Tag Archive 'wild nature'

Mar 15 2015

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Big Questions

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gastropod1What’s the weather like? What’s for dinner? What’s on TV? These are the kind of questions that most people ask themselves nearly every day. As long as I keep to this program, I’m just a regular guy. But I have a tendency to stray. I have a tendency to ask big questions, very big questions – questions for which there are no simple answers.

Last year I completed a manuscript about my immersion into amateur astronomy a decade ago and the big questions that arose from it. At the same time, I read all sorts of theological works, sampling the world’s major religions. The result as been a long winter of intense metaphysical inquiry and difficult writing about things that no one really understands.

Last fall I visited Fisk Quarry and saw the fossilized remnants of creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Those swirls embedded in rock reminded me of spiral galaxies, hurricanes and other natural phenomena. All this suggests to my impressionable mind that there’s such a thing as natural order, that the patterns I see in the world around me are not just a figment of my imagination. That gets me thinking about why patterns exist.  And that, in turn, gets me thinking about the Absolute.

The great thaw has commenced here in the North Country. Soon I’ll be wandering around the woods looking for spring wildflowers, blathering like a fool about how wonderful and beautiful the world is. Then I won’t be so lost in my abstractions. Then again, everything in nature reminds me of divine order. I see spots on the back of a ladybug, a heavy mist clinging to a forested mountain, or the waxing moon rising after dark and sense the sublime. I’m a hopeless romantic.


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May 12 2014

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Leaf Out

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early spring foliageLeaves burst forth all around me as I meander along a path cutting through the woods. The forest floor is covered with trilliums, trout lilies, violets, and a host of other wildflowers. The songbirds are all singing – robins have been at it since the first glimmer of predawn light. I don’t know how long the warblers have been back, but I see them all around me now.  The natural world is coming alive and I am giddy with it.

What is this feeling overtaking me just now, like an inner glow that won’t quit?  Is this happiness?  Is it possible to be driven to joy by the mere outbreak of blue sky, balmy temps and fresh verdure? Of course it is. We are more creatures of the earth than we care to admit.  The robins are rejoicing.  Why shouldn’t we?

Matika lags behind me, backlogged in smells that she has found along the way. She is smiling. Some say that animals do not express emotion, but I know when my dog is happy. Quite often her moods are a reflection of mine. We both like to run wild for a day.

Springtime is so glorious that words cannot do it justice – especially now as everything brown suddenly turns green after such a long wait.  I grab a branch and pull an apple blossom close to my nose, inhaling deeply, intoxicated by its perfumed insinuation into the world. And to think the growing season is only beginning…  No wonder I’m so giddy.

Had I but one month to live, I would choose May, when there is nothing afoot but promise and potential, when the bee and the butterfly are just starting to go about their business, when the memory of a cold, dark winter is still fresh in my mind. And, as I sit on a knoll overlooking a drowned marsh where marigolds thrive, I can’t help but feel lucky to be alive and experiencing all this once again, one more time.

Indeed, it is too glorious for words.




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Aug 26 2013

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With the Grandkids

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Walt and grandkidsEvery summer Judy and I have all six of our grandkids for four or five days. No parents allowed. We play, go fishing and swimming, do crafts, camp in the back yard, watch movies, and eat all the wrong food. It’s a lot of work, but there’s no better way to get to know them.

Now that the youngest ones are able to hike, we’ve started taking the kids into the woods. Now it feels like they’re getting to know me. The forest is my element. Walking with them in the tracks of wild animals, teaching them how to navigate trails while pointing out the wonders along the way, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. Not for me, anyhow.

This year we went for a short hike along the Long Trail – my old stomping ground. We split into two groups. The more restless ones speed-hiked with me to Prospect Rock, while Judy meandered along the trail with the rest. Judy’s group grooved on mushrooms and everything else they found along the way. My group enjoyed physical exertion and a good view from the ledge. We got back together for a picnic lunch beneath the footbridge spanning the Lamoille River. There the kids found crayfish and some interesting rocks. Yes, rocks: quartz, mica and the rest. Even in the digital age, kids find rocks fascinating.

