In the turning of the seasons, we give thanks

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They are treasured old friends, those forest places that we walk until we know them with every fabric of our body, and soul. We return, unbidden, adding layers of memory as the seasons pass. On the blank canvas of a place, we paint the story of our time together.

So it is with the trail behind our house, the less-than-two-miles out and back that I walk most often. Late one fall afternoon, not long ago, I followed the path through a gap in the mossy old stone wall, to an opening under a few magnificent hemlocks. This spot has always drawn me, and I often pause there. 

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My thoughts rushed back from wherever they’d been wandering when something moved, close beside the path. A spiky hummock of quills, its back turned toward me. This was my first porcupine in “my” woods and deceptively quick despite its cumbersome gait. It wasted no time reaching a tree and climbing steadily to safety.

This encounter will forever enliven this bend in the trail. No matter the season, on my homeward way, I’ll conjure up a prickly ball in the crotch of that tree, framed by the yellow leaves of fall. Just as I’ll remember the night I looked up into the surprising face of the full moon, shining white behind the firs. And farther along, the hill where an owl had snatched a mouse, leaving only the marks of its broad sweeping wings.

Since that fall afternoon, the snows have come, early for our part of Maine, and we’ve embraced the turning of the seasons to this time of gratitude. I think how our lives, too, consist of layers upon layers.

This Thanksgiving, we will gather in another log cabin, in Virginia, for the first Thanksgiving hosted by the new generation. Megan and Jacob will fill their home to bursting, stretching the seating and sleeping and serving, with the aesthetic creativity of two graphic designers.

As we paint new memories, they will never replace those that went before. The years of Dad’s rousing voice singing Over the River and Through the Woods. Searching for hazelnuts in a worn wooden bowl heaped with nuts that you had to crack yourself. Grandma Searls, urging everyone to “eat some turnips for the Pilgrims.” New on old, forever and ever, or at least for today.

This then is my prayer for all of you, that you paint memories anew this Thanksgiving. That you embrace the turning of the seasons, from prickly porcupines to the frosting of the forest, and that this season of gratitude brings you joy. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

To think I almost put my snowshoes away

 

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Sadly, February was mainly dedicated to flu survival and recovery. Happily, I got better in time to visit my children in Virginia, meeting their new chickens, touring Monticello, and celebrating my former brother-in-law’s 50th birthday. (How could that be?)

Now, somehow, I find myself a week away from spring, with visions of paddling trips dancing in my head. There is much to share and catch up on!

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View of last week’s snow-laden trees from flat on my back. I’d been tugging on a sapling bent across the path and pinned to the snowy ground. As it popped free, I tumbled backwards, arms flailing, to see the forest from a slightly different angle!

Today is another snow day, our ninth, counting the 3 days we missed with October’s wind storm. That is two more than in any other school year I can remember. With our third nor’easter in 11 days upon us, and a blizzard warning, we may miss tomorrow as well. Last week’s storm brought about 14 inches of wet, heavy snow that plastered itself to the sides of trees and created Dr. Seuss-like mounds on every branch and twig.


In late February, I was tickled by the sign above, spotted in Thomaston during a book delivery jaunt. The weather was warm and the air felt like spring. I truly did almost put my snowshoes away. Now I think the groundhog may have been wiser than I thought!

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Out snowshoeing this morning, with just a dusting of new powder, turkey tracks were everywhere. In places, the forest floor was in turmoil where they’d torn up the leaf litter in search of food. Hopefully the turkeys were feasting on ticks, already active here in Maine. I found the first one of the year crawling on my pants last week. Seems like we should either have ticks or blizzards, not both!

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Usually, I have the back woods to myself. This morning, though, I was greeted by a new friend. Our neighbors had taken a walk with their kids, leaving behind this snowman, decorated with branches, pine cones, and lichen. By mid-afternoon, he was rapidly becoming just a snowman-shaped blob.

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Well, it certainly feels good to be back to writing. Look for more news soon, including updates on Upwards and the author life and perhaps even some paddling plans. Then, in April, our family adventure in France will take us to Paris, Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley.  Until then, stay warm, dry, and safe!

Looking and seeing in the winter woods

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.     Marcel Proust

To clarify, I’m all for seeking new landscapes! Like April in Paris, this spring, where we’ve just booked a hotel a block from Notre Dame! In our everyday world, though, there are plenty of new discoveries to be made, if we would just look for them.

