Jan 16 2022

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Winter Woods

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This morning I awoke to temps below zero. Yesterday the same. The day before that I went for a short hike once temps had climbed into the teens after a similar dip. In the depths of winter here in northern New England, one is wise to get outdoors when one can.

The trail cutting through a local patch of woods was well traveled. Clearly I wasn’t the only person taking advantage of the occasional bouts of fair weather between snowstorms and deep freezes. Surprisingly, I passed only one other restless soul during my hike. The rest of the time, I had the woods all to myself.

Aside from the distant hum of traffic, all was quiet as I walked. No songbirds, no wind in the trees, nothing. I listened to the sound of my own breathing as I ambled along. The clean, cold air filled my lungs, and I barely broke a sweat beneath my layers. It always feels good to be physical after long hours of screen time.

Yeah, I work too hard at my desktop computer this time of year. That’s one way to get through winter – to make the most of it, to be productive. I work much less and get outdoors a lot more during the warmer months, as most Vermonters do. But even during the coldest months, one needs to recreate every once in a while. Skiers look at things differently, of course.

I’ve lived in Vermont for nearly 40 years. During that time, I’ve developed an appreciation for snow. Winter isn’t my favorite season, but there is something about a snow-covered landscape beneath a clear blue sky that is quite charming. Dare I say beautiful? I wouldn’t want to live in a place that gets no snow. A walk in the woods this time of year reminds me of that. And 15 degrees above zero isn’t bad at all when the wind isn’t blowing.

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Jan 02 2022

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The Existential Stick

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There’s a limb stuck in the upper branches of a large tree in our back yard. It bugs Judy. She asked me if there’s any way to bring that stick down, but it’s too high up for me to reach with any tool I possess. I told her it will come down eventually, in its own time, but she doesn’t find that very consoling.

Strong winds blow, taking down limbs all over our yard. I gather them up periodically. The pile of dead wood grows until I burn the smaller pieces and have the larger ones hauled away. Entire trees have fallen in our woody neighborhood. We have one in our front yard that’s a good candidate to do so. I’d bet that tree falls sometime soon… while the limb hung up our backyard remains there.

Nowadays Judy and I jokingly refer to that limb as the existential stick because it reminds us how powerless we are in the face of natural reality. We know the stick will come down eventually, but we have no more control over that than we do over nature itself. What do we really know about nature? What do we really know about anything? Why do we exist? Why does anything exist? Hmm… that’s an awful lot to garner from a stick, isn’t it?

The existential stick bugs Judy more than it bugs me. It offends her photographer’s eye whenever she gazes out the window, and this little bit of chaos reminds her of nature’s unpredictability. I, on the other hand, only sigh heavily when I see that stick. I’m somewhat resigned to it. My entire life’s work is an attempt to make sense of nature – to render meaning where there may not be any. The joke might very well be on me.

It’s just a stick, some would say, ignore it. Others would hire someone to come with the proper equipment to remove that eyesore. Judy and I rather impatiently await the wind to bring it down. But even when it’s gone, nature will remain what it is and has always been, both inscrutable and beyond our control. Is that a bad thing?

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Dec 15 2021

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Bluebirds of Happiness

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During a short spell of relatively warm, sunny days, Judy and I went birding. We went birding just to get out of the house. We first stopped at Shelburne Bay, where various waterfowl had been spotted recently. We saw mergansers and buffleheads there, but they were too far away for Judy to take good photos. So we walked the LaPlatte River Trail next, instead of lingering along the lake’s edge waiting for ducks to draw nearer.

The trail following the LaPlatte River was muddy, but we had donned hiking boots before leaving the house in anticipation of that. We took our time, moving ever so slowly over waterlogged boards.

When I first saw movement through the trees, I assumed that the fast-moving, airborne creatures were robins. They turned out to be eastern bluebirds – half a dozen of them passing through. A pair perched temporarily on power lines not far away, making it easy for me to identify them with my binoculars. Incredible! This time of year? A few moments later, one landed on a nearby tree branch, giving Judy an opportunity to snap shots of it.

Bluebirds of happiness. Just what we needed. Deep into the second year of a pandemic, with all kinds of depressing news both locally and worldwide, and one week shy of the darkest day of the year, a little happiness goes along way.

In Russian fairy tales, the bluebird is a symbol of hope. In Navajo culture, it’s associated with the rising sun just as it is in ancient Chinese myths. The bluebird of happiness dates back to the Middle Ages in European folklore – a tale retold by Madame D’Aulnoy in L’Oiseau Bleu. Yeah, the upbeat symbolism of bluebirds is nearly universal. How lucky were we to spot them?

We went to Delta Park after that, catching a brief glimpse of a wren in the dense underbrush along the lake’s shore. Judy didn’t even have time to raise her camera for that one. No matter. The clouds had cleared out by then, exposing a perfectly blue sky an hour before dusk. We went home happy. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to feel that way.

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Dec 05 2021

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A Good Day to Get Outdoors

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I hunkered down to work as the length of day slipped below 9 hours, but I could feel myself sliding into a funk all the same. I needed to get outdoors. After a week of wintry conditions, with snow covering the ground and temps staying below freezing, I looked for a window of sunshine in the forecast. It came Friday morning as promised – the sky breaking open after a snow squall at breakfast. I took care of what business had to be addressed then headed for Niquette Bay State Park.

Niquette Bay, on the shores of Lake Champlain, isn’t exactly deep woods but I figured the snow covering the ground would be negligible here, unlike the mountains. Sure enough, there was only a trace of white stuff left. Rain the day before had washed away most of it. I had tucked a pair of Microspikes into my jacket but didn’t have to use them. My boots provided traction enough as I hiked at a brisk pace across the half-frozen ground.

The clouds cleared out during my walk, allowing sunlight to wash over the landscape. That’s what I came out for primarily, but stretching my legs and breathing in the cool, clean air also felt good. I cut my pace, in no hurry to do the three-mile loop around the park. A short climb uphill gave me a bit of an aerobic workout. After cresting the summit of the hill, I stopped long enough to enjoy a good view of the snowcapped Mt. Mansfield looming over the Champlain Valley. That and the forest sprawling at my feet reminded me why I live in Vermont. Nature struts its stuff here.

Life is good when the sun is shining no matter what time of year it is. The days are short this time of year so smart Vermonters get outdoors and enjoy the sunlight when they can. Like everyone else I’m a thinking creature, comfortable enough with indoor life and all my abstractions. But I’m a creature all the same. The elements leave their mark on me, and most of the time that’s a good thing.

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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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