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Jan 19 2023

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The Lake on a Grey Day

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For a change of pace, I drive out to Kill Kare State Park at the end of Hathaway Point to groove on water instead of tramping through woods. Saint Albans Bay is half full of punky ice, but its mouth is ice free. I leave my car at a turnout next to the gate even though the gate is wide open. This will extend my walk. I amble leisurely, hands-in-pocket, up the road and into the park.

I spook several mallard ducks swimming close to shore. There are more waterfowl farther offshore, but they are difficult to identify in the grey light. My binoculars are still resting on the counter back home.

Lake Champlain is placid beneath an overcast sky. In the park, the silhouettes of leafless trees are motionless in the still air, freeze-framed against the clouds. A thin layer of snow covers the ground. Patches of bare ground, bleached of color, poke through the snow in places. It’s a mild winter this year but winter all the same.

I’m alone in the park. Usually there would be ice fisherman here this time of year, going about their business. I meander about, stopping occasionally to take in the lake’s expanse and feel the damp chill in the air. Suddenly gulls call out from ice floes a hundred yards off the north shore. When they stop, I realize just how quiet it is here right now. Interaction with the natural world is funny that way.

This morning I finished writing an essay about the fear of death and the will to live. While walking about the park, I think about that and the many occasions I’ve been in this park in the past, either alone or with others. Time seems to stand still as I gaze across the glassy surface of the lake, but I know that’s not the case. I can hear myself breathing. My heart is still beating. It will beat a while longer, perhaps for another decade or two. And I’ll stand here once again, most likely, gazing across the lake on a grey day.

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Jan 05 2023

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A Sense of Perspective

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Yesterday I walked up one of my favorite brooks in the Green Mountains. No snow and temps in the high 30s. That’s rare for this time of year. How could I resist?

I went back as far as an old campsite where the ashes of my two dogs, Jesse and Matika, are buried. I cleaned off the simple stones marking their graves and talked to them for a while. Then I looked around, telling them with a great big sigh that I’d be joining them soon enough.

This year or the next, ten years from now, twenty, or more — my day will come. It’s just a matter of time. Life doesn’t last long. Not really.

I propped a foam pad against a nearby birch overlooking the stream and jotted a few thoughts in my field journal while eating lunch. The surrounding forest was misty and still. A few dried leaves clinging to the branches of a beech sapling quaked in a barely discernible breeze. The brook full of snowmelt roared loudly as it raced downhill. I thought about the many times I’ve been in this spot, overnight or only for an hour or so like now. I quickly lost track. Too many years have gone by.

I glanced at the small overhang in a large boulder just a few feet away and resolved to spend a night under it someday, just for the hell of it. That would be wild. Then I gave that boulder a long hard look, wondering how long it has been here. Probably since the last Ice Age. And when my ashes are in the ground, along with my dogs, that boulder will still be here.

That boulder will still be here thousands of years from now. The landscape around it will change, but that boulder will remain largely unchanged until the roots of the vegetation on top of it break it down, along with the elements. That’ll take a while. I’ll be long gone by the time that boulder is dust. Hmm… While considering that, I packed up my things and walked away.

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Dec 29 2022

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Reflections on Christmas

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Usually, I don’t make any public statement about the Christian holiday that rolls around this time of year, but it seems disingenuous for me as a philosopher to ignore the elephant in the living room – in this case, the Christmas tree. Yes, Judy and I have one even though we are not Christians in any traditional sense of the word. We call it a memory tree, decorated as it is with ornaments that remind us of loved ones who have passed away along with those still living. We have lights up on our house, as well, and there are other holiday decorations inside our home. We “celebrate” this time of year the best we can. But it isn’t easy.

The West, including the United States, is a predominantly Christian culture. For over a month we are immersed in a frenzied build-up to Christmas whether we like it or not. With pagan-like tolerance, I can reclaim this time of year by celebrating the Winter Solstice. But I am not a pagan so that too seems disingenuous. I am deeply religious, but not in a way that makes sense to most people. No matter. Christmas is thrust upon me regardless of what I think or believe.

