Oct 08 2021

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Autumnal Color

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Well, it’s that time of year again. Summertime is long gone but the vibrant colors of autumn are now upon us. So the other day I set my work aside long enough to enjoy the season.

I slipped on my boots then headed for a town forest only eight miles away. Didn’t expect to see good color in the forest understory, but I wanted to stretch my legs on a hiking trail while I was outdoors. I figured there would be good color at the beaver pond about half a mile back. Sure enough, there was.

Along with remnant green in the foliage, there were gold, burnt orange and rust hues, as well. Under a mostly sunny sky, the colors really jumped out at me. This is what northern New England does best. I’ve lived here over thirty-five years yet I’m still dazzled by it.

The rest of my hike was a dreamy meander through a mostly green understory. It’ll be another couple weeks here in the Champlain Valley before all the vegetation has turned. No matter. On a beautiful day with temps in the sixties, it feels great just being in the forest. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

Spring is my favorite season; summer pulls a close second. But there is something about walking in the woods in the fall that can’t be beat, despite the shortening of daylight and the fact that winter isn’t far away. It’s all good, I suppose — all of nature’s configurations and moods. It’s good to be alive in this magnificent world. I don’t take it for granted.

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Sep 18 2021

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Wildness and Being Human

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What makes us human? Most people living in a civilization of one sort or another assume that being civilized has something to do with it. But those still living beyond the reach of civilization, as hunter/gatherers, are no less human than we are. Being human predates all the trappings modern life. It predates towns, agriculture and all the related social structures. Human beings are, first and foremost, a part of natural world.

I start from this position while delving into what it means to be human in my latest book, Wildness and Being Human. I recount my own relationship to the natural world while tracing the story of humanity from the earliest hominid beginnings to the emergence of global civilization in the Digital Age.

There is a wildness within us all, I think, that civilization has not yet completely destroyed, even though the disconnect between us and the natural world is becoming more pronounced. And this wildness is essential to our humanity.

Along with my experiences in wild places and my thoughts regarding human nature, I touch upon the contributions to this subject made by scores of scientists, social scientists, philosophers and naturalists. One thing is for sure: there are as many different ways to define humanity as there are worldviews. Yet there are certain facts about our nature that we ignore at our peril.

You can acquire a copy of this book by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon.com. While I’m certainly no authority on the subject, I trust that this book will shed new light on the question at hand.

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Sep 07 2021

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Befriending a Chipmunk

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I now have a chipmunk friend. We get together almost every afternoon on my patio. I really don’t know how this happened. Gradually, I suppose.

Last year something was tearing up the flowers that I’d planted around the patio. When I spotted a chipmunk darting past a couple times, I figured that was the culprit. So I put out a Havahart trap to catch and remove the varmint. But the bait kept disappearing and the trap shutting without anyone inside. I took advice from a friend and used string to make the trap trigger mechanism more sensitive. Still no varmint.

The chipmunk I’d seen last year stopped coming around, so I packed up the trap and forgot about it. My flowers were no longer disturbed. I figured a local fox or barred owl must have eaten the little guy. A tasty little morsel, no doubt. Ah, well…

Early this summer, a chipmunk started coming around again. Hard to say if it was the same varmint I’d seen last year, or one new to the neighborhood. Whatever. It didn’t mess with my flowers so I ignored it.

Judy and I have several bird feeders in our backyard. The chipmunk joined the squirrels feeding on what the birds toss to the ground. Woodpeckers are especially fussy. They throw down a lot of seed. That upsets Judy, but the squirrels and the chipmunk feast on it.

We’re not exactly sure which one of us started feeding the chipmunk, but I recall it taking seed directly from Judy’s hand on at least one occasion a month or two ago. Then I left a small pile of nuts on the knee-high wall of the patio. Next thing I know, the chipmunk was running circles around me – every time I sat on the patio reading. So I put nuts and seeds on the wall on a regular basis. Then Chippy (yes, we named him) licked the sweat off my cold can of ginger beer one very hot day. So now I put out a cup of water. I keep that fresh.

Chippy pissed me off once, when he started digging up the soil in a flower box containing my herbs. Judy said it was just trying to stay cool. Indeed, Chippy has stretched out flat on the foot-wall on several occasions, no doubt to cool his belly. Chippy often lounges on the patio with me during the shady afternoons. That’s now one happy rodent, I think.

