Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Woods

A New Post, in which I introduce a Guest Writer.

"We’re living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we’re driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells…. "

W.G. Sebald, After Nature

For more than a decade now my brother Jim and I have been hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail that straddles the shared borders of New York and Connecticut known as the Taconics. This winter it was hard to get out what with the snow and rain. And now it’s Spring and it’s still hard. We aimed for early March, then for the 23rd, our dad’s birthday; we would have made a toast to him out there in the wilderness he so loved. Now it’s April and we are at last getting out. It’s a perfect day; the sun is bright, clouds billowy and it’s mild. Because of all the rain it makes sense to stay high, so we agree to start from the Lion’s Head trailhead just North of Salisbury, which meets up with the Appalachian Trail, and to go as far as the Undermountain feeder trail which will take us back out to the road where we’ll park a second car. This will include a piece of the Appalachian Trail we haven’t hiked, and at about five or six miles seems just right for our first time out.

We meet at the Undermountain parking area, where Jim leaves his car and piles himself, his boots, his backpack and his scottie into the front seat of my car and we head back to the trailhead. The trail is steeper than we’d remembered and catches us out of shape from the long winter, huffing and puffing until the trail levels off some and we find our stride. Soon we come upon three elderly women headed back down with their four dogs. Seeing our own unleashed Allie they tell us of the hiker at the top of the mountain who scolded them for not leashing their dogs and would surely scold us – ‘she’ll tell you it’s risky’, one of them said. Not about to be drawn into an argument that leads to our leashing Allie who knows these hills as well as we do, Jim affirmed, “it is risky; it’s always risky in the woods” More pleasantries, and we move on. Then a young guy in shirtsleeves comes bounding down the path. “How far have you come?”, we ask. Hardly slowing his pace he tells us he’s come from the Bear Mountain Trail, and asks the same of us. These questions serve both as a greeting, one hiker to another, and as a request for pertinent information about what lies ahead.

We are surrounded by deep woodland crisscrossed with old stonewalls suggesting that even this mountainside was once farmed. The trail follows the ridge along the eastern slope of the mountain. Further up it joins with the Appalacaian Trail on the way up to Lion’s Head and will take us the several miles further before we head out. We’re moving at a good pace now, single file, deep in our thoughts - revealed as we walk by an occasional observation or comment; how the trail wintered, or about the history of this area we have come to know well; fanciful stories of the lawless that hid out in this once no-man’s-land, so wild that neither New York nor Connecticut had surveyed or laid claim to this land until deep into the last century. And sometimes about our great grandparents who made an uneasy journey from their tiny island in the Hebrides to settle in the wilderness of Ontario, wondering how they accomplished such an enormous and risky undertaking as we repeat in some minuscule way the difficulties of the unknown.

When we reach the top of Mt Riga we pause to have some water and survey our surroundings. We can continue straight or scale the forty-foot Lion’s Head pinnacle left by the receding glaciers hundreds of millions of years ago. It’s an easy choice - we’re going up. We make our way up along the sides of the ledge where there is some turf and an occasional small bush to grab onto. Allie finds her own way. And now on top we can see the valley spread out for miles; to the South we see what we think is Lake Riga and beyond Lake Riga soft old peaks that go on to vanishing, and to the North the twin lakes, Washinee and Washining, the names a reminder that all of this – as far as we can see - belonged to the Indians. This whole slice of Connecticut; Indians, then pioneers, then Revolutionaries and the charcoal makers and iron smelters that supported them, and now gentlemen farmers evidenced by the stone walls and the squares and rectangles of green field and pasture below us - a history of violent eruptions erased by the powerful regenerative forces of Nature.

It’s windy up here in the open, and chill in spite of the sun. I pull my jacket hood over my cap. Jim takes this moment of quiet between us to tell me he’s noticed that Allie seems to be not hearing very well; he’s concerned about her and concerned that it might be that this is her last hike. My own dog Troma took her last hike less than a year ago. Our dogs had been our companions for as long as we’d been hiking. Jim has several times reminded me of that last time out with Troma. We’d picked an easy trail along a river bed to accommodate her age and failing health, when, as he tells it, he turned to find her above him on the cliff scaling the rocky embankment for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s a nice memory and I’m grateful when he brings her back this way, if only for a moment. Down off the pinnacle we turn north and are now on the part of the trail we haven’t been on before, walking the backbone of these old, old hills. The trail is narrow and we’re going single file, sometimes with me in front, sometimes behind, gauging our steps as we need to on this path of rough fieldstones and upended shale laid bare and gouged by the rains.

