Jul 28 2022

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High Summer Hike

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Sometimes I just have to drop everything and go. Yesterday I worked in my study from dawn until mid-afternoon, building up my online bookselling biz and putting together yet another WTB anthology of nature writing. But enough is enough. I shut down the desktop computer, pulled on my boots, and slipped out the door. Less than an hour later, I was tramping through the forest following a dusty, rock-strewn trail winding through the trees.

It felt good to stretch my legs, breathing heavily again. I hadn’t planned on a vigorous hike but my body wanted it. With no wind, high humidity and temps in the 80s, I was sweating in no time despite the shade provided by the canopy overhead.

My eyes feasted on the endless green. The smell of midsummer vegetation and the soothing forest silence convinced me that I’d made the right call. A pileated woodpecker sang in the distance. A nearby hermit thrush serenaded me. Frogs croaked from the wetland I easily traversed, thanks to a boardwalk. And my highly organized morning thoughts gave way to afternoon daydreams.

When the trail started climbing steadily, I felt an overwhelming urge to hike as hard and fast as I could. There was no one around to hear my grunts and groans or to see me soaking my t-shirt. That had a lot to do with it. Sometimes I like to meander through the woods simply grooving on the wild. Other times I like to charge along a trail as if my life depended upon getting somewhere. It has nothing to do with any given destination and everything to do with wanting to feel fully alive and completely in the moment.

Late July already. Amazing. Summertime doesn’t last long, especially in northern Vermont. As I returned to my parked car, I wondered what else I could do to make the most of these halcyon days. Winter is a good time of year for think work, no doubt. But in high summer, it’s better to go outside and get physical.

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Jul 08 2022

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Two Completely Different Landscapes

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Last month, towards the end of a big trip out West, I hiked in the Mojave Desert with my friend Bill Weiss. We went into Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California to be specific. We left his Jeep at the end of a dirt road and hiked to Queen Mountain before sunrise – before the sun had a chance to really heat things up. We wore jackets to protect ourselves from a strong, dry wind that threatened to strip the moisture from our bodies. The air temperature was in the 70s when we started, and in the 80s when we finished our hike a few hours later.

A fine dust covered the ground, along with rocks of all sizes. There was no sign of water anywhere. Yucca, creosote and cactus plants arose from the arid landscape. They sported all kinds of needles and other hard, sharp edges. As Bill pointed out, desert plants have attitude.

When the sun rose, I was awestruck by the beauty of this wide-open country. The mountains in the distance were awash in pastel colors, and the folds in the ground closer to us cast long shadows as did the vegetation. Oh, but that blinding orb shined relentlessly once it finally showed itself. We stripped off our jackets and tipped the bills of our hats down over our eyes as we hiked out. We sucked down precious water from our bottles. Dust mixed with the sweat and sunscreen on my exposed forearms. In the desert there is no place to hide from that blazing sun. We were glad to be back indoors later on that day, when temps spiked over 100 degrees.

Yesterday I hiked up Mount Abraham in central Vermont. Temps were in the 60s when I started and in the low 70s when I finished. Nice and cool, especially under the cover of trees, but I sweated the entire time anyway. The forest was damp, very damp, after weeks of considerable rain. There was water running everywhere, and the trail was all roots and rocks and mud puddles. From the top of the mountain, I marveled at the Green Mountains rolling away to the south beneath billowing clouds. A thick haze covered the Champlain Valley to the west, due to high humidity. The sun peaked occasionally from the clouds. The wind blew but it was more comforting than threatening as it usually is this time of year. The wind in the middle of winter, well, that’s another story.

The desert has its charms, but I’m a creature of the forest. I like having that canopy overhead and feel quite comfortable in the endlessly green understory. Granted, it’s a lot easier to get lost in the woods than it is in the open desert, but I always manage to find my way home. And I don’t like being very far away from water. Others don’t mind it, though. To each his/her own, I suppose.

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Jun 20 2022

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On the Road

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I just returned home from 5 weeks on the road. A writer friend died suddenly last year so I decided it was time to see as many others as possible before anyone else slipped away forever. Some of them are roughly my age; others are in their 70s and 80s. Some of them I hadn’t seen in decades; others I had not yet met. It was time to stop saying “maybe someday.”

As I planned the trip, the list grew. I added family and a few non-literary friends to my itinerary – those I hadn’t seen since before Covid, who lived at least 500 miles away. There were 20 people on the list by the time I departed. So I knew from the outset that it was going to be a whirlwind tour.

