Saturday, July 4, 2015

Into the Woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. (Henry David Thoreau. Walden: Or Life in the Woods.) 

I know of no better cure for the melancholy of lonesomeness than a walk in the woods. Here in the Bluegrass, it is our good fortune to have just such a place only a few minutes from downtown Lexington. At the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, our city has wisely set aside 734 acres of wildlands as a nature sanctuary for plants, animals, and the dramatic geology of this stretch of the palisades along the Kentucky river. The trees and meadows are home to all kinds of bug, bird, reptile, amphibian and mammal. But Raven Run's 10 miles of hiking trails are also a sanctuary for human critters. Although I have only recently begun to explore them, these ridges, rivulets and meadows are quickly becoming sacred places to me.

The first time I went to these woods, I was caught in a dark mood that threatened to slip into one of the depressive episodes that I have managed to stave off for so many months. "The woods," I thought, "will be a good place to go, sit on a log, and have a good cry until all this sadness is wrung out of me." 
I was disappointed to find the parking lot packed with cars that Sunday afternoon. The sun was blazing, but as I searched for a spot, it seemed to me that hundreds of people must be filling the shady trails. I feared I might never find the solitude that my planned catharsis required. I soon discovered that the woods of Raven Run are lovelier, darker, and deeper than I expected.

The sanctuary sprawls up and down hollows and hills, with trails that ascend to ridge lines and trace along beside the many tributaries that feed into the Kentucky River to the east. Minimal construction has left the woods pristine, and those few bridges, stairs, and railings that are necessary are built so unobtrusively that the almost seem like organic parts of the landscape. It wasn't long before I had managed to hike down into a lonely valley where I could no longer see or hear any of my fellow humans up the trail. I found a suitable resting place, and sat down to sob.

And the damnedest thing happened. 

My head filled with the musty fragrance of moss and the decaying forest floor. I heard a strange brushing sound overhead, and turned my gaze upward to see an aging cedar, gently bending in the wind, rubbing on his neighbor for support. Below me, a tiny stream chattered over the rocks and logs that had tumbled into its path. And somewhere in the distance, I am sure I heard the scolding cry of one of the great black birds from whom these hills take their name. And there in the shadows, hidden from the glare of the high summer sun, I found myself breathing deeply and easily, without the slightest inclination to shed tears. The sweet earthy air, the music of the trees, the cool water had all conspired to create such a sense of serenity in me that I felt not just refreshed; I felt redeemed. 
My father introduced me to the woods of Western Pennsylvania when I was a boy, and it wasn't long before I felt his calming spirit settle down on the log next to me. I am never in the trees long without him, and on that mystical, healing afternoon, he came to me with the same comforting presence that he always had when he was alive. I could sense his quiet breath beside me, and the warmth of his arm as it rested across my shoulders. It's been more than 20 years since I bowed over his coffin and kissed his face for the last time, but there in the woods, I could smell the tobacco stained fingers as they gave my neck a squeeze.

We did not speak. We hardly ever do any more. No need. After a few more moments, we rose and walked together under the green canopy: father and son striding confidently through the branches, smiling quietly to ourselves as the great black birds scolded over our heads.

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