Tag Archive 'wilderness'

Dec 17 2010

Profile Image of Walt

Arguing with the Wind

Filed under Blog Post

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.

Comments Off on Arguing with the Wind

Oct 20 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Spiritual, Earthy and Wild

Filed under Blog Post

There are three words that make me especially uncomfortable:  spiritual, earthy, wild.  I use them all the time, in one context or another, but always with just a touch of apprehension.  All three words are loaded – fraught with meanings given them by thousands of naturalists before me.  Might as well add the word “naturalist” to the list.  I can’t even think about myself that way without feeling like something of a fraud.  I notice plants, watch wildlife, and read the landscape while wandering through the woods, but I’m no naturalist.  Not really.

What is spirituality?  These days many people call themselves spiritual instead of religious, thereby distancing themselves from organized religions while still asserting a belief in some kind of intangible reality.  Often such people claim a spiritual connection to the earth, though it’s never clear what this means.  No doubt it means different things to different people.  Yet the word “spiritual” implies the otherworldly, the ethereal, or a force transcending the physical.  How can a skeptic like me believe that such a realm actually exists?  There is no irrefutable proof one way or the other.

Someone says “earthy” to me and a groovy, long-haired dude and his girlfriend come to mind, both wearing clothes made with natural fibers.  I catch a whiff of patchouli every time I hear the word.  That and body odor.  Is that the Grateful Dead I hear playing in the background?  Why do I feel this sudden urge to dance barefoot while beating on a tambourine?  No, I’m not that earthy.  I’ve been known to hang upside down and naked from a tree branch overhanging a brook, splashing water into my face all the while, but most people would consider that kind of behavior strange, not earthy.  Especially if there are no drugs or alcohol involved.

As for wildness, well, we all know how vague that word is.  It means a thousand different things: unrestrained, untamed, out of control, or uncultivated to name only a few.  The word “wild” is as hard to pin down as words like “truth” or “love.”   My dog is utterly tame, yet there’s some wildness in her.  Same goes for me, or am I only deluding myself?  I obey traffic laws when I drive, file my taxes annually, and know how to behave myself in a social setting so how wild can I be?  How wild is the wilderness area in which I roam when it takes an act of congress to keep it from being developed?  How wild is wildlife when it’s being managed by biologists and bureaucrats?  How wild is a gun-toting, motorcycle barbarian when he’s wearing gang tattoos?  How wild can sex be when it’s only for fun?  The wild, it seems, has been turned inside out.

Whenever I hike alone, deep into wilderness for days on end, I feel more spiritual, earthy and wild.  That is, I feel a growing bond to the physical world, as well as to something reaching beyond the senses.  I shed the trappings of social convention like an old skin, and commune with a wilder society consisting of plants, animals, rocks, forest duff, water and wind.  In the wild, mud is no stranger to me.  Blood-sucking insects aren’t either.  In wilderness, the endless cycle of life and death is everywhere around me, so I can’t help but wonder what keeps it going.  Nature?  I can’t use that word any more without genuflecting.  I am astounded by the natural world.  I am rendered mute by the real.  It is so far beyond any civilized understanding that there’s no sense talking about it at all.

Comments Off on Spiritual, Earthy and Wild

Jan 23 2009

Profile Image of Walt

A Phony Woodsman

Filed under Blog Post

Yesterday was chock full of electronic frustrations.  I began the day in the rat maze that Bowker calls a web site, managing those ISBNs sacred to every book publisher, and finished with a phone call to my tech savvy stepson, Matt, regarding coming changes to my email account.  Plenty of other frustrations between those two: altered passwords, new online fees, and assorted glitches.  By mid-morning, I was ready to toss my computer in a snow bank and go live in a cabin in the woods, completely off grid.  By mid-afternoon, I was slogging through calf-deep snow in nearby woods, trying to sweat out my frustrations.  That helped a little.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that I’m a phony woodsman.  Most of my troubles stem from the fact that I have a foot in two entirely different worlds.  On one foot, I’m a writer and small-scale publisher, deeply engaged in high civilization.  On the other I’m a woods wanderer, tramping around roadless areas like a wild animal.  In other words, I keep a line of communication open to society therefore I’m a phony.  If I were a real woodsman, I’d step into the forest and never be heard from again.

I often catch myself fantasizing about disappearing.  My greatest reservation is that I’d lose my wife in the process, along with cherished ties to family and friends.  Then there’s the whole matter of where and how to live, along with the money necessary to set myself up, so the fantasy doesn’t last long.  Making a complete break with society isn’t easy.  Even mountain men had to trap beaver and sell pelts to traders in order to supply themselves with essentials.  Truth is, any retreat into the forest is only a half measure, unless one is utterly misanthropic and independently wealthy.

“No one lives in the woods,” the rather caustic French philosopher Alain once wrote, “Life in the woods is a fiction; the man of the woods is a fugitive.”  When I first read this, I wanted to sling his book across the room.  “Bullshit!” was my gut response.  Then I thought it through and tempered my judgment.  When I’m deep in a wilderness for days on end, I am very much a man of the woods.  In such circumstances, the wild defines me.  But I start missing my family and friends.  Eventually, time and food run out.  Then I return to the world of words, dollars and other abstractions.  Yeah, I’m a phony.  Alain called it.

Yet nothing Alain or any other cafe philosopher says can change what I feel in my heart.  My connection to the wild is profound.  I can’t imagine going too long without a good dose of it.  If ever the day comes when dropping off the grid isn’t possible, then woods wanderers like me will no longer exist.  Yeah, I may be a phony when I call myself a woodsman, but I still must have my regular infusion of the wild, if only for a day or two here and there.  This utterly electronic world can’t sustain me.