I rented a nearly new car and drove it from Vermont to Florida, then to Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri, then to Colorado, New Mexico and all the way to California. I turned in the rental at the LA airport then flew home completely exhausted. I put 7,600 miles on the car’s odometer. I saw a good part of America – its land and its people. It’s going to take me a while to process it all.

There are two things I can say for certain, though: everyone is living life the best they can, despite the pandemic and everything else, and this country of ours is a remarkable place. It has changed since the last time I traveled into the deep south or far west 40 years ago. The cities are bigger, the climate is more severe (especially out west), and the people are more diverse. Yet the landscape is as beautiful as it has ever been, and most people are surprisingly friendly.

There were challenges, of course. Constant Covid testing and mask wearing, skyrocketing gas prices, a shortage of workers causing all sorts of problems, homicidal drivers on the highways, intense heat, and wildfires out west – the trip was not a cheap or easy one. But it was well worth it.

It was worth it just to hug those I hadn’t seen in years and to meet longstanding literary friends for the very first time. People are important, and that’s something that a solitary, woods-wandering guy like me needs to remember. All the same, it feels good be back on home turf with my life partner Judy. Being away from her was the only real hardship. The rest was an adventure.

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May 08 2022

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Predatory Nature

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A couple years ago, we got serious about attracting songbirds to our feeders. Judy did some research, found out what certain birds like, and purchased the good stuff. As a consequence we are visited daily by woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, mourning doves, and scores of goldfinches. Hummingbirds come around during the summer. Other birds stop by, as well. Grey squirrels scurry about beneath the feeders, eating what the birds drop. It’s busy out there.

The local sharp-shinned hawk has taken notice. He stops by occasionally to see if he can grab a winged meal. The songbirds scatter when he shows up, of course. Judy has taken some good photos of that beautiful raptor. We’ve seen him make several attempts to catch a songbird, but without success. Then one day, from the kitchen window, I saw him make off with a goldfinch in his talons. I must admit, I was a little horrified by it. Hawks have to eat, too, but my sympathy was with the finch.

Twice now I have found a patch of mourning dove feathers on the ground near the feeders. I’ve seen this during walks in the woods many times and know exactly what happened. Someone caught and ate those birds on the spot, or started to anyhow. Maybe the doves, so commonly associated with peace, put up a fight. It’s hard to say. But as I gathered up those feathers, it became clear to me that those two doves don’t exist any more.

Several weeks ago a red fox suddenly appeared, chasing a terrified squirrel up a tree. Judy and I cheered a few days later when that same fox hunted down a field mouse. The mice have gotten into our garage and have done some costly damage to one of our cars. We now keep the garage closed up and a dozen mouse traps in there. Still one gets in occasionally.

Last week I shouted to Judy to grab her camera when I saw the fox in our backyard again, chasing a squirrel. This time he caught it. We aren’t particularly keen on squirrels, that like to poop and pee all over our patio furniture, but there was something tragic about seeing that rodent meet such a violent end. It took a while for the fox to subdue the squirrel and haul it off. Sustenance for hungry kits waiting in a nearby den perhaps? That’s what we’d like to think. But the fact is, everyone has to eat and not all living things are herbivores. That’s nature for you. And it’s on full display right in our backyard.

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Apr 27 2022

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Small Springtime Joys

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The flowers are coming up in the small gardens surrounding my house. None of them have bloomed yet, but that hardly matters. Just seeing the first green push up through the soil and leaf out is enough to bring a smile to my face. This time of year is chock full of small joys, both in wild places and close to home.

While working in my yard, I spot a tiny flower in bloom in the forest duff beneath the trees: spring beauty. I kneel down and sniff it with giddy pleasure. Its perfume is intoxicating. Nearby a patch of round-lobed hepatica is also in bloom. I have to touch the petals to make sure they are real, to banish any remnant of winter still lurking in my heart.

My hands are scratched, bleeding and dry from working the soil and putting down mulch with my bare hands. Judy asks me why I don’t wear gloves. I know that would be the smart thing to do, but I just can’t help myself. I want to feel the earth.

A woodpecker drums loudly. Robins sing, crows caw, and the goldfinches gathering at the feeders chatter incessantly. In the distance, frogs peep from a vernal pool. The world is reawakening.

Overhead grey clouds threaten rain. There is still a chill in the air and my flannel shirt is dampened with cold sweat. I keep moving to stay warm, putting certain muscles to work that haven’t been used since last fall. I’ll be sore tomorrow, no doubt, but I don’t care.

