Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau’

An attempt to strangle-hold summer.

In Dogs, Nature, The Examined Life on July 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Boats come and go under my balcony all day long. Sometimes, late at night, after I’ve gone to bed I, hear them plying the calm night water, slowly going up and down the slip out to the Fore River and the bay. It is a pleasant sound and one that comforts me, as the sound of the fog horn in the winter comforts me.

It is summer in Maine and the water-ways are full of traffic. I sometimes envy the boaters, power or sail there is no discrimination to my envy. I don’t have a boat, nor will I get one, but I envy the ready access to the water a boat affords. The best I can do, is get in the water directly. I tried to swim off the East End yesterday. Usually I can get in a mile or even two mile swim and be better for it. But yesterday it was choppy and windy and the bay was teaming with white caps and I turned back after only a half mile. As I walked out of the water a boater launching his craft from a trailer said he was going to get wet in the chop, that I had chosen to get wet but he wanted to avoid it. I’m sure he got soaked.

A boat is a thing and I’m trying to avoid the accumulation of things now. I’ve had my run at “things” and now am attempting to shed them. Eventually you come to understand that the things you own end up owning you. “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” repeated Thoreau. I grew up with that phrase but forgot to practice it somewhere along the way. Now I attempt to make amends. I have a tattoo on my left arm, Om mani padme hum–the Tibetian mantra. Perhaps I should consider Thoreau’s admonition on the other arm, as I tend to forget it.

Regardless of all that, summer is the time to be out of doors. And even more so here, where summer has a short–but intense–life span. Last week I was in the Moose River region, near Jackman, a dozen miles or so from the Canadian boarder. It is a remote area. And the weather can be challenging, even this time of year. I had to put on a heavy fleece when I got out of my tent in the morning. And in a cold downpour poor Lucy, soaked and obviously not happy, looked at me as if to question this strangle-hold I seem to exercise on the summer experience. Like youth, summer is gone before you know it.  I recognize this. It is a singular wisdom that I now grasp. Soon enough you realize that sleeping on the ground and scrounging for firewood was easier before hip replacement. This truism I realized a couple of years ago, but am too stubborn to accept. It is my nature to nurture this stubbornness as long as I can.

“I need to go to Moosehead every afternoon, & camp out every night.” ~ HDT

In Memoir, Nature on June 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm

The phrase “cabin fever” was first coined in 1918, assuming one does not count the actual illness called cabin fever. That malady, a sickness related to eating watery potatoes in bad weather, can be traced back to Ireland in the early 1800s. No, I am referring to the cabin fever to which some of us succumb after a winter cooped up and hibernating. That cabin fever is manifested as an itching to radically change venue, or, to a lesser degree, a hankering to get out of the house or perhaps out of the town, to a park, for example. In severe cases one wishes to be removed from civilization altogether. When experienced in this fashion, a person will become disagreeable at the least, at worst miserable and misanthropic. I get this illness every spring like clockwork and I usually head it off before it blossoms out of control. No longer.

I write this after a couple of days of prophylactic treatment against this annual threat.

It is pushing the season to go camping in Maine in early June. If fortunate, one experiences a reward reserved for the hearty: crisp, cold even, evenings and mornings, crystalline days. If fortune does not shine on the intrepid camper, wind, rain, sleet, even snow will be the punishment. We were out only two nights, but we garnered favored rewards.

The problem is, like so many positive life experiences, one desires more. In my case, attempting to quell cabin fever only exacerbates the problem. A couple of good days on the trail, makes me yearn for a week or so of similar good days. It’s a slippery slope, for one such as myself. I spent a lot of my youth in the woods and on the mountainsides. Now, fully domesticated and past the prime of my physical existence (as painfully true as that is to write), I quietly nurture the germ of my youthful planting. That is to say, with the advent of spring, I leap with full abandon, into the chasm of irrational cabin-fever induced behavior.

There was a summer many years ago, where I lived out of a backpack, or in a canoe. I was at summer camp in upper Michigan, and returning from one outdoor adventure, geared up immediately the next day for another. Coming and going, into the woods, back to camp to resupply, and back into the woods. Another summer I went west and into the mountains and didn’t return for months, spending weeks above tree line.

Thus it is, I sit here with a map of Moosehead Lake in front of me and a copy of Thoreau’s The Maine Woods in my hand. I have outlined on the map his trip from Greenville to Northeast Cove at the north end of Maine’s largest lake. I have convinced my long-suffering wife to let me go out to play by myself, that a solo canoe trip into the vastness of what Thoreau called “the wildest country,” is in order. She has always been supportive. I suspect, however, that what is really at work here is her wish to be rid of me for a while. This annual fever business is messy and disagreeable and simply giving way to it probably makes the most sense.

Lastly, as we drove home this week, I shared with her the reality of my existence: I have, at best, barring the unforeseen, maybe twenty more fever seasons. After that, I suspect I will have learned how to cope with it accordingly. But until then, I count them down and truth be told, encourage them. I nurture the cabin fever through the spring and usher it into the sun with the care and tenderness it deserves. It is a calling, a distant barking dog across the water of a remote pond in an awakening wood. I paddle my canoe toward it.

My window

In Nature, Philosophy, Thinkers on February 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm

From my kitchen window I look out over the Fore River, or, rather, where the Fore empties into Casco Bay. You wouldn’t know it was a river at this confluence, unless it was brought to your attention. Regardless, there is water and sometimes, morning in particular, I look out over it in wonderment. For instance, just now a loon, who is wintering below my window, surfaced with something–it looked like a little crab–in her bill. She tilted her head, jerking back and forward, and swallowed twice. Then she shook her head, looked over her shoulder, and–flip!–disappeared below the surface, looking for desert, no doubt. Besides the loons, we’ve also had mergansers and exquisite long-tailed ducks as winter guests. My neighbor has spotted golden-eyes and buffleleheads, but I haven’t seen them yet.

I’ve been noticing birds for several years, on land and water. I’m not a birder, truth be told. I aspire to being a birder, but I’m not there yet. Birds, like much of what I enjoy about the outdoors, are a vehicle by which I connect to nature. In nature, I find enriching wonderment. I guess it could be called transcendence, as Emerson and especially Thoreau, found it. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the word transcendence. I’m not sure transcendence is something I long for. Wonderment, yes. Transcendence, not so much. It implies leaving something behind or rising above something, I think, and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Wonderment–like clarity–seems the antithesis of transcendence. It seems more like being in the thick of things. Perhaps the fine philosophical points are lost on me. Regardless, there are water fowl below my window and I nurture the wonder they prompt in me.

There is an important word in ancient Greek thought, that relates to this experience: arete. Arete has for centuries been translated as virtue. But, as I’ve just discovered, that is likely incorrect. In the new book, All Things Shining, the authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly point out that a better notion of the word arete is human excellence. “Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life,” they write, “that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.” Related to birds below my kitchen window: “…excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.” That rings personally true. It is while in a sense of wonder that I am most reminded of my humanness. I have, among other things, loons to thank for that.

Walk On!

In Philosophy, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on October 15, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I have new essay is up at The Nervous Breakdown. It begins:

“Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer.  It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.”

To read the full essay, follow to this link: Metaphor: On Walking