Tag Archive 'reflection'

Sep 13 2012

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Early Morning Bushwhack

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Too restless to sit down and focus on any literary work this morning, I went to French Hill with my dog Matika. I felt guilty about not working as I slipped into the woods, which is a little odd when you think about it. How else is an outdoor/nature writer supposed to gather his or her material?

A few minutes into the woods I was fine, though. The forest doesn’t give a damn about creative output. And when I’m wandering through it, neither do I.

After thrashing through a tangle of brambles covering what used to be a logging road, Matika and I broke into the relatively open forest. A deer path took us to a familiar gap in the old stone wall. From there it was an easy walk along the semblance of a trail, so I started daydreaming.

Soon I found a place to sit down and groove on the woody surroundings. The sound of leaves rustling in the gentle breeze cleared my mind of all thought. Then I was hypnotized by early morning light breaking through the green canopy. The shadows of trees danced across the forest floor. Time passed.

When finally I snapped out of my reverie, I got up and hiked out at a good clip, completing an unintentional circumnavigation of a largely unseen beaver pond. I picked up a turkey feather along the way and held it as if it were a quill pen. Then my brain kicked into gear and I started working.

The boundary between grooving on the wild and writing about it is vague indeed. Sometimes I slip back and forth over that frontier as if there’s no real difference between mind and matter. Sometimes I wonder if there is.


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Apr 02 2012

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Reservoir Reflections

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It’s a cool, overcast day in early spring. Even though Indian Brook Reservoir is only a few miles from the hubbub of suburban Burlington, Matika and I have the place all to our selves. The ice pellets occasionally spitting from the sky have kept everyone away – that and fact that it’s early afternoon on a weekday.

I have the day off from work so I thought I’d run a few errands in town then come out here to decompress. My dog Matika is happy to be in the woods for any reason. We hike to the far side of the reservoir then bushwhack a couple hundred yards off trail to a favorite rocky point where I like to sit and think. It’s a good day to do so.

We pass an old beaver lodge right before reaching the point. Plenty of new cuttings nearby. I wonder how long the caretakers of this reservoir will allow the beavers to proliferate before taking action. The longer the better as far as I’m concerned.  I like beavers. They make good company in the woods. Matika jumps on top of the lodge and sniffs around a bit.  Hers is an entirely different perspective, of course.

On the point, I sit on a rock and gaze across still waters reflecting the trees surrounding it. I come to this exact spot every spring to reflect upon events of the past year and quietly celebrate the end of another Vermont winter. A crow caws once in the distance then falls silent. Silence and stillness. Suddenly all my concerns seem trivial in the cool, gray light – all concerns but one that is. I’m another year older than I was the last time I sat here. Time marches on relentlessly.

I get up and walk around a bit. I spot a dead crayfish belly-up in shallow water. The shoots of a few wildflowers have already broken through the forest duff. Birth and death are common themes in the wild. They are clearly apparent everywhere one looks. I am both awed and horrified by it. The world is in a constant state of flux and this all-important “I” of mine is but an aggregate of dust quickly gathered then blown away. Fecundity and flux. Nothing withstands it.

I finish my hike without further reflection. I have things to do. If I dwell much longer upon The Big Picture, I’ll get nothing else done today. Perhaps it’s best to simply assume that things will go on forever just the way they are. That way we can go about our business as if any of it really matters.


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Aug 26 2011

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Some aspects of wild nature are more mesmerizing than others.  I can walk a trail all day long without seeing anything more than “the green tunnel,” but a stream walk usually produces at least one geologic formation that gives pause. The most dramatic is a great fist of rock hanging over a favorite stream in northern Vermont – one that never fails to make me stop and think.  It appears at the end of a mile-long section of water that I often ply for trout.

More than once I have hiked to the overhang just to sit at its feet and question the ways of the world, much like a pilgrim seeking out a guru.  It never fails to impress.  Sometimes I ponder its incongruity, marveling at the fact that such a small stream could carve out a formidable wall of rock. Other times I wonder how many years will pass before the overhang collapses.  Either way, past or future, the rock’s story dwarfs my own.

This unusual rock formation is not indicated on any maps that I know about.  Surely others have seen the overhang but I’ve never seen anyone else near it.  Nor has anyone I’ve talked to ever mentioned it to me.  Does it exist outside of my imagination?  The moment one asks that question, one has reached a sacred place.  So I often go to the overhang to exorcise my personal demons.  It’s a good place for that.

Geo-logic.  The natural world makes sense in a way that mocks the human capacity to reason. Certain rock formations are especially good at this.  We are good at making tools, designing systems, building grand structures, and manipulating our environment.  But we often miss the obvious.  We fail to see the big picture, or simply ignore it.  We act as if a five-year plan is really thinking ahead, and relegate everything that happened fifty years ago to the history books.  But certain rock formations have been works-in-progress for millions of years.  More to the point, nothing about the natural world is static on a geological time scale.  Given enough days and nights, everything changes . . . and changes profoundly.