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The forest is still criss-crossed with animal tracks. As the snow turned thin and slushy this week, the imprints stood out in greater detail. Tiny “handprints” of red squirrels were everywhere, as were the squirrels themselves. The warmth prompted me to carry along my binoculars and to pause from time to time. The repeated call of a barred owl came from afar, but it was mostly red squirrels that I saw.

One explored an ancient log pile, dark and damp, adorned with scattered piles of demolished pine cones. He moved with fluid energy among the logs, popping out first here, then there, to scold me. Later, another bravely stood his ground atop a stone wall. Only his haunches moved, quivering with indignation, and the shiny blackness of his eye stared me down. He looked fit and well-fed, the subtle gray and rust of his sleek fur elegant in the drab and cloudy light.


Canine tracks still mystify me. The one above was repeated in a single line that roughly followed my old trail for quite a distance. Both coyotes and foxes frequent these woods.

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There’s green stuff out there, too. Not just trees, but much more, if you look closely. This small native plant, whose relatives once dominated primeval swamps, is very common. Somehow, it thrives in the northern forest, surviving months of ice and snow.

Looking a bit like a miniature spruce and often called “running pine,” the club moss is neither a conifer nor a moss. Closely related to ferns, the club mosses are vascular plants, with “veins” of xylem and phloem. Their ancestors were once the most complex plants on Earth. In the Carboniferous period, 350 million years ago, club mosses well over 100 feet tall dominated the forest that was later transformed to vast deposits of coal.

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This species, Lycopodium clavatum, is found in damp woodlands throughout North America. During the asexual part of its rather complex reproductive cycle, it produces spores, which are released from the plant’s erect, yellow-brown strobilus.

The spores are, for me, perhaps the most fascinating part of the story of the club moss. High in oil content, they are water resistant and flammable. Native tribes knew many medicinal uses for the spores, and, according to the Virginia Native Plant Society, medicine men tossed them on the fire during ceremonies to produce a flash of light.

In my reading, I found a host of other historical uses for the powdery spores, including flash photography, magician’s tricks, fingerprinting powder, fireworks, and treating rashes. Good incentive, perhaps, to try collecting some this year!

Upwards receives first book award!

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OK, how humble is it to say “first” book award? Honestly, though, my hopes and dreams for this book continue to grow, as more people read and share their thoughts. The volume of responses is growing and opportunities for the new year are coming in fast.

A few highlights:

  • Four upcoming events in the next three weeks (details on the events page)
  • Just invited to present at the Wilderness Paddlers Gathering in Fairlee, VT in March
  • Planning two events during the Adirondacks’ Celebrate Paddling month in June
  • And, of course, Honorable Mention in the category of Biography/Autobiography from the New England Book Festival.

The Boston-based New England Book Festival, sponsored by JM Northern Media, recognizes the best books of the holiday season in 17 categories. Winners are judged on “general excellence and the author’s passion for telling a good story” and “the potential of the work to reach a wider audience.”

To balance out the many hours devoted to the book, I continue to plan for next summer and enjoy today. A deluge of rain, amid temperatures as high as 55 degrees, has washed away much of our snow. The sight of green grass and brown leaves has been a welcome change. Sunday’s afternoon walk, on boots not snowshoes, felt free and unencumbered.

I tramped, I tromped, the trail more brown than white, looking around at the woods, rather than down at my feet. You know how it feels when you’ve just climbed up, then down, a mountain and hit the flat? The joy of simply swinging along is wonderful.

Gone, though, was the hushed white wonderland of winter. Every step was a loud crunch, either on a couple of inches of frozen remnant snow or, mostly, on frosty ground. Crunching along at a good pace, out to the edge of an old beaver pond.

There, nature had sculpted striking designs in the paper-thin sheet of ice that rimmed the pond. I walked a few feet out to sit on a log, trying not to destroy too much of the beauty, finding an inch or two of air between the ice and solid ground below. The sound of my progress was deafening, all wildlife no doubt well warned of my visit.


When I sat, though, to take in the play of the brilliant sunlight across the ice, the ruckus continued. A vigorous wind, rustling the trees in the pond, gave the ice a tortured voice. The grinding, cracking, and squealing never let up, and the cold soon nudged me to head back home to a cup of hot cocoa and my never-ending to-do list.

As my faithful readers know, I am still learning the ins and outs of social media, and recently discovered that my automatic sharing of posts somehow missed the last one. If you’d like to join me on an earlier walk, here is my January 5th post.

 

Bombogenesis…it even sounds scary!

