Archive for November, 2009

Nov 27 2009

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Tipping Point

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When I was a teenager, I firmly believed that the Apocalypse was at hand, that the end of the world as portrayed in the Bible and interpreted by Christian Fundamentalists was just about to take place.  This belief framed my worldview until I studied enough history and philosophy to convince me otherwise.  Now I see things differently.  Now I realize that the world is constantly changing.  Now I see that the Apocalypse occurs every day for someone somewhere on the planet.  Every time a culture perishes or a species goes extinct, it is the end of the world as we know it.

Like all other apocalyptic narratives, Global Warming is predicated upon a set of inflexible beliefs.  It goes something like this:  The amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is rapidly increasing, and soon it will trigger a wholesale collapse of the entire planetary ecosystem.  Most of that increase is due to human activity.  We have to change our ways and radically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we emit before it’s too late.  The most important part of this narrative is the last part: before it’s too late. No apocalypse worthy of the name omits that disclaimer.

Environmentalists warn of a tipping point – a point of no return.  Once there are enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, an irreversible breakdown of the planetary ecosystem will occur.  But there’s still time, we are told.  If we act now, we can still stop it.  Hmm.  That sounds an awful lot like the kind of hard-sell pitch that hustlers make on television late at night.  Act now. . . before it’s too late!

How will we know when it’s too late?  Scientists are generating all kinds of computer models to tell us just that.  They assume that it’s possible to know all the critical elements of a planetary ecosystem as complex as ours.  Are our scientists really arrogant enough to think they can determine the tipping point?  Evidently so.

Clearly, for the thousands of species of plants and animals that have gone extinct, it is already too late.  For the glaciers that have disappeared in the north, it is already too late.  For those who want the weather to make sense again, it is already too late.  The sea level is rising.  It’s up a couple inches already.  Soon it will be up to mid-calf.   Will it be too late when it reaches our knees?  How about our waists?

The tipping point concept is more politics than science.  It smacks of high drama.  Like all apocalyptic narratives, it is designed to inspire us, to force a behavioral change that will save us from ourselves.  But the stark reality of our situation is much less forgiving.  If we act now, then maybe we can salvage what’s left of an ecosystem that has been so good to us for so long.  If we act now, then maybe we can reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the next hundred years.  Then again, maybe not.  Either way, we will continue suffering the consequences of industrialization for centuries to come.  Either way, the world will change.  There’s no going back to the way things were.

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Nov 20 2009

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Culture Wars in the Woods

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A few days ago, I dropped everything and headed for the hills.  I hiked the Long Trail south from Route 15, taking full advantage of unseasonable warmth and sunshine.  I wore a red flannel shirt to announce myself to hunters.  My dog, Matika, wore a blaze orange vest.   I followed trail markers up a dirt road hugging Smith Brook to a clearing about a mile back.  From there I would either stay on the trail or bushwhack in one direction or another.  I hadn’t decided yet.

At the clearing, I looked over and saw a pickup truck parked next to the hunting camp. I had walked past this camp many times before but had never seen anyone there.  Since I’ve been bushwhacking and guerrilla camping in these woods for a dozen years or more, I thought maybe I should stop by and get permission to do so.  The land between here and the northernmost boundary of Mount Mansfield State Forest isn’t posted, but it never hurts to get permission.  So I knocked on the door.

A tall, thin man about my age in full hunting regalia opened the door.  He immediately invited me and my dog inside.  We exchanged names.  Adrian sat down at the ancient Formica table and gestured for me to join him. He lit a cigarette.  Did I mind if he smoked?  Of course not.  What the heck, I thought, it’s his camp.

We talked about an hour.  At first we kept to safe subjects like the weather, what the beavers and other wild animals in the neighborhood were doing, and the beauty of the surrounding forest.  Then we kicked it up a notch: bears coming around camp, and coyote predation.  Did I like bear meat?  I prefer elk or deer, I told Adrian, adding that my favorite wild food is brook trout.  I’ve taken and eaten a few from the nearby stream, in fact.  With a nod he approved of that.

Am I a member of the Green Mountain Club?  Yes I am, I said.  Since I regularly hike the LT and other trails maintained by the GMC, I feel obligated to pay dues at the very least.  And with that announcement, the fun began.

Adrian told me his family has owned this land, through which the Long Trail passes, for many years.  His grandfather used to log it.  Now the logging here is done mostly by the Johnson Company, on the other side of the brook.  But every once in a while, some hiker would leave a note on Adrian’s door telling him he shouldn’t cut the trees.  It’s ugly and bad for the environment, or something like that.  A hiker left a note on his generator once, telling him it was too noisy.  Other hikers have broken into his camp – when the nearby shelter was full.  In recent years, the GMC asked for an easement, thus assuring that the Long Trail would forever pass through here.  Adrian’s family has always allowed the trail to cross their land but was offended by the Club’s desire for a 200-foot no-logging buffer on either side of the trail.  And so on.  I got the message loud and clear.  What started out as a friendly and casual arrangement had degenerated to Us-versus-Them.  Soon the LT would be rerouted to a strip of land the GMC had acquired just east of Adrian’s property.

