Tag Archive 'the wild'

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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Nov 16 2017

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Validation

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Today I have put the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript that explores the relationship between God, man and nature. After going through it several times, I can now see the argument as a whole. It doesn’t feel like I’ve done the subject justice, though. I question whether it can stand up to serious scrutiny. No matter. I pull on my boots and go for a hike to clear my head…

My dog Matika and I wander about a nearby town forest between bouts of rain, just as the sun breaks through the clouds. The grey trees, stripped of their leaves, cast long shadows across the forest floor at midday. My eyes drink in the remnant green of ferns, moss and clubmoss as the few dry leaves still clinging to branches rattle overhead. The leaves on the ground crunch loudly as I walk.

A pileated woodpecker sweeps through the trees at eye level. Matika catches the scent of something interesting and wanders off trail. I call her back. While standing on the trail waiting for her, I listen intently to the forest silence, marveling at the interplay of order and chaos all around me. And that’s it – all the validation I need. Pushing away from my desk after so many hours of abstract thought this morning, I harbored doubts about my pantheistic worldview. But while tramping through these woods, it makes perfect sense.

“So there is one thought for the field, another for the house,” Thoreau once wrote, “I would have my thoughts, like wild apples, to be food for walkers, and will not warrant them to be palatable, if tasted in the house.” I can relate to that. My wild thoughts regarding God, man and nature don’t make a lot of sense indoors. But on the trail, where such thoughts were born, nothing else does.

Reason has its limits. At some point one needs a direct encounter with the wild to fully grasp it and thereby see things as they really are. Thoughts and words are abstract. Wild nature is not.

 

 

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Aug 26 2016

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Sunrise at Stratton Pond

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Sunrise Stratton PondA loon cried out as predawn light filtered into the tent. Hearing it, Hunter sat up for a moment. Mason heard it as well but he just rolled over. I went out to investigate, leaving the tent as quietly as possible. Our hike over Stratton Mountain the day before had been a tough one so I thought it best that my grandsons sleep a little longer.

The air was still. Insects dappled the glassy surface of Stratton Pond. No sound. The loon was long gone. Out of habit, I went to put on my heavy wool shirt but set it aside instead. No need. I was perfectly comfortable in a t-shirt.

The sun peeked over the ridge rising towards the mountain, promising another beautiful day. I heard the boys stirring inside the tent. When they came out I put them to work fetching water for tea, dropping the food bag slung in the trees, and making orange juice from the powder on hand. I fired up the camp stove.

We sat on foam pads drinking juice and tea, and eating bagels. A chipmunk chattered. A bird meep-meeped nearby. “That’s a nuthatch,” I told the boys, then I shut up so they could enjoy the deep woods silence that followed.

This was their first bona fide trip into the wild.  Oh sure, we’d been hiking and camping before, and had even backpacked to a “remote” camp site in a state park, but this was different. Several miles from the nearest road, they were encountering Nature in all its glory. The look in their morning eyes said it all. I reveled in their quiet astonishment.

An hour or so later, we broke camp. The boys were eager to hike again. They enjoyed the easy walk along the shoreline and the relatively flat Stratton Pond Trail that followed. It seemed to me like we were coming out too soon, but they got a good dose of it – a couple days in the woods they wouldn’t easily forget. I was quite pleased with myself for having arranged it.

 

 

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Aug 08 2016

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Brief Sojourn in the Catskills

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Catskill campI don’t like to mix business with pleasure. It’s hard to stay focused that way. But I made an exception last week when I headed south of Albany, New York to hunt for books for a couple days. Instead of car camping between book sales per usual, I parked my car at a trailhead Thursday afternoon, changed into hiking clothes, and slipped into the Catskill Mountains for the night.

I didn’t go far. A mile into the woods, I tagged a small stream and followed it back to a high, dry spot. A patch of wood ferns called my name. I pitched my tarp in the middle of them. Then I made a nice place to sit against a tree. Home sweet home.

Mine was a modest dinner: a cup of juice reconstituted from powder, an energy bar and a carrot. Lord knows I’d consumed plenty of calories on the road – mostly junk food. No campfire. I kept things simple. Didn’t want to smell like wood smoke while book hunting the next day. Yeah, business and pleasure don’t mix well. Not really.

