Tag Archive 'wildness'

Apr 18 2019

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A Familiar Place

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At long last the snow is melting in the mountains, exposing bare ground. I drove to the base of a favorite valley, parked my car then hiked up the narrow dirt road still closed for the season. About a mile back, I left the road, bushwhacking down to the brook. It felt good to have soft earth underfoot, and to see the heavily silted stream shooting downhill, full of snowmelt.

I tramped through the forest with ease despite downed trees and a few remnant patches of snow, following the brook to places where I’d camped in the past. Then came the two mudslides. Usually I would cross the brook, thus avoiding the mudslides, but the brook had too much water in it. So instead I scrambled on all fours across one slide then the other, until I was deep in the valley. That’s when I stumbled upon a familiar place – a place I’d forgotten about, a place where I caught a sizable brook trout a long time ago.

I settled into an inviting niche along the edge of the pool, just below a huge slab of moss-covered rock. The sun shined brightly through the clear blue sky. The brook roared as it raced past. With temps in the 50s the gentle wind caressing me felt downright balmy. I drank some water, ate a granola bar, and jotted a few lines in my field journal while soaking in the beauty of the forest in early spring.

There are places, wild places, so familiar to me that they feel like home. Most of these places are located in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Some are in the Adirondacks. Upon reaching them, I suddenly get the feeling that everything is right with the world. And whatever was troubling me in the developed places doesn’t matter so much. Go figure.

While tramping out of the woods, I reveled in the great wild silence, happy enough just breathing in the clear mountain air. Once again I felt comfortable in my skin. A good hike is like that. A good hike is nothing more than getting back in touch with one’s animal self. That is enough.

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Mar 18 2019

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Matika Passes Away

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A couple days ago, Judy and I said goodbye to our long-haired German shepherd, Matika, as we put her down. The paralysis in her hind legs, due to a disease called degenerative myelopathy, started causing all kinds of problems. We decided against taking it to the bitter end, which would only make her suffer.

Matika had accompanied me on nearly all of my excursions into the woods during the past 12 years. I nicknamed her Wilderness Dog back in 2009 during our arduous trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness in northern Maine. She impressed me with her endurance on that hike.

Matika loved the woods almost as much as I do. She would start dancing about excitedly whenever I pulled out my hiking boots. Towards the end I occasionally snuck out for a rigorous hike alone, but it wasn’t easy leaving her behind.

She got into trouble a few times – with raccoons, skunks, porcupines, etc. – and on many occasions I had to sleep under my tarp with her soaking wet and caked with mud. Swamp dog. But she was a great hiking companion overall. It’ll be a big adjustment hiking without her.

Truth is, I won’t be hiking without Matika for a long while. Her ghost will accompany me, I’m sure. It’s like that once you’ve bonded in the wild with another creature. Matika wasn’t my pet, she was my canine companion. A companion in wildness. A free spirit. A happy dog. Yeah, she’ll be with me in spirit for many more hikes to come.

 

 

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Aug 30 2018

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Wild, Not Wild

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A flock of turkeys wandered into my back yard yesterday morning. About a dozen of them fed along the edge between the mowed grass and where I have let my yard go wild. My wife Judy also saw the birds, as did our dog Matika who barked at them once. They weren’t much impressed by that.

Later on, as Matika was in the other room sleeping, I spotted a turkey trotting right along the edge of the patio, about 15 feet from the door. Several others followed. Clearly these turkeys have no concept of the difference between a wild landscape and a domesticated one. Either that or they simply don’t care.

A barred owl swooped across the yard the other day, landing on top of my car. When Judy and I poked our heads out the door to get a good look at it, the owl flew to the next door neighbor’s roof. We have heard owls nearly every night since then. I usually associate owls with the wild, but two miles from town my home hardly qualifies as a wild place even though it does back up against a good patch of woods. Evidently, owls aren’t as skittish around people as I thought they were. Either that or they find the hunting around here too good to pass up.

Deer passing through, spiders making webs in the siding of my house, hummingbirds at the planters, toads in the grass, and the occasional garter snake slithering into the garage – my turf is overrun with creatures that simply do not acknowledge the boundary between what is cultivated and what is wild. The other night I saw a bat flying in circles overhead, no doubt feasting on mosquitoes. Better than citronella candles to be sure.

