Archive for April, 2009

Apr 28 2009

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Wild Lilies

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After a short but intense round of writing this morning, I pulled on my hiking boots and shot out the door.  I couldn’t get to the woods fast enough.  I parked my car at the trailhead then hiked hard towards one of my favorite haunts.  There I found the objects of my desire: wildflowers of all sorts in bloom.  I found wild ginger, marsh marigolds, blue violets and various others on full display.  But the wild lilies are what really got my attention.

I dropped down on one knee next to a mixed patch of them – white and purple trilliums, trout lilies and bellwort – touching the flowers to make sure they were real.  I was astounded by their abundance. The unseasonable warmth that has graced Vermont during the past few days has brought them out a bit earlier than usual.  I enjoyed their elegance – how something so simple could be so beautiful.  I marveled at their unbroken symmetries – triads of petals and sepals convincing me that there’s a force in nature greater than myself.  Then I stepped away to continue my hike.

The daystar burned brightly overhead even as clouds gathered on the western horizon.  I smelled rain, so I turned around and hiked back to the car.  I saw two marsh hawks circling low over wetlands.  Suddenly robins appeared everywhere.  Splotches of green mottled the forested hills in the distance.  Matika panted heavily at my side, and I soaked my t-shirt with sweat as if it was summer.  I spotted more wildflowers here and there along the trail, but my head remained full of wild lilies.  Once they spring up there, it’s hard to get them out.

It makes perfect sense to me that lilies are associated with everlasting life.  That such life forms should suddenly emerge from the cold, dark earth is proof positive that chaos does not reign supreme in this world.  I find it difficult to behold wild lilies without lapsing into mysticism or waxing sentimental.

Give me a bouquet of lilies on my deathbed and I will pass away assured of something more than oblivion.  Until that day I will wander among them whenever I can, worshiping their Creator and rejoicing in the eternal renewal that is spring.  I’m a madman, I admit – mad with the simple pleasures of an infinitely varied world.  Whenever wild lilies are in bloom, nature does not disappoint.

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Apr 22 2009

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A Dry Wind

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I went into the mountains earlier this week to spend the night – just me and my dog, Matika.  I hiked a logging road uphill for a half hour, then followed a small stream a quarter mile to a favorite camp spot.  At 1500 feet, a few patches of snow still lingered in the woods.  Although some furled leaves pushed through the forest floor, no flowers bloomed at that elevation.  That’s okay.  I hadn’t come to botanize.

In early spring, I don’t expect much.  But I do expect to enjoy a long, meditative evening feeding sticks into a campfire.  With that in mind, I gathered wood shortly after setting up camp.  But it was still too early in the day to start a fire, so I went fishing for a while.

I broke out my fly rod and retraced my steps back to where I’d seen a brand new beaver pond.  Figured that would be a good place to start.  I flipped my line into the pond and every quiet run or deep pool I could find while working my way upstream, but no trout rose to my offerings.  That’s okay.  I hadn’t come to fish.  Not really.

By the time I returned to camp, I was ready to start a fire.  I crumpled a little birch bark and built a small tipi of sticks around it.  But a dry wind blew down the mountain, kicking up leaves all around me.  Hmm…  My wood pile, the leaves, the surrounding forest – everything was very dry.  As I put a match to the tipi, I told myself to be very careful.  I had a couple liters of water close at hand just in case.

The parched tinder burst into flames and every stick I added to it burned hot and fast.  I kept the fire small, but had to put out an ignited stray leaf more than once.  Stressful.  I burned just enough wood to boil up a pot of water for dinner, then immediately snuffed out the flames.  So much for campfire meditation.  I donned a sweater as I sat in the chilly woods at twilight, while brooding over this unexpected turn of events.

A gust of wind blew down the mountain with enough force to rattle my tarp.  I fretted about the impending storm as I tied down the tarp edges with more guylines.  Then Matika and I crawled under it.  The wind roared in the distance.  The temperature dropped as the forest grew dark.  I nodded off but awoke around midnight to the sound of sleet hitting the tarp.  Matika groaned.  Several times through course of the night, the wind tugged at the tarp, threatening to pull it from its moorings.  But we awoke at dawn still dry and under cover.  The forest calm at that time seemed rather peculiar.

