Archive for February, 2009

Feb 25 2009

Profile Image of Walt

For the Birds

Filed under Blog Post

Hungry for a little color and vitality in the depths of winter, Judy went out and bought a bird feeder.  We hung it up, along with some suet, and soon added another feeder to the mix.  That was several weeks ago.  Since then, we have thoroughly enjoyed the avian circus playing out just beyond our kitchen window.  Some new species arrives every third day or so.  It’s been a good show and promises to get even more interesting as spring approaches.

Chickadees were the first to find our feeders, of course.  Sparrows, finches and juncos quickly followed.  Because of the suet, we’ve seen some larger birds as well: cardinals, blue jays and even a woodpecker.  That’s a lot of wildbird activity on a blustery, cold, snow-covered day.  Several times during the past few weeks, I’ve asked myself:  “Why didn’t we put up a feeder before now?”  No idea why.  All I know is that a bird identification book and a pair of binoculars rest permanently on our kitchen counter now, and we use them daily.  The newcomers have greatly enriched our lives.

Backyard naturalizing isn’t exactly high adventure, and birdwatching seems particularly genteel – the kind of thing one might expect from graying folks – but I engage in it now and then.  I have friends who are much more into it, who keep life lists, belong to birding organizations, and do bird counts.  I know one fellow who can hear a birdsong in the distance and tell you who’s singing it, nine times out of ten.  I’ve always envied him that.  But my interest in birds has never gone beyond the casual.  As for my wife, Judy, she’s relatively new to birdwatching.  She might really take to it this spring when the warblers return.  We’ll see.

The nice thing about birding is that anyone can do it.  Aside from a pair of binoculars and a bird book, no special gear is required.  And while hardcore birders take trips to faraway, exotic places, one can watch birds just about anywhere.  I first got into it while sitting in front of my bookstore during a slow year.  Yeah, they can be found in cities as well as forests and fields.  I once saw an owl in the middle of the road.  Go figure.

Okay, maybe putting up a feeder and watching birds flock to it is a sign of cabin fever – the desperate act of nature lovers in dire need of something vibrant in the end of winter.  I must admit, my eyes are hungry for green.  Judy’s eyes welcome any color other than brown, white, or gray.  We are both glad to have wildlife in our lives again.

Winter is long here in the North Country.  Some of our biggest snowstorms have come in mid-March.  And piles of the white stuff will linger another month, at least.  But the days are noticeably longer, water drips off roofs at midday, and the sap will start running soon.  Spring will come eventually.  It always does.  Until then our feeders will entertain us, no doubt.  Every day brings some small, new discovery – a great pleasure, always, even though it’s all for the birds.

2 responses so far

Feb 18 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Gettysburg Walk

Filed under Blog Post

During a rather impromptu trip to Virginia to visit my stepson and his family, I stopped by Gettysburg.  I needed to stretch my legs after driving alone for 500 miles and the battlefield seemed like just the place to do that.  Besides, what better way to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday?

I parked my car halfway up a hill called Big Round Top then followed a path winding down through the woods.  I was not alone.  The wind blowing through the trees was ten thousand ghosts whispering a battle hymn.  A lone crow cawed in the distance.  The sun broke through the clouds moving fast overhead, then disappeared again.  The ground underfoot was soft and completely free of snow, reminding me that I was a long way from Vermont.  Wearing only a sweater and a light jacket, I walked in comfort – a pleasant foretaste of the warm season to come.

I popped out of the woods near a place called the Devil’s Den, and wandered amid dry, knee-high grass for a while.  The rocky face of Little Round Top loomed over the open field, though, so I turned towards it.  I followed a sketchy path easing slowly uphill to a low spot in the long ridge of hills, seeing as some Confederate general must have seen that here the Union line could be turned.  And sure enough, I ran into a monument marking the place where Chamberlain’s Maine regiment anchored the Union left flank.  No doubt scores of history buffs had gone this way before me.

While standing in that rather nondescript notch, I scanned the surrounding woods, trying to wrap my brain around one simple fact:  Here the fate of the Republic was determined by men locked in a struggle to the death.  A profound difference of opinion resolved by the shedding of blood.  The ground underfoot was soaked with it.  The institution of slavery did not survive the ordeal, and for that I am grateful for the sacrifice made.  But I couldn’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way to resolve differences.  Must it always come to this?

Before stopping at Gettysburg, I had been listening to National Public Radio.  The 787-billion-dollar stimulus package dominates the news these days.  Once again congressional Republicans and Democrats are lining up along party lines with divergent views about how to fix the mess we’ve made of the economy.  Looks like the Dems have enough votes to pass their spending bill.  The Reps are sure it’ll lead to disaster, as if we aren’t there already.

As I finished my walk back to the car, I wondered if our contemporary culture is what our forefathers had in mind when they created this nation.  I wondered what those boys in blue and gray would think if they could rise from their graves and see what their country looks like today.  Would they all agree that their sacrifices were well worth it?

Walking the battlefield, I really don’t know what to think.  All my philosophical abstractions implode amid those parked cannons, monuments and grassy fields.  All I know is that I feel a deep sadness every time I go to Gettysburg, and always end up wiping tears from my eyes while driving away.  So much blood.  So much sacrifice.  What a fragile Republic this is, built upon such lofty ideals.

