Archive for July, 2009

Jul 27 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Nature and Irrationality

Filed under Blog Post

From what I can tell, there are two prevailing approaches to nature these days: the holistic and the rationalistic.  Those who take the holistic approach perceive nature as a seamless whole, which holds itself in eternal balance – when undisturbed by humans that is.  Those who take the rationalistic approach assert that there is a logical explanation for everything in nature, even the allegedly erratic behavior of individual plants, animals and people.  This is the fundamental difference between East and West, between the philosophies of the Orient and those that arose from ancient Greece.  Or so we are told.  But I don’t buy it.

In the 21st Century, a third approach is emerging – one that fuses the holistic with the rationalistic, the East with the West, the right brain with the left.  In this approach, Mother Earth is respected even as science is embraced.  Taking this approach, reasonable men and women work as stewards, helping nature restore itself to its proper balance.  But I don’t buy this, either.

There is, of course, that old-time view of nature as a world “red in tooth and claw,” where strong prevail and weak perish, but aside from a handful of libertarian anarchists, I’ve never met anyone who truly believes this.  The problem with this approach is that civilization keeps getting in the way.  What room is there for civility in such a world, for law and order?

The way I see it, the wild has no place in any of these views.  And when I say “wild” here, I mean truly wild – wild in a way that no theologian, scientist, or philosopher could ever fully explain.  The wild as fundamental contradiction, as aberration of nature, as inherent absurdity.  I seem to be one of the few people who believe that wildness of this sort exists.

After several decades of rumination, I have reached the conclusion that nature is predicated by the irrational.  I don’t think there can be any serious discussion about nature without the thorny issue of wildness being addressed, first and foremost.  And yes, I suspect that wildness and irrationality are cut from the same cloth, that all deviations from the norm are, in fact, as much a part of nature as the norm itself.  In other words, nothing stands outside of nature.

So go ahead and call me a Pantheist.  I won’t deny it.  It would be irrational for me to do so.  Then again, it’s hard to say how I’ll react to any box drawn around me.  And this is precisely why wildness, human or otherwise, is so dangerous.

Comments Off on Nature and Irrationality

Jul 21 2009

Profile Image of Walt

A Perfect Day

Filed under Blog Post

A few weeks ago, when Mason turned five, I promised my grandson that I would take him hiking and fishing for a day.  Just the two of us – no brother or sister along.  Incessant rain and my busy work schedule made it difficult to make good on the promise right away, though.  When finally a rain-free day appeared on my weather website, I called Mason’s mom to arrange an outing.  I picked up Mason right after breakfast and we headed for the nearest body of water.

We caught a few sunfish at Arrowhead Lake, but it wasn’t the kind of rock-and-roll action I’d been hoping for so we drove over to the Lamoille River.  Didn’t do any better there.  Surprisingly, Mason didn’t complain.  When I suggested that we go for a hike next, he was all for it.  We went to Niquette Bay State Park and hiked down the broad, flat path towards the beach.  Mason shouldered a teardrop pack loaded with all kinds of stuff, keeping the park map firmly in hand.  I carried along a fishing rod, just in case.

While standing on the shores of Lake Champlain, we saw the forested point where the park attendant told us to fish.  We headed for the point, walking the beach until it disappeared into reeds.  The lake is high this year, due to heavy rains.  No matter.  Mason charged up a goat path heading straight uphill.  I warned him that it looked like a tough climb but he didn’t care.  He was ready for the adventure so up we went, huffing and puffing, our feet slipping in sandy, loose soil all the way.  At last reaching the Beach Bypass Trail on top, we took a break.  We drank water and ate trail mix and talked about stuff until we were ready to go again.  I said we could take the easy path back to the car if he was tired, but Mason wanted to keep going to the point.  Okay then.

Beyond a deep ravine, the path narrowed as it wound up and down through woods and rocks until we reached the point.  There a broad, flat rock dropped into deep water and, sure enough, we got into a few more fish.  But it was nothing to brag about.  We were distracted once by a frog leaping across the rock and again by a gaggle of teenage girls nearby who started jumping into the water.  Mason wanted to do the same, but I reminded him that we didn’t have bathing suits with us – truly an oversight on such a warm, sunny day.

While hiking out, Mason and I took turns spotting chipmunks and red squirrels half hidden in the surrounding forest.  “Good eye!” I told him.  Then we talked about coming back here with his mom and brother and sister someday.  I took a deep breath, then exhaled, saying how much I love the smell of the woods.  Mason did the same.  Then I mentioned how lucky we were, with all the rain lately, to have such good weather to hike.  “Yeah,” Mason said, “It’s a perfect day!”  I smiled at that, all the while thinking how the day could have been better.  Then I agreed.

3 responses so far

Jul 14 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Planning a Trip

Filed under Blog Post

A month from now, I’ll be commencing a long walk through the Maine woods.  Since this particular trip poses several logistical difficulties, it’s not too soon to prepare.  The section of the Appalachian Trail that I intend to hike is called the 100-Mile Wilderness because one can’t resupply along the way.  That’s means I’ll have to carry everything, including all my food – a true challenge for a hiker who moves as slowly as I do.  To further complicate matters, I’ll be taking my dog, Matika, with me.

