Archive for May, 2009

May 25 2009

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Judy and the Hummingbirds

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Judy loves hummingbirds but it has been years since she last saw one.  Two summers ago, she purchased a hummingbird feeder and hung it from the lilac bush a few feet from our kitchen window.  That allowed me a close-up glimpse of one once but Judy wasn’t so lucky.  So for the third year in a row she hung the feeder, hoping for the best.  I knew better than to encourage or discourage her.

Judy loves hummingbirds.  She loves them so much that she has one tattooed right above her ankle.  She says that every time she has seen one she has been on some kind of vacation – with me in the Adirondacks, with a friend on the Maine coast, or elsewhere.  More than once she has seen them at rest and has meditated on the fact that even a creature as frenetic as a hummingbird must stop every once in a while.  Seeing them when her own life was frenetic, she too has stopped.  There is a time for wingbeat intensity and a time to rest.

Many years ago, when I was alone in the Alaskan bush, I awoke almost daily to the low-pitched buzzing sound of a hummingbird hovering just outside my tent.  Even then Judy had an affinity for hummingbirds, so I couldn’t help but think that her animal spirit was watching over me.  Nowadays I can’t see a hummingbird or the mere image of one without thinking of her.  Judy’s existence and the essence of that tiny bird are somehow bound together.  Don’t ask me to explain how I know this or why it is so.  Some things go beyond words.

A couple days ago Judy put up her hummingbird feeder, hoping for the best.  She put up a fuchsia plant next to it, thinking that that might help attract the little busybodies.  She was right.  Yesterday, just before dusk, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a female.  Judy saw it a few minutes later, delighting in the encounter.  This morning, we both saw a male hummingbird at the feeder, repeatedly.  It looks like Judy has finally succeeded in attracting them to our home.  That makes this a red-letter day.

There are times when the wild is in our faces, and other times when it seems elusive.  Always it keeps us off-balance, somewhat amazed, unsure what to expect next.  That is the wonder and beauty of it.  Few creatures illustrate this as well as a hummingbird does, flitting around with such erratic intensity.  Maybe that is why Judy, wife of a woods wanderer, loves them so much.

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May 20 2009

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Money Matters

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Even though I don’t consider myself a materialist, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about money.  Who hasn’t?  For most of us living in middle-class America these days, money is more about survival than it is the endless acquisition of goods.  My wife, Judy, and I are concerned about keeping a roof over our heads, food in the cupboards and the other basics of life.  We worry about future prospects for some kind of retirement, health care, and all the rest of it.  These are hard times, certainly – not nearly as bad as the Great Depression, we are told, but worse than anything we’ve ever seen before.  And we keep wondering when it’s all going to turn around.

The other day Judy remarked that springtime seems especially beautiful this year.  I agree, it is.  Why is that?  I suspect that it has something to do with survival, with all the time and energy we’ve devoted to money matters since the economy took a turn for the worse.  After a long pow-wow about cutting back our expenses, just in case, we looked up from our porch chairs and were pleasantly surprised to find the world just as beautiful as it has always been – as if money doesn’t matter at all.  How strange.

Money does matter, and what we are experiencing in America these days is what most of the people on this planet deal with every day.  Many of them are worse off than the average unemployed American – much, much worse off.  I read somewhere recently that a billion people go to bed hungry every night.  That’s almost one in six people.  Simple facts like this keep things in perspective.

How dare I ramble on and on about the wonders of wild nature while a billion bellies are growling, when the future is so uncertain!  Sometimes I am ashamed of my wild thoughts and feel guilty about the long walks in the woods that I enjoy while so many people are suffering.  Then someone else mentions the scent of lilacs in the air, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker knocking, or the luxuriant feel of a handful of dirt.  Then I nod my head in deep reverence.  These are things that keep us going.  These are things that matter.

What is the point of living if there is no joy in it?  What is easier to enjoy than a colorful sunset, a cool breeze in the morning, a few notes sung by a songbird, or anything green?  When one’s belly is full, of course.  I don’t know how to turn the economy around or how to fix all the world’s woes, but I do know that we’ll be in deep trouble the day we loose our appetite for the simple pleasures of life.  Without it we would be only so many desperados bouncing off each other in search of a quick fix.  So let’s try to enjoy the things commonly found in nature even as we take care of the difficult business at hand.

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May 13 2009

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Hiking Hard

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Monday morning I headed for the hills.  After crossing over a recently opened mountain pass, I drove through the Stowe Valley to the edge of Mt. Mansfield State Forest where I parked my car.  The sun was shining brightly.  My dog, Matika, grew excited, especially when I shouldered my pack and we started up the well-groomed woods road.  I wanted to stretch my legs.  With the upper reaches of the Long Trail still wet with snowmelt, this was one of the few responsible ways to hike a trail deep into the forest.

The Cotton Brook loop is either 8 or 9 miles long, depending upon where you start.  I made it a 9-miler just to push myself.  It was a stress test of sorts, with an eye towards a trek on the AT I’ve slated for August.  I hiked hard at the outset, averaging 3 mph even while stopping occasionally to check out wildflowers.  Jack-in-the-pulpit greeted me at the outset.  Foamflower, wood anenome, bellwort and bluets bloomed along the side of the trail.  A few early-season bloomers like trillium and trout lily lingered beyond their peak days.  The surrounding forest was a dozen different shades of green.  I reveled in it while breathing heavy and breaking a sweat in the chilly, early morning air.

Matika cavorted off-trail at first but settled into a steady trot once she realized that she was in for the long haul.  Four and a half miles back, we stopped at one of the two main feeder streams tumbling from the head of the Cotton Brook Valley.  There the stream ran clear despite heavy rain a couple days earlier.  I splashed some of it into my face before continuing my hike – a baptism of sorts.  I do not take clear mountain water lightly.

