Tag Archive 'the elements'

Apr 05 2011

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Getting Wet

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Undaunted by the cold rain falling all day long, my dog Matika and I head for the woods.  Just a short hike in the middle of indoor busy-ness.  No biggie.  I’m excited all the same.  The last of the snow in my front yard melted off yesterday so it looks and feels like spring to me now.  I can see the ground again, anyhow.

This isn’t the kind of warm, sunny day that most people fantasize about in late winter but it suits me just fine.  I like the rawness of April here in the North Country – the muddy starkness of it, the roughness, the attitude.  And the dampness doesn’t bother me.  With pants tucked into boots, rain jacket over several layers and a waterproof hat, I’m ready for a seasonal baptism.  Bring it on!

The trail is clear for the most part.  There are still patches of snow scattered throughout the woods but my eyes gravitate to the earthy places where evergreen wood ferns are still pressed to the ground amid the leaf litter.  Along the banks of a feeder stream roiling with meltwater, the moss clinging to rocks is slowly coming back to life.  I revel in the steady roar of water rushing downhill.  It is winter’s way of saying goodbye.

The temptation to wander through trackless woods is too great.  I leave the trail.  With each step my boots sink into the saturated ground.  Raindrops filter through the trees, falling quietly into ephemeral pools fresh with snowmelt.  In the middle of all this wetness, I squat down for a moment to let it all soak in, literally.  Then I catch a whiff of thawed earth and something stirs deep within.  Matika is wet, happy and running wild through the forest.  So am I.

By the time Matika and I get back to the car, we are soaked.  No matter.  We’ll have the rest of the day to dry out and warm up.  The important thing is that we’ve made an elemental connection with the world, inaugurating the season.  And you can be certain that we’ll get out there and romp around again just as soon as we can.

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Dec 23 2010

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Snowy Woods

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A week ago I went for a walk in the woods a few hours after a winter storm had ended.  About four inches of the white stuff had fallen and some of it was still clinging to the trees.  A bright sun blazed through a mostly blue sky at midday.  I trudged along, kicking up snow with each step as my dog Matika leaped joyously through the virgin powder.  All the while the wild shouted a deafening silence.

A barred owl swept through the woods, hooting once it had landed somewhere out of sight.  Then a crow.  Then a chickadee.  Otherwise Matika and I had the woods all to ourselves.  She fell upon a set of squirrel tracks, but the squirrel was long gone.  I brushed the snow off a downed tree then sat down for a while to groove on my surroundings.  With not a wisp of wind blowing, the woods remained absolutely still.

As anyone who has read my blogs knows, I am not a big fan of winter.  But this was one of those outings that gave some credence to the myth perpetuated by ski resort marketing departments and 20th Century poets like Robert Frost.  You know what I’m talking about: a winter wonderland and all that.  Well, on rare occasion New England actually lives up to the advertisement, and even a summer-loving guy like me can’t help but enjoy the dazzling beauty of a brown and white landscape on a sunny day.  In the icy, gray hills of central Ohio where I grew up, there was no such thing.

Since then, another winter storm has come and gone dropping even more snow.  Today I spent a good deal of time shoveling it.  Tomorrow probably I’ll do the same, after a big sheet of it avalanches off my roof.  I could complain about my aching back, etc. but I think I’ll give it a rest.  Instead I’ll stand in my driveway after dusk, admiring the way that freshly fallen snow brightens the landscape even in darkness, and count being a Vermonter among my blessings.  In this part of the world, I don’t have to dream of a white Christmas.  It’s practically guaranteed.

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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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Jun 28 2010

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Wet Woods

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It’s always a surprise to step into the woods on a sunny day only to find the trail all wet and muddy.  Oh yeah, that’s right, the rain came down in buckets yesterday afternoon.  Besides, this month has been much wetter than usual.  And unlike pavement, fields and other open areas, the woods do not dry out quickly.  Sometimes it takes several days, a week or more.

The vegetation loves all this wetness, of course.  Moss, trees, ferns, wildflowers, bushes – everything around me was lush and happy as I hiked up Belvidere Mountain.  And mushrooms sprang up everywhere.  The wild forest loves to be wet.  Water brings it to life.  A red eft crawled underfoot as if to remind me that mud is good.  My dog, Matika, concurred.  A half hour into the hike, she was black from the chest down, and all smiles.

At first I dodged the muddiest places in the trail, hopped over the rivulets running every which way, and stepped onto flat rocks when I could, trying to stay clean.  Then I relaxed.  I let my boots and pants get wet and dirty.  I stopped cursing my fogged-up eyeglasses, and drank extra water to compensate for the sweat that wasn’t evaporating.  I watched the steam rolling off my shirt whenever I took a break, and accepted it as a normal condition.

Near the top of the mountain, a wood thrush called out repeatedly.  That’s always fortuitous.  Wet or dry, the wild woods are the place to be.  I placed my walking stick carefully as I negotiated slick roots and rocks.  Matika leaped ahead of me, surprisingly surefooted.  I reached the summit faster than expected, then marveled at the blue sky contradicting the damp forest.  Matika just smiled.  Yeah, any day in the woods is a good day as far as she’s concerned, no matter what the trail is like.

