With a sore ankle slowing me down and limited windows of time, it wasn’t going to be possible to complete the Grid for June, but if I could get a few more peaks done now, then there’d be less work next year. Meanwhile, with the weather finally warming, it would be a wonderful time to explore the mountains and experience the changing conditions of late spring.
Indeed, the variability of the natural environment is one aspect of its beauty. The east coast nature-writer John Burroughs commented that you cannot have good without evil, health without sickness, or pleasure without pain. Applying this philosophy to spring in the Catskills implies you cannot truly appreciate a cool breeze on a warm afternoon without suffering the humidity, haze, and insects that also come with spring. In any case, whatever the mountains might have in store for me would beat the climate-controlled office environment where I spend most of my time.
The day was overcast when Odie and I set out for High Point, not the best conditions for appreciating the 100+ mile views, but you never know when the winds might shift, or what you might see if you opened your eyes.
Thoreau wrote about the brilliant colors of New England’s fall foliage, but I wondered, what about winter? And I found such a wild mix of impressions during my winter runs: sun dazzling against fresh rime ice, clouds rolling in and smothering the world in dim light — one hike was a slog through sand-like snow that spilled out from underfoot and dribbled down the rocks, another a desperate scramble over sheets of ice, and then a storm rolled in with pelting sleet and lightning. Even at night there was a huge variety of sights: solitary farm lights sprinkled across the darkened plains, snowflakes sparkling in the headlamp’s beam, moonlight shining on snow-packed trails so bright you could run without lights, or the crescent moon rising above a distant mountain ridge and glowing in such a strange mix of orange and purple it seemed like a hue that’d never been seen before.
But now it was spring — and everything was changing so quickly, it seemed if you blinked you might miss it all.
So I kept my eyes open as best I could, and here’s a collection of spring impressions, things I noticed while hiking the Long Path along the Hudson River and in the Catskills.
“I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” wrote Walt Whitman (1818-1892) in his poem, The Song of Myself, an eerie echo of a theme in 13th century Japanese Zen literature:
There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire…. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.
— Mountains and Wates Sutra, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)
Could there be a world of sentient beings in a piece of lichen?
Last weekend my friend Steve Aaron and I had the privilege of accompanying nature photographer John Franklin on an expedition to Slide Mountain. John is working on a book about New York lichens, and he kindly shared many observations with us as well as some spectacular photographs which are showcased below together with some apropos quotations from Henry David Thoreau.
Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Autumnal Tints”, last fall I’d headed out in early September, while the mountains were still green, in search of the first red maples turning scarlet. That experience got me thinking: while we all love the fall foliage, what about winter colors? And spring?
One day I stood in the Shawangunks and stared at the Catskills. It was a cold winter day, and the distant mountains seemed carved out of blue crystal and white diamond. I remember feeling a surge of adrenaline, as if I could at that moment head off and run the thirty miles from here to there, although the icy wind dissuaded me.
This experience made me think of John Muir’s famous line in an 1873 letter to his sister, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” He used similar expressions in his account of his first summer in the Sierras, when during 1869 he accompanied a sheep herd into the mountains. For example, when he first got high enough up in the foothills to look deep into the Merced Valley, he perceived “a glorious wilderness that seemed to be calling with a thousand songful voices.” Similarly, his diary entry from July 8 of that year notes: “Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, ‘Come higher.'” In fact, every aspect of the natural wilderness called to him:
How interesting everything is! Every rock, mountain, stream, plant, lake, lawn, forest, garden, bird, beast, insect seems to call and invite us to come and learn something of its history and relationship.
(I was reading one of John Burroughs’ essays, and his description of the American Crow caught my eye, and made me think of my friend Tom Bushey, who loves to photograph them. Thank you, Tom, for letting me post some of those images here.)
Hardy, happy outlaws, the crows, how I love them! Alert, social, republican, always able to look out for himself, not afraid of the cold and the snow, fishing when flesh is scarce, and stealing when other resources fail, the crow is a character I would not willingly miss from the landscape. I love to see his track in the snow or the mud, and his graceful pedestrianism about the brown fields. He is no interloper, but has the air and manner of being thoroughly at home, and in rightful possession of the land. He is no sentimentalist like some of the plaining, disconsolate song-birds, but apparently is always in good health and good spirits. No matter who is sick, or dejected, or unsatisfied, or what the weather is, or what the price of corn, the crow is well and finds life sweet. He is the dusky embodiment of worldly wisdom and prudence. Then he is one of Nature’s self-appointed constables and greatly magnifies his office. He would fain arrest every hawk or owl or grimalkin that ventures abroad. I have known a posse of them to beset the fox and cry “Thief!” till Reynard hid himself for shame.
— John Burroughs “Winter Sunshine,” 1875
Note: during fall and winter months, crows roost together in the thousands, and even in some rare instances, in the millions. They begin gathering together in late afternoon in a location separate from the roost, then as darkness falls, they move to the location where they’ll spend the night. Experts think this is a behavior that helps them defend against their primary predator, the Great Horned Owl, and possibly, too, a strategy for sharing information about food sources.