Archive for October, 2008

Oct 31 2008

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October Snowstorm

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Snow lingers on the ground despite the weather forecaster’s promise of a return to autumn.  I look at the calendar on the wall.  It’s not even November yet.  This is an unusual turn of climatological events even by Vermont standards.  A dusting of the white stuff before Halloween, sure, but lingering snow this time of year?  C’mon now.

The night before last, I drove home through the darkness just after the cold rain switched to wet snow.  It was a white-knuckle drive that made me think about things to come.  But I went to bed confident that the snow would be gone by noon the next day.  And now, into the second day, I’m trying to make sense of it.  I’m trying to make sense of Mother Nature’s capricious ways.  It isn’t easy.

The law of averages provides some consolation.  Given enough time, snow will fall in September one year, and flowers will bloom in December another year.  It all evens out, right?  Of course it does, unless Mother Nature is up to something we don’t know about.  Yeah, trust the law of averages.  It’ll pass.

On October 4, 1987, I was taken by surprise.  I hiked into the mountains that day with enough gear to spend the night and every intention to do so.  There was something in the forecast about possible rain and a big drop in temperature but I shrugged it off.  Way too early in the season for anything serious.  I was trout fishing in my shirtsleeves at noon, wearing my rain jacket by mid-afternoon, and dealing with freezing rain at dusk.  I set up my tarp against a fallen tree then started a fire to stay warm.  That sorta worked.  When the freezing rain switched to sleet, I put on the dry clothes I’d brought with me and slipped beneath the tarp.  I duct-taped my ground cloth to an emergency blanket, creating a waterproof pouch around my sleeping bag.  Then I climbed into it.  I was nice and warm even as the thermometer I’d brought with me dipped below thirty.  The sleet turned to snow.

Just before daybreak, I awoke to snow – several inches of it covering my camp – and it was still coming down.  I used a stick to beat the ice loose from my rain jacket, then I put it on. The trees swayed precariously in a strong wind blowing from the west.  I broke camp in a hurry, foregoing breakfast.  Then I bushwhacked out of the mountains, three miles downhill, following a stream.  A mature birch cracked loudly in a gust of wind and I jumped out of the way just as it fell where I had been standing.  I kept an eye on the trees all around me as I slogged through the slippery wet snow, falling down repeatedly.  It was a long hike out.

I’ve never been so happy to leave the woods as I was that day, but my tribulation wasn’t over when I reached the road.  It was another two-mile march along the highway, face to the fierce wind, before I reached the nearest town.  There I called Judy and drank hot coffee while waiting for her in the delicious warmth of a convenience store.  I still had icicles in my beard when she picked me up.

Whatever happens today, I’ll be sure to stay warm.  I probably won’t go outdoors for anything more than a little errand running.  It’s way too early in the season for a winter hike.  But I’ll be thinking of that time when Mother Nature really zinged me.  By comparison, the inch or two of snow covering the ground right now is no big deal at all.

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Oct 23 2008

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A Dismal Day

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Just past noon I left the house dressed in heavy boots, wools and rain gear.  The sky was steel gray and rain was falling steadily as it had been since daybreak.  It was one of those dreary autumn days when the chill in the air and the distinct lack of light reminds you that the warm season has ended and winter isn’t far away.  My thoughts ran as gray as the day.  I parked my car on the edge of town then stepped onto the Rail Trail with my head down.  I was brooding about all manner of troubles, ranging from the personal to the global.  I had plenty of material to work with.

Matika bounded down the stony path completely oblivious to the rain or my funky mood.  She sniffed at the grass along the edge of the trail, checked her p-mail, then bolted thirty yards just for the sheer joy of running.  I ignored her.

Gray is the best word to describe how I was feeling.  I was neither happy nor sad but teetering between the two, subconsciously trying to decide which way to fall.  The view across the fields seemed to match my mood.  The somber colors of the advanced season – burnt orange, rust, faded yellow and brown – dominated the nearby hills.  But here and there through the mist a burst of brilliant gold defied the otherwise somber landscape.  Yeah, it could go either way.

I slowly picked up my pace as I walked.  What started as a casual stroll became a forced march.  I shot past a mile marker where I usually turn around, crossed a road and kept going.  I got it in my head that enough sweat would swing my mood to the positive.  I’d been here before and that’s usually how things went.  But this time I just kept walking as my knitted brow strained against the cold drizzle.

