Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In Praise of Walking - 1911 Book

Note the permanent sidebar link to the Google-scanned text of a book that has been part of my library for a long time. "In Praise of Walking" contains delightful essays on that topic by Carman, Hazlitt, Stevenson, Thoreau, Burroughs, Symons, and Morris.

Google Books has an on-line scanned copy of this lovely book of essays that every dedicated walker should read and ponder.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Workaday Walks

Monday, August 20, 2007. A long morning jaunt in the farmlands of northwest Alachua County, Florida began on a dirt road that passes between a tobacco field and a millet field on its way north to a cattle ranch on the Santa Fe River. The tobacco was all but harvested; now just bare stalks with a crown of small leaves and a few spikes of pale pink flowers stood naked in the field.

The millet was a different story. It was vigorous, robust, and seemed to be loving the hot rainless weather we've experienced lately. Individual stalks stood about waist-high. Six to eight foot plants towering over their brethren at the extreme edges of the field hinted that this field had been cut over once before. This field of millet was destined to be silage for cows, and the second cutting was nigh (the friendly farmer presently appeared driving a large tractor with a sickle-bar and began cutting as the walk began). I broke off several millet spikes that were bursting with seeds to take home to add to a trellis upon which I've interwoven the seed heads of the many sunflowers I grew this year to attract butterflies and birds to the yard. Cardinals and other summer locals have been busy at work on these offerings during the past week or two.

The modest pleasure of drawing then observing birds and butterflies to one's home is an easy way to begin to reconnect one's self to the natural world and to become more aware of the lives and workaday doings of these lovely creatures. I recommend the effort to everyone with a little patch of earth that they might devote and cultivate to that purpose. Perhaps you might set up and stock a bird feeder or two and begin to plant annuals and perennials that attract birds and butterflies native to your area. Or let a piece of your yard go wild for a few seasons and see what a gentle yielding to nature brings. The rewards are many. I promise.

The walk in the floodplain woods on the far side of the millet field was equally rewarding. Here and there majestic spruce pines towered over younger blue beech, Florida elm, and swamp chestnut oak. Portions of this parcel of land, once mostly cleared and farmed during the last hundred years, preserve a portion of the rich floodplain slope forest that once dominated the area. How does one know that? This parcel abuts the 1200-acre Mill Creek Nature Preserve, purchased and managed by Alachua County, a piece of land that holds not only the southernmost population of American Beech in North America, but one of the southernmost populations of beaver as well. Species from the preserve, saved from the plow, are just barely starting to recolonize those portions of the adjacent farmed area that have lain fallow for a number of years. The remarkable diverse forest of the adjacent preserve is truly one of the natural jewels of Alachua County. The floodplain woods and associated wetlands and drainage features on the far side of the millet field will be placed under conservation easement, and will become a de facto addition to the larger Mill Creek Preserve. One couldn't be happier. This is how development should work, no matter the scale.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007. Today I walked around a 2-acre parcel near a freeway interchange that is slated to join a gaggle of hotel properties already in the area. The land was underbrushed a few years ago and a portion of the ground beneath towering live and southern red oaks has been choked by the exotic invasive Cogon grass. While it will be nice to eradicate a patch of this awful African invader, the loss of mature native oak canopy for development of a hotel property is troubling. One tree of note stands on the property line, and will be likely incorporated into the site's landscaping if I have any say (and I do) - a tree in the citrus family known by several names, including toothache tree, prickly ash, and Hercules club. The tree's foliage is shiny green, and when chewed, turns the tongue, teeth, gums, and palate uncomfortably numb - hence the name toothache tree. These native trees prefer dry open habitats. There are commonly encountered along fence-lines in pastures and farm fields ("planted" by perching birds who've eaten their fruits), but also occasionaly as dwindling hold-outs in well-drained early-successional upland woodlands that have grown up where old fields have been abandoned. The particular individual on this property is quite large and branchy. The species is host to the giant swallowtail butterfly.

My treasure from this walk was a guayabera pocket stuffed with native passion-vine fruits. The seeds within these green ovoidal fruits are covered with a fleshy growth that is tart and fruity tasting. I'd not tried it before today. I was pleasantly surprised by how much flavor Nature can imbue into this edible native food.

