believe I was there. Just me, my dog Matika, and the ghost of John Burroughs.

The old nature writer built this cabin in the summer of 1895 with the help of his son Julian. He spent a good portion of his latter years here writing, reflecting, and entertaining visitors. Peering through the window, I could see the table near the fireplace where he did his work. Books and papers have been carefully arranged on top of it.

The John Burroughs Association opens Slabsides to the public twice a year, but I wanted to be alone with my thoughts when I first saw the place.  Good thing I was. The place took me somewhat by surprise.  An imposing structure, the cabin is something of a contradiction – like the man himself. Rustic in appearance, yes, but a little oversized for a backwoods retreat if you ask me. And it sits on the edge of a two-acre wetland. What’s that all about? One easily imagines Burroughs communing with nature here, yet he built the place to escape “domestic tyranny.” His wife Ursula, that is. Hmm…

I hung out at the cabin for a short while, walked around the little swamp that Burroughs once drained, then drove an hour northwest to a trailhead in the nearby Catskill Mountains. There I shouldered my old army surplus rucksack and hiked up the Kanape Brook. Once I was back far enough, I traced a feeder stream away from the trail, effectively disappearing into the woods.

I spent the night camped near an old cellar hole where some poor soul tried to scratch a living from this rugged, rock-strewn land. There I conferred with the ghost of Burroughs about all matters literary, commercial and philosophical. We disagreed on more points than we agreed. No surprise there. We are two strong-willed men living at different times, in different places. The only thing we share is a deep and abiding pantheism. That and a love for all things wild. Perhaps that’s enough.

 

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