Archive for July, 2008

Jul 28 2008

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Phantom Trail Work

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I have a confession to make: I do phantom trail work. Only once, a dozen years ago, did I join other people from the local chapter of the Green Mountain Club and clear a five-mile section of Vermont’s Long Trail of brush, downed trees and other forest debris. Since then I’ve been soloing it. It’s a habit developed more out of compulsion than a sense of duty. I don’t premeditate it, I just do it on occasion as I’m hiking.

I’ve opened up water bars plugged with leaf litter. I’ve kicked fallen limbs off the trail and man-hauled more than one dropped tree out of the way – small ones, of course. Every once in a while, usually while hiking in the rain, I dig a new water bar, thus diverting water that’s eroding the trail. I’ve cleaned up more fire pits and broken down more abandoned campfire circles than I care to recall. I’ve picked up and hauled away my own weight in trash over the years. Why? I dunno. Because someone has to do it. Because I’m an old Boy Scout. Because I know that no hiking club has enough manpower to do everything that needs to be done when it comes to trail maintenance.

Certainly the thing to do, if you’re the least bit interested in helping out, is to contact your local hiking club and get on an organized trail maintenance outing. That way your efforts will go where they are needed the most. Besides, you’ll meet some nice people in the process – others like you who care about the woods. But if you’re a loner like me, why not kick a stick aside every once in a while?

Last May, I hiked a section of the Long Trail shortly after the snow melted. I was out there just a tad earlier than I should have been and left a few deep, long-lasting bootprints where the trail was still very soft and muddy. Partly out of penance for my thoughtlessness, I cleared that section of debris.

I don’t feel comfortable bragging about the good deeds I’ve done on the trail then advising others to follow suit. Personally, I find that kind of self-righteousness nauseating. And it’s usually disingenuous. But I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if more people would just help out on the sly, in the woods or elsewhere, when no one’s looking.

I don’t believe in an otherworldly heaven where we are rewarded for our good works after we die. But I do believe that we can experience something like heaven right here and now, especially in the wild. Often when I pick up a piece of trash along the trail, I daydream about some young pilgrim wandering through the woods, right behind me perhaps, experiencing a sense of deep-forest heaven for the very first time. I like to think the absence of obstacles or trailside trash will help that pilgrim stay in the mode just a little bit longer.

Humankind has enormous problems to contend with. Mass extinction, global warming, overpopulation, genocide, gross resource mismanagement – the list of serious concerns is long. I’m not so foolish as to think that a little trail maintenance will make any difference in the greater scheme of things. But it can’t hurt. And you never know who will be on the trail behind you. Maybe it’ll be a five-year-old who deserves to see the wild in a pristine state or as close to that as possible. Maybe the next Gandhi. You never know.

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Jul 24 2008

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Hearing the Wood Thrush

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The melodic, flute-like song of the wood thrush rang through the trees the other day, stopping me in my tracks the same way it did decades ago when I first heard it. Amazing. That little brown bird still has some strange power over me.

Like Thoreau, I feel the gates of heaven are not shut against me when I hear that song. In fact, they are wide open as I venture ever deeper into the shadowy forest. Manifest in those few simple notes is the great mystery of the wild itself and my unspeakable desire to fuse with it, to become as much a part of the forest as possible. After hearing the wood thrush, each step I take becomes a prayer – a whole new way of being in the world. All the travails of my species become some sad travesty performed in the distance. They are largely irrelevant in the face of the real. And for a second, maybe two, I know what it feels like to be fully human.

For years I have tried to articulate that feeling, to lend words to a visceral belief in the essential goodness of the world. So far I have not succeeded. When I tramp alone in deep woods and hear the thrush, I know in my heart that my own wickedness prevents me from speaking for the wild in any meaningful way. Like all other human beings, I am too arrogant, self-righteous, too caught up in my own sense of self-importance to say what needs to be said. And the moment I try, I become a charlatan.