After lunch, while finishing the hike at a much slower pace, we checked out a cave, collected hardened sap from a wounded tree, and gathered more rocks. Jewelweed growing in wet places caught their attention so I showed them how to capture the tiny, almond-like seeds that shoot out of their pods when they’re touched. It was a lot of fun. They were surprised by how good the seeds tasted. Then I showed them how to use the plant’s juices as a salve for mosquito bites and other itchy skin. They were impressed by that. And I couldn’t have been happier.


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Jun 18 2012

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The End of an Illusion

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Yesterday I finished turning over the soil in my so-called wildflower garden, removing all the plants from it, thus ending a four-year experiment. The time had come to admit my mistake.

I had visions of a small patch of wild forest in the corner of my otherwise tame property. A jumble of ground ivy, crabgrass, bindweed and dandelion emerged instead, choking out the daisies and other “wildflowers” that I had seeded there. Things don’t always work out as planned.

For four years I had successfully resisted the urge to pull weeds from that backyard plot – something I do religiously in the much more aesthetically pleasing garden in front of my house. In other words, I let nature take its course back there. Unfortunately, nature can be cruel.

Truth is, nature is neither kind nor cruel. It only seems that way when the wild world passes through the prism of our all-too-human values. That’s precisely where I went wrong. I thought I could drop the word “weed” from my vocabulary and the beauty of deep woods would magically appear in the corner of my city lot.

Soon my wife and I will put some shade-tolerant plants back there: bleeding hearts, columbine, and whatever woodland flowers we can find at the local nursery. Then I will cultivate the plot using methods as old as civilization itself, making it domestically beautiful. And that will have to do. After all, there’s no such thing as a wild garden.



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Jan 30 2012

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World Weary

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Thanks to my tech savvy wife, I now get my morning news from an electronic device. Now I can read newspapers from any point on the globe, and keep up with the latest developments everywhere. Talk about information overload! I have to limit myself to half an hour of browsing otherwise I’d be at it all day. There’s really no end to the images and words that are available. With a good internet connection, the world is indeed a small place.

Yeah, now I can read about local, national and international events until I am truly sick at heart. Better than sticking my head in the sand and ignoring it all, I suppose. All the same, I can’t help but wonder what good all this information does me.

Am I better off keeping up with the massacres in Africa, the latest court rulings on crumbling nuclear power plants, or the circus that we call the presidential primaries? How much more do I need to know about the lurid sex lives of the rich and powerful, or the horrific crimes committed by supposedly decent folk? I’m partial to scientific surveys, but the one I read tomorrow will contradict the one I read today. Is eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine good for me or not? I know how they taste. That’s all I can say for sure.

I am world weary. 99% of the so-called information I encounter during the course of a day is tainted with propaganda, and quite frankly, I am tired of sorting through it. I call myself a philosopher because I have an insatiable hunger for meaning, but such a desire is meaningless in the Age of Misinformation. Media buzz trumps reality. And the wider the gap grows between the average person and wild nature, the more this becomes true.

A day in the woods provides temporary relief, but a week or two off the grid only makes it harder to come back.  In the summer of ’92, I went into the Alaskan bush hoping to resolve this matter. I haven’t been the same since. I have directly experienced What-is and know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that it vanishes the moment I step out of a wild forest. So now I turn on an electronic device, searching for more information, substituting that for wisdom. Then I get dressed and go to work on a keyboard, either at home or elsewhere, wondering why I feel so empty inside.

I should be happy. I have my health, a great marriage, my literary work, family and friends, and so much more.  But I am weary in a way that Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or any other existentialist would understand all too well. The gap between the wild and the civilized is wide indeed. And the world we live in doesn’t make much sense.


