Archive for September, 2011

Sep 29 2011

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The Strangeness of Ordinary Things

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A butterfly landed on a nearby tree branch the other day so I took a moment to look at it – I mean really look at it. First I snapped a picture, of course. Then I lowered my camera to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the creature. Close enough to see its face, I was shocked by the strangeness of it. Surely butterflies are from another planet. Like most insects, they seem alien.

There are the butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles of our minds, then there are the real things. Upon close inspection, nearly all insects have features only an entomologist could love. But the strangeness of ordinary things isn’t limited to insects. Many flowering plants look strange, as do most mushrooms. Same goes for nearly everything that washes up on the beach. Many birds, such as blue heron or a pileated woodpecker, look strange. Toads are reminiscent of another era. A newt in the bright orange stage of its life seems out of place.  Creeping vines are creepy.  Most furry animals seem familiar, but how can one explain a porcupine or a skunk? Bats are deliberately strange, it seems. Same goes for spiders. And lets not even talk about fish! The more one looks, the more all living things look strange. But it doesn’t stop there. The clouds right before or after a great storm swirl about in unusual ways, and floodwaters are menacingly brown. Even something stationary like a chunk of pure white quartz can seem out of place. All nature is foreign to us, it seems. Why? Because we so rarely see it.

We live busy lives. The pace of civilization has quickened during the last few decades. Our electronic devices hasten the process. A minute seems like forever when we’re waiting for something to download to our computers. A couple seconds can be the difference between life and death when we’re on the highway. There is no time, it seems, to just stop and look at anything. The world flashes by in an endless succession of images, much like the constantly changing television screen. There isn’t time enough to process it all.

When I stop hiking and just hang out in deep woods for a day or two, I start noticing things. “What did you do?” people often ask me when I return home from such an outing. I just shrug my shoulders. How much time can slip away while a man and a butterfly are staring at each other? Hard to say. I’ve never measured it. But this much I know: the more I look, the more I see the strangeness of ordinary things. Even the rising sun is alien to me now.


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Sep 20 2011

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Favorite Mountain

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Someone recently asked me what my favorite mountain is. Without hesitation, I blurted out, “Wheeler Mountain,” surprising myself by this.  After all, I hadn’t seen the mountain, much less hiked it, in over twenty years.

A couple days ago, I revisited that great mound of rock.  My wife, Judy, wanted to visit friends in Vermont’s mythical Northeast Kingdom, so I tagged along.  Wheeler Mountain is only twelve miles away from her friends’ house.  So after lunch, I broke away to climb it with my dog, Matika.

I had to use maps to find the trailhead, but the trail itself was surprisingly familiar.  The mountain hadn’t changed much in my twenty-year absence.  My memory of it made the absence seem more like two years.

Wheeler Mountain is a great place to hike.  It’s a fun scramble over solid granite that provides breathtaking views for relatively little effort.  And the mountain is located just far enough off the beaten path to feel remote.  But it’s important to me for a different reason: I had my best guiding experience there.

Back in the early 90s, I worked as a guide for Vermont Hiking Holidays.  We took novice hikers on day hikes in Vermont and the Adirondacks, introducing them to the many wonders of nature.  My greatest success occurred on Wheeler Mountain. I had seven yuppies who wanted more than the tame morning hike done by the larger group.  That afternoon, I took them up Wheeler Mountain with the promise of great views.  During the hike they were all chatting away incessantly, per usual, but when we entered a small copse of conifers near the top, I stopped and said: “Listen.”   It took a couple minutes but eventually they all heard it, even the stockbroker.  Their eyes widened as they slowly grasped the great, wild silence enveloping the mountain.

My life as a nature writer is all about getting people to stop and listen to the wild.  This task has turned out to be much harder than I ever imagined it would be.  We live in a noisy, fast-paced culture chock full of distractions, and the elemental wildness of the world is overwhelmed by it.  We are overwhelmed, I should say, and the wild remains largely hidden in plain sight as a consequence.

There are easier hikes up more magnificent mountains and much more dramatic views, but Wheeler will always be my favorite.  While climbing it the other day, I stopped and listened for a minute or two to the sound of my own heavy breathing until a raven in the distance broke the silence.  Then I smiled.  Yessir, Wheeler still has the power… and that gives me hope.

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Sep 11 2011

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Alaska Podcasts

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Alaska is one of those places you never forget. In the sumer of ’92, I had a bush pilot drop me at a remote airstrip near the mouth of the Endicott River, and there I stayed for two weeks grooving with bears, eagles, ravens and salmon. That was almost twenty years ago.  It seems like yesterday.

Recently my stepson, Matt, started uploading 25-minute podcasts of me reading my book about that trip.  The downloads are free.  To listen to them, go to iTunes and type “arguing with the wind” into the search box.  You should hear echoes of the Alaskan wilderness in my voice.

If you want to know the whole story, you can always read my book: Arguing with the Wind.  It is still available at  Or you can go to Wood Thrush Books and make other arrangements to acquire a copy.  Either way, it’s all there in black and white for anyone who’s curious.

Nowadays I’m trying to write about life after the Alaskan bush.  It isn’t easy.  I’m having a hard time gaining perspective. That trip was a real game-changer.  And the years before it seem like some kind of hallucination.  A part of me never left the bush, I guess.  It never will.  Once the wild gets under your skin, there’s no going back to that other way of looking at things.


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Sep 02 2011

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I recently discovered a small pocket of wildness in a nearby town that’s a great place to seek refuge when the stresses of modern living become too much.  My wife Judy brought it to my attention.  She learned about it from people she works with. Like most town forests, it isn’t well known.  And from the looks of the unbeaten trail, few people go there.

While roaming its complex network of paths, I marveled at the fact that I hadn’t discovered this place a decade earlier when I first moved to Franklin County.  But not every town forest is heavily signed or well-marked on maps.  Even when they are, it’s easy for us to miss them.  After all, we naturally associate smallness with insignificance.

Only ten miles from my house, this largely overlooked forest is good place to wander and wonder – a good place to let the nerves uncoil.  I reached a bench at an intersection of paths that proved to be an ideal place to sit and think.  No one came along while I did so.  Yeah, this is my kind of place.

Refuge, sanctuary, asylum, haven – the meaning of each of these words is nuanced, slightly different from the rest, yet they all indicate the same basic thing.  We all need at least one safe place to go when the bullshit becomes too much.  I’ve just added this one to my short list.

I prefer deep woods, miles from the nearest road, but time restrictions often prevent me from reaching such places.  So I go where I can – an hour here, two hours there.  And that’s how I keep road rage and all other forms of civilized madness at bay. Where do you go?  What do you do?


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