Tag Archive 'modern times'

Feb 19 2012

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Reading John Burroughs

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Once again I am reading John Burroughs – a turn-of-the-century writer who practically reinvented the nature essay. Heavily influenced by Emerson and second only to Thoreau in his passion for the natural world, Burroughs has intrigued me for years. Yet I have shied away from him time and again, fearing that the yawning chasm between his work and modern sensibilities might prove infectious.

More than one literary critic has called Burroughs “quaint” – a damning term to be sure. I cringe whenever I hear it. That’s like being accused of being both frivolous and irrelevant. Granted, the word might apply well to the many bird watching essays that made Burroughs so popular in his day, but it completely ignores the man’s more philosophical side. In the last few years of his life, that part of him really flourished.

John Muir and John Burroughs are the “two Johns” of late 19th, early 20th century nature writing. Most self-proclaimed nature lovers relate more to the former than they do to the latter. That’s because Muir was an activist in his day, a promoter of national parks and a founder of the Sierra Club. All that is much in keeping with the spirit of modern environmentalism. And Burroughs? Well, when he wasn’t writing pieces for mainstream magazines or hanging out with industrialists like Henry Ford, we was thinking too much. A quick perusal of Accepting the Universe, published shortly before his death, is proof positive of that.

Yeah, those of you who have read my heavier work know which side of Burroughs I prefer. In one essay he writes: “We cannot put our finger on this or that and say, Here is the end of Nature,” and I’m all over it. “The Infinite cannot be measured,” he adds, and I couldn’t agree more.  Yeah, Nature with a capital “N,” going well beyond politics. Am I the only nature lover alive today who cares about the things that JB pondered in his old age? One of the few, certainly.

The essays of John Burroughs are good for the soul. I find his ruminating, rambling style a welcome change from the superficial, sensational nonsense so prevalent in the media today. So I will continue reading his work and thoroughly enjoying it despite the musty smell that emanates from the hundred-year-old books that I hold in my hands. Sometimes nothing will do but the classics.


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Feb 24 2010

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The Madness of Civilization

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Civilization is indoor plumbing, a dependable food supply, health care, waste management and the social contract among other things, not to mention a host of amenities. Civilization is good for so many reasons that I am reluctant to speak ill of it, even when I’m feeling the wildest of urges.  Then comes tax time and suddenly I’m face-to-face with the absolute madness of it.  Those of you who do your own taxes and can’t use the EZ form know exactly what I’m talking about.  There are 101 ways that civil society can drive one to distraction, but none quite as effectively tax preparation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against paying income taxes.  I leave that complaint to those who think they can fund a well-oiled government by other means.  I’m against the madness of the tax code in general, that has turned tax preparation into a cottage industry in this country.  But an inordinately complex and downright absurd tax code is exactly what you get when you let a bunch of lawyers and other congressmen fight over the rules of it for a hundred years.  Good thing I studied advanced mathematics back in college.  Unfortunately, I studied logic as well.

The madness of civilization isn’t limited to tax code.  Far from it.  There is also airport security, civil litigation, lobbying, insurance, plea bargaining, internet fraud, financial derivatives, bundled mortgages, gridlock, an emergency-room health care system and the war on terror, whatever that means.  I could go on but there’s no need.  You know what I’m talking about.  The madness of civilization are all those vexing aspects of modern living that we’ve simply come to accept. . . until they affect us personally.  Then we tear our hair out.

Emerson, Thoreau and those other Romantic thinkers of the 19th Century turned to wild nature for escape from the hustle and bustle of industrializing society, but that seems like a rather quaint notion to those of us living today.  We are buried in corporate and governmental bureaucracy, menaced constantly by false advertisements, mind-numbing paperwork, irrational rules, conflicting facts and doublespeak.  Nowadays, we turn to the wild out of sheer desperation.  Without it, there is no way to achieve balance – no way to know what is real and what is not.

When I was on the Appalachian Trail last summer, I noticed a direct correlation between the overall well being of those I encountered and how long they had been in the woods.  The long-distance hikers were the happiest.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What is it about modern living that makes torrential downpours, blood-sucking insects, mud, sweat and the many other miseries of wilderness travel look good?  All nature-lovers marvel at the beauty and wonder of wildness, but it’s what they don’t say that gets my attention.  Clearly, the madness affects us all.