Finding and keeping a stride keeps us aloft and moving: our eyes continuously estimating the distance and the best option for each step: a rock or exposed root that’s firmly embedded and won’t tip or spring loose to throw our balance. One foot pushes off, stretches up, the body balancing now in a moment of perfect equipoise even as some decision is being made, made by the machinery of movement itself; reaches, then lands, knees giving just enough to create the spring necessary to launch the other foot, now up and balancing, gauging distance, and down; repeating endlessly this exquisite economy of movement. Moving, focused on moving, one’s whole body awakens and finds itself alive with a grace that in these moments we share with the animals of the forest. Aloft and moving, alive now to the sensate feel of the air and of smells that waft like warm currents; pleasures that awaken the Old Brain and hold me in the currency of the moment.

Ahead of us is that part of the trail that we know so well is Paradise Lane, named because of the Mountain Laurel that comes into bloom in late June and fills the air with a blizzard of white blossoms as far as the eye can see. This patch of trail that we’re on is soon going to be this same flurry of white; Mountain Laurel as tall as we are on every side, and below this blueberry twigs not yet in leaf promise their own snow shower of white and pink and then a feast of berries, and on the ground the shine of wintergreen leaves with their tiny white flowers waiting to burst. We pick the occasional red berry missed by the bears but they’re last year’s crop and bland from frost. Tiny brooks bubble around and across our path making a soup of the fallen leaves that have been pummeled by winter. The forest covering above us is dense but the trees are not yet in leaf and allow the sun to filter through and warm our backs. The brooks converge and grow broader and puddle, suggesting a rock shelf beneath us. We come to a partial clearing, higher ground and signs of a campsite and decide this is a good place to stop for lunch. We negotiate our way across the water on the few strategically placed stones. Allie not minding getting wet takes a more direct route. We find a good size log and take off our packs. I’ve brought a bagel with lox and cream cheese that we split and some dried apple cookies. Jim produces a couple of oranges he grabbed from home. Not something we talk about; it always works out.

Over lunch we try to reconstruct our hike late last December. It’s something we often do, partly because it’s fun to compare our different recollections, but mostly because it adds to the mental picture we have of this whole long ridge. Jim had wanted to find the camp North of here that was marked on our map but we’d never seen signs of the several times we’d taken that part of the trail. Coming up the old unpaved road from Salisbury we’d parked on East Street just this side of the cement barrier put up to close the road for the winter, and came in the connecting path and up the Appalachian Trail to Bear Rock Falls. Jim was sure we could bushwhack in from there to find the lake and camp, if there was one. We had crossed the Bear Rock Falls creek and with some scouting found an old trail that seemed to follow it in and taken this until it stopped at what appeared to be a large dam. And there was the lake. We crossed the dam and were surprised to come upon two relatively new houses with a road leading up to them from the other side. We’d then followed the road and soon came upon a huge complex of buildings dominating the whole south end of the lake - basketball courts, boat houses, cabins and a large, rambling lodge – here in the middle of nowhere: quiet now as winter was about to settle in but in the summer, we’d imagined, a regular bee hive of activity. We spoke about the incongruity of all this as we made our way out on the newly graveled road blasted through the granite hillside back to East Street and then the couple of miles further to the cars. Jim drove out ahead of me and before we’d gone fifty feet I saw him waving his hand wildly to get my attention. I pulled up beside his car. He could hardly contain himself. He’d come upon a moose standing in the road - his road now that it was closed for the winter.

It begins to cloud over, reminding Jim that he’d heard a prediction of snow in the late afternoon. I’d heard that too but it hadn’t seemed possible when we started out. We’re packed up and leaving when I remember we haven’t made a toast, and I take a moment to unpack the flask Jim gave me for just this purpose. Jim is more sentimental than I am about our dad, but I’m surprised how attached I’ve become attached to these shared moments. Jim raises the flask; “ We’re here together dad, and thinking of you”, he says. Then,” we love you, dad. Give us a sign!” Every time he invokes our father’s presence in just this way, and again I am moved, and as always, more than I expect, moved in a way that feels at first like grief, then spread out from this moment, from this place that had felt like grief, spreads like warmth into a feeling of inclusion; of tenderness for all things, for life itself. And then we taste the sweet, turf tasting, iodine tasting whiskey from the flask with the insignia of the Bowmore Distillery from Islay. These moments always bring us deeply back into the past, sometimes with a shared memory or a question, now mostly unanswerable. And for a few moments we allow this different mood to settle over us in silence.

My father was large for both of us, though in different ways; for me it was about his knowing so many things he didn’t know how to convey, didn’t know would have value; things he didn’t identify as knowledge, like how to read the soil, how to know what good land looked like, or what the weather was going to do: things he knew by virtue of being in touch with the land he’d grown up on. I remember him telling me once that when he was a boy they measured distances by ‘looks’; a look being the distance down the road as far as you could see. You’d find a fence post or sapling that you could fix in your gaze and when you got to it you’d again fix on an object at the furthest distance and repeat this. I remembered thinking how perfect that was, and yet how it spoke of a time gone forever, a time when there was room for approximations and when time and distance weren’t inseparable as they are now.

