Tag Archive 'the wild'

Oct 08 2011

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Walking the boreal forest, I feel the tug of wildness stronger than anywhere else. It’s the starkness of the landscape that brings this urge out of me, I think.  I grow fangs when I’m in it.  The forest itself makes me want to drop down on all fours.

This isn’t a forgiving landscape. You don’t come here to groove with benign nature. You come here to howl.

Mostly bogs and conifers, it’s easy to get turned around in the boreal forest. And hypothermia is an ongoing concern. Even in the summer, it’s often cool and damp. Because the landscape in Vermont turns boreal at higher elevations, it’s often shrouded in mist as well. That only adds to its mystery.

The closer one gets to the equator, the greater the diversity. But in the lean, cold northern latitudes, only the heartiest life forms survive. Even then by a dangerously thin margin. Think spruce and fir. Think pitcher plants, club moss, and the ghostly white Indian pipe. Think moose, wolf, bear.

There are only patches of boreal forest in Vermont’s Green Mountains. There’s a bit more in the mythical Northeast Kingdom. But northern Maine is mostly boreal, as is a good part of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Alaska is utterly boreal. In other words, the places I like the most are boreal. Clearly I’m a creature of the north.

More than once I’ve been chilled, wet and almost lost in the boreal forest. “Almost,” I say, because the disorientation is intentional. I have my ways of getting out of the woods in a pinch, but I’d rather go deeper and get just a little bit more turned around. The dread of not knowing exactly where I am is a tonic that I imbibe on a regular basis. It keeps me from being too civilized. It keeps me from taking my lofty, philosophical notions too seriously. It keeps me in touch.

Go ahead and tell yourself how great humanity is – what we’ve done both individually and collectively, and what we are still capable of doing. Then go spend a week or two alone in the boreal forest and feel yourself whittled down to size. Granted, it’s not for everyone. But I can’t think of a better place to gain perspective on computers, cars and everything else. When the forest itself howls, you either run for cover or howl with it.


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Sep 20 2011

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Favorite Mountain

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Someone recently asked me what my favorite mountain is. Without hesitation, I blurted out, “Wheeler Mountain,” surprising myself by this.  After all, I hadn’t seen the mountain, much less hiked it, in over twenty years.

A couple days ago, I revisited that great mound of rock.  My wife, Judy, wanted to visit friends in Vermont’s mythical Northeast Kingdom, so I tagged along.  Wheeler Mountain is only twelve miles away from her friends’ house.  So after lunch, I broke away to climb it with my dog, Matika.

I had to use maps to find the trailhead, but the trail itself was surprisingly familiar.  The mountain hadn’t changed much in my twenty-year absence.  My memory of it made the absence seem more like two years.

Wheeler Mountain is a great place to hike.  It’s a fun scramble over solid granite that provides breathtaking views for relatively little effort.  And the mountain is located just far enough off the beaten path to feel remote.  But it’s important to me for a different reason: I had my best guiding experience there.

Back in the early 90s, I worked as a guide for Vermont Hiking Holidays.  We took novice hikers on day hikes in Vermont and the Adirondacks, introducing them to the many wonders of nature.  My greatest success occurred on Wheeler Mountain. I had seven yuppies who wanted more than the tame morning hike done by the larger group.  That afternoon, I took them up Wheeler Mountain with the promise of great views.  During the hike they were all chatting away incessantly, per usual, but when we entered a small copse of conifers near the top, I stopped and said: “Listen.”   It took a couple minutes but eventually they all heard it, even the stockbroker.  Their eyes widened as they slowly grasped the great, wild silence enveloping the mountain.

My life as a nature writer is all about getting people to stop and listen to the wild.  This task has turned out to be much harder than I ever imagined it would be.  We live in a noisy, fast-paced culture chock full of distractions, and the elemental wildness of the world is overwhelmed by it.  We are overwhelmed, I should say, and the wild remains largely hidden in plain sight as a consequence.

There are easier hikes up more magnificent mountains and much more dramatic views, but Wheeler will always be my favorite.  While climbing it the other day, I stopped and listened for a minute or two to the sound of my own heavy breathing until a raven in the distance broke the silence.  Then I smiled.  Yessir, Wheeler still has the power… and that gives me hope.

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Jul 14 2011

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A Night in the Woods

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Every once in a while I get the urge to spend a night in the woods – not a night in a tent, but in the woods.  A tarp set-up is a good way to do that.

It takes longer to set up a tarp than it does to set up a tent.  In order to shed rain, the tarp has to be angled just right.  Even if I set it up right, it’s not easy to access.  Sometimes, when I’m tired, it’s a real annoyance.  But it’s always worth it in the end.

