“Understanding is always a journey, never a destination.” (24)
- Richard Fortey
Earth: An Intimate History (2004)
Earth: An Intimate History (2004)
What does it mean to walk? I stop in my tracks and reflect that to walk devoutly is to leave the human/social/constructed world for a time and saunter about in Nature – whether in parks, on trails or, most desirably, out beyond the last footpath – there to seek restoration and find inspiration. I rarely get to this latter place; yet there is no reason to stop dreaming of it. Woodpaths are my existential respite!
“I am in the wilderness without labels,” such is my dreaming self today.
I’ve talked about the art of walking and its deep connection with both the spiritual and creative praxis. I’ve written whole books devoted to the recounting of walks taken and imagined, and to the mysteries that sometimes arise when we go “there and back again,” adroitly, intentionally or just because we suddenly find ourselves doing so.
“I have been out walking in the snow for two days in a row, now.”
To walk is not to abandon responsibility or obligations, commitments we have to others in the ongoing adventure – alas, often the struggle – of living. It is not to stray off into never-never with a rucksack and a wooden staff; though the devout walker may carry each of these accouterments as he or she is led. Rather, to walk devoutly is to refresh, restore and reinvigorate the self. It is to get back in contact with the touchstones of an authentic dwelling in Earth & Cosmos. It is to recover the ‘trails’ – experienced, actual and imagined – that have brought us to our current station in life. On a devout walk we might rethink these touchstones, contemplate our direction and – if necessary – set a new course toward Wisdom’s Henge.
“I AM thinking on my feet in the snow-covered vistas through which I pass.”
Certainly, a devout walker leaves responsibilities and obligations – those “ties that bind” us in a good way to others and the past – behind, at least for a time. Walking, we venture out from the circuit of the daily rounds and embark on circumlocutions and peregrinatio that allow us to breathe freely and deeply once again. Walking trails is figurative of directioning; turning this way and then that. Yet the devout walker – as opposed to the mere escapist – intends to return to the daily rounds; eventually at least—renewed and better able to do what must be done as well as engage in what he or she wants to do to continue, deepen or alter their lived-in constructions. Walking allows enough distance to gain perspective on the day to day rounds and reveal what must remain as well as what might be amenable to change.
“The trail is almost virgin; only one other set of foot-steps have preceded mine.”
Out Winter Walking in the recent reprieve from ice and bone-chilling cold, I’ve been hoofing it through the fluffy snow, recently fallen over a crunchy under-layer of a melt-and-refreeze cycle that took place within the space of a day and a night and a day. I leave town and head down along Willow Creek, passing beyond the fast food stops that count the cost to those whose distractions keep them from seeing what lies beyond the white-and-yellow lines of too travelled routes; to work and home, to the grocery store and home, to the mall and back to work, from work to home. I leave the usual demarcated routes and set out on foot, going down a winding trail where a railroad track used to carry freight and passengers back and forth to Deer Hill and other vistas of the imagination, now safely sequestered in memory.
“There are deer tracks here as well_ and rabbits, more recently.”
A Winter Walk is its own kind of phenomenon; it differs from a walk in any other season. ‘Round and ‘round we go in the circle of the seasons_ and as I put hoof before hoof and trudge on down the trail – to where the snow and ice has not melted away as much as it has in town (where salt and ash are fortunately ubiquitous) – I sense the texture of the snow-on-crunchy ice layers more tangibly! My feet press down the lighter overburden to find a tenuous grip on the crunchy layer of icy frozen snow underneath, the upper layer now becoming like a sealant between boot and ice. I slip sometimes, but I get my winter-feet about me quickly enough, and so slide and slip less as I go on down past the lumber yards, heading for the bridge over Willow Creek at Whittier Drive.
“I am surrounded by trees and bushes that look like silhouettes!”
To either side of the trail are nearly ‘architectural’ looking trees standing quiet; leaning one way or another or else standing up tall_ each bearing its own light burden of snow, an inch or two deep. The trees seem like silhouettes etched into the frozen background, and I quickly abstract them into designs, some seeming peaceful, others energetic, while a few, here and there, are struggling against gravity as their burdens draw them down to earth. Bushes – which are Honeysuckle, Carolina Holly, and Briarberry in the Summer; now naked and asleep – seem to hold up better under the snow they carry rather better than some of the trees, a few of which are leaning down as if to become Faery Porches. As I walk along, I take pics of these silent ‘structures’ called ‘trees.’
“I see black dots arranged in an order, clinging to arch-like stems!”
