Archive for September, 2010

Sep 29 2010

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Mountain Stream Philosophizing

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Sometimes I head to the mountains to escape my thoughts.  Other times I take my intellectual baggage with me.  The other day was a good example of the latter.

Even as the rush of the mountain stream filled my ears, and the intoxicating smell of autumn leaves tickled my nose, I brooded over a comment made by a world-renowned physicist a week or two earlier.  He had said that a Creator was not necessary, that the universe could have arisen spontaneously from nothing.  I immediately scoffed at the notion, but it ate away at me regardless.

Order or chaos – it all comes down to that, doesn’t it?  Either the universe is organized according to certain immutable laws, or all events are essentially random.  Recent cosmological discoveries point to a Big Bang occurring 13.7 billion years ago, to a singular event giving birth to the universe as we know it, thereby ruling out the possibility that things are now as they have always been.  But that leaves the non-religious thinker no choice but to embrace utter randomness.  And that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Order or chaos?  While fly fishing a mountain stream, I see plenty of both.  All around me there are downed trees, rotting wood, and the quiet tumult of growth and decay, yet the leaves overhead are turning gold, completing a cycle set in motion many centuries ago.  Rocks are strewn about haphazardly, as are twigs and branches, yet the stream itself follows the inexorable tug of gravity.  Is wild nature ordered or chaotic?  A good argument can be made either way.

A small brown trout rose to my showy fly, an Ausable Wulff, then all was quiet for a while.  When I spotted a cloud of tiny, slate gray mayflies hovering over the water, I changed to another fly – one called a Blue-winged Olive – that better matched the hatch.  I was betting that the hungry mouths beneath the water’s surface would know the difference.  This bet didn’t escape the philosopher in me.  I was betting on natural order and was not disappointed.  Several trout splashed to the surface, chasing my tiny gray fly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the eyes to see my offering on the water so I missed the strikes, leaving all matters philosophical unresolved.

Shortly thereafter, I resorted to my showy A. Wulff, which is much easier to see.  I soon hooked and landed a ten-inch brook trout.  It didn’t make any sense, really.  You’d think a big, old brookie would know better than to rise to something that looks as out of place as an A. Wulff.  Clearly Mother Nature was making fun of me, mocking my assumptions.  Or maybe we just don’t have enough information to really know what’s going on around us.  I laughed long and hard at that, while returning the trout to the drink.  There’s always a rationalization, isn’t there?

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Sep 23 2010

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Early Autumn Walk

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Today I went for the first walk of the season.  Nothing special, just a short walk along the wild, wooded section of the Rail Trail.  My dog, Matika, went with me, of course.  Due to work and other distractions, I haven’t been able to get outdoors for a week, so my leisurely amble along the groomed path seemed like a real treat.  Matika ran all over the place as she usually does when she’s been cooped up a while.  For her a week can be a long time.

The Autumnal Equinox took place yesterday, signaling the end of summer and the beginning of a cooler, quieter, more colorful season.  For most people, autumn begins right after Labor Day.  That’s about when the leaves start turning here in northern Vermont.  That’s also when the last really hot days are relegated to memory.  So the Equinox only underscores the obvious.  All the same, I like to get out and celebrate the event.  By this time of year, the red, gold and orange hues of the season are unmistakable.

Crickets chirped incessantly as I walked.  Perhaps they chirp all summer long, but I only seem to notice them in the fall.  Their high-pitched songs sound to me like urgent pleas to make the most of these precious days.  The days are getting shorter now.  Winter isn’t far away.

I didn’t so much walk as drift along the pathway with my hands in my pockets.  You know how it goes.  A pensive walk, a gradual moving forward despite static inclinations.  I took it all in as I walked: the last flowers blooming, the bleached-out ferns, the turning leaves, and the soft light that’s so typical this time of year.  And for moment there I started doing the math, trying to figure out how many times I’ve walked like this.  Then I let go of it.  Sometimes it’s better to ignore the human scale of things and simply enjoy the moment.  A nearby blue jay called out as if to second that motion.

I could have walked much longer than I did, but I turned around and returned to my car instead.  I have a long list of things to do today.  Most importantly, I have to get ready for what hope will be a long and productive writing season.  Tomorrow I return to a book project that I set aside several months ago.  Yeah, I’ve had my summer fun.  It’s autumn now.  It’s time to get back to work.

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Sep 15 2010

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Vermont’s Foothills

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A week after hiking the AT with my friend John, what stays with me is the dreamy nature of Vermont’s Piedmont – that sparsely populated stretch of hilly country between the main spine of the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River.

Some would call it the better part of Vermont, far away from the hustle and bustle of the much more urban Champlain Valley where I live and work.  Some think of it as Real Vermont, still largely untainted by “flatlander” influences.  Its wooded foothills and pastoral valleys have their charm, no doubt.  As a deep woods wanderer, the Vermont’s Piedmont isn’t my turf.  Not really.  But I’ve definitely come to appreciate it.

“Excuse me,” I said to the cow standing in my way, right in the middle of the trail.  Fact is, I was walking a high pasture through which the AT was passing.  No, not my deep woods wandering at all.  Yet quite charming in its own way.  Yeah, this is picture postcard Vermont.