Along the edge between the grass and the wild part of my back yard, I have planted a few domestic bushes and flowers that also happen to grow naturally in the wild. I have pulled out grass, dandelions and other undesirables there, as well, making room for the ferns and other wild plants that I prefer. “Unnatural selection,” I call it. Judy calls it “cultivating the wildness,” in a somewhat humorous reference to a book of mine. Yeah, I’ve muddled matters in my back yard to say the least.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering wildness and being human, trying to get a bead on exactly what it is that separates us from the rest of nature. It’s not an easy task. And the creatures wandering into my back yard don’t make the matter any easier. Perhaps the difference between what is wild and what is not wild is not nearly as distinct as we like to think it is. Perhaps it is just a matter of degree.

 

 

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Jul 19 2018

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New Adirondack Book in Print

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Five years after the release of The Allure of Deep Woods, I now have a second Adirondack book in print: The Great Wild Silence.  It consists of a dozen short narratives and essays about backpacking in the Adirondacks, along with one rather long narrative about my 5-day sojourn in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness last year.

The Great Wild Silence is the juxtaposition of movement and staying put, of hiking and abstract thought. The main narrative in this collection, “Deep Forest Ruminations,” is a series of meditations on nature and our place in it, braided with observations and routine activities while camped alone at a backcountry lake – just me and my dog Matika, I should say. That’s the second half of the book. The first half sets the stage, recounting various excursions in the Adirondacks over the past 25 years, both alone and with others. Some of the latter pieces first appeared in the ADK publication Adirondac and other periodicals but haven’t been seen since. I’ve extracted others from previous collections of mine. It’s a curious mix to be sure.

If you’re as enamored with the Adirondacks as I am, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can order it at my website: woodthrushbooks.com, or you can find it at Amazon.com. Be forewarned, though: there’s a lot of philosophical speculation in this book. It isn’t just about walking in the woods.

 

 

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Jun 18 2018

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What Makes Us Human?

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For the past year and a half, I have been pondering human nature and its relationship to wildness. I have read dozens of books on the subject, and have approached the matter from various angles: philosophical, anthropological, biological, historical and naturalistic. The more I look into the matter, though, the more befuddled I become, often getting bogged down in the morass of morality where the vast majority of people plant their flags then forget about the matter. It has been a daunting undertaking to say the least.

Wildness, I am certain, is the key to understanding who/what we are, for we are creatures as natural as any other. But there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is the rise of civilization a little over 5,000 years ago. What happened to us then?

To some people being civilized is what makes us fully human. That has been a convenient excuse, anyhow, for the subjugation of more primitive peoples through the millennia – those with less sophisticated means of conducting war that is to say. But I don’t abide by that prejudice. In fact, I suspect that more primitive peoples, living closer to the earth, are much more in touch with their humanity than those of us living indoor, urban lives, staring at our electronic devices, largely removed from nature.

It is now widely accepted in scientific circles that anatomically modern humans have been around over 100,000 years. That is, people who look pretty much like humans living today. About 50,000 years ago, our species underwent a great cultural transformation that resulted in behaviorally modern humans. That is, people who think, behave and interact with each other much the same way we do. Up until 10,000 years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers with an intimate understanding of the flora and fauna around us. In that regard, our being agriculturalists and urbanites – the two pillars of civilization – is a relatively new development with little bearing upon our basic humanity, if any at all.

I don’t believe for a second that pre-civilized life was some kind of Eden where human beings lived in peace with each other, always prosperous, healthy and happy, and in complete harmony with nature. The human bone and skull fragments our archeologists have dug up pretty much rule out all that. But there is something about those living closer to the earth that undercuts the arrogant and grossly misleading presumptions that we highly civilized folk have about ourselves and the world.

Soon I will try to write about this subject, if I can muster the humility, honesty and courage to do so. But I don’t think the resulting book will be very popular, even by the modest standards of my somewhat dubious literary career. Generally speaking, those of us firmly ensconced in today’s complex, industrialized and digital world do not respect our distant ancestors, or the remnant bands of hunter/gatherers who still live as they did. Our collective arrogance in that regard is profound. We civilized folk think we have it all going on.

