On the trail: Walking and newness

“Are you getting tired of walking?”, Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition asked National Geographic adventurer Paul Salopek after he had completed the first year of his planned seven year walk retracing human migration from Ethiopia, through the Middle East, Asia, North and South America and ending at Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of Chile. Salopek is wintering in Turkey for a few months, to rest, catch up on documenting his trip and plan the next section of his walk.

Salopek did not hesitate to answer.

Myriad reasons attract people to walk the open road or trail. Many are motivated by the need to exercise. Some are seduced onto the rocky trail by the siren call of rustling leaves, or a cascading creek, or the birdsongs which are so prominent a part of nature’s soundtrack.

And if you are fortunate, you returned from your hike or run or walk in the woods feeling emotionally recharged, even if physically tired. You may have seen an animal or flower that quickened your heart beat. Worries dissipated, at least for a time, and where to place your next footstep was your most pressing concern.

But how does it happen? How can running along a brook, hiking in a meadow or walking through the park be so therapeutic?

Today at twilight I ran along a creek, a small river, actually. And I was surprised by what I did not see. No birds. No herons, or egrets or cormorants. No swallows diving toward the water than soaring toward the sky. And I saw precious little animal life. One cottontail, not the dozen I usually see. And one doe, large eyes staring straight at me, but all alone.

The branches were bare save for the pine and spruce boughs. And no trefoils or clover were in bloom. All was quiet, nature bereft.

As I contemplated the stillness I thought of the answer Salopek gave at the end of his interview.

Salopek interacts with villagers (photo by Paul Salopek) http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/paul-salopek/

Salopek interacts with villagers (photo by Paul Salopek) http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/paul-salopek/

“Are you tired of walking?”, Inskeep asked.

“No”, he answered immediately. “I think, on the contrary, that’s what this walk does. This walk has the power I never imagined, to make the whole world seem new again”, Paul Salopek concluded.

How than does the trail recharge the soul? When you engage the world at a slow human pace, and remain in contact with the ground, you have the opportunity to see the world anew.

Around the globe, many people will soon mark a new calendar year. But make no mistake. What makes the year, or month or day new, is not the date on the calendar. Rather, the ability to look at the day with open eyes, and take the time to contemplate that experience, that is what endows sameness with newness.

I do not have Salopek’s seven years to walk. But I can wander into a nearby forest or field, and when I do and whatever the season, even on a barren winter eve, all seems new, again.

Howard E. Friedman



Why Walking Helps Us Think – The New Yorker

by Alex Majoli (Magnum), in The New Yorker Sep. 3, 2014

by Alex Majoli (Magnum), in The New Yorker Sep. 3, 2014

As you settle in to the beginning of a new work week, here is something to ponder. The following article by Ferris Jabr which appeared in The New Yorker September 3rd, 2014 looks at the role walking has played in some popular English literature and how walking might just make us more productive thinkers. This, of course, will come as no surprise to walkers. Thanks to my son for the link.

Why Walking Helps Us Think – The New Yorker.

Howard E. Friedman

On the Trail: One Dose of The Escarpment Trail

Sunny Morning on the Hudson, Thomas Cole, c. 1820 (explorethomascole.org)

On the last Sunday and Monday of May I was fortunate to backpack 19 miles of the Escarpment Trail, a footpath dating back in parts to the early 1800s, which climbs up, and down, and up and down as it traverses the eastern most ridge of the Catskill mountains, providing a commanding view towering 2,000 feet above the Hudson River valley and the self-same river seven miles in the distance. The escarpment, a rocky buttress which extends for more than 30 miles in all, inspired many American painters in the nineteenth century who carried their easels from the southern section of the trail up onto the rocks overlooking nearby North-South Lake and river and valley below, garnering the name for themselves, Hudson River School painters.

Our path began in the town of Windham, NY with a three mile climb to Windham peak at just over 3,500 feet elevation. Our trail followed due south, cresting Blackhead Mountain, 3,950 feet elevation before dipping back to lower elevations. We camped along the ridge top after completing 11 miles, setting out early the next morning to continue our journey, stopping to refill water at a piped spring gushing water from a sandstone massif. The trail transects several types of flora along its course, from Northern hardwood forests of birch, beech, maple and pine trees to Alpine type forests of primarily Balsalm Fir, which fill the air with the smell of Spring itself. The forest than changes to large stands of primarily birch trees along the way. Splashing the trail with colors on either side of the single track footpath were abundant amounts of Purple Trillium flowers (also called Wake Robin) along with Canada Violet, Spring Beauty and Wild Columbine.

