Sunday, July 25, 2021

Video 21, The hard part, Shaping the Handle

The 'Chestnut Liberation' hiking stick's unruly root system begins its transformation into the unique handle.

PJ's workshop this time is a rock among the rambling rapids of Stoney Creek, biggest and noisiest of the Three Creeks at the Cloister.

He begins the process with a compass saw. The shaping of the handle starts by removing the obviously unwanted roots. Then the artistic process begins, with each new cut being chosen as the handle evolves.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Video 20, Sho' 'nuff - we got a peeler

PJ begins to prepare his 'Chestnut Liberation' hiking stick. The setting (his 'workshop') is his favorite place at the Cloister - the cool, shady glen beside the St. Francis statue, with the endless sound of Flat Rock Creek providing soothing background.

He begins by removing the bark. As he explains, there are two ways this can be done: the easy way and the hard way. Which will it be?

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Video 19, Harvesting the Hiking Stick

The 'Chestnut Liberation' Hiking stick starts its journey from obscure forest understory red maple (Acer rubrum) sapling, with dominant trees above it giving it few long-term prospects, to a cherished walking stick for the old Hermit.

PJ shows the simple process of freeing the small tree from the soil, keeping its major root system intact. It is the bent and twisted root of the tree that provides the hiking stick with its unique handle and with its ultimate distinctive 'look'.

In future videos PJ will describe the process of shaping the raw material into a special walking aid for an old man as he rambles about the grounds of the Cloister at Three Creeks and beyond.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Monday, July 19, 2021

Video 18, Chestnut Liberation

The Chestnut blight fungus, introduced from Europe early in the 20th century, has completely removed the American Chestnut as a primary forest species in the eastern US. The loss has had a devastating effect on eastern wild landscapes. But there's an amazing story of hope for natural Chestnut recovery. The fungus that attacks the trees kills only the growth above ground, and does not kill the roots. The American Chestnut is able to re-sprout new growth from the roots, and many such sprouts continue to thrive in the understory of the eastern woods. Some of these trees' root systems have lived more than a century in this diminished state and show no signs of giving up. When they are exposed to sunlight, they can even grow large enough to flower and produce viable seed (the delicious chestnut) before the Chestnut blight fungus attacks and kills it back.

The grounds of the Cloister at Three Creeks has at least half a dozen of such sprouting chestnut trees in the forest understory, and here PJ discusses plans to give them a little human assistance in growing to the size where they can produce seed. Every seed produced is one more chance that American Chestnut will evolve natural blight resistance. It may take centuries, but nature does not work on human time scales. This is the story of hope and recovery that PJ presents.

Video Uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Video 17, Little Things, Big Mysteries

One of the most bizarre discoveries at the Cloister at Three Creeks was this statue of St. Francis of Assisi lying face-down in Flat Rock Creek deep in the wilds of a natural woodland. How did he get there? How long had he been lying there? From the weathering of the concrete on his hooded head (which was pointed upstream), and the growth of moss on his back, the answer to the second question is unquestionably many, many years. If only he could talk, and tell us the tale of how he came to be abandoned and forgotten deep in the woods so long, long ago ...

The video contains a few other stories, ones that nature tells, the kind that PJ is always seeking out.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Video 16, Rain

A little practical joke.

Pretty much self explanatory, no?

A sudden shower hits the Cloister at Three Creeks. Very sudden.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Video 15 A short walk on Stoney Creek

Stoney Creek is the largest of the 'Three Creeks' that surround the Cloister. Here PJ takes a little walk next to some of the noisy white water. The video is chopped short because his camera battery ran out. But the intended experience was complete, so here it is.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC



Monday, July 12, 2021

Video 14, PJ's American Chestnut rescue plan

Here begins the 'Chestnut Liberation'. The Cloister at Three Creeks has only a handful of surviving root-shoots of the American Chestnut, a tree that used to be one of the dominant forest species in the area before a blight imported from Europe in 1904 killed off virtually every tree in the eastern US.

PJ proposes to give one of his charges a hand in its effort to produce seed before the Chestnut Blight fungus kills it back to the ground. There is hope for this effort. PJ has helped wild American Chestnuts produce seed in the past. Given a decent amount of light, natural wild American Chestnut trees do still produce seeds, and so, given time, even without human intervention, it is possible for the American Chestnut to evolve blight resistance and resume its stature as one of the great forest trees of the American East.

