‘Walking to Listen’: a well written cross country quest for meaning.

9781632867001Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles across America one story at a time, by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury Press 2017)

Who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Rogers, a  73 year old cowboy and preacher in Melrose, New Mexico has plenty of advice for living to whomever may listen. Author Andrew Forsthoefel met Rogers during his walk across America.

“And time goes by like, like cross ties on a railroad track just chh, chh, chh, chh. These days are gone. So while you got it, use it. Your mind. Your strength. Your agility. Use it.”

But you and I would never ever cross paths with Otho if it were not for first time author Andrew Forsthoefel who met and recorded dozens and dozens of conversations like this one with Mr. Rogers during a 4,000 mile cross country ‘Walking to Listen‘ journey in 2011. Forsthoefel began his odyssey about 6 months after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in environmental studies and just after getting fired as a deck hand on a lobster boat.

“A week after I got fired I hatched a desperate plan. I started wondering what it would be like to walk out my back door and just keep going.”

Though unemployed and basically directionless, Forsthoefel’s plan to walk across America does not come across as a desperate plan by a desperate man. Rather, it seems like the inspired idea of a new college graduate who lives life seriously and thoughtfully with enough empathy to imbue his trek with a noble theme boldly written and hanging from a sign on his backpack: Walking to Listen.

Andrew Forsthoefel started honing his listening skills as a college senior interviewing people about what it means to “come of age”. His walk was just an extension-an 11 month extension of that deeply seated need to listen and learn from whomever he could.

Forsthoefel’s empathy for others, his ongoing struggle to find meaning in his own life together with his fluid, light and insightful prose are the three ingredients which make this debut work of non fiction so much more than just another cross country adventurer’s travelogue.

Indeed, Forsthoefel does not hover on the details of his backpacking gear (except for a jogging stroller he eventually used to transport his pack-he named the stroller Bob). He carried the essentials, mostly, a tent, clothes, food plus a mandolin. He camped wherever he could, often in people’s backyards with their permission and he bought food often in gas station mini marts. Frequently however, Forsthoefel found himself the guest of people he met on the way, people who opened their homes to put up and feed a complete stranger.

And it is the writing about the people he meets and how that experience shakes his consciousness where Forsthoefel’s prose shines the brightest. Many folks he met briefly and recorded them on his Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, like college seniors at Sweet Briar College in Virginia or a grandmother working at a gas station who also belongs to a nudist colony or an artist in Cerillos Hills, New Mexico recorded in her kitchen. But the author often spent several days with some of the people he met, people who took him in, fed him, showed him around their communities and shared their stories-of joy, of sadness, of dreams realized or broken and always, the simple day to day stories that begin to give some definition to what it means to be human.

Walking to Listen is poignantly written. In addition to short one page vignettes that separate chapters, Forsthoefel treats the reader to full course servings of some of his more memorable and life changing experiences. He spends pages sharing his experience as a white man walking through Montgomery, Alabama where he met and listened to the descendants of slaves. He recounts over several pages his walk into and out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, his memorable walk across Texas including a brief meeting with a former president and perhaps the longest section devoted to his time trekking through the Navajo nation reservations in Arizona.

Forsthoefel refers frequently, perhaps too often, to his two muses, Walt Whitman and Rainer Maria Rilke, quoting lines from Leaves of Grass and excerpting long paragraphs from Letters to a Young Poet, two books he carried on his walk. But even his frequent citations only underscore the young author’s fervent searching for a universal truth he hoped to find on his walk, an inner North Star he could use to navigate his life.

So who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Not the most memorable character Forsthoefel brings to light, Rogers’ sagacious advice none the less is just one reminder that everyone has something to offer if we only take the time to stop and listen.

Howard E. Friedman

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Fund Raising through Outdoors Adventure:Have we taken a wrong turn?

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Henry Worsleyi n the Antarctic, shackletonsolo.org

This past week brought news of the death of  Henry Worsley, a retired officer from the British military who had dedicated himself to Antarctic travel, inspired by his hero Ernest Shackleton. Worsley, who was attempting a coast-to-coast trek of the Antarctic continent, was airlifted only 90 miles from his objective after 71 days and 913 miles of self-supported travel — pulling up to 300 pounds of gear — before dying in hospital from complications of peritonitis. Others have made Antarctic crossings but Worsley’s was to be the first unaided trek . Before his trip, Worsley raised $142,000 for charity to go to the Endeavour Fund, managed by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, a charity that aids wounded British service men and women.

A few days prior to the news of Worsley’s death, I received an e-mail from a relative I do not regularly hear from, a letter announcing his plans to participate in a 170 mile bike ride to raise money for a camp for children with disabilities, a worthy cause. Like Worsley, my cousin is using his participation in a strenuous event to raise money for charity. And he is far far from the only one trying to raise money by participating in an outdoor adventure. In fact, I would say the practice has become an epidemic. Every 5-K and marathon seems to be a fund raiser. And even if you do not win the lottery to run in the vaunted New York marathon, there is a back door to get a guaranteed spot in the race by running with and financially supporting the New York Road Runner Team for Kids by raising $25,000 for a team of ten runners. Even establishment institutions like Backpacker magazine promote their annual ‘Summit for Someone’, a way to raise money for Big City Mountaineers to support outdoor adventures for disadvantaged youth. Participants must raise several thousand dollars to earn a spot on a guided climb of famous peaks like Mt. Rainier or others.

