Archive for December, 2009

Dec 28 2009

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World Without Wildness

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I found a field mouse in the basement the other day – an uninvited guest.  Its sudden appearance inside my home, the ultimate expression of domestication, is proof positive that the wild cannot be completely eradicated.  I find no small consolation in this.  I absolutely dread the possibility of living in a world without wildness, so I’d like to let that mouse stay.   But I’ll be putting out traps soon.   After all, I have to protect my investment.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between humankind and nature, about the difference between what is wild and what is not.  We use the terms “wild” and “civilized” as if they were opposites, as if one cancels out the other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  Our relationship to the wild is much more complicated than that.  I believe that a part of the wild rests deep within us all, and that the wildness within cannot be completely eradicated any more than the weeds in our yard or the pests creeping into our houses.  All the same, it can be pushed back to the point where any discussion regarding it is moot.

When all that’s left of the wild is the occasional intruder in the basement, we will be living in a world without wildness.  When all nature is under our thumb, one way or other, then the wild won’t be worth thinking about.  When what we call nature is reduced to gardens, woodlots and preserves, and we have the means to genetically alter everything at will, then the wildness within us will be lost as well.  Then wilderness will be a theme park – a mere caricature of what it once was – and we will be only shells of our former selves.

I find it impossible to adequately define concepts like “wild” and “civilization” no matter how much I try.  These are terms fraught with ambiguities.  But this much I do know:  without a place to roam freely, we are merely cogs in a grand, meaningless, self-perpetuating system.  Aldo Leopold got right to the heart of the matter when he said:  “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”   In an era of flying drones, GPS navigation, infrared cameras, and electronic tracking devices, this question is hardly an academic one.  Computer chips are showing up everywhere.  Soon it will be impossible to completely disappear into the wild no matter how hard we try.  Good news for fighting terrorism or finding lost hikers, but bad news for preserving the wildness essential to us all.

I fear the scientist with his radio collar more than the greedy developer with his bulldozer.  It doesn’t require a great deal of creativity to imagine a team of technicians descending upon a woods wanderer and tagging him or her like any other wild animal.  And why not?  The wild cannot be properly managed if there are gaping holes in the database.  So yeah, I’ll trap that mouse in my basement, but not without deep reservation.  Some part of the wild must be cultivated within me.  Some part of the wild must be allowed even in my own home.  Otherwise, civilization is all for nothing.

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Dec 23 2009

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A Wish List

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‘Tis the season for giving, so here’s a short list of the things I wish I could give all the children in the world, those living and those not born yet:

  • Sufficient food, clothing and shelter
  • Plenty of clean water
  • A sense of belonging, family and friends
  • A place to call home
  • Basic health care
  • A good education
  • Free thought and free speech
  • A green world in which to live
  • Meaningful work
  • A wild place to roam free

These are all things I currently enjoy that many people don’t.  They are also things that could be in very short supply fifty years from now. Until they are available to everyone, Peace on Earth will only be a pipe dream.  We’d better get on it.

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Dec 18 2009

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Cold Snap

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An hour before dawn, I start my day.  I step outside just long enough to feel the chill.  Thermometers are hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit this morning.  It’s the first cold snap of the season.  I gaze deep into the clear night sky at the twinkling stars, identifying Ursa Major, Pegasus and other constellations for a minute or two, then go back in the house.  Today’s a good day to stay indoors appreciating what insulation, storm windows, and a good furnace can do.

Hard to believe that I was planting bulbs less than three weeks ago.  Now the ground is frozen solid.  Hard to believe I wore only a sweater during a long walk a month ago.  Now it would require thermals, gloves and a warm hat.  Is it mere coincidence that the darkest day of the year is almost upon us?  Of course not.  The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of winter as everyone knows.  This cold snap is only the first of many.

Days like this are what houses are for.  I like to think of myself as an outdoors kind of guy, but when the temps dip into the single digits, I lose all enthusiasm for being outside.  Every once in a while, I’ll venture into the woods when it’s this cold out just to keep my survival skills up to snuff.  But breaking ice from one’s beard loses its novelty once you’ve done it a few dozen times.

There’s no sense complaining about winter.  It comes around every year.  Besides, seasonal change is good.  I wouldn’t want to live in a place that’s warm and sunny all the time.  That would be so . . . boring.  Here in Vermont, I’m never bored.

Times like these, I wonder if Homo sapiens were meant to live this far north.  We emerged from the Earth’s equatorial regions after all.  But we’re a resourceful lot, aren’t we?  People live everywhere.  We even have outposts in the Antarctic.  Hell, we could live on the moon if we wanted to.  Zero is nothing.

I think I’ll go get a small tree today, drag it indoors, and set it up in my living room.  Yeah, something green to remind me of warmer times.  Then I’ll  put lights on it, mocking the darkness.  And maybe hang a few handmade ornaments from its branches, warming me in other ways.  Winter is just getting started, but that doesn’t mean we have to wallow in cold and darkness, gnashing our teeth.  There are plenty of ways to brace our selves for it.

