Monthly Archives: September 2012

Bearly Awake (with compliments to J.R.R. Tolkien)

Oh the adventures a hobbit can have if he will but leave the Shire. Wasn’t that the real message Tolkein had in mind for us? That there are lives to be lived, loves to be loved, and battles to be fought? And who knows how little things add up to bigger things and eventually to the Biggest Thing?

This is a short story about a little adventure in the midst of my part of the Grand Adventure. Where the story begins is lost in the fog of time. I know not all the details that go into what makes me “me”. I know only that I long to be Outside and have a bit of free time between work right now so I decided to take a couple of days early in the week to do some adventuring. I was geared up and after taking care of a few details of life headed for the mountains late Monday morning. I had a particular glen above a particular stream in mind for a campsite.

I apparently have an inner Hobbit, because he kept worrying about whether I had everything I needed and reminding me to get the headlamp out of the glove box. I told him to stop worrying and after arriving at the trail head I checked everything one last time, shouldered the pack, and headed up the first ridge. At the top of said ridge the Hobbit spoke again–“I think you forgot the head lamp.” Ah the headlamp! I briefly mulled going back for it, but the day was bright, the trail beckoned, and Daniel Boone never had a head lamp.

“You’re not Daniel Boone!” huffed the Hobbit.

The walking was fine early in the afternoon and I decided to go a bit further, cross another ridge, and camp on a slightly larger stream than I had originally intended. Plans are, after all, made to be broken. This put me a tad closer to the highest point in the state which I decided needed a visit the following day. It also put me on an excellent trout stream and I and the Hobbit were in agreement that a few trout in the pan would be a good supper (if you want a Hobbit’s agreement, talk about food).

Reaching the area I had in mind about 3PM, I set up camp, rigged my fly rod, and walked downstream a bit to hit a series of runs and pools I knew would have some fish. My first taker was a native brook trout, a male so resplendent with the colors of autumn I just couldn’t kill him. Again the Hobbit agreed, as Hobbits do have a certain sense of art and beauty. So, after a second or two of admiration back in the water he went.

I fished on, delightedly watching as trout rose to the fly, grumbling when I missed the hook set, gleefully admiring the color on another brookie and a rainbow truly worthy of name that I did not miss. The rainbow had a deep scarlet slash along both flanks and cheeks so rosy he seemed to me embarrassed at having fallen for such an obvious trap as the Royal Wulff hanging from his lip. Both these fish were released for the same reason the first one was.  The Hobbit was beginning to wonder if we would ever catch one or two that would qualify for the pan because ugly trout are hard to come by. To his relief we ended up with three rather plain rainbows that were perfectly pan-sized. Two for me and one for him.

I will not even bother trying to describe the celestial experience of eating trout fresh from the stream, lightly sprinkled in Cajun seasoning, and sauteed in butter. Even the Hobbit was satisfied. Then it was time for a friendly little fire to crackle and pop at the gathering darkness. Amazing it is how a little flame can defy the turning of the planet. After a few hours of quiet reverie, I turned in. The labor of the day had both refreshed and wearied, and a longer day was coming. There were many miles yet to cover. So I burrowed into the warmth of my sleeping bag and fell deeply and soundly into shadow. With no complaining to be done, the Hobbit had retired right after supper. All was right in our world.

POP! From deep in my slumber, I heard the sound. A limb breaking and falling perhaps? Who really cares anyway? The bag is warm but the night is cool to the point of cold. Limbs break in the woods all the time. POP! Closer now! Something is coming. The Hobbit is wide awake.

“Bear!” he whispers excitedly.

“Just a deer,” I reply. “Go back to sleep!”

Huff puff huff puff…WOOF!

I hate it when the Hobbit is right.

“A headlamp would be nice right now.”

No arguing there. We humans are so sight dependent. Apparently Hobbits too. Light is a comfort in the darkness. To see the beast would help at least mentally, and possibly give me an idea as to whether he was raiding or just passing through. But the only possible light is the now-smoldering fire about ten feet from the tent–coincidentally about the same distance as to the bear.

Huff puff huff puff…WOOF! Stomp stomp WOOF! Apparently the bear sees the tent and is trying to decipher what he is going to do. In his indecision, a bold front is considered wisdom until the situation resolves itself more clearly.

Time to act. Fight, flight, or hide. The bear isn’t going anywhere. The Hobbit is for hiding. I’m not exactly for fighting but a bold front on my part seems the only wise option. I grab my knife and burst from the tent shouting “Get out of here!” at the top of my lungs. Yes, I know…a knife? Hilarious! But it was the only weapon I had.

I would love to have been a third party watching the scene from above. I am not sure what would have been more comical. Myself moving in one awkward roll/crawl to the fire ring and frantically huffing and puffing and woofing  the hot coals to awaken the fire from its slumber; or the bear, wondering what it had got itself into, huffing and puffing and woofing as it turned tail and bulldozed its way through the woods. I could still hear it running a few hundred yards away.