6a014e894ef9bd970d01b7c7771434970b-800wiSo what is going on here? For hundred of years, adventurers needed no outside encouragement for their adventures. They were self-motivated. Sir Edmund Hillary famously quipped that he climbed Everest “because it was there”. That was actually a throw-away line answering a reporter. He climbed Everest out of a deep attraction to the outdoors and a desire to see just what humans can accomplish. And so it has been with expeditions around the globe. Alexander von Humboldt  attempted in 1799 to climb Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, thought to be at that time the highest mountain in the world, documented so well by Andrea Wulf in the beginning of her 2015 book “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World“.  Sir Ernest Shackleton’ famously attempted to cross the Antarctic.  The world’s highest and most difficult mountain peaks have all been summited by intrepid and driven individuals, for example Mt. Meru, climbed in 2011 and featured in a recently released visually stunning documentary.

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imdb.com. But somewhere along the way, the populace has started associating personal challenges in the outdoors as the perfect way to raise money from friends and family for a worthy non-profit.

Why do we as a society think that participating in a 5-k race or marathon or 3-day bike riding event is worthy of fund raising? Why do we as participants in these events think that our friends will want to donate money based on how may miles we run or bike ride? And why should we as friends and relatives of the runners, bikers and climbers give anyway?  What exactly is the message of “sponsor me to run” that we are conveying?

Outdoor adventure was once a necessary way of life for much of our history, from providing food and fuel to building shelters and  settling new territory, with all that is entailed. Physicality was just a part of life.

Until recent times.

For most of us, our lives are strikingly without great need for physical prowess, No need to hunt or gather or pack up the home and move camp miles away to higher ground when the season’s change. So perhaps, we satisfy our innate need for adventure and physical challenge by setting goals that are a true physical reach for us. For some, the reach is running 5 kilometers ( 3.1 miles), without stopping. For others that challenge is running 100 miles. In either case we are quenching a deeply entrenched human need to push ourselves toward our physical limit and at least know what that limit is.

But the question remains:  Why connect that need for personal challenge to raising money for charity? Shouldn’t my desire to challenge myself remain personal? Fund raising is that thing you do by naming buildings and libraries and college campuses for wealthy donors or for the more plebeian among us, simply asking your Facebook friends and people in your e-mail address book to support your worthy cause.

Running 26.2 miles, on the other hand, is that thing you do to see if you can do it. Could you follow that marathon and swim 2.4 miles and bike ride for a 112 miles to complete a triathlon? Can you cross the Antarctic from coast to coast self supported? Yet for some reason we connect the two events, endurance and charity, and they are connected week after week with the ever present 5k rfund raising ace that take pace on so many weekends. Indeed, in the past year or so, more than 500,000 people in the U.S. completed a marathon and many of them were no doubt raising money for charity.

In the radio interview before his trip, and subsequent death, and in response to the incredulity of the interviewer at the sheer difficulty of his planned Antarctic trip Henry Worsley humbly said, “It’s no black art to sliding one ski  in front of the other, but what will drive me on is raising money for these wounded soldiers…”, referring to the charity he was supporting, the British Endeavour Fund

Worsley. then, touches on the answer. We do not give money to charity to see people punish themselves physically. Quite the contrary. We give to help motivate the athlete motivate himself, to keep running when he wants to quit, to keep cycling when he wants to rest, and to keep pulling a sledge with hundreds of pounds of supplies across the frozen landscape of the Antarctic in sub-zero temperatures against all odds.We help motivate him and he gives money to a good cause. He does our work.

Clearly, millions of dollars are raised each year for charities through sponsored events. And for that reason, I should leave this question alone. As a society, we should be very proud that we rally around supporting our non-profit organizations, the not so hidden fabric of many of our lives. And for spectacular high-profile never-before-accomplished feats like the one attempted by the late Henry Worsley, the endeavor is a great opportunity to shine light on a worthy cause. For those people who will not get themselves out but for the fund raising angle, then the charity connection is indeed mission critical. And you could even say that by donating in support of a run or bike ride you build a stronger connection to the charity you are supporting. It’s all good, it seems.

But perhaps the point at which we as a society have arrived today, where so many either need the motivation or the validation to challenge themselves to run for a cause or summit for someone should make us stop and think. Will we push ourselves when there is no cause? We should ‘summit for someone’ if we can, or run to raise money for the kids, but, I feel, we should also aspire to return to the status quo ante when we valued physical challenge and adventure as an integral part of life, where enduring a daily physical challenge was simply part of what it meant to be a human being.

By the way, I plan to support my cousin’s bike ride.

Howard E. Friedman

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50,000 Ways to Spend a Sunday

This past Sunday morning about 50,000 people of all ages and abilities challenged themselves to run the New York City marathon, 26.2 miles through the streets of the city, finishing the last 6 miles in Central Park. The elite runners ran at close to 13 miles an hour, finishing in a bit over 2 hours. About half of the runners finished in less than four hours and fifteen minutes and some, well, let’s just say, they could have walked as fast.

This past Sunday night about 50,000 people sat for more than 3 hours to watch what would be the final game in the 2015 baseball World

Series, where the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets, winning their 4th game out of five. The baseball fans were encouraged to get up and stretch after the completion of the seventh inning and people were free to walk around during the game as well. But watching a baseball game is a spectator sport.

