Tag Archive 'wild nature'

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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Sep 29 2010

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Mountain Stream Philosophizing

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Sometimes I head to the mountains to escape my thoughts.  Other times I take my intellectual baggage with me.  The other day was a good example of the latter.

Even as the rush of the mountain stream filled my ears, and the intoxicating smell of autumn leaves tickled my nose, I brooded over a comment made by a world-renowned physicist a week or two earlier.  He had said that a Creator was not necessary, that the universe could have arisen spontaneously from nothing.  I immediately scoffed at the notion, but it ate away at me regardless.

Order or chaos – it all comes down to that, doesn’t it?  Either the universe is organized according to certain immutable laws, or all events are essentially random.  Recent cosmological discoveries point to a Big Bang occurring 13.7 billion years ago, to a singular event giving birth to the universe as we know it, thereby ruling out the possibility that things are now as they have always been.  But that leaves the non-religious thinker no choice but to embrace utter randomness.  And that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Order or chaos?  While fly fishing a mountain stream, I see plenty of both.  All around me there are downed trees, rotting wood, and the quiet tumult of growth and decay, yet the leaves overhead are turning gold, completing a cycle set in motion many centuries ago.  Rocks are strewn about haphazardly, as are twigs and branches, yet the stream itself follows the inexorable tug of gravity.  Is wild nature ordered or chaotic?  A good argument can be made either way.

A small brown trout rose to my showy fly, an Ausable Wulff, then all was quiet for a while.  When I spotted a cloud of tiny, slate gray mayflies hovering over the water, I changed to another fly – one called a Blue-winged Olive – that better matched the hatch.  I was betting that the hungry mouths beneath the water’s surface would know the difference.  This bet didn’t escape the philosopher in me.  I was betting on natural order and was not disappointed.  Several trout splashed to the surface, chasing my tiny gray fly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the eyes to see my offering on the water so I missed the strikes, leaving all matters philosophical unresolved.

Shortly thereafter, I resorted to my showy A. Wulff, which is much easier to see.  I soon hooked and landed a ten-inch brook trout.  It didn’t make any sense, really.  You’d think a big, old brookie would know better than to rise to something that looks as out of place as an A. Wulff.  Clearly Mother Nature was making fun of me, mocking my assumptions.  Or maybe we just don’t have enough information to really know what’s going on around us.  I laughed long and hard at that, while returning the trout to the drink.  There’s always a rationalization, isn’t there?

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Apr 13 2010

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The First Flowers

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I went for a hike yesterday hoping to find some spring peepers.  After all, it’s that time of year.  I know of a few small ponds right next to the Rail Trail where they thrive.  So made a beeline for them, encouraged by the appearance of a couple turtles in wetlands along the way.  But the ponds were quiet when I reached them.  None of those joyous little frogs were around.

Much to my surprise, I found purple trillium in bloom instead.  At first I thought I was imagining things.  The broad leaves of that wildflower do unfurl in mid-April, but the flowers usually remain tight-fisted until May.  Not this year.  With the season a good two weeks ahead of schedule, the trillium flowers have opened up.  Just nature’s way of saying there is no hard and fast schedule, I suppose.  Not that I’m complaining.  Spring can never come too early for me.

A bit later, I found trout lily in full bloom, along with a little patch of spring beauty.  I dropped down on my knees and stuck my nose in those tiny, candy-striped flowers.  One good whiff of spring beauty and everything changes.  Suddenly nature has unfolded in all its wonder and wild beauty, and I am a complete dope for it.  One good whiff of that intoxicating scent and an entire winter’s worth of existential angst pops like a balloon.

What was I thinking about?  I forgot.  But through the woods a flash of bright green caught my eye so I headed that direction.  On a south-facing slope, of course, more wildflowers bloomed in a sprawling patch of leeks.  I dropped to my knees for a second whiff of spring beauty but the pungent odor of wild onions overwhelmed the sweeter smell.  Amid the leeks, Dutchman’s breeches arose, along with round-lobed hepatica.  No doubt about it, spring has come early this year.

I suppose I should be concerned.  There have been enough late autumns and early springs in recent years to make even the most hardened skeptic consider climate change.  But right now, I can’t go there.  Right now, all I see are wildflowers in bloom and the beginning of another growing season.  Right now I see the forest turning green again, slowly coming back to life after a long sleep, and all I can do is rejoice like peepers reveling in the season.