To a casual observer it would appear that I like to make things difficult for myself.  Truth is, I’m willing to go to great lengths to spend a big a chunk of time in deep woods.  As for taking Matika with me, well, I couldn’t deprive her of the experience.  She loves the wild as much as I do.  Besides, she’s the ideal hiking companion.  She doesn’t talk.

Dog food is bulky so I’ve introduced dehydrated food to Matika’s diet.  I thought she’d resist it but, to my great surprise, she gobbles it right down.  Altering my own diet won’t be so easy.  After working out some calorie-per-pound calculations, I have reached a conclusion that is sure to make the readers of my Long Trail book laugh:  I’ll have to carry a lot of nuts.  Back in ’95, I swore I’d never do this to myself again.  But nuts are the perfect solution to the logistical problem at hand.

Clothing isn’t as much a matter of weight as it is bulk.  The solution is simple.  It’s all about the ability to stay warm so cottons must be kept to a minimum.  Cotton is comfortable but useless when it’s wet, and this is a wet year.  Besides, it takes forever to dry out.

Cooking.  I’ll build campfires whenever I can, carrying as little stove fuel as possible.  But, like I said, this is a wet year.  Hope I don’t regret this decision.

Shelter: a tarp only.  To keep it from tearing apart in a storm, I’ll reinforce the grommets with duct tape.  This spark of genius came to me while I was driving home from work a few weeks ago.  What’s that?  You think I’m crazy?  Hey, don’t underestimate the power of duct tape.

Luxuries, only one: binoculars.  I expect to see some wildlife on this trip.  Okay, maybe two: a disposable camera.  No, my journal isn’t a luxury.  That’s how I stay sane, both in and out of the woods.

What else?  There are a thousand details.  A long walk in deep woods isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.  A first aid kit, an emergency blanket, a full set of maps, a backup compass, a solid-shank knife, water filter, and water purification tablets just in case.  Yeah, I can’t wait to get out there.  I like being completely self-sufficient.  It feels like… freedom.  There’s really no other word for it.

2 responses so far

Jul 07 2009

Profile Image of Walt

Bushwhacking without a Compass

Filed under Blog Post

Yesterday I slipped into the woods with my dog, Matika, hungry for a challenging hike.  I went to a nearby patch of wild country called French Hill.  Since it’s only a few miles square, and familiar terrain for the most part, I didn’t bother carrying a compass.  After all, I’ve been in there many times before.

When I was younger, I religiously carried a compass even on familiar trails.  My hiking companions have marveled at this quirk over the years.  It seems so unnecessarily cautious.  But I know from experience how easy it is to get turned around in the woods, especially if one is in the habit of leaving the trail and bushwhacking cross country as I am.  On lengthy excursions into big woods, I still carry a compass.  Locally though, I’ve gotten into the habit of doing without.

Frogs and toads jumped out of the way as Matika and I charged down the overgrown logging trail.  A great deal of rain has fallen in Vermont during the past couple months and the understory is thicker than usual.  No matter.  We forged ahead, dodging ruts full of water as we ventured deep into the woods. We picked up a fresh set of moose tracks and followed them even deeper, both of us excited when we passed a fresh pile of droppings.  Then I lost the moose tracks along with any semblance of a trail.  No matter.  I navigated by sun, gradually bearing south towards a known beaver pond.  I was confident that I’d stumble into familiar turf soon.

French Hill is more of a long, wide ridge than a hill, with plenty of knolls and ravines.  It’s a good place to get turned around, actually, and that’s exactly what happened when the sun slipped behind the clouds.  The maze of ATV trails that I ran into didn’t help.  I followed them until I was thoroughly disoriented.  I kept reaching for the compass that wasn’t there.  Still, I was too proud to pop out of the woods when I spotted a house.  I knew there would be a road just beyond it, but I was determined to exit the woods at the same point where I had entered.  So I turned away.

I wandered around for a while, ripping my pants in some thick brambles and taking lots of scratches.  I kept my cool, still confident that I’d stumble into familiar terrain.  Then I slipped in a mud hole and fell down, ramming the butt of a downed tree into my side.  That’s when I took the situation seriously.  I sat down and carefully considered my next move.

Matika was not happy.  Neither was I.  With a heavy sigh, I accepted the fact that it was time to follow a “lost azimuth” due south to the road.  I used the moss growing at the base of trees to maintain a steady southern bearing.  Imagine my chagrin when I popped out of the woods at the exact same house I’d turned away from an hour earlier.

Yeah, I got my challenging hike, and then some.  Good workout, and good training for a big hike in Maine next month.  But never again will I enter the woods without my compass.  Let my hiking companions marvel at the primitive device dangling from a lanyard around my neck – I don’t care.  No bushwacker with any sense steps into backcountry without one.

Comments Off on Bushwhacking without a Compass