There were most likely some people who ran the marathon in the morning and went to the baseball game at night, for a memorable Sunday participating in two significant annual events. If someone was lucky enough to fill their day with both those events, that would indeed be a day to remember.

Mostly though I suspect there were the runners and there were the watchers. And on this past Sunday they were pretty well balanced, at about 50,000 people apiece.

The runners and the watchers. Or, to think of it another way, the doers and the sitters, neither one inherently superior to the other just markedly different types of activities. On a broader societal scale, we can categorize ourselves, at times, as either consumers or producers, each necessary and invaluable. We all can not be exclusively consumers for than who would produce what we consume? And this past Sunday, the runners benefitted from the cheering crowds who had lined the streets to watch them, not so different from the 50,000 people who sat in Citi Field to cheer on their favorite baseball team.

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

As a city, a community, a country, and even a world, we need both the runners and the watchers, the producers and the consumers. But as individuals, we also need our own varied diet of activity, similar to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Plate, which recommends a variety of types of foods in healthy amounts. Not all carbs and not all proteins. Not all fruits and not all vegetables. Similarly we need to mix up the watching with the running, the consuming with the producing.

“My Feet” Chart

What if in addition to a ‘My Plate’ diagram, we also referred to a ‘My Feet’ diagram, which would suggest where our feet should be throughout an average day. About one quarter to one third of the day would show our feet in bed, a third or so of the clock would show our feet at work, in school, creating and producing or otherwise involved in some type of sedentary activity. A portion of the My Feet pie chart would show our feet under the kitchen table and a miscellaneous slice would allow for personal needs. But a solid slice of the daily pie would show our feet in a pair of sneakers, either indoors or out, getting some exercise.  And there would also be the ‘Weekend My Feet’ chart which would replace a portion of the work/school slice with even more time exercising or otherwise being active.

This past Sunday was an interesting look into how so many people  chose to spend their time in a major metropolitan city. The runners we know also prepared by training for a few months in advance.  And the World Series attendees had to hustle somewhat to get their ticket and the price may even have caused them to break into a sweat although their chosen activity was mostly sedentary with some periods of standing and cheering.

But in a well balanced life, we would all run some and watch some, consume some and produce some, win some and as reality would have it, lose some too.

Howard E. Friedman

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Migration and a new year

The ultimate trek continues for thousands and thousands of men, women, children and families. Not an adventure trek, like an American family took last year hiking the entire 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Rather, an escape from unlivable countries, a trek for survival.

Human migration has dominated the national news of late, with daily stories of despair and desperation as families flee either their war- ravished homes or their economically disheveled countries and attempt to relocate in a stable European city. And images of migrants’ failures to reach their destination have made even more of an impact. The troubling and terribly sad picture of a toddler face down, dressed in a shirt, shorts and little sneakers, washed ashore like a dead fish, lying still on a Turkish beach, dominated this past week’s pictures. The dead boy, Aylan Kurdi, was one of two brothers who drowned, along with their mother, fleeing from Syria.

Migration is neither new nor novel. In fact, here in America, question many people about their families’ background and it often includes a story of immigration. Humans have been migrating from close to the beginning of human history. Anthropologists have traced human migration from Africa to the Levant, specifically the coastal plains of Israel, into Europe, Asia and the Americas. And human fossils dating back 42,000 years have been found in Australia, most likely from migrants who boated from other Pacific islands when the sailing distance was shorter than it is today. That distance was estimated to be less than 100 miles then, but has grown to more than 300 miles since sea level rose after the melting of the ice at the end of the last ice age.

Migration is well-known in the animal kingdom. Birds migrate regularly; even the common American robin has the term “migratorius” as part of its scientific name.  Many mammals such as wildebeests and gazelles stage visually stunning massive annual migrations. And in the insect world, the fragile monarch will travel thousands of miles to its breeding grounds.

Yet nation after nation seems to become apoplectic with a large influx of unexpected human migrants. Of course, such a response is understandable, as countries need to be able to provide resources for migrants, including shelter, food, medical care and if the migrants stay, ultimately jobs and education and permanent housing. But the intensity of discomfiture with the arrival of migrants who, by the time they arrive are in a desperate state, is surprising, as if people’s desire for safety and security is unnatural.

Migration is natural and in no way an aberration. It is, in fact, ancient. American Indians often shifted between highlands and lowlands depending on the seasons and the availability of food supplies; thousands of years earlier, their own ancestors crossed from Asia via the Bering Strait. What has changed in the global picture however, is not migration, but the presence of countries’ borders and the imposition of the rule of law around those borders. We have all grown up with distinct countries and therefore accept that this construct is as it should be. In fact, against the backdrop of human and modern-human existence spanning several hundred thousand years, nationality and borders are a recent phenomenon on planet earth.

So how do we, as a world with countries and borders and immigration laws, deal with the natural desire of tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, who want to migrate to a safer or more prosperous land? First, I would suggest that we remember our own humble roots as descendants of immigrants, especially those who were ‘strangers in a strange land’.  In fact, Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu recently addressed the migrant crisis, since the Jewish people are no strangers to their own history of forced migration, either due to expulsion, from Spain in 1492, or due to fleeing the progroms and crematoria of the second world war. Israel has already absorbed thousands upon thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, even flying to retrieve immigrants from Ethiopia. Israel, he explained, is unable to absorb a new wave of immigrants. But at least he has spoken out and acknowledged the problem.