Suddenly I stopped to look around.  A dead oak stood alone in a bright green cow pasture.  Beyond it a little color burst from an otherwise dark brown woodlot.  On the other side of the trail, a cornfield recently cleared of its bounty had been plowed over.  Beyond that rose those misty hills.  The clouds overhead seemed close enough to touch.  A dismal day to be sure, yet I felt strangely comfortable in it.  Glad I hadn’t stayed indoors.

Just then wave after wave of Canada geese flew past in long, undulating Vs.  There were hundreds of them, headed south at first then turning around – a great swirl of honking and wing flapping.  As I watched them turn, I couldn’t help but feel blessed by their presence.  Then it occurred to me how fortunate I was to be walking through this rural landscape despite the rain.  I turned around then kept walking.  Matika followed.  The geese landed in the barren cornfield next to the trail and nature’s endless cycles seemed palpable.  Another day, another season, and on and on like that into eternity.

While finishing the walk, I told my dog that life is good.  She responded with the big, dopey grin that all creatures living in the moment display when things are going well.  That was confirmation enough.  So I ambled the last half mile as slow as possible just make it last.  I was sweaty, chilled, and a little achy by the time I reached the car.  Matika was completely soaked.  But neither one of us could have been any happier.

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Oct 17 2008

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Surrendering Wilderness

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I read a musing on wilderness the other day that really got me going.  It was written by the award-winning essayist, Marilynne Robinson, who has a way with words but clearly doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  She started out addressing the idea of wilderness in the most general terms, then discussed various environmental woes, then argued that every environmental problem is fundamentally a human one.  Maybe so, but getting from there to her conclusion was quite the stretch.

“I think we must surrender the idea of wilderness,” she concluded, “Accept the fact that the consequences of human presence in the world are universal and ineluctable, and invest our care an hope in civilization…”  Hmm…  Did I miss something?  I went back and reread the first part of the essay to make sure her idea of wilderness and mine are roughly the same.  They aren’t.  She was thinking of the wide-open, relatively uninhabited landscape of the American West; I was thinking of wild country, as close to being pristine as it can be in this day and age.  There’s a big difference between the two.  You can site a nuclear waste dump in the former, but not in the latter.

Maybe I should cut Ms. Robinson some slack.  After all, the best essays aren’t rigorously argued discourses.  But that phrase, “surrender the idea of wilderness,” buzzes around my head like a pesky fly.  The last thing in the world I intend to surrender is the idea of wilderness.  I will surrender the idea of civilization first, though I don’t believe for a second that the two are mutually exclusive.

Again I’m thinking I should cut Ms. Robinson some slack.  Perhaps she doesn’t see the difference between wilderness and the idea of wilderness.  I don’t know how to show her the difference without dropping her in the middle of the Alaskan bush for a couple weeks with nothing more than a little food, gear, and her own wits to stave off oblivion.  The idea of wilderness is a gross misrepresentation of the wild, I’ll grant her that.  But to write off the wild altogether in favor of the civilized – I’m not buying it. There’s more to being civilized, I think, than living in a gilded cage.  Much more.

Ever since people have been able to throw up walls and declare themselves civilized (i.e. better than barbarians), there has been this prejudice against the wild.  I suspect that Ms. Robinson, along with many, many others living in this day and age, consider themselves intellectually and morally superior to our distant ancestors who scratched out a living towards the end of the last Ice Age.  If highly civilized people such as Ms. Robinson ever tried to chip a spearhead, attach it to a shaft, and get their lunch with it, they might see the fundamental error built into their preconceptions.

As for me, well, I spend a lot of time nurturing my philosophical abstractions but could just as easily be a fur-clad shaman fifteen thousand years ago trying to explain the world.  Reason is a handy tool but not the be-all and end-all of understanding.  I am human and wild, first and foremost.  I have sojourned in the wilderness on many occasions, however brief, and know the difference between what it is and any mere idea of it.  Civilization is optional.  The wild is not.

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Oct 14 2008

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Land Navigation

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Every once in a while, I get this urge to wander aimlessly through the woods. Don’t get me wrong.  I like gliding along a well-worn trail as much as the next guy.  But sometimes I have to leave the trail and walk that ragged edge between knowing exactly where I am and being lost.  I find it quite instructive.