As soon as I get things under control in my yard, I’ll go for a long hike in the mountains. Either that or I’ll grab my fly rod and work a favorite trout stream not too far away. But for now it’s enough to putter about the yard doing domestic chores. Even while I do so, an eternal wildness stirs within. What is commonly called Nature is actually home. And it thrives everywhere, all around me, in early spring.

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Apr 09 2022

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A Humble Pleasure

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This time of year, when the trails are wet and so easily damaged, I like to walk a brook. The one that first comes to mind winds through a valley in the Green Mountains shadowed by Camel’s Hump. I’ve been walking it for decades. It’s like an old friend to me.

You could call this a hike, but the way I do it these days it’s really more of a walk. I take my time, traveling half the speed I did when I was half my current age. I want to bushwhack into my 70s and 80s, you see, so I’m setting the right pace to do that now. Slow but sure.

After leaving a nearby dirt road, I follow a rough track a quarter mile to the brook. Then I start bushwhacking. I have a compass tucked into my shirt pocket, but it’s not necessary. The brook guides me through the woods and every feeder stream is a way home that I’ve taken before. So my mind is free to wander, or to groove on the wildness all around me.

Evergreen woodfern and Christmas ferns are still pressed firmly to the ground. It’s early spring and the snow cover has just melted off. Polypody ferns rise from moss-covered boulders, though. That, the clubmoss, and hemlocks green up the otherwise bleached, brown landscape. A few icy patches still lurk in the hollows of rocks, but this is a springtime world not a winter one. The spongy, half-thawed earth underfoot is proof of that.

Because the stream is running lower than usual this time of year, I ford it several times to avoid large mudslides. My boots get wet and my feet get cold in the process, but I don’t care. That too is part of this springtime ritual.

A couple miles back, I bask in sunlight while stretched across a flat boulder next to a deep pool that harbors brook trout. Here I eat lunch. A moth flutters before my eyes. A chickadee sings in the distance. The leafless trees all around me reach toward the deep blue sky. Meltwater rushes past incessantly. I have daydreamed about this place for months. Now here I am. And the walk out that follows is a moving meditation.

Soon the world will green up and the warm season will unfold to everyone’s delight. But it’s enough, for me at least, to tramp through snow-free woods when there’s still a chill in the air and the first wildflowers haven’t risen yet. It’s a different kind of beauty and happiness – subtle and anticipatory. It’s a humble pleasure.

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Mar 26 2022

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Birding with a Passion

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Despite the fact that most of the lakes and ponds here in northern Vermont are still full of ice, Judy and I have done a lot of birding lately. We took a trip down to Dead Creek in Addison County ten days ago and have gone out locally three times during the past week. Judy has bird fever, and I’m reveling in early spring.

At Dead Creek we celebrated the return of the Canada geese. They were there by the hundreds, filling up narrow leads of open water. Before heading home, we stopped by South Slang Creek to see if we could catch the bald eagle nesting there. We did. Judy took some good pictures of it, but what we really wanted was to catch the migrating birds. We got into more of them earlier this week. We found common and hooded mergansers floating in slender patches of open water along the shores of Lake Champlain. We also spotted on land robins, grackles and red-winged blackbirds that have arrived recently, along with the cardinals that have wintered over. The cardinals are calling out loudly from the treetops now. Ah, yes… it’s that time of year.

All this is great, but biggest surprise so far this year happened right in our back yard. A sharp-shinned hawk swooped down on the many goldfinches at our feeders, scattering them everywhere. We’re pretty sure we’ve seen this same bird before. It showed up here last fall, and I spotted it in the neighborhood once before that. Judy got some excellent shots of it right through the sliding glass door leading out to the patio. It wasn’t more than twenty feet away! She called up the stairs, so I was able to see the hawk out the window of my study before it bolted. I was writing at the time and usually don’t want to be disturbed while I’m doing so. But this was an exception to that rule.

Judy is on a roll. She has taken some great photos of all the birds mentioned. She has taken bird photography to the next level after learning the best settings for her camera. She has a passion for it that is a delight for me to witness. I assist her however I can. Mostly I drive the car, spot the birds with my binoculars, and identify them whenever possible. We’re a good team, I think.

All this said, my passion for birding doesn’t match Judy’s. I’m into wild nature in all its manifestations, and thoroughly enjoy a raw, early spring day even if there are no birds around. I got all excited the other day when I saw a red fox out the kitchen window, chasing a squirrel up a tree. Judy managed to photograph that fox, but I would have been just as happy if she hadn’t. Judy’s an artist with her camera, while I simply enjoy the moment. It’s all good.