Second, we should recognize that the need or desire to migrate is not sinister but natural. Third, we should work toward a path to immigration that should be universally provided by all countries, acknowledging that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not virtues bestowed upon one by merit of place of birth but are universal ideals.”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as Emma Lazarus wrote, should not only be a slogan on the Statue of Liberty.  Fourth, more countries should model the exemplary behavior of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is taking the world lead in the Syrian migrant crisis. Fifth, with respect to the Syrian crisis, we should question why more Arab countries are not opening their doors to accept Syrian refugees and why more world pressure is not being brought to bear to resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria that is at the root of the current crisis.

We are now a global community, albeit with myriad national histories and unique identities. Our economies are interdependent. Many developed nations are now an amalgam of multiple nationalities. And while I do not advocate for the total homogenization of the global population and a borderless world, we do need to allow for occasional population shifts. They should not be a burden to any one country and all stable countries should participate in opening their doors. For if we do not work out the mechanics of this challenge now, with a world of nearly 7 billion inhabitants, the distribution of people across the globe will certainly be one of the preeminent issues facing the world in the very near future, as we grow toward the estimated 9 billion people this planet is projected to host in the not-so-distant future.

In one week, the Jewish people mark the end on one year and the beginning of another, declaring that “hayom harat olam”  (today marks the birth of the world). We acknowledge the ‘world’ as one global entity while at the same time praying for our destiny as a people as well as for our individual health and prosperity. The individual is intertwined with the national and both are citizens of the world. And while the message of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is decidedly about our personal welfare, our place as individual cogs in the cosmic big wheel is implicit. A subtle but present subtext of the holy new year’s day echos the oft quoted maxim of Hillel the Elder from about 2,000 years ago that appears in Ethics of the Fathers and so brilliantly condenses the challenge of balancing the personal with the communal. Hillel wrote, “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me, but, if I am only for myself than what am I, and, if not now, than when?”

“When” of course, must be now.

Whatever calendar you keep, whatever holidays you celebrate, here is a wish for all to have a healthy and happy year, wherever you are around the globe.

Howard E. Friedman

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A rare encounter at the water’s edge

A black and brown raptor with what seemed like a three foot wing span soared over our heads no more than a dozen feet up, before alighting on an angled tree trunk right on the water’s edge. We paddled closer to shore to where the bird alighted than raised our oars and bobbed in our double kayak on 120 acre Mongaup Pond,a lobular shaped lake, encircled by a maple-beech-birch forest in the western Catskills of New York. The bird stood still, bright yellow feet and jet black talons gripping the tilting bark. It looked familiar but alien at the same time. I knew what it was not but could not identify to my satisfaction what it was.

http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/mongaup-pond-campground-livingston-manor?select=rjCVt5xyfRQWb9Zos-Lmwg

Mongaup Pond, Livington Manor, NY

I can identify most of the fairly common birds I see,  a skill that began with a mandatory assignment years ago in my high school zoology course. I know to zone in on the details of the plumage, the beak and feet colors, the size, any unusual markings seen during flight or when the bird flashes its tail feathers. I look for any marking on the bird’s nape, or crown or rump. I try to remember the shape of its beak as well, pointy, like a spear, or stout and angular, like an anvil.

Something seemed familiar about this raptor, like we had met before. I should know you, I thought, like when you meet someone you think you recognize but can’t quite place. Maybe we went to school together once long ago, or lived in the same neighborhood?  The avian body shape perched in front of me now looked like one I should know, with those distinctive fearsome grasping toes and talons and that flesh ripping beak that looked as strong as iron.

My son and I had been kayaking around the lake for an hour or so and just paddled nearby to the area we camped at many years ago, when he was quite young. I pointed out where we had pitched our tent, made our campfire, tied up our row boat. His memories of those times are faint. I looked at my son now in the kayak, in his teens, and could imagine him back at the campsite more than a decade ago. When I looked at that spot, I saw a past more meaningful than a mere snapshot or even a video clip of that time. What I can picture of the past on that lakefront campsite is so meaningful because it is a page, maybe just a sentence, in a book that is still being written even as we rowed away. I can pair his toddler face and toddler gait then with his teenage loping walk and smile of today. There is always a synergy of the past and the present, not always apparent but always there. The boy on that sloping shore trying to skip rocks years ago is now the young man in the front of our boat, the one who first spotted the soaring bird overhead.

I knew the bird was too large and bulky to be any raptor I had seen in this area. It was not a diving double crested cormorant and too stocky and muscled to be a gangly turkey vulture. I know that bald eagles frequent Mongaup Pond, and I have seen them before, huge wing span, soaring high, bright white head and tail visible even from a distance, such a stark contrast to their homogeneous brown bodies.

And than I knew. I knew this mystery bird, flying awkwardly, was indeed a juvenile bald eagle, not yet bearing the plumage of an adult. It looks like a bald eagle in body type and shape, and at the same time looks nothing like a bald eagle. No white head. No yellow beak, perched calmly as two paddlers approach within fifteen feet. Don’t you know you should not trust us? Fly away.

The child and the adult morphed into one unified image. “The Child is father of the Man”, wrote William Wordsworth in his poem, My Heart Leaps Up. The one gives rise to the other, inexorably bound, different but the same. This young hunting bird is a bald eagle sure enough, even without the distinctive markings. Once I visualized the adult, I could identify his offspring too.

