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Still Looking ‘In All Directions’

One year ago I was a new arrival in Sydney, Australia, at the advent of my Australian adventure and my project of greater explorations into a meaningful life path. The launch of this blog, In All Directions, shortly preceded my departure and was intended as a chronicle of my travels in Australia—and also an experimental method of reflection and self-discovery along the way.

When I arrived in Australia in late October 2015, I had intentions of staying well over a year. My grandiose scheme had me finishing up a year of fruit picking at about this time and preparing to go on a circumnavigational road trip of the Australian continent as a way to spend my heaps of fruit picking money. A year later, instead of tramping in a van Down Under, I find myself living aboard a sailboat on New York’s Hudson River. Ending up at this particular spot wasn’t even on my radar one year ago, but due to the course of time, it simply ended up being the most reasonable next step to pursue. It’s intriguing the way that the passage of time makes one think about different possibilities with fresh attitudes. Nonetheless, through all my itinerant travels, this blog stuck to chronicle the journey.

One year into the In All Directions project and I can’t come up with any defining conclusions although I can still say it’s been worth the while to continue the exploration. In the past year, I’m more than happy at having tried three different directions: fruit picking in Australia, leading canoe trips in Wisconsin, and working aboard a tall ship in New York. Each of these directions had their individual benefits and drawbacks, but more importantly they have taught me lessons about myself and my proclivities. I can’t say that I’m close to a final discovery, or that I even believe there will ultimately be a final discovery; what I can say is that I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work for me. Anecdotally, Thomas Edison failed to make a working lightbulb after over 1,000 prototypes, but each failed trial led him closer to eventual success. When asked by a reporter about how it felt to fail so many times, Edison wisely replied that he didn’t fail at all—making a lightbulb was just a project with 1,000 steps. Like Edison, I’m not classifying things that didn’t quite work out as failures; I’m just refining what works for me and what doesn’t.

 

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In everyday life, we all learn from our past experiences. But in order to gain those experiences, we must travel further down the one-way road of time. And to travel that road means going into an unknown future. Along the way you’ll encounter forks and decisions that will affect your route. You can’t travel back and do it all over again; the best you can do is trust yourself that what path you’re going down is heading towards the best outcome. This isn’t a Panglossian philosophy that all things ultimately work out in the best of all possible ways. More simply this is saying that no matter how life unravels itself, there is some measure of good to be made of the situation.

As I continue to try out different career paths and play with different ideas about my future, each direction I try out could lead me down a different path. One year ago I didn’t anticipate that I’d be writing a retrospective blog from Kingston, New York. But that’s what ended up happening anyway. The way life works is that it can only be viewed in retrospect. The future remains an intriguing mystery. One will never know what each path will look like until it’s been traveled.

Unlike my well-laid out Australian plans, life is not something you can plan out meticulously; life is something that you have to live through to understand where the experience is taking you. To get where I ended up right now, I could have taken many a multitude of paths. But on each of those infinite possible journeys, the lessons learned along the way would have been different; a slightly different person would arrive at each destination. Each journey undertaken is unique; chose to embrace the passages that add to the depth of your character.

There are many directions left to be explored, and I too look forward to seeing where they lead.

View from the Saddle

Fast enough to get places, but slow enough to see them–that’s what I enjoy so much about travel by bicycle. The saddle may not be comfortable, but the views provide the reward. Traveling over 800 miles in 11 days has heightened my geographical senses. Slowly peddling a great distance, one gets to play landscape detective: what’s changing and why?

 

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Guerrilla camping in the majestic white pine forests of northern Wisconsin

 

The northern hardwood forests began to become infiltrated by beech and maple, warmer clime species from more fertile soils found further south. Farm country spontaneously erupted from the sylvan wilderness. Along the lakeshore, farmland eventually gave way to industrial cities.

The landscape shifts imperceptibly, but gradually, determinants of the physical and cultural environment. Any given day I could find myself peddling down a rural country road or meandering on a dirt track through a mature forest.

 

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Traveling through a forested corridor along the Eagle River Trail in northern Wisconsin

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Following the route of the railroad on one of Wisconsin’s many rail-to-trail paths, the Glacial Drumlin State Trail linking Milwaukee to Madison

 

The weather changes also, with it bringing different moods to the landscape. Bright sunny days can make the terrain warm and inviting; cool, cloudy days present a somber melancholy air. Staying alert to the changing light environment rewards the onlooker with a multiplicity of panoramas, an ever-evolving sensory scene.

 

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A diversity of clouds fill the sky above Green Bay

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The rainbow after the storm: rural Wisconsin after a thunder shower passes

 

The culture shifts along with the landscape it inhabits. Forest land gives way to farm country. Tourist towns and sleepy hamlets lie tucked under the lakeside bluffs on the Door County Peninsula. Large industrial cities occupy important harbors on the Michigan lakeshore. Out in the hinterlands, a lone water tower on the horizon signals an approaching town.