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

My mind was still playing back scenes from the Escarpment Trail days later when I read about new research that found that modest exercise in senior citizens can help them maintain their mobility. These findings were reported on May 27th, 2014 at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference and published in the recent Journal of the American Medical Association . Researchers found that a daily walk of only 400 meters, or once around a high school running track, was sufficient to keep older, primarily sedentary people mobile. Of course, everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But, we don’t really know how much is needed to get results.  This study establishes that for this group of 1,635 sedentary people, ages 70-89, walking only four hundred meters could be considered one “dose” of exercise. And according to Wendy Kort Ph.d. from the University of Colorado, who reviewed the study, this research begins to refine the notion of what is an appropriate “dose” of exercise.

Our backpacking trip was necessarily short to accommodate work and family responsibilities. We left at 8:30 Sunday morning and returned home around 5 p.m. Monday but, with travel, our time on the trail really extended for just a bit over 24 hours to cover the 19 steep, rocky miles and allow time for eating and sleeping.

Black-and-white warbler, photo by John McKean (www.allaboutbirds.org)

While the trip was short we did manage to traverse most of a well established hiking path, packed with beauty on the trail including not only wildflowers and shifting forest types, but vistas of the horizon, including the Hudson River, views of other Catskill peaks and even an unexpected close-up view of a black and white warbler only several feet away, perched on a spruce branch. The trail does include one macabre reminder of the power of windy downdrafts along a 2,000 foot escarpment: the well preserved fuselage of a Cessna plane that rests feet from the trail, exactly where it crashed in this mountainous area decades ago, killing its pilot.

This trek into the woods I would say, was one dose, or perhaps a double dose, of immersion into nature untamed. Time will tell how long it will last before I will needs prescribe myself another dose.

Howard E. Friedman

“A Window on Eternity”, in Gorongosa and Chernobyl

Destruction of our natural habitat comes in many many different forms. Edward O. Wilson writes about destruction and rebirth in one such place, Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. And Timothy Mousseau, professor of Biology at University of South Carolina, studies destruction and its impact on rebirth in another location, Chernobyl, Ukraine.

A Window on EternityIn A Window on Eternity, A biologist’s walk through Gorongosa National Park (Simon & Schuster 2014), Wilson briefly recounts the history of Mozambique’s 16 year civil war ending in 1994 which resulted in nearly a million people killed and the creation of several million refugees. A collateral effect of the war was near extinction of what Wilson describes as “the megafauna” of Gorongosa National Park, a wildlife refuge located in Mozambique, but too close to the fighting. Large edible and/or valuable animals were killed for food or profit. Elephants decreased by 80-90% in number. Cape buffalos went from 13,000 in 1972 to 15 in 2001, Wilson writes. Wildebeest went from 6,400 to one and zebras from 3,300 to just 12 he adds.

Thanks to the great efforts of U.S. businessman and philanthropist Gregory Carr who began over seeing the reintroduction of large animlas back into the park, Gorongosa is staging a slow resurrection.

“Another several decades may be needed for Gorongosa to return to its old preeminence, but given the persistence of its undergirding of plants and invertebrates which largely survived the war intact, I believe this  will surely come to pass,” Wilson concludes in the chapter called ‘War and Redemption’. In the chapters that follow Dr. Wilson describes findings from his and his colleague’s expeditions to Gorongosa as he shares their ground-eye view of ants, katydids, praying mantises and others. “None to me is a bug,” he writes, “Each instead is one kind of insect, the ancient legatee of an ancient history adapted to the natural world in its own special way. I wish I had a hundred lifetimes to study them all,”  he writes in the beginning of chapter eight, ‘The Clash of Insect Civilizations’.

But while E.O.Wilson is sanguine about ‘The Conservation of Eternity’ (title of chapter eleven) in nature’s ability to recover from war in Gorongosa park, fellow biologist   Timothy Mousseau, professor at University of South Carolina is less optimistic about the resilience of various phyla of the animal kingdom to survive nuclear fallout. Dr. Mousseau has been studying how various species of birds, spiders and insects have fared in and around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which exploded 25 years ago, releasing large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. His work was featured on Newyorktimes.com.