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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 19 2011

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Year of the Rabbit

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They appear when least expected: late at night as I’m getting home from work; early in the morning when I’m retrieving the newspaper; sometimes in broad daylight, just sitting there in the middle of the yard.  There have been rabbits in our neighborhood for as long as I can remember, but never have they been so ubiquitous.  They are everywhere now, and in great abundance.

I told my granddaughter, Maddie, that she would probably see rabbits when she, her cousins, and her brothers came to visit Judy and me last week, and sure enough she did.  They all did.  We flushed one from the day lilies during the first hour of play.  My dog, Matika chased another one to the backyard fence late that afternoon.  Maddie chased another shortly thereafter.  On the last day, we saw a rabbit sitting in someone’s yard just as we were finishing a hike up Aldis Hill.  They’re all over town it seems – not just in our neighborhood.  Why the sudden influx?

Rabbits are closely associated with the idea of proliferation.  “Breeding like rabbits,” someone says, and a horde of cute, furry creatures comes to mind.  Then we smile.  Even in great numbers they are non-threatening – our vegetable gardens notwithstanding.  Come on now.  If there was a movie about rabbits taking over the world, could it be anything but a comedy?

When tough guys talk about the “survival of the fittest,” they think of themselves as predators not prey.  They identify with those fierce, toothy creatures at the very top of the food chain.  But there are other survival strategies that work just as well, if not better.  Proliferation is one of them.  The hungry trout gobble up the mayflies as they hatch, but the mayflies survive anyway.  There are simply too many of them.  Clearly rabbits “survive” the same way.  Breeding is the key to their success.

When I read Darwin’s The Origin of Species a few years back, I was surprised by the amount of sex talk in it.  We commonly think of Darwinism as a tooth-and-claw worldview, but it has more to do with reproduction really.  And rabbits, well, they do that quite well.

Fecundity.  That’s one of my favorite words.  I use it all the time when talking about wild nature. Top predators might get all the media attention, but it’s the breeders that dominate the planet. Most biomass consists of insects, vegetation and bacteria – all very fecund life forms.  In the animal world, frogs, rodents and certain species of birds proliferate . . . along with rabbits.  Yeah, rabbits.  Bugs Bunny was no dummy.  And the predators never did get the best of him.


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Jun 29 2011

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I looked in the dark, weedy corner of my back yard the other day and noticed that a newcomer had appeared.  The small, purple flower wasn’t anything I’d seen before, I couldn’t find it in my flower identification books, and I had no idea where it had come from.  And, quite frankly, I didn’t care.  Beautiful in all its delicate simplicity, its migration to my rough flowerbed had been a true act of wildness – what my so-called wildflower garden is all about.

As a three-year experiment, my wildflower garden has been something of a disappointment.  I expected an explosion of lush, floral wildness, but got a patchy, hardscrabble, weed-ridden plot instead.  By comparison, the domestic flowerbed in my front yard is a riot of color and beauty – carefully attended to by you-know-who.

I hacked the belligerent bindweed from the backyard garden, removed the timothy, maple saplings and unsightly dandelions, and cast bags of wildflower seeds into the plot, but to no avail.  At long last, I have agreed with my wife that it’s time to till it all over, and carefully cultivate the garden from scratch.  But I will miss the occasional newcomer.

Earlier this year, a patch of forget-me-nots broke into bloom amid the weeds.  Again, a newcomer from god-knows-where.  It has happened before, and I’m sure it would happen again if I left well enough alone.  But the hand of the cultivator is rarely idle, is it?

There is a lesson in all this, I’m sure, but I think I’ll just leave it hanging and let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions.  After all, any legitimate philosophy of the wild is rooted in precisely that which is left unspoken.


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Jun 20 2011

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Natural versus Artificial

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While I was out walking the other day, I came upon a curious phenomenon.  A well-worn, earthen trail cutting through the woods suddenly came to a set of stairs that someone had painstakingly carved from rock.  My first thought: Why go to so much trouble?  Once I got beyond that, though, I marveled at the result.  Moss and lichen had crept from uncut stone to cut, making me wonder what difference there is really between the natural and the man-made.

