Tag Archive 'the passage of time'

Aug 17 2017

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Last Days of Summer

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The other day I noticed goldenrod in bloom along the roadside. I’ve been seeing it everywhere since, including my own back yard. Goldenrod. We all know what that means. Summer is on the wane.

Each morning I go to the window before eating breakfast, open the shades and announce to my wife that it’s another beautiful day. I prefer sunny days to overcast ones, of course, but this time of year they are all beautiful. Fresh produce, t-shirt weather, everything in bloom – how can you go wrong?

Autumn is also a wonderful time of year, especially here in Vermont. Still I am saddened by the prospect of summer coming to an end. There is still so much I want to do before the big chill comes.

The march of time. Days go by, weeks pass, seasons change. I want to slow it all down, but there seems to be no way to do that. Yesterday I filled a pint container with blackberries for the first time this year. Already some of the best bushes are past their prime.

One day is just as good as the next, I suppose, regardless of the season. Nonetheless, I will try to savor these last few days of summer, making the most of them. That means spending as much time outdoors as possible. To confound myself, I have resumed writing already – something that I usually don’t do until September. And what do I write about? Being outdoors. Go figure.

 

 

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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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Aug 11 2012

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Grandkids in the Woods

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Each year my wife Judy and I have all the grandkids over to our house for several days without their parents. We call it summer camp. It’s an opportunity for us to bond with each other while having lots of fun playing games in the back yard, fishing, swimming, and generally goofing around. Towards the end of summer camp this year, we all went for a hike at Niquette Bay State Park. It was something just a little different.

Although I’ve hiked with most of the grandkids before, this was the first time I’ve had all of them in the woods at once. Since they range in age from 4 to 15, it wasn’t easy keeping them together. Maddie, Hunter and Mason were way out front and wanting to go faster. I kept calling them back. Judy and Kaylee (the teenager) brought up the rear with Tommy (the youngest). They showed him where to put his feet when the trail became all roots and rocks. Johnny and I were in the middle, looking around. We were the first to see the garter snake that slithered across the trail. “I like nature,” Johnny commented. I smiled, nodded my head, and said: “So do I.”

It was a hot, humid day. I brought three liters of water for us to drink. We could have used more. My dog Matika drank from the tiny streams that we crossed. She got the best workout, running back and forth between the fastest and slowest hikers, trying to keep everyone together. German shepherds are like that. They don’t like having the pack dispersed.

Everyone enjoyed the walk, yet no one enjoyed it as much as I did. Judy and I haven’t spent enough time in the woods with the kids – Kaylee being the exception. Since the woods are my element, I’m hoping that this will change in the future. But the pack is widely dispersed between Vermont, New Hampshire and Virginia most of the year. Matika has her work cut out for her.

It’s amazing how fast the kids are growing up, how easily the days slip away. Judy and I make a real effort to stay in touch but our work-a-day lives distract us. We’ve talked about taking all the kids camping sometime. During this last visit, Kaylee mentioned that she’s only three years away from going to college. Clearly we had better plan something soon.

 

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Apr 28 2012

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100-year-old Tree

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Despite the specks of white tumbling from an overcast sky, I went for a hike up Aldis Hill. I had the place all to myself, of course. No one else was foolish enough to come out on such a nasty day.

Shortly after entering the woods, I noticed a big, old maple near the trail – one I hadn’t seen before. Then I kept moving. I was more interested in early spring wildflowers and knew just where to find them.

Amid a pile of large rocks, I spotted the leaves of bloodroot. The petals had been blown clear by the strong April wind. Just beyond the rocks, wild ginger. Trilliums, violets and blue cohosh bloomed along the flat section of trail between the lookout and the summit. Near the summit, I visited a thick patch of Dutchman’s breeches surrounded by trout lilies, hepatica and spring beauty. I got down on my knees and snorted the fragrant spring beauty the last time I was here.  Good thing I did so. Today they were closed tight against the weather.

I looked around for more wildflowers while finishing my hike but nothing new cropped up. That’s when I started thinking about that big, old maple I had passed earlier. How long had it been there? Why was it still standing? More to the point: Why hadn’t I noticed it before?  I gave it a quick nod before leaving the woods.

