I’ve always felt a rather parental responsibility for trails. When you look down them at the start, they always seem so lonely, meandering off as if they hadn’t the slightest idea where they’ll end up. Like old men wandering from the Home, they seem to amble maplessly from hill to cliff, bush to tree, blind to direction, deaf to weather. You have to admire their courage as they head off day after day into that wild; but you also have to wonder why they do it…
In their enthusiasm for adventure, I suppose they’re more like children scampering off to explore the forest with reckless abandon as if it were their first day at summer camp. No particular agenda, no destination in mind – just a need to be in the moment. Perhaps trails are the child in all of us; they whisper about the mystery out there –the land behind the tree, beyond the mist… the sound of one hand clapping.
But a question came to me in a blinding flash one day as I stumbled through some bushes looking for a path I had somehow misplaced: what is a trail? I felt like Paul looking for Damascus. Is it really a trail if no one has ever been along it? Experienced it? Would it be a noun without a verb? Are we its Anthropic Principle -necessities for its existence? Its meaning? More than mere trail followers, the passive beneficiaries of Shinrin-yoku, are we, rather, obligate components: ingredients in the recipe –Gaians, charged with the maintenance of the machinery?
And so it is with the pride of an essential cog in that machine that I have become a Disciple, an Acolyte of the Way. I have assumed a responsibility hidden from most. Well, from James at any rate.
You remember James –that ex-military man still reliving his posting in Africa from who knows what war: https://musingsonretirementblog.com/2016/06/26/forest-tales/ “You take this stuff too seriously,” he said when I told him of my epiphany. “There is no meaning to a path. It’s just a way of getting somewhere.” We were sitting at a little table in the window of a suburban McDonald’s having a McCafe and he stomped his cane on the floor -for emphasis, I imagine. But he was in the habit of frequently banging the business end of it onto crumbs, bits of meat, or little insects in the general vicinity of the table to test his aim, so any new significance of the action was unclear.
Suddenly he screwed up one eye, and laid the cane across the table narrowly missing the coffees. “You’re not one of those environmental pantheists, are you?”
Pantheist? That caught me by surprise. I wondered if he meant ‘pansy’. “What made you think that, James?”
The eye stayed screwed. “Saw you feeling that tree, remember…? Normal people don’t do that.” He made it sound almost dirty –like unwanted touching, or something.
I have to admit that sometimes I am so overcome by the sheer living bulk of a tree that I have an urge to stroke the rough texture of its bark. I’ve never thought of it as a molestation, though. Just an acknowledgement; ships signalling quietly in the night.
“Can’t you just hike somewhere?” he said, eyeing me suspiciously.
“I think it’s the ‘somewhere’ part I have trouble with.”
“You have to go somewhere,” he offered helpfully.
“That’s just it. Do you?”
He looked genuinely puzzled –like I had opened an unmarked door. “Do you have to hike, you mean?”
I shrugged. This wasn’t going to be easy. “No, I mean ‘go somewhere’… The real purpose of a trail in a forest may not be to get you anywhere. It’s more the going. The process…” I sighed when I saw the blank look on his face.
“Ahh,” he said, nodding his head, “You mean the exercise.” I have to admit, he was trying.
“That’s part of it,” I said. I thought I’d better concede something.
“Come on!” he said rather testily and rattled the cane across the table. “You’re not gonna go all flaky on me, are you?” Then he thought about it for a moment. “Or religious?” he added with a little hiss and rolled his eyes.
Maybe he had meant pantheist. I shook my head carefully, just in case. “No…” I searched for a different way to explain. “It’s just that there are many ways to look at something.”
He cocked his head and looked at me. “Your point?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Well, a trail can be a way to get somewhere, like you said…” He smiled at his own succinct description and nodded cheekily. “But it can also be a way to experience the forest; a way to escape from the city for a while; a time to listen to the birds and the wind rustling through the leaves…”
The smile faded and his eyes narrowed as if I was about to trick him. He removed his cane from the table and tapped it several times on the floor beside him. “You mean like a side effect?” he asked suspiciously, but obviously relieved that I hadn’t quoted scripture, or something.
I tried to twinkle my eyes, but I’ve never been very good at that, so I settled for a slow, satisfied blink. “What is the side effect of a poem?”
The eyes narrowed again, and then he rolled them before his cane thumped. “Poem??” I could actually feel the two question marks. “What on earth do you mean?” he said, a little too loudly.
I shrugged. “Why do you read a poem, James? Is it to gather information, like in a textbook? Or is it for the description, the emotion, the feeling…? Pretend a trail is like that. A poem is not just an ordinary string of words, after all. So, the trail is the noun; travelling along it is the verb; and the rest are adjectives -pictures…” I kind of liked that description, but I might as well have been talking to a stump.
“What’s a poem got to do with trails?” James can be so concrete.
“Humour me, James. Meaning isn’t always apparent right away…”
He shrugged grumpily and rolled his eyes again –it must be a military thing. “Okay, I wouldn’t decide to read a poem, but if I did, it would probably be for all –no, most– of the things you mentioned…” He didn’t want to get trapped and he lengthened the last word; he was wary now.
“But could you read it just as you would a textbook…?”
He shook his head, certain he had me. “Then it wouldn’t be a poem, would it?”
“Or a trail…” I reached for my coffee.
But his puzzled look returned. “But a trail’s not a textbook either…”
After I smiled, I think I actually twinkled when I heard the cane thump.