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Feb 18 2024

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Snow at Last!

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Five inches of snow brightened the dreary, barren landscape here in northern Vermont. It came in two overnight storms, back-to-back. My first thought yesterday morning was to grab my snowshoes and put them to good use for the first time this year. I drove to Sheldon Forest, only 10 miles away, and was breaking trail within minutes of parking my car.

With temps in the 20s and the sun peeking through the clouds, I was comfortable enough even though the middle finger on my left hand complained. It was frostbitten years ago and reminded me that I need to be careful out here. After all, I’m a 60-something man snowshoeing alone. So I cut my pace.

A pair of snowshoe tracks came in from another direction. I traced them for a while as I followed the perimeter trail but couldn’t resist the trackless path disappearing into the conifers at the next junction. I went that way. Soon I was enjoying that deep woods feeling even though the road was less than a mile away. The trees around me were heavily laden with snow. The occasional gust of wind shook some of that snow loose, dusting me. That made me smile.

Stepping over large fallen trees isn’t easy with snowshoes, but it’s a small price to pay for getting off the beaten path. All the same, I was glad to get back on the main trail. Then mine was a pleasant, daydreamy tramp back to the starting point. The sun shined brightly through the canopy, illuminating the forest. This is the way the Northern Forest should be in February, I thought. I reveled in it, even as sweat ran a chill down my spine. My beard was frosty by the time I got back to the car. Yeah, a good outing.

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Feb 04 2024

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Midwinter Daydreams

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For several weeks now, I’ve been getting up early each morning and writing about my various excursions into Adirondack backcountry during the past half dozen years. Talk about scratching an itch!

It’s the middle of a mild, somewhat dreary winter, and the world outside is mostly gray. Occasionally I venture into the cold for a long walk somewhere, but I’m really missing the lush, green seasons. Even if Vermont received enough snow to reclaim its title as a winter wonderland, I’d still be thinking green.

Last August, I ventured deep into the Silver Lakes Wilderness to a small, unassuming place called Canary Pond. There I grooved with the wild to my heart’s content. It has been foremost in my thoughts lately, as I work hard to regain my health. A bout of dizziness sent me to my doctor who, in so many words, told me that I either improve my diet or forget about doing what I love most. Ah yes, the hard choices of old age… Actually, it’s a no-brainer. I can’t afford to lose deep woods solitude. I’d go mad without it.

The wild green forest is fecund and brimming with activity in the middle of the growing season. There’s no substitute for it. Winter sports are good for one’s health, and there are no blood-sucking bugs to deal with this time of year. But being outdoors in February, well, it’s not the same as tramping through a dank forest crawling with activity. The latter is my cherished domain.

I hope to wrap up my collection of Adirondack hiking narratives soon, and get back to being fully in the here/now. Despite the cold, dreariness and lack of snow, the natural world still goes about its business. Short-eared owls have been spotted recently in the nearby Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. Judy and I have made one unsuccessful attempt to see them. It’s time to try again.

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Jan 14 2024

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Books and the Great Outdoors

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I’m back inside after a short hike on a blustery winter day and glad to be here. I’m not a winter sports enthusiast. Next month, after a good dump of snow on a sunny relatively warm day, I’ll head for the hills and do some snowshoeing. But until then, the occasional, hour-long tramp locally will do.

In January I’m more of a bookman than an outdoorsman. I stay indoors most of the day, that is, tending to my online bookselling business or doing literary work. Or reading. Yeah, I read and write mostly about the natural world while snuggled inside this time of year. That’s rather ironic, isn’t it? Come early spring, I’ll get out more – a lot more. But now I’m mostly a cerebral creature. I wonder how many other so-called nature writers operate the same way.

I take a long, hard look at the shelf full of books that I’ve written and published. Some are works by other nature writers that I’ve published via Wood Thrush Books, but most of them are mine. I currently have over 20 of my own books in print. That begs the question: How many more do I need to put out there? At this point I have several more in various stages of production. It’s crazy.

Venturing into the Great Outdoors then writing about it… I’ve been doing this for 40-odd years. One would think the well would be running dry by now. Yet with each passing year I delve deeper into nature, trying to figure out where I as a human being stand in relation to it. I’ve become more of a philosopher in the process but haven’t lost my passion for the wild. This well is bottomless, I think. My ongoing studies of natural history confirm that.

