Tag Archive 'renewal'

Apr 18 2013

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Vernal Pools

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frogsYesterday I went into the woods searching for the sights and sounds of spring. I wasn’t disappointed. Despite naked trees and the conspicuous absence of green, woodpeckers telegraphed their desires, ruffed grouse drummed, and a chorus of spring peepers announced the beginning of the season.

I went searching for vernal pools and found them in likely places – slight depressions in the forest floor where snowmelt collects this time of year, where small colonies of frogs magically appear to croak away any remnant of winter.

I knelt down next to a pool oblivious to the cool dampness still in the earth, and watched the frogs swim about. The water’s surface rippled every time the frogs sprang forth. They croaked alarm to each other regarding my presence then went about their amphibious business unperturbed. I wasn’t a threat as long as I didn’t move.

A bit later, on a south-facing slope soaking up the sun, I found a patch of wild leeks flaunting their verdure. I tore off the tip of one and chewed it. The pungent flavor was both familiar and heartwarming. Then I spotted them: small patches of round-lobed hepatica in bloom among the leeks. Their delicate petals burst forth atop fuzzy stems curling away from the earth. The first wildflower of the year was emerging so early I could hardly believe it.

I left the woods feeling a little giddy. I get that way every time the wild takes me by surprise. I went searching for spring and found more than I could have hoped for. After all these years, you’d think I would have it figured out by now. But there’s something about the natural world that’s eternally new, especially on days like these.


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Feb 21 2013

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snowy treesIt’s amazing how a good walk alone in the woods can clean out the corners of one’s mind, cluttered as they might be with the petty frustrations of daily life. I hadn’t expected as much. I knew only that I had to jump off the merry-go-round for a while.

After driving an hour into the mountains, I left my car at the bottom of an unimproved road then followed a set of truck tracks back to a favorite jump off point. I stepped into the trackless snow beyond a closed gate, following an overgrown logging trail down to the iced-over brook.

A lone chickadee welcomed me. My dog Matika ran ahead, sniffing out wild animal sign. I tamped down four inches of heavy wet snow with each step I took, glad to have left my snowshoes behind. They weren’t made for these conditions.

The brook gurgled beneath the ice. That and the sound of trees creaking in an occasional gust of wind was all that broke the silence. Snow clung to tree branches, whitening the world all around me. I prefer being immersed in a green forest, but a white one will do in a pinch. The stark beauty of it worked its magic on my frayed nerves.

I stopped after bushwhacking for a mile and a half and turned my foam pad into a makeshift seat. Then I sat down. A strong gust of wind shook snow from the trees, chilling me to the bone. That cut my lunch break short. No matter. I sat there long enough to reboot.

The afternoon walk that followed was effortless – one slow step at a time. Not so much hiking as simply meandering through the woods, marveling at the silence and stillness of nature in winter.

Eventually I tagged the unimproved road and hiked out. But I was not the same man who had entered the woods a few hours earlier. I had reverted to my old, wild self and was happy for it. Too bad this frame of mind can’t be bottled.


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Apr 14 2012

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Ohio Verdure

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Once a year I go back to Ohio to visit family. I like to make the trip in early April so that I can get a jump on spring. The trees and bushes leaf out a couple weeks earlier in Southern Ohio than they do in Northern Vermont so I get to experience this lovely transition twice.

While everyone else was still in bed, my nephew James and I headed for a patch of wild forest just outside Yellow Springs. That was the plan, anyhow. In actuality, the parking lot was full by the time we got there and people were all over the trails hugging the Little Miami River. It took some doing to find an out-of-the-way spot where few people go.

When James and I stumbled upon a pair of large, flat rocks overlooking the lush river valley, we stopped for a while. I told James that the spot looked like a good place to party. He just smiled.

Our eyes soaked in the greenery all around us while we sat and talked. No one else was around. We talked about work, school, family, relationships, and everything else that popped into our heads. I avoided sentences with the word “should” in them, figuring that a young man in college gets enough of that. We ended up talking generally about the choices people make in life and the consequences of those choices. That seemed a fitting subject on a warm, spring day with the sun shining overhead.

New beginnings. Every spring season is chock full of possibility. The first wildflowers push up, the birds sing loudly, and forest creatures scurry about. More importantly, fresh verdure brightens the landscape, making it easier to smile.

