Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Run in the Woods, Part II

Continued from Part I below...

When the first European settlers arrived in the early 19th century with the intentions of staying, they found a vast ocean of grasses: big and little bluestem, switchgrass, wildflowers such as compass plant, rattlesnake master, purple coneflower, pestemon. In groves and alluvial areas they found a mature forest with several varieties of oak, giant cottonwoods and sycamores, some ash and birch, hornbeam, walnut, and various types of maples. They made detailed land survey records that give us a snapshot of what the land looked like right at the genesis of white settlement in the 1820's and 30's, a period that brought the axe and the plow, the removal of the grasses for cultivation and logging of the forests for building material.

So where does this leave me today on my run in the woods today? Well, I'm certainly looking what is almost entirely second or third growth trees, no prairie (save one native, but tiny hilly prairie remnant in Forest Park), lots of invasive species; in short, a very modified form of any of the natural stages of ecological evolution and the environment as it existed upon contact.

If you want to see the only example of old growth forest left in centrail IL., then take a trip to Funk's Grove, south of Bloomington. The term "old growth" simply isn't in our vernacular. Sure, some large oaks still exist in isolated hollows around the Illinois River, but even its ancient bluffs have been significantly altered. Whereas man made fires and culling used to keep the understory cleared out, we now have an almost entirely closed canopy and a densely forbed forest floor. Newer growth deciduous forest is still there, but the shade tolerant maples, with no burns to kill off their saplings, are outcompeting other species, and in 50-100 years they'll dominate if not thinned and managed and a bed created to promote the growth of the more needy native oaks. Non-native species--too numerous to list--are everywhere.

I try and make no value judgments. The accusing stare of our "roadsides for habitat" are all we need to remind of what is lost. But land, by law of nature, is never static; please take care to remember that we live in the holocene, the current interglacial. Things will change and gain balance as they warrant. We will be outlasted by "nature," for she is nothing if not patient, and blissfully uncaring of our petty temporal restraints.

In the short term it is up to us to decide how our runs in the woods will look and feel. Is a tree a tree? Do enough of us even care or perhaps even notice the difference between a two or three hundred year old oak--a silver maple sappling--a thorn laced honey locust? Big bluestem or Kentucky bluegrass? Perhaps not. But the forest doesn't need us in order to go on. Mark Twain once wrote:

"When I was a boy, I looked into the river and saw my reflection. And I said, "Who's that?" My mother said, 'Samuel Langhorne Clemens.' In 1882 I returned to Hannibal, a celebrated writer and lecturer and steamboat pilot. And I looked into the river again. And I saw the reflection of an old man. And now, I look into the river and I see no reflection at all. We all come and we all go, but not the river..."

And yet I still try and frame my proper place in the world, contemplatitve of all that has been, is, and will be shaped long after my body is again part of the cycle. All on a run in the woods.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Run in the Woods, Part I

In the 1980's, entomologist E.O. Wilson introduced a concept known as "biophilia," a hypothesis that suggests that human beings have an instinctive bond with other living systems. The startling idea that our love of the natural world is literally melded into our hardwiring.

An aspect of my personal biophilic tenedencies (that only sounds bad) involves land. I simply love land--its topography, flora, history, human provenance, character. My desire to more deeply explore these elements led to a specialty while studying History in grad school of Environmental History and Historical Geography, two closely related methodologies, the former using traditional historical research while borrowing from diverse scientific fields in a quest to explore how humans and "nature" have interacted, while the latter being the specific study of how a place changes over time.

All ecosystems have a story, but my primary interest lies with the Grand Prairie Section of my home in Illinois, to which I try and apply my historical training to better understand. On my many runs through the woods, the main question often framed in my mind is: "Just what am I looking at and experiencing?" Further, how have these landscapes come about and where do we go from this point? I hear from environmentallly minded folks all the time suggesting that we in the Midwest destroyed an entire prairie ecosystem in the matter of a few decades, and are in the process of desertifying what currently exists. In a way, yes, it is true, the tallgrass prairie/oak dominated lowlands are gone, almost entirely cultivated and logged since the mid-1800's (I did an entire thesis on this, but the details will be spared for now) but the fact is that all ecosystems are in a perpetual state of change.

We tend to romanticize "The Prairie" as being the paragon of pre-settlement ecological purity, the unspoiled wilderness defiled by pioneer hands. This simply isn't the case. I'm willing to set aside practices by native peoples such as burning, canal digging, damming of waterways, hunting and fishing of numerous animal species, all things that date back 100's of years before large scale settlement, and focus more on the effect of natural cycles on this particular environment.

In Illinois, glaciation has been the main sculptor of our topography during the 1.8 million years of the Pleistocene, the Illinoisian and Wisconsinian periods, from 180,000 to 17,000 years ago, being largely responsible for our current land forms.

The ice sheets reached their southern terminus near modern day Shelbyville, IL about 24,000 years ago. From that point northward retreating ice had the affect of a box scraper, in simplistic terms, levelling the uplands and leaving bogs and rudimentary waterways that drained glacial meltoff, these being constantly carved and then re-carved.