Juveniles often do not resemble their adult phase. A swimming tadpole in no way resembles a hopping frog nor does a crawling caterpillar resemble a butterfly. Even a baby robin has a speckled breast and not a reddish orange breast. And the idea of change is common throughout nature. We accept that an ice cube or steam are just different phases of the same substance. Water is transformed as it goes through each change. In chemistry terms, a phase change results from exposing a substance to an extreme, usually either cold or heat. But in the animate world, time precipitates the change. With time a seed in the dirt will nearly disintegrate before it begins to sprout. The sun will rise and set about a dozen times whilst the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. And the full moon will appear and vanish about a dozen times until a new born human will take his first steps.

I was not shocked to realize the bird before me did so not resemble an adult eagle. But I was shocked to be only a kayak’s length away, knowing this chance occurrence will not come my way again. And in that moment, the young and old were one, and it was as if I was in the presence of an adult bald eagle in all its majesty. I stared at the juvenile but saw the adult and stared at the young adult in front of me and saw the child.

The young eagle did eventually unfurl it wings and took flight, creating audible ‘thwaps’ of air with each powerful downstroke. It flew low over the lake than slowly gained height and headed away to the other side of the lake out of our range of vision. High above tree line we noticed an adult eagle soaring and could just make out the white head. We knew what we had just shared was one of those rare moments in nature where you are gifted with the opportunity to see something unusual, to learn a little more about the inner workings of the natural world and at the same time given a chance to learn so much more about that most complex phase change of all, life itself.

My Heart Leaps Up
by William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

(poets.org)

Howard E. Friedman

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The Adirondacks, 135 years later…

A boy and his canoe

A boy and his canoe

Recently back from a canoe camping trip to the Adirondacks, I spent some time thinking about how different our trip was from the canoe trips described by George Washington Sears (he died in 1890) who wrote about his paddling adventures around the Adirondack lakes in the magazine Forest and Stream magazine, which was published from 1873 to 1930. Reports on three of his trips when he was in his early sixties were published as a book in 1962 and reprinted in 1993 as a more critical edition titled Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk: the collected letters of George Washington Sears. Sears, who wrote under a pen name, Nessmuk, the name of his Indian friend, which means wood drake, a type of duck, in the Algonquin language, preferred light weight camping. And, he paddled what by today’s standards would be considered an ultra light weight canoe, weighing less than 15 pounds, and only about 10 feet in length.

51RM8PGEHTL._AA160_Sears also eschewed packing a large ‘duffle’ as he described it, criticizing tourists to the Adirondacks for overpacking and taking too much “stuff” into the woods.

But reading Nessmuk’s accounts of the Adirondacks while we were in the Adirondacks, I came to understand what has changed, and what has not. And those differences say something not only about the 6 million acres that make up the Adirondacks but about us, as tourists of the great forests, as canoeists and most importantly, as human beings.

The Adirondacks were not even made a state park until 1892 and by then had been heavily logged for timber as well as for leather tanning. But when Sears plied the waters there were not yet restrictions on cutting down a tree to make a lean-to. Our trip to Follensby Clear Pond, between the Saranac Lakes and the St. Regis chain of lakes, restricted our camping to a designated camp site and also included a strict rule of using only “downed or dead timber” for camp fires.

Undisturbed moss covered trunks in Follensby area.

Undisturbed moss covered trunks in Follensby area.

Nessmuk was a master woodsman, skilled in the art of bushcraft. He was able to create a shelter with the aide of his ax and able to provide food either from fishing or with the muzzle of his rifle. In his light weight canoe, though, he tended to rely on fishing, since hooks, line and a pole weighed precious little.

As I surveyed our own camp site with its three tents, kitchen and two canoes, I could not help but be wistful for a simpler time. We, like the tourists Sears criticized, traveled to the forests of the Adirondacks to enjoy a nature experience and to simply get away, in a way that traveling to a hotel or resort could not provide. Nonetheless, our ability to immerse ourselves on an island in the middle of Follensby Clear Pond surrounded by quite possibly virgin forest, hemlock and pine trees towering about 100 feet over us deep in the depths of the Adirondack State Park, was totally enabled by modern technology.

Follensby Clear Pond. Early morning.

Follensby Clear Pond. Early morning.

First of all, we drove there, covering almost 300 miles in about five and a half hours. Our tents were made of synthetic materials with aluminum poles that collapsed but were held together themselves with elastic threading. Our boats were plastic, one even made from ultra light weight Kevlar material. We cooked aided by a canister of compressed gas, burning iso-butane fuel and we stretched a blue plastic tarp over our cooking space to shield the wind and rain. 2014-06-29 17.35.47True, we did make a camp fire twice a day and did our best to start the fire with one match or two after gathering tinder and kindling. But, at one point, frustrated with my inabilities at keeping the fire going, I doused the wood with hand sanitizer and watched the flames reawaken and dance merrily. And all three of us smiled when we realized that we had cell phone reception on our island campsite in the middle of the wilderness, even if the reception was spotty at times.

So was our trip a true nature experience? We did endure some of the privations that Nessmuk described, such as mosquitoes. But we reached for our store bought insect repellent. Sears created and publicized the recipe for his own insect repellent concoction, cooking a mixture consisting of castor oil, tar and pennyroyal and applied it liberally to the skin with instructions to his readers not to wash it off themselves until they were out of the woods. And, like Sears, we did carry our canoes and all our gear from one lake to the next, but in our case, wishing we had less to carry. But one area where our misery probably equaled his was canoeing in the rain, becoming thoroughly soaked, a scene he described frequently (we either were late in donning rain jackets, or, they did not provide complete rain protection).