Maybe next time out I’ll hear those little frogs.  But for now, the first flowers are more than enough.

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Feb 24 2010

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The Madness of Civilization

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Civilization is indoor plumbing, a dependable food supply, health care, waste management and the social contract among other things, not to mention a host of amenities. Civilization is good for so many reasons that I am reluctant to speak ill of it, even when I’m feeling the wildest of urges.  Then comes tax time and suddenly I’m face-to-face with the absolute madness of it.  Those of you who do your own taxes and can’t use the EZ form know exactly what I’m talking about.  There are 101 ways that civil society can drive one to distraction, but none quite as effectively tax preparation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against paying income taxes.  I leave that complaint to those who think they can fund a well-oiled government by other means.  I’m against the madness of the tax code in general, that has turned tax preparation into a cottage industry in this country.  But an inordinately complex and downright absurd tax code is exactly what you get when you let a bunch of lawyers and other congressmen fight over the rules of it for a hundred years.  Good thing I studied advanced mathematics back in college.  Unfortunately, I studied logic as well.

The madness of civilization isn’t limited to tax code.  Far from it.  There is also airport security, civil litigation, lobbying, insurance, plea bargaining, internet fraud, financial derivatives, bundled mortgages, gridlock, an emergency-room health care system and the war on terror, whatever that means.  I could go on but there’s no need.  You know what I’m talking about.  The madness of civilization are all those vexing aspects of modern living that we’ve simply come to accept. . . until they affect us personally.  Then we tear our hair out.

Emerson, Thoreau and those other Romantic thinkers of the 19th Century turned to wild nature for escape from the hustle and bustle of industrializing society, but that seems like a rather quaint notion to those of us living today.  We are buried in corporate and governmental bureaucracy, menaced constantly by false advertisements, mind-numbing paperwork, irrational rules, conflicting facts and doublespeak.  Nowadays, we turn to the wild out of sheer desperation.  Without it, there is no way to achieve balance – no way to know what is real and what is not.

When I was on the Appalachian Trail last summer, I noticed a direct correlation between the overall well being of those I encountered and how long they had been in the woods.  The long-distance hikers were the happiest.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What is it about modern living that makes torrential downpours, blood-sucking insects, mud, sweat and the many other miseries of wilderness travel look good?  All nature-lovers marvel at the beauty and wonder of wildness, but it’s what they don’t say that gets my attention.  Clearly, the madness affects us all.

An aerodynamics expert once told me that the best airplane designs are the most elegant ones, meaning that truly advanced technologies are marked by their simple beauty.  Systems grow more and more cumbersome until finally a quantum leap occurs and suddenly they’re user-friendly.  Computer software design in the 80s and 90s is a good example of this.  The same can be said about social systems, I think.  And with this in mind, we ought rightly to turn to wild nature for guidance.  Otherwise humankind is doomed to live out the rest of its days in a rat maze entirely of its own making.

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Jan 11 2010

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Getting into Winter

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I’ve never been a big fan of winter, and after shoveling the white stuff for a few days, I begin to hate it.  But it’s unhealthy to live in a place like Vermont and stay home from the first snow flurry of the season to the last.  So even now, in the middle of winter when all I want to do is hibernate, I make it a point to get into the woods when I can.

A Nor’easter struck a week ago.  For all you who don’t live in New England, that means lots of precipitation straight from the ocean.  In this case, it came in the form of snow falling for three days in a row.  Between one and three feet of it, depending upon where it was measured.  Good if you like to ski; not so good if you have to shovel your own driveway.  I fall into the latter category.  But once I finished pushing back the white stuff, I grabbed my snowshoes and headed for the hills.

There’s a wild area on French Hill, not far from home.  I go there whenever time is tight but I need to get out.  I went there a few days ago and cut tracks across the trackless snow until I reached a snowshoe trail that someone else had cut a week earlier.  Even with fresh snow, I still found it easier to follow that trail than to cut new tracks.  Fortunately, it led to where I wanted to go: a beaver pond less than a mile from the road.

