Archive for November, 2008

Nov 28 2008

Profile Image of Walt

The Season of Long Nights

Filed under Blog Post

Just about the time the first homeowners put up Christmas lights, I feel it.  Oddly enough, the feeling usually comes in the middle of the day, when the muted, overcast light of late November isn’t enough to read by.  After a long walk in bone-chilling rain, I’m happy enough to stay indoors the rest of the day, but it seems strange to be doing everything by artificial light.

Every year I am given plenty of warning.  Daylight Savings Time kicks in around Halloween and I’m eating dinner in the dark for weeks before it gets to me.  Then all of a sudden pow! I’m in a funk for no reason whatsoever.  I’m not alone in this.  Millions of people have Seasonal Affective Disorder and millions more don’t particularly care for these short days and long nights.  But like all those who suffer SAD, the dark season is something I experience in deep solitude no matter how many people around me are suffering the same. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Yes, I know all about sun lights and the many other strategies one can employ to keep SAD at bay, but the darkness still hounds me.  I’m adept now at staying a step ahead of it most of the time, but there are moments during the course of each short day when the sense of desolation is overwhelming.  Surely this feeling is as old as humanity itself.  Surely the first self-aware hominid felt something like it when he/she suddenly realized that several lean months lay directly ahead, and that not everyone in the clan would make it to spring.  Awareness is damning that way.

I am a creature of light.  I revel in the long days of early summer when it seems the sun will never set.  My two-week sojourn in the Alaskan bush was the greatest high of my life, and I’m sure that the 20-hour days had a lot to do with it.  Conversely, the only time I seriously considered suicide came on a day much like today.  Thank god I didn’t follow through on that urge, otherwise I would have missed out on dozens of glorious springs and as many magnificent summers!

Just now the snow-dusted landscape out my window becomes more visible as a lazy sun rises behind a wall of gray clouds. Later on this morning, I will go for a long walk in quiet defiance, as if to affirm that I will live to see the wildflowers bloom again.  Like my distant ancestors, I have seen this coming and have braced myself against it.  Awareness is redeeming that way.

I can’t help but think that my sensitivity to light and darkness is somehow linked to my close association to the wild.  Rationally speaking, though, this makes no sense.  There are plenty of nature lovers indifferent to these long nights.  Still, the Winter Solstice rituals of the Druids and other pagans make me wonder if there isn’t some aversion to darkness deep within us all.  Everyone braces against it, one way or another.  No doubt the candle makers and manufacturers of Christmas lights will have plenty of buyers for their wares for many years to come.

One response so far

Nov 21 2008

Profile Image of Walt

Two Realities

Filed under Blog Post

As a lover of all things wild, I find myself torn nearly every day by two distinct realities: the economic and the natural.  Theoretically, there is no conflict between the two since economics mimics the rules of survival laid out by nature, and nature follows the basic principles of economics as it goes about its affairs.  But on a practical level, the tension is palpable.

Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of environmentalism, railed against what he saw as the crass materialism of his day.  “I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in,” he complained in his journals, “They are all ruled for dollars and cents.”  Anyone who has committed large chunks of his/her life to writing and thinking understands this all too well.  While blank books abound in our day and age, the time to actually sit down and write something in them remains a precious commodity.  Writing, ruminating, walking, or merely observing wild nature – all the activities we associate with that Concord nonconformist require time, money and energy that could be devoted to earning a living.

Yesterday I mentioned to a shopkeeper that I might have to curtail my writing when my wife retires, that opening a bookshop remains my fallback plan if I can’t generate enough money writing.  “Why can’t you do both?” he asked, then I asked him what he does other than run his business.  He fell silent.  Yes, I did a little writing while running a bookstore back in the 1980s, but nothing compared to what I’ve written since then, while working part time and relying on my wife’s income.  I didn’t get into the woods much back then, either.  We all make choices, and often those choices are heavily influenced by economic necessity.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of having a cabin in the woods not all that different from Thoreau’s shack on Walden Pond.  Nowadays I see that cabin as something that competes with my writing as well as my wife’s own cost-dependent desires.  Everything requires money, and while I could build that cabin cheap enough, I haven’t the land upon which to put it.  Keep in mind the fact that Thoreau built his cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who shared the same dream.  Emerson was too busy writing and lecturing for a living to follow through on his own cabin dream so Henry did it for him.  So much for self-reliance.

