Archive for September, 2008

Sep 25 2008

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These Golden Days

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Yesterday I went for a long walk shortly after the sun rose.  The air was crisp and cool, and a golden glow permeated everything.  My dog sniffed along the grassy edges as I followed a stone path cutting through the woods.  I reveled in the dryleaf smell of early fall, as delightful in its own way as the smell of lilies in spring.  The surrounding forest was more brown than green.  Blue and white asters flowered in the ditches along the path. Crimson sumac, purplish grapevines, bright orange maple leaves and yellowing birches — this time of year, every color seems to have its day.  Change is in the air.

Spring used to be my favorite season but now it’s autumn.  I still enjoy that great thaw early in the year, when the world comes alive again, but I identify more with autumn as I grow older.  It seems more in keeping with the sensibilities of late middle-age.  In my fifties now, I see in the world around me a quiet, mature beauty that is easy to miss – more bittersweet than sweet.  One has to pay careful attention to catch it amid the sudden burst brilliant fall foliage.

Autumn is the perfect time of year for reflection.  Gone are the stinky thoughts of late winter, the jubilant rebirth of springtime, and the long daydreams of summer.  These are the days when thoughts easily sharpen to fine points, when memory and idea converge into insight with the least amount of difficulty.  These are the days when one’s mind clears with minimal effort, even as a thin haze hangs over waterways and among wooded hills.

America is a culture obsessed with youth and newness.  If you have any doubts about this, just turn on your television or visit a nearby shopping mall.  There is little room in it for subtle beauty, nuance or reflection.  All eyes are drawn towards what is now, hip and wow.  That is why we like our loud guitars, techie toys and anything that flashes or shines.   Consequently, we begin the fall season with a flurry of back-to-school spending, then end it with holiday plans.  Between there is little time for much more than a few snapshots of peaking leaf color.  The rest of the season is a blur.  We are busy, busy.

Then comes the harvest.  Other day, one of my grandchildren told me that he’s going to be the Grim Reaper for Halloween.  I had to laugh.  The thought of a vibrant eight-year-old playing the part of Death struck me as absurd – the perfect symbol for the clash of image and reality in our time.  He has no idea what death is, of course.  But I do.  Perhaps that is why I find this time of year so precious, so bittersweet.  The days are getting shorter, darkness is closing in, and the hard edge of winter is not far away.  Traditionally, it’s time to bring in the harvest, hunker down for the lean months ahead, and keep the Reaper at bay.

With the hint of death lurking in the corner of my eye, I cut my pace.  I slowly ambled along the path, trying to take in as much of nature’s sights, sounds and smells as possible before going about my daily affairs.  I, too, am busy.  But I stopped running long enough to take in the broader view.

Today I’ll make it a point to look up when a V of geese honks high overhead.  Maybe I’ll cut some flowers from my garden and carry them inside before a hard frost strikes.  Maybe I’ll go for another shirtsleeve walk while I still can.  After all, these golden days are fleeting.  The snow will fly before any of us are completely ready for it.  There is no time to waste.

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Sep 19 2008

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Back in the Swing of Things

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A week out of the woods and it’s almost like the trip never happened.

I carried the glow of wildness through the weekend, despite a steady bombardment of foolishness at the motel desk where I work.  When I returned home, my wife brought to my attention a problem with our computer keyboard.  That’ll have to be replaced.  We bought another car to replace the one that crapped out right before I went to the Adirondacks.  That required considerable interaction with the bank, the insurance company and a car dealership.  The transaction took longer than expected because computers were down somewhere in the Midwest.  That was due to a panic on Wall Street triggered by the bankruptcy of yet another financial institution.  Monday night our fearless leaders assured us that “the system is fundamentally sound.”  Hmm.  I’d hate to see what things would be like otherwise.

Despite all this, I kept the glow through Monday and well into Tuesday, even after catching up on world news.  I kept the glow until I called a local appliance store to schedule a service call.  The timer on my dryer isn’t working.  I figured it’d be an easy fix.  I was about half right.  Easy to fix, yes, but the part would cost over a hundred bucks and the service call would be another hundred.  The pleasant fellow on the other end of the phone diplomatically suggested that I consider my options.  The dryer cost about 350 bucks when my wife and I bought it eight years ago.  What would you do?

