Archive for October, 2009

Oct 29 2009

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Stick Season

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Although some of the trees here in the valley are still aflame with late autumn brilliance, the mountain forests are largely denuded – a sea of brown/gray sticks waiting for snow.  I look up and see tangible proof of what my light-hungry psyche already suspects: the beginning of winter is weeks, not months, away.

There are more leaves on the ground than there are leaves still clinging to branches.  The tourists who stampeded into Vermont for peak color are long gone now, leaving natives behind to contemplate the long, cold season ahead.  A winterizing to-do list grows, yet there’s still gas in my lawnmower.  Once again, it seems, the changing season has taken me by surprise.

The hunters are all excited.  They gather up their gear like squirrels gathering nuts and will soon be chasing their quarry through the hills.  I am one of those left-behind people, hired years ago by avid hunter to keep his small motel running during the weeks he’s away.  My season is the season of wildflowers, dusty trails and brook trout, so I don’t mind babysitting a nearly empty motel between Halloween and Thanksgiving.  I watch TV when I’m not daydreaming of summer adventures.

My dog, Matika, is restless.  She gets a little ball-chasing exercise every day, but knows all too well that it’s been weeks since our last big woods adventure.  What can I say?  I’ve been busy working, entertaining visitors, and fighting off a virus.  I’ve been too busy writing about the wild to immerse myself in it, as sad as that may sound.  That’s the big joke of being a nature writer.  Your subject is outdoors but you do your work indoors.  My dog is not amused.

The sky is a gray sheet.  Geese honk in the distance, just in case I had any doubts about what time of year it is.  There’s a nip in the air now, forcing me to leave the house with a sweater or a light jacket when I run my errands.  But psychologically I’m still in shirtsleeves, and frequently I scrape the morning frost from my car windshield that way.  It’ll take a dusting of snow on the ground to change that.

Stick season is the in-between season, and that’s exactly how I feel these days, like so many others.  Time changes this weekend.  Our clocks will fall back an hour and dark evenings will soon be a way of life.  But I’m not ready for it.  I saw a wooly worm the other day and it looked ready for a long, hard winter.  Wild creatures, it seems, are always one step ahead of us – more in touch with the seasons than we could ever be.

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Oct 20 2009

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Spiritual, Earthy and Wild

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There are three words that make me especially uncomfortable:  spiritual, earthy, wild.  I use them all the time, in one context or another, but always with just a touch of apprehension.  All three words are loaded – fraught with meanings given them by thousands of naturalists before me.  Might as well add the word “naturalist” to the list.  I can’t even think about myself that way without feeling like something of a fraud.  I notice plants, watch wildlife, and read the landscape while wandering through the woods, but I’m no naturalist.  Not really.

What is spirituality?  These days many people call themselves spiritual instead of religious, thereby distancing themselves from organized religions while still asserting a belief in some kind of intangible reality.  Often such people claim a spiritual connection to the earth, though it’s never clear what this means.  No doubt it means different things to different people.  Yet the word “spiritual” implies the otherworldly, the ethereal, or a force transcending the physical.  How can a skeptic like me believe that such a realm actually exists?  There is no irrefutable proof one way or the other.

Someone says “earthy” to me and a groovy, long-haired dude and his girlfriend come to mind, both wearing clothes made with natural fibers.  I catch a whiff of patchouli every time I hear the word.  That and body odor.  Is that the Grateful Dead I hear playing in the background?  Why do I feel this sudden urge to dance barefoot while beating on a tambourine?  No, I’m not that earthy.  I’ve been known to hang upside down and naked from a tree branch overhanging a brook, splashing water into my face all the while, but most people would consider that kind of behavior strange, not earthy.  Especially if there are no drugs or alcohol involved.

As for wildness, well, we all know how vague that word is.  It means a thousand different things: unrestrained, untamed, out of control, or uncultivated to name only a few.  The word “wild” is as hard to pin down as words like “truth” or “love.”   My dog is utterly tame, yet there’s some wildness in her.  Same goes for me, or am I only deluding myself?  I obey traffic laws when I drive, file my taxes annually, and know how to behave myself in a social setting so how wild can I be?  How wild is the wilderness area in which I roam when it takes an act of congress to keep it from being developed?  How wild is wildlife when it’s being managed by biologists and bureaucrats?  How wild is a gun-toting, motorcycle barbarian when he’s wearing gang tattoos?  How wild can sex be when it’s only for fun?  The wild, it seems, has been turned inside out.

