Sports column: Thinking of the outside

We were at the top of the ridge. We’d been going steadily uphill for nearly an hour, winding our way up the slope heading north and east. Finally, we cut through a familiar pass between two hilltops, and were ready to start our descent.
Cross-country ski conditions weren’t great on the ascent, but they were okay: better than we’d expected. At the bottom of the mountain, where we live, the open meadows and farm fields were largely barren of snow. What little was left after the meltdown in January had gradually disappeared until only the woods still held white ground cover.
For that reason, we’d considered driving north toward Stowe, which generally has good snow through the winter even when more southerly areas have lost theirs. But in the end my wife and I decided to stay local. The Nordic center at Blueberry Hill claimed good cover, and skiing there would mean less time in the car and more time on our skis.
More time on the snow and less in the car is a good thing for more reasons than the obvious two, which are more time on the snow and less in the car. It also means less consumption of fossil fuels, which in turn is less cost to me and less cost to the earth and air.
And where I spend my time also affects my thinking. My mind is always wandering in a dozen directions. And I’ve begun to notice lately that what I think about — the direction of that wandering — depends to some extent on where I am.
When I’m inside my house, washing dishes or showering or just sitting by the fire, or in the car with the radio on, I’m apt to think about indoor sorts of things. This indoor thinking has a technological undercurrent, probably because I’m surrounded by technology. I think about my house and how to improve it. I think about stuff I’d like to buy or replace. I think about work projects that need to be done. I think about cars, tractors, ATVs and firewood harvesting.
When I’m outside, by contrast, I think outside thoughts. I think about trees and mountains and grass and snow. I think about the animals that made the tracks beneath my feet or are flitting about on the branches overhead. I think about the colors of the clouds against the sky, or the sun as it reflects off distant mountains.
On the way up the hill, I was thinking about the ski conditions. They were okay. The snow was a bit crusty, and in open areas there were patches of bare ground. One of the bridges where the trail crosses a stream was really sketchy and led to a scary wipeout for my wife. But for the most part it was ski-able.
I was also thinking about the mix of trees we were skiing through: maple, oak, beech, paper birch and yellow birch. Winter hardwoods have a wonderful stark beauty, and I was aware of just what an amazing thing a tree is. Requiring every person to start every day meditating on a tree for five minutes would change the world. Maybe that’s why the book of Psalms begins with a meditation on a tree.
I was also aware of the evidence of damage from the two severe windstorms in January. There were broken limbs and snapped trees all around. And I was aware also of the blight taking hold of the beeches. Several stands of them barely looked like the silvery beeches I know and love because they were so scaly and mottled.
And that left me wondering about the recent blizzards in the mid-Atlantic. It is undeniable that humans have dramatically changed the world we live in. I don’t think all change is bad. A beaver changes its environment. And while a beaver pond wipes out one small eco-system, it creates another that has a beauty of its own, and a habitat that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
I feel the same way about a well-built and well-run small human farm or homestead. Yes, it removes something from the landscape, but it also adds something beautiful and enriches many types of life.
Unfortunately, many human-caused changes to the world seem far less benign and less beautiful. And these changes are not local, like the farm or beaver pond. I have little doubt any more that some human changes are affecting the global climate. What is more difficult to know is whether things like record-setting blizzards in Baltimore are related to these human-caused changes, or are simply part of the short- (or long-) term cycles of things. Maybe we’ll never know.
The glide down the backside of ridge on Sucker Brook Trail was beautiful. The trail descended at just the right slope for a good long coast, but without any hair-raising corners. After a time, it picked up the course of its namesake brook on its path down toward Goshen Dam, and paralleled it along the top of a gradually deepening little ravine.
Here the ski conditions were nearly perfect. No bare patches. Deep enough snow for the groomers to have laid parallel tracks. Snow that felt more like real snow, and less like crust. I was glad that Tony at the ski center had sent us this way. For a while, my thoughts were all about snow and trees, the sound of streams rushing through icy ravines, and the rhythm of my glide. I needed that.


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