Archive for October, 2010

Oct 28 2010

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All Hallows Eve

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The remnant of a grand old tree still stands at a trail junction in nearby woods where I roam on a regular basis.  I’ve walked past it fifty times, at least.  Years back, shortly after the tree finally died, the rotting trunk of that tree rose nearly twenty feet from the ground, threatening to fall and crush a passer-by on any given day.  But now it is only the shadow of its former self.  Shadow indeed – a ghost reminding us of a once vital life form, now passed away.

In late autumn, when the trees drop their leaves and the forest turns many shades of brown and dark gray, the remnants of dead and downed trees become more apparent.  This is their time of year, when the growing season has ended and the harvest has been taken in.  Death is in the air.  I am not oblivious to it.  Few woods wanderers are.

All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as it is more commonly known, is only a few days away.  Based on Samhain, the Celtic festival of summer’s end, this holiday was hijacked by the Christians during the Middle Ages and transformed into All Saints Day.  And the night before it became All Hallows Eve – a night to venerate the dead.  But that doesn’t change the essence of it.  It is a night when the dead mingle with the living, when life and death, vitality and dormancy, abundance and barrenness, darkness and light are in perfect balance.  The forest itself is shouting this at us.

Here in northern Vermont, winter is only a few weeks away.  It comes at us hard and fast – sometimes before we can even rake up our leaves.  Already snow has fallen in the mountains.  Already the wooly worms are dressed for winter and predicting a harsh one.  At the local farm stand, there’s an abundance of squashes and gourds, but little else.  The warmer, more vibrant half of the year is behind us.  And like a squirrel gathering nuts, I am hunkering down for the other half.

So go ahead and scoff at those who believe in ghosts if you want.  No doubt the prospect of an afterlife of any sort seems ludicrous to those steeped in science and accustomed to thinking rationally.  But I see ghosts in the forest all the time, and am convinced that death isn’t nearly as distant as we think it is.  This time of year, in fact, I can’t stop thinking about it.

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Oct 22 2010

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Organic World

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For a week now, the leaves have been drifting down steadily.  This season has an appropriate name: fall.  Recent rainstorms and accompanying winds have accelerated the process, putting leaves on the ground a bit faster than expected.  Not that anyone’s complaining.  The autumnal palette is moving from the trees to the forest floor, that’s all.

Actually, there is a change occurring in the leaves and it is a significant one.  First they lose their chlorophyll, then they lose their color.  And then, over time, they dry out, decay, and become part of the earth.  It is all very organic, and beautiful in ways that go beyond mere appearances.

After six hours of formatting, computer glitches and the usual Internet chicanery, I really don’t mind the damp chill that greets me at the trailhead.  Nor do the dark gray clouds intimidate.  I feel a great weight lifting from my chest as I tramp through the soggy leaves.  This is the real world, I tell myself, the one that is largely organic.  It is easy to forget that while staring at a computer screen.  All too easy.  So I walk as if every step is a prayer.  And it feels good in ways that go beyond mere feelings.

By all conventional measures, my life is a failure.  It makes no dollars and cents.  I’ve done nothing heroic, have made no great contributions to society, have created no great works of art, and haven’t done anything impressive.  I have little to show for the decades that I’ve been around.  I think, observe, and scribble down words.  That is all.  And yet somehow that strikes me as enough as I wander about the woods. In the organic world, where crows, chipmunks and all other creatures live, there is a great leveling effect.  Eventually, we all fall down and become part of the earth.  Sometimes I find that simple fact consoling.

The fallen leaves require no further explanation.  They just are.  And the great cycles of nature that they so clearly illustrate are lost only on those who never escape their abstractions.  As for the rest of us, well, we pay attention every once in a while to the earthy drama that’s constantly unfolding around us and marvel at it.

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Oct 13 2010

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The Sheer Joy of It

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After dropping off my wife Judy at her friend Gina’s house in Stowe, I drove to a nearby trailhead.  I would hike in a mile or so, sit by a brook and scribble my thoughts in a journal for a while, then hike back out.  We’d all meet at a cafe a few hours later.  That was the plan, anyhow.

I passed a dozen other hikers on the trail during the first mile.  Had to collar Matika several times to keep her from bullying other dogs.  Not fun.  But the crowd dissipated during the second mile.  By then I was hitting my stride.  The day couldn’t have been better for hiking: cool, crisp and sunny with nary a bug in sight.  So I kept going.

By mile three, I had stripped down to a t-shirt despite the cool temps and was plowing through a green and gold forest that seemed to go on forever.  I conferred with Matika and she agreed that we should keep going.  Why stop now?  The dryleaf smell of high autumn urged me onward and upward.  The road-grade climb was easy enough, and the dull ache in my legs felt good.  I could always sit and write at home later when it was cold, rainy and overcast.  No doubt those days lie somewhere ahead.

The fourth mile slipped away.  By the time I hit mile five, I realized that I was committed to doing the entire eight-mile loop.  Fine by me.  I was hiking now just to do it, just to move, breathe heavily and sweat on a beautiful day.  I was hiking for the sheer joy of it.  Say what you will about the ever-elusive nature of happiness, about how hard it is to stay upbeat in a world like ours.  But for one long afternoon on a leaf-covered trail cutting through the Green Mountains, with birches, beeches and maples dazzling me with their autumnal displays, I was as happy as anyone dares to be.  Hell, I didn’t even mind the phone call that came from my concerned wife, right before I exited the woods.

That evening, my dog sprawled across the living room floor unmoved and I popped ibuprofen while Judy recounted the pleasant hours that she and Gina spent at the arts and crafts fair.  I was happy for her.  But there was no doubt in my mind that Matika and I got the better end of the deal.

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Oct 07 2010

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Peak Foliage

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People talk about peak foliage as if there’s a week, a day, or an hour when the autumn colors are their most brilliant, when they can’t get any better.  I’ve been listening to this kind of talk for over thirty years, and I’m more certain now than ever that it’s absolute nonsense.

I suspect that the people who invented peak foliage are also the ones trying to convince the world that the colors in New England can’t be beat.  Okay, I admit, the fall foliage is beautiful here – especially in Vermont in early October.  It’s as good or better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere, thanks to the climate, the soils, or whatever.  But peak color?  C’mon now.  That’s taking the advertisement a bit too far.

Fact is, each species of tree has its own way of turning, and each individual tree follows its own timetable.  Much depends upon latitude, elevation, terrain, whether the tree in question is healthy or stressed, and whether the tree is rooted in wet or dry ground.  Add to these factors the variances of weather from year to year, from week to week, from day to day even, and that magic moment of peak color is anyone’s guess.

At best peak foliage is only a rough estimation of when the autumnal colors should be optimal, based upon the law of averages.  At worse, it’s just an excuse to keep from fully enjoying what is right before ones eyes.  A tourist chasing leafy rainbows is a sad thing to witness, especially when so much natural beauty is overlooked along the way.  Better off to completely disregard the color change and take each day at face value.  In that regard nature rarely disappoints, here in New England or anywhere else, in autumn or any other season.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love to see the color in the trees when the green washes out.  I love the brilliant reds and oranges of maple trees, the bright yellows of birches and beeches, and even the more muted reddish-brown color of oaks later on. I love to watch the leaves rain down with a strong gust of wind, then settle on the ground inches deep in places.  This is one of the reasons I live in this part of the country.  The seasonal change is dramatic here, with nature always providing something new and interesting to see.  But don’t ask me if the fall colors have reached their peak yet.  I’ll say that you just missed it, that it happened five minutes ago.

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