Raised Catholic, my feelings about this time of year are complicated by childhood memories. Then there is my mother, who was very much a Christian and loved this time of year when she was alive. I keep a Santa Claus on my bookshelf year-round in memory of her. Santa Claus, hmm… That confuses the matter, as do all the secular icons – the Grinch, Rudolph, elves, etc. – that have little or nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth over two thousand years ago. Jesus Christ, he is usually called, because he is the God/man who came into this world to save us from ourselves. That is what the Christmas holiday is all about, despite the huge influx of retail sales. Oh yeah, this holiday is complicated for all of us. Very complicated, indeed.

Afflicted by Seasonal Affected Disorder, I am relieved to be on the other side of the Winter Solstice, with the prospect of daylight increasing with every passing day for the next six months. That alone is reason for me to celebrate the season. I look forward to the days ahead despite frigid temps. I especially look forward to turning the page on the calendar and beginning a new year. Nature, it seems to me, is reclaiming the world.

While chatting with a store clerk right after the holiday, I asked how her Christmas went. She said she was glad it’s over. No surprise there. Then she added: “It’s too much.” I have been pondering that for days. Yes, it is too much. It’s completely over the top for reasons that have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. It’s as if the entire Western world goes a little crazy this time of year. And most of us are glad to be on the other side of it. Go figure.

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Dec 15 2022

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Keeping the Faith

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Once there is less than 9 hours daylight, day after day, I find it hard to stay upbeat. Sitting in my study, writing essays about the human condition and other philosophical matters doesn’t help. Nor does all the holiday hoopla that breaks out this time of year. I try to play along, ignoring the worst of it, but the hoopla gets to me all the same. Bah, humbug?

Reading a few inspiring passages by some of my favorite nature writers made me realize that I’m slipping into an early winter funk. Despite the cold and snow, I need to be outdoors. So that’s what I did yesterday. I drove twenty-five minutes south then went for a hike around Milton Pond.

With only a couple inches of snow on the ground, a pair of Yaktrax was all it took to gain traction. I slipped them over my boots and set forth. I carried water in a small teardrop pack and stuffed my jacket in there, as well, once my inner furnace was cranked up. I walked fast enough around the pond to inhale deeply the fresh cold air without feeling like I was in a hurry. The pond was iced over already, surprisingly enough. The sun tried to burn a hole in the thin cloud cover overhead, but without much success. No matter. I didn’t mind the muted light.

I ran into only a few other hikers and their dogs so I was alone most of the time. That felt good. It felt good to tramp through the forest, over snow-covered ground, simply grooving on the wild. I am, after all, a nemophilist – one who loves the woods and haunts them regularly. My wife discovered that obscure word the other day then brought it to my attention. It fits.

Today I’m still in something of an early winter funk, but it’s not quite so bad after yesterday’s outing. I’ll have to get out again real soon, for a second dose of the wild. And that’s how a woods wanderer like me keeps the faith. While hiking through the forest, everything makes more sense to me, and life seems much more worthwhile.

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Nov 21 2022

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The Long White Begins…

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Winter arrived in northern Vermont last week with the first snowfall blanketing the earth. Only a couple inches of the wet, heavy stuff, but it has lingered as temps have stayed around freezing. And so the long white begins…

I went for a short hike yesterday despite the inviting warmth of home. Didn’t go far away. The 3-mile loop in Niquette Bay State Park was good enough since deer hunters are prowling the Green Mountains these days. I passed half a dozen people on the trail, but was alone most of the time. Alone while making tracks in half-frozen mud, inhaling cool air.

A steady wind rocked the naked trees overhead, causing them to creak and groan – a woody conversation while I moved silently below. The late afternoon sun, setting so early this time of year, sank towards the western horizon. Forest shadows beneath a mostly azure sky. I hiked at a pace slower than usual to keep from chilling in my own sweat.

Just a few patches of snow here and there, but more will come no doubt. I’m ready for it. I’m ready to spend entire days indoors thinking, reading and writing. I’m as ready as I can be for holiday darkness, and the frigid temps that will follow. I polyurethaned my snowshoes when it was still warm enough to do that outdoors, so I’m ready to lay tracks in the snow, as well.