Back on the trail we hear the Spring sounds of peeper frogs and wonder aloud what pond or swamp might be down to our right that can house such a cacophony. The rivulets we’ve been crossing and re-crossing are going to converge ahead and flow down into Sage’s Ravine, dramatic with its waterfalls, cavernous rock walls and the surrounding growth of old forest. But we’re not there yet. We are still deep in the woods, lost in the sameness of endless woodland, not sameness quite, but endless; the endlessness of design without form, without the edge to give it shape and organize it in some way. It’s not monotonous, the experience itself is of the most heightened consciousness of the visual; of one’s eyes bathed in the softness of the light filtered through the trees, of every depth of the forest simultaneously available; one’s vision neither caught nor blocked by the foreground but seeming to pass effortlessly beyond that to another depth, and yet another. Here, except for the occasional white rectangular blazes on the trail there is nothing but undifferentiated woodland stretching in every direction. If we were to move off the trail it’s possible we might never find it again; the blazes themselves are not easily seen from another angle and the trail itself an almost invisible thread through this wilderness. Here, there are no remnants of the stone walls that we’d seen on our way in; nothing that punctuates or delineates. Just more of the same, more woods; shifts from deciduous to fir and back, but always without any apparent context so that difference becomes lost as a form of meaning. In this so deeply ‘in’ of this woods time becomes subjective, and space unending. There is no conception here of another way of being. Here there might as well not be any ‘out’. ‘Out’ is what belongs to man. It has shape, organization and definition. I think to myself that one ought to be prepared to be in the ways of the woods when entering, as Nature is indifferent to the whole way we orient experience.

Several years ago one late summer afternoon I took a friend through a large hemlock forest near my house on Overlook Mountain to show him a place known locally as the Magic Meadow; a field formed in the confluence of three mountains, known for its beauty if not its magnetic ‘force’. We wandered around for a bit in some mild sense of anticipation but were soon drawn to what looked like a small Buddhist altar we could see set up in the woods just beyond the meadow. In the woods we found a string of altars, one leading to another which led to yet another, each inspiring the next in some minimalist pantheistic artscape. By the time we realized that we had been wandering around without paying attention we couldn’t find our way back. But because it was only moments before that we had entered the woods we believed that with a few steps in each direction we’d find the path. We turned back, then turned around, then turned again. Then stopped. We were lost and realized we could only get more lost doing what we were doing. Even the setting sun was no help, as we hadn’t bothered to orient ourselves in relation to the road that winds back and forth up and around the mountain. It was quickly turning dark and we took stock. I had a sweater I’d tied over my shoulders and half a bottle of water; he was in a short-sleeved shirt. I felt waves of fright wash over me, and – to my surprise – hatred toward this friend in the midst of this harm. Though he had done nothing. If anything, it was me who should have known the way. I know he was frightened too, and shocked by the sudden turn of this outing. Neither of us could quite face what was happening. The sun was all but gone and we were contemplating how and where to stay the night, when no more than fifty feet away I saw a woman pushing a baby carriage uphill on what had to have been the road where we’d parked the car. The relief we felt was extreme, but so was the panic. It made me realize that while we revere the woods and argue to preserve it as part of our vanishing world, we also and necessarily diminish its power by marking paths and creating boundaries.

Being in the woods, truly in the woods is not something I can imagine we’ve done gracefully or well since aboriginal times, if ever. And yet, the most dazzling thing about the woods is this very indifference to order, to meaning. Nothing frames or marks or guides ones gaze. Nothing signifies. In the randomness of the landscape I often find myself looking for form. I will catch sight of something that looks like an object: a discarded backpack or the corner of a shack of some kind that, as I approach, morphs back into a rotting tree stump, or two branches in different planes that seem joined into some recognizable shape that dissolves as I move in relation to them. Still this undifferentiated landscape is alive and vertiginous with presence. In the middle of the day when the woods is most quiet one is surrounded with a feeling of this presence; a sensation that there are sounds being emitted just below one’s hearing; not quite audible yet recognized as there available to be heard. And in the stillness the felt sense of movement where none can be discerned. I have wondered if it is growth itself, growth and decay that I am perceiving as movement; the infinitesimal cellular effects of vegetative activity, and on the ground below a multiplicity of fungal and microbial processes delicately, not quite soundlessly, disposing of spent vegetation.

Visually this felt sense is even more dramatic. Seeing, looking for; the sense of one’s own gaze finding nothing to attach itself to, and in this moment of not designating an object, one’s gaze turning back on itself, coming back as the feeling of being watched. A feeling only thinly removed from the projection of wood sprites, just out of sight, dancing from behind one tree to another, now here now there, nowhere to be found; that can from one moment to the next turn from benign to menacing. These, I’ve come to believe, are the mythic spirits that inhabit the forest.

