On the Trail: Personal challenges and personal agency.

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

Six wild turkeys emerged from the wooded shadows into a clearing,  single file, variously walking on and sinking in to the foot of snow on the ground. Than another six than another dozen emerged, walking, sinking, moving slowly and circumspectly, stopping to forage among twigs branches and fallen tree trunks.

I had just finished running and walking among the same trails as these wild, ungainly birds. I knew a bit about the challenges they faced moving over uncertain and unwelcoming terrain, having sunk through the snow myself. Moving overland in the winter woods was laborious.

Today’s temperature was 20F, much warmer than last week’s low teens. But there was still a sense of accomplishment in managing the environment, wearing three layers instead of 4, one pair of gloves instead of two.

‘Manage the environment, don’t let the environment manage you’, an intrepid outdoors friend commented.

Humans have been struggling, and mostly succeeding, to manage their environment for thousands of years. And there is a satisfaction that comes with surviving frigid temperatures, avoiding hypothermia and frostbite and yet enjoying the out of doors, with its rich palette of colours, shapes and textures. It is the pleasure of matching personal agency against the challenges of the environment.

And we have largely mastered our environment, be it climbing tectonic uplifts soaring five miles into the hypoxic frigid sky, like Everest, or submerging to study thermal vents miles below the surface of the ocean, like the Marianas Trench, or, of course, the ultimate mastery by man- space exploration.

Yet assuming our personal agency always results in ‘mastery’ is a fallacy. It is a fallacy in the outdoors as witnessed by the many fatalities- Rob Lowe, dying on the cold shoulder of Everest moments after calling his wife in New Zealand to say ‘I love you’, Chris McCandless whose death by starvation trapped in the Alaskan back country was famously chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’, to name only two of hundreds, if not more.

And personal agency as ‘mastery’ is a fallacy in our day to day lives, as it only takes us so far. This is truest especially when faced with overwhelming challenges against which no one can prevail, not the smartest, the prettiest, not the wealthiest or the most accomplished, not the most important. No one.

In the test of man against nature, the latter always prevails. As for our personal agency, we can manage, or try to manage, our responses especially in the face of impending loss.  We can take small comfort that we have, at the least, participated in the process. The winter trail will test your ability to survive the inhospitable, the uninviting, the unnatural for us warm blooded, furless mammals. And it is that mere survival that makes the successful days on the hard packed snow among the barren trees and frozen ponds so gratifying, even as it gives a fleeting, albeit false, sense of invincibility.

Howard E. Friedman

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Winter Ghosts on the Trail

Beech tree in January

Beech tree in January

Wisps of last year linger even at the end of January. Almost all leaves dropped off  their branches months ago but the beech tree clings to last season. Even as it stands in a carpet of snow, its leaves rustle in a wind, one of the few sounds in the forest now. Though the leaves have lost their green color and are now only a ghost of their former selves, they summon up the images of the new leaves that will replace them and the millions of leaves that will appear on the trees that now stand bare in the dry winter air.

Needle bearing trees, pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks are covered in green year around, though even they lose needles from time to time. But they do not lose them all at once. And maples and birch trees lose their leaves in a continuous rain of colorful but dead and dying leaves in late autumn. Yet some beech trees hold on to their leaves throughout the winter in a process botanists call ‘marcescence’, a trait shared with oak trees. The tan wispy leaves that last throughout the winter  no longer participate in photosynthesis. Yet some scientists have postulated that these marcescent leaves serve to protect the new yet-to-bud leaves. And some have suggested that oaks and beeches are an intermediate type of tree on the evolutionary spectrum; occupying a space between the coniferous trees and the maples and birches. (Losing leaves in the fall can be a help to trees by limiting water loss and limit damage from severe cold, while holding on to needles year round may maximize photosynthesis).

Running through the snow-covered trails at Flat Rock Brook park in New Jersey, the leaves on the beech tree seemed incongruous viewed against a snow-filled backdrop. A leaf, after all, represents growth and fertility and hope and springtime. Yet the snow cover bespeaks a winter dormancy, a time of inactivity for forests and gardens. But seeing the ground covered with snow does not mean we cannot see what it hides.

My route took me over a brook crossing, one I had done many times before, rock hopping my way across. I knew the rocks were there but they were under a pile of snow and some hidden in thin ice. I looked down, but saw only mounds of snow and despite the snow cover, intuited my path.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Yet staring at the translucent leaves both on the trees and the ones that finally succumbed to their fate, I saw re-birth. Springtime. Looking at the snow covered trail and the snow on the ground to my right and left I saw, or at least wanted to see, spring wildflowers and grasses, buds on trees and nesting birds. I did see those things I think.

What can we see when we can’t see the real thing?

Educators, psychologists and others have written about the effects of watching television on developing minds.  What happens when everything is revealed? Do we dull our imagination? The advertising industry has certainly settled on ‘selling the sizzle and not the steak’. Leave something to the imagination.

And many researchers have written about our ability to imagine and fill in the visual gaps when we read. I did not find a study comparing our brain function while watching versus our brain activity when reading. But in ‘Your Brain on Fiction‘, a 2012 article in the New York Times, writer Anne Murphy Paul cites findings of neuroscientists who used MRIs to evaluate brain activity in people while they were  reading.The research shows that the written word on the page stimulates even non verbal areas of our brain. A word like “cinnamon” stimulates the olfactory portion of our brains. Fiction, it turns out, is good for our brains.

And last Sunday, running through the snow seeing ghost leaves dangling on the tree and no Joe Pye weed where it is supposed to grow, I would add: experiencing the naked forest in winter has the power to stimulate the springtime portion of our brains even while we enjoy the winter landscape.

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Running in the snow with Ozymandias

English: Footsteps on a bridleway My footsteps...

English: Footsteps on a bridleway My footsteps in the snow on a bridleway from Kinnersley to Earl’s Croome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I ran this morning in 3-5 inches of snow, some fresh powder, some crusted hard pack. Stretches of my route are through a wooded section parallel to a road, crosses a soccer field and baseball diamond, continues along a grassy strip bordering some railroad tracks, and heads straight through undulating terrain amongst oaks and maples on a slope ten feet above the flat asphalt track of our town park. And so, I immediately noticed my own footprints from several days earlier when I ran this same route, in the first snow of the season. There were no other footprints anywhere nearby and I rarely see anyone run along these grassy paths.

I was pleased to become reacquainted with my run of a few days before, to see an actual trace of my earlier endeavor, to know that I had indeed left a mark. But than I saw the inevitable – my yesterdays footprints were fading fast. Covered in by new snow, filling up, the sharp edges of my trail shoe tread footprint crumbling. My own footprints were going the way of the statue of Ozymandias. His statue, memorializing his life, crumbled into the sand. My footprint was also vanishing into the surrounding snow, after only a few days.

So what, really? Ozymandias lived his life. His dissolving statue was merely a testament to the folly of his hubris. My footprints on the other hand were an unintended consequence of a run through the snow. Yet seeing that my path was now marked for all to see, filled me with hubris for my effort of slogging through miles of snow; “Look on my works…”  all ye passersby.

But the disappearing footprints were a quick reminder. The mark, if any, I leave from today’s run is indeed ephemeral. The run, the hike, the long walk lives on. No memorial is needed since the feeling of well-being and sense of accomplishment last long, long after even if I am the only one who knows.