Newspapers are chock full of stories of little or no importance, yet my overhang tells a tale that everyone should take to heart.  I take it to heart, anyhow.  And when I walk away from it, all my troubles diminish.  It is good to think beyond the human scale of things every once in a while.  It’s instructive.


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Jul 05 2011

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Walking Out

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There is a woods road cutting through one of my frequent haunts.  Nestled deep in the Green Mountains, it is one of many such roads I have walked over the years – usually on the way out.

Unlike most foot trails, woods roads are gently graded and free of obstacles.  That makes them easy to follow.  That makes it easy to ruminate while walking them.

This particular woods road is one of my favorites because it is only one lane wide with virtually no shoulders.  With the exception of one summer home and a few camps at the very end of it, there is no development along this road.  That makes walking it almost as pleasant as being in the trackless woods. Sometimes even more so because here I can drift along, lost in my thoughts.

This road is rarely traveled.  I have encountered people on it but more often moose, deer and other wildlife.  I usually use this road to get out of the woods after a good day of hiking or fishing, so I’m in a good frame of mind while walking it.  A very good frame of mind.  In fact, I’m rarely happier anywhere else.

I have walked this road with others on occasion, but it’s a solitary road for the most part.  Just me, my dog and my thoughts.  I have walked this road for so many years that it feels more like home to me than wherever it is that I end up.  The road itself is my home.  From here I can go everywhere and nowhere.

I can feel myself aging as I walk this road.  I was in my twenties when I first walked it, and can easily imagine myself walking it in my seventies.  Nearby is a place where I’d like my ashes scattered someday.  This is one of the first roads I walked when I came to Vermont.  Maybe it will be the last.

What do I think about while walking this road?  Everything and nothing.  But always my thoughts end the same way: I’ve got to be at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time, and my car is just around the corner.  Too bad for that.  Because, if I had my way, I would walk this road forever.


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Dec 30 2010

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Life Goes On

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It is customary, I suppose, to reflect upon the past while anticipating the future this time of year.  After all, one calendar year is ending and another is about to begin.  But this time around, circumstances have made that process a little more poignant for me.

Scout Thibault, my next-door neighbor and friend, died three days ago.  87 years is a full life, certainly, but that doesn’t make his passing away any easier to accept.  It happened so fast.  He and I were in the driveway silently shoveling snow together just last week, as we have every winter for the past ten years.  Now, all of a sudden, I do the task alone.

While cleaning the clutter out of my office the other day, I sorted through several year’s worth of letters.  Some were literary; others were personal.  As I have grown older, the boundary between the two has blurred.  Truth is, there are no such boundaries.  Not really.  We all march through life together, and it matters little whether our interactions with each other are professional or otherwise.  We carry the marks left on us by others.  And vice versa.

Living in such close proximity – with a shared driveway no less – I made an effort to be as civil as possible to my neighbor Scout.  That civility slowly transformed into friendship despite the many differences between us.  Suddenly I found myself shedding a tear for someone I had once considered an annoyance.  These things happen.  For better or worse, we all leave our marks on each other.

Each year Judy and I gather together all our grandchildren for a three-day summer camp – no parents allowed.  For Christmas we gave both families a small photo album of the last get-together.  While Matt’s family was going through it, our youngest grandchild Tommy exclaimed: “Me not there!”  That’s because he was too young last summer.  But that will change this year.  Tommy’s day in the sun is approaching fast.

Hard to say which impresses me more:  the many people I’ve known and things I’ve done in the past, or the prospects that still lie ahead.  As I grow older, it becomes increasingly more difficult to separate accomplishments from plans, the personal from the merely civil, fond memories from sad ones, the future from the past.  Yet one thing remains crystal clear: the planet spins about its axis and new generations come along no matter what happens, no matter who passes away.  This is a prospect I find both deeply disturbing and wonderfully consoling.  Life goes on.

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Nov 12 2010

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A Watery Perspective

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Every once in a while, I turn away from the woods and head the opposite direction, making for Lake Champlain.  It’s only a ten-minute drive away from my house, remarkably enough.  Sometimes what I need is the long view to clear my head – a watery perspective – not the comfort of trees.  In that regard, the lake never disappoints.

Kill Kare State Park is a day use area only a quarter mile square, located on the very tip of Hathaway Point.  I frequent it during the colder months, when the park is officially closed, when there’s no one around to tell me that my dog isn’t allowed.  There is plenty of open space to throw a ball for my ball-crazy companion, Matika, and a bench where I can sit and gaze across the lake when it’s time to take a break.