There are times when I am wild. Standing naked on a rock next to an emerald pool in a mountain stream, dripping wet, I understand as the other animals do exactly what it means to be fully in the world. But that knowledge escapes me as I dress, and I am left wondering if perhaps there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the way me and my kind have organized our lives down in the developed lowlands. What’s out of whack? I must confess that I have no more of an answer to this question now than I did thirty years ago. All I know is that an essential part of myself is as wild as the forest and no less endangered.

Last night I read an article in Audubon magazine about the wood thrush and how its numbers have diminished over the past half century. My wife brought the piece to my attention suspecting, no doubt, that it contained something I should know about. I can’t say I learned anything new. The article was rife with the kind of environmentalism that has become standard fare in our day and age. But somehow it left me with an even better sense of what the wood thrush stands for and why I continue writing and publishing under that name.

The wood thrush is a bird that needs large patches of unbroken forest to prosper. So do I. And there is still enough primate in all of us, I believe, for this to be universally true. We need the forest, we need the wild in ways that can’t be measured. And if the day comes when there is no longer enough wildland for the wood thrush to survive, then we will not survive either. Life will go on, the planet will turn, and some kind of brainy biped will persist. But not the human.

As goes the wild, goes the human. Of this I am now certain. The only question remaining is which way the story will play out. Will we ultimately win the Darwinian struggle for existence, or will we join the long list of species that have come and gone? The answer, I believe, lies in our collective will to wildness, or the lack thereof.

The great danger, of course, lies in how we define both nature and ourselves. As Emerson said, “Nature converts itself into a vast promise, and will not be rashly explained.” The same can be said about being human. This isn’t easy terrain to navigate. Yet the song of the wood thrush provides a clue as to where to begin. Hearing it, I know I must go deeper into the forest to understand – much deeper. The wild is waiting for me there.

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Jul 20 2008

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Wildflower or Weed?

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I just spent an entire morning weeding the front yard gardens. I did this instead of going for a hike because, well, things were getting out of control. It’s a scene familiar to all gardeners: lambs quarter, dandelion, crabgrass and a host of other herbal bullies had taken over while I’d been busy doing other things. So I cleaned them out, making my little plots safe for domestic favorites. Now everything is nice and tidy again. And my neighbors are happy.

The other day my wife, Judy, asked me when I was going to do something about the backyard flower garden. I told her that that one is full of wildflowers. She retorted that it’s mostly weeds. We’ve been having this conversation for a year now, ever since I bought a bag of so-called wildflower seeds and threw them down back there. Oh, she likes the daisies and black-eyed Susans that came up, but the intruders are another matter. We’ve got some ground ivy back there, along with a bunch of yellow wood sorrel. Harebell arrived not long ago and bindweed has crept in. God only knows what’ll show up next, Judy says. That’s the whole point, I tell her. I’m intentionally letting nature take it’s course. The wild is alive and well in that corner of our yard, I proclaim. But Judy is not impressed.

I know what someone with a green thumb would do. They’d plant some ferns and bracken back there, along with domestic varieties of shade-loving flowers commonly found in the forest. Then that garden would be a simulated woodland paradise, complete with the aura of wildness. But it wouldn’t be wild. A weed-puller would have to keep the riffraff at bay, otherwise they’d overrun the joint. Leave it un-weeded and the garden would degenerate back to what it is now.

What’s the difference between a wildflower and a weed? When I wander about the forest, every flowering plant I see is a wildflower. In that setting they’re all good. But the moment one of those lovelies imposes itself in my lawn or in one of my laboriously cultivated plots, I have to deal with it. Does it stay or does it go? This is largely a matter of aesthetics. Usually they go, and order is preserved.

I have a neighbor who mows down everything in his path. His yard is a carefully manicured lawn with a few well-placed shrubs. No doubt he’s the kind of guy who thinks a golf course is the ultimate expression of natural beauty. I’m sure I’ll never run into him on a forest trail. After all, the forest is completely out of control. Why would he ever go there?

In due time my wife will get her way. The urge to control that backyard plot will eventually overwhelm any inclination I now have to let things be. Then I’ll pull out some of that pernicious sorrel and plant something pretty like bleeding hearts or columbine. Maybe even a fern or two. But when that day comes, I won’t call that plot a wildflower garden any more. I’ll call it something else. It’ll be domesticated by virtue of me taking a hand to it. That is, after all, what cultivation is all about.

