Archive for December, 2008

Dec 31 2008

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A Pedestrian at Heart

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All cranked up on sugar and caffeine, I cruised down the highway at 75 miles an hour and it seemed perfectly normal to me.  I followed a bare-pavement highway all the way through the snow-covered mountains of New York and Pennsylvania, finally arriving in Ohio a day and a half after leaving Vermont.  After a few days with the folks, then I did it all in reverse.  Gas was cheap – less than half of what it cost last summer – still I felt a little guilty about taking the trip.  The money I spent along the way to buy foreign oil was only making my home country poorer, not to mention the consequences of my car’s CO2 output.  But this is America and nothing is more American than motoring down an open road.

I enjoyed the ride out but not the ride back home.  Halfway through New York on the return journey, I felt cooped up, so I stopped at a roadside rest and walked half a mile to nowhere.  Sitting behind the steering wheel for a day and a half was the worst of it.  I am used to moving about, even on days when I don’t go for a hike in the woods.  I asked my brother, who drives a truck for a living, how he copes with this.  He told me that you get used to it.  I don’t think I ever would.  I like to stretch my legs too much.

Out on the highway, everyone is in a hurry.  Some people talk on phones while they drive; others listen to hard-driving music as I do.  Still others occupy themselves with talk radio or sports broadcasts.  I suspect that some long-distance truckers toy with other motorists just to relieve the boredom.  Nearly everyone drives too fast, too close to the vehicle in front of them, and with little regard for the weather.  Ego is involved, no doubt.  And every once in a while, we all pass a car or truck wrecked along the side of the road.  But that only happens to other drivers, of course.

Where are we going in such a hurry?  To our graves, ultimately.  Meanwhile the sun rises over the snowy, forested hills and we admire it at our own peril.  After all, the endless flow of traffic does not brake for beauty.

Yesterday, my first day back home, I went for a long walk along the Rail Trail with my dog.  She didn’t get out much while I was gone so she was happy just to sniff around and run.  I felt the same way despite the steady blast of arctic air freezing my face.  The sun rose high into a cloudless sky.  I kicked up powdery snow with each step.  I walked farther than I thought I would, just to walk.  Then it occurred to me:  I may live in an automotive society, but I’m a pedestrian at heart.  I’d choose the most mundane walk over a rock-and-roll ride every time.  Does that make me Thoreauvian?

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Dec 24 2008

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Seven Random & Weird Things

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After reviewing my last few downbeat posts, I think it’s time for a little levity.  Renee, one of my readers, recently posted “seven random and weird things about me” at her site, , and suggested that I do the same.  So here goes:

1.  As a kid, I used the birthmark on my left hand to differentiate between left and right.  Sometimes I still reference it.

2.  I was a Boy Scout for several years and learned a great deal about land navigation, building fires, first aid, and survival.  But I never earned a single merit badge.

3.  The first time I made love to a woman, I flipped a coin.  Best two out of three.

4.  A friend of mine won a Red Barron Pizza contest, but didn’t want the prize: a wild ride in a replica in the Red Barron’s biplane.  I took his place, requesting loops and rolls.

5.  While living in Oregon, I used to track mountain lions for fun.  I tracked one once to a ledge overlooking a spot where I’d been standing ten minutes earlier, and that was the end of that.

6.  I ran out of coffee the day before a bush plane extracted me from the wilds of Alaska and swore I’d never be without that precious black stuff again.  So if you ever run into me in deep woods, I’ll have coffee to spare.

7.  I’m not a picky eater.  I’ve eaten all kinds of wild plants, bear stew, the worm in the tequila bottle, and beetles on the half shell.  But I don’t like beets.

Weird enough for you?

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Dec 17 2008

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Evolution is Religion

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Every time I go deep into the woods, I am astounded by the fecundity of nature, by the myriad life forms taking root all around me.  Living things abound, even in the dead of winter.  The planet is teeming with them.  The oceans are soups chock full of plants and creatures great and small. Even in the coldest, most inhospitable regions of our world, colonies of bacteria thrive.  Others live on the hot rims of volcanic eruptions.  Life is everywhere and thriving.