Towards the end of the hour, we both agreed it was time to stop talking and get into the woods.  November days are short.  Before leaving, though, I mustered up the courage to ask Adrian’s permission to continue hiking and camping on his land.  He granted permission with a shrug of the shoulders, as if that was the least of his concerns.  So I thanked him and said goodbye.

A short while later, I was so lost in thought that I missed a turn and accidentally left the Long Trail.  But instead of backtracking, I continued down a snowmobile trail until it crossed a small brook.  Then I bushwhacked downstream to a cranberry bog I’ve been meaning to visit for years.  Eventually I retraced my steps, hiking out of the woods.  But when I passed the camp in the clearing, Adrian’s truck was gone.  I hope our conversation didn’t sour the day for him.  Nothing leaves a bitter taste in the mouth quite like politics does, no matter how civil the discourse may be.  I had tried to listen respectfully, but the ghosts of past belligerents still haunted the man.  And there would be more of the same in the future, no doubt.

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Nov 13 2009

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Looking for the Wild

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I went for a long walk around noon yesterday, after a round of writing.  No surprise there.  I do it once a week, at least.  I drove out to Green’s Corners and walked my favorite section of the Rail Trail – one that passes through the woods and beyond a wetland before reaching a cluster of houses.  Matika was excited about getting out.  I’ve been working a lot lately so she’s hasn’t had much woods-romping time.  A few yards down the trail, I told myself that I really should get out more.  Yeah, right.

The sky was mostly blue but clouds were moving in from the southwest.  A few patches of green enlivened an otherwise brown landscape.  The air temp was around 40 degrees, neither warm nor cold.  A couple chickadees flitted about nearby trees.  That’s all.  Other birds were conspicuously absent.  Not much to look at, so a hundred yards past the wetland I stepped into the woods.  The “no trespassing” signs didn’t stop me.

I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, but I stepped into the woods looking for the wild.  I stepped off the trail and into the woods because I felt an urge deep within to connect with wild nature, and not just pass through it like an ipod-wearing jogger.  I kicked up a few dry leaves as I walked, releasing their intoxicating fragrance.  And that was it: I was off and running.  By the time I reached a deer trail following a low ridge through the woods, Matika knew that we were on an impromptu adventure.  She smiled from ear to ear.

I didn’t wander about those woods very long.  I don’t like tramping across other people’s property, especially when they make it clear that I’m unwelcome.  I bushwhacked a half-mile loop that ended at a very small pond.  I tossed a few rocks into the pond, breaking the thin layer of ice covering it.  Then I tagged the Rail Trail and hiked out.

I caught a whiff of swamp gas as I walked past the wetland.  A caterpillar less than an inch long struggled across the path.  Clouds rolled overhead as if to remind me that this year’s first winter storm is overdue.  Matika sniffed the grass.  I broke a sweat as I picked up my pace, already thinking about the many things on my to-do list at home.  Then I resolved to take a much longer excursion in the woods soon, very soon.

Yesterday I went looking for the wild.  It’s as real as the air we breathe and the ground we trod, yet the most abstract of all philosophical concepts.  The wild is both everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet ethereal.   Can’t say I found it, but it certainly found me.

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Nov 06 2009

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Kicking up Leaves

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I went for a short walk in the woods the other day, kicking up leaves all the way.  The trail was covered with them.  Beneath a partly cloudy sky on a windless afternoon, it was easy to ignore the chill in the air.  Comfortable in a sweater, I pretended that it was Indian Summer even though the time for that has passed.  I kicked up leaves and, for a moment or two, was a little boy again.  The rustling sound of the dried leaves took me back.

Matika terrorized the squirrels that were busy collecting nuts in the eleventh hour.  I called her off them at first then let her enjoy her predator fantasy.  She mopes around the house all day as I work, waiting for something to happen, so I let her have her fun when she can.  The expression on her face when she’s leaping through the forest duff makes me wish I were a dog.  Like the happiest old people I know, dogs never completely abandon the wild exuberance of youth.

Near the top of the hill, I stopped to admire my surroundings.  The late autumn forest has a charm to it that is difficult to describe.  Dark green conifers and ferns, the brown withering vegetation scattered across the forest floor, and moss-covered rocks that defy seasonal change – the late autumn forest is all this and something more, something that words can’t touch.  I catch only a glimpse of it when the sun slips behind the clouds then shines brightly again.  Call it a moment of shadowy transcendence and leave it at that.

A few maple leaves cling stubbornly to branches and I can’t help but wonder why they don’t just let go.  Then again, why don’t I?  I, too, am still clinging to the warm season, or is it the daylight that I don’t want to lose?  Hard to say.  I’ve had this conversation with myself many times and can’t figure out whether it’s the cold or the darkness that I don’t like about winter.  To stubborn leaves and certain woods wanderers, there’s no real difference between the two.

The mums in the planters around my house have lost their bloom.  Even they have succumbed to the hard frost.  Even the best artificial lights can’t change the fact that the growing season has ended in these northern latitudes.  It’ll be another five months before green shoots emerge on the forest floor again.  Once I accept that fact, I’ll be able to don my woolies and embrace winter.  But no, I don’t think I’ll do that right away.  For the time being, I think I’ll just kick up leaves like a little boy and dream about warmer, sunnier days.

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