RETURNING TO THE TREES

For me, the act of walking is a way of slowing down, to live at a more manageable pace. I’ve had good friends who have used running as their way of release from daily tensions, but I felt myself already speeding over too many details. I forget too much; exactly what did she say, much less mean? Write me a note so I’ll remember. Walking, then, becomes a time for observing and recollection. (So I often carry a small notebook when I go. Stop, scribble a word or phrase, and move on.)

How much of this grows out of my Boy Scout experiences? I was a member of a troop that prided itself in monthly long hikes and primitive camping. Looking back, I realize how many of those hikes began at their church in the city and wound out along railroad tracks or river levees; how many, too, wound up at the end of city bus lines. Not exactly high wilderness, but enough to instill a flavor, even close to home. Today, though, none of those hikes would get beyond suburban sprawl. I could contrast it, of course, against the week of backpacking on the Appalachian Trail or compass courses through the forest around Lake Vesuvius or in the bluegrass country of Daniel Boone settlement. Our scoutmaster, a toolmaker of mangled grammar and childlike sentimentality, conveyed his love of birds and trees and the land. How could one forget the outing that began with a field trip where a coal company proudly demonstrated how it leveled forest for strip mining and how its Big Bertha shovel filled a truck with each bite into the earth, only to be countered later in the day by time planting seedling pine in the pavement-like clay left behind, hoping that in another century, true forest might reappear, though never in a state approaching what had been destroyed. I carry that lesson whenever I enter forest.

Through high school and college, the forest largely receded from my awareness, although I now recall a few times of trying to recapture some of that experience in the woods surrounding Wright State University. Curiously, that was unsuccessful, in part because that woodlot was in its own way a kind of debris at the edge of development. More satisfying were the occasional outings to Clifton Gorge and Glen Ellen and John Bryan State Park nearby.

After college, I began to recover the experience in repeated walks along a strip of the Susquehanna River, partitioned off from downtown by a freeway; an old bridge, closed off to traffic, provided a pedestrian vantage over the water. A year later, I moved to a farmhouse, with a wooded gorge at the back of the property and weekend jaunts to mountain lakes.

My next move, to the ashram in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, gave me a close exposure to forest. Frequent walks along an abandoned road we called the Deer Trail or along their own unpaved road, to the waters running from the neighboring lake, were seen as part of a larger spiritual experience.

My next move, to a small industrial city in Ohio, left me searching for corners of natural repose. If a stretch of railroad track was all I could find, I took it.

The next several moves, however, carried me closer to the wilds. In Indiana, our house sat against woods and meadows — and over caverns. In Washington State, although living in desert, I was soon dwelling in an orchard and not far from the Cascade Range. Here, at last, I was truly hooked.

Only to be thrust back into a period I’ve come to call my Lost Years — in part because of their isolation from wilderness. I couldn’t really find a suitable space along the Mississippi River or in the collapsing steel industry cities of the Midwest or even Baltimore, though a few reservoirs came close. Only during my sabbatical year of writing in a suburb, when I found the pine barren and a corner of the Gunpowder Falls to explore, did I recover. (What do I make of the littered wooded row along expressway construction to Reistertown or similar pockets?)

The past twenty-five years in New Hampshire reshaped my forest trails outlook. Initially, I made long drives to trailheads in the White Mountains, anticipating something along the lines of what I’d experienced in the Cascades. Over time, however, the focus shifted. Walks along railroad tracks beside the Merrimack River could be satisfying, or trails to the ledges overlooking Lake Massabesic at the edge of the city presented loons and beavers or even a possible moose. Why go further? Small spaces of wild close to home provide frequent reference to the greater unity. I even detect paths in the air the birds use to arrive at our feeders, as these experiences weave together.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

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