The park itself is manicured and very tame, but the lake has an elemental wildness to it that is clearly apparent whenever a bone-chilling wind blows out of the north.  The sky is usually busy with clouds, water breaks relentlessly against the rocks, and islands lead my eyes towards the far shore – away from the here/now and towards grand undertakings both past and future.

As I sit on the lake’s edge, I remember Adirondack hikes, a trip to the watery wilds of southeast Alaska, a Maine kayak adventure, and countless other excursions.  I think about how much my life has changed since I first set eyes on this lake, and how different things will be a decade or two from now.  Different yet fundamentally the same – just like this lake endlessly lapping to shore.  No doubt about it: time is relative.  Water proves that.

Sometimes I sit for half an hour.  Sometimes only a few minutes.  Much depends upon how hard the wind is blowing.  But one thing remains constant: the great calm within when I walk away from the lake, fortifying me for another round of literary work or busy-ness.  Whatever thoughts weighed heavily upon me when I parked my car and walked out here are suddenly much more manageable.  I am ready for the next challenge.  Large bodies of water are like that.  They suck the smallness and worry right out of us.  And that’s why it is good to live close to one.

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Oct 22 2010

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Organic World

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For a week now, the leaves have been drifting down steadily.  This season has an appropriate name: fall.  Recent rainstorms and accompanying winds have accelerated the process, putting leaves on the ground a bit faster than expected.  Not that anyone’s complaining.  The autumnal palette is moving from the trees to the forest floor, that’s all.

Actually, there is a change occurring in the leaves and it is a significant one.  First they lose their chlorophyll, then they lose their color.  And then, over time, they dry out, decay, and become part of the earth.  It is all very organic, and beautiful in ways that go beyond mere appearances.

After six hours of formatting, computer glitches and the usual Internet chicanery, I really don’t mind the damp chill that greets me at the trailhead.  Nor do the dark gray clouds intimidate.  I feel a great weight lifting from my chest as I tramp through the soggy leaves.  This is the real world, I tell myself, the one that is largely organic.  It is easy to forget that while staring at a computer screen.  All too easy.  So I walk as if every step is a prayer.  And it feels good in ways that go beyond mere feelings.

By all conventional measures, my life is a failure.  It makes no dollars and cents.  I’ve done nothing heroic, have made no great contributions to society, have created no great works of art, and haven’t done anything impressive.  I have little to show for the decades that I’ve been around.  I think, observe, and scribble down words.  That is all.  And yet somehow that strikes me as enough as I wander about the woods. In the organic world, where crows, chipmunks and all other creatures live, there is a great leveling effect.  Eventually, we all fall down and become part of the earth.  Sometimes I find that simple fact consoling.

The fallen leaves require no further explanation.  They just are.  And the great cycles of nature that they so clearly illustrate are lost only on those who never escape their abstractions.  As for the rest of us, well, we pay attention every once in a while to the earthy drama that’s constantly unfolding around us and marvel at it.

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Dec 11 2009

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Philosophical Tramping

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President Obama is one of the more thoughtful, intelligent, and humane world leaders to come along in recent years, and that is why he has received the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of any real accomplishments.  All the same, he didn’t shy away from harsh geopolitical realities when he gave his acceptance speech yesterday.  It made a lot of people squirm, I’m sure.  Realism or idealism?  “I reject this choice,” he said in his defense of “just war,” thus exposing him self to criticism from all quarters.  And suddenly I feel a tremendous urge to pull on my hike boots and go for a long walk.

Some insights come to me instantaneously, while I’m conversing with someone, reading, driving, showering, or just staring out the window.  Others have to be wrenched from the deepest recesses of my brain.  Complex problems, harsh realities, difficult matters both personal and universal – these I cannot face while sitting or standing still.  My legs have to be moving in order for me to gain any fresh insight into them whatsoever.  I am one of those “philosophical tramps” that Barbara Hurd talks about in her book, Stirring the Mud, who can face great difficulties only by walking.  And now, after reading Obama’s acceptance speech, I have much to consider, requiring a good, long stretch of the legs.

I too reject the false choice between realism and idealism – between the harsh realities that all pragmatists learn to accept over time, and the unsinkable hopes of dreamers.  But it’s a tough place to be, between the two, and only the perpetual contradiction of wild nature gives me room enough to maneuver between what is and what could be.  Only in the wild does anything human make sense to me, including my own pragmatism, my own cherished dreams.

The other day I cut tracks in the snow while walking among the trees, trying my damnedest to get to the root of personal matters that have been troubling me for quite some time.  On other outings, I have walked to gain a morsel of wisdom concerning metaphysical matters way too abstract to trouble most people.  Personal or impersonal, it’s all the same to the wild.  That oracle doesn’t differentiate between the one and the many.

