This weekend, while managing to get in some hiking on the Buckseller Trail in Pennsylvania and on Dryden Hill behind my house, I also finished reading a new book by Walt McLaughlin called Cultivating the Wildness Within.
This 173 page work (offered by Amazon Books and by the publisher, Red Dragonfly Press, 307 Oxford St., Northfield, Minnesota 55057, for $16 postpaid) was thoroughly enjoyable. Although I’ve been a long-time friend of this talented writer and small-press publisher, I say here what I want to say, without having been asked or having been paid (unfortunately) to say it.
As the author, McLaughlin, states it, this book is “a deeply personal collection of interwoven essays that starts in the Alaskan bush then progresses through two decades of wildness found in nature, those close to me, and myself.”
In “Wild Encounters,” the first section of the book, we find the author’s conversational narrative reflecting on various subjects ranging from a solo camp-out in the wilds of Alaska to roughing it with his wife and/or grandkids in his home state of Vermont. In between, we get stories from his thru-hikes on the Northville-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks of New York and on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. All of it, philosophically and practically, is born from the experience of wilderness and the blissful freedom that arises when the seeker takes a chance with nature.
It was fun to contemplate this book as I struck out alone in the Susquehannock State Forest in northern PA this weekend, then did another snowy climb on Dryden Hill behind my home. Near the house, I watched in rapt amazement as a golden eagle soared lazily in circles overhead, allowing me to see the rusty-colored plumage of its fan-shaped tail and its great dark body. Ten minutes into my observation, I watched the fading speck that was an eagle disappear from view at the height of winter clouds.
What majesty, I thought, what freedom, as seen from the perspective of a limited human body. Whether experiencing a one-on-one relationship with a special locale, sensing what it must be like to soar with a raptor, or finding a new galaxy in the privacy of a 4.5-inch reflecting telescope, McLaughlin’s book points the way for us to incorporate or to rediscover what’s been there all along– the pulse of wildness and the wonders of this life.
There’s even an essay called “Gone Fishing” whereby the author relates the start of his angling interests as a young kid learning how to toss a worm and bobber. “Mom told me that fishing was all about being patient, but I soon figured out that there was more to it than that. Much more.” He learned that nature wasn’t meant to be objectified but to be embraced.
When McLaughlin’s wife gave him a fly rod for his fortieth birthday, his evolution as an angler took an unprecedented step. Learning to become a catch-and-release fly angler took some doing at first. [At this point in my reading of the book, I found myself surprised and humbled to discover the following information…]
McLaughlin, the fly-fishing neophyte, joined yours truly for a camp-out in the wilds of Pine Creek and Slate Run near my home. Read on…
“Franklin and I pitched a tent on a flat piece of ground next to a small stream that emptied into Pine Creek. In the evenings we hunkered over a small campfire, sharing a flask of whiskey while telling each other fishing stories. During the day we plied the waters above and below our camp for trout… I hooked a small brook trout while dragging a stonefly through a pool in a manner not unlike spin fishing…
“The ultra sensitive fly rod in my hand seemed like more trouble than it was worth. But then we came upon a quiet pool where tiny, slate blue mayflies were hatching early in the afternoon. The trout rose to our tiny offerings of feather and thread with a vengeance, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. That was my come-to-Jesus moment as a fly fisherman. I haven’t been the same since.”
My influence on McLaughlin’s “cultivation of the wild” is truly minor and beside the point, considering the context of innumerable influences happily related in this book. Although I’ve also written and shared some Walt McLaughlin stories in my book River’s Edge, the great influences of the author’s cultivation are as disparate and diverse as his friends and family, his wrestling with the “madness of civilization,” his ponderings of the “impossible cosmos,” in addition to those incalculably significant wild urges that would come to him on and off the trail.
Even the unlikely aspects of walking on the streets of Paris, France contributed to the appreciation and nurturing of the wild.
Our friendship and our business relationships aside, I recommend this book if you’re in need of literary companionship or if you’re simply curious about the possibilities that are offered.
In the quiet and solitude of the Dryden Hill summit this afternoon, I listened to the hoarse calling of several ravens, and watched them soar and gambol on the wind. I “read them” as I did a golden eagle just an hour before. Together, the birds appeared to me like a page from Walt McLaughlin’s book.