I’m just about ready to dive back into my collection of short hiking narrative set in the Adirondacks. I’ve hiked over there a lot during the past five years, venturing into wild forests and wilderness areas that are new to me. Plenty to write about. Question is: Do I hike just to have something to write about, or write only to justify these excursions deep into the wild? It cuts both ways, of course. A lot depends upon the time of year. Either way it’s a win.

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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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Nov 29 2023

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Getting Out of my Head

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Sometimes hiking is a way to process my thoughts. Thinking goes well with walking, as Thoreau, Emerson, and so many others have preached. Other times a hike is just a hike – a way of getting out of my head. It all depends upon what precedes it, and what my frame of mind is at the time.

After writing an intense, philosophical essay yesterday, I took my wife’s advice and headed for the woods. I desperately needed to put an end to thinking in abstractions, at least for the day and just be physical for a while. I didn’t want to drive an hour into the mountains, though, so I settled for hiking at Niquette Bay State Park. It’s only 25 minutes away.

The parking lot was nearly empty when I pulled into it. No doubt the dark clouds overhead and sudden flurry of sleet had something to do with that. With temps hovering around freezing and a brisk wind blowing, more sensible people were staying indoors. But I needed to be outdoors, and was glad to have the park largely to myself.

I took my time meandering around the park on the outermost loop, comfortable enough wearing a hat, gloves and four layers. I was surprised to see a small tree, gnawed by a beaver, blocking the wooden walkway across the small wetland. Why hadn’t the park ranger removed it? Oh, that’s right – the park is closed for the season. I climbed over it and continued my hike.

I stopped to check out the rippling waters of Lake Champlain from a small beach and stopped again at a lookout on high ground to see Mount Mansfield peeking through clouds in the distance. Got my boots dirty in the muddy spots of the not-yet-frozen ground. Yet another flurry of sleet commenced as I was finishing the walk. By then I had broken a sweat and was feeling the chill. No matter. I got a good woods-fix during my hike and was happy enough to be indoors the rest of the day. The next time I go out, there will probably be snow on the ground.

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Nov 13 2023

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Thinking on my Feet

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Sometimes a walk in the woods is just a walk. Other times I think on my feet. I intentionally went for a walk yesterday afternoon just to process some thoughts that way.

I donned a blaze orange vest before stepping into the woods. It’s that time of year, after all. Riflemen are on the hunt for the ever-elusive buck. Even though I don’t have antlers, I didn’t want to be mistaken for their quarry. Safety first.

The November woods always look so stark. It takes a while to get used to all these leafless branches. The dusting of snow in the creases and shadows of the understory hint at things to come. The days are noticeably short this time of year and getting shorter. It’s best not to dwell on that.

With temps in the 30s beneath an overcast sky, I meandered along not even breaking a sweat. That made it easy for my mind to wander. With leaves covering the trail, I had to pay close attention in order to stay on it. Otherwise I was free to dwell upon some rather deep philosophical notions. Like what reality is instead of what we think it is.

Some people always trust their senses. Others lean heavily upon logic, as if the world we inhabit can be fully grasped that way. I suspect there is more to What-Is than any mere mortal can conceive. Certain things are unthinkable. Think long enough about infinity, for instance, and you’ll go mad. I’m certain about that.

I have tried to make sense of infinity and have gotten nowhere. At best my thoughts regarding it become a meditation upon God’s nature; at worst it’s an endless feedback loop. What is Nature, anyhow? Nature spelled with a capital “N” that is. Infinite, no doubt, as the night sky attests. While considering the whole of it, not just the particulars, I contemplate the infinity of this universe or whatever lies beyond it until my head explodes. Yeah… it’s best to do that while putting one foot in front of another. That way I can cling to the illusion of getting somewhere, at least.

Maybe that’s why I feel the need every once in a while to think on my feet. Nature is dynamic. Everything in it is changing, evolving. The entire universe is constantly on the move. What a mistake it would be to sit still, try to grasp What-Is and make that sit still, as well. So much better to simply go with the flow.

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Oct 25 2023

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Autumnal Color At Last

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It has been a strange year. A relatively mild winter ended with temps hitting 80 degrees in early April, and for a while there it looked like Vermont might be headed for a drought. Then the summer rains began and they didn’t stop. They climaxed with July flooding here and in other parts of the Northeast. Meanwhile the skies filled with smoke from Canadian wildfires.