There’s no sense fighting winter when you live this far north. Better to embrace it, making the most of a season that has its own charms. Hibernation simply will not do – not when the cold season lasts nearly five months. Yeah, much better for sanity’s sake to embrace it.

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Nov 07 2022

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Nature Writing by t. kilgore splake

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I am pleased to announce the release of a third Wood Thrush Books title this year. This one’s called Escape to the Wild: the nature poetry and prose of t. kilgore splake. During the summer I culled nature-related pieces from over a hundred of splake’s books and chapbooks, added an introduction, then put this book into production. The first shipment arrived on my doorstep a few days ago, so now it’s in print.

I visited splake during my big road trip earlier this year, driving all the way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to see the man in his natural habitat. I had been thinking about compiling his nature-related work before that, but the trip pushed me over the edge.

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, t. kilgore splake is a boho-beat poet well-known and widely published in the small press world. I’ve been following his work for over two decades. His nature-related verse, while only a fraction of what he has written, really resonates with me. I think some of his short narratives about excursions into the wild are engaging, as well. Hence the compilation of this book.

splake’s take on the wild is quite different from most. That’s what I find so interesting about him – that and the fact that extended camping trips in the UP when he was younger completely changed his life. I strongly urge those of you who want to see the power of nature at work upon an individual’s psyche to check out this book. You can get a copy by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon.com.  

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Oct 24 2022

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The End of the Warm Season

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“Why am I indoors?” I asked myself at noon yesterday after working at my desk all morning. With temps in the 60s, it seemed silly to be inside. After all, a long, cold season lies directly ahead. Even though I’m ready for it, there’s no sense wasting the few warm days left.

I hopped in my car. Judy and I drove down to Dead Creek the day before yesterday to enjoy the warm temps and do a little birding, so I wasn’t in the mood for a long drive again. The woody section of the local rail trail is only ten minutes away. I figured that would do. I drove there, then walked up the wide gravel path, kicking up leaves and spooking a couple garter snakes along the way. I stepped over a few woolly worm caterpillars, as well, warning me that it’s going to be a long, cold winter. Good thing I came out.

There was a little color in the leaves still clinging to the trees, but the so-called peak foliage has been gone for a while now. Between the last peak color and the first skiable snowfall in the mountains, Vermont belongs to Vermonters. I reveled in the beauty and solitude of the quiet woods, ignoring the occasional cyclist passing through.

After walking a mile and a half, I sat down on a knoll overlooking a small pond in a clearing. Crows cawed in the distance. There were also songbirds out there, flitting about in the half-naked trees, but they were too far away to identify. No matter. I just sat there a while, enjoying the warmth and still air, with sunlight filtering through the mostly cloudy sky. I marveled at how quickly the warm season passed this year. The fresh verdure appeared not too long ago, or so it seemed. The days go by a lot faster now that I’m in my 60s.

I took my time walking back to the parking lot. I drove past a farm selling pumpkins for only five bucks and thought about getting one. Sat on the patio in my back yard reading for a while as Canada geese flew overhead. I sat until the sun passed behind the house. Then I caught a chill and went inside. The small bag of nuts on me for the resident chipmunk never came out for my pocket. He never showed. Could Chippy be settled in for winter already? I don’t think so but I’m sure he will be soon.

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Oct 03 2022

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New WTB Anthology

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I’m pleased to announce the release of the latest Wood Thrush Books anthology of nature writing, Savoring the Elements. I gathered work for this book during the first half of this year, put it together this summer, and now have copies in stock.

There’s new work in here from Stuart Bartow, Benjamin Green, Freya Manfred, Clarence Wolfshohl, and a dozen other regular contributors to past WTB anthologies, along with the poetry and prose of half a dozen newcomers. There are also excerpts in this collection from WTB titles published during the past few years: Walt Franklin’s Learning the Terrain, Helen Ruggieri’s Campfire Philosophy, and my own Wildness and Being Human. But the centerpiece of this anthology are selections from Scott King’s 365-day nature journal, Following the Earth Around. Scott passed away last year. This anthology is dedicated to him and the spirit of his work.