Whenever I hike alone, deep into wilderness for days on end, I feel more spiritual, earthy and wild.  That is, I feel a growing bond to the physical world, as well as to something reaching beyond the senses.  I shed the trappings of social convention like an old skin, and commune with a wilder society consisting of plants, animals, rocks, forest duff, water and wind.  In the wild, mud is no stranger to me.  Blood-sucking insects aren’t either.  In wilderness, the endless cycle of life and death is everywhere around me, so I can’t help but wonder what keeps it going.  Nature?  I can’t use that word any more without genuflecting.  I am astounded by the natural world.  I am rendered mute by the real.  It is so far beyond any civilized understanding that there’s no sense talking about it at all.

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Oct 14 2009

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Trail Pounding

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Modern living is complex, frustrating, and stressful.  The trail is something else.  So every once in a while, I fill my pack with a few essentials and head for the hills.  I go for a couple weeks, a couple days, or a few hours – whatever I can arrange.  Breaking away is the hard part.  Once I manage that, I’m home free.

It’s not as much escape as it is an act of simplification.  I step into the woods and life makes more sense almost immediately.  The daily routine here in the developed lowlands is full of noise, but silence reigns in the forest – a profound quiet in which I can hear myself think.  Some people go to great lengths to center themselves.  They sit in lotus positions for hours on end.  They pray, meditate, or simply clear their heads.  I just step into the woods.  Wild nature does the rest.

Woods wandering at its best is aimless.  Trail pounding, on the other hand, usually involves some kind of goal.  I prefer the former but resort to the latter on occasion.  Sometimes I hike hard for days, clock miles and go somewhere just for the sweaty pleasure of it.  Most hikers can relate to this.  The leap from modern living to trail pounding isn’t a great one.

Most hikers pound the trail for a few hours at a time.  Some do it for a few days, or as long as they can push their bodies full throttle.  Hiking longer than that requires a different mindset.  Given enough time, trail pounding can become a way of life – no longer just a means to an end.  Then the line between trail pounding and woods wandering begins to blur.

Coming back to the developed lowlands after twelve days of trail pounding, I swore I’d never hike that hard again.  I told anyone who’d listen that I’m getting too old for this, that long-distance hiking isn’t my thing any more.  And I believed it.  But now, a month and a half later, I’m feeling physically better and mentally worse, and trail pounding is starting to look good to me again.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely understand it, but the wild has a way of righting what’s wrong deep within.  Aching muscles and sore joints seem a small price to pay for that.  There are times when pounding the trail seems an utterly senseless undertaking – usually when I’m calf-deep in mud, badly bug-bitten, and bone tired.  But I keep going back to it, month after month, year after year.  As long as the profound quiet keeps working its magic on me, I’ll keep my hiking stick close at hand.

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Oct 07 2009

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Forward Thinking

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I recently read an article in Scientific American titled “Squeezing More Oil from the Ground.”   Since Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oil executive, wrote the piece, I approached it with great skepticism.  But Maugeri convinced me that another hundred year’s worth of oil can be extracted from the earth, using secondary and tertiary recovery methods.  Resourceful fellows, these oil barons.  As global demand increases and the price of oil rises, they’ll simply inject water, gas or thinning agents into the ground to push more oil to the surface.  So we don’t have to give up our gas-guzzling trucks and cars anytime soon.  That is, if global warming isn’t factored into the discussion.

Here in Vermont, we’re trying to decide whether or not to extend the license for our nuclear plant another twenty years, despite the fact that there’s been trouble with the cooling towers.  Those in favor of the extension argue that the cost of decommissioning the plant exceeds the funds allocated, so electric rates would have to go up to cover the difference.  What do you think?  How many things can you find wrong with this picture?

Meanwhile, a local newspaper is running a “green” section in its Sunday edition, celebrating the many different ways that individuals, cooperatives and small businesses are making the world a better place with their eco-conscious activities.  Rarely is there any talk about what large, “clean tech” corporations are doing, thus perpetuating the myth that the world’s environmental problems can only be solved by feel-good, grassroots organizations.

A year ago, the OPEC nations figured out that Westerners won’t grouse about the price of oil if it hovers around $70 a barrel, so now they are managing their supplies accordingly.  As long as the global recession persists, supply will continue outstripping demand.  Are we to assume that things will always be this way?

I could give more examples but this will do.  There is much talk in business circles these days about “forward thinking,” with all eyes towards productivity and profit, yet rarely is there any discussion beyond that.  In non-business circles, utopian dreams take the place of forward thinking, and people cultivate beliefs that business and government aren’t necessary, or that government can fix what business breaks.  Either way, they are sure to be disappointed.

When I step out of the woods, turning my attention away from mud, aching joints and biting flies, and towards what I find in the newspaper, I am amazed by the absurdity of it all.  The one constant in all the misery that humankind creates for itself is an utter lack of insight.  Forward thinking doesn’t really exist  – at least not in any meaningful sense.  So please excuse me for not taking a stand the next time some hot topic is being discussed.  It seems to me that, more often than not, we are having the wrong conversation.

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