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Still a hot zone, the area around the old plant has been off limits to humans, making it an interesting living laboratory to study flora and fauna without the day to day interference of human life (though one could make an easy argument that after contaminating an entire region with radioactive waste, day to day human activity is kind of negligible). Since 1999 Mousseau and Dr. Pape Moeller have been documenting aberrations in spider webs, bird beaks,  insects and rodents, all of which they say reflect genetic mutations in animals living in the most radioactive zones around Chernobyl. And, while some researchers take issue with Mousseau and  have pointed to the fact that any wildlife that persists around Chernobyl is proof of the resilience of  various species, Dr. Mousseau cautions that if you look more carefully, life has persisted but not robustly and not in good health.

Neither scenario is appealing. Dr. Wilson documents a resurgence of wildlife in an area that witnessed almost a million human deaths, thousands of animal deaths and which required importing ‘megafauna’ species to help repopulate the area. Dr. Mousseau documents the persistence of weakened and wounded life which, however, has been able to survive a near direct nuclear explosion but which has little hope of ever returning to full health. Perhaps for either scenario, Edward O.Wilson was prescient in selecting the opening quote in his latest book: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live . – Moses at Mount Nebo, Deuteronomy 30:19.”

Howard E. Friedman

Tenacity on the Trail

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Humans aim to thrive.  Yet nature is oft satisfied with merely surviving. And at times, merely surviving is good enough. For example, some trees survive rooted only in a thin crevice of rock. And hikers and trail runners pushing through their day should take inspiration.

Gardeners strive to plant seeds and plants in the most fertile soil, and may even enrich the earth with compost or other fertilizer. And maple trees drop their seeds on the forest floor, rich with years of accumulated soil and decomposed leaf litter. Both gardener and maple tree aim to plant in a nutrient dense environment. Soil is the accumulation of lichens, mosses, fungi, animal and insect waste, decomposed leaves, twigs and fallen branches, a rich mix of nutrients ready to nourish the next seed that settles in its midst.

So it is shocking then to see that some trees are able to sprout from a rock without the benefit of a rich bed of soil. As the seed degrades and germinates, it must leach any and all available nourishment trapped alongside it in its rocky lair. And it must soak up precious drops of rainwater that find their way down the sides of the cold rock walls. Furthermore it must sprout with only the minimal amount of sunlight that makes its way deep into the dark crevasse.

Surprisingly, the sight of a tree emerging from a rock entombment is not so unusual in the forest. ‘Catskill Waterfall’, by Hudson River landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), seen above hanging in the Yale Art Museum, depicts a white birch seemingly emanating from a granite block, at the far right of his painting. And even today when driving through rocky terrain, one can often see saplings and trees growing almost magically right out of the crags that line our highways.

treeinrockTo a hiker or trail runner struggling on a hike or run, seeing a sapling or even a full grown tree swaying above its rocky foundation should give encouragement: to see life that has grown and persevered in adverse conditions. True, the tree growing out from a crack in a granite boulder may not be the tallest tree in the forest, but the tree has survived, and can help propagate its species. The tree can be a home to birds’ nests and provide refuge to insects galore which can burrow under its bark. But the tallest or the biggest tree it likely will never be.

The act of survival in the outdoors plays itself out again and again. Witness any of the birds resident through the winter. On a recent winter walk I was surprised to find myself within feet of a golden crowned kinglet, feeding among fir branches. This species, weighing less than a third of an ounce, is known to be able to survive even at temperatures of -40 F. The kinglet need not thrive on the coldest winter days, merely survive, to live so it can breed again in the spring. And so it is with the song sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, bluejays and downy woodpeckers one sees foraging, relentlessly, for their day’s nourishment throughout the winter.

Survive another day.

Such a lesson, while extreme for a recreational hiker or trail runner, is nevertheless a good one. The next mile which might seem to be insurmountable need not be covered in style. Breathlessness is okay. Sore muscles are okay. Walking and stopping are okay. Even thirst, at least for a short while, is okay. Know your limits, but persevere if possible.

The life force to survive is tenacious.

Thriving, however, may have to wait for another day.

Howard E. Friedman