Tag Archive 'nature'

Aug 16 2020

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Backcountry Excursions Reprinted

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In 1990, I published a slender, olive green paperback called Tracks across the Forest Floor. It was my first attempt to write a nonfiction narrative about one of my ventures into the woods. Tracks went out of print a long time ago, but I included it in a set of six hiking narratives called Backcountry Excursions, released in 2005. That book has been nearly out of print for several years now. Well, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Tracks, I have reprinted Backcountry with a new cover and preface. And a few fixed typos to boot.

Three of the narratives in this collection appear in other collections of mine, namely Loon Wisdom and The Great Wild Silence. Tracks and the remaining two can be found nowhere else. Just as important as Tracks, I think, is the 25-page narrative about a trip into northern Maine that I took in ’96 with my buddy Charlie, following Thoreau to Mt. Katahdin by water and land. We used a two-man sea kayak instead of a bateau and ended up hiking a different path up the mountain, but it was great fun all the same. And it gave me a reason to recount one of Thoreau’s excursions into the Maine Woods.

The real reason for reprinting this book is simply to keep it in print. Backcountry Excursions is now available at Amazon.com as well as the Wood Thrush Books website. Most of my readers are already familiar with this book, but now it’s out there for everyone to see how I got started, and what kind of critter I really am.

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Jun 18 2020

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Order and Chaos

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I have a lot of time on my hands, thanks to the pandemic. As a result, I’ve been doing two things a lot more than I usually do: reading and gardening. And in a strange way, these activities are related.

A month and a half ago, I finished putting together my latest book, Campfire Philosophy, for publication. Since then I have been hard at work, reading and doing research for a brand new book project about nature and the Absolute. Central to this project is the dance of order and chaos that we find in nature – something that has always fascinated me. To what extent is nature designed, subject to immutable laws? To what extent are the forces in it utterly random? Needless to say, these questions have taken me all over the place, from German Idealism, Indian philosophy and microbiology, to Natural Theology, evolution, and quantum mechanics. My latest stop: chaos theory. Egads!

Along with the entirely ordered gardens around the house that are full of utterly domesticated plants, Judy and I have cultivated a patch of forest floor in our back yard that we call the Buddha Garden. A stone Buddha lords over this somewhat haphazard experiment in what I call unnatural selection. In addition to a dozen or so domestic flowers that we’ve planted there – some of which are found naturally in the wild, like false Solomon’s seal and foamflower – we have allowed many of the native plants to stay. Among these are trilliums, baneberry, trout lily, and some rather aggressive asters. So you could say that this so-called garden, wilder than most, is a curious blend of order and chaos.

At any rate, while transplanting more flowers into it this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what the laws of nature are and to what extent they dictate what happens in my semi-wild garden regardless of my tinkering. Meanwhile, the stone Buddha just sits there, seemingly detached from my pondering and handiwork, staring into oblivion as if there’s something about simply being in the world that guys like me completely miss.

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Jun 04 2020

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Campfire Philosophy Is Now in Print

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Back in 2006, I self-published excerpts from my field journal in a slender staple-stitched chapbook. Last winter I added more excerpts to that collection, expanding it to this 138-page paperback. I call it Campfire Philosophy because these are all wild moments, reflections and insights written while I was in the woods – quite often while sitting next to a campfire. One can almost hear the campfire crackling in them.

The fragments in this book span 30 years. They have been drawn from the field journals of every major excursion I’ve taken into the wild, along with a good number of smaller outings. And while my worldview is worked out better in other books of mine, this writing best captures the spirit of decades of woods wandering. It is also presented here in nice little snippets that the reader can digest at his or her leisure.

At any rate here it is, Campfire Philosophy, my latest offering to the world. It’s available at the Wood Thrush Books website, and Amazon.com, of course. I hope it inspires some of you to get out and enjoy wild nature while the pandemic rages in the more developed places.

