Tag Archive 'wildness'

Sep 18 2021

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Wildness and Being Human

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What makes us human? Most people living in a civilization of one sort or another assume that being civilized has something to do with it. But those still living beyond the reach of civilization, as hunter/gatherers, are no less human than we are. Being human predates all the trappings modern life. It predates towns, agriculture and all the related social structures. Human beings are, first and foremost, a part of natural world.

I start from this position while delving into what it means to be human in my latest book, Wildness and Being Human. I recount my own relationship to the natural world while tracing the story of humanity from the earliest hominid beginnings to the emergence of global civilization in the Digital Age.

There is a wildness within us all, I think, that civilization has not yet completely destroyed, even though the disconnect between us and the natural world is becoming more pronounced. And this wildness is essential to our humanity.

Along with my experiences in wild places and my thoughts regarding human nature, I touch upon the contributions to this subject made by scores of scientists, social scientists, philosophers and naturalists. One thing is for sure: there are as many different ways to define humanity as there are worldviews. Yet there are certain facts about our nature that we ignore at our peril.

You can acquire a copy of this book by going to the Wood Thrush Books website. It is also available at Amazon.com. While I’m certainly no authority on the subject, I trust that this book will shed new light on the question at hand.

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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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Apr 30 2021

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Going a Little Wild

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April is a bit early to go backpacking in the Adirondacks. I expected to see snow. So imagine my relief when I parked my car at the trailhead to the Hudson Gorge Wilderness, looked around, and saw no white stuff. With temps in the 50s and a partly cloudy sky overhead, it was a good way to start the outing.

I traveled fast and light along the OK Slip Falls Trail with only a 30-pound pack on my back and 20 pounds less flab on my body. My trekking poles clicked against the roots and rocks along the trail, flushing a ruffed grouse. Not much in the way of wildflowers in bloom, and evergreen wood ferns were still pressed flat against the ground. Evidently, the snow cover had just recently melted away.

Three miles back, I caught a glimpse of the impressive OK Slip Falls through the trees – one of the highest falls in the Adirondacks, tucked away in the woods. After that I hiked another mile to the Hudson Gorge, where the Hudson River cuts through the mountains. Backtracking past the falls, I made camp along a feeder stream to OK Slip Brook. There I fired up my stove and fixed dinner. No campfire this time out. The forest was too dry. Too dry, that is, until a steady rain commenced, which lasted all night long.

Arising the next morning, I felt the strange calm that usually follows a night spent alone in deep woods. Mist gathered in the trees as I fixed breakfast. Stream rushing along, otherwise silence. My joints ached as I arose from my seat along the brook, reminding me of the passage of time – decades doing this. I looked around, marveling at the growth and decay all around me, wondering as I have so many times before how it all came to be. Nature is inscrutable.

I took my sweet time hiking out, stopping frequently to scan wetlands for wildlife, admire hundred-year old hemlocks, and listen to chickadees, nuthatches and other songbirds. I tramped the muddy trail – mostly dry the day before – and left boot prints on the banks of ephemeral streams. Not much else to report. I went a little wild for a short while, and that’s all that mattered.

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Jan 28 2020

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What Is Human?

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After nearly a year away from it, I am back to work on my book concerning wildness and being human. That’s a good thing, but I must say that I’m intimidated by the sheer magnitude of the subject. What do we really know about ourselves? What do we know with absolute certainty about our own humanity?

To be more specific, where do we stand in relation to nature? No doubt we live in the natural world and have always been a part of it. That much is obvious to anyone who takes paleontology and archaeology the least bit seriously. But when did we become fully human and how did that transformation take place? More importantly, what does it mean to be fully human? The more one delves into this subject, the more mind-boggling it becomes.

I imagine that all this seems rather academic to most people. What relevance could such questions have in the Digital Age? The stone tools and cave art of our distant ancestors seem rather distant indeed. Yet therein lies the key to who/what we are, and what we must do in these dangerous times to preserve our humanity.

I am convinced that the dynamic relationship between wild nature and human nature did not go away when we started building towns and engaging in agriculture on a grand scale. Contrary to what is generally assumed, civilization does not define us. I am also convinced that wildness is an essential part of our humanity. But these things I know on a visceral level, after spending considerable time alone in wild places. Making a convincing case, a rational argument to this effect, is another matter altogether.

I am working on this but it isn’t any easier than trying to understand the meaning of those 30,000-year-old drawings in the Chauvet cave or elsewhere. Were the people who drew them, long before civilization, as human as we are? I believe so, but proving that is turning out to be a much greater challenge than I thought it would be.

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Apr 18 2019

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A Familiar Place

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At long last the snow is melting in the mountains, exposing bare ground. I drove to the base of a favorite valley, parked my car then hiked up the narrow dirt road still closed for the season. About a mile back, I left the road, bushwhacking down to the brook. It felt good to have soft earth underfoot, and to see the heavily silted stream shooting downhill, full of snowmelt.