In Sear’s day, tourists hired guides to row them in heavy wooden dorries, carry the boats from lake to lake over the trails and set up camp and prepare food. The tourists did crave a wilderness experience. If they didn’t, they could have remained back at the great camp lodge, with many of the conveniences a home provided in the late 1800s. Nonetheless, he criticized them for taking too much stuff with them. Sears himself traveled with a very light weight pack, weighing less than about 15 pounds he writes, although some question the accuracy of his estimate. His pack consisted of an extra shirt and pair of socks, a blanket for sleeping, a knife and hatchet, fishing tackle and pole, homemade insect repellent, and a few other items. He probably carried some food with him but also relied on fishing and hunting. He took no tent as he made his own shelter from trees, trunks and branches.

We did not over pack but could have packed lighter. But even if we packed lighter, we could still not have done without modern technology. Sears never wrote about water purification. And, while some will argue that the waters of the Adirondack lakes do not require sterilization, being children of modernity, we erred on the side of caution and used an ultra violet light Steri-pen device. Furthermore, we could not have found enough appropriately sized ‘downed or dead’ wood to make our own shelter even if we wanted to and fortunately, with the rain we experienced, we had solid rain proof shelters. We could have tried to cook only with a campfire, but would first have had to master the art of creating reliable camp fires.

The Adirondacks have changed since the time of George Washington Sears. Now a New York State Park, the land comes with rules and regulations. But we, as people, have fundamentally changed in our increasing dependence on more and more advanced technology. This is not an indictment of modern society. Man has always craved, even depended on, better and better methods for producing food, shelter, and simply surviving.

kevlar canoe, ready to row. (Y. Friedman 2015)

kevlar canoe, ready to row. (Y. Friedman 2015)

I do not think that one has to have experienced the measles to appreciate the measles vaccine, or, develop frostbite to appreciate warm winter socks and gloves. And having been cold and wet, I can tick that wilderness experience off of my list. Yet, on the whole, I would still argue that when we enter the wilderness but temper our backcountry privations with the tools of modernity, we risk losing something intangible and irreplaceable. Our experience begins to approach a virtual experience. The food is the same, the shelter is clearly a modern machination even if we sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground, and even our mode of transportation feels high tech, sitting in an ultra light weight canoe made of space age plastic.

Zeroing in on an authentic and satisfying nature experience that includes modern technologies is truly a balance. Our early hominin ancestors embraced new technologies at every opportunity even if it was only a better stone tool. The American Indians eventually embraced the rifle and the horse when they came into contact with these new tools. And we continue to upgrade from a pen and ink to a fountain pen to a ball point pen to a typewriter to a word processor to a desk top computer to a lap top to a smart phone. But isn’t part of the reason for diving back into nature to leave most of that, or at least some of those modern trappings, behind?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Each person has her or his own reason for leaving their warm bed and 120 volt electrical outlets and stepping under the forest canopy of tall trees, big sky and a seemingly never ending ceiling of twinkling stars. But even then, when we gaze toward the celestial heavens, we have to wonder, are we looking at a timeless star’s ancient light, or is that sparkling star just the orbiting international space station reflecting the light of the sun.

Howard E. Friedman

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H is for Hawk – rediscovering humanity

jpegI have only another 20-30 minutes or so until I turn the final page of “H is for Hawk”, the acclaimed prize-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald. And that thought makes me feel the way I do in the waning hours of a most rare soul-nourishing, mind-cleansing vacation. And it is not because Macdonald writes in detail about her interesting and unusual avocation of falconry and in particular, takes us on a journey as she acquires, trains and bonds with a goshawk, a fierce hunter of the forest floor. And it is not because she has such facility with words, making her prose so pleasurable to read it almost hurts.

Rather, “H is for Hawk” is so gripping and difficult to let go because in it the author shares the painful journey of healing from the depths of despair and loss after the unexpected death of her father.

“My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of the lives we have lost.”

Macdonald is certainly not the first to counterpose her personal grief and loss against the backdrop of raw nature. Cheryl Strayed wrote her memoir “Wild” about her attempt to heal her battered soul while she through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and that story was memorialized last year in a Hollywood movie. But while Strayed’s story was 2-dimensional, her angst and the trail, Macdonald’s writing takes the reader into four dimensions: the very painful loss of her father, the story of her experiences with her goshawk, the odd, sad and compelling story of author T.H. White (known for the children’s classics “The Sword In the Stone” and “The Once and Future King”) as detailed in his work “The Goshawk”, and the fourth dimension, time, as she takes the reader into the rich history of falconry through the ages.

Ms. Macdonald, a historian by education as well as a writer and poet, chronicles her experiences rearing and training a goshawk to hunt rabbits and pheasants, spending day after day with the bird, feeding it, weighing it, bonding with it and almost becoming it. The goshawk, affectionately dubbed Mabel, is not the first raptor that the author has trained. Fascinated by birds of prey since childhood, and with extensive experience working with and flying them, the author now decides in the wake of her father’s death to train one of the most challenging birds flown by falconers.  Goshawks have a reputation for being difficult to work with and their hunting style is different from other hawks as well; they fly low to the ground, preferring to hunt in the forest as opposed to the open field. That challenge is what she needs while she is in mourning.