But, of course, humans love to meddle.  And we love underdogs, love to offer help and support to the sick and weak, and PJ is no exception; so a little human intervention seems like a fine idea, particularly with the unexpected secondary purpose PJ has in mind.

See what he proposes, as he undertakes to liberate his little friend the deep-woods Chestnut sprout.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Video 13, Tragedy in the woods

In honor of the traditionally unlucky number, PJ chose a theme of tragedy for the 13th video. But this tragic story told by nature is hardly all doom and gloom. In the eternal life-and-death struggle that is nature's wild way, every tragedy leads to opportunity.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC



Saturday, July 10, 2021

Video 12, The story told by old White Oak

One of the Noblest trees in the forest, the White Oak's survival advantage is simply to out-live its competitors. To do so, it has superior ability to heal wounds such as those left by dead branches. This leads to a surprising and unexpected behavior, which PJ explains ... in person.

He's getting comfortable with these daily interfaces with the outside world, so we'll be seeing more of 'The Hermit' in future videos.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Friday, July 9, 2021

Video 11 Evening with the birds

 Sit and listen. The cool of the evening brings out the birds as no other time of day does. Featured is the melodic medley of selections provided by the Wood Thrush. How such a tiny bird can make such big sound is one of nature's true miracles.

Coming next: In tomorrow's video PJ makes an appearance on camera!

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Video 10, A stroll along the Ridge


PJ built and maintains a mile and a quarter of trail on the grounds of the Cloister at Three Creeks. They range from rock hopping on the 'low water route' up Stoney Creek to this 'ridge walk' on a spine of land in the woods. There's a surprise at the end. Giving no spoilers.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Video 9, Gravelly Creek

The third and least of the Three Creeks at the Cloister retreat, this one had become barely a trickle, because it had been drier than normal through early summer. We're nearing the completion of the general survey of the grounds of the Cloister. Soon PJ will be making an actual appearance on camera. Stay tuned.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Video 8, South Corner, confluence of two of the Three Creeks

The Cloister at Three Creeks is a magical place. Two of the creeks, which PJ calls Flat Rock Creek and Stoney Creek, come together at a corner of the property where there is a nice rock perch/seat to take it all in. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Monday, July 5, 2021

Video 7, Bee Bonnet Falls

Curious name, but definitely appropriate for a place where PJ literally got 'bees in his bonnet' when he ran into a hornet's nest. By whatever name, this is the best, noisiest, prettiest individual cascade at the Cloister at Three Creeks. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Video 6, A Surprise at the West Corner

On the west corner of the landholding at the Cloister at Three Creeks, PJ (aka 'The Hermit') discovers a surprise left there more than 30 years ago by the original owner. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

This was the moment of discovery:  about 7:30AM on a morning exploration, the sun was beaming through a tiny opening in the forest canopy right on the statue, making it impossible to miss.  

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Video 5, The Swimmin' hole

A cool spot on a hot day. Flat Rock Creek: from the Cloister at Three Creeks. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Video 4, Bathtub Rock

From the Cloister at Three Creeks: One of the fun features of the 'playground' at Flat Rock Creek. Posted for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Video 3, Flat Rock Creek and St. Francis of Assisi

The Cloister at Three Creeks consists of a ridge of land surrounded on three sides by creeks, a big one, a little one, and an in-between one. I visit the latter one, at a spot overlooked by a bench high on the bluff. I call this creek Flat Rock Creek. It's my spiritual center and also my playground, as you'll see in future videos.

The concrete statues on the property (there are five that I know of so far) were apparently placed here by the original owner.  This one I rescued from the creek where it was lying face down in the gravel for who knows how many years.  He accumulated an amazing mossy back and a truly worn 'patina'.

Posted for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Video 2, Making Hiking Sticks - a Hermit's pass-time

I'm a hiker at heart, and swore off the expensive manufactured sticks after I wore out the second pair of tips. I started using and making hiking sticks from the free natural materials in the woods. It's an art, and it seems each new stick has a better hand feel than the last one. Hand feel, for me, is the most important characteristic. Sturdiness, of course, is mandatory, which is why I don't use dead wood. The preferred light-weight woods that make the best sticks--red maple, white ash, tulip poplar, lose strength if the dead wood sits out in the weather for any length of time. Culling living trees from the forest to make an old man's walking stick is, for me, a natural act--as natural as digging cattails or plucking water cress. Hand tools only. I use a stone as my finishing sander. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The 20,000 mile hike


It took close to eleven years.  Yesterday I walked a little under five miles and my official total mile count passed the 20,000 mark.