While engaging in a series of mundane tasks the other day, it suddenly occurred to me that evolution is religion.  The great debate between Creationists and Darwinists is a contrivance – an artificial argument where the parties involved conspire against the reality manifest both in this planet of ours and in the stars.  This is clearly evident to anyone paying attention to the march of living cells: one splits into two, two split into four, and so on until everything living comes into being.  This sequence explains the seemingly endless variations found in nature, but it also begs the question: Where did that first living cell come from?

A genetic code is just that – a set of instructions by which a specific living organism takes shape.  Any self-respecting atheist will insist that the rise of the first cell was purely happenstance, that the animate sprung spontaneously from the inanimate after an incredibly long series of random events.  At face value, this appears to make sense.  But the stars refute it.

The evolution of inanimate matter draws attention to the problem of the first living cell.  Because we have become a species of specialists, the vast majority of us do not see the paradox here.  Biologists break down living things to long chains of proteins, naturally assuming that the building blocks of life have always existed.  Physicists study subatomic particles and see randomness at work in all things physical without giving much thought as to how this extends to their own living, breathing selves.  Cosmologists compile more and more data pointing to the emergence of the universe from an infinitely dense point in spacetime 14.7 billions years ago, offering no explanation as to how the physical world can be both random and organized.  Meanwhile natural historians present hard evidence that complex life forms have evolved from simpler ones, but stop short of explaining life’s origins.  Everyone assumes that the other specialists hold other important pieces of the puzzle, and that together these pieces will reveal a mechanistic world that’s mathematically comprehensible.  But the math never explains how that first living cell came to be.

The universe consists of countless stars organized into galaxies over eons.  We know that before there were galaxies, stars, planets, atoms, or any kind of organized material whatsoever, there were subatomic particles running amok in white-hot plasma that was the direct consequence of the Big Bang.  So again, I ask you: Where did the first living cell come from?  Where did this urge to live and reproduce originate?

A logically consistent atheism must deny the existence of nature altogether.  Both the laws of physics and genetic codes must be seen as mere accidents.  There is no room for natural laws in any worldview that denies a Lawgiver, unless the universe itself has always existed.  But we know this isn’t true.  We know that everything points back to the Big Bang.  We know that all matter can be reduced to four basic forces, and that a fraction of a microsecond after the Big Bang there were only two.  What happens when we go back in time and reduce that two to one?  Then we are standing eyeball-to-eyeball with God.

A true atheist must deny evolution because that seemingly scientific description of nature assumes a certain order to things that an utterly random universe cannot support.  Hence, evolution is religion.  This is so obvious that I don’t see how anyone can miss it.  But we are a species of specialists, so the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.  When this fact is taken into consideration, it is amazing that we can figure out anything at all.  Too much information.  The particulars obscure the generalities.  We can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Dec 12 2008

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Tracks in the Snow

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After the freezing rain had turned to snow, I bundled up, grabbed my dog’s leash and stepped out the door.  Matika ran ahead of me, naturally, excited by the prospect of a long walk.  We reached the trailhead after a short drive, then laid tracks in the pristine snow.  We had the rec path all to ourselves.

The naked trees and brush were a dozen different shades of brown, contrasting nicely with the whitened ground, rec path and sky.  The snow blew at a sharp angle across the path.  I raised the hood on my jacket to conserve body heat.  I picked up my pace.  Matika was already thirty yards ahead of me, terrorizing a squirrel.  The snow muffled every sound except that of traffic on the nearby highway.  Incongruity.  Nothing but trees in view, yet a blind man would have thought he was near a busy intersection.