An aerodynamics expert once told me that the best airplane designs are the most elegant ones, meaning that truly advanced technologies are marked by their simple beauty.  Systems grow more and more cumbersome until finally a quantum leap occurs and suddenly they’re user-friendly.  Computer software design in the 80s and 90s is a good example of this.  The same can be said about social systems, I think.  And with this in mind, we ought rightly to turn to wild nature for guidance.  Otherwise humankind is doomed to live out the rest of its days in a rat maze entirely of its own making.

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Jan 23 2009

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A Phony Woodsman

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Yesterday was chock full of electronic frustrations.  I began the day in the rat maze that Bowker calls a web site, managing those ISBNs sacred to every book publisher, and finished with a phone call to my tech savvy stepson, Matt, regarding coming changes to my email account.  Plenty of other frustrations between those two: altered passwords, new online fees, and assorted glitches.  By mid-morning, I was ready to toss my computer in a snow bank and go live in a cabin in the woods, completely off grid.  By mid-afternoon, I was slogging through calf-deep snow in nearby woods, trying to sweat out my frustrations.  That helped a little.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that I’m a phony woodsman.  Most of my troubles stem from the fact that I have a foot in two entirely different worlds.  On one foot, I’m a writer and small-scale publisher, deeply engaged in high civilization.  On the other I’m a woods wanderer, tramping around roadless areas like a wild animal.  In other words, I keep a line of communication open to society therefore I’m a phony.  If I were a real woodsman, I’d step into the forest and never be heard from again.

I often catch myself fantasizing about disappearing.  My greatest reservation is that I’d lose my wife in the process, along with cherished ties to family and friends.  Then there’s the whole matter of where and how to live, along with the money necessary to set myself up, so the fantasy doesn’t last long.  Making a complete break with society isn’t easy.  Even mountain men had to trap beaver and sell pelts to traders in order to supply themselves with essentials.  Truth is, any retreat into the forest is only a half measure, unless one is utterly misanthropic and independently wealthy.

“No one lives in the woods,” the rather caustic French philosopher Alain once wrote, “Life in the woods is a fiction; the man of the woods is a fugitive.”  When I first read this, I wanted to sling his book across the room.  “Bullshit!” was my gut response.  Then I thought it through and tempered my judgment.  When I’m deep in a wilderness for days on end, I am very much a man of the woods.  In such circumstances, the wild defines me.  But I start missing my family and friends.  Eventually, time and food run out.  Then I return to the world of words, dollars and other abstractions.  Yeah, I’m a phony.  Alain called it.

Yet nothing Alain or any other cafe philosopher says can change what I feel in my heart.  My connection to the wild is profound.  I can’t imagine going too long without a good dose of it.  If ever the day comes when dropping off the grid isn’t possible, then woods wanderers like me will no longer exist.  Yeah, I may be a phony when I call myself a woodsman, but I still must have my regular infusion of the wild, if only for a day or two here and there.  This utterly electronic world can’t sustain me.

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Dec 31 2008

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A Pedestrian at Heart

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All cranked up on sugar and caffeine, I cruised down the highway at 75 miles an hour and it seemed perfectly normal to me.  I followed a bare-pavement highway all the way through the snow-covered mountains of New York and Pennsylvania, finally arriving in Ohio a day and a half after leaving Vermont.  After a few days with the folks, then I did it all in reverse.  Gas was cheap – less than half of what it cost last summer – still I felt a little guilty about taking the trip.  The money I spent along the way to buy foreign oil was only making my home country poorer, not to mention the consequences of my car’s CO2 output.  But this is America and nothing is more American than motoring down an open road.

I enjoyed the ride out but not the ride back home.  Halfway through New York on the return journey, I felt cooped up, so I stopped at a roadside rest and walked half a mile to nowhere.  Sitting behind the steering wheel for a day and a half was the worst of it.  I am used to moving about, even on days when I don’t go for a hike in the woods.  I asked my brother, who drives a truck for a living, how he copes with this.  He told me that you get used to it.  I don’t think I ever would.  I like to stretch my legs too much.

