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Preface Many projects have a distant catalyst that sets them in motion, providing an origin , if not a guiding trajectory, for their unfolding. This one stretches back to my youth. In retrospect, the elemental world exerted a strong and abiding presence during the course of my development. I grew up along the Susquehanna—the longest river on the east coast of the United States—several miles outside of Bloomsburg, a sleepy college town in northeastern Pennsylvania. In our backyard, we put to use a well and maintained a large garden where my brother, sister, and I often were exiled to weed or harvest organic vegetables either to be enjoyed by the family or to be sold at a roadside stand the three of us operated in front of our property, an early venture perhaps in “natural capitalism.” Cherry, apple, and pear trees punctuated the yard and supplied us intermittently with fruit when the bugs or birds didn’t get to it first, while willow and maple trees offered us strategic perches on which to survey the neighborhood or erect arboreal forts, including a two-tiered structure with sliding board, “bat pole,” and tent-top roof. The brick house contained a fireplace, a potbelly stove, and later on a wood-burning stove. We also maintained a fireplace in an outdoor pavilion and constructed a fire pit close to the river. Keeping the vestal flame alive necessitated cutting and splitting wood in the warmer months and then hauling and stacking it in the winter. As a child, I witnessed firsthand the recurring force of seasonal ice floes and floods. Especially memorable was the fury of Hurricane Agnes, which subdued and swamped the northeastern quadrant of the Commonwealth and upstate New York, taking 129 lives and causing billions of dollars worth of damage in one of the worst storms in U.S. history. I watched the river deposit foreign objects from far-away upstream locales and sweep away belongings—picnic tables, garden posts, and firewood—from our backyard to unknown destinations as the water filled our basement and crested at three feet on the first floor. My father paddled over the mailbox in a rowboat to reach the island of our house, and when the floodwaters retreated, we spent the next several years slowly removing a pasty veneer of mud, dirt, and detritus from floors, furniture, and two garages. This kind of event, however, represented one pole of a periodic personal oscillation between more common interactions with earth, water, night, sky, rock, xi snow, fire, and night and less ordinary and even sublime encounters with elemental phenomena. The former entailed regular camping, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing , distance running, and biking as well as years of scouting. As a ten-year-old, for example, I scavenged for and collected dozens of rocks and minerals, ranging from jasper and pyrite to calcite and talc and then proudly mounted and labeled my objets d’art on a shellacked wooden board that I still keep in my basement. The latter involved seeing the Aurora Borealis in Norway and, astonishingly, rural Ohio; exploring underground caverns and caves; visiting the Everglades, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls; journeying to glaciers in Europe and amazing limestone pillar hills in southeast China; or being caught without warning in an ocean undertow or violent lightning storm. These experiences, quite naturally, generated a lasting fascination with the physical world and an “accidental environmentalism.” The more proximate genesis for this book lies on the north shore of Long Island, where I set out late one night on a protracted run in the frozen silence of February. I had just moved into the carriage house of a cliff-top mansion that had been converted into a group home for graduate students. After loping along the beach at a brisk clip, I turned up into the woods and was shortly enveloped in what seemed like total blackness. A few minutes later, a severe thunderstorm began, and when the trail mysteriously stopped, I was lost wholly in unknown territory, barely able to discern the ground in front of me. Eventually, after tumbling blindly over low-lying wires that bloodied my shins, dead-ending in a bamboo grove, and then running on pure adrenalin in different directions for several miles, I found my way to a road that led me back to my new abode. Drying out by the calm of a fire, the opaqueness of the dark lifted and the bone-chilling cold was replaced by...


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MARC Record
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