 

 

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May 04 2018

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A Necessary Walk

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My dark rant came way too early this morning. Judy fled the room before breakfast was over to escape it. And that’s when I knew how badly I needed a walk in the woods. So I squeezed one in, right between a trip to the post office and a round of book promotion. Some things just can’t wait.

All winter long I have been pondering the human condition, trying to figure out what exactly it means to be human, how wildness and civilization factor into that, and how we’ve become the highly cognizant yet deeply flawed creatures that we are today. This isn’t a matter for the faint of heart, and I’ve found myself bogged down in the morass of morality more than once. Yeah, everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to human nature, how good and/or bad we are, but the irrefutable facts are few and far between. So my quest has put me in a surly mood, even as spring unfolds.

To walk in the woods and blow the stink off my thoughts I didn’t have go far. A quick jaunt up Aldis Hill did the trick. I knew there would be early spring wildflowers in bloom, and that would improve my outlook on things if anything could. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Bloodroot appeared amid the boulders, purple trilliums and trout lilies lined the muddy trail, and Dutchman’s breeches strutted its stuff near the top of the hill. I stopped to admire the wildflowers almost as much as my dog Matika stopped to sniff around. It’s like that sometimes. My primary task as Homo sapiens, it seems, is to simply admire God’s handiwork. That’s when I feel the most like myself and at peace with the world, anyhow.

I haven’t figured it out yet. My query into human nature is unfinished business, to say the least. But I’m already convinced that our relation to nature is critical to understanding who/what we are. So these walks of mine are necessary in more ways than one. We go into the wild not so much to escape the trappings of civilized society as to find ourselves, to make a primal connection and remember, on some level of awareness, where we came from… and thereby figure out where we are going.

When I get a good bead on human nature, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on wandering and wondering and scribbling down these little absurdities that I call philosophy. If nothing else, it keeps me from being one of those self-righteous fools who engage in unrestrained violence. Yeah, a walk in the woods is absolutely necessary.

 

 

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Nov 26 2017

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Woods, Words, Worldviews

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Every once in a while I stop and take a long, hard look at my life. I consider myself perfectly normal, but my wife likes to remind me that I operate way out of mainstream. She’s right, of course. I fill my days with tramps through the woods, writing, publishing and selling books, and philosophical speculation – very little of which is good for the economy.

Lately my mind has been firing on all cylinders. I’ve written a few new essays, put the finishing touches on my pantheism book, and edited a manuscript of Walt Franklin’s that I’ll publish next spring. In addition to this, I’ve been reading lots of books and papers on human nature while working out the intricacies of wildness and being human. All this literary work keeps me busy, to say the least.

What’s it all for? I look at the long row of books my bookshelf that I’ve written and/or published and wonder who cares about my thoughts beyond a small group of faithful readers. Who will care a hundred years from now? More to the point, does the world really need another worldview? Aren’t there enough of those already?

Funny how I break into a fit of self-doubt every time I put on my philosopher’s hat. But response to my work during the past 25 years has made it clear to me that philosophy – my philosophy in particular – doesn’t sell. What the world wants from me are hiking narratives, not rumination. So I drop my pen and go for a hike long enough to get out of my head, to see what the wild has to say about all this. And that’s how it happens. That’s how I become a philosopher of wildness. All nature wants me to forget about economics and focus on what’s real.

As a self-proclaimed philosopher, I have no credentials. I wander, I wonder, I write. That is all. The forest is my university and its inhabitants are my teachers. I dismiss everything I find in books or on the Internet that refutes the wild. I embrace Nature with a capital “N,” and seriously question whether anything exists beyond it. In addition to this, I live my funky life despite what’s good for the economy. And that, I suppose, is what makes me a heretic.

 

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Oct 27 2017

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The Roots of Humanity

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For quite some time now I have been pondering what it means to be human, and what exactly our relationship to wild nature is. Recently I read books by E. O. Wilson, Joseph Campbell, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker and other thinkers on the subject, and I’m still going strong. But it’s a book called The Cave Painters that really got me going. In it I learned that the Chauvet cave of southern France has figurative drawings on the walls that date back over 30,000 years. That rocks my world.