A barred owl hooted while I was scribbling in my field journal. I hear them at home, now that Judy and I have moved to a wooded place in the country, but it’s different hearing them in the mountains. Alone in the wild, I felt closer to that creature.

I slept well that night despite having a rock for a pillow. The forest was cool and calming after a hot, crazy day on the road. Funny how I feel more comfortable in the woods than anywhere else. A lot people think it’s dangerous in the wild – bears, the prospect of getting lost, etc. – but I find the opposite to be true. I never feel as threatened alone in the wild as I do moving among my own kind. Few places are as dangerous as a busy highway.

Thirteen hours. That’s all the downtime I got. Enough to get me by. I broke camp in a hurry, eager to begin another so-called workday. I’d hiked out to the car and changed back into street clothes a half hour later. By mid-morning I was working another book sale, chasing the dollar. Yet a touch of the wild stayed with me. The people book hunting around me never knew the difference, of course.

 

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Jul 18 2014

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Beginning Backpackers

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boysbkpkgThis week I took two of my grandsons, Hunter and Mason, backpacking for the very first time. I’ve been meaning to do it for years. They live in southern New Hampshire, nearly 200 miles away, so I dreaded all the driving. But sometimes, in order to make something truly worthwhile happen, the driving has to be done.

I took my dog Matika with me, of course. Wouldn’t dream of going in the woods without her.

I picked up the boys and took them to Pilsbury State Park where we hiked to a remote campsite. I parked the car in the main campground, just shy of the gate. Beyond the gate we had the woods all to ourselves.

We had a sweet campsite on North Pond, which has occupied only by ducks, geese, and other wildlife. The boys found wood frogs in an ephemeral pool and red efts along the trail. At dusk a barred owl called out. They thought that was pretty cool.

We were busy for three days. We did a lot of hiking and fishing. I taught them how to build a fire, purify drinking water, and sling a food bag in the trees to keep it away from bears. I taught them simple things, like how to stay relatively dry despite the rain. They knew nothing about how to be in the woods. Was I ever that much of a tenderfoot? I must have been, when I was their age.

Their favorite part of the outing, they told me later, was our short hike up to Balanced Rock. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe they liked negotiating such a twisty, narrow path. Maybe they liked the effort it took. Or maybe the reason is a lot harder to articulate. The wild worked its magic on us during the walk – that much is certain. That’s something I have come to expect. But it was new to them.

While driving back to Vermont by myself, I marveled at how quickly the outing went. Such a whirlwind of activity! By the time I caught my breath it was over. Some powerful memories were created in young minds, no doubt.

Next month, Judy and I will take all six of our grandkids camping. I can only imagine how intense that’s going to be.

 

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Aug 18 2013

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The Wild for Everyone

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John Dillon ParkAs I go around talking about the deep woods and all it has to offer, I often think about those who can’t reach it. One has to be ambulatory and in relatively good shape to hike several miles into a wilderness area. But there are ways that even people who use a wheelchair can access the wild.

Everything at John Dillon Park is handicap accessible – the shelters, trails, picnic areas, fishing access and kayak dock. Located on land owned by International Paper, halfway between Tupper Lake and Long Lake in the Adirondacks, this is one of the nicest parks I’ve ever seen. And the folks at Paul Smith College do a great job managing it.

I stayed overnight here while promoting my book last week. I was amazed by the place. At the end of a two-mile dirt road, John Dillon Park rests on the shores of Grampus Lake. Here anyone can experience the wonder and beauty of the northern forest. With free firewood, storage bins for food and trash, composting toilets, and potable water, it is primitive camping at its best.

At first I was hesitant to stay here, not wanting to take a shelter away from someone who could put it to better use. But this small, private park, only seven years old, is underutilized. So check out the John Dillon Park website and spread the word.

 

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Aug 05 2013

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Late Summer on the Brook

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late summer brookA few days ago I went to a favorite brook to do a little fly fishing. Trout season had opened three and a half months earlier. I hadn’t been out yet. An outing was long overdue.

My dog Matika was with me, of course. When I grabbed her leash, she knew it was going to be a good day.

It mattered little whether or not I’d actually catch fish. Like Matika, I just wanted to sniff around. Yeah, the smell of the forest and the sound of cool, clear water tumbling through it is reason enough to be on a stream.