With very little wind blowing and leaves subdued by dampness, I enjoyed a breakfast campfire well into the morning.  It wasn’t what I had planned, but when you’re in the wild, it’s best just to go with the flow.  During the past 24 hours, Mother Nature had shown me a face I’d never seen before.  I pondered that while sipping coffee and poking at quiet embers.  Twenty-seven years in Vermont woods, you’d think I would have seen it all by now.  But the wild, by definition, can always surprise.

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Apr 17 2009

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The Fever Strikes

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Even though I had the house all closed up yesterday morning, I could hear a cardinal singing loud and clear from its treetop perch.  I didn’t dare look out the window because I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the blue sky.  I was hellbent upon getting various literary tasks done before noon, but it seemed rather foolish to write about the natural world while it was springing back to life just beyond my walls.  What would Thoreau do?  Eventually, I stuffed a compass in my pocket, slipped on my hike boots, and headed for the hills.  No doubt my dog, Matika, wondered why it had taken me so long to do so.

After watching a big old turkey crossing the road, I stepped into the woods.  I needed to hear the high-pitched symphony of spring peepers and had in mind a beaver pond where I was sure to find them.  Just before leaving the last semblance of a trail, I spotted coltsfoot in full bloom – not all that unusual in mid-April.  But the spring beauty that I found a few minutes later took me completely by surprise.  A week early, at least.  I dropped down to my knees and snorted the flower as a drug fiend snorts cocaine.  The result was just as narcotic.

I flushed two deer from a streambed while bushwhacking through some brambles.  Matika immediately chased after them but turned around when I called her back.  Good dog (sort of).  We hopped over the stream and continued deeper into the woods, skirting the beaver pond.  Its shimmering waters were clearly visible through the naked trees, but I wanted to reach a favorite spot on the pond’s opposite shore.  That would take some doing.

My passage through the forest wasn’t very direct.  I traveled from one patch of green to another, looking for more signs of the season.  I found a few mottled trout lily leaves springing forth, then stumbled into some fresh leeks.  I chewed a leek just for the sharp sting of it to my palette.  Matika sniffed the tracks of animals that had passed this way recently.  We reached the far side of the pond sooner than expected.

A Canada goose honked as we approached the pond’s marshy shoreline.  There I sat on a fallen tree, with Matika resting by my side, long enough for the peepers to resume their trilling.  They had fallen silent during our approach but started up again once we were quiet and still.  The goose floated closer, honking continuously as if to evict us.  She eventually got her way.  Matika and I moved away after the peeper chorus had sufficiently scrambled my brains.

A few wood frogs croaked from an ephemeral pool that we passed on the way out.  They stopped as soon as I went over to inspect their haunt.  I searched for more wildflowers in bloom but found none.  No matter.  An unblinking sun burned high in the sky and all I could think was this: How lucky I am to be alive on such a beautiful day.  I drove home slowly, very slowly, irritating the other drivers on the road who had places to go and things to do.  Too bad I couldn’t have walked home.  I really shouldn’t have been behind the steering wheel of a car in my condition.

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Apr 10 2009

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Spring Arrives in the Mountains

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After parking my car where Preston Brook spills into the Winooski River Valley, I hike the narrow dirt road up a steep grade into Honey Hollow.  There’s a dusting of snow on the ground and flurries in the air, but I’m dead set upon finding springtime here on this early April day.  I follow a deer trail down to the brook once I’m above the gorge.  The trail empties into a small clearing a short while later, where a hungry deer have foraged beneath a lone apple tree.  From there it’s an easy bushwhack along the stream, back to the base of Camel’s Hump – my favorite Green Mountain.  I set a steady pace to keep from wearing out too quickly.

I’m looking for signs of eternal renewal but my dog, Matika, doesn’t care.  Any day in the woods is a good one to her.  She leaps over a feeder stream, does a 180, then leaps over it again for the sheer joy of leaping.  She scratches here and there, sniffs, and runs about wildly.  She couldn’t be happier.  As for me, well, I’m halfway between being in my body and in my head – between sensual awareness and philosophical abstraction.  I hope to tip the balance towards the sensual before day’s end.