Anyone with any sense knows why all this is happening – why the weather is so erratic these days. The climate of the entire planet is undergoing a radical change. But I have to admit, I didn’t think it would have an impact on Vermont’s annual display of eye-popping foliage.

Mild temps and all that rain has muted autumnal color in the Champlain Valley this year. Here it is the end of October, and we still haven’t seen a hard frost. That factors into the mix, certainly. But the seasons progress regardless, thanks to the passage of Earth around the Sun, so the trees are getting ready for winter. Consequently, splashes of leafy color have appeared in these lowlands, long after peaking in the mountains. In fact, the foliage is pretty much at peak in my back yard – a week or more later than usual.

I’ve already put the snow tires on my car, the sun now sets before 6 p.m., and the ladybugs are desperate to get indoors. But my little chipmunk buddy is still scurrying about, collecting food, and there’s a good chance I’ll be lounging comfortably on my patio tomorrow. Mixed signals to be sure. All the same when the wind blows the leaves come down. Winter is inevitable.

I suppose going with the flow is the thing to do. There’s no point getting all bent out of shape because the weather isn’t behaving the way it usually has in years, decades, centuries past. Early this morning, I poked my head out the door to get a good whiff of that dry-leaf smell of autumn and admire the fiery orange leaves in the treetops. And I smiled when a maple leaf floating down hit me squarely in the face. No harm, no foul. It’s that time of year, if only for a week or two before the first snow falls. Gotta love it.

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Oct 11 2023

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Acorn Madness

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With temps in the 50s and the sky full of clouds, I bundle up to sit on the patio and write some letters. I’ve been in something of a funk lately and want to share my dark thoughts about life, literature and what it all means with a few friends who can relate. But Chippy has his own agenda.

Chippy, the chipmunk that Judy and I have befriended during the past few years, wants more nuts. Winter is coming and he wants all the nuts he can get. Usually, I just ignore him after several handouts, then he goes foraging elsewhere. But recently Judy and I have brought home some acorns from a different location. Oh my… He can’t get enough of those.

Chippy is crazy about acorns. More acorns, Walt, more! He hops on my lap and gets into my face, giving me the stare that has so often led to one more handout, maybe two. I ignore him, or at least try to. I’m busy brooding. Can’t he see I’m how serious I am right now? But no, Chippy doesn’t care about my mood or my scribblings. Where are those acorns? He wants more acorns. He knows I have more. He knows I’m holding out.

I’m not quite sure how I got into this weird relationship with a little striped rodent. I keep telling myself that he’s still a wild creature. He’s not my pet, nor are we friends. But he has become quite comfortable with me over time and, I must admit, I like having him around. He reminds me that there’s more to life than deep philosophical speculation and the ol’ scribble, scribble. Like acorns, for instance. Acorns are very important.

So I stop what I’m doing and hand over the goods. He stuffs his cheeks with as many acorns as he can put in there, then heads for his burrow. But a few minutes later he’s back, wanting more. Can’t get enough of those acorns. Gotta have more acorns, he tells me in his own chipmunk way. Winter is coming. I don’t know what’s so special about acorns, but according to Chippy, they’re much better than peanuts. And Chippy knows a lot more about such things than I do.

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Sep 24 2023

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A New Collection of Essays

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I’ve just released a new collection of short non-fiction pieces, Confronting the Unknowable: Essays on God, Nature and Being Human. This is, I believe, the best half of the 40-odd essays that I’ve written for an online platform called Medium.

I’ve been posting my work at Medium for the past two and a half years. Most of my old, nature-related essays and hiking narratives have been uploaded to my profile page there, while my newer material has appeared at one of five Medium-based publications: A Philosopher’s Stone, Illumination, Socrates Cafe, The Apeiron Blog, and The Philosophy Hub.

This is my first sustained effort to write for the general reader, or as close to that as I’ll ever get. Oddly enough, my more philosophical pieces have garnered more attention at Medium than my hiking narratives. That’s just the opposite of what I’ve experienced elsewhere. Go figure.

A few of these essays address topical issues like climate change and overpopulation, but most of them go deep into philosophical matters: God’s nature, life’s meaning, the great mystery that is nature, and what makes us human. Naturally, I have more questions than answers. Mine is an iconoclastic worldview to be sure.

Last winter I released a dense philosophical work called Nature and the Absolute. These essays address many of the same issues but are much easier to read, I must admit.

This book is now available at Amazon.com. It can also be purchased at my website, woodthrushbooks.com. Check it out.

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