Chippy has built a rather large home in our front garden – right where we used to have a patch of forget-me-nots. We hope Chippy is a male. If she’s a female, there could be lots of little chippies running around next year. Then we’ll be sorry. But for now I’m taking a live-and-let-live attitude. What the hell…

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Aug 25 2021

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Looking Deep into the Past

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A few days ago, I revisited Fisk Quarry in Isle la Motte, where there are all kinds of marine fossils in full view. Then I stopped by the Goodsell Ridge Preserve to see even more fossils etched into stone over immense periods of time. I’ve been reading a lot of natural history recently and wanted to look with my own eyes deep into the past. After all, seeing is believing.

The fossils didn’t exactly jump out at me. At first all I saw were strange shapes in the rock that seemed more like hallucinations than anything real – projections of my own thoughts onto stone. But when I reached down and touched them, yes, that made them very real.

Gastropods, cephalopods, stromatoporoids, bryozoa – the names of these ancient creatures are as strange to me as what I was seeing. Or at least they were. But if you say such names frequently enough they become commonplace. The brain makes room for them, and for what they represent.

Chazy Reef it is called. Not a reef in the strictest sense, since the mound of life forms that built up there over time contained only a smattering of corals. It dates back 480 million years, and was located back then where Africa is today. The tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust move a couple inches each year, so now Chazy Reef is in Vermont. Pondering that alone is enough to make my head explode.

480 million years… That’s a long time. Back then marine life was all the life there was. Amphibians, reptiles, and land-loving mammals like us came along much later. It’s difficult to fathom that passage of time, and even more difficult to think of the natural world as something much different from what it is now. We take so much for granted. But this world of ours, all the stars and galaxies, the entire universe has been evolving for 14 billion years. And it will continue evolving long after you and I are gone. That certainly puts things in perspective.

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Aug 09 2021

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Incredible Nature

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Both Judy and I have delved deep into nature this summer.

Judy has gotten into macro photography. Using a special lens, she creates photos of small subjects that are larger than life, enabling us to see them in a different way. Sometimes she takes photos of insects or other tiny creatures, but her main interest is flowers. The inner workings of some flowers are surreal. Sometimes they are downright cosmic. It’s amazing what her photos reveal when she gets up close and personal.

Meanwhile, I have been studying natural history, reaching way back in time to the emergence of life forms on this planet. It’s a long journey from single-celled organisms in an oxygen-starved world to multicellular plants and animals populating the ocean five hundred million years ago, then to the appearance of insects, amphibians and reptiles, then to flowering plants, mammals and eventually us. While millions of life forms have come and gone, many of the most primitive ones, such as fungus and algae, are still with us. Some species of algae are over a billion years old. Some species of bacteria are much older. It boggles the mind.

The other day, while I was cleaning out the birdbath in our back yard, I hosed green slime off the rocks that sit in its water. That’s algae, that only hints at the kind of primordial slime that once covered the earth. While I was going about this task, songbirds flitted from feeder to feeder, squirrels scurried about, insects crept through the grass underfoot, and trees swayed around me in a gentle summer breeze. Wild and domestic flowers of various designs bloom in our yard. So much diversity. So many different ways to exist, right out our back door.

Nature is unfathomable. The deeper we go into it, the more we see. From subatomic particles to galaxies, from a single cell of bacteria to the Amazon rainforest, there is so much going on all at once. How can we possibly wrap our brains around it all? Perhaps it is enough to simply marvel at the wonder and beauty of it all. But no, some of us want to go even deeper, hoping to find the driving force behind his phenomenon so casually referred to as evolution.

Nature spelled with a capital “N.” Yeah, that’s what I’m after.

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Jul 30 2021

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When Least Expected

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A few days ago Judy and I lingered in the Northeast Kingdom after visiting family at Lake Wallace, clear up in the northeast corner of Vermont. We drove past the small town of Island Pond to the Wenlock Wildlife Management Area. Then we walked the trail to Moose Bog Pond. We had encountered some interesting birds there during a visit last year and hoped to do so again.