 

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Riding the Mariners Trail into industrial Manitowoc, Wisconsin

 

Along the way I pass through areas of local history and interest. Where did the inhabitants of Oostburg come from? Why is there a village of Wales in the Wisconsin countryside? Roadside markers provide insight on the history of each small settlement. By car, it’s an inconvenience to stop and learn; by bike, it’s a welcome break from pedaling. Roadside harvest stalls showcase the seasonal agriculture and nourish the famished biker. A destination of interest, no matter how modest, is worth stopping along the way.

 

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The spiral staircase leading up the Cana Island Lighthouse in Door County

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View from the top: Potawatomi State Park’s 75-foot tall observation tower

 

Beautiful nature abounds if you go out and seek it. Along the tracks and trails, nature displays her splendor. These places call out, beckon you to come close and linger.

 

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Dolomitic Limestone formations at Cave Point County Park, Door County

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Stopping for a swim break along a sandy Lake Michigan beach–Point Park State Forest

 

The long journey is never about reaching the destination; it is about the process of discovery along the way.

 

The Mud Puddle Ecosystem

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Near where I live, an outbuilding was raised this summer. Down a gravel road then along a sandy two-track, the building stands new and distinct in a recent clearing in the woods. Earlier this summer construction vehicles often came and went, their heavy treads leaving a growing impression upon the sandy-clay soil. Spring rains had raised the water table and kept the soil saturated, making the soil easily molded by the tracks of heavy machinery. Every vehicular pass widened the quaint two-track until all the median vegetation was turned under and the ruts grew deep and muddy. Spring storms sent water flowing into the new depression; it was the genesis of a mud puddle.

I had walked past this puddle frequently during the summer. Always skirting around its edge, I never wanted to risk fully submerging my feet into the murky depths. Though it could feasibly be jumped across at places, it took fifty paces to walk entirely around. Getting too close to the edge was always risky. The waterlogged soil around the perimeter was slick and muddy; one careless step would result in a drenched shoe. Regardless, the dampness of the puddle oozed up into each visitor’s footwear, whether they were careful or not. How deep the puddle was I never found out. Its opaque muddy waters kept the true depth from me. There must be a bottom somewhere, but it was never for my pair of sneakers to find out where.

With the outbuilding having been finished, the rumble of construction traffic stopped mid-summer. The giant mud puddle remained, now undisturbed by track or tire. Only footprints troubled the new body of water. The hot July sun did its best to transform the lowly puddle into a series of dusty ruts, but continual summer storms provided aquatic sustenance. The puddle’s existence continued indefinitely.

A few weeks passed since the times I walked by the fledgling puddle in early summer. I remembered the puddle’s brown murkiness and the primordial look of its oozing mud. Yet, as I meandered past once again, I was drawn in closer. A sudden burst of movement caught the corner of my eye. Curiosity overcame me. In childlike wonder I stooped down to investigate what happened. A bullfrog had jumped into the mud shallows. Disturbed by my movement, the frog sought shelter in the puddle’s depths. The bullfrog now sat still, wary of any movement, its eyes poking just above the waterline. In my brief observational absence, the lowly mud wallow had been transformed. The lifeless ooze had changed into a thriving ecosystem all its own.

I continued to stand and watch closer. The longer I squatted and the stiller I stayed, the more movement caught my eye. Fat black blobs swam lazily in the brown water. These were tadpoles, the maturing progeny of the bullfrogs. Had the current generation of frogs been born in this puddle? Perhaps, but maybe the current bullfrog residents had moved in and lain their young there, staking the first pioneering claims to the new habitat.  Elsewhere, more black dots darted quickly below the surface of the water, stopping as rapidly as they had started. With two long oar-like legs attached to an elliptical body, these are insects known as backswimmers. They have likely flown in from similar habitat in a nearby swamp. Aquatic predators, the backswimmers indicate the presence of prey species in the puddle, some of which are too small to see. In this short amount of time, a food chain has been developed in the puddle.

The formerly impenetrable murkiness of the water had also begun to clear. Slowly, sediment had settled and the opaque brown became semi-translucent. The water still appeared brown from the muddy bottom, but light now penetrated deeper down. Mats of algae now lay revealed floating in the water. Intricate, delicate; curvy, lacy folds of blue-green. Still waters had allowed algae to grow. Their spores—have they come from a proximal swamp? Were they blown in from afar? Had the spores lain dormant on the dusty road, just waiting for the rains to come again? Algal life now flourished in the mud puddle, serving as the primary producer—the energetic foundation of the new ecosystem. Elsewhere, blades of grass had started poking up from the mud. Likely remnants of the former median vegetation, the rhizomes of the grass had survived dormancy under the mud, now sending new shoots skyward to catch the sun. The inundation of the puddle had slowly decreased enough that lengthy miniature islands had begun appearing in the terrain. These new spots of land remained moist, the perfect germinating spot for colonizing plants. Ruderal species—common roadside weeds—had begun to sprout up around the puddle. In time, these plants will fill in the disturbed soil; the mud being inevitably covered up in a blanket of green.

