419. Walking in Woods

January 30, 2015

Beyond rowing whenever I can, I am also fond of walking in woods. A casual question about something I published seventeen years ago recently led me to go back and read my description of a hike I made on snowshoes along the Long Pond Fire Road in Acadia National Park on January 15, 1996. I didn’t think in terms of engagements with nature in those days, but what I wrote then fits well into the theme I am developing in these posts about that very topic. Here is an excerpt from my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, (Bar Harbor: Earthling Press, 1998, pages 114f.).

On both sides of the fire road, verdant panoramas unfurled in a continuous strip as I went. Anchored at each end by stands of Northern white cedar, with several magnificent cedar swamps between, roadside vegetation set the tone of the hike.

I felt like a traveler depicted on a Japanese landscape scroll. The most spectacular thing about this hike was the unending woods on both sides. I had to pay close attention to detect subtle changes from one stand to the next. Here, cedar mixed with spruce and pine, there, with tamarack. Birch and popple put in a show, then mountain maple.

The slope of the land was so gradual, the shift from one watershed to the next so unpronounced, the landscape seemed quietly to flow with the road as one seamless forest. But wherever they grow, trees thrive under a limited range of specific conditions. Those conditions changed as I went, from wet to dry, north slope to south, shallow soil to less-shallow soil (never deep), shaded to sunny, with diverse histories of human and natural influence.

In one sense, the scene changed with such little commotion that it appeared bland and wholly undistinguished. These trees had been standing behind the door when charisma was handed out. They may have been ordinary and uninteresting, but, too, they were the stuff of Acadia, its heart and its strength.

The landscape of Maine and the health of our region depend on these woods. They are anything but boring. Maine’s motto is Dirigo, Latin for “I lead.” That is the voice of the pole star, but it is also the voice of the Maine woods. As they go, so go the rest of us. Our tracks follow the lead of the woods—deer, squirrel, hare, fox, coyote, the rest of us falling in behind, whether by snowmobile or snowshoe, cross-country ski or on foot, ax or chainsaw in hand, or not. If anything is dull it is our perception of the woods, not the woods themselves.

Woods are the waters of Earth come to life. On this hike I crossed six streams, flowing into four ponds, each stream rising in the woods through which I walked. Given air, sunlight, and water, woods spring up. Followed by insects and wildlife. And people. What are we but walking woods? What are woods but water with branches and roots?

The woods along the fire road flow as streams flow downslope into Duck and Long ponds, into Hodgdon and Seal Cove ponds. And water, where does it come from? From the firmament, and now this fallen white fundament underfoot. Making tracks in the snow, animals come full circle, walking in the stuff they are made of. Here are the origins of Acadian life.

The primary theme of the winter hike I made around Long Pond Fire Road was the unity I felt between my outer surroundings and my inner self. Everything came together—snow, tracks, woods, streams, ponds, sunlight, and the sky above. Like the little bent figure in the scroll, I played my part in the larger scene, one mote of awareness trekking through the landscape of the universe.

You have to go back to the woods or you lose your place. Your ties to the land. To your origins. You forget who you are. You come to believe you are a free agent, an independent being with no ties to anything beyond yourself. You lose your sense of belonging. Your judgment becomes uprooted. With nothing under your feet, what holds you up? You wander and are lost.

I have been that route. Centered on family and work, for years I gave no thought to what holds up the globe of human affairs. Woods, soil, water, sunlight, air—these were nothing to me. I wanted to get ahead, to be somebody.

Studying science, the humanities, education, I focused on human society and its accomplishments—as if they bloomed by spontaneous generation from human genius itself. I thought nature was a nice place to visit but I didn’t want to live there. It was a resort, a kind of sideshow of natural wonders and curiosities.

It never occurred to me I was made of Earth, thought its thoughts, saw with its eyes, spoke with its voice, or was in any way responsible to it for the benefits I received, which I took for granted as my deserts for being alive. I saw as a child. Wholly self-centered, I was a child. Reality for me was symbolic, found in art, movies, television, music, and books. I rowed on a rowing machine and ran at the side of city streets. For thirty years, thinking I dwelled in Paradise, I wandered and was lost.

One day I woke up realizing I was alone. Looking down, I saw nothing beneath me holding me up. My life was an unfounded dream. That day I might have become a taxi driver or a monk, but instead, for the first time, I heard a voice calling me to witness the miracle of life on planet Earth.

The trick to miracles is in recognizing them for what they are, otherwise we let them pass unacknowledged. Another day, oh hum. No, not oh hum, but by golly! How many miracles can we spot before our time runs?

Now paying attention, I explored Long Pond Fire Road for the first time, finding water, air, sunlight, trees, and wildlife in good order. Another day, another walk among miracles.

If I hadn’t come to my senses and spent the next thirty years in Maine, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. But I did come to my senses, and did move to Maine. Now here I am standing tall among the trees where I belong, with deep roots in the soil and the watershed that keeps it moist.

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2 Responses to “419. Walking in Woods”

  1. I love this post. “Another day, oh hum. No, not oh hum, but by golly!” This should be on buses, subways, everywhere. It would make a great song too. Thank you. (I have your Acadia book. It’s what led me to your blog.) Angelika

  2. Thank you, Angelika. In this age of artificial intelligence, I think we need big doses of the real thing, authentic intelligence and sensibility. I do my best to contribute to that effort.

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