To Build a Fire

When in doubt, have a campfire.  It has straightened my bent condition many times.

Balsamea Campfire 200512

Yours truly tending a winter campfire at Balsamea in 2005

My favorite passage from the 1908 short story, To Build a Fire by Jack London (1876-1916):

“Working carefully from a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits. For the moment the cold of space was outwitted. The dog took satisfaction in the fire, stretching out close enough for warmth and far enough away to escape being singed. When the man was finished, he filled his pipe and took his comfortable time over a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens, settled the ear flaps of his cap firmly about his ears, and took the creek trail up the left fork.”     Continue reading

The Best of Being

Silvanus, Roman god of woodlands and boundaries. Often portrayed with a hunting or watch dog.
Roman marble statue at the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Baths of Diocletian, Rome, Italy. Photo by mharrsch under Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

This is more evidence of how I entertain myself by blogging without a care for the poor readers.  It is three or four blog posts in one, because that’s the way I had fun.   If you don’t enjoy part of it, just scroll down.  If you don’t like any of it, please feel free to post a comment about that.  You might even just say, “What a waste of time.”  It has not been wasted on me.

It started out as a report on two more species of lichens at Balsamea — cousins of the British Soldier lichen that I wrote about recently, and about the taiga/boreal forest biome, including the usual pretty pictures.  It ended up here:

Research for my article on British Soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) — a type of reindeer lichen — enlightened me about two more species of Cladonia living here at Balsamea.

It seems that one of them is Cladonia stellaris.  The other looks like Cladonia rangiferina.  I have not seen common names specific to each of these (as in “British Soldier” for C. cristatella), but some sources refer to Cladonia in general as reindeer lichen.

Below are four more pictures from the May 12, 2012 photo inventory of fungi, mosses and lichens at Balsamea (long overdue for species identification).  This time, in addition to close-up pictures, I have views of their home turf.  I should remember to always get a shot of the surrounding biota when collecting specimen photos.  It’s nice to see where they live.

In the picture below, the Cladonia lichens are the whitish patches surrounded by dense, soft, green moss.  This little forest opening is surrounded by balsam fir, white pine and spruce trees, and the grayish white tree trunk clusters seen here are gray birch (very common at Balsamea).

Small forest opening near northeast corner of Aranyaka Maze containing lichens I believe are Cladonia stellaris and Cladonia rangiferina.  It is otherwise covered with moss, surrounded by Balsam Fir, Gray Birch and White Pine trees.

Below: a closer view of the two Cladonias; the pale green balls of stellaris and the white sprays of rangiferina.

They grow very slowly — 1 or 2 mm. per year.  They are dry and brittle, especially during the summer, and can survive on minimal moisture.

Closer views:

Cladonia stellaris.  As these "balls" range from about 1 to 5 inches across, imagine how many years they have been growing ... at 1 or 2 MILLIMETERS per year!  I should make a sign for the deer: "Please don't eat or walk on the Cladonia."  I have seen pictures of them in houseplant arrangements.  I my experiment with a little of that ... very little.

Cladonia stellaris

Sorry about the blurry picture.  I’ll replace this when the current snow-pack is gone.  As these “balls” range up to about 6 inches across, imagine how many years they have been growing … at 1 or 2 MILLIMETERS per year!  That information should make folks think twice about where they put their feet or picnic blanket.

Cladonia rangiferina

Cladonia rangiferina

Varieties of Cladonia grow in many places around the world, but these species prefer boreal and tundra regions.  Here on the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountain Region in far northeastern New York state, a short drive from Canada’s border on the Saint Lawrence River, Balsamea lies near the southern edge of the North American taiga biome (boreal forest), consisting of vast realms of boreal forest covering much of Canada, Alaska and some of the far northeastern United States.  Boreal forests also cover massive areas across the northern latitudes of the Eastern Hemisphere.  The taiga is the largest biome type on earth.

Boreas and Oreithyia, 1896 (oil on canvas), by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) / © The De Morgan Centre, London

Boreas and Oreithyia, 1896 (oil on canvas), by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) / © The De Morgan Centre, London

Boreal means “of the north or northern regions,” from the Greek boreas, meaning north wind.  Boreas is the Greek god of the north wind, shown here kidnapping Oreithyia, to become his wife after he wrapped her in a cloud and raped her.  Boreas is known for violence.  Later she became the goddess of cold mountain winds.  All this time I’ve been referring to our north winds coming from Boreas, but they may have been Oreithyia’s doing all along.

When I use a picture like this to illustrate someone or something I mention, it is usually just for the fun of it, to share something interesting or beautiful.  I usually learn at least some basics about the work and its creator.  I hope you don’t mind my sharing a little of what I learned about this artist, despite her biography being far off-topic.

Among many works of art depicting the abduction of Oreithyia, in various media such as pottery, etching, painting, sculpture, drawing and relief, the painting shown here stands out as the most attractive, to my eye.