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Dec 11 2009

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Philosophical Tramping

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President Obama is one of the more thoughtful, intelligent, and humane world leaders to come along in recent years, and that is why he has received the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of any real accomplishments.  All the same, he didn’t shy away from harsh geopolitical realities when he gave his acceptance speech yesterday.  It made a lot of people squirm, I’m sure.  Realism or idealism?  “I reject this choice,” he said in his defense of “just war,” thus exposing him self to criticism from all quarters.  And suddenly I feel a tremendous urge to pull on my hike boots and go for a long walk.

Some insights come to me instantaneously, while I’m conversing with someone, reading, driving, showering, or just staring out the window.  Others have to be wrenched from the deepest recesses of my brain.  Complex problems, harsh realities, difficult matters both personal and universal – these I cannot face while sitting or standing still.  My legs have to be moving in order for me to gain any fresh insight into them whatsoever.  I am one of those “philosophical tramps” that Barbara Hurd talks about in her book, Stirring the Mud, who can face great difficulties only by walking.  And now, after reading Obama’s acceptance speech, I have much to consider, requiring a good, long stretch of the legs.

I too reject the false choice between realism and idealism – between the harsh realities that all pragmatists learn to accept over time, and the unsinkable hopes of dreamers.  But it’s a tough place to be, between the two, and only the perpetual contradiction of wild nature gives me room enough to maneuver between what is and what could be.  Only in the wild does anything human make sense to me, including my own pragmatism, my own cherished dreams.

The other day I cut tracks in the snow while walking among the trees, trying my damnedest to get to the root of personal matters that have been troubling me for quite some time.  On other outings, I have walked to gain a morsel of wisdom concerning metaphysical matters way too abstract to trouble most people.  Personal or impersonal, it’s all the same to the wild.  That oracle doesn’t differentiate between the one and the many.

Perhaps we shouldn’t either.  Perhaps that which affects one of us affects us all.  Perhaps the most profoundly philosophical matters are those that determine how we go about our daily lives.  The gas in the tank of my car, for example, is geopolitical.  Its emissions will have an impact, great or slight, upon every other creature on this planet.  That’s something to consider, anyhow, as I’m motoring to the nearest trailhead.  And perhaps that’s what Obama was driving at in his speech.  I don’t know, I’m not sure, so I’ll go for a long walk and think about it.  That is, after all, what we philosophical tramps do.

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Dec 03 2009

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Muddy Trails

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I hiked around Indian Brook Reservoir yesterday just to exercise my dog and stretch my legs.  It seemed like the thing to do since I was in the area and had the time.  When I lived in Burlington, I went there frequently.  Back then the park was in the country.  Now it’s on the fringe of suburbia.  Burlington, like so many other cities, is growing.

As I was hiking, I noticed how muddy and worn the trail has become.  Essex Town now limits access to the park to town residents during the summer.  Can’t say I blame them.  The place has been overrun.

A friend forwarded me an email the other day about the sorry state of the Long Trail, as reported by some disgruntled hiker.  Yes, having hiked the LT end-to-end, I must concur that sections of it are a muddy, eroded mess.  But so are sections of the Appalachian Trail in central Maine, and parts of the Northville-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks – trails I’ve also hiked.  Here in the Northeast, it doesn’t take much impact to wear thin-soiled mountain trails down to roots and bare rock.  With fifty million people living within a day’s drive of these trails, I’m surprised that they aren’t in worse condition.

One can always find fault with those who are supposed to maintain trails:  Essex Town, the Green Mountain Club, or whomever.  But the fact remains that trail maintenance requires manpower and money.  Join a trail maintenance crew for a day and see how much you accomplish.  Meanwhile, anyone who’s in the mood can go for a hike.  And for the most part it’s free.

As I hiked around the reservoir, it occurred to me that someday this place will be regulated to the point where I won’t be able to come here any more, or won’t want to.  The Town of Essex will eventually clean up this trail and those using it will have to pay, one way or the other.  Regulations have recently been put in place in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks, effectively halving the trail traffic there.  Those concerned about trail erosion think that’s for the best.  Will the same thing happen to Vermont’s Long Trail?  Probably, in due time.

I feel like one of the fortunate few.  I can grab my pack and go for a hike whenever I want.  I don’t like turning my ankle on an eroded stretch of trail any more than the next guy, but in a world where a billion people don’t even have enough to eat, complaints about poor trail maintenance seem mean-spirited, small-minded and ungrateful.

We are lucky to have trail systems available to us, cars to reach their trailheads, and time and health enough to hike them.  If I had to spend all of my time in developed places, constantly interacting with others, I would go stark raving mad.  So excuse me for not complaining about trail conditions any more than I do.  I find merit in even the muddiest of trails.

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