I feel uncommon, running in the woods.
Well, the word “running” applies less and less, these days. But I blame that on Time, as it seems like every month or so I lose one more spring out of the once bouncy mattress of my step. But I do what I can.
As I was saying. Uncommon.
I don’t follow paths. In moments, that bores me. It’s “the road less traveled” and all that, even though when you leave the path altogether, you’re no longer on ANY kind of road, and the path you tread, taken as a whole, has NEVER been traveled. The heart of true creativity has a lot to do with it. I find it easy to create, and find myself fearless in it, and I’m not someone who doesn’t see connections between similar aspects of the self.
Do I hunger to try new things in writing? Yes. In baking? Yes. And does that relate to a hunger to try new paths in life generally? I think so.
The other day, my father and I talked about the prospect of visiting national parks. He’s only ever been to Acadia, in Maine. I’ve never been to any at all, but after watching the below-pictured PBS documentary series…
…I have a craving to see more.
My father and talked about what people usually do at such places. See all the sights in the usual way. Take the tours. Join the crowds. Buy the souvenirs. Snap the photographs, while standing erect and smiling at the camera, to prove to others you were there.
And we both talked about how that’s not for us.
“Let me wander off somewhere wild,” I said.
Of course, you’re often alone when you don’t follow the path. You see what no one else sees because you go where no one else goes. And then you find yourself more isolated, even when you return, because less and less does your experience match up with the experience of others. You cut yourself off from the ordinary, to mix with the true dynamism of things, only to lose frames of reference with Humanity.
I shouldn’t say “only.” There are benefits. In particular I like seeing how Nature does just fine all on its own. It’ doesn’t need to be “redeemed,” as the US Census Service used to call the tumbling westward acres of land once the frontier swallowed them up.
A garden, you see, for all its grandeur, can instill a kind of god complex in a person. You partake, but you don’t feel insignificant.
This life exists because I planted it.
This life continues because I weed out the encroaching wilderness of weeds.
This life ends because I need flowers and flour.
One of the most clear things to me about Humanity’s relationship with Nature is that… we have to deflate and move aside our sense of tremendous centrality in it. All of our stories sing to us, over and over, from birth, that only Humanity matters. And stories build us. Of course, we can use logic to push back against the song that is everywhere, but how many people, when push comes to shove, operate on rationality? Rationality, for all but a tiny minority in this massive democracy, is an armchair warrior’s game.
Just look at what happened to people after 9/11.
Does seeing that image, again, remind you how many people (as a friend of mine once put it), “want to build a wall around Afghanistan and fill it with water”?
And, now that things have calmed down, how many people still feel that way?
We, we Americans, put Japanese citizens in a concentration camp, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And many wanted to do that to anyone that looked like a “towel head” in the wake of 9/11.
Why take the risk? They MIGHT be anxious to kill our loved ones….
They might even destroy our national parks.
The Grand Canyon.
And so, perhaps, preemptive strikes are the best thing….
Being able to… step out of the emotional tide at such times is, I think, partly contingent on having practice stepping out of the tide generally. How often do you yearn to not “go with the flow”? How often do you put yourself in a position to feel that, at the moment, you are not partaking of this grand communal civilization? How often do you step off the path in the woods and remember that, for 99.999% percent of the history of the Earth, life did just fine. And, in fact, we would not exist if that were not the case.
And then there’s the fact that this is, as John Muir put it while defending the lands of Yosemite in California, “the morning of creation.” Creation is not done. It is not completed, ready for us to take the reins at last and to reign at last.
What kind of sentient life might evolve from other life forms, were we not creating the 6th great global extinction in Earth’s history? What might Humanity become? How might it further be polished, in the forge of Evolution?
Are there pictures beyond this? Are there more to be drawn?
And is it even a progression from “worse” to “better”? Is it just “change” and “experimentation” in the forge of life?
Sometimes when I run in the woods, I feel uncommon.
I often crouch on top of a rock, watching the distant path when people run by, in that monotonous, jogging way that makes certain the exercise of no more than the minimum muscles. The exact same pace. The exact same course. No change. No dynamism. No creativity.
No partaking of what exists off the path, other than the occasional “what a nice view” glances at the background scenery.
No communion WITH the scenery.
I sometimes feel like that method of exercise is the perfect symbol for Humanity’s manner of interacting with the natural World. It is safe. It is comfortable. And it seems profoundly limiting.
Sometimes I wish I had others to run my exact route with me, the way I run, or rather the way I aggressively wander. Over rocks and under branches. Around bushes and through ravines. And beneath the canopy that dwarfs me. The green leaves the color of money, but as yet not transformed into it. The music of the wind in the trees where the birds, out of sight, add their un-monied notes.
Yes. Sometimes I wish I were not the only human being, seeing what I see in the way and order I do.
And, then, sometimes I do not.
Just today I finished the long process of moving out of a home and region that I loved dearly.
I don’t know what will happen next. I’ve left the security of a place with a low cost of living, everything I need to write well save good natural light near my chair, and proximity to family. I’m sure I’ve left more than that.
But I’m not anxious to dwell on what I’ve left.
