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

-30-

Advertisements

On the Trail: Winter and the Big Bang

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a week riddled with more senseless and barbaric killings around the globe one small item of astrophysical import did not  garner much attention, even though it addressed the fundamental question of how the universe began.

The mercury began this morning in the teens when I awoke.  Dressed in layers I ran  to the nearby woods to see what I would see. In winter, all is hidden yet all is revealed. I saw no animals running about but only remnants of their activity from the day or night before. Squirrel tracks galore, raccoon and opossum prints, the occasional deer tracks and even the footprints of a family of mallards on the ice covered portion of the slow moving creek, webbed toes pointed toward open water. Two red tailed hawks and a great blue heron took off from their hidden perches, quickly, silently, vanishing like actors disappearing into the wings.

I ran a familiar route on snow and ice and came to the small pond, now frozen solid, a rare opportunity to walk out on the ice. The water is never deep here so the only risk would be wet and frigid feet if the ice cracked below. But it held.

The harsh frozen landscape seems ancient, as if it could exist for eternity, in contrast to Spring where flowers and their petals seem so fragile, even at the peak of their beauty. Winter conjures images of frozen planets in our solar system, or the frozen dark side of the moon, dry, seemingly lifeless. And thus winter makes me ponder the origins of our universe and the earth itself.

Professor Brian Koberrlein expanded on an article explaining how our universe did not necessarily begin with one defined singular moment, the ‘Big Bang’. Rather, the professor at Rochester Institute of Technology wrote in Physics Letters B, citing research from the University of Benha in Egypt and Letherbridge University in Alberta, Canada this month, the universe always existed and will always exist. A ‘big bang’ happened along the way, but that moment, referred to as “singularity” by astrophysicists, does not have to have been the first moment.

“Singularity”, one point from which all else emanates, is a comforting idea, and, we each can identify defining moments in our lives that marked a new beginning. But, outdoors in nature, peering down the snow covered trail that fades into a sun filled patina of white and ice, the infinite seems more real than the finite.

And I am glad to welcome “infinity” back into the model of how the universe began. The concept of timelessness helps frame our own travails and challenges. Whatever will be, the universe always was and always will be and we are a part of that timelessness. And while winter on the trail evinces a natural timeless quality, you can follow that same path in the Fall, or Summer, or Spring, and it will still take you to forever.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

On the Trail: Ski shoeing, a mix of cross country and snow shoeing.

Ski-shoeing In the Altai Mountains (https://altaiskis.wordpress.com/, Nils Image)

Ski-shoeing In the Altai Mountains (https://altaiskis.wordpress.com/, Nils Image)

Thanks to ancestors of Mongolian horsemen and warriors who trace their lineage to Genghis Kahn, winter hikers do not have to choose between either cross country skiing or snow shoeing. Rather, they can benefit from the centuries of experience of the Altai people, the indigenous Chinese citizens of the Altai mountain range, bordering China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, who have mastered a hybrid form of winter snow travel, best described as “ski-shoeing”. This technique uses short and wide skis designed to enable walking up snowy hills as with snowshoes, but allows skiing downhill like with cross country skis yet enables sliding across level snow covered ground. And, ski-shoes, which are about 70-75% the length of traditional skis and weigh about 5-6 lbs. per pair, can break trail too.

The ski shoes, called Hoks, which means “skis” in the native Tuwa language of the Altai people, includes a fabric climbing ‘skin’ built in to the undersurface of the skis, as well as metal edges, commonly found on backcountry skis. The Altai Hok skis were designed to be more efficient than snow shoeing yet easy to learn even for non-skiers, Nils Larsen, president of Altai Skis, interviewed by phone from Curlew, WA, said. In fact, hikers can use their existing hiking or backpacking boot with the ski’s universal binding, or, use a cross-country ski boot with a different binding for increased control.

Altai Hok skis, front, and back, showing climbing skin (http://altaiskis.com/)

Altai Hok skis, front, and back, showing climbing skin (http://altaiskis.com/)

The Altai people have been using similar type skis for centuries or longer. They use horsehide, however, as the climbing skin, with the stiff hairs facing downhill to provide traction when climbing. The Hok skis use a similarly stiff but synthetic fabric. Unlike traditional cross country and down hill skis, the Altai people use only one pole, made of larch or birch wood, not two poles. Called a ‘tiak’ this one pole is held by both hands and dragged behind the skier to provide balance when skiing downhill. Larsen explained that using the one pole in this manner really improves stability. The pole is not used to propel the skier forward.

The Hoks could be used on as little as several inches of snow, Mr. Larsen said, and can be used to climb most hiking trails with the exception of thinly covered icy trails. They excel, though, in deeper snow. The Hoks can traverse exposed rocks but the skier has to walk over them like with snow-shoes. Compared to cross country skis, the Hoks are slower both on flat terrain and downhill, and they do not fit into groomed cross country tracks, Mr. Larsen said. But, he maintained, they are more efficient than snow shoes since the user can slide his foot forward each step instead of lifting it up. And, the shorter ski length makes the Hoks more maneuverable than longer skis when navigating around trees in wooded areas, he added.

The Altai people use their ski shoes for daily travel around their villages as well as tracking of Elk in their nearby forests. An Altai Elk hunt on ski shoes was well documented by National Geographic in their December 2013 issue (including some video footage of the Altai skiers nationalgeographic.com). Researchers suggest that short, wide skis lined with animal hair could date back thousands of years and may represent some of the earliest skis ever. Winter hikers may find that this simple design could enhance their winter adventures by making snow travel on the trail more efficient than with snow shoes and more versatile than with cross country skis.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

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.

0126141223