A half hour later, I returned to Aldis Hill to take a picture of that tree. I stretched my arms around its trunk to measure its girth. I couldn’t reach halfway around the giant. Stepping back, I took a good, long look at it. The tree had to be a hundred years old at the very least. And still going strong. I shook my head, wondering what else I hadn’t seen in this small pocket of woods during my countless walks here. Sometimes, I swear, it feels like I’m sleepwalking – even when my eyes are wide open.

 

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Jan 10 2012

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The Distant Summit

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Like many people, I am hypersensitive to the march of time whenever a new year begins. We switch out an old calendar for a new one, then try to get used to the novel digit. That’s “12,” not “11,” though some of us will be making this mistake well into February. The clock moves too fast for us.

Seems like the older I get, the busier I become. Not quite sure what that’s all about but I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one. A lot of older people I know complain about not having enough time, while many younger folks have enough of it to just “hang out.”

Last weekend my wife Judy and I visited her half brother who is well into his last days. I talk with my parents weekly to stay updated on their ailments. Recently I learned that a friend of mine is confined to a wheelchair. Others have their issues. I can count on one hand the number of friends my age who can hike a whole day with me. I’m getting the message loud and clear but don’t like it. Nothing in our youth-obsessed culture is helping me prepare for the inevitable. “Stay healthy,” the medical professionals advise, and that’s the end of it. Meanwhile, I keep getting older . . . as everyone does.

A couple months back, while I was hiking Wheeler Mountain, I looked over at Mount Pisgah with its sheer cliffs rising dramatically from Lake Willoughby. A couple decades ago, while I was working as a hiking guide, I slowly crept up that mountain with a 75-year-old man while the rest of our group dashed ahead. It took forever but eventually the septuagenarian and I reached the top. I marveled at it. To this day that remains the most inspiring thing I’ve ever witnessed. And I have it in my head to do the same thing and hike that mountain when I turn 75. That is, if I’m still upright and able to do so.

I do not so much fear death as I do the prospect of wasting precious years. I live like a condemned man nowadays. “How can I make best use of the time remaining?” I keep asking myself. Maybe that’s why I’m so busy. There’s no time to waste. My days are numbered. That distant summit isn’t so distant any more.

 

 

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Sep 29 2011

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The Strangeness of Ordinary Things

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A butterfly landed on a nearby tree branch the other day so I took a moment to look at it – I mean really look at it. First I snapped a picture, of course. Then I lowered my camera to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the creature. Close enough to see its face, I was shocked by the strangeness of it. Surely butterflies are from another planet. Like most insects, they seem alien.

There are the butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles of our minds, then there are the real things. Upon close inspection, nearly all insects have features only an entomologist could love. But the strangeness of ordinary things isn’t limited to insects. Many flowering plants look strange, as do most mushrooms. Same goes for nearly everything that washes up on the beach. Many birds, such as blue heron or a pileated woodpecker, look strange. Toads are reminiscent of another era. A newt in the bright orange stage of its life seems out of place.  Creeping vines are creepy.  Most furry animals seem familiar, but how can one explain a porcupine or a skunk? Bats are deliberately strange, it seems. Same goes for spiders. And lets not even talk about fish! The more one looks, the more all living things look strange. But it doesn’t stop there. The clouds right before or after a great storm swirl about in unusual ways, and floodwaters are menacingly brown. Even something stationary like a chunk of pure white quartz can seem out of place. All nature is foreign to us, it seems. Why? Because we so rarely see it.

We live busy lives. The pace of civilization has quickened during the last few decades. Our electronic devices hasten the process. A minute seems like forever when we’re waiting for something to download to our computers. A couple seconds can be the difference between life and death when we’re on the highway. There is no time, it seems, to just stop and look at anything. The world flashes by in an endless succession of images, much like the constantly changing television screen. There isn’t time enough to process it all.

When I stop hiking and just hang out in deep woods for a day or two, I start noticing things. “What did you do?” people often ask me when I return home from such an outing. I just shrug my shoulders. How much time can slip away while a man and a butterfly are staring at each other? Hard to say. I’ve never measured it. But this much I know: the more I look, the more I see the strangeness of ordinary things. Even the rising sun is alien to me now.