So I've done the 20,000 double.   After summiting my bucket list 20,000 foot mountain peak in South America, I started hiking to keep the top-shape I had worked so hard to achieve.  I did a lot of hiking without counting miles, but the official count began in June 2010 when I bought a Garmin hiker's GPS.  I've been recording the miles ever since, and it is that GPS-recorded number that has just surpassed 20,000.

So for my hike venue, I chose a portion of the Appalachian Trail that has been abandoned by the AT Conservancy because of development that started in the 1970's.  There were actually two reroutes.  The original AT, routed since, I believe 1935 when the trail opened, has become a road on a ridge in a big development.  The AT was rerouted down the hill to the side in the mid 1970's, but then rerouted again in the early or mid 1980's because too many houses were being built within view of the 'new' route.

What I hiked was part of that original 1935 AT that only sees a few hunters or wacky locals like me, a portion of the short-term reroute - the trail as it was routed only between the mid '70's and the early/mid '80's - which had been completely abandoned and lost (more on that in a minute), and a portion of that short-term reroute that has become a local community trail called, imaginatively, the Old Appalachian Trail.  One of the signs along that is pictured in the selfie above.

But the real fun I've had lately was finding those other abandoned sections of original AT and that short-term reroute.

The 1935 AT came up a ridge on what was formerly a woods road, which was probably still in use by vehicles back in 1935.  Finding that was not terribly hard.  I found it on the first try.  It's about a mile of trail, and I've found three surviving white blazes, faded but clearly good old vintage AT white blazes:

Finding the 0.6 miles of short-term reroute that was only used for a decade in the '70's and '80's and has not become part of the community trail was a lot tougher.  The only evidence of it is the old blazes.  Nobody ever used the trail until I started resurrecting it for my own use.  It took five different scouting trips to the area before I got my breakthrough and found the first faint blaze:

Then, over two more scouting visits I found half a dozen more old blazes and was able to fully piece together the route.  Here are three more examples of the blazes.  The coolest is the double blaze on the wall of a massive overhanging rock face.  Natural shade and shelter from all but the windiest rainstorm.

The rest of yesterday's hike, about another mile and a half, was on maintained trails, now blazed red.  Spring has sprung here in the Blue Ridge, and I got some fun flower shots.

And the Scenery was first class.  They keep this part of the trail maintained for a reason.  I love these warm days before the summer haze sets in and before the emerging leaves turn the trail into a green tunnel.

Great to be out, great to have warm weather, and so inestimably amazing to have a chunk of genuine Appalachian Trail that I can hike with near-virtual certainty that I won't meet anyone.

If I listen carefully, though, on a day as calm as yesterday was, I can almost hear the echoes of the footsteps of the Giants.  Myron Avery scouting the route in the '30's.  Grandma Gatewood thumping along in her Keds in the '50's.  Earl Shaffer, 'Peace Pilgrim' Mildred Ryder, Gene Espy, Dorothy Laker ... the list goes on and on.

Kind of sad, really, that developers took this remote historic piece of trail and paved it over.  Good that a piece of it has been left undisturbed, to be rediscovered by a foot traveler from a new generation - one on a mission to preserve wild places and to build a network of trails to connect them.

-- Posted for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Friday, February 26, 2021

A walk through the world of Brandon Sanderson


This quote, from Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy "The Way of Kings" nearly perfectly connects my real world situation, as a solitary pilgrim on foot, with Sanderson's imagined epic Fantasy universe.

King Nohadon records that he walked more than a thousand miles from his presumed capital of Abamabar to the sacred city of Urithiru without companions and not revealing his identity.  He could have made the trip in an hour by 'Oathgate,' but his quest was about the journey, about getting to know the nature of his world, its people, and the land—to experience the grit and suffering of ordinary lives so that he could more wisely rule.

Nohadon was not just a great monarch; he was a sage and a pathfinder.  His published collection of forty parables, bearing the title that Sanderson chose for his novel, had survived 4,500 years through a period of recovery and reconstruction following an Armageddon-like war on the planet Roshar.  Most knowledge from the time before that apocalypse had been lost.  So Nohandon's book contained much of the surviving wisdom.

Nohadon ruled during the Age of Heralds, when Ishar, greatest among them, a human made immortal by the 'Almighty', organized the Knights Radiant to face the enemy species called Voidbringers, who call themselves the Singers.

Thing is ... the Singers are Roshar's native species.  Humans invaded here after destroying their home planet of Ashyn several thousand years before the time of Nohadon.  And of course, they then set about conquering the planet and enslaving the native population.