During the buggy summer months, I fashion a mosquito bar beneath the tarp.  This takes even more time and energy.  Matika has learned to wait for me to get situated before she joins me inside the netting.  Smart dog.

I use a set of aluminum tent poles to hold up the high end of the tarp, but my walking stick is often a part of the rig.  That way I only need one tree to anchor down my set-up.

Flat, well-drained ground is essential, of course, but I often choose a spot for its aesthetic value.  I like to wake up with a patch of wildflowers, the nearby stream, or moss-covered blowdown in full view.  Last night I enjoyed all three.

Granted, a tent provides better protection from wind and rain, but there are few things more pleasant than having your brow caressed by a gentle breeze in the middle of the night.  And when the moon rises, you know it right away.  Same goes for nocturnal animals.  I’ve seen a lot of creatures this way that I’d never see otherwise.

Predawn is the best part.  I’m a morning person so I like to catch the first light.  Sometimes I stay in my sleeping bag, listening to songbirds as daybreak transpires.  I’m almost always up before the sun breaks through the trees.

Yeah, when I want to get intimate with the wild, a night beneath my tarp is the way to go.  To most people, it seems impractical and insecure.  But don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  Short of sleeping with no cover at all, it’s the best way I know to be in the woods.

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May 27 2011

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Cutting Grass

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Most people like the look of a well-manicured lawn.  Not me.  The green rugs surrounding homes strike me as the ultimate expression of human hubris – a patently absurd attempt to control nature.  We cut the grass, it grows back.  We cut the grass, it grows back.  Our mastery over this simple plant is temporary at best.

When my wife and I bought our home a decade ago, my main objection to the place was the grass around it.  From May through October, I walk back and forth in my yard once a week at least, pushing a noisy, carbon-emitting machine that turns grass into stubble.  The rain comes, the grass grows, then I do it all over again.  I am Sisyphus with a lawn mower, trapped in social convention.  Even if my immediate neighbors didn’t object, I wouldn’t dare let my yard grow wild.  The value of my property would plummet.

If I had the resources, I’d transform my yard into a lush garden.  But no, to be honest, I’d never put the time into it.  A friend of mine has done just that, but he spends half his life in his yard.  I’d rather be doing other things, like wandering around the woods.

I could always do what the affluent do and simply hire someone to cut my grass.  That is, after all, what the European kings did back in the day when they invented the lawn.  But no, that misses the point.  It matters little who cuts the grass.  The pertinent question is: why cut it at all?

The concept of high civilization is at the heart of any discussion about green space.   It isn’t enough to cultivate fields, thus providing ample food.  We must cultivate everything else in sight, keeping the wild at bay.  After all, it’s either us or them, where “them” is everything living that isn’t under our thumb.  Or so most people think.  But I don’t agree.

To justify mowing I tell myself that the lawn is good place for my wife to lounge, my dog to run, and my visiting grandchildren to play.  But down deep I seethe with rage.  Despite all talk about property rights, I have little control over my own yard.  Social convention.  I am bound by it.  So I dream of a cabin in the woods even while cutting my grass.   And maybe someday, if I win the literary lottery, I’ll make that dream come true.



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May 06 2011

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The Deluge

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Here in Vermont, the deluge is all over the news.  Lake Champlain has just set a new high at 103 feet above sea level.  That’s three feet higher than it usually is this time of year, flooding shoreline camps, homes and roads.  The Islands are especially hard hit and the main artery to it, Route 2, is down to one lane.  Heavy snowfall this past winter has melted fast during the past couple weeks, adding more water to rivers and streams already swollen with seven inches of April precipitation.  And the rain just keeps on coming.

Last weekend Judy and I went down to the town park on Saint Albans Bay and walked the water’s edge.  It was strewn with driftwood and other debris.  The seawall was under water along with the beach.  The park trees have wet feet now, and the shore road is closed.  We watched some teenage boys use nets to catch the carp swimming about the flooded baseball diamond.  You don’t see something like that every day.  Yessir, this is a flood of historic proportions.

It’s amazing how great a role weather still plays in our lives.  Most of us live and work indoors most of the time, but walls do not insulate us from the impact that the wild has upon our world.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, blizzards, earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods – when Mother Nature is on the rampage, you’d better get out of her way… if that’s at all possible.

Mother Nature is on the rampage a lot.  In fact, that’s pretty much the way she rolls.  Changes that we call cataclysmic are business as usual to her.  Mountain ranges are great seas of rock rising and falling on a geologic timescale.  Wind and water wear down all solid things, given enough years.  And everything burns, as the stars remind us nightly.  In a face-off between civilization and the wild, it’s a safe bet that the wild will prevail on anything other than a human timescale.  We sapient creatures aren’t really very sapient at all if think we can defeat Mother Nature.  At best, all we can do is piss her off and make life miserable for ourselves.  Oh yeah, that and maybe wipe out a million species of plants and animals in the process.  But Mother Nature doesn’t care.  There are plenty more life forms where those came from.