If I were to have stood in central Illinois in say, 15,000 BC or so, I wouldn't observe even the embryonic stage of the tallgrass prairie. Glacial and interglacial moisture and climatic conditions assured a completely dynamic patchwork of forests and tundra.

When I reach back into my being to the post-Illinoisan period, I can feel the cool, crisp air and smell the freshness of the developing spruce and pine forest, a scene similar to what exists today in southern Canada.

During the interglacial, as the climate warmed and moistened, a deciduous forest consisting primarily of oak, elm and hickory took hold. The pre-Wisconsin period ushered back cooler conditions and pollen samples dated from 30,000 years ago tell us that the coming ice razed a mature spruce forest, leaving a chain of meltwater lakes and swamps, then a tundra of sedge interlaced with the spruce remnants.

Analysis indicates that the resultant drying and cooling allowed an ash dominted forest makeup until around 10,000 BC, at which time dryer air brought back an oak/hickory/elm makeup that was able to dominate until 4,000-1,500 BC, when grasses gained a foothold in the uplands, leaving groves of oak forests as large islands and continued predominance of forest in the low areas where fire could not entirely penetrate--finally the "prairie" mosaic of our collective mythological imaginations--the land that the Illinois tribe and later bands of both Potawatomi and Kickapoo lived, hunted, celebrated and died on--the land my grandparents tilled, where I, as a postmodern man, seek my running refuge on.

...to be continued

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday Run

Well, managed a 3 plus hour run this morning at McNaughton. Conditions were absolutely ideal, cool temps in the 50's, trails are adequately dried out after recent rain, creeks were even down a bit but up enough to cool me off. Felt pretty solid throughout the run, I think I'll go ahead and sign up for Howl at the Moon and shoot for just over marathon distance. Much positive energy: A great run, the fish are getting to spawn and hence are active, allowing for a whole slew of nice bluegill caught at the pond last night, two rounds of disc golf this weekend, and the Cardinals are kicking some serious tail.

I finished reading Stephen Bodio's On the Edge of the Wild a collection of essays on the west, hunting, guns, food, and a few book reviews. Bodio writes with eloquence and immediacy and these essays reek of fresh cooked venison over an open fire, celebrating the beauty found in the blood and grime; those arm chair reactionaries would do well to steer clear of Bodio--everyone else, sidle up to the bar, order a stiff shot and enjoy the burn of the whiskey over some great conversation.

"Life in the wild is not just eating berries in the sunlight. I like to imagine a "depth ecology" that would go to the dark side of nature...the ball of crunched bones in the scat, the feathers in the snow, the tales of insatiable appetite. The other side of 'sacred' is the sight of your beloved in the underworld dripping with maggots. Can you live with the thought of that consequence?"

Soundtrack: Son Volt "Trace"

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

David Blaine, Ultrarunning, and the Meaning of Endurance

I recently happened upon magician David Blaine's primetime television spectacle, during which he attempted to break the world record for submerged breath holding after having lived for a week in a water filled glass sphere. It is easy to dismiss Blaine as a huckster showman, a wannabe noveau-Houdini, which he readily admits to being. Yet, despite the veneer of self-promotion, I believe there are more layers to a man like Blaine. I've had some interest in him for years, even perusing his book "Mysterious Stranger" at one point. A street magician and illusionist, it's not these skills that interest me, but rather his feats of endurance and will where nothing traditionally magical enters the equation, just pure human spirit.

Blaine asks us to look into ourselves to find our perceived limits, assess if those limits are real or artificial and then make a decision to accept them or seek something beyond the artificial horizon of self-doubt.

Ultrarunning asks some of us the same questions. Why run 50, 100, or more miles in a single shot? Has not evolution eliminated the need for modern man to cover long distances on foot? Yes, as a utilitarian enterprise, there isn't a lot of discernible merit to distance running, living underwater for a week, free diving to almost unfathomable depths, being encased in ice for two days, or myriad other "crazy" human enterprises; and still such endurance certainly holds the potential to redefine what we are capable of.

I sometimes observe the look on a person's face when it's made known my desire to distance run (although the info is usually given grudgingly). Consternation is often the response. Is it perhaps natural to want to jump back from the cliff? To mock or be horrified by something so far outside our perceived comfort zone that the mere notion shellshocks our supposedly civilized sensibilities? The anarchist in me says to hell with such sensibility.

A few years ago I was vacationing in Colorado on a hike up in Yankee Boy Basin and struck up a conversation with an outdoorsy looking younger gentleman and a retired couple. The young man pointed up to an exposed rock face about 1500 feet above where we stood and told us that the previous winter he'd watched two skiers descend that vertical drop into the basin, to the which the older guy displayed not only shock but an intensely hateful response something to the words of "What crazy sons of bitches, they deserved to die for being so stupid." Why the vitriol? Jealousy? Fear? Perhaps the unwillingness to acknowledge that some humans push boundaries he'd never so much as considered.

One of David Blaine's stunts was to be suspended over the Thames River for 44 days, during which time many folks came by to taunt him with profanity or throw objects at him, proving yet again that some us truly do hate people or concepts we don't understand. But not I! My inclination is to attempt to embrace what I don't or seemingly cannot understand, that which may detonate my bodily and psychological security. I will run 100 miles!