Comments Off on A Phony Woodsman

Oct 17 2008

Profile Image of Walt

Surrendering Wilderness

Filed under Blog Post

I read a musing on wilderness the other day that really got me going.  It was written by the award-winning essayist, Marilynne Robinson, who has a way with words but clearly doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  She started out addressing the idea of wilderness in the most general terms, then discussed various environmental woes, then argued that every environmental problem is fundamentally a human one.  Maybe so, but getting from there to her conclusion was quite the stretch.

“I think we must surrender the idea of wilderness,” she concluded, “Accept the fact that the consequences of human presence in the world are universal and ineluctable, and invest our care an hope in civilization…”  Hmm…  Did I miss something?  I went back and reread the first part of the essay to make sure her idea of wilderness and mine are roughly the same.  They aren’t.  She was thinking of the wide-open, relatively uninhabited landscape of the American West; I was thinking of wild country, as close to being pristine as it can be in this day and age.  There’s a big difference between the two.  You can site a nuclear waste dump in the former, but not in the latter.

Maybe I should cut Ms. Robinson some slack.  After all, the best essays aren’t rigorously argued discourses.  But that phrase, “surrender the idea of wilderness,” buzzes around my head like a pesky fly.  The last thing in the world I intend to surrender is the idea of wilderness.  I will surrender the idea of civilization first, though I don’t believe for a second that the two are mutually exclusive.

Again I’m thinking I should cut Ms. Robinson some slack.  Perhaps she doesn’t see the difference between wilderness and the idea of wilderness.  I don’t know how to show her the difference without dropping her in the middle of the Alaskan bush for a couple weeks with nothing more than a little food, gear, and her own wits to stave off oblivion.  The idea of wilderness is a gross misrepresentation of the wild, I’ll grant her that.  But to write off the wild altogether in favor of the civilized – I’m not buying it. There’s more to being civilized, I think, than living in a gilded cage.  Much more.

Ever since people have been able to throw up walls and declare themselves civilized (i.e. better than barbarians), there has been this prejudice against the wild.  I suspect that Ms. Robinson, along with many, many others living in this day and age, consider themselves intellectually and morally superior to our distant ancestors who scratched out a living towards the end of the last Ice Age.  If highly civilized people such as Ms. Robinson ever tried to chip a spearhead, attach it to a shaft, and get their lunch with it, they might see the fundamental error built into their preconceptions.

As for me, well, I spend a lot of time nurturing my philosophical abstractions but could just as easily be a fur-clad shaman fifteen thousand years ago trying to explain the world.  Reason is a handy tool but not the be-all and end-all of understanding.  I am human and wild, first and foremost.  I have sojourned in the wilderness on many occasions, however brief, and know the difference between what it is and any mere idea of it.  Civilization is optional.  The wild is not.

4 responses so far

Sep 05 2008

Profile Image of Walt

Managing Wildness

Filed under Blog Post

A copy of Adirondac, the Adirondack Mountain Club publication, appeared in my mailbox the other day. I immediately cracked it open and looked for some provocative article to read. The ADK rarely disappoints on that count. I found an article titled “There’s a Reason for the Rules,” in which a club member defended some of the more controversial DEC regulations recently applied to the Eastern High Peaks. My blood boiled right away.

Last year I shelled out seventy bucks for a bear resistant canister so that I could legally backpack into the Dix Mountain Wilderness, which I believe is subject to Eastern High Peaks rules. Yep, that’s right. Can’t just sling my food bag in the trees like I have for the past 30-odd years. Gotta have a big, heavy plastic can for the bears to kick around. Well, okay. Bears are a problem in the High Peaks, so I went along with it. Then I returned home from my trip to find out I could have been issued a fine anyway, for building a campfire out there and having my dog off leash.

Right now I have backpacking gear laid out on the floor of an extra bedroom. I’m getting ready for a 5-day excursion into the Adirondacks – with my dog, of course. We won’t be going to the High Peaks, that’s for certain. The DEC rules are more relaxed in every other part of the Adirondack Park. I will land in a place where few people go, build a campfire the size of a pie pan, and stare into it for a several hours after cooking my dinner on it. I call this meditation. Others call it a violation of backcountry ethics.

I fully understand the need to regulate high-use areas like the High Peaks. On many occasions I have hiked the battered trails leading to the Park’s highest summits. Often I have passed so many people on the trail that it hardly felt like a wilderness experience at all. I’ve seen neophyte backpackers drag small trees to fire pits and torch them as if deep woods is the perfect place for a bonfire. I’ve seen dogs chase deer to exhaustion, wild animals open up backpacks full of food, and mountain streams tainted by soap suds. I’ve personally picked up enough trash scattered around shelters to fill my car once over, at least.

Yeah, I know exactly what the rules are for, but I also know that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) is a state bureaucracy that thrives on the endless creation of rules, and that there are enough eco-fundamentalist zealots in both the DEC, the ADK, and elsewhere to impose fixed, one-way worldviews on the rest of us. And anyone who objects is a selfish, nature-hating troglodyte.

Where will the rules end? You can use your cell phone in case of an emergency, by the way. Think about it. Cell phones and bear cans are in; campfires are out. This is not the natural world of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau or Verplanck Colvin. This is the wild managed, the backcountry with signs telling you what you can and cannot do, the canned wilderness experience. Must it come to this?

Next week I’ll go deep into the woods with my dog, doing my best to avoid contact with the rule-makers of all stripes who dominate the civilized world. I desperately need a break from their bullshit. And when the DEC starts breathing down my neck this year or next, I’ll go elsewhere, to more remote places, like a mountain lion or a grizzly bear, until there’s no truly wild country left. I, too, am on the endangered species list it seems. That’s okay. Nothing’s meant to last forever – not even wilderness or those who thrive in it.

Comments Off on Managing Wildness

« Newer Posts