All the contributors have received a copy already and several of them have indicated that this anthology is an impressive one. I have bought together as many different ways of looking at the natural world as I could, and think they’ve picked up on that. At any rate, I’m proud of this collection and hope that nature lovers everywhere will enjoy reading it.

You can acquire a copy of this book by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It’s also available at Amazon.com, of course. If you get a copy and read it, let me know what you think.

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Sep 10 2022

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Wildness or a View?

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This week I did two day hikes in the Adirondacks on two completely different trails. One took me deep into the wild. The other provided great views.

First I went to Pigeon Lake Wilderness on the western side of Adirondack Park. I hiked a narrow, mostly earthen path in a 7-mile loop through the woods. The trail was wet and muddy in places as I skirted beaver ponds and wetlands. I stopped at Queer Lake for lunch. It was so quiet there that I could hear water lapping to shore and leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. After lunch I sat against a fallen log and let my mind wander. I closed my eyes and napped for a short while. Then I slowly packed up and hiked out. Even though I took my time leaving the forest, I still worked up a good sweat. And I never saw anyone the entire time I was out there.

The next day I drove to the trailhead for Blue Mountain –– one of the most prominent features in the central Adirondacks. I got there early. There were no other cars in the parking lot when I arrived. I set forth up the mountain, following a heavily eroded, rock-strewn path about five feet wide. It was uphill all the way for about two miles. Even though I took lots of breaks, I managed to do the 1,800 feet ascent in less than 2 hours. The view from the fire tower on the summit was phenomenal. The Adirondack Park spread before me in all its glory, making me truly appreciate the sheer size of it. Two young hikers appeared just as I was descending the fire tower. While sitting below the fire tower, I listened to them chatter excitedly as they pointed out the summits and lakes in the distance. On my way back down the trail, I passed nine or ten more parties of hikers. There were over a dozen cars in the parking lot when I reached it, with more arriving.

Without a doubt, the view from the fire tower on top of Blue Mountain was well worth the climb. And I enjoyed the endorphin rush that came with the physical effort necessary to get up there. But hiking up that mountain wasn’t a wilderness experience by any stretch of the imagination. For that I would recommend a venture into Pigeon Lake Wilderness, or something like it. There is something about being alone in an undeveloped, rarely visited place that completely changes the way one looks at the world. Doing both was great, of course. But if I had to choose between the two, well, I’d choose the latter.

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Aug 27 2022

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Tending a Campfire

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Earlier this week, I went into the woods overnight just to get away from my work and chill out. I walked up a logging road winding into the Green Mountains, cut across an overgrown meadow, then bushwhacked along a crystal clear stream until I found a beautiful spot to camp.

Setting up my tent and making myself right at home didn’t take long, but the woods were wet from rain the day before, so it took a while to strip off the bark on the wood I gathered. Wood without its bark dries out fast and burns well. After gathering plenty of it, I ate lunch, did a little naturalizing, and wrote in my field journal before taking a long nap. Backwoods adventure? No, more like seriously goofing off.

That evening I placed some birch bark in the middle of the campfire ring I had created, built a small tipi of tiny sticks over it, then struck a match. Ten minutes later I had a good fire going. Another ten minutes after that I had water boiled up in my handy little one-quart pot. I kept the fire going as I drank hot tea with my dinner. I continued tending the fire long after its usefulness.

The sun disappeared behind a nearby ridge. Daylight faded away. The campfire slowly became the center of my universe. I fed sticks into it, carefully placing them to maximize the burn. My thoughts wandered. The water in the nearby stream rushed over rocks incessantly. The fire snapped and crackled, occasionally kicking out a blue flame. It mesmerized me as darkness closed in. I lost track of time.

Late in the evening I let the campfire slowly die out, becoming embers. Then I hit it hard with several pots of water from the brook before going to bed. In the morning I fired it up again, letting it die out quickly after breakfast. Then I dismantled the campfire, tossing the stones in the brook and burying a couple handfuls of cold ashes. No trace of it remained when I hiked away.

Pity the poor souls in the distant or perhaps not-too-distant future who will be unable to build a campfire anywhere. You can’t buy the kind of solace a campfire provides. It is a good reason to go in the woods, venturing off-trail, if you ask me.

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