The problem here, of course, is that I’m trying to be a nature writer much like both Emerson and Thoreau.  Not a journalist, a biologist, or anything practical like that, but one who delves deeply into the wild then writes down whatever comes to mind.  Truth is, there has never been much market demand for this kind of thing.  During the better part of his life, Thoreau supported himself by surveying land and running his father’s pencil factory.  Short of an inheritance or a hefty trust fund, we all make hard choices.

The choices we make in life reflect our core values.  This is true for both individuals and society at large.  The tension between the aesthetics of the wild and material well being is as fundamental as the water we drink, the land we walk, and the air we breathe.  There is no getting around this.  At all levels, we make choices that determine the fate of both our selves and the global community.  And this is why every ideology contains at least one lie.  Theory never matches practicality.  Theoretically, we can have it all.  Realistically, something has to give.

2 responses so far

Nov 17 2008

Profile Image of Walt

View from the Hill

Filed under Blog Post

Midday.  Matika and I stretch our legs.  There’s a light flurry of snow falling, which is probably why we have the hill all to ourselves today.  The forest is mostly shades of brown and gray.  Matika cavorts about the open woods, looking for a chipmunk or squirrel to terrorize.  She occasionally finds one rummaging about the leaves.  I ignore her for the most part as I amble up the trail.

Halfway up the hill, I detour to the lookout for a quick view of St. Albans.  The town sprawls before me like a model railroad layout.  The collective hum of cars coming and going contradicts the stillness of the greater panorama.  Beyond the edge of town, farm fields and woodlots stretch to Lake Champlain and its islands.  Beyond the lake, mountains rise into low clouds.  A squall to the west blocks the northernmost edge of the Adirondacks from view.  The cold wind brings tears to my eyes.  I turn away from the lookout and slip deeper into the woods.

While climbing the last rise to the summit, I wonder how many more times I’ll hike this hill before I tire of it.  There’s no way to know, of course.  There’s only this eternal present.  Deep in it now, I realize that I come here more for a sense of perspective than anything else – a quick fix of the wild when I haven’t the time or inclination to drive an hour or so to the mountains.  A week, a day, or only an hour in the woods, I take what I can get.

I cross over the summit ridge, then catch the view eastward from the nearby ski slope.  More cars race along the interstate below.  I turn away, deliberately cutting my pace to make the downhill half of the hike last as long as possible.  I have work to do but am in no big hurry to get back to it.  Matika chases a squirrel up a tree.  I call her back to my side.

On the way back to the car, I pass the remnant of an old, dead tree still protruding twenty feet into the air.  I’ve been passing it for years and can’t help but wonder when it’ll come down.  Someday it’ll drop.  It’s just a matter of time.  Chances are good that I won’t be walking past it when it does, yet fallen trees litter the forest floor.

It seems like everything is a function of time and scale.   “Time is cheap and rather insignificant,” Thoreau once wrote in his journals, “It matters not whether it is a river which changes from side to side in a geological period or an eel that wriggles past in an instant.”  A walk in the woods, even a short one like this, drives this point home.

The roof of my house is visible from the lookout on the hill.  So is the cluster of buildings downtown where I run my errands.  The better part of my life is visible from up there, though I rarely think about it as I go about my daily affairs.  Someday I’m going to sit up there and ponder things for hours on end, or so I keep telling myself.  But I can never sit at that lookout more than twenty minutes before growing restless, thinking about all the things I should be doing.  That, I find, is the essential paradox of a good view.

Comments Off on View from the Hill

Nov 12 2008

Profile Image of Walt

Fallen Leaves

Filed under Blog Post

A couple weeks ago, I stood beneath the old maple tree in my back yard amid a shower of leaves.  A steady breeze coming on the heels of a hard frost was doing the trick.  My old maple is one of the last trees to give up its leaves.  On that day it relented.  The sun was shining through a partly cloudy sky and each leaf shouted orange as it tumbled to the ground.  Hundreds, thousands of leaves rained down.  I was certain that the tree would be naked the next day.  But a tight cluster of leaves in the top left quarter of it refused to budge.