 

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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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Jun 04 2011

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Time in the Woods

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There are times when I like to stretch my legs and break a good sweat.  Then there are times when I just need a walk in the woods.  The other day was the latter, and it couldn’t have been a better day for it.  Cool, overcast and breezy – ideal weather for walking.

I went to Honey Hollow, a favorite haunt of mine deep in the Green Mountains.  After parking the car, I walked up the narrow dirt road reaching into the woods until I came to a red gate.  On the other side of that gate a jeep track swept down to Preston Brook and disappeared into a clearing with a single wild apple tree in it.  From there I bushwhacked upstream, savoring the lush green vegetation all around me.  At one point I passed through chest-high ferns.  Yeah, rooted things love all the water we’ve gotten lately.

The stream was surprisingly low and clear considering the recent downpours.  I saw two small brook trout dash across a shallow pool and for a moment regretted not bringing my fly rod.  But that’s okay, I told myself.  Sometimes it’s best just to walk the brook.

My dog Matika cavorted all over the place, happy to be running wild after a long stretch of days stuck at home.  I was happy, too.  It’s like that sometimes, now that I’ve gone back to working full-time.  Limited access makes time in the woods that much more precious.

I walked along the brook so slowly and quietly that I spooked a deer resting behind a downed birch.  Matika smelled the creature seconds after it had leaped away.  No contact, though.  The roar of the brook screened predator from prey.

I marveled at the high-water mark several feet above the quiet stream.  The washed-out banks, woody debris, and other indications of flooding took me somewhat by surprise.  Hard to imagine that much water passing through this little valley.  But wild nature is funny that way.  Its gentle disposition most days belies its latent power.

A couple miles back, I came to a favorite rock next to the brook where I like to sit and meditate.  The mosquitoes were out in force, though, so I didn’t stay there beyond a quick lunch.  I followed a game trail back to the dirt road and walked out as slowly as possible.  This walking reverie was meditation enough.  Not as much as desired, but enough for now.  Then I returned to my car wondering when I’d get back into the woods again.  In due time, I’m sure.

 

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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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Dec 02 2010

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Chasing the Light

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Sunlight breaks through the leafless trees at midday – a welcome sight for light-hungry eyes after so many gray days.  Now there’s nothing but blue sky overhead.  I amble along the well-groomed trail, not wandering far away from it, respecting the No Trespassing signs posted on both sides.  Yet my eyes steal southward all the same, chasing the light.  It’s a precious commodity this time of year, when the sun rises so reluctantly and sets all too soon.

A storm front passed through the region a few days ago, leaving a dusting of snow on the ground.  Usually the first snowfall melts off right away, but this one is lingering as if to remind folks that it’s December.  Those of us sensitive to light need no such reminder.

Air temperatures fluctuate, thus determining what kind of precipitation falls, but daylight remains ever faithful to the calendar.  Its slow, steady march through the seasons is deeply comforting in a world as tumultuous and unpredictable as ours.  All the same, the next few weeks of diminishing days are hard on those of us who thrive on light.  We won’t rest easy until we’re on the other side of the Winter Solstice.

I’ve often wondered if I would be so drawn to the Great Outdoors if I didn’t need the light so much.  In summertime I revel in it.  In the winter, the shortness of the day forces me outside.  People tell me that there are vampires among us who need the darkness as much as I need the light, but I find that hard to believe.  Daylight, direct or indirect, is essential to all living things.  Who can go long without it?

Here in the North Country, there are those who string up artificial lights in order to keep the darkness at bay.  Others drag bits of greenery into their houses to remind themselves that the growing season will return.  Still others try to ignore nature’s signals, keeping themselves busy with indoor or outdoor activities, or elaborate holiday preparations.  Every year I find myself resorting to all these strategies.  But that doesn’t change the realities of light – what it does to us over time.  So the best thing we can do is just roll with it, letting nature take its course.  Eventually, the Earth’s axis will tilt as far away from the Sun as it can, then change its attitude.  All we have to do is endure.

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