A mountain brook in late summer charms a guy like me in a way that is difficult to describe. My mind empties as I scramble from one promising riffle to another, stalking the wild trout, until suddenly I am face-to-face with unspeakable beauty: a flume, overhanging cliff, waterfall, or some deep, quiet pool that I must show my wife Judy someday. Then a hungry mouth splashes towards my fly, yanking me out of my reverie.

I’m not a very good fisherman. The rising trout usually catches me by surprise. I am easily distracted by the call of a thrush in the distance, the rustle of a forest creature in the nearby understory, or a wildflower blooming along the rocky bank where only moss should grow.

Two small trout landed in my lap despite my best efforts, not because of them. Then I meandered up the brook a while longer, rod in hand but no longer fishing, in search of god-only-knows-what. Deep within lies some vague desire to walk the brook for no reason at all. Sometimes I give into it.

I quit the stream around midday, hiking through the forest to the nearest road then daydreaming back towards the car. No doubt other motorists were cursing me as I slowly made my way home. Under the influence of the wild, I shouldn’t have been on the road.

 

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Jan 17 2013

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Call of the Wood Thrush

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In the summer of 1980, on the second day of a solo trek into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, I stopped for lunch. A wood thrush landed in nearby bushes and began singing its flute-like song. Intoxicated by that melody, I left the trail shortly thereafter and wandered for hours through alpine meadows before making camp for the night. And there I stayed for two days, grooving on wild nature in what felt like the lap of God.

That same year I self-published my first chapbook. Five years later I started up Wood Thrush Books, naming it after the bird that has called out during so many of my deep woods excursions. As I see things, the wood thrush symbolizes life and hope and joy and beauty. Its song is mystical. It is nothing less than the call of the wild.

As any one who has attempted it knows, running a small press is a kind of holy madness. It’s a lot of work, plenty of frustration, very little recognition, and even less money. To call it a business is to miss the mark. To call it a hobby is to insult the publisher. Those who have done it as long as I have know it’s more than an occupation or a pastime – much more. It’s a vocation.

Last year was a dangerous year for WTB. I came close to calling it quits. Then I realized that I could no more give up publishing than I could writing or woods wandering. Together these three activities make me what I am, for better or worse.

Thirty-three years later, I still hear that divine, flute-like song. I hear it even when I am stuck in the developed lowlands, doing mundane work, trying to navigate the matrix that we call the modern world. I just cleaned out my office – WTB world headquarters – and am ready to take on a whole new set of challenges. Even now, in my late fifties, I still heed the call.

 

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Sep 21 2012

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Walking the Coast

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To experience the Maine Coast you have to get out of your car. That’s why Judy and I went to Wells Beach right after dinner. There we walked the shoreline, inhaling the fecund ocean air. Waves licked the beach. A band of pink light accented the horizon before us as the sun set somewhere else.

The next day we visited Wells Reserve. Starting at Laudholm Farm, we ambled along a wide path cutting through a field as blue jays and a host of other songbirds serenaded us. Then we followed a boardwalk winding through birches, oaks, maples and white pines until we reached an estuary and the lazy, winding river feeding it. We sat a long while at the edge of two different worlds, right where the forest meets the sea.

Towards evening we walked the Marginal Way in Ogunquit – a mile long, paved footpath along the rocky coast, which is magnificent if you can ignore the crowd of tourists doing the same. I had a hard time with that but Judy remained focused on the waves crashing against rocks just below us. She loves both the sight and the sound of it.

The following day a storm brewed up. We stayed inland for the most part, but after dark Judy wanted to go back down to Wells Beach. The wind blew with enough force to intimidate me as I imagined ships wrecking on the rocks just off shore. Judy was exhilarated by it, drinking in the raw oceanic power as if it was some kind of elixir. I prefer forest wildness. Judy likes it maritime.

We gave ourselves the grand tour the last day, driving up the coast from Wells to Biddeford Pool, stopping by Cape Porpoise for fresh seafood, then walking Goose Rocks Beach barefoot at high tide. We shared the beach with a few locals and hungry shorebirds, leaving footprints in the sand that quickly washed away.

We finished our tour at East Point Sanctuary, where the waves slammed against the rocky shore in great foamy explosions. Funny how long one can sit and watch them, how mesmerizing they can be. Then we left the sanctuary feeling strangely calm, as if all our routine worries had been worn down by churning water. The Maine coast is good for that. Not much stands firm against the power of the sea.

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