Later in the day I walked a few blocks downtown to post a letter and to return a book to the county public library. I'd walked those particular sidewalks many times. This walk was different, because I was engrossed in a new book - Jon Clinch's "Finn" - a new novel by a new author that imagines Huckleberry Finn's father, "one of American literature's most brutal and mysterious figures", to quote the blurb on the back cover. Reading while walking familiar paths is a pleasure in and of itself. You might try it, especially if your reading is generally accomplished indoors.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Exploring O'Leno State Park

I Hiked the Parener's Branch Trail at O'Leno State Park north of High Springs, Florida on a gloriously sunny Saturday this weekend. I started as early as I could to beat the 90+ degree heat predicted for the hottest part of the day. The 6000-acre park on the Santa Fe River is minutes from my home. I have walked the trail and explored the off-trail environs numerous times. Saturday's rewarding mid-summer ramble was 5-6 miles long.

I spent a good while investigating a large upland sandhill community that had been subjected to a controlled burn a few weeks or months ago. I made sorties into the burn from the surrounding fire breaks. Longleaf pines of various ages now stood on bare sandy ground among fresh patches of native grasses and forbs that have been released from competing hardwoods by the fire. Fine-scale topographic features within the burn area are much easier to discern now that the area has been cleared of the thickets of invading hardwoods:

  • Broad sandy mounds marking the eroded sites of long-abandoned gopher tortoise burrows;
  • Barely noticeable ruts of an old cart-path (parts of the park were farmed between the demise of the little town of Leno before 1900 and its acquisition and development as a park in the 1930's);
  • An old fire break;
  • Gopher tortoise trails. Gopher tortoises have dug many new burrows in the burn and are presently wearing new trails from burrow to burrow and to feeding areas, skirting newly fallen logs and other obstructions as they navigate their newly revitalised landscape. The density of new burrows in this area is very encouraging. Gopher burrows are known to house around 300 species of commensal organisms from the cotton mouse to the indigo snake. Many of the burrow-sharers are listed or endangered species too. This is why protecting the tortoises and their habitat is crucial.
It was a strange sensation to hear and feel sounds emanating from the ground beneath my feet as I paused a few yards away from the entrance of one new burrow to listen to a tortoise digging away underground.

O'Leno State Park is home to the River Sink, where the Santa Fe River slowly swirls around in a large circular sinkhole as it drains underground. Trails in the park take one past several more-or-less linear water-filled depressions variously called lakes, sinks, and branches (Parener's Branch is one example). These small fresh water bodies are windows into the Old Bellamy Cave System (50,000 feet of divable tunnels as of 2007) through which the Santa Fe River flows underground for roughly 3 miles through a maze of conduits 80-100 feet below ground level before surfacing as a first-magnitide spring at River Rise Preserve State Park to the south of O'Leno. The natural land bridge between the sink and and rise of the Santa Fe River has been traveled by native Americans since time out of mind, and historically, by the Spanish conquistadores/explorers/missionaries, and European-American settlers and their descendants. The evolving story of the the discovery and underground exploration of this world-class fresh water cave system beneath this land bridge is simply amazing. But I was there to walk and to observe the above-ground plants and wildlife. I leave the dangerous cave diving to the true adventurers.