The painter, English woman Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) created dozens of renowned, prominent works among 102 oil paintings and over 300 drawings, during a roughly 45-year professional career spanning some of civilization’s most dramatic upheavals.  She had strong interests in social reform, spiritualism and music.  Sharing spiritualism with her husband, William (also an artist) they practiced automatic writing.  Combining her spiritual and social reform views led to many paintings of spiritually, mentally and sometimes physically strong women from throughout history, mythology and the Bible.  Throughout her work, I see the influence of her favorite Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli.

Here at Balsamea, nature is the only artist, and lichens are a series of amazing miniature masterpieces.

Near the start of this article, I said that I became “enlightened” to the nature of Cladonia lichens.  In learning about these lichens, and in direct experience of them, seeing, touching, and photographing them, I say sincerely that I am “enlightened,” at least a bit, in two senses.  First, I learned some things in botany, ecology, mythology and art.  (What I have shared here is only a little sample of things I explored.)

Second, the experience of learning a little more about the amazing diversity of the gift of Balsamea feels enlightening.  It is an enlightening experience of Balsamea.  It reminds me how, as I love to say, there is no solitude in a forest.  Thoreau agreed.

Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention. It is like a silent but sympathizing companion in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude … Henry David Thoreau, Journal, November 8, 1858

Really?  Are these bony lichens companions to me?

People rarely offer the kind of companionship “in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude.”  If they do, it’s often when doing something like watching television or sleeping together, where, although you are conscious of each other to a degree that you might regard as companionship, the moment is nearly as good as one of solitude.

I have enjoyed moments of deep companionship with a person who did not detract from qualities of being in peaceful forest solitude, even while consciously together, awake, attentive to each other in a special way that is hard to describe.  The character of such an experience is neither  solitude nor companionship.  It is unity.

My forest companions at Balsamea offer me glimpses of my truly inalienable unity with nature, through attention to their companionship, and through being a companion to them.  Their relationships with me are portals to growing awareness of the unity, of my belonging, with them, to a magnificent something that is greater than the sum of its uncountable parts.

For me, the ultimate glimpse of unity seems like a loss of the sense of separateness, a loss of the feeling of barriers between self and other things, whether physical or psychological barriers.  It is an experience of self and other as the same, while still paradoxically radiant with diversity, which is fully within a kind of awareness that feels singular.

It is where my distinctions between companionship and solitude dissolve, as raindrops meld and disappear into puddles, yet remain of the same substance.  It is as if the consciousness I usually know releases its self-containment, like having a body made of everything.

It is a natural experience of the true nature of our relationship with nature.  It is not something to seek.  It is there already.  It is hard to imagine any human being not experiencing it from time to time.

I suppose that for someone who has never experienced it, or not enough of it, they truly know loneliness, in a forest, or anywhere, and it must be horrid.  Neither companionship nor solitude will satisfy that hunger.  They need that merger of companionship and solitude, dissolving into each other.

The companion offering an opportunity for a merger that retains the qualities of solitude could be a cloud, a flower, a pet, a snowstorm, a painting, a piece of music, a garden, an insect, a lover, a friend, an activity, a lichen, or some grouping or set of things, activities or people.  Ideally, it is found in all things and all people, but we think too much to experience it that much.

I open the doors not by thinking or asking or searching, but by simple presence of self with other, unlocking my way with keys such as attention, time, quiet, deep observation, fully experiencing the thing or the activity, with all the senses, and with thought, contemplation, and imagination, all the things I naturally do, if I take the time, and let go of the past and future and other places, to stay present.  Then the lichen becomes a portal to a glimpse or moment of realization of unity, and to the satisfaction neither solitude nor company can bring.

Yes, even without doing drugs!  It’s cool to get high on things without eating or smoking them.  Being in the woods would be no fun otherwise.  (Not to say there’s necessarily anything wrong with eating and smoking things.)

Usually having glimpses of unity are not good times to drive a car or go grocery shopping.  However, it is a practical experience for me.  I come away from it with a reassuring sense of knowing that the unity is always there, that I am immersed in it, gently swaddled in a manner or a kind of consciousness within which it is easier to operate this mind-body machine and its connections with others, something like a metaphysical amnion.

It makes a mother of the earth, a father of the sky, brothers and sisters of the mushrooms and lichens, without having to be a Pagan.  It banishes loneliness, melts fear, and brightens the heart.  It’s just an experience of the best of being, or, as they say, being as being.

I believe there is a natural basis for the experience, and that it is necessary to our nature.  It is too natural to need anything supernatural to make it real.  But if you sense some extra-real thing going on that I don’t, I guess it’s okay as long as you don’t step on the dry, brittle Cladonia stellaris.

What is one of the portals to glimpses of unity that opens easiest for you?  (Besides orgasmic intercourse.)  Drop it into the comment bucket below, or whisper it secretly to only me.

Okay, I’m done entertaining myself for a while.  I hope it was fun for you, too.

  • Emerging from the Snow ( – by Teri J. Pieper, someone who really knows how to get close to nature, right down at ground level.  Wonderful photos of little things that take being fully present to notice them, and to capture such good pictures of them.