Homo faber – we are the creatures who make things.  We manipulate the material world with such profound consequences that the word “artificial” had to be invented.  In the strictest sense, we are as much a part of nature as the wild animals whose paths we follow through the woods, the plants that grow all around us, the birds overhead or the insects below our feet.  And yet we stand apart from it.  What separates us?  Our inventions and contrivances, of course.

There is beauty in integration with nature, certainly.  The architectural wonders of Frank Lloyd Wright come to mind, as do the many stone monuments left behind by our ancestors.  But these are the exceptions to the rule.  Generally speaking, most man-made structures – buildings, roads or whatever – are striking in their radical break from the landscape.  Rare indeed is the developer who gives any thought at all to wild aesthetics.  Architectural renderings of would-be structures are usually accented with neat rows of trees and strategically placed green space, but the beauty the builder sees is all in the artifice – the perfectly straight or intentionally curved line – not wild anarchy.  And so it is with most things human, from the automobile to the ipod.

Philosophically, I have struggled with this for decades.  At the very heart of the matter are the very qualities that make us human.  More than any other creature, we manipulate our environment, making a rough and ready world more user-friendly, better suited to our wants and needs.  And yet we do so at our great peril – one that first became apparent to us in the 19th century, when the industrial world suddenly sprung to life and the idea of wilderness transformed from something threatening to something idyllic.  Now it is quite possible that we may lose ourselves in our grand designs, reaching a point where stairways cut from stone will seem ridiculously quaint.  Then the word “wild” will lose all meaning, and the entire planet will have our mark on it.  What’s to stop us?


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Jun 12 2011

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Summer Bloom

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The wildflowers that grow along roads and in fallow fields are easy to ignore.  It is the warm season, after all, and we are exuberant with baseball, beaches and a vast array of other summertime activities.  But the bloom has moved now from canopied forests to open places awash in sunlight.  Now the green is punctuated with tiny splashes of yellow, pink, blue and a dozen other dazzling hues.

It’s a subtle beauty to be sure – the stuff of impromptu bouquets given to mothers by their children.  One can walk along a recreational trail for twenty minutes before really noticing them.  But see one and hundreds suddenly appear, no, thousands.  Thick patches of birdsfoot trefoil and clover at one’s feet, bright yellow and orange hawkweed here and there, tangles of dewberry, and the ubiquitous buttercup – they all vie for our attention.  Summer’s bright, happy palette is everywhere, half-hidden in timothy bent over by a steady, warm breeze.  Bladderwort hugs the trail’s gravely edges.  Cow vetch lurks in the background.  Daisies steal the show.

When I walk in the open this time of year, I marvel at nature’s diversity.  The forest is just as fecund as the field, but the field flaunts it.  The untended places drenched with high sun allow plants to go crazy.  Ferns, moss and other lifeforms may creep relentlessly across the damp forest floor, but in the meadows biomass explodes.  Feel the heat that all these plants generate on a hot day and there’s no doubt in your mind that life pulsates on this planet.  Butterflies, dragonflies and countless other insects go about their business in these roofless hothouses.  Step into it and you come out covered in pollen and seeds.  Yeah, the wild fields are like that in June.  And they will only grow more intense as the season progresses.

It is easy to be awed by snow-capped mountains, roiling seas and blazing sunsets, but the power and glory of nature lies in the tiny flowers that we hardly notice at all – the ones whose names we forget or confuse with others, the ones that can only be appreciated with a magnifying glass.  Herein lies irrefutable proof that the wild will persist no matter what.  Herein lies the true genius of the ordered chaos that is Nature.  An hourlong walk this time of year reaffirms my pantheism.  God is in all things, surely.  What other explanation can there possibly be for such overabundance?  The fields full of wildflowers echo the chorus sung by billions of stars in the night sky.  Both the universe and the world we inhabit are absolutely teeming with possibility.


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