Sometimes a walk is just a walk.  Sometimes I head outdoors, stretch my legs for a couple miles, then return home sweaty and a little winded but otherwise unchanged.  A lot of nature writing leaves the reader with the impression that every outing has the potential of being some kind of life-changing event.  Not true.   Sometimes the walk itself is all one gets out of it.  Sometimes there is nothing worth reporting – no wild encounters, no great moments of insight, nothing the least bit out of the ordinary.  Perhaps that is why so many nature writers tend to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary.  No writer wants to be caught without something to write about.

Ah, but there’s always the ineffable – that aspect of the wild that goes beyond words.  If an ordinary walk so often takes on the trappings of a religious experience, it’s only because the ordinary wipes the slate clean, making it easier for even an irreligious fellow like me to pick up on the essential Otherness permeating nature.  But that isn’t something easy to talk about, so we talk about the many familiar objects in nature, instead, hoping that something might emerge as a workable metaphor for that Otherness.  And it usually does.  But this is religion, not natural history.

Truth is, I’m not much of a naturalist.  Neither was Thoreau.  I’m just a writer with a bad habit of philosophizing while walking in the woods by myself.  But often I return home from an outing without a scrap of insight.  You, dear reader, usually don’t hear about those outings.  Why would you?

Sometimes a walk is just a walk.  Sometimes I head outdoors, stretch my legs for a couple miles, then return home happy to have gotten out.  I’ve had bad days that included a long walk, but they are rare.  I’ve had good days where I didn’t get outdoors, but they would have been even better if I had.  Above all else, a long walk is good for the body.  We Thoreauvians sometimes forget that.

The snow squall intensified as Matika and I finished our walk.  It quickly covered our tracks.  We were both covered with flakes by the time we reached the car.  While the defroster cleared the window, we exchanged big, goofy grins then picked chunks of ice out of our hair.  No doubt Matika was just as happy to get back to our nice, warm house as I was.  But going for a long walk is never a bad idea.

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Dec 05 2008

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Going Green

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Everyone is going green these days.  I can’t figure out whether this is good or bad.  The optimist in me wants to believe that we’ve finally reached the tipping point in ecological awareness – that being green, once marginalized, is now going mainstream.  But I worry that it might just be a passing fad, no more profound than red handbags or thin ties.

Are we ready to trade our gas-guzzling trucks for hybrid cars?  After building millions of energy-sucking McMansions, is the average homeowner ready do downsize to a smaller, more energy-efficient dwelling?  Forgive me for being skeptical, but this is America for chrissakes.  Moderation is a dirty word here.

But green is clean.  Green is oh, so modern.  Green is the new organic.  When being all natural was countercultural, only young rebels and social dropouts were interested in it.  But now green appeals to everyone who has greenbacks to spend or a credit card to plop down.  Green is the kind of buzzword that makes advertisers orgasmic.  Its marketing possibilities are endless, and no aspect of the economy will go untouched.  Green can pick up where high-tech left off.  Better than that, green can be a new religion.  And every consumer is a potential convert.

In a culture such as ours, where consumerism is two-thirds of the economy, it’s foolish to talk about socioeconomic change without taking spending habits into consideration.  The Thoreauvian ideal of the simple life is fine in theory, but it doesn’t drive the Dow.  If we are serious about retooling our civilization, thus making it more environmentally sustainable for our children and grandchildren, then the greening of consumer behavior is absolutely necessary.  Still, I’m a bit leery about it.  Can we really spend our way to salvation?

Truth is, I’m a lousy consumer so my opinion doesn’t count when it comes to these matters.  Much to my wife’s dismay, I wear shirts with frayed collars, pants with holes in them, and shoes coming apart at the seams.  Most of my backpacking gear is repaired and/or outdated, and I scour the bargain tables of bookstores on a regular basis.  I’ve completely worn out a half dozen rusty cars.  The economy would unravel and civilization would collapse altogether if the average consumer suddenly behaved the way I do, so ignore my grumbling.  Get out there, open you pocketbook and go green!  All nature is counting on you.

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