Tag Archive 'perception'

Apr 28 2012

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100-year-old Tree

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Despite the specks of white tumbling from an overcast sky, I went for a hike up Aldis Hill. I had the place all to myself, of course. No one else was foolish enough to come out on such a nasty day.

Shortly after entering the woods, I noticed a big, old maple near the trail – one I hadn’t seen before. Then I kept moving. I was more interested in early spring wildflowers and knew just where to find them.

Amid a pile of large rocks, I spotted the leaves of bloodroot. The petals had been blown clear by the strong April wind. Just beyond the rocks, wild ginger. Trilliums, violets and blue cohosh bloomed along the flat section of trail between the lookout and the summit. Near the summit, I visited a thick patch of Dutchman’s breeches surrounded by trout lilies, hepatica and spring beauty. I got down on my knees and snorted the fragrant spring beauty the last time I was here.  Good thing I did so. Today they were closed tight against the weather.

I looked around for more wildflowers while finishing my hike but nothing new cropped up. That’s when I started thinking about that big, old maple I had passed earlier. How long had it been there? Why was it still standing? More to the point: Why hadn’t I noticed it before?  I gave it a quick nod before leaving the woods.

A half hour later, I returned to Aldis Hill to take a picture of that tree. I stretched my arms around its trunk to measure its girth. I couldn’t reach halfway around the giant. Stepping back, I took a good, long look at it. The tree had to be a hundred years old at the very least. And still going strong. I shook my head, wondering what else I hadn’t seen in this small pocket of woods during my countless walks here. Sometimes, I swear, it feels like I’m sleepwalking – even when my eyes are wide open.


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Sep 29 2011

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The Strangeness of Ordinary Things

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A butterfly landed on a nearby tree branch the other day so I took a moment to look at it – I mean really look at it. First I snapped a picture, of course. Then I lowered my camera to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the creature. Close enough to see its face, I was shocked by the strangeness of it. Surely butterflies are from another planet. Like most insects, they seem alien.

There are the butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles of our minds, then there are the real things. Upon close inspection, nearly all insects have features only an entomologist could love. But the strangeness of ordinary things isn’t limited to insects. Many flowering plants look strange, as do most mushrooms. Same goes for nearly everything that washes up on the beach. Many birds, such as blue heron or a pileated woodpecker, look strange. Toads are reminiscent of another era. A newt in the bright orange stage of its life seems out of place.  Creeping vines are creepy.  Most furry animals seem familiar, but how can one explain a porcupine or a skunk? Bats are deliberately strange, it seems. Same goes for spiders. And lets not even talk about fish! The more one looks, the more all living things look strange. But it doesn’t stop there. The clouds right before or after a great storm swirl about in unusual ways, and floodwaters are menacingly brown. Even something stationary like a chunk of pure white quartz can seem out of place. All nature is foreign to us, it seems. Why? Because we so rarely see it.

We live busy lives. The pace of civilization has quickened during the last few decades. Our electronic devices hasten the process. A minute seems like forever when we’re waiting for something to download to our computers. A couple seconds can be the difference between life and death when we’re on the highway. There is no time, it seems, to just stop and look at anything. The world flashes by in an endless succession of images, much like the constantly changing television screen. There isn’t time enough to process it all.

When I stop hiking and just hang out in deep woods for a day or two, I start noticing things. “What did you do?” people often ask me when I return home from such an outing. I just shrug my shoulders. How much time can slip away while a man and a butterfly are staring at each other? Hard to say. I’ve never measured it. But this much I know: the more I look, the more I see the strangeness of ordinary things. Even the rising sun is alien to me now.


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Apr 21 2011

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Budding Trees

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The slightest flurry of snow blows into my yard this morning.  Here in the North Country, winter is not quite finished with us yet, or so it seems.  But the budding trees tell a different story.

The other day I noticed catkins drooping down from poplars along the Rail Trail, then admired the intricate, reddish flowers of the silver maple in my backyard.  The latter, illuminated by sunlight, were too beautiful for words – a true wonder of nature upon close inspection.

I was well into my twenties before it dawned on me that all broad leaf trees are flowering plants.  How could I not know this in my teens?  I marvel at my inattention back then – how little I noticed the world around me.  Oh sure, I saw apple blossoms and the like, yet somehow the smaller, more subtle tree flowers escaped my attention.  I saw only barren branches and longed for the leafy, green explosion that was imminent.

Most people become cranky and impatient in early spring.  They pretty much stay that way until the trees leaf out, the lilacs bloom ostentatiously, and the first sunny, 75-degree day arrives.  All the groundwork for the growing season is done by then.  The songbirds and wild animals know this but somehow it escapes the vast majority of us humans.  Why is that?

These disproportionately large brains of ours separate us from the rest of Creation.  That’s both our defining attribute and our greatest curse.  Being human, we live inside our heads much of the time, preoccupied with abstractions, not seeing the obvious.  I suspect that this is more the case now than it ever was – our infatuation with all things digital knowing no bounds.  I like to think that I’m an exception to this rule, but springtime in all its glorious unfolding usually proves me wrong.  No matter how hard I try, I always miss at least half of it.

“Pay attention!” the cardinal sings from the treetop.  The woodpecker knocks out the same refrain.  All flowering plants, both herbaceous and woody, underscore it.  Yet all I see on a chilly, gray morning like this is the ephemeral snow flurry.  And all I can think about is summertime fun.  It’s a crime against nature to be sure.

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Oct 07 2010

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Peak Foliage

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People talk about peak foliage as if there’s a week, a day, or an hour when the autumn colors are their most brilliant, when they can’t get any better.  I’ve been listening to this kind of talk for over thirty years, and I’m more certain now than ever that it’s absolute nonsense.

I suspect that the people who invented peak foliage are also the ones trying to convince the world that the colors in New England can’t be beat.  Okay, I admit, the fall foliage is beautiful here – especially in Vermont in early October.  It’s as good or better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere, thanks to the climate, the soils, or whatever.  But peak color?  C’mon now.  That’s taking the advertisement a bit too far.

Fact is, each species of tree has its own way of turning, and each individual tree follows its own timetable.  Much depends upon latitude, elevation, terrain, whether the tree in question is healthy or stressed, and whether the tree is rooted in wet or dry ground.  Add to these factors the variances of weather from year to year, from week to week, from day to day even, and that magic moment of peak color is anyone’s guess.

At best peak foliage is only a rough estimation of when the autumnal colors should be optimal, based upon the law of averages.  At worse, it’s just an excuse to keep from fully enjoying what is right before ones eyes.  A tourist chasing leafy rainbows is a sad thing to witness, especially when so much natural beauty is overlooked along the way.  Better off to completely disregard the color change and take each day at face value.  In that regard nature rarely disappoints, here in New England or anywhere else, in autumn or any other season.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love to see the color in the trees when the green washes out.  I love the brilliant reds and oranges of maple trees, the bright yellows of birches and beeches, and even the more muted reddish-brown color of oaks later on. I love to watch the leaves rain down with a strong gust of wind, then settle on the ground inches deep in places.  This is one of the reasons I live in this part of the country.  The seasonal change is dramatic here, with nature always providing something new and interesting to see.  But don’t ask me if the fall colors have reached their peak yet.  I’ll say that you just missed it, that it happened five minutes ago.

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