It’s turned colder and the sky is now steely grey and darkening. I pull my hood up and Jim gets his windbreaker from his backpack. We’ve come to a junction to the right that we believe must be the Undermountain feeder trail, but it’s not marked, there’s just a faded blue blaze several yards in. We are surprised to find the trail covered with a thick coating of slick ice, the first remnants of winter we’ve seen. It looks like it hasn’t been used in some time. We start down the trail - not even sure by our map that this is the way out - but the ice is formidable, a slalom, and after trying to walk along the sides of the trail competing with thick snow-crusted underbrush we decide to go back. We’re no longer sure of what to do. Our maps don’t correspond sufficiently with the trail to give us any certainty of where we are. Jim suggests we continue North on the Appalachian Trail since we know that just ahead is the part of the trail leading to Sage’s Ravine that we’ve taken many times and almost know by heart; this will lead us to the northern end of Paradise Lane where we can double back paralleling this trail and meet the Undermountain Trail further east where, he reminds me, it’s as broad as an old farm road and bound to be clear. We look again at the map. Ahead is a fork to the left marked ‘Bear Mountain Road’ while the Appalachian Trail continues straight to Paradise Lane. I agree with Jim, thinking the Bear Mountain Road is what leads up Bear Mountain. We are well past the cut off and have started to ascend when I realize our mistake. The Bear Mountain Trail is the feeder trail leading out to the road on the western boundary of the range; it is the Appalachian Trail that climbs Bear Mountain.

By now it’s another half mile back to the trail that we’re not even certain is the trail out and don’t want to risk the ice to find out, so it’s either going all the way back the way we came, or continue. We have both climbed Bear Mountain going South; it’s a very steep ascent, and difficult finding footholds and hoisting oneself the three feet or so to another foothold; a scramble all the way up and a long, gentle slope down - where we are now. We’re quiet going up. I’m wondering if it’s occurred to Jim what lies ahead. The wind has kicked up and I am thinking of his remark about snow, hoping it holds off. Instead the snow gets deeper as we make our ascent. It’s old snow worn and rotted from the winter, and slick on the surface from melting and freezing. We’re passing the blueberry bushes we came upon going the other way last August when it was hard not to stop and grab at bunches of them. That descent had seemed so easy and unmemorable. Now, it’s taking forever to get to the huge rock cairn that marks the official top. There’s a seriousness to our walking now; I am trying to hold my concerns to myself and I imagine he’s doing the same.

We’ve had times like this before, difficulties that have built a feeling of solidarity between us: the ten miles of the Alander Ridge one late summer day where we expected to find water for our dogs and didn’t, and had to give them what we had for ourselves, saving just the smallest bit for ourselves to share, generous in checking always in making sure the other was not getting too dehydrated. Or the fall Jim took on Schanticoke Mountain that turned out to be a fractured tibia; me carrying our packs and taking charge of the dogs while he used our walking sticks as makeshift crutches for the tortuous five miles out we had to go before it turned dark. When finally we’re there at the cairn marking the top of Bear Mountain we don’t even stop. I check the time. During the ascent we saw serious snow for the first time and on the top it is hard packed and in places has turned to ice. We start down. Turned sideways against the cliff and leaning into the rocks for balance, we step these long three-foot steps down, using our hands to grab for purchase on rocks or tree limbs or just hard packed snow, coaxing Allie behind us. Jim is ahead and I see him squat down on his haunches and slide a few feet on the snow. It seems a good idea and so I follow him. And this is how we descend, silently, slowly, carefully. I try to slide again and lose control and for six or ten feet careen down, nothing I can do stops me. Fast as I’m careening I’m still aware and watching myself, wondering how it will end, will I break something. Then I’m stopped, and okay. And on down like that. My knees hurt from so many big jarring steps, rockshelf to rockshelf, down. My hands are red but don’t feel cold. My hood has blown off; I notice but I don’t feel that either. Jim is so far ahead I can’t see how he’s making out. Then at last we’re on level ground, but here the snow is thick and there’s the constant menace of ice as well on this rocky snow covered trail. I’m tired but know it’s important to stay focused. We talk again, seriously and supportively about where we are. It’s 3:30 and a storm is brewing. We have two more miles North before our turn back onto Paradise Lane and then three and a half miles back to the Undermountain Trail and out.

It took two hours to go just that mile up and over the mountain. And still more than five miles to go. Tired and with a squall hovering, no longer ‘in’ the woods, with my Old Brain awakened and engaged, I’m trudging through to Paradise Lane with only the thought of getting home.

Anna McLellan 9/15/2011 

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