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Jul 16 2008

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Thinking Global, Hiking Local

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French Hill is only four miles away from my doorstep. With gas over $4 a gallon, I’ve been going there on a more regular basis. The main spine of the Green Mountains is thirty miles away so a trip to it now costs as much as a movie ticket. That’s food for thought.

French Hill isn’t much of a hill, really. It’s a long, broad ridge just east of my home town. It’s roughly two square miles of undeveloped woods, destined to become a town forest someday. Not exactly wilderness, but when cash for gas is tight, it’ll do. A couple days ago, I entered it by the main logging road, then bushwhacked along a due north compass bearing, occassionally catching a glimpse of the beaver pond located in the heart of those woods. Eventually I tagged a trail and followed it northeast. My dog, Matika, led the way – her nose close to the ground, sniffing fresh deer tracks. The warm, still air made us both easy prey for deer flies.

While swatting away flies, I thought about how actions taken by those living on the other side of the planet were now changing my behavior. The increasing demand for energy in China, India and other emerging economies has driven the price of oil over $100 a barrel during the past year, so now here I am, hiking closer to home more often than not. Although I’m a passionate advocate of Yankee individualism, I can’t ignore the reality of globalism – a force that has become increasingly more powerful since the end of the Cold War and the birth of the Internet. To what extent will it redefine me? To what extent will it redefine all of humankind?

The opponents to globalism come in a variety of flavors: Luddites, environmentalists, trade unionists, nationalists, small businessmen, religious fundamentalists, indigenous peoples, local farmers, leftists, reactionaries and so on. One would be hard-pressed to find anything these groups have in common other than their fear of homogenization and multinational corporations taking over the world. But I’m convinced that stopping globalism is akin to keeping the sun from rising in the morning. It’s a force greater than any nation, group, business or individual, and it’s going to change us all whether we like it or not.

After passing through an open meadow, I noticed that the half dozen deer flies buzzing around Matika’s head had thickened into a small cloud of them. Because my long-haired German shepherd heats up faster than I do, she was getting the worst of these critters. So more for her sake than mine, I cut the exploratory hike short. I turned southward and looped back to the car. I’d stretched my legs for a few miles, touched base with the wild, and that was enough for the time being.

During the short drive home, I resolved to head for the mountains soon, expensive gas or no. All the same, that won’t change the global situation, or make it any easier to ignore what’s going on around me. Now more than ever, I feel a sense of responsibility to do whatever small part I can to direct the forces of globalism, inasmuch as they can be directed, so that they do more good than harm. Tall order, I realize, but the alternative isn’t acceptable. I’m not one to look backwards and pine for the good old days. Bring on the future whatever it may be.

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Jul 14 2008

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On Disappearing

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Every once in a while, someone comes at me with the dramatic tale of some starry-eyed pilgrim dying in the Alaskan wilderness. Few things upset me more.

In 1992, a bush pilot dropped me on a gravel airstrip near the Endicott River Wilderness, about forty miles northwest of Juneau. I set up camp next to the river and stayed there for two weeks, completely cut off from the rest of humanity, learning the hard way what it takes to keep body and soul together in a truly wild place. It was the best two weeks of my life.  It was a truly life-changing experience.  But it left me with a profound intolerance for the kind of stupidity that so often passes for backcountry adventure.

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a prime example of that kind of stupidity. In that book, Krakauer writes about a young man named McCandless who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and died there. Many people are fascinated by the story. Some find the affair tragically romantic; others get a big kick out of survival dramas regardless of the hero’s fate. Others, I suspect, use such tales to justify their own risk-taking or lack thereof. When I read Krakauer’s book, I saw only a woefully unprepared backcountry traveler with no real plan.

I spent a year and a half preparing for my venture into the Alaskan wild. I had skills. I had 125 pounds of food, clothing and equipment. I was as careful as anyone can be while I was out there and still came close to becoming food for the ravens.  The wilderness is a dangerous place.