The beautiful thing about endurance as a mode for exploration is that it unlocks the potential we have to go deep into our internal realms, to face down the shadows of being. That old guy in the mountains, I would wager, has spent a lifetime turning from his shadows. To house it in the running vernacular I shouldn't say that 5k runners are less enlightened (ok, maybe I should an am) but yes, sometimes speed is sex and distance is true love.

In our era of Mountain Dew fueled X-gaming, extreme just about anything, hell you can buy "x-treme" deodorant for lawd's sake, the heart of endurance still offers a gentle beat and a place for contemplative self-awareness. Free diver, Paul Kotnik puts it like this:

"I saw, for the first time, an approach to aquatics that is diametrically opposed to the heart pounding, blood curdling, white knuckle, hair-raising adrenalism of my windsurfing co-conspirators. My instructors mindset was one of...alert serenity. Everyone I'd ever known approached windsurfing or spearfishing as if he was going to war. They (instructors) were going to peace."

And so do Blaine, the ultrarunners, the thru hikers, those who endure embrace the calm found in another kind of extreme--the extreme effort that contacts all levels of being.

On my so small stage, I too will keep seeking the serenity just waiting to be discovered in the soft soul of endurance--to move toward peace.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Running Plans

I've only been out for one semi-long run since McNaughton (but lots of short ones), athree hour out at Farmdale. Erring on the side of too much recovery I think is better for me. Besides, have had some little flareups of plantar fasciitis, nothing too severe, but you gotta watch that mess. My hope was to maybe do the Howl at the Moon 8 hour as a training sort of run for Dances With Dirt in September. I've heard nothing but great things about Howl, so that's a must-do this year. After that, who knows. Lose some weight, sharpen the speed, try and avoid injury, and see what transpires.

On a side note, finally tried my Montrail Masai trail shoes. I don't know, they're awfully narrow, but then compared the gunboats that are the Brooks Beast, snowshoes would feel tight. I'll withhold judgement until I get a few more runs in with them.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Eagle Dreams

I recently finished Steven Bodio's book Eagle Dreams: Looking for Legends in Wild Mongolia. It is, at once, a book about falconry, deep tradition of the pastoral peoples of northwestern Mongolia and southern Kazakhstan, travelogue, and reflection on the depth and differences from a culture lovingly birthed over millennia and in opposition to our own petrie dish conceptions, new off the show lot sparkle of the right and proper path of the human condition.

Bodio is a naturalist with a romantic's soul and the early parts of this book on hunting and the somewhat esoteric world of falconry are suitably fascinating, the narrative tailing off a bit towards the middle when he lulls into more a straightforward travel writing tone. I persisted through the minutia of what exists on numerous menus in Ulan Bataar and got to the meat, the reason Bodio was traveling to these outer reaches in the first place: a chronicle of the peoples who still hold to the ancient (and yes, they are literally ancient) art of hunting with falcons and golden eagles. It's these people, stereotypical sometimes, in flowing colorful nomadic costume, resplendent with glorious feathers, craggy, weather worn faces, dark eyes holding the mysterious secrets of a life lived on and with the steppe. And yet, they are real faces, not caricatures, not an act put on for the industrial tourist, but humans upholding and disseminating the code of a primal part of all us. Bodio does a masterful job of taking us into this world while at the same time not romantically lapsing into voyeuristic complacency. And then we have the birds themselves. Their concerts with their human counterparts, maybe the real story needing to be felt:

"An eagle's perception of its own life might be of a bright eternal present, like a carnivorous Buddhist’s--confident, centered, and watchful, with a dimmer past and no thought of the future. If she thought of us at all, she might think that we crawl on the earth, eating dirt and sticks, killing from afar with a loud noise if we manage to see prey at all. If she could speak, she might say, 'I hold creation in my foot/or fly up, and revolve it all slowly--I kill where I please because it is all mine--Nothing has changed since I began."

Monday, May 01, 2006

Rites of Spring

Spring, she comes in like a tidal wave, building somewhere in the South Pacific off a craggy atoll and racing towards some Asiatic coast on the crest of those frosted March mornings. The Natives, the ones conditioned by generations of listening and feeling the sea, sense her impending landfall (yes, spring is indeed a lady) long before the moderns are wise and swept up in an inescapable current. And so she comes down.

If you open your senses, feel her barreling past the Phillipines taking the shape of a single green bud on the timber floor, that cardinal passing through the switchgrass thicket at sunup.

And then she hits--surrounded by a swirling eddy of rising colors, the greens, the purples and pinks of the violets, yellowish hues on hardwood foliage, remains from autumns vanished.

On my run the other day I stop in the that favorite bluebell patch ( I savor their tenuous nature) and gently sheperded a handful home along with an apple blossom to rest on my kitchen counter for a few days, their presence prolonging my willingingness to drown in the seismic tempest first subtly sensed many runs ago.

"You ask why I live in the mountain forest,
and I smile and am silent,
And even my soul remains quiet:
It lives in the other world
Which no one owns
The peach tree blossoms.
The water flows."

Li Po