But for a while, I will.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about living at Bonnie Jenks’ near the town of Saint Johnsbury Vermont was running in the woods. Just over two years ago, I decided to make a change. And change is hard, as evidenced by the change of moving down here, to Durham New Hampshire, near Dover and Portsmouth, about an hour north of Boston, and about three hours south of the place I grew up. The change I made just over two years ago was to start running in the woods, for fitness.
Now I don’t mean… on trails. That would defeat the purpose. Running on trails is… like running on roads but with a bit more proximity to the scenery.
No. Not only is that repetitive motion something that risks injury, but it’s uncreative. And I like creative things. Running on the road, or even trails, is an invitation to not be in the moment. And it doesn’t work the body fully. On the road, with the hypnotic regularity, you think about other things. You forget the road. It’s harder to live in the moment. It makes me think of Buddhism.
In the woods? Running as I run? It’s different. I do everything in my power to run creatively. I run over logs. I run under trees. I run around rocks. And I run through streams. I move my body in as many ways as I can. I try to stretch. I try to work all muscles. I try to pay attention. There are risks, running like that. I’m always in danger of not noticing a tree branch in time. I could poke my eye out. I’ve come close several times. And I don’t want to lose an eye. But with risk comes reward. When I see a rock face, something with hand holds, I try to climb it. I could fall. I could maim myself, or even die, in the woods. And who would know? I do my best to get away from people when I run. I try to leave the human world behind, so convinced am I that it is a ridiculous thing as full of tunnel vision as a man in a tunnel. It’s even possible I could run into a dangerous animal. Not likely, in this land. But I have fallen off a fallen tree and come close to breaking a rib.
Just a few days ago I left the country of rural Vermont for the populace of southern New Hampshire. And I took one last run, the day before packing started, and I tried to be mindful. I tried to live in the moment. I did a fairly good job. Fairly. It took me about an hour. The first 45 minutes were run of the mill, in my run of the forest. Out of the four routes I took, in Saint Johnsbury Vermont, I took the one that begins by going North, curls around West, and finishes by running East toward home. It’s a route that follows a long stream, and breaks into territory with maple syrup tubing, linked to maple trees, that I don’t think I’m allowed to run in, strictly speaking.
That’s the route where I see, and often tear down, “no trespassing” signs. Eventually I crossed the dirt road that leads home. I ran along it for a while, running sideways as I do, both ways, and running backward, spinning back and forth, briefly forward and then back again. Then I cut into the woods, running up and to the East. It’s a nice stretch, and the last one that I incorporated into my series of routes. Change is hard. I stuck with the other three for a long time. As much as I try to do different things within my set routes, I’m averse to breaking out into new ones.
I ran East. I ran down a long, steep hill. It’s fun to run down hill. It’s a risk to the knees, if they aren’t strong, and sometimes I run downhill sideways, but it’s a thrill. Working with gravity makes me feel younger than I am. And all the while I was aware that my last run was coming to an end. Of course I could visit home and take another run, but it wouldn’t be home anymore.
So I tried to wake up, as much as I could, tried to focus my appreciation for the land, an appreciation that no one else I know executes. Sure. Others love Nature. Others go into the woods. But no one I know… takes Nature on its own terms the way I do. I want to experience Nature doing exactly what it does. On its own terms. I don’t want to follow Humanity’s trails, which cut a safe path through the “chaos.” I don’t want to convey myself along with the noise and stench of a four wheeler.
I don’t want to be a tourist. What I want is to know Nature for what it is. What I don’t want is to know it for how Humanity wants it to be. Nature is not window dressing. Nature is not our servant. Nature is not a giant closet of separate resources. I like to think that the… gods of that place… appreciate my appreciation. They say “Here is a human who is strange. Here is a human who is willing to kneel before us, as the sustainable humans of old did. Here is a human who understands.” And with hubris, I wanted to be thanked for that, by the gods of that place.
And I felt as if they did. I came to the bottom of that hill, stopped for a breath, and looked around. I breathed. I never try for a constant “aerobic” workout. I stop. I smell the metaphorical roses. In truth, what I do is not as much a forest “run” as a forest “aggressive wander.”
And at the bottom of the hill, I saw a fat morel mushroom. Do you know them? They grow in late spring, in places hard to predict. They’re a delicacy. I see them sometimes, not because I understand them well, as hunters do, but because of chance. I even found some growing in a flower box outside the movie theater once, in the middle of St. Johnsbury. And they are tasty.
So I saw one. And I said “Holy shit that’s a big morel mushroom.” And then I saw another. And then I looked more intently. And I found three more.
But I wasn’t done my run. Could I carry them? It would mess up my run. I don’t run with Tupperware. I don’t run with pockets. I run with white sweatpants, white socks, white shoes, and vinager spray to combat ticks. But I sacrificed. I filled my hands, trudged up a field to a place I knew I’d be able to drive near to, and set them down.
And as I trudged up that huge, satisfying steep hill, I cried. Crying. For decades it’s been something I wanted to be able to do, but couldn’t. I felt a wall. I knew I needed to cry. I knew it would show others my pain, and elicit sympathy. But instead of crying I would feel dead. And if others were around me, they’d respond to deadness, not tears. But what could I do? Could I order myself to cry?