Each of the sinks, branches, ponds, "lakes" and other hidden and mysterious linear water bodies along Oleno's trails has its own character:
  • Jim's Sink - is picturesque, and reminds one of a Japanese painting. Just now, in late summer, the floating fern Salvinia obscures nearly half of its surface. Yet the basin is active with the sounds of fish sipping insects off the surface and occasionally jumping from the black tannin-stained water with a loud splash. There is an abundance of false indigo shrubs near the bench/overlook.
  • New Sink - further along the trail, is completely different. Salvinia and marsh pennywort have choked the surface of the water and there is little or no false indigo to be seen. Rather, vegetation of the surrounding woods dominates. A tiny island populated by a few woodland trees sits near the overlook. It is evident that the ground around this island recently gave way and left the island standing above the sunken water-filled ground 10-15 feet below. That evidence, and the paucity of water-loving vegetation give credence to the name of the sink. Wetland plants that one would expect to see there simply have not had sufficient time to build up appreciable populations. Here one is reminded that the river flows through a lacework of underground caves and channels, and that the ground beneath one's feet is perhaps not as solid as it seems.
  • A nameless sink - A few hundred yards North and West of Jim's and New sinks I noticed the ground falling away into another depression out of sight from the trail. I bushwhacked through the woods and encountered another small water-filled sink. This nameless feature has its own complement of vegetation different from that of the other sinks. Here a ring of tall buttonbush stands at water's edge. Moving upslope within the circular depression are fine examples of river birch, Florida maple, and parsley haw. There are lovely little haw thickets, and stands of sparkleberry, a small arborescent blueberry species in the piney woods along the sink edge.
It was pleasing to make these small discoveries and to expand my knowledge of the park. Besides these highlights, I made a few other small discoveries notable at least to me.
  • At the first confluence of the "green" Parener's Branch trail and the short "orange" bicycle trail connector (trail segments are marked by painted blazes on trees or by inconspicuous 4X4 trail markers) I found several native hibiscus plants in bloom. This particular rosemallow species has ivory-yellow petals with a blood-red throat. I'm not yet sure of the species, but the individuals are standing among fans of saw-palmetto and shiny blueberry in a scrubby area where sand live oaks were the predominant tree.
  • On a stretch of trail north of the sinks I spotted a very large Bluff Oak standing in a forest of large-diameter live oaks, pignut and mockernut hickories, and hop-hornbeams about 250 feet off the trail. This bluff oak was about 40" in diameter and its maximum crown spread about 80 feet. I believe that to date this specimen is the largest bluff oak individual that I have found in this part of Florida.
Walking takes on many forms. You can keep your eyes on the path and rack up miles and miles in a day. Sometimes I prefer to saunter, to look up into the treetops, to meander repeatedly on and off the path, and to stop often to contemplate everything from a flower or a giant tree to the subtle evidences of human activity that ceased a century or more before. Walking has its rewards, and they are not always the rewards you set out to achieve.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dean - First 2007 Hurricane

Tropical Storm Dean has strengthened and so becomes the first hurricane of the 2007 season. Hurricane Dean is walking its way across the Atlantic at 18-20 mph and appears to be headed for the Yucatan. A National Weather Service posting indicates that an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft will be dispatched this afternoon, and the NOAA will send its Gulfstream-IV on a surveillance mission.

You might want to bookmark this Google Earth site to track the storm's progress.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Walking Is Like Breathing

I've considered the long Summer Rambles along town-to-town rural roadways of north-central Florida that my wife and I enjoy. The essence of these extended day-long journeys can be seen as a dichotomy between movement and rest. So consider this movement-rest dichotomy, from the general to the specific.

  • The Earth: The surface of the earth is not flat. It moves. It breathes. It heaves and falls, and it rests. For the most part, our rural walking paths follow a varied surface dictated historically by historic landforms.

  • The Road: The roads we walk are never linear because they follow the land's undulating surface. The way rises and falls like gentle unhurried breathing. The road curves this way and that as it follows the contours of the land and the patchwork of farms and section lines. On straight level stretches the road rests; on the curves and dips the road moves. It moves and breathes with the earth except in those places where Arrogant Man has bent it to his purpose and forced the road to unaturally lie where it wouldn't otherwise.

  • Walking: We begin our walk from a state of rest and about 10 miles later end the walk and rest again. Walking, we stride with purpose through the sunny stretches and linger in the shade. We stop to contemplate a lovely tree, or a sandhill crane in a pasture, or the blush of new growth painting the outer branches of an oak hammock. Then we start again. We stop to drink and stretch, exchange a touch, a kiss, then start walking anew. Movement and Rest. We fall into the rhythms of the land and those of our own bodies.

  • Conversation: Speaking repeatedly begins, swells, then ebbs into silence. Within each utterance, each spoken syllable is either a consonant that stops sound, or a vowel that sustains a sound. Our speech is a stream of vowel sounds (literally the movement of our vocal cords) broken by the rhythm of consonantal silences (the voice apparatus at rest), with longer or shorter pauses between utterances.

  • Breathing: Inhale-Exhale. Each breath fills our lungs with the smells of Summer, of hay and horses, of swamps and pinelands. Breathing out is relaxation that expels care, worry, and stress. A slight pause, then it starts again. Inhalation is movement. Exhalation and the pause that follows is rest. Movement and rest. These are worthwhile things to contemplate.
Our lives, second to second, minute to minute, day to day, year to year, from beginning to end, are a symphony of rhythms. What we do within these nested intervals is how we live our lives. We select the notes, and can choose where pauses will occur and we may orchestrate the movements and rests. We are free, even, to chose the ensemble of players that help us play out our lives' rhythms and music. Unhappiness is the result of either exerting too much control on the rhythms and movements, or conversely, not guiding and orchestrating the rhythms of our lives just enough to achieve or maintain a balance. The ideal: The Happy Medium. The Golden Mean. Restraint. Moderation. Just Enough. Not Too Much.