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Mar 15 2022

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The Gradual Thaw…

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A little over a week ago, Judy and I enjoyed a local walk on nearly bare ground as temps shot into 50s. Then it snowed again – a big dump of the heavy, wet stuff that kept me busy shoveling the driveway for two days. A second walk last weekend was more winter-like, but a cardinal was singing his territorial song and the remnant snow was covered with animal tracks. This morning I hear a woodpecker knocking, also staking out his territory. No doubt about it, spring is imminent.

Winters are long here in northern Vermont, especially for those of us who aren’t skiers. I’ve stayed indoors for the most part during the past few months and have gotten a lot of literary work done. That said, I’m ready to get outdoors for more than an hour or two slog in the snow. I’m ready for spring.

T. S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but I think March is. Just when you think spring has sprung, another winter storm comes along. The ground is clear one day, then snow-covered the next. Enough already! Let the big thaw begin.

The big thaw is underway, actually, but like all other seasonal changes it’s gradual. Nature is like that. It’s constantly changing in small increments that add up over time. The days have been getting longer since the Winter Solstice took place months ago. The sun now blazes for nearly twelve hours a day. Fact is winter’s back has been broken.

I’ve been paying close attention to the gradual change. Maybe that’s why I’m so excited. The migrating birds are starting to arrive, the buds on trees are swelling, and the ground is softening up. Soon I’ll be tramping cold mud again. Maybe even later this week. I look forward to that.

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Feb 18 2022

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Walt Franklin’s New Book

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I am pleased to announce the release of Walt Franklin’s latest collection of essays, Learning the Terrain: Reflections on a Gentle Art, under the Wood Thrush Books imprint. Fly-fishing is the gentle art here, of course, and Franklin is quite adept at it. But this is more than just another fisherman telling tall tales. Franklin is a naturalist with a bamboo rod in hand, a poet wading clear mountain streams. Yes, there is a little poetry mixed into this prose, and a lot of prose that reads like poetry.

Along with plying waters of his home bioregion – upstate New York and north-central Pennsylvania – Franklin recounts excursions to classic trout rivers out west and catching salmon in the tributaries flowing into Lake Ontario. He also tries his hand at saltwater fishing. But it’s the moments when he tunes into the wildness all around him that edifies the reader. Franklin is at home in the natural world. This comes out loud and clear in his work.

After publishing five other books of his, I had resolved to move onto other nature writers. Then I read this collection and felt it had to be ushered into print. You can acquire a copy of this book by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon.com. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Feb 03 2022

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Contemplating Life’s Origin

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Photo by Racim Amr, courtesy of Unsplash

The origin and nature of life is a true mystery – perhaps the greatest mystery there is. My interest in the subject kicked into high gear after reading Erwin Schrodinger’s What Is Life? a little over a month ago. With the eyes of a quantum physicist, he sees the essential part of a living cell as an aperiodic crystal, versus the periodic crystals commonly found in inanimate matter. By this he means they are strange and complex structures that do not comply with the laws of physics. That’s a gross understatement, if ever there was one.

It has been a long winter so far. Subzero temps kept me indoors during most of January. I’ve had too much time to ponder life’s origin – waaay too much time, my wife Judy would say. I’ve read other books on the subject and must confess that I’m no wiser for it. After reading Schrodinger, I went through a college textbook on organic chemistry. Oh yeah, I’m in deep now.

Last summer I sat in dense woods watching wildlife go about their business and wondered how all this came to be. The next thing I know I’m studying the molecular structure of living cells. The quest for a true understanding of nature is a slippery slope, indeed.

This is what I know so far about life-forms: multicellular organisms exploded on the scene roughly 540 million years ago, once there was plenty of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Before that, bacteria and other single-celled organisms ruled the world. The first organisms, archaea, were heat-loving entities that lived in the extreme conditions on this planet 4 billion years ago. How they came into existence is anyone’s guess.

Even the simplest, single-cell organism is incredibly complex. It didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. There is randomness in the evolutionary process, certainly, but something had to get the ball rolling. Is there some kind of cosmic template for life? While contemplating that, my head explodes.

Hard to say just how far I’ll take this line of investigation, or where it will lead. I’m thinking I need a microscope and a good book on astrobiology. I’m thinking I need to learn more about the origin and nature of consciousness, as well. No doubt Judy’s thinking spring better get here soon.

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