In the present day setting for the novel, all Singers had become subservient and nearly mute.  All except for a small band of free peoples called the Listeners, who live deep in a bleak region called the Shattered Plains.

The Listeners did not remember that humans existed.  The humans thought that all Singers had been fully subdued.  But now, after 4500 years of 'silence', the evil power of the god 'Odium' stirs again.  The Listeners are taking 'warform' and discussing re-conquering their world; and among humans, rumors are being whispered that the Knights Radiant may be returning ...

On the Shattered Plains, with a 'Highstorm' approaching, the human aristocrat warrior Dalinar Kholin faces off against Eshonai, leader of the tribe of Listeners. Work copyright by and Michael Whalen.

"Way of Kings," published in 2010, is Brandon Sanderson's signature work, and the one for which he should be remembered.  The key to Sanderson's writing style is character point-of-view.  There is no absolute good or evil, and each character sees the world differently.  The reader is not made privy to the big picture, only what the characters know; and nobody seems to remember much or care much about the underlying mythopoeia, its magic powers, its gods, its hidden realms.  This is, for me, both a blessing and a curse.  But more about that later.

The cover art for the United States release, shown above, is a master-work in itself, from the artist Michael Whelan.  It features the geography of the Shattered Plains, and the epic meteorology—a phenomenon called the 'Highstorm' that is far beyond a simple thunderstorm.  It contains a spirit, called the Stormfather.  It both ravages the planet as it rakes across the land every few days, and restores the planet's pseudo-physical energy source, called Stormlight. 

"Way of Kings" was Sanderson's first novel in the Stormlight Archive series.  His plan is for ten books in this series and as many as 35 (possibly revised to 31 recently) set in his mythical universe called the Cosmere.  So far, he's written four Stormlight Archive books, the latest of which was just released in November 2020.

The books were recommended to me by my daughter and future son-in-law.  I just spent the last couple months reading all four.

So here's the thing.  These books average 400,000+ words apiece (close to 1300 pages).  No author can give 30+ books of that size the craftsmanship that they need.  I strongly recommend "Way of Kings" because it is Sanderson's Magnum Opus—the book he always wanted to write and the one that he spent more than a decade perfecting.  He originally finished it in 2002 before he had any books published. In that original version, his hero, Katahdin [who he misspells as 'Kaladin'], was an aspiring knight.  After he finished writing the first of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books, twelfth in the overall series, which he was asked to complete posthumously, he then returned to "Way of Kings" with a new understanding of Jordan's strength in presenting a world from various character points of view, and rewrote it from scratch, giving Katahdin a far more interesting character arc [though he continues to misspell the name].

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the epitome of an author filling pages to sell books.  Read his first couple of books in that series, and maybe Sanderson's last three, but run, don't walk, away from the ones in the middle.

But I digress.  Sanderson's second book in the Stormlight Archive series, "Words of Radiance," came out in 2014.  I found it also to be great fun.  It was the one that sold best, vaulting to a NYT bestseller almost immediately based on the reception of "Way of Kings".  But "Words of Radiance" begins to show signs of hasty writing and worse, of writing character studies using what I call 'Board Meeting' scenes to fill pages rather than advance the plot.  In the third novel, "Oathbringer" the stuff I consider filler and fluff overwhelmed the story, seriously bogging it down, and I would not recommend it.  "Rhythm of War", the fourth book, is a little better, with some action and interesting plot twists mixed in with the board meetings, and it has a decent climax; but it suffers most from the curse of 'hasty' plotting and writing.  (In the interest of keeping this post reasonably tidy, I'm not offering any supporting detail here.)  Sanderson is no longer just an author sitting at a keyboard.  He has become a novel manufacturing industry.

My recommendation, and this is advice I am now going to begin taking myself, is to seek out the one or two books that made an author famous and read only those.  They are the best because they are the stories that the author really slaved over, agonized over, took pains to perfect.  It is writing that managed to overcome the overwhelming odds against an unknown author getting published, and then to break out of the crowd even among those titles that publishers took a chance on.

Sanderson has accumulated a huge fan base who will now consume everything he writes; and to his credit, he is producing good stories with interesting characters.  And he is keeping publisher deadlines.  He's a hard worker and has that grand vision to produce perhaps the largest unified collection of works ever set in a single imagined universe.