When most people experience Nature’s wrath, they think:  “This is the end of the world!”  But it is only the end of our complacency, of our false belief that we have the world in a box.  I love natural disasters for the way they humiliate humankind.  That said, I dread the prospect of going into my basement to assess the water damage down there.  I’m no dummy.  I know when I’m outclassed.

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Apr 05 2011

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Getting Wet

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Undaunted by the cold rain falling all day long, my dog Matika and I head for the woods.  Just a short hike in the middle of indoor busy-ness.  No biggie.  I’m excited all the same.  The last of the snow in my front yard melted off yesterday so it looks and feels like spring to me now.  I can see the ground again, anyhow.

This isn’t the kind of warm, sunny day that most people fantasize about in late winter but it suits me just fine.  I like the rawness of April here in the North Country – the muddy starkness of it, the roughness, the attitude.  And the dampness doesn’t bother me.  With pants tucked into boots, rain jacket over several layers and a waterproof hat, I’m ready for a seasonal baptism.  Bring it on!

The trail is clear for the most part.  There are still patches of snow scattered throughout the woods but my eyes gravitate to the earthy places where evergreen wood ferns are still pressed to the ground amid the leaf litter.  Along the banks of a feeder stream roiling with meltwater, the moss clinging to rocks is slowly coming back to life.  I revel in the steady roar of water rushing downhill.  It is winter’s way of saying goodbye.

The temptation to wander through trackless woods is too great.  I leave the trail.  With each step my boots sink into the saturated ground.  Raindrops filter through the trees, falling quietly into ephemeral pools fresh with snowmelt.  In the middle of all this wetness, I squat down for a moment to let it all soak in, literally.  Then I catch a whiff of thawed earth and something stirs deep within.  Matika is wet, happy and running wild through the forest.  So am I.

By the time Matika and I get back to the car, we are soaked.  No matter.  We’ll have the rest of the day to dry out and warm up.  The important thing is that we’ve made an elemental connection with the world, inaugurating the season.  And you can be certain that we’ll get out there and romp around again just as soon as we can.

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Mar 23 2011

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A Voice for the Wild

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I like to think of myself as a one-of-a-kind writer, whose quirky ideas are utterly new and different.  But I too have my influences.  Emerson and Thoreau are foremost among a hundred writers who have left their mark on me.  Among my contemporaries Gary Snyder looms large, and for good reason.  His book, The Practice of the Wild, came at a time when I was defining myself as a writer/thinker. When it comes to articulating the wild and our relationship to it, I am more indebted to him than I care to admit.

Recently my wife gave me a copy of The Etiquette of Freedom as an early birthday present.  This book is accompanied by a DVD that’s also called “The Practice of the Wild,” even though it’s a conversation between Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison on various subjects, along with a succinct portrayal of Snyder’s life and work.   To those interested in Zen Buddhism, beat poetry and their influence on the counterculture of the 60s, this film is insightful.  To those who want to better understand the roots of Environmentalism, it’s a must-see.  But it struck me in a different way.

Snyder is 80 years old now.  Even though he’s remarkably fit for his age, with a sharp mind to boot, it’s clear that the bulk of his work is behind him.  We assume that our contemporaries will always be with us, and we eagerly await their next books, never considering the possibility that this flow of ideas might end.  What happens when it does?

When I was a young man, I saw myself as God’s gift to the literary world.  But every great book I’ve read since then has humbled me a bit.  And I’ve read a lot of them through the years.  Time marches on and those we idolize soon become history.  This winter two of my favorite nature writers, John Hay and John Haines, passed away.  The generation previous to my own is retiring, fading into the background, checking out.  Can those in my generation fill their shoes?  More to the point, can I be a voice for the wild the way someone like Snyder has been?  My gut says no.

Snyder made it clear in the film that when he uses the word “nature” he means the entire universe, not just the outdoors.  My sentiment exactly.  And when he later said: “Life in the world is not just eating berries in the sunlight.  I like to imagine a depth ecology that would go to the dark side of nature,” he was talking dirty to me.  This is my domain – the wild that I have come to know firsthand.  So maybe, just maybe, I have something to contribute to the conversation.  That said I’m hoping he will write just one more book before, as he put it so eloquently, “walking the ghost trail in the stars.”

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Mar 16 2011

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Almost Spring

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A sunny day with temps in the high 30s.  Good day to head for the hills, so that’s what I do after a few hours of desk work.  “Is that a robin?” I ask myself, catching the shadowy shape of one on a rooftop while loading gear into my car.  On second look, it’s gone.  Maybe I was just imagining it.  Too early for migrating birds.  After all, there’s still a foot of heavy snow on the ground.