A second-class dirt road took me to a height of land where I could access the main spine of the Cold Hollow Mountains.  After parking my car in a logging yard, I followed a skidder trail halfway up the nearest mountain.  Then I followed an ATV trail to the summit.  On the south side of that summit, the ATV looped back towards the road and I had a choice to make: either follow the ATV trail where I didn’t want to go, or set forth into the trackless forest.  The next summit was about two miles south.  I checked my compass then stepped off the trail.

Hiking a trail is sweaty work; bushwhacking is harder.  I tramped through the woods, following a compass bearing due south, hoping to find a game trail along the way.  No such luck.  I followed a set of fresh moose tracks for a while but lost them in a wetland that suddenly cropped up.  It sprawled across the saddle between the summit I’d just hiked over and the one I was headed towards.  Wetlands aren’t easy to navigate, not even relatively small ones like this one.  I read the vegetation and muddled through it the best I could.  Then I started climbing the next mountain.  About ten minutes into the climb, I tagged a game trail following the remnants of a woods road that was at least half a century old.  It crept laterally up the side of the mountain, so I changed my compass bearing.  Yeah, land navigation is tricky that way.

I stopped for lunch halfway up the mountain, resting on a rocky outcropping that sported a fair view of Jay Peak and other mountains to the northeast.  My dog, Matika, helped me drink the better part of my two-liter water supply.  That and the dark clouds blowing in from the northwest forced my hand.  So after catching my breath, I headed back the way I’d come.

Every morning, the newspaper reminds me that a major financial crisis is still underway. What was a national problem is now a global one, and no one’s quite sure what to do about it.  Every pundit keeps to his or her philosophical traces, of course.  The liberals blame the current mess on evil corporations, and the conservatives blame the liberals for gumming up the free market system with their meddling.  Meanwhile, the average guy on the street wants to pin it all on a handful of greedy bastards.  Truth is, the global economy is a big, complex system and no one is really in control.  We want our fearless leaders to navigate us through this mess, but confidence sags when they slip back into the kind of partisan bickering that we’ve all heard before.  So we listen, wait rather impatiently, and hope they’ll come to their senses.

I missed a landmark on my way down the mountain and had to radically adjust my course in order to reach the saddle between the two summits.  It was a humbling experience, certainly, but at least I had sense enough to abandon the game trail I’d been following, admit my mistake, and change direction.  I was greatly relieved to tag the familiar wetland and slowly ascend the first summit.  I congratulated myself when finally I stepped onto the ATV trail.  Then I eased back to the parked car.

If my dog had used her keen sense of smell, I could have relied on her to find my way out of the woods.  But she was oblivious to her surroundings – too busy chasing chipmunks back and forth to even know how close we’d come to being lost.  It’s for the best that she remained oblivious.  I didn’t want to follow her anyway.  It’s better that I had to navigate on my own, thus keeping those skills up to snuff.  After all, you never know when you’ll suddenly find yourself off the familiar and well-worn trail.  This happens more often than any of us are willing to admit, and it’s never wise to rely too heavily on the aptitudes of others.

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Oct 08 2008

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Global Warming and Dread

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Global Warming is one of those subjects so fraught with misconception that only the fearless and the foolhardy feel comfortable discussing it.  As a lover of wisdom, a philosopher that is, I have done my best to avoid this subject like the plague.  There’s no wisdom to be garnered here, and any discourse on the matter between those holding divergent views is likely to degenerate into a shouting match.  But there comes a time when even the most dreadful of subjects must be broached.

The two dominant positions regarding global warming amount to this:  Either global warming is caused by humans or it is not.  If it is, then we must take action to correct the problem before it’s too late.  If it is not, then the matter is largely beyond our control so there’s no sense getting all worked up about it.  The former incites mass hysteria; the latter is a comfortable delusion.  In short, either the sky is falling or the naked emperor is fully dressed.  Take your pick.

Earlier this year, I read the report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and that convinced me that global warming is not only real but most likely the result of human activity.  Being a skeptic at heart, I delved as deeply into the science behind that report as my rather unscientific mind could handle, finding a mountain of data supporting the IPCC’s claim.  Core samples taken from glacial ice are the most compelling.  It looks like we’ve been having an impact on this planet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.  Maybe before that.  So why the denial?  Because some people dread the implication, that’s why.  Reversing a 200-year trend will require a radical change in the way we do things, and some people like things just the way they are.

