Welcome to 2024!

merino wool and rock tripe

I said once, that to be in one place (at a point in time), is to not be in an infinite number of places, and times, minus one. The significance of the now, and the here, stands out in that moment. Today I could only be in the woods. Like classic Newtonian physics, only one place, and the infinite universe minus one.

Forty degrees, light rain. A tight felted weave of wool over me as I go up, keeps me warm and mostly dry. I have under-layers of merino wool that help me stay warm no matter the chill. I think about how this landscape was directly shaped by the merino wool craze in the 1800’s. Merino sheep of Spain were not allowed to be exported to any other country, and the wool from it, known even today, is superior for comfort where the material comes in contact with the wearer. Some Yankee was able to smuggle some out once, though, and what followed was the Northeast equivalent of the Dutch tulip mania. Prices for breeding stock were astronomical. Prices for the wool itself were so high that there was real economic muscle behind the boom, too. Not just speculation in the breeder’s markets, but real money to be made from a product that grew and regrew every year you kept the sheep alive.

Fields for cows, fields for corn, fields for anything and everything, were converted to sheep pasture. Forests were chopped down by the hundreds and thousands of acres. I was in a small Vermont hamlet once and learned they had an epic landslide way back when, from the land that had lost its living roots and slid down in a heavy rainfall. Virgin forest that had probably existed since the end of the last ice age, chopped down for international market speculation, and lost in the sands of a Vermont washout. For something to endure thousands of years, and lose its roots and collapse in an afternoon, feels like an analogy. I’ve got to chew on that one a bit.

Back on my walk, I look and see that there are only a few trees that look like they’re from the time before the Merino wool craze. Oaks, often described as stately, or mighty, or regal. We don’t have adequate words for the majesty of the oak, which seems to transcend our ability to praise it. They are above our praise- we maybe failed to chop some down because we feared them as gods. Or more likely, the shepherd knew he’d need an occasional place to eat a lunch in the shade. The biggest oaks are at corners of stone walls. I wonder if the termini of the walls came to them because the human eye needed a worthy landmark from afar, to start their wall, and latched onto an immortal oak. Or if the oak was a mere accidental survivor by virtue of being in a spot where its felling was too likely to damage the newly stacked stone. For some utterly human reason, it is there though.

This beautiful forest I love to immerse myself in, is about 95-98% young, new trees, rebounding since the craze. If I touch a tree trunk, and think, maybe, that a Haudenosaunee or Abenaki hunter stalked deer in these woods and rested at the same spot, I’m almost definitely wrong. There is no going back in the past- choices were made long ago that ended that possibility. I must find the venerable old oaks if I want to increase my odds...sit under one, and wonder how many generations of men it may have seen before me.  Easy to romanticize this forest, harder to step back and know it’s a shadow of what once was.

I think about my own speculation, growing garlic in a field that was one of the few kept open after the craze ended. When the wool prices leveled off as all of America piled into sheep-rearing, marginal hill country that had been cleared was let go. My field was close enough to the homesteads nearby to be kept open for crops. When I have a farmer’s equivalent of an existential crisis, I wonder what it’d be like for the world to have another couple acres of reclamation forest. We cling on to and farm a last few fields that we haven’t returned to nature.

It would be centuries before the field would truly reflect the beauty of North America before the population-explosion of Europeans though. Old-growth forests, with larger, healthier trees more spread out. So much undone by others, that I cannot redo. It would take generations of people agreeing not to turn back, to change the current fate.

I know it’s a hungry world, though. Temperate climate ground with good rainfall will have to step in the gap as much of humanity’s croplands are lost to global climate change. I don’t care what you think caused it, the science is there, and it’s going to hit us, hard. As Americans, we’ll be insulated from it for a little longer, at the dinner table, but the ripple effects of climate refugees, resource wars, and reduced opportunity for us all, will hit first. People really don’t get that for all the iPhones, Netflix deals, and corporate mergers of the world, homo sapiens is here, and alive, based on annual rainfall patterns and sunlight firing off photosynthesis at a predictable, measurable, limited rate. Everything else is fluff, excess, that can only accrue when that basis is functioning. The rest of the economy is on a perpetual growth model, trusting that the fundamental math will always work out, which seems blissfully ignorant of the limits of physics.

I deliberately set out in the rain, I almost cancelled when I thought it was going to clear. The cleft the path is on creates scenes that seem to come out of some primordial world, like Beleriand of JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It’s a young forest, but I pretend it’s young because the Ainur have only just finished fashioning it out of the Music of Iluvatar, instead of the truth that it’s regrowth not even two centuries old. 