The trail is a short, easy, nearly flat path winding through a spruce/fir forest that’s home to the ever-elusive spruce grouse. I caught a glimpse of that bird last year but it disappeared before Judy could get a photo. No matter. There were plenty of friendly red-breasted nuthatches and grey jays to entertain us at Moose Bog Pond back then.

But that was last year. This year the grey jays were nowhere to be seen, and the nuthatches were skittish. A great blue heron was feeding at the pond, but it was too far away for Judy to get a good shot. So she photographed northern pitcher plants as we hung out for a while on the boardwalk jutting into the bog surrounding the pond. It was a beautiful summer day in the woods so we were happy just being there. All the same, I could tell that Judy was a tad disappointed.

On the way out, Judy took pictures of some interesting mushrooms while I crept ahead. That’s when I caught a little movement out of the side of my eye. I looked over and, sure enough, there was a spruce grouse half-hidden in the dense understory. I froze in place then signaled to Judy. She was looking down at the time and didn’t see me at first, but I didn’t dare say a word. Remarkably, the grouse didn’t move away. Then Judy saw me gesturing wildly and slowly moved in to photograph the bird. Even more remarkably, the grouse turned around giving Judy an even better view. She took a bunch of pictures.

Isn’t that the way it goes when dealing with wildlife? How many times have I gone looking for a creature only to come up empty-handed? How many times have they popped up, taking me completely by surprise? It’s all very serendipitous.

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Jul 19 2021

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Deep Woods Solitude

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A few days ago I hiked five and a half miles into Five Ponds Wilderness, located in the western Adirondacks, and set up camp at Cat Mountain Pond. I got there early in the afternoon, hoping to be the first person there. I was. In fact, I was the only person there well into the next day.

After a quick swim to wash away sweat, I settled into a rather pensive frame of mind. This is normal for me. As a philosopher of wildness, I often contemplate existence and meaning while sojourned in the woods. The wild seems to me like the best place to do so. The wilder, the better.

With no one to talk to, all my elaborate philosophical arguments seem rather moot. The wild isn’t interested in my version of reality. It is reality. I can babble all sorts of logical theorems to myself, but that’s pointless. I can scribble down my thoughts in a journal, but my thoughts are dominated by the wild. That is, if I’m paying any attention to my surroundings, all I can do is take dictation.

Are my journals the gospel according to the wild? Hardly. There’s a big difference between experiencing the reality of the wild and being able to articulate it. After forty-odd years of scribbling I’ve come close perhaps, but deserve no cigar. There remains some aspect of the natural world that eludes me. There remains some aspect of it that is beyond words.

All interpretations of the Real are sadly lacking. The wild teaches me this time and time again. It teaches me this when the sun sets, a barred owl hoots and the hum of insects fills the forest. It teaches me this as a great wild silence settles over a still pond. All I can do is listen, and this listening borders upon being a mystical experience, for that’s all that we mere mortals can do.

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Jul 12 2021

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Backyard Wildlife

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Early this morning I spotted an turkey with its new brood in our back yard. Last year we had a bunch of them come through our yard on a daily basis. Judy and I are hoping that happens again this year.

We live in a grove of maple trees that used to be tapped for syrup but is now a cluster of homes. Only two miles out of town, our neighborhood hardly qualifies as being rural, but the wild animals living around here don’t know that. They visit us on a regular basis.

We’ve put up several bird feeders so we see the usual suspects during the day: woodpeckers, goldfinches, nuthatches, and other avian inhabitants. Crows and mourning doves scrounge around at the base of the feeders. Squirrels take advantage of the situation, of course. All our feeders have baffles on them because of the squirrels – circular metal obstructions halfway up the poles to the feeders that confound those rodents. A single chipmunk scurries about, as well. Yeah, our backyard is a busy place.

Recently field mice got into our garage and made a real mess of things. That probably explains why I found a garter snake in the garage once. But the snake didn’t keep the mice from damaging one of our cars. So the garage doors stay closed now, and eight highly effective mouse traps take care of the occasional mouse that gets in anyway.

Gary Snyder once said that the wilderness isn’t all berries and sunshine. The same could be said about our backyard, even though there there are plenty of berries to be had, as the deer passing through know all too well. They like to munch on the flowers in our garden, as well. Hmm…

When a mouse dies in one of the traps, I lay its body on an open patch of ground near the edge of the woods. I hear a barred owl back there around daybreak, thinking that she gets the treat. Or maybe one of the wandering skunks or raccoons does. Or maybe the red fox that showed up once knows about that snack bar. Hard to say.