My dog, Matika, loves the snow.  I’m not sure why.  I think it holds smells better than dirt does.  At any rate, she likes to frolic in the snow, occasionally burying her snout in it to investigate some hidden treasure.  She looks silly with her face all frosted but she doesn’t seem to care.

First thing I notice whenever I’m alone in the woods after a big snowstorm is how incredibly quiet it is.  An ominous quiet, that is.  Robert Frost nailed it with his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” of course.  But standing  in a cold, white forest, it’s easy for me to believe that I just discovered the terrible beauty that wild nature becomes in deep winter.  Trees heavily laden with snow are both magnificent and surreal.  As they droop towards me, I keep thinking that maybe I shouldn’t be alone out here.

The beaver pond was frozen over – a black-and-white photograph brought to life.  Starkly beautiful.  The gray clouds overhead thickened and a flurry commenced.  Matika wanted to keep going deeper into the woods, but I thought it best to turn around.  By the time I reached the car, my own sweat had chilled me.  But it was good to get out.  And whatever gripe I had earlier in the day was forgotten by the time I got back home.

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Dec 28 2009

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World Without Wildness

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I found a field mouse in the basement the other day – an uninvited guest.  Its sudden appearance inside my home, the ultimate expression of domestication, is proof positive that the wild cannot be completely eradicated.  I find no small consolation in this.  I absolutely dread the possibility of living in a world without wildness, so I’d like to let that mouse stay.   But I’ll be putting out traps soon.   After all, I have to protect my investment.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between humankind and nature, about the difference between what is wild and what is not.  We use the terms “wild” and “civilized” as if they were opposites, as if one cancels out the other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  Our relationship to the wild is much more complicated than that.  I believe that a part of the wild rests deep within us all, and that the wildness within cannot be completely eradicated any more than the weeds in our yard or the pests creeping into our houses.  All the same, it can be pushed back to the point where any discussion regarding it is moot.

When all that’s left of the wild is the occasional intruder in the basement, we will be living in a world without wildness.  When all nature is under our thumb, one way or other, then the wild won’t be worth thinking about.  When what we call nature is reduced to gardens, woodlots and preserves, and we have the means to genetically alter everything at will, then the wildness within us will be lost as well.  Then wilderness will be a theme park – a mere caricature of what it once was – and we will be only shells of our former selves.

I find it impossible to adequately define concepts like “wild” and “civilization” no matter how much I try.  These are terms fraught with ambiguities.  But this much I do know:  without a place to roam freely, we are merely cogs in a grand, meaningless, self-perpetuating system.  Aldo Leopold got right to the heart of the matter when he said:  “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”   In an era of flying drones, GPS navigation, infrared cameras, and electronic tracking devices, this question is hardly an academic one.  Computer chips are showing up everywhere.  Soon it will be impossible to completely disappear into the wild no matter how hard we try.  Good news for fighting terrorism or finding lost hikers, but bad news for preserving the wildness essential to us all.

I fear the scientist with his radio collar more than the greedy developer with his bulldozer.  It doesn’t require a great deal of creativity to imagine a team of technicians descending upon a woods wanderer and tagging him or her like any other wild animal.  And why not?  The wild cannot be properly managed if there are gaping holes in the database.  So yeah, I’ll trap that mouse in my basement, but not without deep reservation.  Some part of the wild must be cultivated within me.  Some part of the wild must be allowed even in my own home.  Otherwise, civilization is all for nothing.

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Jul 21 2009

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A Perfect Day

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A few weeks ago, when Mason turned five, I promised my grandson that I would take him hiking and fishing for a day.  Just the two of us – no brother or sister along.  Incessant rain and my busy work schedule made it difficult to make good on the promise right away, though.  When finally a rain-free day appeared on my weather website, I called Mason’s mom to arrange an outing.  I picked up Mason right after breakfast and we headed for the nearest body of water.

We caught a few sunfish at Arrowhead Lake, but it wasn’t the kind of rock-and-roll action I’d been hoping for so we drove over to the Lamoille River.  Didn’t do any better there.  Surprisingly, Mason didn’t complain.  When I suggested that we go for a hike next, he was all for it.  We went to Niquette Bay State Park and hiked down the broad, flat path towards the beach.  Mason shouldered a teardrop pack loaded with all kinds of stuff, keeping the park map firmly in hand.  I carried along a fishing rod, just in case.