Ah, this is an opportunity to replace our old dryer with a more energy efficient one, I thought.  I looked at an “energy star” dryer and it cost two and a half times more than the cheapest model on the floor.  That’s money we don’t have.  So I purchased the cheap one and will install it later on today.  Does all this sound familiar?

I went for a short walk on the nearby Rail Trail midweek, but couldn’t linger.  I had things to do.  I finished caulking the roof so it won’t leak this winter, mowed the grass to keep my neighbors happy, and so on.  I even got a little writing done.  But somewhere between “the system is fundamentally sound” and considering my options, I lost touch with the wild.  Now I’m hours away from going to the motel for another two-day dose of foolishness – mostly clueless travelers trying to negotiate a better room rate.

I’d be lying if I said all this has taken me by surprise.  I knew before I stepped out of the woods that I’d be dealing with all this nonsense, or something like it.  Life in these modern times is nerve-wracking even for the most levelheaded, centered Buddha among us.  That is why I shake my head in amazement, wondering how other people do it.  How do those who don’t spend time in the woods keep from going postal?  The bullshit is so deep we should all be wearing waders.

As soon as I get a chance, I’ll grab my pack, load my dog in the car and head for the hills for a day.  Again, yes.  And while I’m there, maybe I’ll give a little thought to the riddle of existence, the relationship between God and Nature, and what it means to be human.  But right now I’ve got to install a dryer so that it meets code, then get ready for a swing shift.  Isn’t life grand?

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Sep 12 2008

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Four Days with the Loons

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From Monday afternoon until Thursday morning, I was alone in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. Or perhaps I should say, I had only the company of my dog, Matika, a few small forest creatures, and the loons who inhabited the lakes where I camped. That was company enough.

Much to my dog’s bewilderment, a loon called out as soon as we reached Sampson Lake. A dozen miles from the nearest paved road, it seemed an appropriate greeting. I smiled as I listened to it, fully aware that I had arrived at a truly wild place. Beyond that I didn’t give the matter much thought.

At dusk the loon called out again, loud and clear. This time the wind had died down and both lake and forest were silent and still. I stopped what I was doing and went down to the water’s edge to see the loon. With my binoculars I saw a mere bird floating about, occasionally dipping beneath the surface. Yep, that’s a loon, I thought. Then I continued about my affairs.

The next day it rained steady from daybreak until late afternoon. To my surprise, a pair of loons called out in the pelting drizzle. First I spotted the female, then the male, then both of them together. They reminded me of another wet day in Southeast Alaska when I was camped alone in the wild. The Adirondacks on a rainy day aren’t much different.

On the morning of the third day, a loon called out and that did it. I broke down and cried. In that moment the loon’s call seemed to me like the voice of the wild itself, like the voice of God heard only in the most remote places – far away from all the nonsense that passes for civilization. I cried because I couldn’t keep up my armor another second. I cried because I had forgotten, in all my busy-ness, what the wild is all about. The shock of sudden self-awareness. Adam longing to regain access to Paradise, yet still Adam. Existential tears.

The sunset at Pillsbury Lake was a hallucination. I watched the steady advance of that undefined edge between day and night until it crowded all the pink and orange sky into a fiery grand finale on the horizon. The glassy lake perfectly reflected the show, and the call of a loon echoed through the mountains until the boundary between the real and the surreal disappeared. Then I groped beneath the stars for some kind of firmament upon which to stand.

Yesterday morning a loon bade farewell to me while I was packing up. I left the wilderness with some reluctance. The walk out was one long daydream. The call of loons swirled inside my head even as I drove home. And right now it doesn’t seem to matter what I’ll do today, how high the price of gas will go, or who will win the upcoming presidential election. I am still haunted by loons. Give me a few more hours to armor up.

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Sep 05 2008

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Managing Wildness

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A copy of Adirondac, the Adirondack Mountain Club publication, appeared in my mailbox the other day. I immediately cracked it open and looked for some provocative article to read. The ADK rarely disappoints on that count. I found an article titled “There’s a Reason for the Rules,” in which a club member defended some of the more controversial DEC regulations recently applied to the Eastern High Peaks. My blood boiled right away.

Last year I shelled out seventy bucks for a bear resistant canister so that I could legally backpack into the Dix Mountain Wilderness, which I believe is subject to Eastern High Peaks rules. Yep, that’s right. Can’t just sling my food bag in the trees like I have for the past 30-odd years. Gotta have a big, heavy plastic can for the bears to kick around. Well, okay. Bears are a problem in the High Peaks, so I went along with it. Then I returned home from my trip to find out I could have been issued a fine anyway, for building a campfire out there and having my dog off leash.