But it is the loss of her father that Macdonald comes back to as she shares her feelings and her observations about losing and aloneness and temporality. And she contrasts those feelings against the inner life of the emotionally scarred T.H. White, an outsider and loner, and the life of her goshawk and its “conversation of death”, the unspoken communication between the hunter and the hunted:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

Though her writing is often lyrical and a pleasure to read, Macdonald is so much more than a mere lyricist. She is a realist who can stomach talons in a rabbit’s head and she can snap its neck if needed to end the animal’s misery. And it is her acceptance of the brutality that exists in life in the wild that makes her more the clear-sighted naturalist than Emerson or Thoreau or John Muir. She is unapologetic about nature, which, while sublime, is, as Tennyson wrote,”red in tooth and claw.” The fog on the meadow in the early morning sun-rise and the blood and feathers among the grass and nettles after the kill. And it is all natural. Through her hawks, Macdonald eventually saw through the romanticized view of nature that casts all woods and streams and ferns and dales as a  balm for our suffering souls:

“Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Macdonald’s truths are difficult to hear for romantics like myself who have indeed looked to the woods as an escape. But ironically I have of late come to the same conclusion. It would be nice if the deep forest truly cared about us and could offer a consoling embrace, but a towering oak tree casting a cool shade under its leafy canopy on a steaming hot day would just as soon fall upon and crush me than shade me. Nature is implacable, reflecting back only what we bring into it, if that.

“H is for Hawk” tells a story we each are likely to confront at some point in our lives if we have not already. Without the hawk, though, leaving us to find comfort and solace and healing among our own species. A discovery and a story that Madonald tells so so well.

Howard E. Friedman

Why I Can’t Stop Thinking About Potter and Hunt

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

It is not just their unusual manner of death, flying near 100 mph headlong into a granite massif, hundreds of feet above the iconic, beautiful and serene Yosemite Valley, the two men each in a silky synthetic wing suit and a parachute folded on their backs, that keeps me thinking about Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. They died a week ago Saturday after a fatal impact with the rock during what was their final wing suit flight from Yosemite’s Taft Point.

Their manner of death is by any definition, extraordinary.

But what will not leave my mind is the fact that how they died is so entwined with how they lived. They died while trying so hard to live.Yet since our Western society places the value of life above all other values, it is difficult for me to fully embrace these men’s life choices. But at the same time I can not diminish their achievements.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about his own life that he went to the woods near Walden Pond so he would “not when I came to die discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau though, was never too far from civilization and his yearning for life was hardly a dangerous proposition. Not so Dean Potter, a pioneer not only in the rock climbing community but in the field of human powered flight, sailing off cliffs wearing a suit that made his arms and legs wing-like, then deploying his parachute to land safely. His most celebrated flight was flying off the Eiger mountain in Switzerland after climbing that mountain unaided, a feat in and of itself heavy with risk.

I am conflicted about Potter’s choice of lifestyle, activities which flirted with death and feel the need to explore his choices since for a reason that may seem irrational, his death is making me think about how best to “suck out all the marrow of life”, as Thoreau wrote.

Let’s assume that Potter felt the need to push the boundaries of the possible to satisfy his own thirst for life and let’s assume that he accepted that the risk was death. He is not the first to take this path. As a kid I remember the thrill of watching the daredevil Evel Knievel sail his motorcycle over more than a dozen cars on one jump and thirteen Greyhound buses on another, sometimes crashing in similar attempts, not dying, but breaking dozens of bones. I remember watching him try to fly his specially made one man rocket over the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho in 1974, crashing into the far side of the canyon, and surviving. And I watched all this on the ABC television network, one of only three major television networks of the time. A man testing himself, coming to the edge of death was public spectacle and entertainment and one that is repeated again and again in many different ways even now: race car driving, free diving, a matador facing a raging bull.

People take many roads to make peace with their lives and find success. But even the most seemingly successful men and women of our day often crash and burn despite great objective success, actors and musicians taking their own lives, successful politicians making stupid and illegal choices, ruining their careers. So, can Potter be faulted for living his life to what for him was the life he needed to feel fulfilled, even if that life carried the price tag of death? What’s a person to do if the only way he feels alive is by staring death full in the face, “to slip the surly bonds of Earth…to touch the face of God”. words written by English test pilot John Gillespie McGee Jr. after flying to 30,000 feet during a test flight in 1941. McGee died in a plane crash months later at the age of 19.

Pilot McGee was serving his country in war time. We mourn his death but accept it as the inevitable cost of war. But how do we respond to Dean Potter’s death, and similar deaths that have come before and those that will surely follow? Should we as a society openly tolerate activities that are a clear and present danger to their practitioners. Should we stand in the way of those who’s struggle to feel alive takes them so close to the edge? Should we support companies, like Red Bull and GroPro, that sponsor adventurers taking possibly fatal risks, like Jeb Corliss, another wing suit flyer, or Felix Baumgartner, who sky dived from 126,100 feet high falling faster than the speed of sound during a live-streamed event in 2014. We watch knowing they can die and they jump knowing the same and their sponsors who enable their efforts stand to profit the most. Even Corliss conceded after his successful wingsuit flight through a keyhole formation in Tianmen Cave that “my time on earth is limited but what I do with that time is not”. Like Knievel, Corliss has also returned to his sport after suffering serious injury.

