Measuring our time on the trail

We are all quants now. Like the Wall Street analysts, we quantify everything that has a number associated with it. We can track our steps, our total distance covered, our sleep, our heart rate. We can track our pace or our speed. We can track our rise and fall in elevation, our calories burned, our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly accumulated mileage, or, switch to kilometers to really up the numbers. We can get the information on a gps watch, a black bracelet, a fancy watch, a smart phone or tablet or delay the gratification and wait to get back home to check out the stats on a desktop. Now with wearable technology, even our shoes and socks can log our data.

The quantitative analysts on Wall Street can do what they do because business is described in numbers-the quarterly profit and loss numbers, the numbers of widgets manufactured, sold, not sold and sold and returned and of course the stock price and dividend. But now quantification is becoming firmly embedded even in the trail under our feet not to mention in our daily lives. The proliferation of tracking devices reduces a post hike recap from a simple ‘wow’ to a “wow, did you know we just logged 1,854 feet of elevation change” and a simple sense of exhausted exhilaration following a hard run is replaced by poring over the stats, the list of  mile by mile times and a careful evaluation of the pace. Was it better or worse than the day before, the week before or the month before. And these tracking devices now add the daily temperature and wind speed to their reports as well and even leave space to add a few comments like, “felt pretty lousy” or “sore left knee”.

I know about this because I have succumbed to this practice. Immediately  after a run I immediately check my tracking app. And I actually find the information quite useful, interesting and even actionable, especially if I have a goal in mind.

But what are we not measuring and not communicating? My running app has no happiness metric or pure joy tracker. It has no early morning dew on my shoes alarm, or sunlight shimmering on the water detector. It does not have an amazement meter that goes off when watching acrobatic swallows diving through the air or an “oh wow” tracker when I spot a cormorant surfacing in the river with a fish in its beak or spot a yellow warbler amongst the leaves.  And my running app does not tabulate how many times I started out in a so-so mood and ended up pretty happy, or, vice versa.

yellow_warbler

yellow warbler (www.lilibirds.com/gallery2/v/warblers/yellow_warbler

I submit that what we can not measure gets lost and subsumed in the massive data which we can measure. The intangibles like joy, freedom, inspiration, accomplishment, overcoming adversity and other critical elements that constitute the human soul are lost as the fleeting moments that they are and perhaps, that they are supposed to be.

We truly have no language to quantify the most valuable of our experiences and this is certainly true when out in nature, pushing our physical limits or simply enjoying the time out doors. Art and music strive to capture out deepest emotions at the most ephemeral moments of life but they can not quantify our experiences like a gps watch can track our miles, pace and elevation changes. Our time in the woods, by a lake or in a meadow, will remain what it is – a transcendent moment. And our memory of that experience with nature will leave us as it should. Speechless.

 

Howard E. Friedman

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‘The Road Not Taken’ Revisited

If activities had an official poem like states and countries have national birds and flags and songs, than Robert Frost’s 1915 poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ could be the patron poem of the ouDQMbBQAAQBAJtdoorsman. Deep in the woods, the narrater contemplates the two paths before him, “and sorry I could not travel both” he says. But choose he must. “And I-I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” concludes this poem with its two most famous lines. And to the tens of thousands of people who have read this poem 20 lines,the credo of taking the road less traveled has become an anthem of sorts, a clarion call for rugged individualism, a recipe to how we can be certain our decsions make all the difference’.

In The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong (Penguin Press 2015), author David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, a teacher at Cornell University and a graduate of Yale Law School,  challenges the common interpretations of this poem. He argues in the 172 page book that Frost was not actually exhorting the reader to take the harder or hillier or more difficult path. Rather Frost was exploring what it means for people to have free will to choose.

 

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en.Wikiquoute.orgMr.

Mr. Orr calls on his own considerable talents of literary analysis to plum the nuanced depths of this poem but he also cites a number of Frost experts and other scholars to help explain the man and his writing as it bears on “The Road Not Taken”. Orr cites the Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson to explain the roots of this work. According to the biographer, Frost and his friend English poet Edward Thomas would often take walks together in the woods. Thomas however was indecisive and, regardless of which path they took would invariably regret that path not taken. Frost penned this poem and sent it to Thomas who according to Thomas’ biographer Matthew Hollis was “troubled and confused by the poem and might even have read it as a goad”. Whether Frost’s poem had anything to do with it or not is beyond knowing but shortly thereafter Thomas decided to enlist in the British army and was killed two years later. Frost meanwhile returned to the United States. “So the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken”is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend”, Orr writes, “an ironic parallel for a thoroughly American poem.”