One response so far

Feb 11 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Does Nature Exist?

Filed under Blog Post

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin – the man whose name is practically synonymous with evolution.  It’s a good time to celebrate natural science, or at least acknowledge Darwin’s work.  But evolution has become politicized, like everything else.  When reading about an organization currently pushing the slogan: “evolve beyond belief,” I am tempted to dive into the fray and argue that belief and evolution are not mutually exclusive.  Then I remember who/what I am and where I really stand on this matter, and out comes this question: Does nature exist?

You think I’m kidding.  You look out the window at the sky, the trees, and the songbirds at your feeder and you think: “Of course it does.  It’s right here before us as plain as day.”  But I’m not so sure.  That’s why I call myself a philosopher and why most people despise philosophy.  Guys like me ponder for days on end what the average person accepts as common sense.  It seems pretty silly, I’ll admit that.  But in my defense, let me say just this:  Five hundred years ago, common sense dictated that the Earth was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around it.  Common sense isn’t wisdom.  The smallest kernel of new knowledge can radically change its trajectory.  If nothing else, Darwin’s life and work illustrates this.

If you’re one of those people who despises philosophy, now’s the time for you to click away to a more entertaining website.  Google “evolve beyond belief” if you’re bored.  I’m sure you’ll have fun with that.  But those of you who don’t mind delving deeper, read on.

No, I’m not kidding.  “Nature” is one of those words, like “truth” and “love,” so loaded with assumption that it’s practically meaningless.  The single most important assumption we make is that Nature exists at all (yes, that’s Nature spelled with a capital N).  If chaos rules the universe, as some scientists and philosophers insist, then what we perceive as order is only an illusion.  So my apparently absurd question can be better worded this way:  Does natural order reign in the universe or is the appearance of it only an illusion?  God or physics – take your pick.  You can believe in one or the other, but to use the word “nature” in any meaningful way, you have to believe in some kind of organizing force.

These days I’m deep into the revision of a philosophical piece that’s a real pleasure to work on.  But every time I come up for air, I am tormented by the kind of false choices that dominate the media and all conversations related to it.  Then suddenly I catch my reflection in the mirror: I am the madman yelling “pears” when everyone else is arguing apples and oranges.  Of course I’m tormented.  I insist upon being a philosopher in a world where the vast majority of people would rather argue than think.  So I should either accept that torment as an occupational hazard and get on with my work, or join the fray.  Hmm…  What would Darwin do?

Those of you who know my drill know that this is when I usually grab my rucksack and head for the hills, more to ruminate than to relax.  But let’s forget about me for a moment and think about that hard working 19th Century amateur scientist who put a wrestler’s hold on the idea of Nature and didn’t let go.  What was he really trying to tell us?  This is worth considering, I think, on the anniversary of the day when that exceptional mind came into the world.

Comments Off on Does Nature Exist?

Feb 05 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Dreaming of Wilderness

Filed under Blog Post

Last week I purchased a set of maps for the Maine section of the Appalachian Trail.  The first three maps, heading south from Mt. Katahdin, cover a patch of wild country known as the 100-Mile Wilderness.  Not a wilderness in the true sense of the word, this is the most remote stretch of the AT.  Hikers are told to carry 8 to 10 days food when going through this part of the Maine woods because there’s nowhere to resupply.   That’s music to my ears!  When I first learned this, I vowed to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness someday.  Well, now I have the maps in hand, and that day is less than seven months away.

Since acquiring the maps, I have pored over them with such intensity that I’ve practically memorized the route.  For a hundred miles the trail skirts lakes, follows streams, winds through wetlands, traverses two significant mountain ranges, and fords rivers.  And I’ll be deep in the forest most of the way.  This is my idea of a good time.  Most people dream of sleek cars, beautiful new homes, and lounging on Caribbean beaches.  I dream of a long, sweaty, bug-ridden slog along a muddy trail with a 60-pound pack tugging at my aching shoulders.  Maybe I should have my head examined.

My wife, Judy, is all for it.  She knows I need to get away like this every once in a while.  She’ll drop me off at Abol Bridge and pick me up 12 days later at Monson.  That’s a lot of driving, but she’s willing to do it for me.  Yeah, I’m a lucky man.

Matika will be going with me, of course, and her pack will also be fully loaded.  No chasing squirrels on this outing.  Matika and I are both soft and fat now, but diet and exercise will whip us into shape during the next six months.  The main thing right now, in the dead of winter, is to cut back on the treats.  No peanut butter biscuits for her; no jelly beans for me.

Some people hike long distances for the fresh air and exercise.  Others for the brag of it.  I hike as an excuse to spend a big chunk of time in deep woods.  That’s why I’ll be doing this section of trail in 12 days instead of the recommended 8 to 10.  That means carrying more food, but I don’t care.

Right now it’s a few degrees above zero outside, there’s a foot of snow on the ground, and my body is fighting off a cold virus.  The upcoming hike seems far away.  But six months goes by quickly when you’re my age, so I’ll be standing on Abol Bridge soon enough.  Until then, I’ll be dreaming of wilderness… and getting ready.  The single biggest question is this:  Can Matika get by on dehydrated dog food?

Comments Off on Dreaming of Wilderness