Good on him.  But for me, as a choosy consumer, there are other brilliant talents whose stories and writing style are just as worthy if not more so; and my reading time is limited.  I've chosen not to read any more of Sanderson's works, and I've now moved on to Patrick Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind" also on the recommendation of my daughter and her fiancĂ©e.  From there, I'll move on to seek out breakthrough Sci-Fi and Fantasy works from other new shining stars.

Rothfuss, by the way, is apparently the polar opposite of Sanderson in terms of productivity.  Published in 2007, "Name of the Wind" was envisioned as a trilogy, and the second installment was released in 2011; but his editor/publisher Betsy Wolheim is pissed.  She doesn't think he's written anything since 2014, and has not seen a word of the third book ten years on.  It seems to me that Rothfuss has been distracted by his fame, much as, I believe, George R.R. Martin is.

Okay, so now, lastly, I want to spend a little time examining the value of Sanderson's writing technique, using limited character points of view (POV), which, crucially, he uses to justify withholding big picture information that other characters (non-POV characters) know.  Even when he writes from the POV of his most knowledgeable characters (notably the 'worldhopper' Hoid, known as Wit on Roshar), he conveniently makes them 'insane' or deliberately enigmatic.  The reader gets manipulated like a puppet on a string.  And I deeply dislike being manipulated.  It's a control thing.  The reader discovers the world only as the author chooses to reveal it.  That's a 'DUH' kind of statement, but when I, as reader, keep getting bludgeoned by the author's obvious evasiveness, rather than feeling like the plot is flowing naturally, then I rebel.  At its best, this writing strategy as applied in the first book, "Way of Kings", feels fresh, like we are discovering the ways of the world as the characters discover them.  At its worst, in the many manifestations of politics-oriented and/or power-juggling board meetings, I feel disrespected as a reader.  I'm left hanging, with unspoken and unfathomable character relationships and motivations.  I'm confused and bewildered by an endless parade of new powers, new rules of magic, and newly revealed beings/spirits, all of which seem ad hoc, only partially explained, deliberately obfuscated, or just hinted at, until I'm left wondering whether it's worth muddling on.

I'll give one basic example - the origin story.  Sanderson's world-building is meticulous, unrivaled in its variety and detail; but the depth of his universe is far weaker than its breadth.  The underlying creation story is vague and vaguer.  The world supposedly began with a thing called Adonalsium, which could be a person, a force, or something else.  Nobody knows.  Strangely, none of the religious thinkers and scholars that Sanderson depicts have anything useful to say about it ( ... really?).  Adonalsium apparently interacts with the universe through a set of four primal commands, called Dawnshards, which must be invoked by a command ('abra-cadabra') and with intent - i.e. to accomplish a task ... like, say, the Creation.  What are these four commands?  Well, only one has even been identified.  The one called 'Change'.  There is no information in the Sanderson officially maintained encyclopedia, regarding the other three ... or rather, the information declares that they are unknown.

That world, as its inhabitants experience it, was the result of Adonalsium being attacked by a mob of mortals and shattered, using those Dawnshards, into sixteen 'Shards,' each with a portion of the original power.  Sixteen people from the mob adopted/absorbed those powers and became the first immortal 'Vessels' of the powers; and all the conflict and intrigue that Sanderson writes about can be traced back to the various plots and schemes of these Vessels and their inherent Shard powers, each of which is different.  Four of the original sixteen Shards have been killed (splintered), two have combined into a hybrid within one person, and only three (including one of the dead ones) have any relevance at all (so far) in the realm of the Stormlight Archive series.  Two others have some sway on other worlds, four others are named but without supplying anything other than the name, and two have not even been named, only hinted at in vague terms such as 'one that is hiding and just wants to survive' or one that may be related to Wisdom or Prudence.

Sanderson's stories are all about the power mongering and politics of interaction between the Shards, and the complex set of rules governing what powers their Vessels give to lesser creatures that the Shards create and manipulate, almost always for their own benefit.  The complexity is bewildering, to say the least.  It's great for the Sanderson devotee, not so much fun for a more casual reader.

Sanderson apparently does 'know' a lot more than he's revealing.  Okay, fine.  He's trying to sell books.  A three- (formerly seven-) book series called Dragonsteel, planned for far in the future, will be about the Shattering of Adonalsium, but that is not going to be released until he is finished with all ten of the Stormlight Archive books.  The next one, the fifth, is planned for a 2023 release.  By the time he gets around to writing Dragonsteel I'll be long dead.  What are the chances that he'll actually ever accomplish such a grand plan?  Honestly, I think it's a long shot.