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Mar 16 2020

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The Dark Side of Nature

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When people call themselves nature lovers, what usually springs to mind are golden sunsets, glistening rainbows, magnificent mountains and sublime landscapes, along with the many wondrous plants and animals that inhabit our planet. But nature has its dark side, as well. Even venomous creatures, poisonous plants and severe weather events have their fans. But life-threatening microbes are hard to love. Foremost among these are viruses, which have caused humanity untold grief through the millennia.

Today humankind is under assault by a severe variety of coronavirus called Covid-19. It is similar to SARS-CoV and MERS, two other 21st century coronaviruses that have transmuted to us from animal viruses. With an incubation period between 2 and 14 days, and a mortality rate somewhere between 1% and 4%, this is a particularly nasty bug that spreads faster than the flu. According to the World Health Organization website, over 168,000 people in 148 countries and territories have been infected to date, with roughly 6,600 deaths. And these numbers are increasing exponentially. Cause for concern, to say the least.

The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic last Thursday. This virus has become so widespread that containment is pretty much out of the question. Humankind now has to mitigate the effects of the spread of the disease. Most importantly, we must avoid a potential spike in infections so that our health care system isn’t overwhelmed by it. The goal here is to lessen the overall mortality rate. The best way to do that is social distancing – staying away from each other for several weeks or more. China went into lockdown a month ago. To flatten out the spike in infections to a mound over time, the rest of the world will have to do something similar. That won’t be easy, and the consequences of this could be economically catastrophic.

As someone who values freedom and mobility, I am not happy about any of this, but I understand the necessity of it. So I am hunkering down. I will do my best to stay out of social settings during the next few weeks, anyhow. Spring is upon us. I intend to spend more time outdoors, in what my friend Walt Franklin calls “the society of trees,” minimizing any kind of interaction with other people for a while. And if enough people do the same, then perhaps this particularly dark side of nature won’t be so dark.

For more information about this disease in the United States, visit the CDC website.

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Oct 03 2019

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Life Goes On

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Today I went for a walk for the first time since returning home from Ohio. I went back to Ohio to help my sister move my suddenly incapacitated, 90-year-old father into a nursing home. He died before that happened.

I went for a walk right after doing a round of writing and a little work on my book biz. I’m back into my routine now – writing, publishing, bookselling, and occasionally going for a long walk or day hike. Back into the daily routine, as if being there in the hospital room the moment my father died ten days ago was nothing out of the ordinary. The hard truth of the matter is this: life goes on.

I walked through local woods where the trees are just now turning. The autumnal season is well underway. There are splashes of gold and orange in the trees, fiery red sumac, purple asters in full bloom, a touch of rust and brown here and there, yet still plenty of green. Cool temps beneath an overcast sky. The high-pitched trill of crickets. I passed the nearby quarry where a couple dozen Canada geese have landed. One of them honked alarm at my approach. Soon they will continue their long journey south for the winter as they do every year. Life goes on.

The world keeps spinning and nature goes about its business despite the loss we experience at any given time. Nature is eternal. Individual life forms come and go, yet nature lives on. It’s a very simple truth really. But there are times, like now, when I find that hard to grasp, and even harder to accept.

My father lived a long, full life. He was independent and ambulatory up until the very end. I should be so lucky, the dementia he suffered notwithstanding. We weren’t that close in later years. That much said, I will still miss him, as I do my mother and my dog Matika who also died this year. It’s a lot of loss to deal with all at once, but I’m getting back to my affairs now, as all living things do. I grieve but I’m still alive and well. The seasons change, nature persists, and I will roll with it until my last day comes.

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May 09 2019

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The Solace of Waterfalls

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I snuck out of the rustic room at daybreak, refusing the flashlight that Judy sleepily offered. Not necessary. There was ample twilight for me to get around.

The Middle Falls roared nearby. I followed the well-groomed path though its spray on my way to the Upper Falls. A solitary robin called out – its song barely audible above the cascade. A thin drizzle fell from the dark, blue-gray sky.