While standing on the shores of Lake Champlain, we saw the forested point where the park attendant told us to fish.  We headed for the point, walking the beach until it disappeared into reeds.  The lake is high this year, due to heavy rains.  No matter.  Mason charged up a goat path heading straight uphill.  I warned him that it looked like a tough climb but he didn’t care.  He was ready for the adventure so up we went, huffing and puffing, our feet slipping in sandy, loose soil all the way.  At last reaching the Beach Bypass Trail on top, we took a break.  We drank water and ate trail mix and talked about stuff until we were ready to go again.  I said we could take the easy path back to the car if he was tired, but Mason wanted to keep going to the point.  Okay then.

Beyond a deep ravine, the path narrowed as it wound up and down through woods and rocks until we reached the point.  There a broad, flat rock dropped into deep water and, sure enough, we got into a few more fish.  But it was nothing to brag about.  We were distracted once by a frog leaping across the rock and again by a gaggle of teenage girls nearby who started jumping into the water.  Mason wanted to do the same, but I reminded him that we didn’t have bathing suits with us – truly an oversight on such a warm, sunny day.

While hiking out, Mason and I took turns spotting chipmunks and red squirrels half hidden in the surrounding forest.  “Good eye!” I told him.  Then we talked about coming back here with his mom and brother and sister someday.  I took a deep breath, then exhaled, saying how much I love the smell of the woods.  Mason did the same.  Then I mentioned how lucky we were, with all the rain lately, to have such good weather to hike.  “Yeah,” Mason said, “It’s a perfect day!”  I smiled at that, all the while thinking how the day could have been better.  Then I agreed.

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Jun 08 2009

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Wild Things

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I read in the paper the other day that Alaskan state officials have cracked down on a guy named Charlie Vandergaw for feeding the bears.  Evidently, he’s been doing this for quite some time now.  Vandergaw lives by himself in a remote cabin and has befriended large, wild browns to the point where he can pet them. He’s been featured on a cable television network called Animal Planet.  No doubt he has plenty of fans.  But officials at Alaska Fish and Game can’t abide by it, so he’s been charged with illegally feeding game and could face a $10,000 fine or a year in jail for it.

Anyone who has a bird feeder in the back yard or who has tossed a nut to a chipmunk creeping into camp can relate to Vandergaw, I’m sure.  We all know we’re not supposed to make wild animals dependent upon us for food, but it’s hard to resist feeding them.  They’re so cute.  Besides, there’s something about the tentative approach of a cautious creature that urges us to share our abundance.  But a bear once fed will look again to humans for a free meal.  What happens if an unsuspecting picnicker doesn’t comply?  Everything is all very warm and fuzzy on Animal Planet, but sometimes our furry buddies get ugly off camera.  That’s what the Alaskan officials are thinking about, anyhow.

Cockeyed libertarians look at the situation and see the government oppressing a gentle, old man who’s not hurting anyone.  Calloused Alaskans believe the grizzlies will eventually turn on Vandergaw.  Still others see this as a strange form of profiteering.  After all, someone had to pay for the ton and a half of dog food that our TV grizzly man has provided.  All this misses the point, I think.  My question is this:  When does the wild cease being the wild?

We’re all guilty of it.  Nature lovers have their preserves.  Scientists have their tranquilizing guns and radio collars.  Hunters want the wild managed to optimize conditions for their prey.  Urban planners have their green spaces.  Even materialistic, money-mad developers, who clearly don’t give a damn about wild nature, still like manicured gardens and golf courses.  We all want a piece of the wild under our thumb.  It’s hard to leave it alone.  And why should we?

Heaven on earth is often depicted as a place where the lion lies down with the lamb.  This biblical notion has infected all of us more than we realize.  One could argue that it’s written into the very definition of civilization.  “Peace on earth” and “dog eat dog” are mutually exclusive concepts, aren’t they?  Why not turn the entire planet into a garden and make all creatures our pets?

I don’t want to belabor this point.  I’m sure that you can see quite clearly where I’m going with all this.  I read about some guy chumming up to Alaskan browns and a part of me, having been exposed to them once, wants to do the same.  Then it occurs to me how easy it is to love something to death.  Truth is, in order for something to be truly wild it has to remain beyond our control.  And that’s a concept we all find difficult to accept.

