Flying into LaGuardia, the City shimmering outside the airplane window — labyrinth of light beneath squid-ink sky. Bridges spanning black waters, buildings silhouetted against dark vistas, boulevards radiating in concentric directions. Circuit board of the digital economy.
“City of hurried and sparkling waters!” sang Walt Whitman, “city of spires and masts! City nested in bays! my city!”
“You’ll be the troublemaker.” Arif gave me a sly look as he guided me to a far corner of the restaurant, and I nodded, because surely life is too short for small talk.
There were six of us seated at the table. Four middle-aged women — each one attractive, intelligent, engaging, successful. A quiet-spoken serious young man with a shock of brown hair. And me, wearing camouflage-colored Yankees cap and a few days’ worth of stubble.
This was an “intergenerational dinner,” hosted by the Hoot Owl, a cozy restaurant in upstate New York with a loyal local following. The event was organized around a series of questions designed to elicit discussion.
There are two themes to the December Grid so far. First is the question whether I can get all 35 done, with the latest challenge being a sore knee and a tight groin, which together led me to abort an attempt on Big Indian and Doubletop earlier this week. The second, and more interesting theme, is the effort to “push back” against the grim cold conditions of winter, especially on the part of someone who’s pretty comfortable in the heat (even back in the day running in summertime Death Valley) and for whom the cold can be a little intimidating. As it happened, the other day an email showed up from the Wim Hof organization promoting a new book by investigative journalist Scott Carney, titled “What Doesn’t Kill us,” which profiles the author’s experiences with some of the cold-training methods that have made Wim Hof famous, culminating in a shirtless climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Over the last few years I’ve played around with some of the Wim Hof techniques, and this new book sparked my interest again, and helped me stoke a little bid of attitude with which to confront the cold. (Also, I signed up for ten 10-week Wim Hof instructional video series, so it will be interesting to see what I learn going forward.)
This post is based on talk I gave at the John Burroughs Association May 20, 2017 Slabsides Open House, assisted by my friends Lisa Zucker Glick, who read the John Burroughs’ quotations, and Jim Porter, who read the words of Walt Whitman. For additional citations and references, please see “Running the Long Path.”
The east coast naturalist John Burroughs was a passionate observer of the forests, animals, and especially the birds of his native Catskill Mountains. He wrote unabashedly, “I find I see, almost without effort, nearly every bird within sight in the field or wood I pass through (a flit of the wing, a flirt of the tail are enough, though the flickering leaves do all conspire to hide them).”
This was no idle boast. Theodore Roosevelt, himself a great birder, acknowledged Burroughs’ mastery in his 1905 book, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, where he wrote that “No bird escaped John Burroughs’ eye; no bird note escaped his ear.”
As a Burroughs fan and someone trying to improve his own skills, I was thrilled to discover recently that the master had left behind some advice on the art of observation. Several of his essays contain how-to tips, including “The Art of Seeing Things,” “Sharp Eyes” and The Gospel of Nature, which I’ve tried to summarize in this blog post.
But first a few words of caution, in the form of a caveat Burroughs offered his readers: “I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner. Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it. Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles.”
The other day the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone, and an account seemed in order.
(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.
Slide Mountain is the Catskills’ highest peak, and one I’ve climbed many times, including both summer and winter, day and night — but always following the trail from Big Indian Valley. One day I was rereading “In the Heart of the Southern Catskills,” John Burroughs’ account of his first ascent of Slide Mountain in 1885. Burroughs had long been intrigued by Slide, but he wasn’t going to take a trail. Rather, he chose the more remote Woodland Valley as his starting point and then made his way to the summit through unmarked forest. Moving off trail like this is today called “bushwhacking,” and depending on the terrain, it can be exhilarating — or extremely challenging.
I put down the essay and thought for a moment. As a member of the Catskill 3500 Club, I had climbed the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, of which a dozen or so require bushwhacking because there is no trail. But it had never occurred to me to seek a bushwhack route when an established trail was available. Why would you do that?
Then a light bulb went off: because it would be a totally new experience.
Pulling out the map, I measured a straight shot from the Woodland Valley Campground to Slide’s summit, about 2.5 miles in distance and 2,000 feet in elevation gain. Towards the top, the grade got steep, I noticed, exceeding 40% in places.
Two weeks later, a little before 9:00 AM, I was pulling into the parking area at Woodland Valley Campground to meet my friend Alan. Our goal: to reenact Burroughs’ bushwhack ascent of 1885 …
In Whitman: A Study, the Catskills nature-writer, essayist, and philosopher John Burroughs (1837-1921) defended Walt Whitman (1819-1892) against the hostile reactions of contemporary scholars, for whom Whitman’s poetry was too coarse, racy, and controversial. In the book, Burroughs presented Walt Whitman as the “poet of democracy” and described him as a primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, and prophet. But Whitman: A Study isn’t just about Whitman, it’s also an exposition of Burroughs’ philosophy. Inspired by both science and nature, Burroughs saw natural processes at work within society, and he explained how both physical strength and the vitality of culture can fade if we lose our connection with the natural world. This message seems just as relevant for our information age as it was 120 years ago when Whitman: A Study was first published.
In a previous blog post, I expressed skepticism about John Muir’s message. Both nature and humanity are expressions of God’s love, he had written, but it was pretty clear he didn’t care for humanity’s towns, cities, factories, and social conventions. In some of his most famous quotations, he described nature as a place of “refuge” from the worries of everyday life, with the “healing power” to cure the wounds of society. The wilderness was a source of beauty that “cleans and soothes and warms” and a place for “repose,” “pure rest,” and “sleep.” As a runner, I had trouble relating to these metaphors and found the message a little preachy.
But then I read a comment by John Burroughs, America’s most popular nature-writer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Burroughs lived in New York’s Catskill Mountains, on the other side of the country from Muir’s beloved Yosemite, but the two men had met during a trip to Alaska, and while their personalities were quite different, they shared many values, respected each other’s work, and became friends.
A unique character — greater talker than as a writer — he loved personal combat and shone in it. He hated writing and composed with difficulty, though his books have charm of style; but his talk came easily and showed him at his best.
— John Burroughs journal entry 1915
Based on this assessment, I needed to give Muir another chance. So I picked up a book called The Wild Muir: Twenty Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures, which contained first-person accounts of some his most interesting exploits. And now that I was hearing him talk (so to speak) instead of preach, I got a much better sense of the man….