Mists and fogs in the cleft obscure most things beyond a hundred yards or so. I try to notice where moss grows, and doesn’t. Where ferns are, and aren’t. One stone wall was thoroughly colonized by ferns, who then went no further than the wall. I wonder if that was their refugium from hungry sheep and they once dominated the whole place, or if they, and only they, could live on the pH and moisture conditions of the wall, and not the surrounding forest floor, and had always found their way in life in the clefts of the rocks even before they’d been piled by humans. Or, if, like “compaction weeds,” they don’t actually prefer that spot whatsoever, that it’s simply they who are least affected by it. There is infinite beauty and wonder in the complexity, the four dimensional folding of space and time and why things are that way and not the infinite others.

I think about how the loss of a forest, young or old or otherwise, in the name of a craze, is a physical expression of loss, but how, increasingly, we are cutting down old-growth culture in the course of our next crazes. The internet makes it ever easier to stay connected with people, but it’s created despondence, loss, disconnection. In small pockets, it has changed lives for the better. I know some friends, to a degree even myself, have only found their niche communities on the internet. In Facebook groups and fan forums, we find like minds, and it feels great for a moment, but somewhere in that we erode our ability to relate to people outside of it, if we’re not careful. We create new in-groups and out-groups- “real” fans who know which album was best. “Original” fans who liked it before it went viral. Our ability to fracture is such a reliable feature, I count among those things that I call human fractals- reliable crystallization patterns that vary material to material.

I’ve read that grange halls were originally a secular place for farmers to meet and talk of best practices and ideas they were learning on their farms. I went to a few when I was young, a relic of an older time. Now we have ag extension classes, not often a potluck where you share food you bring- an act so rooted in the mammalian evolution of bonding that it’s amazing how often we’ve forgotten its purposes. Catered lunches covered by the fees, or covered by grants written by someone paid to do it. Specialization allows disconnection. They are great- they are better than nothing, but I remember an old grange meeting or two. I was young, and spent most the night outside playing freeze tag with the other kids, where heroes were made by the minute, when you ran a dangerous path to unfreeze a friend, oblivious to the risk of getting froze yourself in your devotion to your pack. Mammalian patterns indeed. 

I remember the old farmers though...no pretensions. I don’t hear the vowel affectations I hear in the outer world, long vowels being twisted in a race to the bottom of the barrel in diphthongization of hitherto straightforward, rigorous vowels that served our ancestors well enough.

Those old farmers exist outside of time, it feels. They don’t often understand your cultural references, but their minds have been engaged with battles of the gods- beating a rainfall to get the hay in. Fencing in new pasture as the cows bellowed in hunger, their own cold hands struggling to set the wire as they thought of the animals in their care. Their minds never needed to wander to celebrity gossip, the idle speculations of bored people. The sense of loss of a stillborn calf- you think he has commodified the animal in his mind, but don’t interpret the stoicism of the moment too much, he will shed his tears later that night. He has seen more lost pregnancies, senseless loss of livestock to windstorms, barn fires, lightning, fawns unfortunately killed in the hay combine, than he cares to count. Most people in a farming community knew someone killed in one machinery accident or another. It’s why, when the old farmer is in line at the grocery store, they stare at the magazines in front of them, disconnected to the celebrities, the politics, the mania of the outer world. Deaths, accidents, lost limbs..to one who has fought a hundred Ragnaroks in their life, much of the rest all seems meaningless.

In our crazes- the oil-economy that has compressed millions of years of sunlight-origin energy that we now release in a glut- our obsession with ever-shallower connectivity, our self-infantilization that celebrates ever-lengthening youth, we’ve cut down so much of our old-growth forest. Like the woods I walk through today, we’ve come to love our best substitutes- it’s better than the cultural deserts we’re surrounded by, but still not the old growth we so quickly abandoned. Things like craft beer, where we actually like that each batch, each pour, will be a bit different, and that a variety findable in one town won’t be found in another- that some things are best enjoyed in their milieu, like a French wine paired with its regional food. As if these things belonged together all along and we’re figuring it out all over again. We try to recreate the spontaneous joy of a community harvest day, a community planting day, a shared kill on a hunt, with Instagram snaps of food, flash mobs, with references to our shared tastes in mass media. They’re good, but they’re not as good, it must be said.

We see shadows of what once was. We wonder why an $80 a month smartphone has answered none of our urges that were crafted through thousands of years of wandering in honest, direct lives, where people called it the Milky Way, or some cultural equivalent, because with no light pollution it is a full, broad arc of cream-white in the sky when given the chance. The Irish thought it was a remnant of the primordial cow’s milk the world was built from- my ancestor’s view still resonates with me, a son of dairy country, Irish and Scottish and English dissenters in exile.