When we think about Cro-Magnons, or other cave-dwelling people living during the Ice Age, we naturally assume that they were inferior to us moderns in every way. But the art they left behind tells a different story.

The more I look into cave art, the more I question the word “civilization” and everything that we associate with it. Did we suddenly become more human when we settled down into towns, domesticated plants and animals? I think not.

There are distinct advantages to being civilized, no doubt. Food security is at the top of the list. Still I can’t help but wonder what was lost in the process. “Progress” is the byword of those who always want things new and improved. But experience teaches us that there’s usually a trade off whenever one way of doing things is exchanged for another.

Civilization – the first agriculturally based towns – came into existence about 10,000 years ago. Before that the lives of human beings were inextricably entwined with the natural world. The cave art left behind is proof of that. The big question is: how far back in time does our humanity go?

Some say Homo sapiens took a great leap forward 50,000 years ago. That’s when we started seriously outpacing our more thickheaded cousins, the Neanderthals. Others say that we have been anatomically human well beyond that, putting the roots of our species back over 100,000 years. Our distant ancestors, not even human by our standards, captured fire and used it half a million years ago.

Where should we draw the line between what is human and what is wild?  Does such a difference exist apart from our preconceptions about ourselves? Whenever I go for a long walk alone into deep woods, I begin to wonder. Cave art makes me wonder even more.

 

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Oct 16 2017

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A New Place to Hike

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Sunday evening I slid into a funk and my wife Judy had to deal with me. Once she realized how deep my funk was, she emailed me the info for Milton Pond. When I get this way, the only solution is a good hike.

Milton Pond is located in Milton Town Forest. I’m all the time complaining that I’ve hiked everything close to home, but somehow I missed this place. When I parked my car at the Carriage Barn trailhead, I knew why. It’s not well marked and easy to miss.

The trail itself is very well marked, almost to a fault. It crosses a field, enters the woods then soon reaches Milton Pond. Passing maple sugar lines along the way, I got the feeling that this place isn’t so wild. There are power lines crossing the pond as well. But the fall foliage was beautiful and I had the place all to myself – just me and my dog Matika that is.

I hiked the trail circumnavigating the pond, which is a little over two miles. While it showed some signs of wear, it became clear to me that this town forest is a fairly well kept secret. On the far side of the pond, I took a side trail down to its edge for the view. I stumbled upon a beaver lodge there that Matika found very interesting. But I quickly became chilled in the cool autumn air so I urged her to keep moving.

The terrain becomes a bit more rugged on the east side of the pond. There I felt the wildness stir within me despite the syrup lines, power lines, and new trail signs. When that happens, I know I’m onto something. So I made a mental note to come back here soon and hike the rest of the trails in this area. It’s always good to have a new place to hike.

 

 

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Aug 05 2017

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A Philosophy Tempered by Wildness

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Two weeks after leaving the woods, I am still processing what I thought and experienced while sojourned briefly at Pillsbury Lake. Most of this process is subconscious, though occasionally I think back to a particular moment during that retreat when something significant took place, or some important insight arose.

Early into my fourth day alone, while I was leaning against the shelter wall and writing in my journal, a butterfly landed on my leg. I had been writing down some heavy-duty thoughts concerning God, man and nature. The butterfly came to render its opinion – as if what I was writing had better match up to the reality of wildness. That’s how it struck me at that time, anyhow. How well did I do? It’s still too early to tell.

Earlier this week, a phrase came to me in the middle of the night: philosophy tempered by wildness. That pretty much sums up what my recent Adirondack retreat was all about. There is an indoor, utterly civilized way of looking at the world and another way that makes more sense in the wild. During my retreat, I opted for the latter.

There’s a book somewhere in all this, I’m sure. The trick is to let things ferment a bit, then to start writing while the memories are still fresh. The urge to start writing comes to me during my day-to-day affairs. Suddenly I feel distracted, as if some powerful insight is about to wash over me. Then it passes. Yeah, I’ll be hard at work on this book soon.

This time around, my number one critic will be that butterfly. Whatever I write has to win its approval. I’ll rely heavily on my field journal, of course, because that is a record of my outdoor thoughts at the time. But it’s still going to be tricky. There is a tendency to make ones wild thoughts make more sense than they should. On this journey, reason can only take me so far.

 

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