My mother died while Judy and I were on our way back to Ohio. After a slow deterioration spanning several years, her actual death seemed to come fast. She was 89 years old but had rebounded so many times that the whole family began to think she would live forever. Seeing her remains at the funeral home convinced us otherwise.

Judy and I left four days after arriving in Ohio, then drove to Letchworth State Park in western New York to seek solace in nature. The Glen Iris Inn was full but Judy was able to secure us a room in an outbuilding called Pinewood Lodge. Following dinner at the inn, we enjoyed Middle Falls all lit up after dusk before returning to our room. I had a fitful night all the same.

No one else stirred in early morning as I meandered to Upper Falls. Soon I caught a glimpse of white water tumbling beneath a railroad bridge. I knelt down before the waterfall, accepting its spray along with the drizzle. I thought about how much my mother would have loved it, then cried. No more scenic views for her. She was gone. Yet the water still falls…

After breakfast, Judy and I checked out of the Inn. We took our time driving through Letchworth State Park, admiring the Genesee River snaking through a deep canyon on its way to more gentle terrain. We made our way home via the Finger Lakes, getting on with our lives. But there’s a hole in me now that can’t be filled. So it goes.

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Jan 18 2019

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Nature Writing

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It’s a strange thing indeed to be a nature writer. My subject is the great outdoors – that magnificent wildness – but I do most of my work indoors while staring at a computer screen. Hard to imagine a more contrary vocation. There are times, especially in the dead of winter, when I question my motives, my own sincerity regarding this. Is writing about nature really what I’m all about? Then comes the great thaw at the end of winter and the reawakening of the natural world in early spring and there’s no doubt in my mind where my heart lies.

It’s my obsession, no doubt. While I read all kinds of books, few subjects captivate me the way a good piece of nature writing does. I’m inspired more by Emerson and Thoreau than by eminent philosophers like Kant, Hegel or Rousseau. The essays and narratives of John Burroughs, Farley Mowat, Richard Nelson, Annie Dillard and the like edify me more than the best fiction writers ever could. I take Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein more seriously than the greatest sage, and the poets who celebrate them are my prophets. There are the innumerable worlds that we can imagine, then there is nature – the world as it really is. I have an insatiable appetite for the latter.

Whenever I am not tramping through the wild lands of the northeast, I work with books. As a bookseller, I sell all kinds of books, but I make only nature-related titles available at my website, woodthrushbooks.com. There I sell every kind of nature writing imaginable, including what I’ve written myself, or what some of my friends and favorite writers have written. Through my small press, Wood Thrush Books, I publish the same. Every once in a while I put together an anthology of contemporary nature writing, if only to bring to light some of the lesser-known writers in the field. And I love doing all of it – bookselling, publishing, editing, and writing about nature. I’m lucky that way, I guess.

Yeah, it’s a strange thing to be a nature writer – to write about the natural world as if it really mattered. There is also the human world, of course, but what I find interesting about that is human nature. And what I find most interesting of all is how we humans interact with the natural world. Is there anything that better illustrates what we are all about? I think not.

 

 

 

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Nov 27 2018

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Snow-laden Trees

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As the early morning light illuminated our back yard, Judy and I enjoyed the white beauty before us – snow gently falling from the sky, adding to what remained on the ground from last week’s storm, and clinging to the branches of trees. No doubt four months from now, snow will lose all its charm. But now, at the undeniable beginning of winter, it pleases the eye.

Opening the door, I marveled at the stark contrast between the naked, dark gray branches and the snow gathering upon them. There is something about snow-laden trees that borders upon the mystical. Or perhaps they just bring out the romantic in me. I looked up to see the treetops kissing the formless sky, sensing the sublime there, and knowing full well that I do not possess the skills to capture such things with either camera or pen. Some aspects of nature cannot be transmitted. They can only be encountered.