On down beyond the first footbridge, to the left of the trail, I see bushes neatly hidden, secluded under heavy snow with an array of black dots demarcating the ley of their lines. They, too, are silhouettes against the whiteness, and the small round dots hanging from the arches of the branches that splay out toward the trail seem like tiny ornaments hung there of a purpose. When I draw up close I see they are actually berries; the bushes being of one of the varieties of Snowy Mountain Ash—and they are frozen solid. Grasping one between a first finger and thumb, it feels almost too hard to crush! The warmer Autumns we have been having have left the berries on their stems, instead of on the ground. I take several pics of the berries on their branches, trying to capture the strange feeling of the sight.
“It’s ‘snowing’ again; a dusting from the boughs of trees overhead.”
Rounding the last bend before Whittier Drive and the bridge over Willow Creek that is my destination, snow suddenly ‘storms’ down from the wind-disturbed trees to either side of the trail. It flurries and whisks around me, freezing on my glasses and melting on my face, leaving me at the vortex of a small storm that passes in about thirty seconds. And then_ the sun’s light grows brighter, suddenly, and I see it is trying to come out from behind the dew-fog. There was fog earlier in the morning, and now it has risen up to some height above the tree tops, so that when the clouds do part, the sun’s light is strained through the icy-crystals of the fog layer. A sudden rainbow flickers for a second just above the tree-line down in front of me along the right-hand side of the trail. I think I see many colors, all at once_ and then it’s gone.
“There’s the bridge_ covered in snow. Doesn’t look like anyone’s crossed it since last night’s snowfall!”
As I walk on down the trail, the sun trying to shine through the fog above the trees looks eerily like the moon on an Autumn night. This makes me aware just how gray-dark the day actually is and I realize that, were it not for the snow, I would not need my grey-tinted glasses at all. There is another sudden squall as a breeze disturbs the snow on the trees_ and then I reach the bridge over Willow Creek. The creek itself looks like a black ribbon drawn down through the white snow on either bank, its ice-cold flowing water sounding like a memory from an imagined place with an never-remembered childhood within its horizons.
“Over there’s Deer Hill! I can just see the old garage down by the springhouse!”
I step out onto the bridge and stand, first on one side, looking up-creek toward town, and then, after a couple minutes, I move to the other side of the bridge, and stand gazing downstream. The black ribbon mesmerizes my poetic imagination. It flows, and I am wont to flow with it, entering into the undulating movement of water over rock and sand and detritus; imagining where it might take me next. Securing myself on the bridge, I allow my imagination to light-up and flow downstream some ways before calling it back. A jogger coming down off Deer Hill then distracts me momentarily. He is the only other non-imaginary human person I have seen since leaving the road and town behind at the trailhead.
“Greet day for a run_” I proffer,
“You bet_ taking lots of great pictures?” he returns.
He passes, leaving the bridge and going on down the trail. I remain there, becoming transfixed once again, entering into an imaginative flow. As the bridge is icier than the trail, I’m glad to have my boots with the deep tread on, as otherwise I would find it difficult to get a sure footing. You have to dress well for Winter Walking! You have to stay safe enough to return home hale and whole; uninjured—and I’m glad to have had enough experience with Winter Walking to know how to bundle myself up. I am warm in my four layers of clothing and can therefore afford to stand on the bridge over Willow Creek and muse about the past, the present and the future of storytelling for a few minutes. Where might we be heading, and what traditions will we carry with us into the future?
_But I dare not tarry too long. You shouldn’t stay still on winter walks long enough for your heat to dissipate; it can be hard to get warm again—and the day is far enough below freezing that I quickly become aware of how fast I could get chilled. So I leave the bridge and turn back toward the trail. My aesthetic self wants to hike on down the trail, away from town, but my body is telling me I need to get refueled soon, so as not to get chilled, and I am an hour from home. I turn back the way I came, and am immediately caught in another local ‘snowstorm.’ Looking away from the sun – which is still trying to burn through the fog cover, I see small rainbows in the falling, swirling snow, oscillating, weaving through timespace before my eyes and then vanishing as the snow crystals fall out of correct alignment with the sun’s photons, no longer refracting the waves, becoming tiny prisms.
As a walk is like a story, I eventually reach the road – the end of the trail instead of the trailhead – and I so want to walk the way again. Yet I don’t, for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. To re-traverse a trail on which you have just had engaging, worthwhile experiences that jostled poetic reflections into being is rarely fruitful. Better to come back another day, when the conditions in Nature are even slightly different – and when your ‘place’ on your own Path are different as well; as they inevitably will be. If you do, you run a much better chance of having yet more interesting experiences, even along the same trail. Better to go home and reflect on what you have experienced while Winter Walking; bringing the walk – and the story of it – to a close.
“Where did you walk today?”
“I meandered and I sauntered,
Until I came ‘round a bend and met myself
going the other way,
yet I was with myself.”