Archive for December, 2023

Dec 29 2023

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Mist, Mystery, Mystical

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Photograph by Judy Ashley

A dense fog has settled over the region during the past few days, accompanied by unseasonably warm temps and intermittent rain. “Gloomy” is how one weather forecaster describes it, and that’s how my wife Judy and many other people feel about it. Where is the snow that makes northern Vermont a winter wonderland this time of year? It hard to keep from thinking the worst.

I, on the other hand, look at it a different way. This thick mist matches my frame of mind these days. I gaze into the forest in my backyard and see familiar objects – namely trees – fade into the misty depths, becoming silhouettes then faded outlines of themselves, then nothing at all. What lies beyond what I can see? Only a blank gray wall.

This is exactly what happens whenever I contemplate Nature spelled with a capital “N.” I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Nature is chockfull of mystery. The three greatest mysteries recognized by most scientists are: the origin of the universe, the origin of life in the universe, and consciousness. All three address, either directly or indirectly, what we human beings are.

The universe supposedly emerged via the Big Bang from an infinitely dense singularity prior to all spacetime, whatever that means. Life emerged later, most likely, from a primal soup on this planet billions of years ago, near some volcanic vent. The level of consciousness that we humans currently enjoy can be traced back to artifacts and cave art created 30,000 to 60,000 years ago. The roots of it probably go back in time much farther than that. As to the consciousness of other animals and the extent to which consciousness pervades the universe, well, that’s anyone’s guess. All this underscores the fundamental mystery that is Nature: why anything exists at all, and why there is the semblance of order in the universe instead of absolute chaos. If none of this makes your head explode, then you are not really thinking about it.

I for one have had moments in my life when I have gazed deep into the unknown, beyond all perceivable objects or the mere suggestions of them, and apprehended What-Is. No, I have not comprehended Nature in its entirely, but I have in these fleeting, mystical moments apprehended it, just as everyone apprehends a dense fog. I have stood awestruck before what some people call mysterium tremendum – the Great Mystery. Such moments are common to those of us who go to the edge of scientific discovery and look beyond it, into the abyss of the unknown. This is how we humans go about making sense of ourselves and the world. This is where reason begins and ends.

As a natural philosopher, I have my speculations about What-Is. Thanks to my senses and cold, hard scientific facts, I have a rough idea what is going on here and elsewhere in the universe. Yet the unknowable still looms large like the dense fog that is lingering over the landscape these days. And I remain awestruck by it.

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Dec 11 2023

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Welcoming the Season

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It took me by surprise, I must admit. At home there was a mere dusting of snow so I wasn’t prepared to be tramping through a couple inches of the white stuff. But a few hundred feet of elevation change can make all the difference.

Usually I dread this time of year when the days are short, the growing season is over, and there’s nothing but months of cold and snow directly ahead. But this year is different. I have a different take on things this time around, that is.

Emerging from a months-long depression, I’m just happy to be alive in this incredible world of ours. Never mind all the craziness in the news these days. Being alive is a good thing, especially when one is housed, well fed, free of some debilitating disease or addiction, and not being shot at. I also have my writing to keep me busy, and it’s no small thing to have meaningful work to do even if all it brings is chump change. And having a loving spouse, well now, that’s icing on the cake. Yeah, I’m a lucky man.

So what difference does it make whether it’s hot or cold, sunny or snowing? Every day is a good day. Most of our despair comes from unrealistic expectations, from wanting every day to be a blue-sky day and everything to go perfectly all the time. Yeah, right. As if cars never wreck or break down, the power never goes out, and plumbing never leaks. Whose life is like that?

So I tramped thankfully through the snowy woods – thankful for being able to tramp, thankful for the woods, thankful for the cold season even. I slid around a bit, huffed and puffed, and even broke a sweat. But, more importantly, I reveled in the stark beauty of early winter. The forest was wonderfully quiet. Snow hung in the boughs of trees. No doubt about it, every season has its charms.

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