Having already done a couple hours of literary work before breakfast, I heard the computer keyboard calling my name from the study upstairs. It was time to stop admiring Mother Nature’s handiwork and resume the task awaiting me. But as soon as that was finished, I stepped outside with a shovel in hand to push around the heavy, wet stuff. By then the tree boughs were bent over from the burden they carried. The power went out then quickly came back on again, bringing to mind the image of a fallen tree branch somewhere down the line. Sublime, indeed. Even in her quietest moments, Mother Nature still flexes her muscles.

 

 

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Jul 19 2018

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New Adirondack Book in Print

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Five years after the release of The Allure of Deep Woods, I now have a second Adirondack book in print: The Great Wild Silence.  It consists of a dozen short narratives and essays about backpacking in the Adirondacks, along with one rather long narrative about my 5-day sojourn in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness last year.

The Great Wild Silence is the juxtaposition of movement and staying put, of hiking and abstract thought. The main narrative in this collection, “Deep Forest Ruminations,” is a series of meditations on nature and our place in it, braided with observations and routine activities while camped alone at a backcountry lake – just me and my dog Matika, I should say. That’s the second half of the book. The first half sets the stage, recounting various excursions in the Adirondacks over the past 25 years, both alone and with others. Some of the latter pieces first appeared in the ADK publication Adirondac and other periodicals but haven’t been seen since. I’ve extracted others from previous collections of mine. It’s a curious mix to be sure.

If you’re as enamored with the Adirondacks as I am, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can order it at my website: woodthrushbooks.com, or you can find it at Amazon.com. Be forewarned, though: there’s a lot of philosophical speculation in this book. It isn’t just about walking in the woods.

 

 

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Jun 18 2018

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What Makes Us Human?

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For the past year and a half, I have been pondering human nature and its relationship to wildness. I have read dozens of books on the subject, and have approached the matter from various angles: philosophical, anthropological, biological, historical and naturalistic. The more I look into the matter, though, the more befuddled I become, often getting bogged down in the morass of morality where the vast majority of people plant their flags then forget about the matter. It has been a daunting undertaking to say the least.

Wildness, I am certain, is the key to understanding who/what we are, for we are creatures as natural as any other. But there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is the rise of civilization a little over 5,000 years ago. What happened to us then?

To some people being civilized is what makes us fully human. That has been a convenient excuse, anyhow, for the subjugation of more primitive peoples through the millennia – those with less sophisticated means of conducting war that is to say. But I don’t abide by that prejudice. In fact, I suspect that more primitive peoples, living closer to the earth, are much more in touch with their humanity than those of us living indoor, urban lives, staring at our electronic devices, largely removed from nature.

It is now widely accepted in scientific circles that anatomically modern humans have been around over 100,000 years. That is, people who look pretty much like humans living today. About 50,000 years ago, our species underwent a great cultural transformation that resulted in behaviorally modern humans. That is, people who think, behave and interact with each other much the same way we do. Up until 10,000 years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers with an intimate understanding of the flora and fauna around us. In that regard, our being agriculturalists and urbanites – the two pillars of civilization – is a relatively new development with little bearing upon our basic humanity, if any at all.

I don’t believe for a second that pre-civilized life was some kind of Eden where human beings lived in peace with each other, always prosperous, healthy and happy, and in complete harmony with nature. The human bone and skull fragments our archeologists have dug up pretty much rule out all that. But there is something about those living closer to the earth that undercuts the arrogant and grossly misleading presumptions that we highly civilized folk have about ourselves and the world.

Soon I will try to write about this subject, if I can muster the humility, honesty and courage to do so. But I don’t think the resulting book will be very popular, even by the modest standards of my somewhat dubious literary career. Generally speaking, those of us firmly ensconced in today’s complex, industrialized and digital world do not respect our distant ancestors, or the remnant bands of hunter/gatherers who still live as they did. Our collective arrogance in that regard is profound. We civilized folk think we have it all going on.

 

 

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