The descent was a little stressful.  I worried about slipping and falling, but managed to get down without incident.  I cleaned up swamp dog the best I could when we reached the brook, getting myself a little wetter in the process.  But that didn’t matter.  I knew I’d be clean and dry for the next two days, while working indoors.  “Enjoy the wetness while you can,” I mumbled to myself.  Yeah, being wet and wild is a good thing.

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Dec 18 2009

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Cold Snap

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An hour before dawn, I start my day.  I step outside just long enough to feel the chill.  Thermometers are hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit this morning.  It’s the first cold snap of the season.  I gaze deep into the clear night sky at the twinkling stars, identifying Ursa Major, Pegasus and other constellations for a minute or two, then go back in the house.  Today’s a good day to stay indoors appreciating what insulation, storm windows, and a good furnace can do.

Hard to believe that I was planting bulbs less than three weeks ago.  Now the ground is frozen solid.  Hard to believe I wore only a sweater during a long walk a month ago.  Now it would require thermals, gloves and a warm hat.  Is it mere coincidence that the darkest day of the year is almost upon us?  Of course not.  The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of winter as everyone knows.  This cold snap is only the first of many.

Days like this are what houses are for.  I like to think of myself as an outdoors kind of guy, but when the temps dip into the single digits, I lose all enthusiasm for being outside.  Every once in a while, I’ll venture into the woods when it’s this cold out just to keep my survival skills up to snuff.  But breaking ice from one’s beard loses its novelty once you’ve done it a few dozen times.

There’s no sense complaining about winter.  It comes around every year.  Besides, seasonal change is good.  I wouldn’t want to live in a place that’s warm and sunny all the time.  That would be so . . . boring.  Here in Vermont, I’m never bored.

Times like these, I wonder if Homo sapiens were meant to live this far north.  We emerged from the Earth’s equatorial regions after all.  But we’re a resourceful lot, aren’t we?  People live everywhere.  We even have outposts in the Antarctic.  Hell, we could live on the moon if we wanted to.  Zero is nothing.

I think I’ll go get a small tree today, drag it indoors, and set it up in my living room.  Yeah, something green to remind me of warmer times.  Then I’ll  put lights on it, mocking the darkness.  And maybe hang a few handmade ornaments from its branches, warming me in other ways.  Winter is just getting started, but that doesn’t mean we have to wallow in cold and darkness, gnashing our teeth.  There are plenty of ways to brace our selves for it.

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Apr 22 2009

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A Dry Wind

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I went into the mountains earlier this week to spend the night – just me and my dog, Matika.  I hiked a logging road uphill for a half hour, then followed a small stream a quarter mile to a favorite camp spot.  At 1500 feet, a few patches of snow still lingered in the woods.  Although some furled leaves pushed through the forest floor, no flowers bloomed at that elevation.  That’s okay.  I hadn’t come to botanize.

In early spring, I don’t expect much.  But I do expect to enjoy a long, meditative evening feeding sticks into a campfire.  With that in mind, I gathered wood shortly after setting up camp.  But it was still too early in the day to start a fire, so I went fishing for a while.

I broke out my fly rod and retraced my steps back to where I’d seen a brand new beaver pond.  Figured that would be a good place to start.  I flipped my line into the pond and every quiet run or deep pool I could find while working my way upstream, but no trout rose to my offerings.  That’s okay.  I hadn’t come to fish.  Not really.

By the time I returned to camp, I was ready to start a fire.  I crumpled a little birch bark and built a small tipi of sticks around it.  But a dry wind blew down the mountain, kicking up leaves all around me.  Hmm…  My wood pile, the leaves, the surrounding forest – everything was very dry.  As I put a match to the tipi, I told myself to be very careful.  I had a couple liters of water close at hand just in case.

The parched tinder burst into flames and every stick I added to it burned hot and fast.  I kept the fire small, but had to put out an ignited stray leaf more than once.  Stressful.  I burned just enough wood to boil up a pot of water for dinner, then immediately snuffed out the flames.  So much for campfire meditation.  I donned a sweater as I sat in the chilly woods at twilight, while brooding over this unexpected turn of events.

A gust of wind blew down the mountain with enough force to rattle my tarp.  I fretted about the impending storm as I tied down the tarp edges with more guylines.  Then Matika and I crawled under it.  The wind roared in the distance.  The temperature dropped as the forest grew dark.  I nodded off but awoke around midnight to the sound of sleet hitting the tarp.  Matika groaned.  Several times through course of the night, the wind tugged at the tarp, threatening to pull it from its moorings.  But we awoke at dawn still dry and under cover.  The forest calm at that time seemed rather peculiar.

With very little wind blowing and leaves subdued by dampness, I enjoyed a breakfast campfire well into the morning.  It wasn’t what I had planned, but when you’re in the wild, it’s best just to go with the flow.  During the past 24 hours, Mother Nature had shown me a face I’d never seen before.  I pondered that while sipping coffee and poking at quiet embers.  Twenty-seven years in Vermont woods, you’d think I would have seen it all by now.  But the wild, by definition, can always surprise.

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