Tag Archive 'wildness'

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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Dec 28 2016

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The Wild Book Is Now Available

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Cultivating the Wildness Within, a collection of 18 interlocking, deeply personal essays, is now in print!

It begins with the disorientation that I felt coming out of the Alaskan bush in ’92 then covers the next two decades as I worked through the disparities between what the wild teaches and how we live our lives in this highly complex world of ours. Wildness stirs within us all so I recount how others deal with this disparity as well – family, friends, and humankind in general. Yes, I wax philosophical at times, but these essays are as much from the heart as they are from the head.

Scott King at Red Dragonfly Press accepted CWW for publication last spring. We had planned on releasing it in the fall but a glitch at Amazon held things up. That’s why it’s coming out at such an awkward time. All the same, I think this is one of my better books. Check it out.

The book is available at Amazon, of course, but Scott and I believe that small is beautiful so we ask that you consider getting it from Small Press Distribution instead. CWW is also for sale at the Red Dragonfly Press website. It’ll be a while before it’s available anywhere else.

After reading this book, let me know what you think. I can always be reached by email: walt@woodthrushbooks.com.

 

 

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Oct 06 2016

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A Touch of Wildness

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town-forest-pond-early-octThe smell is the first thing I notice, stepping into the local town forest. It’s the smell of withering ferns, newly dropped leaves, and something distinctly autumnal that doesn’t quite sync with the mostly green canopy overhead. It all comes as something of a shock. Is it that time of year already?

My dog Matika and I amble down a trail still muddy from the previous day’s rain. Impressed by the recent trail work, I wander in circles while tracing three of the four blazed paths here. The late afternoon sunlight penetrates the shadowy forest in places. I glide along effortlessly, moving in and out of it.

Surprising silence. No birds singing out, no chirp or chatter, no wind. Suddenly it feels like I have stepped out of time and am now walking through another dimension. I start daydreaming. Startled frogs jumping into water snap me out of my reverie as I approach the pond…

Still pond gathering light from a clearing sky. Brilliant fall color just now coming out. But there’s something else going on here – a slow and subtle end to all growth. Too soon it seems, greenery lasting not more than six months at these latitudes. And yet it’s all right on schedule. Nature adheres religiously to its own rhythms.

Climbing a gentle rise away from the pond, I break a sweat despite the cool air. I’m moving faster now, heading back to my car at the trailhead, back to the work at home that still requires attention. It’s like that sometimes. I start leaving the forest behind before even stepping out of it. Yet my blood is up now, so a touch of wildness will stay with me a while longer.

 

 

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May 19 2016

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Urban Wildness

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urban wildnessI took my dog Matika with me when I went book hunting in Burlington yesterday, thereby committing to a short hike at some point. At midday I stopped by a city park only to find it closed. Hmm… Went to another place along the Winooski River, parked my car and slipped into the woods. Matika dashed ahead.

I followed the trail as long as I could then drifted into the trackless woods. Matika followed. A short while later we dropped into a ravine as wild as it was beautiful despite discarded tires, a little trash, and the rusty remnant of an old car. I followed a dry creek bed leading nowhere, all the while listening to the sounds of the bustling city around me.

This is how I got my start as a woods wanderer many years ago, tramping through undeveloped pockets in urban settings, enjoying a taste of wildness close to home. The half-burnt pieces of wood in a circle of stones that I found assured me that kids today enjoy this wildness as I once did… as I still do.

The tramp didn’t last long. There wasn’t anywhere else to go once I had reached the river at one end of the ravine, and the power lines at the other. No matter. Matika got a chance to stretch her legs, and I got a taste of wildness during the middle of my workday. That would have to do for the time being.

 

 

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Sep 04 2015

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Cooling Out

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Version 2Judy said I should go into the woods overnight. She’s been around me for 30 years so she knows better than I do what I need. Between publishing, book promo, and my online bookselling, I’m going to be very busy this fall. Best to get out while I can.

I packed up a few essentials, loaded my dog Matika into the car, and headed for a mountain brook where, surprisingly enough, I’ve never camped before. I followed a trail a mile back, until it veered away from the brook. Then I bushwhacked upstream. Sweating profusely in an unseasonably hot afternoon, I looked for a pool at least the size of a bathtub. There I would make camp and dunk by overheated body.

I struggled up the steep, rocky ravine nearly an hour, until the brook was a mere trickle. Then it suddenly appeared: one of the biggest pools I’ve seen on any mountain brook in a long while – thirty feet across. But there was no good place to camp.  There was nothing even close to flat. I pitched my tarp on the overgrown remnant of an old woods road not far away, calling that home for the night. Then I stripped off my sweat-soaked clothes and went for a swim. Matika waded along the edge of the pool, getting her belly wet. That was good enough for her.

After cooling out, I settled into camp for the night. Building a small fire then cooking on the sloping ground was a little tricky. My things kept rolling away. Sleeping was even trickier. Matika and I gradually slid downhill through the course of the night. By morning I was in her place and she was no longer beneath the tarp. Poor dog! But it was worth it. A pool that big in such a wild and beautiful setting is the stuff of dreams.

 

 

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