On a cool, overcast September afternoon these foothills have a quality that is hard to describe.  A cricket chirped incessantly while John and I took an extended break after a long, gradual climb.  Otherwise, all was quiet.  The ridges we saw from the open field seemed to go on forever.  Houses were visible from every lookout.  Sometimes we could see a highway in the valley below, a ski area carved from a hillside, or some other kind of development.  All the same a piercing silence persisted, as if the passage of time meant very little here.  Perhaps it doesn’t.

My muscles no longer ache and the blisters on my feet have healed.  All my backpacking gear is cleaned and put away.  Yesterday I went for a long walk on the Rail Trail with my dog.  It felt like the turning of a page.  Soon I’ll slip into familiar mountains here in the northern part of the state and groove with the wild the way I usually do.  But that walk across Vermont’s foothills will linger in the recesses of my mind quite some time, I’m sure.  That curious blend of field and forest seems like the best of all possible worlds, as if the Green Mountain State is actually capable of living up to the advertisements in tourist brochures.  Imagine that.

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Sep 10 2010

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Hiking Hard

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John Woodyard and I traded emails back and forth all summer long, putting together a plan to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail here in Vermont.  Last Sunday morning, we met at the motel in Rutland where he had spent the night after a long drive from Ohio.  Then we parked one of our cars at Sherburne Pass, drove to Norwich, and started walking.

We hiked over the many ridges and foothills between the Connecticut River and the main spine of the Green Mountains.  We hiked forty miles in four days – not a particularly challenging hike for John but a real workout for me.  Then I drove him to another trailhead where he commenced the second leg of his hike while I went home exhausted.

Forty in four was all I could handle.  I knew that from the very beginning.  I’m soft and fat from too many years in front of a computer screen and not enough exercise.  John also works on a computer, but he jogs on a regular basis so he’s in better shape than me.  We’re both in our mid-fifties.  John has been biting off big chunks of the Appalachian Trail for a couple years now and could possibly hike the whole damned thing by the time he reaches retirement age.  I have no desire to do that.  All the same, I’ll probably accompany him on several of his New England outings.  I enjoy hiking with a friend every once in a while.  For me it’s a different way of being in the woods: more social, less pensive.  And different can be good.

Trail pounding isn’t my preferred way of being in the woods.  I’d rather wander around aimlessly for a while then land in some remote place to sit and groove on the wild.  I thoroughly enjoy this comfortable philosopher-in-the-woods routine.  But sometimes hiking hard is just what the doctor ordered.  Burn that fat, build some muscle, and stave off the inevitable decline of old age a while longer.  Besides, it’s good to step outside of the comfort zone on occasion.  Different can be very good.

Then there’s friendship, which has its own value.  John and I have known each other since Boy Scouts.  We’ve been hiking together for decades – sometimes with multi-year gaps between hikes.  It’s all too easy to lose touch with old friends.  The years pass quickly and everyone is so busy.  Trail pounding is hard, but maintaining friendships is harder.

No, hiking hard isn’t my first choice, but any way of being in the woods is a good way.  As different as John and I are – the contemplative writer/philosopher and the go-getting electrical engineer – this is a point upon which we thoroughly agree.  Sometimes it’s best to put everything else aside and get into the woods any way you can.

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Sep 01 2010

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Morning Walk

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Early morning walk on a hot and humid day.  A short hike, actually, up the local hill.  Just enough to break a sweat, get a few bug bites, and cough out the last of a head cold.  My dog, Matika, runs ahead and sniffs around.  She’s happy to be on the trail again, if only for an hour.  So am I.  It’s been a while.

Next week I’ll be footloose on the Appalachian Trail, doing some serious trail pounding.  But for now, this’ll do.  All I need is a little down time in the woods before going to work – a chance to reconnect with the wild before immersing myself in the world of commerce.  Yeah, this’ll do.

Already reddish orange maple leaves litter the trail.  Wood asters and jewelweed are in full bloom – summer’s last hurrah.  Temps in the high 80s this week.  This comes as something of a surprise.  Not that I’m complaining.  Probably the last of the summer heat.  The warm season doesn’t last long here in the North Country.

The trail underfoot is dry.  On the west side of the hill, forest shadows abound.  On the east, bright yellow sunlight cuts through the trees.  No one out here yet.  Just me, my dog, and my thoughts.

Thoughts?  Yeah, I turn pensive in the fall.  And while the leaf season hasn’t really started yet, it’s not too early to exercise the gray matter left largely unused since last spring.  One look at wood asters triggers it.  Not sure why.

Seasons change, the years slip by, and my body gradually loses its resilience.  But not my mind.  In fact, I’m a better thinker now than I was twenty years ago.  Not as fast or sharp, yet better.  I have more to think about – more dots to connect.  The big picture is easier to see now.  Much easier.

Thoreau once wrote in his journals that thinking seems to make people sad.  I think I know why.  Because all deep thought begins with an acute realization that nothing last forever.  And most of our energies are misdirected.  If the average person fully realized how short life is, he/she would spend more time going for morning walks and less time driving in circles, trying to get things done.  That’s how it strikes me, anyhow.

No matter.  Every walk, long or short, eventually comes to an end.  I step out of the woods a little sooner than expected and unconsciously pull out my car keys.  Enough fooling around already.  It’s time to go to work.

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