A few months ago I watched “Rocky” for the first time in a number of years. 1976. A man, a failure most of his life, gets a shot at redemption and, inspired by the love of the woman he loves, he takes on the World. And he does it in the boxing ring, a place of violence, but also, perhaps, a place of more perfect symbolism for Man’s fight with Life than any other place. I didn’t understand the movie when I was young. It was just… nice. The fight at the end was thrilling. But it didn’t cut me to the quick.
As I’ve grown older, as I’ve become a middle aged man who has failed to succeed in the ways his potential promised, I have grown to love the movie more and more. Every time I see it, it hits me harder. And a few months ago, the doors broke open, and ever since then, I’ve found myself able to cry. I even cry singing certain parts of the soundtrack to “Little Shop of Horrors” in the car. Meeting, for the first time in my life, a woman I am happy to say I love has helped. I’ve never felt before that I could truly say “I would marry you” to a woman.
I’m sorry. I’m off topic. And she’s not feeling what I feel.
I’m almost in tears, trudging up this hill. What am I thinking? I’m thinking “The gods of this place are saying goodbye. They’re thanking me for appreciating all of this, beyond how others do. I’ve loved, and they’re loving back.” It also had to do with it being my final run. But if it had only been that, I wouldn’t have cried. If it had been “only about me,” I wouldn’t have cried while I ran. And then I came up into a field. At the top of the field is a cell phone tower, all fenced in. I walked up to it, as the minutes ticked away. I saw a cement platform on which rested some metal box, like a power station. I set the morels on them, intending to come back.
And then I heard a strange noise, almost like a crow’s caw. Usually I circle south around the fencing, but the sound came from the north of it. Though it’s a shorter way to home, I circled north, for the first time ever. I saw a baby fox staring at me, not fifteen feet away. Two holes, by two trees. I said hello. Have you ever read “A Language Older than Words”? Wonderful book. It begins with the story of a man whose chickens are being stolen by foxes. So he promises them that if they stop, he’ll feed them the parts of all the chickens he kills, the parts he doesn’t use. And the foxes STOP. As if they understand. It’s a non-fiction book. So. I’m staring at this baby fox. I say hello. I think of it as a friend, one that I understand no better than any person. All we do is pretend we understand, or think we do.
I’ll never know the hurt they’ve suffered, or the pain they’ve risen above. And I’ll never know their holiness or their kind of love either.
Then the baby fox runs down into its hole, after we stare at each other for maybe twenty seconds. And I vow to go home and get the little restaurant sausage I have in the fridge. I’ll cut it up and bring it back. As a thank you. And then I run the rest of the short way home.
And then I’m struggling even harder with tears. I’m running and sobbing at the same time.
You see, sometimes magical things happen to me on runs, after three summers doing them in those woods. Just a few weeks before, an adult fox stood barking at me atop a hill, darting back and forth and staring at me between trees. But two magical events at once? On the same day? Unprecedented. I get home. I get a bowl from the kitchen, knowing I’m done but at the same time knowing i’m just starting. I fetch the sausage and cut it into pieces, putting them in the bowl.
I get in my car. I drive the short distance back to the base of the gated-off field in which my morels and the foxes are. I walk up. I walk to where I saw the baby fox. And I see two baby foxes. They lie down flat, wondering what to make of me. I say hello. I want to apologize that I’m about to scare them because, you see, I want to drop the sausage by their hole. I move forward. Sure enough, they dart into their hole. I drop the sausage by the hole, spreading it out.
I leave. I fetch the mushrooms. I put them in the now-empty bowl. I walk down the hill. And I look back up, through the bushes and trees. One baby fox stares down at me. I wonder if he or she is baffled. I wonder what their parents tell them about humans. I wonder if I’m breaking the rules. And I walk home.
Some time later, the woman I love arrives, to help me move. She seems nervous. I don’t know why. But I know she’s struggling with life, and feelings for me, and for others. Her feelings don’t obey, any more than mine do. But I tell her about the baby foxes. We go to see them, walking all the way. We arrive.
By then I’ve showered and put on different clothes. I smell different. I look different. And I’m with another. So I expect the foxes to not recognize me, and to be nervous. What would have happened if I’d come back in my running clothes, after leaving the meat? Would they have come up to me? Would they have thanked me? But, from the path, before hiding before we get nearly as close as I did alone, we see three baby foxes through the undergrowth.
They’re lined up, one head over the other, almost as if they’re a set of those wooden Russian nesting Matryoshka dolls. They’re so alert an orange that they seem beyond reality. I step aside, away from the woman I love, and they bolt, down into the holes. We move up and close, to where I’d seen the first single one, and we wait.
They never come back. So we go home. And all the while I’m thinking about crying.
Last night, now that I’m living near her, we cooked the mushrooms in a marinara sauce. They were wonderful. And I’ve been told not to expect her wonderful, helpful, deep presence very often because it might set a bad precedent.
Every time I step outside this new, huge, all-for-me suburban apartment, I look for foxes. And mushrooms.