Around six miles, I felt dull nagging aches mounting in my hips, knees and lower back.  The higher-elevation bloom of Dutchman’s breeches and bleeding hearts distracted me somewhat, but the aches persisted even when the trail flattened out.  Suddenly a euphoric rush coursed through my body and I smiled skyward.  The endorphins had just kicked in.

Around seven miles I left the main trail and hiked down to the brook.  There Matika and I took a long break.  A few black flies buzzed us while we ate lunch but weren’t menacing enough to take seriously.  Here the mountain stream was a whitewater torrent loaded with silt, more mesmerizing than calming.  I lost myself in it for a while.

My joints had seized up during the break so it wasn’t easy getting going again.  All the same, I set a steady pace on the way out and enjoyed every minute of it.  Another wave of endorphins helped, as did the ibuprofen when it finally kicked in.  Matika stayed ten yards in front of me.  The warm spring air made it easy to daydream.  I thanked my lucky stars for living in Vermont and being able to slip into the Green Mountains this way pretty much at will.  I’m fully aware the hard hiking through the woods is luxury that few people enjoy.  At my age it isn’t easy, but the dull aches are a small price to pay.  Yeah, I’m a lucky stiff.

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May 08 2009

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The Green Unfurling

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After weeks of alternating rain and sunshine, the grass is a fuller, deeper green than it’s been in six months.  But that’s not what’s captured my attention lately.  Not really.  I am awestruck by the leaf-out all around me – in the bushes, in the trees, and across the forest floor.  It is so sudden and overwhelming that I find it difficult to think of anything else when my eyes fall upon it.  And yes, it feels sudden, even though I had all of April to anticipate it.  Nothing could have prepared me for this kind of green, even though I’ve seen it fifty times before.

Vernal green, Kelly green, the green of a living landscape long since dormant and springing to action.  Wizard of Oz green – a brown and gray world bursting into Technicolor vitality overnight, too green to be real.  I first noticed the green unfurling while running my dog a week or so ago.  A maple leaf no bigger than my thumb rolled out of its bud and yawned.  All I could do was stand there amazed by it.  But now I’ve gone beyond that even.  Now I’m completely overwhelmed.

What kind of world is this, anyway?  How can there be so much green where there was only bleached forest detritus, dark mud and naked branches only a few weeks ago?  I go about my daily affairs the best I can, but all this green distracts me.  I fight back the urge to cast off my clothes and dance through the lilies like some feral naturist drunk on life.  I make a list for the day, look at my watch and pretend that I have it all under control.  But this green unfurling is making mincemeat of my reasoning powers.

Every other day is built around a stint of woods wandering, however brief.  The rest of my life is just some kind of muddling through, a sleepwalk of sorts, full of numbers, ideas and other abstractions.  Head down I start my walks.  Five or ten minutes into them, I look up and see the luminescent green.  Then and only then am I fully aware of being alive.  And my first impression is always the same:  This remarkable world is too beautiful for me to run roughshod over it the way I do.  What was I thinking?

But enough blather already.  A cardinal calls me out even as I write this.  I’ve gotta go.  And maybe, just maybe, after I’ve seen enough songbirds and wildflowers amid the green, I’ll be able to get something constructive done today.  Not that it matters.  Life needs no excuse to exist.  In that regard, I am no exception to the rule.

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May 01 2009

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The Politics of Nature

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People naturally assume that I’m eager to save the planet from the ravages of industrialism, protect all endangered species from extinction, and preserve as much wild forest as possible.  Surely someone as passionate about wild nature as I am must be an environmental activist, or so the conventional line of reasoning goes.  This assumption is made by liberals and conservatives alike, and confusion registers visibly in their faces when I deny it.  And when I add that I reject “-Ist” and “-Ism” altogether, that I’m too much of a philosopher to be truly political, most people peg me as a fence-sitter and leave it at that.  Who can blame them?  Action is what matters in this world of ours.  Words are only words.

I studied too much political theory back in college – that’s the problem.  I learned all I could learn about Socialism, Fascism, Republicanism, Democracy, Theocracy and the rest of it.  I even cultivated my own alternative political philosophy for a while.  But all that is just theory.  Politics is the concentration and exercise of power to project one’s own cherished values onto the world.  Ideology is merely the excuse needed to get the job done, to mobilize other people to action.  As a would-be propagandist and pamphleteer, I see right through the advertisements, both left and right.  In other words, I know bullshit when I see it, and no “Ism” is an exception to the rule, not even Anarchism.

Generally speaking, I am reluctant to voice this opinion of mine – and that’s all it is, really – because there’s no advantage in offending nearly everyone else on the planet.  But make no mistake about it, I don’t care to wave any flag, even one with a picture of Mother Earth on it.

While activists break into two distinct camps, warring with each other in the political arena, global warming continues, thousands of species disappear, and the wild forest grows smaller. When the liberals are in power, laws are passed protecting the environment – keeping Big Business from trashing it, that is.  When the conservatives are in power, those laws are rescinded or new ones are passed, enabling businessmen to profit from the use and abuse of natural resources no matter what.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, year-in and year-out.  To what end?  Do you really believe that one side will ultimately win this battle?  Do you really think that an activist of any stripe can do anything that can’t be undone?

What’s at stake here is quality of life – the quality of our lives, not those of trees, whales or spotted owls.  It’s really more a matter of economics, not politics.  When enough people grasp the true cost of their shopping mall world, and what is lost in the process of perpetuating it, there will be little resistance to salvaging what’s left of the wild.  Most people act in their own best interest.  All any real lover of wild things needs to do is show them exactly what’s at stake.  Then nature will take its course.

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