We must reverse global warming before it’s too late, the advocates of change warn us, before the global ecology completely unravels and nature as we know it comes to an abrupt end. Hmm…  I’m inclined to believe that a 200-year trend will take just as long to reverse, and that much of the damage done will never be fixed.  I’m inclined to believe that fear mongering only dilutes the real science behind the IPCC report and distracts us from the long, hard task ahead.  So why the threat of doom?  Because some people believe only the threat of doom will spur others to action – to immediate action that may or may not address the core problem.

Nature is resilient even if human nature is not. The wild will persist in one form or another, even if humankind is foolish enough to self-destruct.  No doubt we’ll take tens of thousands of species with us when we go, but nature doesn’t care.  Other life forms will prosper, either on this planet or the next one, long after our kind has perished.  As far as the wild is concerned, it’s never too late.

Will it soon be too late to preserve an environment that’s so friendly to us?  It’s already too late in that regard.  The glaciers are melting, the deserts are growing, the weather is becoming increasingly more violent, and soon the oceans will rise.  Fresh water is fast becoming a precious commodity and the air we breathe is only relatively clean even on the best day.  As far as the mass die-off of plants and animals go, the situation is practically biblical.  With six and a half billion of us crammed into this world and more on the way, it’s already too late to regain paradise lost.  The best we can hope for is damage control and a reasonably habitable environment in the centuries to come.

I take heart in the fact that Homo sapiens sports a massive frontal lobe and that the problem-solving powers found therein are formidable indeed.  As a species, we have survived some tough times before and it’s likely that we’ll get through this.  But I suspect that things will have to get a hell of a lot worse before we collectively rise to the challenge.  Dread is a hard thing to beat.  It will take all the mental powers we possess to get beyond fear and denial then dive into this problem headfirst.  I look forward to that day.

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Oct 02 2008

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Philosophizing Nature

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Yesterday my wife reminded me that I’m weird.  I don’t hold down a full time job.  I wander alone for days on end, grooving with the wild.  I sit around pondering the universe, then write down my thoughts.  Okay, I admit it – I’m an odd duck, and not just because I have no fashion sense and listen to avant-garde jazz.  Lately I’ve been spending a great deal of time philosophizing about nature and it’s only widening the chasm between mainstream society and me.  So I make it a point to do something normal each day, like surfing the net or watching TV.  That helps.

Immediately following my four-day retreat in the Adirondacks, I started revising a new set of philosophical essays that I committed to paper last spring.  Three weeks later, I’m still at it.  But I should finish this particular draft soon.  At the risk of mislabeling the work, I’d call it existential naturalism, even though I’m not really an existentialist or a naturalist.  I don’t particularly care for “-ists” and “-isms,” and that makes describing my worldview somewhat problematical.  But this label gives the reader some idea what my work is about, anyhow.

No philosophy worth taking seriously can be adequately expressed in bumper stickers.  That people even try is a tribute more to their sense of humor than to their wisdom.  But simplicity is a virtue in this day and age, so here are a few statements that characterize my worldview:  1) The mysteries of the natural world (the only world there is) are greater than our ability to comprehend them.  2) God, nature (in general) and human nature (in particular) are inexorably entwined.  3) I, Homo sapiens, am entirely responsible for what I make of myself and the world.

Do you see any glaring contradictions here?  I certainly hope so, otherwise I’m just wasting my time.  To be useful at all, philosophizing has to bring fresh ideas to the table.  Everything else is mere apology for the same old, worn-out worldviews passed down through the centuries, or meaningless blather.  I’d rather be thought of as a walking contradiction than someone who has nothing new to say.

The word “nature” means a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  Like the words “truth” and “love,” it defies easy definition, and that’s probably why philosophers find it so attractive.  But I am certain that such a thing as nature exists when I go for a long walk in the woods.  Only when faced with the countless abstractions of human society – things like dollar bills, contracts and “-isms” – do I start having my doubts.

As soon as I’ve completed this draft, I’ll disappear into the woods for a while.  I’ll wander about aimlessly, grooving on the wild and clearing my head.  Then brand new ideas will crop up.  It’s a vicious circle to be sure.  This is what makes me weird, I guess.  I keep going back to the well, even though this constant re-visioning only complicates matters.  Good thing my wife loves me for it, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble.  There’s not much call for woods wanderers in either the personal ads or the employment pages these days.

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