Perhaps we shouldn’t either.  Perhaps that which affects one of us affects us all.  Perhaps the most profoundly philosophical matters are those that determine how we go about our daily lives.  The gas in the tank of my car, for example, is geopolitical.  Its emissions will have an impact, great or slight, upon every other creature on this planet.  That’s something to consider, anyhow, as I’m motoring to the nearest trailhead.  And perhaps that’s what Obama was driving at in his speech.  I don’t know, I’m not sure, so I’ll go for a long walk and think about it.  That is, after all, what we philosophical tramps do.

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Nov 06 2009

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Kicking up Leaves

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I went for a short walk in the woods the other day, kicking up leaves all the way.  The trail was covered with them.  Beneath a partly cloudy sky on a windless afternoon, it was easy to ignore the chill in the air.  Comfortable in a sweater, I pretended that it was Indian Summer even though the time for that has passed.  I kicked up leaves and, for a moment or two, was a little boy again.  The rustling sound of the dried leaves took me back.

Matika terrorized the squirrels that were busy collecting nuts in the eleventh hour.  I called her off them at first then let her enjoy her predator fantasy.  She mopes around the house all day as I work, waiting for something to happen, so I let her have her fun when she can.  The expression on her face when she’s leaping through the forest duff makes me wish I were a dog.  Like the happiest old people I know, dogs never completely abandon the wild exuberance of youth.

Near the top of the hill, I stopped to admire my surroundings.  The late autumn forest has a charm to it that is difficult to describe.  Dark green conifers and ferns, the brown withering vegetation scattered across the forest floor, and moss-covered rocks that defy seasonal change – the late autumn forest is all this and something more, something that words can’t touch.  I catch only a glimpse of it when the sun slips behind the clouds then shines brightly again.  Call it a moment of shadowy transcendence and leave it at that.

A few maple leaves cling stubbornly to branches and I can’t help but wonder why they don’t just let go.  Then again, why don’t I?  I, too, am still clinging to the warm season, or is it the daylight that I don’t want to lose?  Hard to say.  I’ve had this conversation with myself many times and can’t figure out whether it’s the cold or the darkness that I don’t like about winter.  To stubborn leaves and certain woods wanderers, there’s no real difference between the two.

The mums in the planters around my house have lost their bloom.  Even they have succumbed to the hard frost.  Even the best artificial lights can’t change the fact that the growing season has ended in these northern latitudes.  It’ll be another five months before green shoots emerge on the forest floor again.  Once I accept that fact, I’ll be able to don my woolies and embrace winter.  But no, I don’t think I’ll do that right away.  For the time being, I think I’ll just kick up leaves like a little boy and dream about warmer, sunnier days.

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Sep 18 2009

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The Passing of Days

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You aren’t supposed to talk about it.  You’re considered a pessimist if you do.  But when the leaves start to turn in early autumn, I can’t help but consider the fleeting nature of things, the passing of days, my own mortality.

Three weeks after leaving the trail, my right knee still complains.  My ankles are still shaky, as well.  My body just doesn’t spring back the way it used to.  In my 50s now, I suppose it’s unrealistic for me to expect that it would.  Still, these nagging joints are constant reminders of a fact I’d rather ignore: I’m not going to live forever.

Unlike me, my 4-year old German shepherd dog, Matika, is stronger now than she was when we hit the trail a month ago.  I toss a rubber ball, it bounces on the hard, dry ground, and she leaps into the air after it with unbridled joy.  I vicariously enjoy her blatant demonstrations of physical prowess.  But deep down inside, I know how temporary it all is.  I’ll have to be lucky to have her by my side on a hike ten years from now – real lucky.

Moving stone.  I helped my neighbor cart and shovel two tons of drainage stone this week, placing it around his mobile home in a foot-wide skirt.  It serves no purpose but he likes the look of it.  The job made me feel like Sisyphus but he was happy in the thick of the task, as if having something to do was reason enough to get up in the morning.  I suppose that, at 86 years of age, one takes one’s small pleasures wherever one finds them.

A literary friend of mine died recently.  I read about it in the newspaper.  We weren’t close, but we liked to get together on occasion to talk about nature, literature and politics over tea.   I’ve been meaning to call her.  Where did the time go?  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Yes, the leaves are turning now.  I find the transition between summer and fall both sad and beautiful.  I want to go for a long walk in the woods soon, kicking up the brilliant red, yellow and orange leaves with each step, and smelling it – smelling the passing of days.  Strangely enough, I’m not nearly as afraid of it as I was as a young man.  Back then springtime was the only season I could really appreciate.  But things change.

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