I looked up once while raking yesterday to see how many leaves were still clinging there.  Remarkably, the tree was clear of them.  Can’t say when exactly the last few leaves came down.  I missed that show.  But as I raked it occurred to me that “stick season” had arrived in Vermont as it usually does, without fanfare.  And winter is right around the corner.  I raked for a couple hours, then went inside to warm up as the faintest flurry of snow fell from the dark gray clouds overhead.

When my wife and I drove to Montpelier the other day, fresh snow blanketed the mountains and a dusting of it covered the grass on both sides of the highway.  The landscape all around us was a pitching sea of naked trees.  It was easy to imagine happy hunters creeping through them.  A little higher up, the earliest skiers will be at it soon, if they aren’t already.

There are no big snowstorms in the forecast, but every Vermonter knows they’re coming.  Winter in this part of the world is like that.  Although it gives plenty of advance warning to those of us paying close attention, it still shows up one day like an uninvited guest.  Sometimes that guest goes away for a few weeks then comes back.  Sometimes it stays until spring.  Either way, it pays to be ready.

I’ve insulated my house, brought in my outdoor planters, and dug out my snow shovels.  My winter boots are handy, as are my winter clothes.  Already my thoughts have turned inward as they usually do this time of year.  Winter is the best season for pondering philosophical matters.  It’s easy to read, write and think when the days are short and the windows have frosted over.  I used to hate winter but now I look forward to it.  I get a lot of literary work done when the snow flies.

I’ll gather up a few more bags of leaves later on today then put away my rake.  If there’s time afterward, I’ll go for a long walk with my dog through nearby sticks just to listen to the clatter of branches against each other in the late autumn wind.  That’s a sound easy to hear when the leaves are down.

A couple days ago, a diehard pansy was still flowering in the corner of my garden.  Now it’s gone.  I’m stocking up on root vegetables and planning meals that call for them.  Best not to fight it.  Best to smile at the 4:30 sundown, fully aware of the implication.  The geese have headed south and the leaves are all on the ground.  Dull brown, dry and crinkled, fallen leaves used to sadden me, but not any more.  Now they look magnificent.  They clearly illustrate nature’s endless cycle of growth and decay.  They show the circle completed.

4 responses so far

Nov 06 2008

Profile Image of Walt

A Seismic Shift

Filed under Blog Post

Like most people living in America these days, I am deeply concerned about the state of the economy and have been closely following the presidential election as a consequence.  A seismic shift in the political landscape occurred two days ago – there’s no doubt about that.  But it remains to be seen whether or not this shift signals a real change in the way we do things in this country.  Maybe it’s just another swing of the pendulum.

Partisan fighting has been the standard operating procedure in Washington for as long as I can remember.  I worry about terrorism, war, climate change, the mass extinction of plants and animals, a failing social net, and economic collapse, but what I fear most is the kind of left/right squabbling that has paralyzed our country for decades.  If we do not snap out of it soon, we are doomed as a civilization.  I sincerely hope that the current regime change will lead to a major shift in the way we do business.

The whole world is watching.  It begs for leadership worthy of the name.  It hopes that we can overcome our self-righteous, self-absorbed, bullying tendencies and get the global economy moving in the right direction again while addressing planetary matters that touch us all.  There will always be terrorists and tyrants among us, but they can’t get very far until all hell breaks loose.  It is up to us to minimize their impact by making both our country and the world a place where every man, woman and child has a chance, at least, to live a long, happy and healthy life.

I am just a woods wanderer.  I amble about the forests and fields while pondering the human condition, then sit down at this desk to verbalize my take on things.  I am not a voice from the wilderness, a religious or political leader, or an expert of any kind.  But this much I do know:  Either we go to the bargaining table with our foes and work up some kind of deal acceptable to all parties involved, or we fight them to the bitter end.  So what will it be then – conflict or cooperation?  I suspect that more can be accomplished by the latter than the former.  But not everyone shares this view.  Time will tell what those in our new government think.

One response so far