I tramped through the forest with ease despite downed trees and a few remnant patches of snow, following the brook to places where I’d camped in the past. Then came the two mudslides. Usually I would cross the brook, thus avoiding the mudslides, but the brook had too much water in it. So instead I scrambled on all fours across one slide then the other, until I was deep in the valley. That’s when I stumbled upon a familiar place – a place I’d forgotten about, a place where I caught a sizable brook trout a long time ago.

I settled into an inviting niche along the edge of the pool, just below a huge slab of moss-covered rock. The sun shined brightly through the clear blue sky. The brook roared as it raced past. With temps in the 50s the gentle wind caressing me felt downright balmy. I drank some water, ate a granola bar, and jotted a few lines in my field journal while soaking in the beauty of the forest in early spring.

There are places, wild places, so familiar to me that they feel like home. Most of these places are located in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Some are in the Adirondacks. Upon reaching them, I suddenly get the feeling that everything is right with the world. And whatever was troubling me in the developed places doesn’t matter so much. Go figure.

While tramping out of the woods, I reveled in the great wild silence, happy enough just breathing in the clear mountain air. Once again I felt comfortable in my skin. A good hike is like that. A good hike is nothing more than getting back in touch with one’s animal self. That is enough.

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Mar 18 2019

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Matika Passes Away

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A couple days ago, Judy and I said goodbye to our long-haired German shepherd, Matika, as we put her down. The paralysis in her hind legs, due to a disease called degenerative myelopathy, started causing all kinds of problems. We decided against taking it to the bitter end, which would only make her suffer.

Matika had accompanied me on nearly all of my excursions into the woods during the past 12 years. I nicknamed her Wilderness Dog back in 2009 during our arduous trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness in northern Maine. She impressed me with her endurance on that hike.

Matika loved the woods almost as much as I do. She would start dancing about excitedly whenever I pulled out my hiking boots. Towards the end I occasionally snuck out for a rigorous hike alone, but it wasn’t easy leaving her behind.

She got into trouble a few times – with raccoons, skunks, porcupines, etc. – and on many occasions I had to sleep under my tarp with her soaking wet and caked with mud. Swamp dog. But she was a great hiking companion overall. It’ll be a big adjustment hiking without her.

Truth is, I won’t be hiking without Matika for a long while. Her ghost will accompany me, I’m sure. It’s like that once you’ve bonded in the wild with another creature. Matika wasn’t my pet, she was my canine companion. A companion in wildness. A free spirit. A happy dog. Yeah, she’ll be with me in spirit for many more hikes to come.

 

 

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Aug 30 2018

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Wild, Not Wild

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A flock of turkeys wandered into my back yard yesterday morning. About a dozen of them fed along the edge between the mowed grass and where I have let my yard go wild. My wife Judy also saw the birds, as did our dog Matika who barked at them once. They weren’t much impressed by that.

Later on, as Matika was in the other room sleeping, I spotted a turkey trotting right along the edge of the patio, about 15 feet from the door. Several others followed. Clearly these turkeys have no concept of the difference between a wild landscape and a domesticated one. Either that or they simply don’t care.

A barred owl swooped across the yard the other day, landing on top of my car. When Judy and I poked our heads out the door to get a good look at it, the owl flew to the next door neighbor’s roof. We have heard owls nearly every night since then. I usually associate owls with the wild, but two miles from town my home hardly qualifies as a wild place even though it does back up against a good patch of woods. Evidently, owls aren’t as skittish around people as I thought they were. Either that or they find the hunting around here too good to pass up.

Deer passing through, spiders making webs in the siding of my house, hummingbirds at the planters, toads in the grass, and the occasional garter snake slithering into the garage – my turf is overrun with creatures that simply do not acknowledge the boundary between what is cultivated and what is wild. The other night I saw a bat flying in circles overhead, no doubt feasting on mosquitoes. Better than citronella candles to be sure.

Along the edge between the grass and the wild part of my back yard, I have planted a few domestic bushes and flowers that also happen to grow naturally in the wild. I have pulled out grass, dandelions and other undesirables there, as well, making room for the ferns and other wild plants that I prefer. “Unnatural selection,” I call it. Judy calls it “cultivating the wildness,” in a somewhat humorous reference to a book of mine. Yeah, I’ve muddled matters in my back yard to say the least.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering wildness and being human, trying to get a bead on exactly what it is that separates us from the rest of nature. It’s not an easy task. And the creatures wandering into my back yard don’t make the matter any easier. Perhaps the difference between what is wild and what is not wild is not nearly as distinct as we like to think it is. Perhaps it is just a matter of degree.

 

 

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Jul 19 2018

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New Adirondack Book in Print

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Five years after the release of The Allure of Deep Woods, I now have a second Adirondack book in print: The Great Wild Silence.  It consists of a dozen short narratives and essays about backpacking in the Adirondacks, along with one rather long narrative about my 5-day sojourn in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness last year.

