Tag Archive 'nature'

Oct 08 2021

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Autumnal Color

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Well, it’s that time of year again. Summertime is long gone but the vibrant colors of autumn are now upon us. So the other day I set my work aside long enough to enjoy the season.

I slipped on my boots then headed for a town forest only eight miles away. Didn’t expect to see good color in the forest understory, but I wanted to stretch my legs on a hiking trail while I was outdoors. I figured there would be good color at the beaver pond about half a mile back. Sure enough, there was.

Along with remnant green in the foliage, there were gold, burnt orange and rust hues, as well. Under a mostly sunny sky, the colors really jumped out at me. This is what northern New England does best. I’ve lived here over thirty-five years yet I’m still dazzled by it.

The rest of my hike was a dreamy meander through a mostly green understory. It’ll be another couple weeks here in the Champlain Valley before all the vegetation has turned. No matter. On a beautiful day with temps in the sixties, it feels great just being in the forest. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

Spring is my favorite season; summer pulls a close second. But there is something about walking in the woods in the fall that can’t be beat, despite the shortening of daylight and the fact that winter isn’t far away. It’s all good, I suppose — all of nature’s configurations and moods. It’s good to be alive in this magnificent world. I don’t take it for granted.

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Sep 18 2021

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Wildness and Being Human

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What makes us human? Most people living in a civilization of one sort or another assume that being civilized has something to do with it. But those still living beyond the reach of civilization, as hunter/gatherers, are no less human than we are. Being human predates all the trappings modern life. It predates towns, agriculture and all the related social structures. Human beings are, first and foremost, a part of natural world.

I start from this position while delving into what it means to be human in my latest book, Wildness and Being Human. I recount my own relationship to the natural world while tracing the story of humanity from the earliest hominid beginnings to the emergence of global civilization in the Digital Age.

There is a wildness within us all, I think, that civilization has not yet completely destroyed, even though the disconnect between us and the natural world is becoming more pronounced. And this wildness is essential to our humanity.

Along with my experiences in wild places and my thoughts regarding human nature, I touch upon the contributions to this subject made by scores of scientists, social scientists, philosophers and naturalists. One thing is for sure: there are as many different ways to define humanity as there are worldviews. Yet there are certain facts about our nature that we ignore at our peril.

You can acquire a copy of this book by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon.com. While I’m certainly no authority on the subject, I trust that this book will shed new light on the question at hand.

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Aug 09 2021

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Incredible Nature

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Both Judy and I have delved deep into nature this summer.

Judy has gotten into macro photography. Using a special lens, she creates photos of small subjects that are larger than life, enabling us to see them in a different way. Sometimes she takes photos of insects or other tiny creatures, but her main interest is flowers. The inner workings of some flowers are surreal. Sometimes they are downright cosmic. It’s amazing what her photos reveal when she gets up close and personal.

Meanwhile, I have been studying natural history, reaching way back in time to the emergence of life forms on this planet. It’s a long journey from single-celled organisms in an oxygen-starved world to multicellular plants and animals populating the ocean five hundred million years ago, then to the appearance of insects, amphibians and reptiles, then to flowering plants, mammals and eventually us. While millions of life forms have come and gone, many of the most primitive ones, such as fungus and algae, are still with us. Some species of algae are over a billion years old. Some species of bacteria are much older. It boggles the mind.

The other day, while I was cleaning out the birdbath in our back yard, I hosed green slime off the rocks that sit in its water. That’s algae, that only hints at the kind of primordial slime that once covered the earth. While I was going about this task, songbirds flitted from feeder to feeder, squirrels scurried about, insects crept through the grass underfoot, and trees swayed around me in a gentle summer breeze. Wild and domestic flowers of various designs bloom in our yard. So much diversity. So many different ways to exist, right out our back door.

Nature is unfathomable. The deeper we go into it, the more we see. From subatomic particles to galaxies, from a single cell of bacteria to the Amazon rainforest, there is so much going on all at once. How can we possibly wrap our brains around it all? Perhaps it is enough to simply marvel at the wonder and beauty of it all. But no, some of us want to go even deeper, hoping to find the driving force behind his phenomenon so casually referred to as evolution.

Nature spelled with a capital “N.” Yeah, that’s what I’m after.

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Jul 19 2021

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Deep Woods Solitude

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A few days ago I hiked five and a half miles into Five Ponds Wilderness, located in the western Adirondacks, and set up camp at Cat Mountain Pond. I got there early in the afternoon, hoping to be the first person there. I was. In fact, I was the only person there well into the next day.

After a quick swim to wash away sweat, I settled into a rather pensive frame of mind. This is normal for me. As a philosopher of wildness, I often contemplate existence and meaning while sojourned in the woods. The wild seems to me like the best place to do so. The wilder, the better.

With no one to talk to, all my elaborate philosophical arguments seem rather moot. The wild isn’t interested in my version of reality. It is reality. I can babble all sorts of logical theorems to myself, but that’s pointless. I can scribble down my thoughts in a journal, but my thoughts are dominated by the wild. That is, if I’m paying any attention to my surroundings, all I can do is take dictation.

