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Jun 20 2024

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Summer Solstice Meander

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After ten days indoors, working feverishly on literary work, I needed to get out groove with the wild. With a heat advisory issued by the weather service for northern Vermont, it seemed a little reckless to go for a hike, but I did so anyway. When the wild calls, I’ve gotta go.

At midday today, temps were already in the high 80s and the humidity was downright tropical. I drank a ridiculous amount of water before leaving the house. Then I took it easy, real easy, meandering along the trail at a snail’s pace. Just a short walk, I told myself, enough to satisfy the wildness within for a little while…

There was no one else in the town forest, of course. I had the place all to myself. An ovenbird called out, and a few other songbirds let out subdued chirps. Other than that, the forest was silent and still.

Yes, the trail was muddy from the downpour yesterday, with frogs underfoot. Yes, the blood-sucking insects were out in force, having their way with me. And yes, I sweated heavily even as I crept along as slowly as I could. But it was good to immerse myself in the infinite green all the same, especially on this the Summer Solstice.

There will be longer, more challenging hikes in the mountains in the near future, I’m sure. Yet I returned to my car this afternoon quite satisfied to have gotten out today. Thunderheads approached from the West as I drove home. They are rumbling through the region, drenching everything even as I write this. Ah, summertime!

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May 26 2024

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Intertidal Fecundity

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Once again Judy and I rented a cottage on the Maine Coast for a week, and once again I couldn’t resist the urge to walk to a small, rocky island just off Goose Rocks Beach. For days I watched a spit of the sandy beach reach towards the island at low tide, but it didn’t seem to connect. Then it did, although very briefly. So the next morning early, I timed my walk so that I’d reach the narrowing channel between beach and island right when the tide was lowest. It worked. I stepped onto the island without getting my feet wet.

The sun, just above the northeastern horizon, shined brilliantly through the cloudless sky. No breeze stirred the still waters, and temps rose quickly through the 50s and into the 60s. The beginning yet another beautiful day. I felt lucky to be alive and kicking. I ventured onto the island’s rock-strewn, uneven ground, careful as to where I stepped… all the time looking downward…

That’s when I realized that I could hardly step anywhere without stepping on some kind of life-form: periwinkles, barnacles, clams and more. These rocks, underwater during most of any given day, are covered with marine animals. I have witnessed this many times before, but can’t get used to this intertidal fecundity. I knelt down and turned over one rock after another. Beneath every rock, tiny hard-shelled aquatic animals moved about, along with translucent creatures barely visible to the naked eye. Had I remembered to bring my hand lens, I would have seen much more, I’m sure.

When I went to pick up and look under one rock, it started moving. That took me by surprise. It was a crab doing its best to look like a rock, now that it was exposed. Fortunately, I came upon it before any of the nearby shorebirds did.

Gulls, godwits, and other shorebirds were busy feeding in the shallow waters nearby, just off the island. No doubt they were finding plenty to eat. I was pretty hungry myself, so I hiked back to the cottage to consume a bowl of granola cereal. Yeah, we all have to eat. Gotta keep those inner fires stoked. Life forms come into being, eat as they mature, reproduce and die. It’s the eternal cycle of life. And nowhere is this more obvious than on a shoreline at low tide.

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May 13 2024

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Leaf Out

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Suddenly there is the faintest hint of green in the trees. Then it unfolds slowly, very so slowly – the vibrant canopy overhead. Each day just a little greener, brighter, full of life. An awakening after a long dark winter. Nothing short of a miracle, played out over and over, year after year.

I follow a path through the woods, constantly reminding myself to watch where I’m stepping, but my eyes keep drifting up towards vernal glory. Dark clouds beyond the trees threaten rain, which is a good thing. All these rooted life forms will get yet another good drink soon and become even greener.

Not just green but the mesmerizing hue of fresh verdure unlike anything else we see the rest of the year. It only lasts a few days before the forest takes on that deeper, richer color. The forest refreshed. The color of joy. The triumph of the organic over the inorganic.

This is the eternal promise of Nature – life springing back into action after months-long dormancy. This is an irresistible force in a largely inanimate universe. This time of year, the trees shout what stone-cold materialists deny: that there is something incredible happening here on planet Earth and most likely elsewhere in the cosmos.

Life is self-perpetuating in a way that doesn’t make thermodynamic sense. It sucks energy out of the Sun. It grows; it self-organizes; it reproduces. It flaunts its leafy self despite quantum interactions, supernovas, and black holes. Or maybe because of them. Then we and the other creatures come along, adding further mystery to What-Is. And it’s all happening right here, right now, right before our eyes.

