Nov 26 2021

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Winter Begins

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Snow is falling right now. Not the first time this year. But it’s accumulating this time and will continue to accumulate through the night. I’ll probably be shoveling it tomorrow morning. So it’s safe to say that winter has begun. The way I see things, winter began this afternoon.

The time changed a couple weeks ago so today the sun sets a quarter past 4 here in northern Vermont. For a light-sensitive guy like me, that’s harder to take than the steadily dropping temperatures this time of year. But I’ve braced myself for it. The main thing is to stay busy. That’s what I’ve learned through the years. It’s not a good idea to be idle when the long darkness sets in.

It seems almost sacrilegious to live in Vermont and not be a big fan of snow, but I live here for the joys of the other three seasons. In winter, while the skiers are hitting the slopes, I stay indoors for the most part. I do a lot of reading and writing this time of year and get outdoors as needed to keep from going stir crazy. This arrangement works well for me for the most part. But the month between now and the Winter Solstice is tough, I must admit.

Every day is a good day, and all weather is fine by me so long as it’s not life-threatening. I like the variety. I wouldn’t be happy living a thousand miles south of here. This time of year, I remind myself of this on a regular basis. But I’m always a little melancholy when winter begins. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard.

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Nov 12 2021

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Ridiculously Philosophical

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Last week I finished writing a ridiculously philosophical work, Nature and the Absolute. Don’t expect to see this book in print anytime soon. I like to give my books time to ferment before giving them the final edit then publishing them. But the heavy lifting is done for all practical purposes. This project has kept me quite busy during the past year and a half. And yes, it is ridiculously philosophical, which is to say I’ve gone as deep into metaphysical matters as it’s possible to go.

After finishing this book I went into the mountains, bushwhacking to a favorite place that will remain unnamed. Upon reaching that place, I put forth to the surrounding trees my reasons for writing such a ridiculously philosophical work. The trees, of course, were unimpressed. They are too busy being trees in engage in the kind of abstract thinking that creatures like me feel the need to do. But it felt good to voice my reasons for all nature to hear. Nature is, after all, what my latest, most ridiculously philosophical work is all about. Nature in the absolute sense of the word, that is. Nature spelled with a capital “N.”

For most of my life, I have shouted the question “Why?” into the universe, trying to understand What-Is. I have wandered and wondered and written over twenty books in my long and winding journey towards understanding natural order. I have read thousands of books and have pondered essence and existence to the point of absurdity. In the final analysis, when it comes to knowing the mind of God (which is what it all boils down to), all I can say it this: I don’t know. And that, I believe, is the most honest thing that I or any other thinking creature can say.

Oh sure, I have my wild speculations about What-Is and harbor all kinds of strong opinions about this, that, and everything else. But my admission of unknowing seemed to resonate with the surrounding trees, the roaring brook, the deep blue sky overhead, and all the rest of the natural world. I say this because, as a woods wanderer, my unknowing matches The Great Mystery that is nature. So stay tuned for the eventual release of my deepest probe into this matter. Then you’ll see for yourself just how ridiculously philosophical this book and my worldview really are.

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Oct 30 2021

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Up Bamforth Ridge

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After a round of writing early in the morning, I grabbed my rucksack and headed for the mountains. To avoid hunters, I went high. To avoid other people, I hiked the Long Trail south out of the Winooski River Valley towards Camels Hump. I figured few people would be trying to climb up that mountain from this approach: six miles, a roughly 3,500 feet base-to-summit rise. I planned on going only part way.

I was half right. I encountered a bunch of other hikers during the 1.5-mile section of trail up to a lookout called Duxbury Window, but hardly anyone after that. A young woman thru-hiking the LT blew past me. No one else was on the ridge. The trail becomes steep in places beyond the lookout, and was muddy after a couple days of rain. But I was happy enough motoring along, breaking a sweat in the cool air. It felt good to be away from my desk on a beautiful, clear sky day — what could be the last nice day before the snow flies.

From an opening in the trees, I saw a bump on the ridge well short of the summit. I set that as my goal. Years ago I had done this same hike and had stopped for lunch on a rocky outcropping with a nearly 360-degree view. I surmised that it was on that bump. But without a map handy, I wasn’t sure. I was hiking from memory.

Just short of 3 miles, I detoured to the Bamforth Ridge Shelter, wondering if I’d stopped here before. Upon reaching it, I still didn’t know. It didn’t look familiar. How long ago did I last hike this ridge? Before I had my dog Matika as a hiking companion. She’s been gone a while now. That means I last hiked this trail 14 years ago, at least. Whoa!

My knees were starting to complain by the time I reached the bump on the ridge. It felt more like a false summit as I climbed it. To my surprise, it was completely wooded. I pulled out my cell phone to check the time. Well into the afternoon already, hmm…. I sat down long enough to eat lunch and drink as much water as I could. Then I turned back.

Wet and covered with leaves, the steep sections of the trail were somewhat treacherous. I took my time, carefully placing my feet during the descent. I was glad to have a hiking stick to keep my balance. I was feeling played out by the time I got back to the lookout, but it was a pleasant walk through late autumn foliage from there. I got back to the trailhead with two hours of daylight left, no problem. But next time I go out, I’ll plan better and carry a map. Memory can’t be trusted.

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Oct 21 2021

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A Walk in the Rain

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Today I went for a walk in the rain. Depressed by the news, frustrated by a failing desktop computer, and annoyed by minor setbacks while running errands this morning, I couldn’t wait for the skies to clear before stretching my legs. So I donned rain hat and jacket then stepped out the door.

A thin drizzle fell as I slipped through a nearby woodlot on a narrow gravel track, making my way to a paved road that loops back onto itself — an easy two-walk. Not a deep woods experience, but it would have to do for now. Dark clouds overhead threatened heavier rain.

I felt better as I made my way past Bud’s quarry before reaching the paved road. The geese that had inhabited the quarry for weeks on end were gone, having flown south. Would more come down from Canada? Hard to say. Late October already. Well into the migration…

Half a mile down the paved road, the drizzle thinned to practically nothing. A slight breeze shook leaves loose from trees already looking thinned out. Here in the Champlain Valley, the foliage is past peak now. No matter. Still plenty of color to delight the eye.

When I broke a sweat, I thought about removing my jacket. But no, it was best not to tempt the rain gods. The clouds overhead were still dark. I cut my pace instead.

While heading back home, I resolved to go for a good long hike in the mountains soon, before deer hunting season begins. Already snow has fallen in the higher elevations. Soon winter would be upon us. And with that thought I took a deep breath, inhaling the leafy, tannic smell of autumn. Then the last of my morning funk dissipated, just like that.

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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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