Robert Frost struggled as a writer and a poet from high school until well in his thirties after he was married and had a family. Indeed, “At thirty five he was nobody even to the people to whom he might have been a somebody”. He was publishing short stories in a chicken farmer’s publication called The Eastern Poultryman. But he had commercial success in 1912 with the publication of “A Boy’s Will”. “The Road Not Taken” followed a few years later  and his success continued. He read his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost died in 1963. And according to the author David Orr,  “The Road Not Taken”  has appeared in more than 2000 news stories and as a subtitle in more than 400 books not written by Frost. The poem was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial.

So, what is ‘The Road Not Taken’ really about?

In an almost talmudic analysis Orr writes about the title of the poem, or, that is the title that is popularly, and incorrectly typed into search engines, ‘The Road Less Traveled’. The true title however,focuses on the road not taken, and is decidedly not about what the narrator did, Orr states emphatically, but about what he didn’t do. Every phrase and sentence of the poem is up for close reading by Orr as he tries to decipher this oft cited yet not clearly understood most popular of American poems.

Fo example, the choice of the word “roads” instead of paths  or trails.  Although Frost’s traveler is alone in a forest, “which ever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people” as opposed to following some game trail or haphazard path that cuts it way through the forest.. Frost’s wayfarer defines his choices, “one path grassier than the other”, with no mention of his destination. Is he in a rush? Is he interested in scenery or is he looking for a challenge. Does his choice really make a difference? And, does he even have a choice?

Orr titles the next section of the book, ‘The Choice’, wherein he probes the whole notion of free choice and what it means to choose:

‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ – within two lines, it feels as if we’ve arrived at the center of the dilemma intrinsic to all dilemmas: the necessity of choice itself. If we were to dream about what it means to choose, that dream would look something like “The Road Not Taken”.

Nonetheless, this poem does not address critical elements of choice, Orr explains with several examples. Frost does not address the affect of this choice on others. The decision does not have anything to do with the culture of the place, a forest. It does not reflect on any moral consequences or even present the traveler with so many options, just two. The narrator can chooses in peace without the distraction of the details of daily life yet, there seems to be no chance the walker will fail to choose and simply turn around and go back. “So if all these potential dimensions of choice are missing from the poem, what are we left with? A kind of idealized or “pure” choice,” Mr. Orr proposes.

And so the author concludes his thoughtful discussion of “The Road Not Taken” by focusing neither on the poet nor the poem but on the nature of the chooser.

“One of the less remarked features of “The Road Not Taken” is that it offers a portrait not just of decisions but of deciders-or,to pick a more helpful word, of selves.” Orr brings several examples of how this notion of choice has been embraced by a community of self help authors and valedictory orators, urging us to choose the difficult path and challenge ourselves as a means to discover our true selves. Orr suggests that we can not precisely define ourselves wholly by our choices and their consequences:

“But most of all, we see the centrality of the junction itself. “The Road Not Taken” never mentions what the speaker finds on the path he eventually takes; instead, the poem concludes by echoing its own opening lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood,” as if to return us to the forest in which we started. What matters  most, the poem suggests  is the dilemma of the crossroads.”

We all make choices in our lives and no one can really ever know what would have happened had we veered onto the road not taken. Do we do ourselves any justice by trying to peer back into a past that never became reality? Frost’s traveler does indeed look back at his moment of decision, with a sigh. But in a remarkable poetic irony, his thoughts turn not to the road not taken but to the ultimate choice he did indeed select, the road less traveled.

Robert Frost has created a most challenging duality where one can be both “sorry I could not travel both” but assured that his choice “has made all the difference.” Something to thing about at life’s next crossroads.

Howard E. Friedman

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(http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536)

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Paddlers

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A lone canoeist in the morning mist (H. Friedman 2015)

Last week two dedicated freshwater paddlers both made the national news. Although the arc of each of their lives differed greatly, their dedication and attachment to the outdoors and to paddling its rivers, lakes and byways was one thing they shared in common. Unfortunately, their deaths on the water was also their final point in common too.