Preston Brook roars as spring runoff cascades through the rocks.  It is a bank-full tumult of whitewater racing out of the mountains, teasing me with mere glimpses of its clear, green pools.  This stream won’t be fishable for another month, but already my thoughts have turned towards the speckled trout lurking in dark corners just beneath the surface.  Icicles dangle from the moss-covered trees that have fallen across the torrent.  I look for a stonefly shuck amid the rocks along the stream’s edge but don’t find one there.  Soon, very soon.

Beneath my feet, the ground is soft, spongy, and covered with forest detritus.  In wetter places, I sink up to my ankles in mud.  While stepping over blowdown, I notice tiny, club-shaped reproductive organs arising from a patch of moss – a sure sign that the growing season has commenced.  The Christmas ferns, polypody, and evergreen woodferns pressed to the ground by winter are starting to rebound.  Deep green clubmoss pokes through patches of snow, making me think of a different era when the growing season was very short, indeed. And for a split second I feel Neolithic – fresh from the Ice Age.

Coltsfoot appears suddenly before me on a mudslide.  I am shocked by its tight curl of yellow petals on the verge of opening.  Already?  A bit later I spot a robin on the branch of a young maple tree – something common in the lowlands this time of year but rare here in the mountains.  Looking around, I notice the hemlocks adding welcome color to an otherwise brown and gray forest.  I thank them for it.  My eyes hunger for green.

Miles deep in the hollow, I take a seat next to the brook and rest.  Matika has a cup of kibbles for lunch while I eat a handful of nuts, a granola bar and a few pretzels.  Before long I’m chilled by my own sweat, so I pack up then tag the narrow dirt road for a long walk out.  I daydream along the muddy lane, recollecting other walks here in years past – many, many walks.  Growing older isn’t so bad.  My vault of pleasant memories overflows.

Through a break in the trees, I see Bone Mountain in the distance looking very cold and gray.  No matter.  A gust of warm wind blowing up from the Winooski River Valley reminds me what time of year it is.  I pass a dozen green shoots of wild lilies breaking through the earth.  Then I smile.  Yeah, it’s that time of year and I can feel a vital part of me thawing.  And before I get back to my car, I’m already planning my next outing.  This time of year, I can’t get enough of it.

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Apr 02 2009

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Building Walls to Save Forests

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I read in the newspaper yesterday that the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro is going to build ten-foot walls around the slums of that big city in order to protect the nearby urban rainforest from further deforestation.  This is wrong on so many levels that it makes my head spin.  But I can’t think of a better issue to ponder today, as the G20 tackles the world’s economic woes.

Naturally, as a guy who has made woods wandering the central focus of his life, I’m all for preserving forests wherever they may be.  That’s why I get this sick feeling when I read stories like this one.  The Rio government is pandering to the likes of me – to affluent, nature-loving people in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, who are deeply concerned about the mass extinction of plants and animals as well as global warming.  Yeah, they know how to package it.

Reality check:  the burgeoning slums in question have destroyed 500 acres of urban rainforest during the last three years.  Since 2000, about 150,000 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest have disappeared.  Quite a difference, I’d say.  Besides that, isn’t the term “urban rainforest” something of an oxymoron?

Using the Internet, I dug deeper into this matter only to learn that the project managers think this wall will significantly reduce the drug-related violence spreading from the slums to the city’s richer quarters.  How convenient.  Two solutions for the price of one.

Yes, Brazil is one of the countries attending the G20 summit.  With the world’s tenth largest economy and a population of nearly 200 million, it’s force to be reckoned with, no doubt.  But when I read about walls being built around slums to save urban forests, I can’t help but wonder who’s in charge there and what their priorities are.  Looking out for their poorest citizens isn’t at the top of their list, obviously.

The world is small and getting smaller.  What happens in a rainforest thousands of miles away affects those of us living here.  What happens to the Brazilian people affects us, as well.  Both the economy and the environment are global, so we should care about what happens in faraway places.  But in the Age of Information, bullshit travels at the speed of light.  We would be wise to keep this in mind the next time the politicos here, at the G20 summit, and elsewhere tell us what they are doing to make things better.

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