It is surprising how fast one can get a fire going in those circumstances, and not surprising at all that at said juncture one loses all interest in sleeping. So there I sat for a couple of hours in the now quiet woods to let the adrenaline subside. The Hobbit of course joined me fireside, wondering aloud if every noise was now a bear and how high hobbits ranked on their culinary list. Eventually, the rush of the moment was gone, a quiet reverie returned, and most importantly the bear did not. So we turned in again, our next realization was of birdsong and the dim light of dawn.

After some oatmeal and a few cups of strong coffee, the Hobbit  and I agreed that we were glad the bear had visited. Obviously, while the visit was exciting, it wasn’t really that dangerous. The bear really was more afraid of us than we were of him (this trait has served black bears well, and explains why they are thriving in the midst of our sprawling civilization). Certainly it gave us a fun story to tell when we got back to our Shire. Still, it also made us think of how often we are just barely awake–barely alive even, living as if we are almost asleep. Much better to be bearly awake and bearly alive. Feeling and breathing and fighting and loving the moments in all their vivid and oft-hidden glory, acting in those moments as one has them instead of moments past or moments yet to be. Much better indeed.

Ah, yes, the adventures a hobbit can have if he will but leave the Shire.

Categories: Mind, Nature, Outdoors, Spirit | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments


Friday, I experienced a wonder. I touched a tree.

Not just any tree mind you, but a very special tree. A tree that whispered of the past.  A tree of a species that dominated many habitats in the Appalachians. A tree once so common that one out of every four trees in these mountains was of its kind. I laid my open hands on an American chestnut tree.

In 1900, the American chestnut was king of the Appalachian forest. Prolific, but so much more. Chestnuts fed about every creature that lived in the forest, from squirrels to bears to humans. The wood was both beautiful and stout–useful to our species on many levels. Settlers were so fond of the tree they took chestnuts right out of their native range and planted them all the way to the Pacific. No one could imagine these ancient mountain forests without them.

But in 1904 a forester named Hermann Merkel noticed diseased American chestnut trees in New York. They had contracted chestnut blight, a disease native to China and introduced to America via Chinese chestnut trees that had been imported largely for ornamental purposes. Our native chestnuts had no immunity to the blight, and it spread quickly southward down the the mountains, killing trees by the billions. Within a few decades the king of the forest was dead, killed by a fungi it had no evolutionary experience with, and no resistance to.

The natural world is a marvelous thing, however, and our great native chestnut trees have two refugia. The first is in those trees planted by the settlers outside its native range. The tree died at home but lives on in a few places in the upper Midwest, the Rockies, and the Pacific coast. These trees remain free of the blight. The second is in the the trees themselves. The roots remain resistant to the blight, and send up saplings that will survive for a few years–sometimes long enough to put out a few nuts and produce a few seedlings in the mountains where the species was born. The blight eventually kills most of these trees, but here and there you can find one that has defied the odds and lives on.

I have no idea of the history of the tree I saw Friday. I only know it was far from mature, but it was mature enough to put out a few nuts. The blight may eventually claim it, but for now the tree appears disease-free. It survives.  It casts a shadow longer than its height. A shadow reaching back to the time when the species thrived, and forward toward an unknown but at least hopeful future. So please forgive my sentimentality when I say to see and touch this tree touched something in my soul.

I’ll likely visit this tree occasionally. I may even plant a nut or two from it in my home holler in the hopes of helping the species survive. But mostly I’ll just go to be in the presence of living history–and also living hope.

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Forest Folk

With the large amount of time I have spent in the woods lately, it would be unjust for me not to mention the forest folk I have become acquainted with. No, I am not referring to elves and sprites, but I have been in some magical places that if such creatures exist they surely call such places home. I am referring to the people who I have shared work with over the last few weeks, clearing trails and roads of blown down limbs and trees from a fairly severe storm we had this past June.

For instance there is Mark. Mark fights fires for the US Forest Service in the summer and teaches people to ski in the winter. He is a beast with a chain saw and remembers about 97% of the jokes he has heard in his lifetime (which is more than a few because he is in his mid-fifties). He eats hot peppers in the same way people generally eat apples (I mean that literally!) and tunes in to NPR in the truck every morning. Did I mention he wears his hair is cut in a Mohawk and and he has about six inches of braid hanging from his beard?

And there is Andy. Andy repairs musical instruments for a living. I watched him carry a chainsaw eight miles one day, refusing every offer to give him a break. Andy remembers 99.4% of the funny lines he’s heard in movies or from comedians and still laughs at the retelling. He also offered to let several of us camp on his property for free. Pretty generous, when you consider how people camping for a week while working tend to smell.

Then there is Sarah. Sarah is a flower child. She grows them for a living. At least she did until her crop failed this year and she decided to take the summer off–a decision she described as less than lucrative but that she doesn’t seem to regret. Sarah is easy to talk to and just seems to enjoy being alive. She isn’t afraid of work and utterly ignores the fact that she is the lone woman in the group. She is probably better on the crosscut saw than I, but don’t tell her I said that. She is off on an adventure out west when she is finished working this gig with the USFS.