Out on the highway, everyone is in a hurry.  Some people talk on phones while they drive; others listen to hard-driving music as I do.  Still others occupy themselves with talk radio or sports broadcasts.  I suspect that some long-distance truckers toy with other motorists just to relieve the boredom.  Nearly everyone drives too fast, too close to the vehicle in front of them, and with little regard for the weather.  Ego is involved, no doubt.  And every once in a while, we all pass a car or truck wrecked along the side of the road.  But that only happens to other drivers, of course.

Where are we going in such a hurry?  To our graves, ultimately.  Meanwhile the sun rises over the snowy, forested hills and we admire it at our own peril.  After all, the endless flow of traffic does not brake for beauty.

Yesterday, my first day back home, I went for a long walk along the Rail Trail with my dog.  She didn’t get out much while I was gone so she was happy just to sniff around and run.  I felt the same way despite the steady blast of arctic air freezing my face.  The sun rose high into a cloudless sky.  I kicked up powdery snow with each step.  I walked farther than I thought I would, just to walk.  Then it occurred to me:  I may live in an automotive society, but I’m a pedestrian at heart.  I’d choose the most mundane walk over a rock-and-roll ride every time.  Does that make me Thoreauvian?

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Sep 19 2008

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Back in the Swing of Things

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A week out of the woods and it’s almost like the trip never happened.

I carried the glow of wildness through the weekend, despite a steady bombardment of foolishness at the motel desk where I work.  When I returned home, my wife brought to my attention a problem with our computer keyboard.  That’ll have to be replaced.  We bought another car to replace the one that crapped out right before I went to the Adirondacks.  That required considerable interaction with the bank, the insurance company and a car dealership.  The transaction took longer than expected because computers were down somewhere in the Midwest.  That was due to a panic on Wall Street triggered by the bankruptcy of yet another financial institution.  Monday night our fearless leaders assured us that “the system is fundamentally sound.”  Hmm.  I’d hate to see what things would be like otherwise.

Despite all this, I kept the glow through Monday and well into Tuesday, even after catching up on world news.  I kept the glow until I called a local appliance store to schedule a service call.  The timer on my dryer isn’t working.  I figured it’d be an easy fix.  I was about half right.  Easy to fix, yes, but the part would cost over a hundred bucks and the service call would be another hundred.  The pleasant fellow on the other end of the phone diplomatically suggested that I consider my options.  The dryer cost about 350 bucks when my wife and I bought it eight years ago.  What would you do?

Ah, this is an opportunity to replace our old dryer with a more energy efficient one, I thought.  I looked at an “energy star” dryer and it cost two and a half times more than the cheapest model on the floor.  That’s money we don’t have.  So I purchased the cheap one and will install it later on today.  Does all this sound familiar?

I went for a short walk on the nearby Rail Trail midweek, but couldn’t linger.  I had things to do.  I finished caulking the roof so it won’t leak this winter, mowed the grass to keep my neighbors happy, and so on.  I even got a little writing done.  But somewhere between “the system is fundamentally sound” and considering my options, I lost touch with the wild.  Now I’m hours away from going to the motel for another two-day dose of foolishness – mostly clueless travelers trying to negotiate a better room rate.

I’d be lying if I said all this has taken me by surprise.  I knew before I stepped out of the woods that I’d be dealing with all this nonsense, or something like it.  Life in these modern times is nerve-wracking even for the most levelheaded, centered Buddha among us.  That is why I shake my head in amazement, wondering how other people do it.  How do those who don’t spend time in the woods keep from going postal?  The bullshit is so deep we should all be wearing waders.

As soon as I get a chance, I’ll grab my pack, load my dog in the car and head for the hills for a day.  Again, yes.  And while I’m there, maybe I’ll give a little thought to the riddle of existence, the relationship between God and Nature, and what it means to be human.  But right now I’ve got to install a dryer so that it meets code, then get ready for a swing shift.  Isn’t life grand?

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