Right now I have backpacking gear laid out on the floor of an extra bedroom. I’m getting ready for a 5-day excursion into the Adirondacks – with my dog, of course. We won’t be going to the High Peaks, that’s for certain. The DEC rules are more relaxed in every other part of the Adirondack Park. I will land in a place where few people go, build a campfire the size of a pie pan, and stare into it for a several hours after cooking my dinner on it. I call this meditation. Others call it a violation of backcountry ethics.

I fully understand the need to regulate high-use areas like the High Peaks. On many occasions I have hiked the battered trails leading to the Park’s highest summits. Often I have passed so many people on the trail that it hardly felt like a wilderness experience at all. I’ve seen neophyte backpackers drag small trees to fire pits and torch them as if deep woods is the perfect place for a bonfire. I’ve seen dogs chase deer to exhaustion, wild animals open up backpacks full of food, and mountain streams tainted by soap suds. I’ve personally picked up enough trash scattered around shelters to fill my car once over, at least.

Yeah, I know exactly what the rules are for, but I also know that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) is a state bureaucracy that thrives on the endless creation of rules, and that there are enough eco-fundamentalist zealots in both the DEC, the ADK, and elsewhere to impose fixed, one-way worldviews on the rest of us. And anyone who objects is a selfish, nature-hating troglodyte.

Where will the rules end? You can use your cell phone in case of an emergency, by the way. Think about it. Cell phones and bear cans are in; campfires are out. This is not the natural world of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau or Verplanck Colvin. This is the wild managed, the backcountry with signs telling you what you can and cannot do, the canned wilderness experience. Must it come to this?

Next week I’ll go deep into the woods with my dog, doing my best to avoid contact with the rule-makers of all stripes who dominate the civilized world. I desperately need a break from their bullshit. And when the DEC starts breathing down my neck this year or next, I’ll go elsewhere, to more remote places, like a mountain lion or a grizzly bear, until there’s no truly wild country left. I, too, am on the endangered species list it seems. That’s okay. Nothing’s meant to last forever – not even wilderness or those who thrive in it.

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Sep 02 2008

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Thinking Big about Clean Energy

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A few months back, after taking a long hard look at retirement with my wife, Judy, I started investing in the stock market. I’m addressing this matter woefully late in life, I realize, but better late than never. At any rate, I looked around for places to put the meager sum I’d scraped together and soon found myself researching alternative energy companies.

I focused on “clean tech” companies for two obvious reasons: first because the recent jump in the price of oil means this sector will soon be on the fast track, and secondly because renewable energy is a good thing – something the world desperately needs. A book called Green Investing, written by Jack Uldrich, turned out to be a great place to start.

Come to find out, there are companies all over the world, both private and public, working hard to provide us with wind, solar, tidal, geothermal power and more. We’ve come a long way from the days when renewable energy was some pie-in-the-sky notion entertained only by hippies and other social outcasts. On the business television channel CNBC, as well as in investment periodicals, there is much talk about Big Solar, as if it might someday rival Big Oil. I take this as a good omen – a sure sign that renewable energy’s day has finally come.

Now I know what all you Greenies out there are thinking. I use words like “business” and “big” in the same sentence and you write me off as yet another nature lover gone over to the enemy. You still believe that anything associated with Corporate America is patently evil and that good things come only from people organizing at the grassroots level – from people who work the earth with their own two hands and those who support them. But the world needs power and lots of it. If big corporations don’t provide clean energy on a grand scale, who will?

Back in the 70s, I read Schumacher’s book on appropriate technology, Small Is Beautiful, and was greatly moved by it. But socioeconomic forces are moving towards globalization faster now than they ever have – towards the very big and very integrated. To think we can reverse these forces is sheer folly. The best we can do is to channelize them. And if we do so correctly then maybe, just maybe, we can prevent this beautiful planet of ours from burning up. So I’m all for Big Solar and whatever else it takes to quit fossil fuels once and for all.

At long last, we have a real chance to change the way we live. The trick is to look beyond old-fashioned, short-term, parochial solutions and embrace innovations that work on a grand scale. So think big about clean energy, I say. Only then can we reverse global warming and tap the clean, inexpensive, long-lasting sources of power necessary to make us all happier and more prosperous. The future can be very green if we want it to be.

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