Even after our wandering years, we settled in small communities, most people directly engaged in keeping themselves alive procuring food. Much loss and hardship exists in that life, but nevertheless, you’re here today because your ancestors survived and throve in it, and it’s what informs our psychology today. It’s why we have to piece together happy lives out of soulless jobs, gym memberships, book clubs, camping trips, PTA meetings, politics. Poorly reflecting echoes of rigorous lives full of walking, running, straining against time, sharing stories around the campfire or hearth with other honest people engaged in the same. We evolved to anthropomorphize things, so we saw souls in the trees, the rocks, the animals we hunted and were hunted by, and now we latch onto things- our cars, our little baubles gathered and accumulated like a themeless bower bird not sure who or what it wants to attract. A system that evolved to connect us deeply with our environment, now used for trinkets.

Steadily uphill, still following the cleft between two bedrock ridges. I’m approaching the summit and find a place where the bedrock has spilled out on the face of the mountain- how old the event was I don’t know. Years of leaf litter are settled on the rocks, maybe even centuries. It’s hard to know, as it’s an aggressive slope that may lose its scant topsoil quite often. As surely as I was compelled into the woods this day, I’m compelled to go up the slope. The switchback logging trail lost its appeal, and the raw beauty of the bedrock calls to me. I start tacking up as aggressively as I can, walking the side of the mountain but erring upwards, ever upwards. I feel alive with firing of my neurons as my feet remember in genetic reverberation what my ancient ancestors felt- Paleolithic hunters making inroads in Italy and Iberia, rejoicing in the retreating glaciers there. New opportunities for those ready to go first. Today I’m in ex-glacier country again, and my feet still serve me well.

I come upon the final cliff below the summit, and I can look below for several hundred yards, my sight only stopped by the mists. There’s a world of wonder in this final remote spot, a place not visited by mankind in a while, it looks. There’s several species of moss on the rocks, a main type, with sub-colonies of a different type, followed by the moss-world’s version of occasional tall trees, a third species that sends up less frequent, but taller stalks. A multi-canopied forest in miniature, of unknown myriad species of mosses and lichens, their own complex ecology within the greater ecology. Further up the rock face, a species/genus I later learn is called rock tripe. A lichen that grows the size of a dinner plate, if undisturbed. Probably three hundred square feet of rock face is colonized by it, and it seems to crowd out other species when working in concert, given the chance. Glistening in the rain, an oxidized-copper-colored upper surface, wavy, waxy, shedding water but always in need of it. I read later that it only exists where plenty of water comes throughout the year. You’d think it would have developed water-collection capabilities, like rainforest leaves that greedily funnel water to its own base, but the radial growth sheds almost all directions but the center- like a whirling dervish dances in symbolic circles, one hand in the air to show love received on high from God (the rain), the other hand extended outward, freely spun to those around it. These lichens know how to live in community, but the community only exists in this small pocket, it seems like it can’t handle competition anywhere else, too generous with its shedding of water to the outside of its own radius, it can only exist if a like-minded body of its brothers and sisters surrounds it. I wonder if that’s at the heart of my difficulty in relating to larger groups- I am quick to form bonds, but will wither quickly, like an isolated lichen if others of like mind aren’t there, in force. A certain percent of a group needs to be really good, trustworthy people, for your mind to relax and put away its insecurities. Staring at the breathtaking colony of massive lichens I’m trying to understand the tides and undercurrents of my own mind, like the gravitational pulls of sun and moon but the impulses of humankind instead. To stay, to go, to explore or dig in, to fight, or flee. Typical mammal, I quickly feel akin to the lichens, in their love of this rockface, in their slí bheatha, as said in Irish, their way of life. I’d join them for a bit if my constitution allowed it.

I notice, for the first time in my life, that the quartz we all know and love in this area, occurs in huge pockets within the grey rock. I knew bands of it occurred there, but on this steep face where I’m looking at the rock tripe colony, I find quartz pockets the size of a mini fridge firmly ensconced in the greater scheme of sedimentary rock bent by tectonic forces into ribbons and waves.


Moving on from the rock face, I stay directly below it and continue waiting for the chance to turn right, and up, to get to the final clear view off the ridge. There’s finally a cleft that lets me up, and I know I have to hitch back and along the ridge to get to the clearing. I come on a small pond at the almost-top of the mountain. Here, it’s certainly not fed by streams, it’s just the result of the bedrock being so shallow and bowl-shaped. The mind’s ability to remember things in context is really powerful, and I flash back to the first and last time I found this pond- I was on the hilltop when I was 12 or 13, bored of the view, my brother and I started ranging around to find other things to do. I now know I’m only fifty yards off of the cabin, though it’s not visible due to some small ridges and thickets of trees. The old memory of that place, only needed in this moment, came back to me. Contextual memory, or some phrase like that.

For the first time in a while on a walk to this favorite vista, the path there was a hundred times more enriching than the destination.

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