The Great Wild Silence is the juxtaposition of movement and staying put, of hiking and abstract thought. The main narrative in this collection, “Deep Forest Ruminations,” is a series of meditations on nature and our place in it, braided with observations and routine activities while camped alone at a backcountry lake – just me and my dog Matika, I should say. That’s the second half of the book. The first half sets the stage, recounting various excursions in the Adirondacks over the past 25 years, both alone and with others. Some of the latter pieces first appeared in the ADK publication Adirondac and other periodicals but haven’t been seen since. I’ve extracted others from previous collections of mine. It’s a curious mix to be sure.

If you’re as enamored with the Adirondacks as I am, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can order it at my website: woodthrushbooks.com, or you can find it at Amazon.com. Be forewarned, though: there’s a lot of philosophical speculation in this book. It isn’t just about walking in the woods.

 

 

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Jun 18 2018

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What Makes Us Human?

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For the past year and a half, I have been pondering human nature and its relationship to wildness. I have read dozens of books on the subject, and have approached the matter from various angles: philosophical, anthropological, biological, historical and naturalistic. The more I look into the matter, though, the more befuddled I become, often getting bogged down in the morass of morality where the vast majority of people plant their flags then forget about the matter. It has been a daunting undertaking to say the least.

Wildness, I am certain, is the key to understanding who/what we are, for we are creatures as natural as any other. But there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is the rise of civilization a little over 5,000 years ago. What happened to us then?

To some people being civilized is what makes us fully human. That has been a convenient excuse, anyhow, for the subjugation of more primitive peoples through the millennia – those with less sophisticated means of conducting war that is to say. But I don’t abide by that prejudice. In fact, I suspect that more primitive peoples, living closer to the earth, are much more in touch with their humanity than those of us living indoor, urban lives, staring at our electronic devices, largely removed from nature.

It is now widely accepted in scientific circles that anatomically modern humans have been around over 100,000 years. That is, people who look pretty much like humans living today. About 50,000 years ago, our species underwent a great cultural transformation that resulted in behaviorally modern humans. That is, people who think, behave and interact with each other much the same way we do. Up until 10,000 years ago, we were all hunter/gatherers with an intimate understanding of the flora and fauna around us. In that regard, our being agriculturalists and urbanites – the two pillars of civilization – is a relatively new development with little bearing upon our basic humanity, if any at all.

I don’t believe for a second that pre-civilized life was some kind of Eden where human beings lived in peace with each other, always prosperous, healthy and happy, and in complete harmony with nature. The human bone and skull fragments our archeologists have dug up pretty much rule out all that. But there is something about those living closer to the earth that undercuts the arrogant and grossly misleading presumptions that we highly civilized folk have about ourselves and the world.

Soon I will try to write about this subject, if I can muster the humility, honesty and courage to do so. But I don’t think the resulting book will be very popular, even by the modest standards of my somewhat dubious literary career. Generally speaking, those of us firmly ensconced in today’s complex, industrialized and digital world do not respect our distant ancestors, or the remnant bands of hunter/gatherers who still live as they did. Our collective arrogance in that regard is profound. We civilized folk think we have it all going on.

 

 

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May 04 2018

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A Necessary Walk

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My dark rant came way too early this morning. Judy fled the room before breakfast was over to escape it. And that’s when I knew how badly I needed a walk in the woods. So I squeezed one in, right between a trip to the post office and a round of book promotion. Some things just can’t wait.

All winter long I have been pondering the human condition, trying to figure out what exactly it means to be human, how wildness and civilization factor into that, and how we’ve become the highly cognizant yet deeply flawed creatures that we are today. This isn’t a matter for the faint of heart, and I’ve found myself bogged down in the morass of morality more than once. Yeah, everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to human nature, how good and/or bad we are, but the irrefutable facts are few and far between. So my quest has put me in a surly mood, even as spring unfolds.

To walk in the woods and blow the stink off my thoughts I didn’t have go far. A quick jaunt up Aldis Hill did the trick. I knew there would be early spring wildflowers in bloom, and that would improve my outlook on things if anything could. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Bloodroot appeared amid the boulders, purple trilliums and trout lilies lined the muddy trail, and Dutchman’s breeches strutted its stuff near the top of the hill. I stopped to admire the wildflowers almost as much as my dog Matika stopped to sniff around. It’s like that sometimes. My primary task as Homo sapiens, it seems, is to simply admire God’s handiwork. That’s when I feel the most like myself and at peace with the world, anyhow.

I haven’t figured it out yet. My query into human nature is unfinished business, to say the least. But I’m already convinced that our relation to nature is critical to understanding who/what we are. So these walks of mine are necessary in more ways than one. We go into the wild not so much to escape the trappings of civilized society as to find ourselves, to make a primal connection and remember, on some level of awareness, where we came from… and thereby figure out where we are going.

When I get a good bead on human nature, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on wandering and wondering and scribbling down these little absurdities that I call philosophy. If nothing else, it keeps me from being one of those self-righteous fools who engage in unrestrained violence. Yeah, a walk in the woods is absolutely necessary.

 

 

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