I believe Humankind's biggest Sin and Error is to dishonor the natural rhythms of the Earth and Nature, and of our human-ness, and to alter them for its unnatural and greedy desires. The history of modern/western industrialism is a record of Man's imposition of dissonance and disharmony everywhere he goes. In the present moment we commonly find ourselves walking far out of step with everything, including our own heartbeats. Is it any wonder that there is unrest and despair in the world?

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Monday, August 13, 2007

When Walking Wont Do

There are places you just can't walk to, especially in Florida, places where folks may still try to sell swampland like the Marx Brothers did in their movie debut The Cocoanuts.

Kayaking (my boat, left) will get you to many of those places. Paddling solo or with companions affords many of walking's benefits: the quiet observance of nature's flow and rhythms, and periods of stillness that draw one's thoughts inward and that invite contemplation of one's place in the universe. With the expansive sky above and mysterious water below, you find yourself floating on the fluid and limpid surface between the depths of your inner landscapes and the boundless potential of the human spirit. That is a good place to visit.

Perhaps it's time you got on the water, or got to walking.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Fall In The Air

I once wrote the following after a pleasant late-summer saunter through woodlands near Gainesville, Florida.

I visited a place off of Millhopper Road early this morning, west of the interstate. The hike began and ended on the top of a grassy rise dotted
sparsely with pines. The morning air was cool and dry and breezy, and the countryside was mostly quiet except for the wind sighing in the pines, with that unmistakable hint of Fall in the air. Blessed, rapturous, wonderful Fall! In the air!

On this clear morning I am quietly quite beside myself with anticipation and excitement, for soon comes my favorite time of the year when the air is sweet with drying vegetation, when the slant of the sunlight through the trees is wonderfully "just so" and has that morning-in-the-mountains feel for me, and when the passerines begin their sojourn back from the North. Autumn is a time when the natural world slows down, pulls up and takes stock, takes a new cleansing breath, flies its banners, and then exhales sweetly into the restful winter. I, on the other hand, become innervated by that sweet expiration. I move around more, feel more creative, am happier, accomplish more. I breathe deeper and contemplate more. My tread is lighter and I feel blithe and light on my feet. My internal landscape seems keener, more focused, more alive, more Summer-like, as if the slanting light of shorter days permits me to see and guide myself anew and clearer by my own confident inner lights. During the Fall and early Winter I feel more right with the world and move through it cleaner and more peaceably than at other times in the year. My heart swells and my capacity to love widens.

What a wonderful gift this change of seasons is for me, and what a wonderful gift it is to be walking literally and figuratively through the seasons with such as you. Oh, great days are ahead! Great Days.

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Summer Rambles

Long summer rambles through miles of farmland in Florida's Marion and Alachua counties are a gift and a blessing. Soon on the road, one feels like a familiar old machine that is well-oiled and running perfectly and realizes that we humans were built for walking long distances with each other. You become acutely aware of every sight and sound.

The walkers' pace permits you to see things seldom noticed, especially at the scale of, say, a leaf hopper. You encounter things along the way in a manner that you could never experience in a car. Things like bits of wire, colored glass, pieces of bleached armadillo husk, turkey vultures hunched over a raccoon carcass, or a baby goat straining at the fence for a scratch behind his little spikes and a taste of your sweaty fingers. You hear unseen cows bellowing from hidden pastures a mile away. Frogs of all stripes burp and croak and squeak from culverts and roadside swales, cautious of one's tread or the big banded water snake lurking in the sedges. Crickets and grasshoppers and katydids and cicadas buzz and clack all around, orchestrating a plangent communal jangle that abruptly trails off into silence without explanation. The sounds of nature, at first foreign, become familiar and full of meaning and messages.

Above and all around, the fierce and omnipresent sun presses like a hot iron. Yet walking over open ground under the sun brightens your mood, as if the sunlight were pooling in your heart and viscera, driving ill-will and the day's cares out of your pores with your sweat.

Traversing these long and unhurried distances reconnects us to the physical world. Conversation shared with one's walking companion is as expansive as the sky and can be by turns lofty, philosophical, or jocose. There is no complaining, no guile. You instinctively assume Nature's mien. There is no rancor or jejuneness in Nature. Only beautiful richness and complexity adorning simple honest purpose. The way one's life should be.

These are some of the lovely lessons I've learned as my sweet wife and I have gone a-walking this summer.

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