Douglas Tompkins, 72, the founder of the international apparel company the North Face, a kayaker and adventurer, a land conservationist and a multi millionaire, died of hypothermia after his tandem kayak capsized in cold waters in General Carrerra Lake in Chile where he had been on a multi day expedition with friends, including fellow adventurer and outdoor apparel founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. The lake is the second largest in South America. Tompkins’ kayak capsized when water conditions became rough. He was in the water reportedly for two hours until rescued by the Chilean Navy. He died in hospital. The other members of his expedition survived. This story was widely reported in major news publications around the world.

Less widely reported, in fact only reported in the weekly U.S. magazine The New Yorker, as far as I know, was the presumed death of another adventurer and truly dedicated paddler, Dick Conant. Spotted by a duck hunter, his  overturned plastic canoe was abandoned along the shore of the Big Flatty Creek in North Carolina several weeks ago with all of Mr. Conant’s possessions, leading authorities to conclude that the paddler had died although  his body has not been found. In an article published last week in the magazine called “The Wayfarer, A solitary canoeist meets his fate” New Yorker staff writer Ben McGrath introduces us to a man of sparse financial means who has spent the past number of years paddling his plastic canoe on rivers covering the length and breadth of the eastern United States, mostly camping out but occasionally accepting the kindnesses of strangers. His home base for several years had been a makeshift campsite in a swampy area in Bozeman, Montana, until the camp site was burned in what Conant suspected was arson.

Mr. McGrath  met Mr. Conant by happenstance along the shore of the Hudson River where the canoeist was on a journey toward the Florida panhandle and interviewed him at length. In fact, one can even hear the iconoclastic Mr. Conant speaking in a New Yorker podcast based on the magazine article. Mr. Conant, who was about 64 years old,  had been a class president and graduated near the top of his high school class  in Pearl River, New York in the 1960s, according to the article. Conant, who was not in regular contact with any of his siblings, had received a scholarship to attend SUNY Albany where he studied art and played varsity soccer.  He did not graduate due to academic issues and possibly the beginning of some psychiatric issues, specifically paranoia. He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1989.

But where Mr. Conant did not complete college and went on to drift through a series of jobs working variously at a hospital or library,  Mr. Tompkins who did not even complete his private high school  succeeded in building a small outdoors apparel store in San Francisco in 1966 into a multi million dollar international adventure clothing empire. And after he sold his multi million dollar share of that business, he reinvented him self again as a land conservationist in Chile and Argentina.

At around age 43, Mr. Conant began to re-make his life into that of a near full time adventurer and a writer, keeping meticulous journal entries for his various river trips each of which lasted many months. Indeed, Mr. Conant described himself as a “canoeist who writes”, Mr. McGrath reports. But where Mr. Tompkins and his colleagues had access to the latest kayaking boats and gear, Mr. Conant began his last journey in a $300 14-foot Coleman plastic ‘Scanoe’ he bought at a sporting goods store near his put-in.  And he packed as much as he could into that boat stuffing canvas duffle bags and plastic sacks and covering them with tarps.

It is ironic that Mr. Conant is exactly the kind of person Mr. Tompkins would have wanted as a North Face customer, if only Conant had any disposable income to buy a decent rain slicker or warm winter jacket. Moreover, while North Face and other gear companies tend to glorify the outdoors life as a superior liberating and natural one, Dick Conant flatly rejected that notion. He stated emphatically that he was not heading out to spend months paddling his way around the country to ‘find himself’, but to see interesting things and meet interesting people. In in a touching moment recorded by Mr. McGrath, Conant volunteers that he would much rather be living in a home with a wife, had his life  worked out that way.

But it didn’t. And instead of sulk about Mr. Conant set out under his own power to truly be the captain of his ship. Thanks to Mr. McGrath’s timely and excellent reporting and writing in The New Yorker, the public now knows about the extraordinary life and perseverance of Dick Conant.  At a time when we pause to note the tragic and untimely loss of Doug Tompkins, adventurer, entrepreneur, extremely successful business man, land owner and conservationist, a man with good and influential friends, a wife and  loving children and a man whose obituary was printed around the globe, we should also take a moment to remember and appreciate the equally untimely and tragic loss of Dick Conant, “a canoeist who writes.”

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