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Apr 27 2024

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The Unfurling of Spring

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photo by Judy Ashley-McLaughlin

Late April is a glorious time of year here in northern Vermont. The snow and ice are gone in all but the highest elevations and the remote corners of the state, the trees are covered with catkins kicking out their pollen, the swollen buds of bushes are beginning to open, and the grass is greening everywhere, everywhere. Oh sure, there is still plenty of brown in the leafless forests and tilled fields, and the occasional snow flurry on colder days reminds us of winter’s recent passing. But the blazing sun is working its magic all the same.

We are well into the growing season now, even though it’s too early to break out the shorts and flip flops. Some people anxiously await those 75-degree days, resenting the rawness of the first half of spring. “Mud season,” some Vermonters call it contemptuously, but I am never as hopeful as I am this time of year. Every day brings a new development in the natural world, and directly ahead of us is the warmer half of the year and endless green.

In the mountains a little over a week ago, I tramped in cold mud next to a raging brook up to its banks in snowmelt. Walking along the Rail Trail the other day, I spotted wood frogs and clusters of their eggs in ephemeral pools. Spring peepers sing out every night from nearby wetlands; songbirds do the same during the day. Robins, blackbirds, and other migrators showed up weeks ago, and hummingbirds are not far away. Ants, mosquitoes, and scores of other insects are busy now. Worms appear whenever I scratch the soil with my rake. The resident chipmunk has come out of his burrow, running circles around me until I hand over some nuts. The sun is now up early in the morning – almost as early as I am. And it’s all happening at once!

But it’s the flowering plants that drive home the drama of endless renewal this time of year. In the wilder corners of my back yard, round-lobed hepatica and spring beauty are in bloom, along with the less obvious wild ginger. I kneel down before them for a closer look. In tamer places, a solitary pansy struts its stuff – an outrageous burst of yellow. The bright green leaves of columbine and bleeding hearts have already leafed out – the latter sporting clusters of pink and white flowers on the verge of opening. I can hardly believe my eyes…

Then yesterday late afternoon I stumbled upon a patch of purple trilliums on the forest floor, already in full bloom. I nearly swooned from it. What an incredible world this is! How fortunate to be alive! There is nothing more miraculous than the unfolding of spring, and no joy greater than being totally immersed in such fecundity. That’s what an unrepentant pantheist like me feels this time of year, anyhow.

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Apr 10 2024

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Total Eclipse

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Sunlight became noticeably dimmer as the moon gradually obscured the sun. Temps dropped several degrees. I sat in the backyard with my wife, granddaughter and her partner, watching the event slowly unfold. ISO solar sunglasses enabled us to look directly at that object in the sky usually too bright to observe. The thinnest sliver of the sun was enough to maintain the normalcy of day.

When the moon completely blocked the sun from view, the world suddenly slipped into twilight. This came as something of a surprise, even though we’d been anticipating it for months, along with millions of other people. A muted ring of light appeared where the sun was supposed to be. A sunset glow along the horizon completely surrounded us. Birds fell silent, frogs started peeping from springtime pools nearby, and the mosquitoes came out. The forest beyond our grassy backyard took on the dank nighttime smell of early spring.

With my binoculars, I glassed the sun’s corona, surprised to see fiery solar protrusions reaching deep into space. But that was not nearly as surprising as the sudden flash of sunlight that appeared, bringing the total eclipse to an end. Then it was daylight again. The birds and everyone else went back about their business. Only the mosquitoes remained to confirm what we had experienced.

In the distance someone shot off fireworks when the total eclipse began. That rendered mundane what would have otherwise been a sacred event. And rightly so. Most people cannot tolerate the Unspeakable, especially when it is shoved into their face. They have to make light of it.

Two days later, it’s as if that remarkable celestial event never happened. Everything is back to normal, and that ghostly ring in the dark sky is only a memory, a photographic image. Still there are a few of us keenly aware that we live on a planet with an orbiting moon, circling a star in a cosmos too vast to comprehend. Call it nature and leave it at that.

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Mar 15 2024

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New Poetry Collection

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Thanks to a little encouragement from my literary friends, I have just released a new poetry collection. Behold the Unspeakable features what I think are the best poems that I wrote over four decades, along with those penned during the past few years. There are selections from A Hungry Happiness in this collection, along with verse from Pagan Fishing and various chapbooks published in my youth that are way out of print. A lot of ground is covered here.

True to the title, some of these poems flirt with metaphysical matters. Most of them – not all – have something to do with the natural world and how it has made me the woods wanderer and head-scratcher that I am today. Clearly this is a work of a mad poet who has spent too much time in wild places. Readers beware!

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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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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