Archive for January, 2009

Jan 29 2009

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Yankee Blue Skies

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While slogging along a snowmobile trail the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the sun smiling overhead.  It shined brightly in the middle of a deep blue sky – the kind we see here in Vermont when dry, arctic air blows our way.  Yankee blue, I call it.  There’s no equivalent in the Midwest where I grew up.  Skies so blue that it’s hard to believe that they’ll ever turn gray again.

Sometimes the snow is so bright white that you can’t help but love it.  Enough warmth radiates from the sun to make you believe that the worst of winter has passed.  And as long as you have your back to the wind, life is good.

Yesterday it snowed all day long.  I went out and shoveled it for a while, drank hot chocolate indoors at lunchtime, then went out and shoveled again.  My dog, Matika, romped in the snow piles undoing some of my work.  I didn’t care.  Neither did my octogenarian neighbor, Scout, who was happy to shovel away most of the day.  Vermonters like to brag about how cold it is in early morning when they go out to start their cars, and how high their snow piles are.  No sense fighting it.  After a while, the cold and snow simply become a way of life.

Is the cup half empty or half full?  That’s an age-old question whose answer reveals more about the person answering than what’s actually in the cup.  At first we respond to the weather, the seasons, and everything else by passing judgment on it.  Then, if we have any sense at all, we let go of that judgment and learn to live with what has been cast our way, maybe even finding joy in it.  Few circumstances in life are truly tragic: war, famine, pestilence, and that other dark horseman.  The rest is merely challenging, like the frigid wind icing over your face or the foot of snow that has to be pushed from your driveway.

I am one of those people who usually takes a dark view of things, who looks at the cup and sees what’s missing, not what’s there.  But every once in a while, I find myself enjoying my labors, even when chilled by my own sweat and running the risk of frostbite. The best part of my walk the other day occurred when I turned towards the wind, my face freezing all the way back to the car.  The best part of shoveling snow is the ache in my lower back afterward.  How can I explain this?  I can’t really.  All I can say is that sometimes adversity is good for the soul.  And when on occasion there are Yankee blue skies overhead, it all seems worthwhile.

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Jan 23 2009

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A Phony Woodsman

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Yesterday was chock full of electronic frustrations.  I began the day in the rat maze that Bowker calls a web site, managing those ISBNs sacred to every book publisher, and finished with a phone call to my tech savvy stepson, Matt, regarding coming changes to my email account.  Plenty of other frustrations between those two: altered passwords, new online fees, and assorted glitches.  By mid-morning, I was ready to toss my computer in a snow bank and go live in a cabin in the woods, completely off grid.  By mid-afternoon, I was slogging through calf-deep snow in nearby woods, trying to sweat out my frustrations.  That helped a little.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that I’m a phony woodsman.  Most of my troubles stem from the fact that I have a foot in two entirely different worlds.  On one foot, I’m a writer and small-scale publisher, deeply engaged in high civilization.  On the other I’m a woods wanderer, tramping around roadless areas like a wild animal.  In other words, I keep a line of communication open to society therefore I’m a phony.  If I were a real woodsman, I’d step into the forest and never be heard from again.

I often catch myself fantasizing about disappearing.  My greatest reservation is that I’d lose my wife in the process, along with cherished ties to family and friends.  Then there’s the whole matter of where and how to live, along with the money necessary to set myself up, so the fantasy doesn’t last long.  Making a complete break with society isn’t easy.  Even mountain men had to trap beaver and sell pelts to traders in order to supply themselves with essentials.  Truth is, any retreat into the forest is only a half measure, unless one is utterly misanthropic and independently wealthy.

“No one lives in the woods,” the rather caustic French philosopher Alain once wrote, “Life in the woods is a fiction; the man of the woods is a fugitive.”  When I first read this, I wanted to sling his book across the room.  “Bullshit!” was my gut response.  Then I thought it through and tempered my judgment.  When I’m deep in a wilderness for days on end, I am very much a man of the woods.  In such circumstances, the wild defines me.  But I start missing my family and friends.  Eventually, time and food run out.  Then I return to the world of words, dollars and other abstractions.  Yeah, I’m a phony.  Alain called it.