Right before I went into the wild, I read in the Juneau newspaper about some guy who had disappeared up Eagle Creek two weeks earlier. Only the remains of his camp were found. When I asked several native Alaskans what they thought of this, I got the same response: “People disappear in the bush all the time.” And that’s that. There’s a steady stream of starry-eyed pilgrims coming up from the Lower Forty-Eight.  They slip into the Alaskan backcountry and some of them are never heard from again.

Lord knows I’ve taken more than my share of risks. I’ve been traveling alone into deep woods for decades. I’ve had many close calls. As a result, I’ve learned to treat the wild with great respect. First and foremost, I carry with me the tools I need to get out there and back in one piece.  And I know how to use them.

I can’t with good conscience recommend going it alone, but with a track record like mine, I can’t discourage it, either. All I can say is this: Be as prepared as you can possibly be before stepping into backcountry by yourself. Use your head. Don’t disappear. There’s nothing the least bit romantic about a premature and unnecessary death.  The bush is littered with the carcasses of fools.

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Jul 11 2008

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Back to the Wild

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Yesterday I went back into the Green Mountains to regain some semblance of sanity. A series of events, largely out of my control, kept me away from them for over a month. That’s way too long. A great weight lifted from my shoulders the moment I stepped out of my car and into the woods. I looked around long enough to notice daisies, buttercups and tall meadow rue in bloom nearby, then shouldered my rucksack and charged up the logging road. My dog, Matika, was already twenty yards ahead of me – no doubt as glad as I was to get back to the wild.

A mile up the logging road, I tagged the Basin Brook. I followed it into the green infinity without as much as a deer trail underfoot. When the brook forked, I took the tributary leading back to a series of beaver ponds that I had visited a few years ago. There I would put the collapsed fly rod in my rucksack to good use. But first I had to reach those ponds. That’s easier said than done, as any seasoned bushwhacker will tell you.

The Vermont woods are lush this time of year. The extra rain they’ve seen recently has made a lot of plants and animals happy. Mosquitoes greeted me while I flailed through thick entanglements of hobblebush, but I was happy enough tramping across the forest floor, listening to the stream’s song and breathing in the dank smell of a wet forest. For a few hours, I was off the grid. And that’s a feeling you can’t buy at your nearest superstore.

Matika was a knot of exuberance, running back and forth through the woods just to be running. More than once she leaped over blowdown only to land chest-deep in a mud hole. She didn’t care. When I crossed the brook, she bounded past, splashing me in the process. I think she did that on purpose.

It took a couple hours but eventually I found that old beaver pond I’d fished a few years back. The newer ones below it had broken and drained, but the old one still held firm even though there was no indication that any beaver still lived there. From the beaver dam, I waved my fly rod a few times and landed a fair-sized brook trout. I didn’t let Matika wade into the pond so she sat on the dam looking rather bored while I fished. She pulled sticks from the dam and chewed on them until she caused the dam to leak. That and the gray clouds overhead cut my fishing short. No matter. I had reached the pond and, quite frankly, that was all I really wanted to do. The pond was just a destination – something to aim for while wandering around the woods for a day. The way I see things, it’s all about the journey. The destination doesn’t really matter.

I bushwhack through life. Show me a trail and I’ll follow it for a while but not forever. I’m not a big rules kind of guy. Some people live their lives in a box; others think outside of the box; I can’t even find the box and don’t know what I’d do with it if I could. So I go into the woods on a regular basis, finding there the kind of meaning and purpose that most people find in credos, scientific facts or sacred texts. I walk streams, hike trails and generally wander about the woods, looking for insights into the real. I’m rarely disappointed.

The hike out was easy – downhill for the most part. When I got back to the car, I realized that I hadn’t seen another human being all day. Just what the doctor ordered. Matika climbed into the back seat and slept all the way home. I basked in the glow that always follows a day spent outdoors. Returning home, I hooked myself back into the grid. But I’ll be out there again soon. I hope to return to the woods before my mud-caked boots have a chance to completely dry out.

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