It was time for James and I to link up with the rest of the family so we quit the rocks. We finished our short hike amid a throng of people. James talked about car camping this summer so I urged him to drive out my way. He probably won’t make the trip. That’s okay. We’ll have Ohio verdure to enjoy together next year regardless.


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May 20 2011

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Getting into the Green

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The appearance of fresh verdure is so dramatic that I have to touch the bright young leaves to convince myself that they are real.  Walking through a forest that has suddenly leafed out is absolutely delightful, and the perfumed smell of pollen and raw earth pushes me over the edge.  Trilliums, blue and yellow violets, and the white starbursts of baneberry accent the bright green foliage, putting a permanent smile on my face.  An unseen hermit thrush sings the perfect song for a day like this – nothing but flute-like joy.  How can anyone be anything but happy on a day like this?

I sweat heavily while walking slowly along the damp trail.  The humidity is high, thanks to incredibly persistent rains during the past few weeks, and mosquitoes gather around me the moment I stop to catch my breath.  I don’t care.  I am grooving on a wild world suddenly springing to life.  I am getting into the green.

My dog Matika, also exuberant, races up and down the trail, splashing through puddles and splattering me with mud so frequently that it seems intentional.  But all I can to is egg her on with: “You go girll!”  Sometimes being muddy is a good thing.

A gray squirrel peeks around a tree trunk at me and my canine companion.  A woodpecker cackles in the distance, as if it too is intoxicated by the green.  False solomon’s seal, only days away from blooming, underscores the promise of the season.  No doubt about it, the best is yet to come.

You’d think that, after all these years, springtime would hold no surprise for me, that I would have lost all enthusiasm after so many decades of it.  But a part of me is as young as the countless insects and other forest creatures stirring to life at my feet.  I can’t help myself.  I am young at heart despite wrinkles and gray hair.  And this world is my playground – a true marvel in the universe, a planet fecund.  Thank god for it.



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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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Apr 20 2010

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Only Spring

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Yesterday I went back to that little pond next to the Rail Trail, looking for spring peepers.  With temps in the forties, a mostly cloudy sky overhead and a slight breeze, the weather was more in keeping with early spring.  In other words, it felt more like a peeper kind of day than it did the last time I had walked the trail.  So I was in the mood to listen to those harbingers of the season.

The little pond is a wetland, really.  It only fills with water in the springtime or after a heavy rain.  It’s more than a vernal pool, though, which is also a good place to look for breeding frogs this time of year.  I reached the wetland after walking no more than twenty minutes.  Man on a mission, I passed up several patches of wildflowers along the way.  I longed to hear spring’s chorus above all else.

Upon reaching the wetland, I heard a solitary frog singing loudly and persistently.  I crouched down in the brush near water’s edge, hoping to hear more.  My dog Matika wandered off to sniff.  Although I had come out to stretch my legs, I remained still a long while, giving the wary frogs a chance to get used to me.  Sure enough, a second peeper started up, then a couple more joined in, then a few more until a full chorus rang out.  I just crouched there smiling.

The singing didn’t last.  It never does in the middle of the day.  But I heard enough peeping to fill with vernal joy – the kind of elemental happiness that one can only feel after a hard winter.  No, it wasn’t a particularly long, cold or snowy winter, but it was a hard one all the same.  It usually is for people like me, who need constant exposure to nature’s endless regeneration in order to keep faith with the world.

Afterward I didn’t so much hike as merely drift down the trail.  I watched the sun play peekaboo from the clouds, and listened to robins chirping from the tops of poplars already starting to leaf out.  I admired the vibrant Kelly green of nearby pastures, and smelled the fresh manure spread across them.  I didn’t mind it.  Here in Vermont, manure is as much a part of spring as the peepers.  And somehow it all fits together nicely, as if part of some grand design.  But it’s only spring, I kept telling myself.  Don’t make any more of the season than it is.  Only spring.

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Apr 13 2010

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The First Flowers

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I went for a hike yesterday hoping to find some spring peepers.  After all, it’s that time of year.  I know of a few small ponds right next to the Rail Trail where they thrive.  So made a beeline for them, encouraged by the appearance of a couple turtles in wetlands along the way.  But the ponds were quiet when I reached them.  None of those joyous little frogs were around.