Yet nothing Alain or any other cafe philosopher says can change what I feel in my heart.  My connection to the wild is profound.  I can’t imagine going too long without a good dose of it.  If ever the day comes when dropping off the grid isn’t possible, then woods wanderers like me will no longer exist.  Yeah, I may be a phony when I call myself a woodsman, but I still must have my regular infusion of the wild, if only for a day or two here and there.  This utterly electronic world can’t sustain me.

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Jan 19 2009

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Passing Judgment

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I got out of bed yesterday, dressed in thermals and wools, then stepped out the door while it was still dark.  I woke up in a bad mood for some reason – maybe I had been pondering the human condition in my sleep.  All I know is that I felt a powerful urge to go for a long walk and air out my stinky thoughts.  Since my wife and dog were visiting a friend for the weekend, there was nothing to prevent me from breaking the morning routine.  So out the door I went.

At first I kept to the sidewalk, but snowdrifts made walking there difficult so I moved to the street.  On a wintry Sunday morning before daybreak, it didn’t matter.  A car cruised by every once in a while, but I had the street to all myself for the most part.  I imagined trying to explain to some policeman why I was prowling the town.  But that was only my stinky thoughts creeping to the forefront of my consciousness, so I let it go.

I listened the other day as our outgoing president made his last speech, justifying eight years of ineptitude and that, I think, is what put me over the edge.  He passed judgment on himself as a way of setting the record straight, before anyone else could do so.  He passed judgment on everyone and everything in sight, seizing the moral high ground.  Or so he thought.  But history will not be kind to him.  I’m sure of that.

We all do it.  Passing judgment is as common as passing gas.  It’s an integral part of being human.  But there are times when it seems to me like the root of all evil.  I recently read several books about the Eastern Front in World War Two and was appalled by what the Nazis and Soviets did to each other there, along with anyone else in the way.  Tens of millions of people died, combatants and non-combatants alike, as each side pursued its morally righteous agenda by sheer force.  80% of the war was fought on that front and none of it was pretty.  To what end?  Misery, cruelty, death, destruction, and ultimately back to square one:  the Cold War, taking sides again, us and them.  And so on and so on . . .

Where does it all end?  According to those passing judgment, it never does – not until heaven on earth has been firmly established.  All we have to do is stand tall against the bad guys and good will prevail, right?  This is precisely what our departing president believes and why the world is such a mess.  I pray that the incoming president has more sense, but there’s a stink in the air as the victors of the last election celebrate.  Is that the smell of moral righteousness?  It smells to me like something dead.

As I finished my frigid walk, I flushed a murder of crows from a long row of conifers lining a side street.  They whirled about the bleached landscape in predawn light, cawing with unusual menace before settling into a few naked maples.  I was cold, achy, sweaty but feeling much better than I’d felt an hour earlier.  Walking is like that. I was tempted to read something into the sudden presence of so many carrion-eaters, but quickly jettisoned the thought.  “Give it a break,” I mumbled, reminding myself how easy it is to pass judgment and how little good comes from it.   Then I went home to a hot cup of coffee and breakfast.  And the day began in snowy stillness and beauty despite the endless gray sky overhead.

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Jan 13 2009

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Snow Country

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People living south of the border (the VT/MA state line, that is) are always surprised when I tell them that I don’t ski.  They think that’s what Vermont is all about.  I tried the sport once but didn’t much care for it.  I get out and snowshoe occasionally but am not as excited about that I as once was.  No, I hunker down during winter for the most part, focusing in on my literary work.  I wait for the other seven months of the year to roll around, when I can feel the earth underfoot and walking is easy.

Whether one skis or not, there’s no denying that Vermont is snow country.  It’s not unusual to get a hundred inches of the white stuff during a season here in the Champlain Valley and lot more than that falls on the mountains.  Oh sure, much of it melts off when the sun shines, but snow generally covers the ground from early December until the end of March.  So you’d better like it if you want to live here.