We regulate other activities that are deemed injurious such as alcohol and drug use. We have an ongoing robust debate about about assisted suicide and the right to die. So, as a society, we do cherish life. Yet, we do not prohibit people from taking great risks with their lives. We do not outlaw cave diving, a notoriously dangerous activity, nor BASE jumping, although jumping off of public buildings and in National Parks is usually prohibited. Should we outlaw these activities because they have a high mortality rate? Should we ban flying in a wingsuit?

Or are these men and few women who takes these great risks really our own proxies for living life on the edge? Do their successful wing suit flights and leaps from space give us a unique moment of satiety about all that life can be, and than when they die, their death coaxes a hushed sigh of relief from deep in our throats that, “yes” we were right to avoid risk, to continue in our quotidien lives, lest we end up in pieces on the valley floor?

Unlike Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, who have now passed on, and others like them still alive (the free climber Alex Honnold comes to mind) and many others out of the public view, few among us have a passion we are willing to die for. I am envious of the person who has a passion so fierce he will follow it at all costs. But even if I had such a calling I would deem it unfair to heap that cost on family and loved ones who ultimately and for the duration of their lives will pay a big part of the price. It certainly seems unfair, selfish actually, to bequest that burden on one’s young children.  But at the same time, it is not in the purview of society to forbid people from exploring their limits as long as they are not actively doing harm to others.

But Potter’s life and death at the very least should cause us each to seek out passions in our lives, be they great or small.  And hopefully they are passions we are willing to live for and passions which ennoble the spirit and soothe the soul.

Howard E. Friedman

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Off the Trail: The Anthropocene is here to stay.

The term Anthropocene is starting to appear more and more frequently. The “cene” ending of the word is familiar from any number of geologic epochs such as Holocene or Pleistocene. But in the case of Anthropocene we humans are the subjects, not dinosaurs, or glaciers or seismic events of unimaginable proportion.

Scientists continue to try and understand how we humans, the “anthro” in Anthropocene, are impacting our planet. Are we causing irreversible changes with development? Or over-population? Or did we start to irrevocably alter the planet when we began agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, deforesting and tilling the earth?  And anthropology professor Dr. John Hawks has written about some anthropologists who wonder if we should capitalize the word at all or refer to our epoch with a little ‘a’ just to signal that this time period is currently unfolding and its full details can not yet be known.

Read below for two scientists thoughts on this topic after convening an expert panel to think and write about our current geologic era and try to determine where we can go from here in understanding the “Anthropocene” and the impact we are having on what is for now, at least, our solar system’s only known habitable planet.

Below is the beginning of the article which was published in theconversation.com and which I saw re-posted on earthsky.org. I encourage you to read the entire piece, written by Professors Ben A. Minteer and Stephen Pyne, both of Arizona State University.

HF

What does it mean to preserve nature in the Age of Humans

“Is the Earth now spinning through the “Age of Humans?” More than a few scientists think so. They’ve suggested, in fact, that we modify the name of the current geological epoch (the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago) to the “Anthropocene.” It’s a term first put into wide circulation by Nobel-Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in an article published in Nature in 2002. And it’s stirring up a good deal of debate, not only among geologists.

The idea is that we needed a new planetary marker to account for the scale of human changes to the Earth: extensive land transformation, mass extinctions, control of the nitrogen cycle, large-scale water diversion, and especially change of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases. Although naming geological epochs isn’t usually a controversial act, the Anthropocene proposal is radical because it means that what had been an environmental fixture against which people acted, the geological record, is now just another expression of the human presence.

It seems to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for nature preservationists, heirs to the American tradition led by writers, scientists and activists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. That’s because some have argued the traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.

Given this situation, we felt the time was ripe to explore the impact of the Anthropocene on the idea and practice of nature preservation. Our plan was to create a salon, a kind of literary summit. But we wanted to cut to the chase: What does it mean to “save American nature” in the age of humans?”

(the rest of the article can be accessed here)

Walk in alone. Walk out together.

March is the unofficial start to the hiking season, at least for people setting out to hike a long trail, like the 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Setting out in March avoids the coldest, snowiest part of winter and provides a long enough time to walk until the cold settles in again in the fall. More times than not, hikers start out on a solo journey, hoping to challenge themselves.  But along the way, even the most solo of solo hikers will find comfort in commiserating, camping, hiking, with others he or she meets along the way. And while the time spent in the company of others may be brief, that joining together can lift the spirits of even the most aching, blistered and tired soul.

We have many journeys in life that we must embark on alone. But ‘alone’ does not mean abandoned. My nieces and nephews just lost their mother, my brother lost his wife, who passed away at the age of 55. The end arrived as they sat by her side for long days and nights over several weeks. They are a close and united family, but naturally still face this challenge each on his and her own terms. The husband and the children entered the hospice room as individuals but they emerged from that space and a week of mourning together, bereaved, yet even closer.

The Appalachian Trail is often referred to as ‘the long green tunnel’. The trail is a single-track which passes through mostly forest, a long tunnel amidst maple, birch, oak and hickory leaves, verdant green in the spring and summer. Walking  along you can feel isolated, traveling alone with the burden of your gear on your back,  rays of light squeezing between the dense canopy of leaf filled branches, illuminating the ground with occasional spots of light here and there. But as you make your way and meet others who share your journey, your steps feel lighter as you share your burden. And despite your physical and emotional exhaustion, the journey through the long green tunnel does eventually come to an end. When you emerge, no matter how alone your sojourn felt, at journey’s end, know that you did not walk it completely alone.

Howard E. Friedman

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