Much to my surprise, I found purple trillium in bloom instead.  At first I thought I was imagining things.  The broad leaves of that wildflower do unfurl in mid-April, but the flowers usually remain tight-fisted until May.  Not this year.  With the season a good two weeks ahead of schedule, the trillium flowers have opened up.  Just nature’s way of saying there is no hard and fast schedule, I suppose.  Not that I’m complaining.  Spring can never come too early for me.

A bit later, I found trout lily in full bloom, along with a little patch of spring beauty.  I dropped down on my knees and stuck my nose in those tiny, candy-striped flowers.  One good whiff of spring beauty and everything changes.  Suddenly nature has unfolded in all its wonder and wild beauty, and I am a complete dope for it.  One good whiff of that intoxicating scent and an entire winter’s worth of existential angst pops like a balloon.

What was I thinking about?  I forgot.  But through the woods a flash of bright green caught my eye so I headed that direction.  On a south-facing slope, of course, more wildflowers bloomed in a sprawling patch of leeks.  I dropped to my knees for a second whiff of spring beauty but the pungent odor of wild onions overwhelmed the sweeter smell.  Amid the leeks, Dutchman’s breeches arose, along with round-lobed hepatica.  No doubt about it, spring has come early this year.

I suppose I should be concerned.  There have been enough late autumns and early springs in recent years to make even the most hardened skeptic consider climate change.  But right now, I can’t go there.  Right now, all I see are wildflowers in bloom and the beginning of another growing season.  Right now I see the forest turning green again, slowly coming back to life after a long sleep, and all I can do is rejoice like peepers reveling in the season.

Maybe next time out I’ll hear those little frogs.  But for now, the first flowers are more than enough.

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Apr 06 2010

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Hallelujah Hike

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Record breaking warmth descended upon New England last weekend, giving everyone cause to celebrate.  It came just in time for Easter.  No doubt more than one churchgoer said a little prayer of thanks for it.  More hedonistic folk headed for the beach to bask half naked in the sun.  At the very beginning of the heat wave, I celebrated the only way I know how.  I grabbed my rucksack and headed for the hills immediately following a round of writing.

By the time I had pulled my car into a small turnout next to Preston Brook, it was noon.  The air temperature had soared into the 60s by then, making short work of a remnant patch of snow nearby.  I wasn’t sorry to see it go.

I hiked up the dirt road following the brook until I heard the roar of water from the gorge.  I stepped into the woods and went over for a quick look.  Sure enough, the brook was completely free of ice and cascading down through the rocks with all the force that early spring runoff could muster.  A quiet little stream in mid-summer, Preston Brook was a raging torrent that afternoon.  And I reveled in it.

I broke a sweat as I bushwhacked farther up the hollow, following the stream back to a favorite camping spot and beyond.  Matika cavorted about just as happy as any dog can be, lost in the many sights, sounds and smells of the wild.  The sun blazed through naked trees, illuminating club moss, polypody and evergreen woodferns springing back to life from a forest floor covered with bleached leaves and other detritus.  Rivulets of water ran everywhere.  My boots sank several inches into the spongy earth but I didn’t mind it one bit.

After hiking a while, I came upon a fresh rectangular cut in a dead tree – the handiwork of a pileated woodpecker.  Matika sniffed the pile of wood chips at the base of the tree as I looked around for a shady spot to break for lunch.  I found one beneath an old hemlock.  There I listened to the brook while scribbling in my journal and munching away.  A pair of deer stumbled upon us and Matika immediately gave chase.  But she turned right around the moment I called for her to return.  Good dog!

The brook sang and my heart sang with it – a wordless “Hallelujah!” at the dawn of a brand new growing season.  During the course of the hike I found coltsfoot in bloom along the dirt road.  Its small, yellow, daisy-like flower was a sure sign that I wasn’t dreaming.  I reached down to touch it and was amazed, as always, by the power of regeneration that is so common in this world yet no less miraculous.  And the squirrel that Matika and I passed on the way out seemed as happy as we were just to be alive.  Yet another winter has come and gone.  And all three of us have survived it.

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