Do I like snow?  Let’s just say I’ve grown accustomed to it.  Growing up in central Ohio, I endured months of relentless gray skies and freezing rain.  By comparison, snow is much easier to contend with, especially on one of those blue-sky days like yesterday when the sun illuminates the frosty landscape.  A day like that can make even the crankiest, ice-hating curmudgeon believe that Vermont is a winter wonderland.

Shoveling snow is another matter, though.  I’ve noticed that those who like snow the most have Thule racks on their cars and usually bolt for the slopes after a winter storm has dumped a half foot or so.  You rarely see them shoveling out their driveways in full skiing regalia – that’s what the plows on the front of pickups are for.  But us poorer folk cringe at cost of snow plowing, so we resort to snow blowers or do it by hand.  It’s good exercise, we tell ourselves.  And that it is, for sure.

I pant and grunt as I push the snow around.  I often groan when I toss a particularly heavy load onto a five-foot snow pile.  I curse when my shovel catches on a knot of ice, wrenching my shoulder.  I sweat no matter what I wear and usually have ice encrusted in my beard when I finish.  A blast of cold air whips out of the northwest and I curse again.  Then my goofy dog, Matika, looks up from the hole she has dug in a snow pile and I can’t help but laugh.  Her furry face is even more ice-encrusted than mine, but she couldn’t be happier.  I stop shoveling long enough to toss her red ball a few times and she leaps through the snow like a snowbound dolphin.  Then the sun comes out again.

Being a Vermonter doesn’t mean playing in the snow all the time, but somehow we learn to live with it.  Hat, gloves and a heavy winter coat are essential.  A decent pair of snow boots can completely reverse one’s outlook on the season.  A little time spent outdoors sets one up for that commonplace moment when wild nature beams a frigid smile.  So when the weather forecasters threaten us with a Nor’easter that’s sure to dump a foot or more, we check our shovels to make sure they aren’t broken and say: “Bring it on!”  The more snow we get, the more we have to brag about.

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Jan 07 2009

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Evolution Reconsidered

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A few weeks ago, I posted a rumination called “Evolution is Religion” at this site, drawing fire from those who don’t wholeheartedly agree with me.  My friend Andrew’s criticism of my take on evolution and religion, at his site: , is as good as any.  Check it out.  For those of you more interested in the hard science of evolution, which speaks for itself, there’s a big spread on it in this month’s issue of Scientific American.  For those of you still interested in trying to figure out what the hell I was saying in last month’s blog, read on.

Where did the first living cell come from?  In a sense this question is rhetorical because there’s no possible way for us to reasonably answer it.  I emphasize the word “reasonable” here to dismiss all wild-eyed theories about how it could have emerged, as well as all assertions based upon sacred texts.  A similar question is: What existed before the Big Bang?  That question has the time-bound word “before” in it, thus making it patently absurd to any serious student of cosmology.  I trade in these paradoxes and absurdities on purpose to illustrate how little we really know about nature.  We’ve filled entire libraries with the particulars of the natural world, but the whole of it still confounds us.

Knowing what we do about the particulars of the natural world, I don’t see how anyone can reject the mechanics of evolution outright.  It appears to be written in DNA itself, not to mention the multitude of fossils we’ve collected over the past couple centuries.  But all this suggests that nature as a whole is organized – a concept which begs the existence of some kind of organizing force.  Call that force what you will.  I call it God.

I understand the scientist’s natural revulsion to any kind of Godtalk.  One only has to conjure up images of Copernican heretics burning at the stake to see why men of reason cringe at the mere mention of anything remotely religious.  I also cringe when folks whip out their sacred texts, knowing that there’s a noose and/or torture chamber somewhere waiting for the likes of me, as well.  But that doesn’t change what I see in wild nature.  I see order as well as chaos at work in it, and I can’t for the life of me explain this.

As many people have pointed out to me over the years, my version of God is weak indeed.  I doubt it would hold up in any court, be it religious or secular.  But the wild keeps telling me that I’m onto something here.  And for that reason, I will follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion.  I just hope there isn’t a cup of hemlock waiting for me at the end of this road.

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