With the help of Judy’s nephew Rick, we’ve just put up a game camera in the backyard to find out exactly who’s getting what. A bobcat showed up on a neighbor’s game camera earlier this year. We’re hoping to see that, or some other big surprise. After all, there are plenty of critters out there. I see more wildlife here than I do while wandering around in deep woods. Go figure.

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Jun 25 2021

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A Good Day in the Mountains

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After a steep, one-mile hike, I arrive at Sterling Pond just as the sun is cresting Madonna Peak. I’ve come here early to fly fish the pond before the crowd arrives. Situated between two ski resorts and a well-beaten path out of Smuggler’s Notch, this is a popular place. But I haven’t been here in years so thought I’d check it out. I’ve done well fishing this pond for brook trout in the past.

Water laps to shore as a gentle breeze rocks the conifers surrounding the pond. Chickadees and veerys call out, otherwise it’s very quiet here. I cast a dry fly repeatedly upon the pond’s surface then switch to a wet one. No result either way. The trout aren’t rising. But with temps in the 60s, a blue sky overhead and no mosquitoes or black flies, I don’t really care.

I hike to the far end of the pond and try my luck again. Day hikers show up back where I was fishing before but I can barely hear them. I cast for a half an hour or so, then make an entry in my field journal while eating a mid-morning snack. Again, no trout rising.

While hiking the trail around the pond, I try my luck again at a couple other places. Still no action so I pack up my rod and hike towards Spruce Peak. Atop that mountain, I eat lunch while gazing across Smuggler’s Notch to Mount Mansfield. No one else is here. And the summer breeze, still blowing steadily, keeps the black flies at bay. I lounge near the edge of a cliff thinking about nothing, nothing at all. I’m happy just being in the moment.

Eventually I leave Spruce Peak then hike down the beaten path to the notch. Dozens of hikers pass me – most of them on their way up to the pond. I step aside, letting them pass. It’s early afternoon and I’m in no rush. I’ve already enjoyed a good day in the mountains, even though I caught no fish.

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Jun 14 2021

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Up the Mountain Brook

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Last week I had such a good time fishing a mountain brook that yesterday I decided to do it again. With temps in the 70s and under the cover of trees most of the time, I hardly broke a sweat. And the biting bugs weren’t too bad. But to my surprise, I learned something about myself that I’ve somehow missed during brook fishing trips in previous years. It suddenly occurred to me, as I was scrambling over some of the rockier sections of the brook, that I’m not as light on my feet as I used to be. Not even close.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I’m in my 60s now and time takes its toll on the body. All the same, in my minds eye I am still a young man and expecting to rock-hop up the brook with all the agility I had in my 30s. So what a wake-up call it was to jump down a few feet from a large rock and feel the hard landing shoot all the way up my spine. My worn out knees didn’t absorb the shock.

Judy says I should be glad that I can even do it. Scrambling up a mountain brook full of boulders and blowdown and cascading water is no mean feat. She’s right, of course, and I am thankful for being in good enough shape to ascend a mountain brook. And only once did I fall down – during the initial descent into the steep ravine. So I can’t complain. Still there are only two occasions these days when I really feel my age: when getting up to pee in the middle of the night, and when negotiating the rugged terrain of the backcountry.

The exuberance that I felt as a younger man while immersed in the wild has given way to reflection in my advanced years. I think more about life and death as I walk a brook these days, accompanied by the ghosts of old friends and canine companions who have passed away. I am more grateful for simply being in the woods, and take none of it for granted. Consequently, I treat the fish I catch with greater reverence. Their lives are nearly as precious to me as my own, so I make it a point to put them back to the water unharmed. Rarely do I take them home for dinner any more.

Oh yeah, I caught a few brook trout yesterday, but nothing to brag about. And the ones that got away were bigger, of course. All that is beside the point. Nowadays I work my way up the mountain brook in deep forest solitude angling for something much more important – a sense of belonging in the natural world and delighting in it. In that regard, I am never disappointed. In that regard, I always return home with my creel full.

 

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