Are my journals the gospel according to the wild? Hardly. There’s a big difference between experiencing the reality of the wild and being able to articulate it. After forty-odd years of scribbling I’ve come close perhaps, but deserve no cigar. There remains some aspect of the natural world that eludes me. There remains some aspect of it that is beyond words.

All interpretations of the Real are sadly lacking. The wild teaches me this time and time again. It teaches me this when the sun sets, a barred owl hoots and the hum of insects fills the forest. It teaches me this as a great wild silence settles over a still pond. All I can do is listen, and this listening borders upon being a mystical experience, for that’s all that we mere mortals can do.

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Jun 03 2021

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A Natural High

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“What are you doing today?” Judy asked me when I sat down to eat breakfast after doing some early morning work upstairs. I laughed. She obviously had a plan for the day that included me, so I heard her out. She had errands to run in Burlington and thought a walk at Woodside Natural Area during the process would be nice. Was I interested? Of course. She had me at “natural area.”

I sat in the car doing Sudoku puzzles while Judy ran in and out of stores during what remained of the morning. Afterward we drove down Woodside Drive in Colchester and parked at the end of it. Immediately after stepping out of the car I heard a veery calling from the dense understory.

We had ventured only a few minutes down the grassy path cutting through the woods when I lifted my binoculars to a songbird on a nearby branch. I spotted an American redstart that, like all the warblers around us, flitted off before Judy could raise her camera and get a good shot. Judy took a picture of a vireo, but the warblers were too fast for her and the foliage too thick. Not that it mattered. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in early summer and the forest all around us was lush. Walking through it while listening to songbirds was reason enough to smile.

At first we followed a path veering off to the left, rising above a wetland. Eventually it dropped down to the flood plain, though, where we got a good look at the Winooski River. With trees thick along its banks, it was hard to believe that we were in the middle of Burlington’s suburbs. We crept along the path hugging the river, passing through a thicket of ferns and Dame’s Rockets in full bloom. That’s when I started feeling giddy – happy in a way that defies description.

I call this time of year “days of heaven,” reminiscent of a movie I saw long ago that celebrates the natural world. Here in Vermont, early June is when the wild struts its stuff, mesmerizing all those who are paying attention. It is enough to be alive in a world as magnificent as this one. Simply breathing on a day like this is all the meaning one needs. Nothing else really matters.

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Apr 17 2021

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The Unfurling

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It’s too soon for this, or is it? This morning I spotted wild oats emerging from the forest duff – one of the first wild lilies to unfurl in the spring. This is only the middle of April. Usually I don’t see this flower until the end of the month. But all bets are off this year.

Yesterday it snowed. Before that temps soared into the 60s. I knelt down and sniffed spring beauty in bloom a couple days ago. Before that, round-lobed hepatica bloomed. Right before that we got half a foot of snow. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen from one day to the next.

We like to think of seasonal change as a steady progression: temps consistently getting colder as we approach mid-winter, then consistently warming up through mid-summer. But that’s not how nature works. Overall nature is predicable. Here in New England, for example, we can expect four distinct seasons each year. That said, temps can fluctuate wildly over the course of any three or four days picked at random. This is normal.

Flowering plants anticipate what we humans cannot accept. The unfurling is a long, slow process. The first wild lilies press upward and, if temps suddenly plummet, they die back only to be replaced by a second wave. Some wildflowers take forever to bloom. I’ve seen purple trilliums on the verge of opening for weeks on end before they finally strut their stuff. Wildflowers, like most life forms, hedge their bets one way or another. When I stop and think about what’s really happening all around me in the spring, I am astounded.

“False spring,” I heard someone say when it snowed yesterday, unwilling to call it spring until snow is impossible. Yet we get, on average, two snowfalls every April here in northern Vermont. It’s all part of the unfurling, and that’s a beautiful thing to behold. Unpredictable on the short term, yet inevitable in the long run. That’s nature for you.

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Apr 06 2021

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Springtime Illumination

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Deep in the woods, I return to a familiar a place along a mountain brook that I’ve visited many times before. This has become an annual ritual for me. Early in the spring, I come here to celebrate the unfolding of yet another growing season, well before the first lilies arise.

There’s a boulder twice as tall as I am and much wider, not far from the stream. Half of it is covered with moss coming back to life after a long, cold season. The sun illuminates the moss, along with evergreen ferns sprawled across the top. Icicles still dangle from the rock. Beyond it, patches of snow still lurk in the forest shadows.

This is the very beginning of it – a mere hint of what’s to come. Nearby rivulets full of snowmelt rush towards the brook, which is now a silted green torrent. The leafless trees creak in a faint breeze. The sun beats down upon the forest floor, turning the frozen earth into mud. Soon this forest will be teeming with fresh verdure.

I put my hand to the moss while giving thanks for simply being alive, for still being able to reach this place. Days away from turning 65, I no longer take anything for granted. I squint into the sun, feeling its heat. And the spirit of the wild washes over me while I do so.

Whether God exists or not I leave to others to contemplate. When I am alone in a wild forest, such matters seem moot. In springtime I know that Nature is unfolding in all its glory, and I am a part of it. That is enough.

