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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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Sep 18 2023

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Otter Creek Retreat

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Judy misses camping on a mountain stream now that her backpacking days are behind her. So last week we did the next best thing. We secured a cabin only steps away from the Otter Creek, a few miles outside the western boundary of the Adirondack Park. It turned out to be quite the place: a nearly new cabin with all the amenities. Quite comfortable. A lot better than camping, that’s for sure.

Judy left the cabin only to walk down to the creek and groove on it. A pair of Adirondack chairs just outside the cabin was the best place to be, with a full view of the stream. She spent considerable time there. I, on the other hand, explored the area – restless soul that I am. On the second full day of our stay, I walked the nearby Independence River with a fly rod in hand. For several hours I saw no one or any kind of development. Caught and released a couple trout in the process.

The fishing was pretty good for this time of year, but I opted for a one-day license since I was more in the mood to hike. I scouted a couple trailheads in the Independence River Wild Forest. Oddly enough, I ended up hiking at Whetstone Gulf State Park instead. I figured that way Judy wouldn’t worry about me. “State park” sounds safe, doesn’t it?

Whetstone Gulf turned out to be a bona fide canyon. A big sign at the trailhead says you must be 18 or be with someone who is in order to hike it. I hiked the North Rim Trail out, and the South Rim Trail back, completely circumnavigating the gulf. Five and a half miles altogether. Most of the time I was no more than a couple feet from the edge of the precipice. Some fantastic views along the way. A lot more than expected.

Our last evening at the cabin, we enjoyed a campfire in the fire pit down by the creek. With temps cooling off fast, thanks to a wide-open sky overhead, we sat close to the fire. Once again in comfy Adirondack chairs. The amber stream rushed past as the campfire crackled. It was a good finish to a very pleasant getaway. We’re already talking about doing it again next year.

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Sep 10 2023

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No Frills Walk

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Sometimes walking is a form of meditation, enabling me to center myself. Other times it’s an escape from the computer screen – a much-needed break from the cyber world and all its abstractions. Quite often it’s form of therapy, working out the kinks in the psyche through sheer physical exertion. But on rare occasion, a walk is just a walk.

Yesterday I walked a section of the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail about eight miles from my home. I just needed to be outdoors for an hour or so, stretching my legs. I kept a good clip, but not intentionally. I sweated a little, but it wasn’t a work out. Not really.

Sometimes I ruminate while I’m walking, digesting difficult philosophical problems. There was none of that this time. Sometimes I daydream while walking, especially during long, lazy walks in high summer. No, not this time. This time I simply walked, as if walking itself is reason enough to be alive.

The Rail Trail – a wide and improved gravel path – is close to being flat. It passes through forest and field, skirting the occasional wetland or housing development, and often runs parallel to a stream or a road of some kind. My favorite section of it is this mostly wooded stretch east out of Greens Corners. I like the way the trees canopy the trail. I find that comforting, as if nature is giving me a great big hug.

Bicyclists cruised past while I was walking. I encountered the occasional dog walker. A hint of color in the trees, goldenrod in full bloom in the sunnier places, poplar leaves quaking in a gentle breeze – not much else to report. Temps in the sixties, which is ideal for walking. Partly cloudy sky overhead. No bugs. The perfect recipe for Saturday morning happiness. No frills.

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Aug 25 2023

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Going Deep

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With all the rain that has fallen lately, I was a little worried about driving the 6-mile, unimproved dirt road all the way back to the trailhead parking lot and leaving it there for the next three days. I could handle anything on the trail, but a washed-out culvert on the way out could confound me. All the same, the Whitehouse trailhead put me within a day’s hike of Canary Pond, and I really wanted to go there.

When I hiked the Northville-Placid Trail through the Adirondacks back in 2006, I passed a beautiful little pond and vowed to go back and spend some time there someday. So that’s what I set out to do three days ago, crossing the suspension bridge swinging over the West Branch of the Sacandaga River then plunging deep into the woods.

It was a 7-mile hike back to the Canary Pond, nestled in the heart of the Silver Lake Wilderness. I figured I could handle that and the 700-foot climb directly ahead, with only a 30-pound pack tugging at my shoulders. I was half right about that. Yeah, I managed to do it, but I arrived at the pond late afternoon completely wiped out. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered as I slowly set up camp. Oh yeah, I’m 67-years old.

I crept from my tent the second day aching from head to toe but limbered up a bit after puttering around camp. That’s when the fun really began. A whole day doing a lot of nothing: watching dragonflies patrol the shoreline, listening to the faint summer breeze barely rustling leaves, and taking pictures of the many different kinds of mushrooms. I scribbled in my field journal until my mind went blank. Then I stripped off all my clothes and slipped into the surprisingly cold pond to swim around. After that I sat cross-legged in camp, completely lost in the moment. When I snapped out of it, I said: “Ah… now I get it, Buddha.”

Owls kept me awake the most of the second night with their incessant hooting, but I didn’t mind. I packed up early the third day as rain clouds gathered overhead then got back on the trail. Mostly downhill, it was an easy walk out despite the many bogs and mud holes. I saw no one, realizing that I’d seen no one since a couple of thru hikers passed me two days earlier. Yeah, it was a good outing. And the drive out of the woods was no problem. No rain fell until I returned home.

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