Where had the abundance of this mud puddle even come from? Until recently, this stretch of road was a dry dirt two-track. Now, this simple mud puddle, along the lonesome two-track road, had turned into a sonata of life. It had grown into an ecosystem of its own right, a microcosm of all life itself. What will happen to the inhabitants of the mud puddle at the end of the summer? Will intermittent rains continue to feed its life? Or will the hot August sun desiccate the puddle and all creatures within? Next year, after a long and cold winter, will the puddle still remain? Or is it really just ephemeral, making only a brief temporal appearance when summer rains come down heavier than usual? In ecology, the process of change is continual. Entire ecosystems may come and go based on such a small thing as a depression to collect water. What will be the fate of the mud puddle ecosystem? Only time will tell.

Dragonfly Morning

 

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Dragonfly eating a yellow jacket. (C) Bob Armstrong

 

The low morning sun breaks just over the distant trees. A direct sunbeam reaches the clearing below at the water’s edge. The air buzzes with creatures aflight, fresh sunshine glinting off lacy wings. I amble around the serene morning landscape. It is late spring. It is the morning of the dragonfly.

Days ago I watched these creatures emerge from the depths. Standing ankle-deep in a shallow stream, I crouched over a sunny rock. A nymphal dragonfly, mottled and brown to blend in with streambed gravels, crawled out of its watery home to the land above the surface. Stocky and strong, the size of a quarter, the nymph is the tank of the littoral zone. For months—even for years—the dragonfly nymph has patrolled the waters of its home. A voracious predator, it will seize any prey nearby into its strong maxillae. Powerfully the nymph shoots through the running stream with a water jet through its anus. Bloodworms are common prey, mosquito larvae too. Even tadpoles and minnows cannot escape the appetite of the mighty dragonfly nymph.

As of yet the nymph has known nothing of the land above the surface. Water has been its domain since it was an egg. Yet the dragonfly nymph is drawn by the biological imperative to crawl beyond. Out of the deep they will come, en masse in spring, then steadily during the summer. Squatting down, I watch the next generation of dragonflies emerge from the deep. Sunlight glints off the nymph’s still wet body; in a matter of minutes it will dry off completely. Pausing on a flat rock, the nymph looks dead and desiccated. Still, the nymph is fully alive; it soon reanimates, crawling onward towards its destination of the high brush.

Having completed its arduous landward journey, the dragonfly nymph clutches an emergent piece of grass. From here the nymphal stage has moved its last. The exoskeleton dries out even more. The nymph has died to the watery world, becoming nothing more than a mere mummified remnant. But inside the journey continues. Slowly, a weak suture line opens up along the back of the neck. The alien within the husk starts emerging. First the back bows out. Then the head pulls free. The creature arches its back, pulling out its legs one by one. One more arch of the thorax and the creature’s long abdomen is pulled from the husk of the nymph. Bright green and soft, the newly emerged dragonfly is exposed and vulnerable. Resting on top of its former exoskeleton, the dragonfly slowly hardens. The maverick of the air expands its wings for the first time in anticipation of flight. Hours later, the dragonfly is ready. It now joins the aerial display of other dragonflies humming above the disused nymphal exoskeletons still clinging to the bulrushes.

This morning I stand in amazement at the show before me. Hundreds of adult dragonflies going about dragonfly business. It is a harried, frenetic existence they live. The life in the air lasts but a few weeks, and much must be accomplished. Territory must be defended. Meals must be had. Mates must be found. Dragonfly business fills the morning stillness with an audible buzz. As in the water they are in the air—apex predators of the insect world. With voracious appetites they consume up to one-fifth their body mass in insects per day. Agile acrobats of the air, flying effortlessly in six directions—left, right, forward, backward, up, down. No insect prey stands a chance. The dragonfly’s keen compound eyes detect a world open to predation. Jerking forth in mid-air, the dragonfly snatches a housefly. It is time for a meal.

I crouch down to where the dragonfly has just landed on a narrow branch. It doesn’t seem to notice its inquisitive observer. Instead it’s just busy consuming its meal. The hapless fly is clasped in the dragonfly’s maxillae, its mandibles pull off the wings. The dragonfly then uses its rugged labrum to grind down the housefly into small pieces. Rotating the housefly around with its mandibles, the dragonfly’s meal resembles an apple being eaten. Minutes later, all evidence of the housefly’s existence is vanished—it has been integrated into the pulsating body of the dragonfly.

With a sudden jerk, the dragonfly launches itself in the air. It starts off as quickly as it had stopped. The dragonfly rejoins the hovering mass in the morning light, searching for its next meal. I watch in fascination; I can’t go on just yet. Though the dragonflies share in my presence, they remain indifferent. The spring generation has reached maturity and have bigger issues on their minds. Soon they will mate and lay their eggs back along the water’s edge where days ago they emerged. The spring influx of dragonflies will then dwindle. The aerial beasts will die and disappear. But the eggs have been laid and the mission completed. A year from now there will be more dragonfly mornings to come.