Winter so far has brought enough bitter cold and snow to make us believe that it’s serious this year. The snowshoeing has been great. I’m thinking of it as the start of training for next summer’s north woods adventure (still in the planning stages).

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Berries at the edge of the swamp shone in a coat of ice last week.

The word “bombogenesis” had somehow escaped my notice for some 56 years…until yesterday. According to NOAA, the term describes the rapid intensification of a mid-latitude cyclone, measured by its drop in central atmospheric pressure. A drop of 24 millibars or more in 24 hours creates a bomb cyclone like Winter Storm Grayson, whose pressure dropped an incredible 59 millibars as it approached New England yesterday. Skies are still dark here, but soon I’ll head out to start shoveling my way to the garage and our snow blower. As of now, school is open with a 2-hour delay. 

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Farewell small spots of bare ground, farewell to tracks and signs of life that laced the winter woods, farewell to quick and easy walking…soon all my trails must be won once more.

Around nine in the morning, the first powdery sprinkling of snow began dusting the ground. As I followed my favorite trail by the swamp to a far hill, I took a last look at the many animal tracks, almost memorized in my traipsing back and forth day after day. Dad had discovered the scene in the photo below, one sunny day last week. “There’s a story!” he exclaimed. Tiny prints of mouse or vole raced for the cover of a hole, the sweep of owl wings marking either the creature’s demise or narrow escape.

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I ventured out again around one o’clock yesterday. The blizzard conditions were just starting, and snow was quickly reclaiming the forest, even a moving person. The particles bombarded me, an audible pelting against my parka. Once, a gust of wind gave a hint of the fury soon to follow and I thought of turning back, but didn’t. I was warm, the temperature thirty degrees warmer than on some recent days. At the same far hill, I turned around, the tracks I’d made already blurring into fluffy whiteness.


Trudging home, I could still faintly see depressions from the ski poles that my daughter Megan had used on Christmas week. Soon, they, too, would be buried, our ramblings just a pleasant memory of a week of family fun. The woods tomorrow will be all new.

Stretching Upwards (and, believe me, being on the radio is a stretch!)

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Kiah brought his best manners along on our Thanksgiving visit home yesterday

It’s never hard to feel grateful at Thanksgiving time. Beyond the blessings of family, friends, and the start of the Christmas season, there are five days off from school. This year, added in are a mellow black Lab named Kiah sleeping at my feet while I write and the sun washing the frosty fields of the farm where I’m staying for a few days. Soon I will pull on my boots and saunter out to open the chicken door and count 1, 2, 3…10, as the chickens march out in a parade, of white, russet, and speckled black. And they’re even still laying, so I get to gather eggs!

On the book front, there is also a lot happening. This Sunday, Nov. 26, will be my first radio talk show appearance, on “Maine Outdoors” with V. Paul Reynolds. Tune your dial to WVOM FM 101.3/103.9 or AM 1450 around 7:30 p.m. to listen in. Our first book review posts Nov. 27 on “George’s Outdoor News,” a Bangor Daily News blog by George Smith.

We also continue to have new press coverage, including this article about an upcoming book signing with Thomas Jamrog, a new author friend, who wrote In the Path of Young Bulls about his Continental Divide Trail thru-hike. We’ll be at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport (where I purchased my canoe) from 1 to 4 PM on Sat., Dec. 2. Love this photo!

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Tom Jamrog stands atop Colorado’s Mount Elbert, the highest summit in the Rockies

In closing, may your blessings be many and your home be warm and filled with a spirit of true thankfulness, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day!

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Gathered with family for Thanksgiving dinner (Kiah was lying hopefully under the table)

 

 

 

The Old Stone Wall, a poem

              

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Stone wall that runs along in the woods behind our house

The Old Stone Wall

We wander, both, the crisp clear slopes of autumn,

Through scattered leaves of faded, fallen color.

For me, a carefree hour, or maybe two.

The stone wall, though, has twice outlived its builder:

He who plucked the granite from heavy, stubborn soil.

Dragging, rolling, hefting the puzzle pieces into place.

 

That wall and man shared much in common,

in their struggle to tame nature’s endless march.

Rugged, stalwart, they took the character of an unyielding land,

framed fields that winter buried deep in drifted white,

that spring sprinkled with tender newborn calves,

and summer balanced barefoot children on the winding way.

 

In time, the passing years gathered up the man

and crusted stone with olive moss and lichen gray.

Stumbling with age and witness to a different time,

still, there are stories harbored here,

meaning to be found in the wall’s enduring presence,

if only that, when I am gone, the silent stones will stay.