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May 20 2009

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Money Matters

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Even though I don’t consider myself a materialist, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about money.  Who hasn’t?  For most of us living in middle-class America these days, money is more about survival than it is the endless acquisition of goods.  My wife, Judy, and I are concerned about keeping a roof over our heads, food in the cupboards and the other basics of life.  We worry about future prospects for some kind of retirement, health care, and all the rest of it.  These are hard times, certainly – not nearly as bad as the Great Depression, we are told, but worse than anything we’ve ever seen before.  And we keep wondering when it’s all going to turn around.

The other day Judy remarked that springtime seems especially beautiful this year.  I agree, it is.  Why is that?  I suspect that it has something to do with survival, with all the time and energy we’ve devoted to money matters since the economy took a turn for the worse.  After a long pow-wow about cutting back our expenses, just in case, we looked up from our porch chairs and were pleasantly surprised to find the world just as beautiful as it has always been – as if money doesn’t matter at all.  How strange.

Money does matter, and what we are experiencing in America these days is what most of the people on this planet deal with every day.  Many of them are worse off than the average unemployed American – much, much worse off.  I read somewhere recently that a billion people go to bed hungry every night.  That’s almost one in six people.  Simple facts like this keep things in perspective.

How dare I ramble on and on about the wonders of wild nature while a billion bellies are growling, when the future is so uncertain!  Sometimes I am ashamed of my wild thoughts and feel guilty about the long walks in the woods that I enjoy while so many people are suffering.  Then someone else mentions the scent of lilacs in the air, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker knocking, or the luxuriant feel of a handful of dirt.  Then I nod my head in deep reverence.  These are things that keep us going.  These are things that matter.

What is the point of living if there is no joy in it?  What is easier to enjoy than a colorful sunset, a cool breeze in the morning, a few notes sung by a songbird, or anything green?  When one’s belly is full, of course.  I don’t know how to turn the economy around or how to fix all the world’s woes, but I do know that we’ll be in deep trouble the day we loose our appetite for the simple pleasures of life.  Without it we would be only so many desperados bouncing off each other in search of a quick fix.  So let’s try to enjoy the things commonly found in nature even as we take care of the difficult business at hand.

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May 08 2009

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The Green Unfurling

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After weeks of alternating rain and sunshine, the grass is a fuller, deeper green than it’s been in six months.  But that’s not what’s captured my attention lately.  Not really.  I am awestruck by the leaf-out all around me – in the bushes, in the trees, and across the forest floor.  It is so sudden and overwhelming that I find it difficult to think of anything else when my eyes fall upon it.  And yes, it feels sudden, even though I had all of April to anticipate it.  Nothing could have prepared me for this kind of green, even though I’ve seen it fifty times before.

Vernal green, Kelly green, the green of a living landscape long since dormant and springing to action.  Wizard of Oz green – a brown and gray world bursting into Technicolor vitality overnight, too green to be real.  I first noticed the green unfurling while running my dog a week or so ago.  A maple leaf no bigger than my thumb rolled out of its bud and yawned.  All I could do was stand there amazed by it.  But now I’ve gone beyond that even.  Now I’m completely overwhelmed.

What kind of world is this, anyway?  How can there be so much green where there was only bleached forest detritus, dark mud and naked branches only a few weeks ago?  I go about my daily affairs the best I can, but all this green distracts me.  I fight back the urge to cast off my clothes and dance through the lilies like some feral naturist drunk on life.  I make a list for the day, look at my watch and pretend that I have it all under control.  But this green unfurling is making mincemeat of my reasoning powers.

Every other day is built around a stint of woods wandering, however brief.  The rest of my life is just some kind of muddling through, a sleepwalk of sorts, full of numbers, ideas and other abstractions.  Head down I start my walks.  Five or ten minutes into them, I look up and see the luminescent green.  Then and only then am I fully aware of being alive.  And my first impression is always the same:  This remarkable world is too beautiful for me to run roughshod over it the way I do.  What was I thinking?

But enough blather already.  A cardinal calls me out even as I write this.  I’ve gotta go.  And maybe, just maybe, after I’ve seen enough songbirds and wildflowers amid the green, I’ll be able to get something constructive done today.  Not that it matters.  Life needs no excuse to exist.  In that regard, I am no exception to the rule.

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