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A walk in the woods

          It’s becoming possible to walk in the woods again. The slow, ever-so-slow… maddeningly slow retreat of the snow is finally proceeding faster than new additions. Just the other day we got another five or six inches. Even so, layer by layer it’s melting, revealing its past like an archeological dig. Artifacts present themselves in the shape of fallen logs and lichen-covered stones, and evidence in the shape of sunken vole-tunnels and the webby, wispy, grey mold which clings to the edges of the retreating drifts like a miniature polar ice shelf. Peering at the mold up close, I can’t help but think of it as the tiny, woven homes of snow fleas, even though I know that what we call snow fleas are really an arthropod called springtails which live year-round in leaf litter, and spin no silk. We only notice them when they cavort on the warm spring snow. Still, I can imagine that the muddy, moldy, miniature world which springs up only at this time of the year is populated with the pixies and sprites of fairytales can’t I? Nobody said that being a naturalist has to be boring.

          Besides, I’ve come to the conclusion that experience is a purely subjective thing. The only thing that separates subjective and objective reality is belief. If you believe pixies are sheltering under toadstools, then they are, for our brains don’t know the difference between objective experience and imagination. In functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies it’s been shown that the brains of people who are asked to imagine someone’s face show activity in the fusiform gyrus of their brains, or the face-recognition area. Likewise, when they are shown a picture of a face, the fusiform gyrus becomes active. Subjects who are asked to imagine a basketball have activity in their object-recognition areas, just as when they are shown a picture of a basketball.  When asked to imagine the taste of something salty, the insular cortex lights up just as much as when the person is actually tasting something salty. It doesn’t matter if we are imagining it (subjective experience) or actually perceiving it (objective experience); to the brain it’s one and the same.

          But before you decide to just go ahead and believe world peace into reality, don’t forget that by definition belief is involuntary. You can not choose to believe in pixies, evolution or trickle-down economics. You can try to convince yourself of any one of those things but in the end you either believe or you don’t: the choice belongs to that complex coalition of neurons (or, if you prefer, a higher being) which has been informed by all your past experiences and understanding. On the other hand, if you’re at bat and you think to yourself “I’m gonna strike out, I’m gonna strike out, I just know I’m gonna strike out!” you probably will, whereas if you think you’re going to hit a home run, you may or may not, but your chances are a lot better of at least hitting the ball. Thinking leads to belief, so let’s all think good thoughts, shall we?

          And speaking of belief and imagination; in order to maintain what little survives of my sanity, I’ve decided to forestall disappointment by assuming that this thawing is temporary. If this uniformly cold, wet spring doesn’t stretch out into a similarly cold, wet summer, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, today’s forecast called for sunny skies, and it is, right this minute, snowing. I have no reason to believe that future weather events will have anything but a nodding acquaintance with the weather report.  I’ve learned from a lifetime of experience that the key to maintaining happiness resides in three simple, wise words: Lower. Your. Standards. So I took advantage of this ‘momentary’ thaw to begin exploring the hills behind my new house. Yesterday I arbitrarily decided to go straight up. I saw a glimmer of what was either sky or more snow between the trees on what appeared to be a crest, and I aimed for it. The hill was so steep the minutiae of the landscape were presented pretty much right before my eyes, allowing me to study the tiny algae, the green lichen with their fruiting bodies erupting like knobby fur from rotting wet logs and the ruby-red mushrooms mightily shrugging off massive layers of leaf-litter, dirt and elk poop. It’s an ecology which generally lasts about three days, while the soil is still wet, warming and sleepy.

          I climbed to the crest, and to a rocky outcrop which offered a view not only of the valley below but of an even better rocky outcrop, and after that, the best one of all – as long as I stopped looking, anyway. From there I could see and hear the Grey Goose creek tumbling out of the mountains and a couple of long-abandoned mines tumbling off their slag piles. I’d explored one of them before, and it looked as though the miners abandoned it not long after establishing it in what obviously turned out to be unfounded optimism (perhaps they’d lowered their standards a bit much…). The higher mine looks more substantial, and might even yield important and interesting discoveries, not in the shape of ore, but broken dishes and old wood stoves. There aren’t many old cabins around here that haven’t been totally ravaged by scavengers who leave nothing but a vague, rubbly outline of a foundation. These two are protected by the fact that you can’t drive to them. Another walk in the woods for another day.





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