Stepping out of my car at the trailhead, I immediately hear the rush of water.  I walk over and, sure enough, there’s Preston Brook open and running fast towards the lowlands.  That puts a smile on my face.  I strap snowshoes to my rucksack and shoulder the load.  A trail of hard-packed snow points up Honey Hollow Road – closed for the season to all vehicles.  Then I begin what should be my last winter hike, going deeper into the mountains.

For nearly an hour I trudge steadily uphill, putting one foot in front of the other.  My dog Matika dashes from one sniffing spot to the next.  The woods are full of good smells this time of year.  Hares, squirrels and other forest creatures are awakening and moving about.

When the road levels out a bit, I fasten the snowshoes to my boots and leave the trail.  Matika runs across a thick crust of snow.  I sink no more than an inch into it, pleasantly surprised by this ease of movement.  Good thing.  Soon I’m following the trace of an old skidder trail next to a deeply cut ravine, descending rapidly towards the brook.  It’s a bushwhack now, just me, my dog and the trackless wild.

A smile breaks across my face when I spot the brook again.  It is rock-strewn and running hard, but still wide open and as clear as any mountain stream gets on a cloudless day.  The sun burns bright through naked trees, warming my face.  I’m hatless and in shirtsleeves now, yet still breaking a sweat.  Matika catches a scent then so do I.  It’s the nearly forgotten smell of the earth just beginning to thaw out.  Several days before the equinox, it is almost but not quite spring.  I caress exposed ferns and moss growing on the side of a huge boulder before following the brook farther downhill.

Matika cavorts about the woods, delirious with the freedom of the hills.  I tramp along as if living a dream.  The warm season is about to unfold in all its muddy, wet, bug-ridden glory.  And that’s a prospect that makes me happier than words can say.

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Feb 17 2011

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Alaska Photos

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When I was in the Alaskan bush, I took something like a hundred and forty pictures.  Most of them were either not that interesting or of such poor quality that they’re not worth showing.  But I do have half a dozen gems, like the photo shown here.

I added eight more to those – pictures worth a thousand words, as they say – then had them all digitized.  One became the cover of my Alaska narrative, Arguing with the Wind, in its latest incarnation.  The rest can be found at a photo website called smugmug.com.  Check them out.

Those of you who have access to my wife’s Facebook page already know about these pics.  I’m simply making them available to everyone else – publishing them, you could say.  I do not do this lightly.  It’s bad enough that I bare my soul with my written words.  Is it really necessary to do so with my images as well?

Alaska is one of those places that you either love or hate.  I never got over my brief sojourn there, and to great extent it made me the philosophizing, woods-wandering wordsmith I am today.  Once the wild gets in your system it stays there.  So I offer no further excuses for who/what I am.

Check out these photos and see if you can relate.  If so, then you are in more trouble than you realize, for the wild and the world that most of people inhabit are two entirely different things.  Which do you prefer?  Careful now.  Think long and hard before you answer that question.

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Dec 17 2010

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Arguing with the Wind

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Arguing with the Wind, an account of my two-week sojourn in the wilds of Southeast Alaska, has just been reprinted.  It is available at Amazon.com.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, ordering a copy is now as easy as clicking a button.  My modest publishing imprint, Wood Thrush Books, has finally entered the 21st Century.

I still have a few copies of the original edition, published back in 2003, that has an amateurish line drawing on the cover.  But the new edition sports a cover photo of the Kakuhan Range as seen from the coastal meadow near my base camp in the bush.  The book has also been revised ever so slightly and reformatted.  That said, the narrative remains essentially the same.

The big news is that I have recorded myself reading this book in its entirety.  My stepson, Matt, will soon be uploading these recordings to iTunes one or two chapters at a time, where they will be available as podcasts free of charge.  I flashed back to my sojourn in Alaska during the recording, so you might actually hear my gut reactions to the bush in those podcasts.  Although that adventure took place almost two decades ago, I remember the harsh beauty of the Alaskan wilds as if it was yesterday.  Some things you never forget.

I often tell people that a part of me never left the bush, that there’s a wildness within me now that won’t go away no matter how many times I sit in cafes sipping espresso, listening to modern jazz.  And when I’m deep in an Adirondack or New England wilderness, I quickly go feral.  It can’t be helped.  Once you’ve experienced the world at the most visceral level, there’s no going back to the tamer way of seeing things.

At any rate, I am excited by the prospect of this story reaching a much wider audience, and am quite pleased with the products that Matt and I have painstakingly put together.  There is the precious dream of wilderness that flutters through the mind like a fairy, then there is the real thing.  I hope that all of you, readers and listeners alike, get a better sense of the wildness of Alaska as a result of our humble efforts.

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