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Jan 28 2021

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The Suspension of Disbelief

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The mob storming the U. S. capital rocked my world as it did most Americans. “What the hell is going on?” I asked myself, “How could this be happening?” Weeks have gone by since that terrible day so now I’ve calmed down a bit and am able to see with some clarity how things have gotten so out of control in this country. In an aha! moment I’ve hit upon it: the suspension of disbelief has migrated into politics.

Yes indeed, the suspension of disbelief is now everywhere. The poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term in 1817. Back then it referred to one’s avoidance of any kind of critical thinking while enjoying a drama or fiction. In more recent times, this has become a prerequisite for enjoying science fiction, fantasy, or any other kind of speculative, far-fetched, or surreal work. Logic is set aside for a while. It’s fun! It’s gratifying! But now, it seems, folks are cultivating their worldviews this way.

While Trump was president, we never knew what kind of outrageous fiction would spew forth from his mouth or his tweets. Liberals, moderates and independents alike all tried to discredit his fictions with science and the mountain of facts that refuted his nonsense, but to no avail. Trump supporters wholeheartedly embraced it all.

News has become entertainment, or should I say “infotainment.” With the arrival of the Digital Age, most of the major news agencies have gone this route. After all, they’re competing with the flood of (mis)information coming over the Internet – from social media in particular. Most of this (mis)information is much more gratifying than reality, and reinforces the established biases of the viewer. Forget about the facts. What one wants to believe is only a few clicks away.

No belief is too outrageous. Even the Flat Earth Society is benefiting from the Internet. According to an article recently published online by CNN, they now have 200,000 followers on Facebook. I shudder to think how many followers QAnon has with all its crackpot conspiracy theories. It’s almost as if the more outrageous the claim one makes the better it is. How gratifying these simplistic answers are in such a complex world!
 
I often venture into the natural world to avoid, at least temporarily, the madness of civilization. Nature is real and I am consoled by that, regardless whatever harsh realities it throws at me. And the facts of the natural sciences validate everything that I encounter in the wild. But it’s obvious that fewer and fewer people are turning to nature, science, or simple facts as they formulate their worldviews. God help us all.
 

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Aug 16 2020

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Backcountry Excursions Reprinted

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In 1990, I published a slender, olive green paperback called Tracks across the Forest Floor. It was my first attempt to write a nonfiction narrative about one of my ventures into the woods. Tracks went out of print a long time ago, but I included it in a set of six hiking narratives called Backcountry Excursions, released in 2005. That book has been nearly out of print for several years now. Well, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Tracks, I have reprinted Backcountry with a new cover and preface. And a few fixed typos to boot.

Three of the narratives in this collection appear in other collections of mine, namely Loon Wisdom and The Great Wild Silence. Tracks and the remaining two can be found nowhere else. Just as important as Tracks, I think, is the 25-page narrative about a trip into northern Maine that I took in ’96 with my buddy Charlie, following Thoreau to Mt. Katahdin by water and land. We used a two-man sea kayak instead of a bateau and ended up hiking a different path up the mountain, but it was great fun all the same. And it gave me a reason to recount one of Thoreau’s excursions into the Maine Woods.

The real reason for reprinting this book is simply to keep it in print. Backcountry Excursions is now available at Amazon.com as well as the Wood Thrush Books website. Most of my readers are already familiar with this book, but now it’s out there for everyone to see how I got started, and what kind of critter I really am.

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Jun 18 2020

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Order and Chaos

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I have a lot of time on my hands, thanks to the pandemic. As a result, I’ve been doing two things a lot more than I usually do: reading and gardening. And in a strange way, these activities are related.

A month and a half ago, I finished putting together my latest book, Campfire Philosophy, for publication. Since then I have been hard at work, reading and doing research for a brand new book project about nature and the Absolute. Central to this project is the dance of order and chaos that we find in nature – something that has always fascinated me. To what extent is nature designed, subject to immutable laws? To what extent are the forces in it utterly random? Needless to say, these questions have taken me all over the place, from German Idealism, Indian philosophy and microbiology, to Natural Theology, evolution, and quantum mechanics. My latest stop: chaos theory. Egads!

Along with the entirely ordered gardens around the house that are full of utterly domesticated plants, Judy and I have cultivated a patch of forest floor in our back yard that we call the Buddha Garden. A stone Buddha lords over this somewhat haphazard experiment in what I call unnatural selection. In addition to a dozen or so domestic flowers that we’ve planted there – some of which are found naturally in the wild, like false Solomon’s seal and foamflower – we have allowed many of the native plants to stay. Among these are trilliums, baneberry, trout lily, and some rather aggressive asters. So you could say that this so-called garden, wilder than most, is a curious blend of order and chaos.

At any rate, while transplanting more flowers into it this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what the laws of nature are and to what extent they dictate what happens in my semi-wild garden regardless of my tinkering. Meanwhile, the stone Buddha just sits there, seemingly detached from my pondering and handiwork, staring into oblivion as if there’s something about simply being in the world that guys like me completely miss.

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