Also there is Adam. Adam is into telemark skiing. He is currently letting a kid from out west stay at his place for free. A kid he had never met until his brother showed up at his door with this kid in tow. Adam looks at the forest with the wonder of a child, and is easily distracted by interesting plants and mushrooms and the like. But he will work hard when the need arises, and is sometimes heard singing while he does.

Then there is my own son. It has been such a pleasure watching him pitch in and do work. In his own way, he loves the woods every bit as much as I do, as well as the things that live there. He grabbed a black rat snake along the trail the other day, and it grabbed him right back. He calmly pried it off and after admiring it for a bit turned it loose on its wild way. He came off the hardest day on the trail pumped up and ready to do it again. Ah, the fire and fitness of youth!

My words don’t do these people the least bit of justice. Each has been a pleasure and blessing to be around. They all smile most of the time. They all laugh easily. They all tell good stories. They all pitch in and share loads and food and water. I’m really gonna miss them, and maybe that will give them a bit of the justice my words can’t.

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Making a Life

Recently, I foolishly did the wisest thing I have ever done. I quit a job that paid quite well in the midst of this terrible economy. There were many reasons for my stepping away from a career that spanned nearly a quarter-century, but the simplest is that I could find no life in that particular work any more. Trading life to “make a living” is far more foolish than trading financial security to find life, even if on the surface it appears otherwise, because time is the one commodity we can never recoup. I long to make more than a living–I long to make a life.

That foolishly wise decision has been followed by a terrible and wonderful insight. I have no interest whatsoever in “finding a job”. I want to make it clear that I have no issue with working. Working honestly and properly balanced with the rest of life pays the soul as much or more than it pays the bills. But I know too many people just dying for Friday to arrive and dreading every Monday.  The key word there is “dying”.  Slogging through five days in the hope of living for two is a devil’s bargain, a subtle slavery in which I have no interest.

Jesus said “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” This begs a question–what am I looking for, and what doors am I knocking on? We tend to impose “religious” teachings on Jesus’ words but he seemed far more concerned with just living. “I have come so that you may have life, and have it to the full.” That doesn’t sound like one of my old Sunday sermons. Go looking for a job or a way to pay the bills and that is likely all we will find. Perhaps it is time to look for something bigger.

My wife, in a brief discussion of this subject, immediately asked me “How do I do that?” She is big on the practical side of things and I appreciate her for it. I’m an idea guy, and idea guys need people who asked hard practical questions. Immediately two words came to mind. Passion and compassion. Whatever I do with my days needs to be able to feed the passion for living in my heart. But it also needs to be larger than my ego and my selfish tunnel vision. It needs to feed my life but also the life of the larger world. We aren’t discussing the smallness of selfishness here, but the largeness of  living fully and returning that life we have been given back to the larger Life from which we all spring.

But what of revenue? We all need money, right? Generally yes (though often not as much as we suppose). I know only that Jesus said we weren’t to worry about tomorrow, that God clothes the flowers and feeds the birds and will certainly feed me as well if I seek what matters. And one of the most successful business people I know told me recently that he always felt if he tended to what was important the revenue would come. Again, not without activity, but certainly without worry and without making money one of my little gods. So here I sit with a strange peace, having found something to do with my hands for a few weeks, something that taxes my body yet frees my mind, something that pays enough to buy food and pay the bills and leave me content. And that is enough.

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“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born,

And a time to die…”

So begins the third chapter of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Such a statement isn’t revelation, only observation. As I type, the days grow shorter and the nights longer. The leaves on the trees have begun to shed their summery green and some are already tinged with the hue of autumn. The clock ticks, the earth rotates as it orbits the sun, another day is born only to die and give birth to another. The mystical dance of life and death goes on with every rhythmic second.

Passing is on my mind today. Today is the burial day of a young police officer killed here in my home state last week in the line of duty. By all accounts he was a fine young man, very much alive, trying only to serve others. I did not know him personally, but know several who did. And yesterday, I sat by the bedside of a friend soon to leave us. I was blessed to offer her a drink for comfort and to say a prayer with her and hold her hand. She drifted in and out of lucidity, and at times her eyes were focused on Something not of this place.  Her husband and grown children were present, and Love sat with us, so real that the five physical senses could almost define it.

So passing is on my mind. Not in a spirit of depression, but only in the sense of how birth and death mark the boundary of our time here. I emphasize “here”. I am not certain at all they mark the boundary of our time. Not certain at all. In fact, I strongly suspect they are about as real as the imaginary boundaries we draw upon the face of the earth and call borders. That death is a passage not a passing.  But that is a matter of faith, and we will save it for another day.

Today, I only wish to take note of  that shadow on my horizon. It approaches, but I am not afraid. I am determined only to make the most of the days I have, be they many or few.  To savor the love of wife and family and friends and give it back. To be a blessing where I have opportunity. To draw strength from the beauty around me. To live while I’m alive. Passing is on my mind, but living is in my heart.

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