Selected Essays

A brief selection of essays being edited and collected for the New Book, Nature is Enough

Publication Date:  Spring 2013

*

Pathfinding, and Pathclearing. . .

essays on finding a way deeper

into Nature and Yourself

*

Opening the Classroom

Several years ago, during a short sabbatical in the Northwest, I lived in a tiny, one-room cabin at a retreat center.  When I wasn’t writing or exploring nearby parks and shorelines I was helping around the land chopping and stacking wood, mowing, weeding, gardening, fence-repairing and the like.  The director asked if I would create a pathway from the parking area to the main building–probably seventy-five yards.  I trudged through the thick undergrowth beneath cedar, maple, fir and elderberry looking for some important clues.  First,  I tried to be aware of the natural contours and openings where the forest “moves” with the earth.  Second, I looked for existing natural trails made by those who live in the forest, on the land, in the earth:  the deer, raccoons, foxes, rabbits as well as the smaller squirrels, mice, shrews, even slugs, beetles and spiders. Third, I noticed where a trail might hold secure in heavy rains and heavy foot traffic.  Fourth, I got down close to see where roots and root systems protruded from the ground so as to avoid harming these major arteries for the life of the trees.  Then, as I began to slice, cut and clear what I determined to be “the best way,” I kept in constant mindfulness that I was causing harm to a wild area while at the same time opening up the area for human participation through movement and hopefully mindfulness, respect, appreciation.

A few autumns later I was working on a forty-five acre farm that is largely forest rich in alder, cedar, fir, hemlock, maple, blackberry vines, huckleberry and blueberry bushes, elderberry “trees” and much more.  There are marshes, bogs and small wetland drains.  There are dark, hidden groves and bright, sunlit open spaces.  Here I grew further my own style of mindful pathclearing, creating a trail system that meanders, loops and crisscrosses the land through all kinds of terrain.  The work gave a tree-mendous amount of satisfaction to me.  The physical exertion–stretching, lifting, sawing, swinging of machete, sweat, scratches, aches, blood and all–was immensely exhilarating, though at times frustrating.  The time alone with Nature’s instruction was, to put it mildly, inspiring.  From my work I have begun to draw some preliminary lessons about life that may or may not apply to another person, yet I feel compelled to pass along a few branches from the wild classroom.

Entering the Gates of Wildness

When I first walked on the farm and deep into the forest on old lumber roads now grassy, mossy and green, it was obvious that people had not only been out there before but had been there with a purpose:  production.  The felling of trees was the industry and they utilized horses, trucks and even a small train to haul out the logs.  Large old stumps appear sometimes when looking a little closer at a thicket of rich moss, ferns and huckleberries.  The stump monuments cause one to reflect on the activities of the past yet are a constant reminder of the resilience and creativity of Nature in the present and for the future–how the natural sculpting of the “deadness” is forever being shaped into a fecund “newness of life.”

So I entered through the thick tangle of brush and bush to seek paths, trails to circle out into the far reaches of the land.  Here I gripped another rule of (green) thumb that I add to the principles of pathclearing listed above.  The landowners and I pointed to stands of trees or one large tree (particularly a grove or individual cedar) a half-acre or so off, and said, “Haven’t seen that up close.  Be nice to be able to walk there.”  This sense of intriguing curiosity drew me to head in the direction of identified trees.  Guided by an orienteering, a positioning related to a towering tree–cedar, maple, hemlock or whatever–kept me “on track” and gave a reference point for the movement forward.  Then, taking into account the other principles learned earlier, I could move along to wind toward the “marker” ahead.

There is nothing “straight forward” about this work.  One landowner was delighted that the trails I cleared were not simply functional point-A-to-point-B kinds of lines.  Of course I have a bias toward sauntering, and the land itself almost invites a kind of snaking, twisting, more “organic” walking.  I keep in mind Thoreau’s musing in his essay “Walking”:  “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks–who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.”  At times I am drawn to turn a trail nearly back upon itself which not only makes possible the viewing of where you have just been, but offers a backward glance at what you would miss had you not turned, and turned there at that spot.  It seems appropriate at this spot to mention Thoreau’s warning:  “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”  Personally, I would find much less satisfaction in clearing a trail merely for the functionality (bodily use) of it than for the educational, even inspirational (spiritual) opportunity the opening provides.  I know only too well what Thoreau was feeling when alarmed at his own neglecting or forgetting of the beauty and lessons into which he had sauntered.  For the most remarkable aspect of pathclearing, as for sauntering itself, is that one is truly opening a sylvan gate into a never-before-seen classroom or sanctuary.  This baptism is full immersion.  The good, mindful pathfinder/clearer works to open trails for the passing of feet without ever forgetting the open minds, thoughts, eyes, visions, hearts and souls that will also pass there, and perhaps pause there.

Tangles Without, Tangles Within

Theodore Roosevelt, after his humiliating defeat for re-election in 1912, set off on another of his famous adventures that had earlier included African safaris.  This was to be a dangerous, even life-threatening expedition into a mysterious part of the Amazon basin, to travel along a legendary tributary of the great river.  This journey was to last six grueling months (October 1913-April 1914) and drive the ex-president to the edge of suicide.  After weeks of frustrating travels just to get positioned for the push northward, the huge party of men, mules and oxen were faced with crossing the Brazilian highlands.  At one point they had to hack their way through a dense tropical jungle.  Roosevelt wrote, “Away from the broad, beaten route every step of a man’s progress represented slashing a trail with the machete through the tangle of bushes, low trees, thorny scrub, and interlaced creepers” (River of Doubt, Candace Millard, 2005).  The bully, progressive president was tough, but this kind of “progress” almost defeated him for a second, more serious, more permanent time.

I know a little of that feeling of fatigue and defeat. On a much smaller scale though (I learned from Millard that Brazil is 250,000 square miles larger and the Amazon longer than the contiguous United States!).  More than once I have faced down some thorny obstacles that nearly defeated my progress, where every yard forward took exertion equal to twenty feet in less thorny thickets. One area I called “blackberry hell” took me several days to have my literal breakthrough.  Some of the berry stalks were as thick as small trees.  The thorns scratched my hands, legs, face and tore my clothing, often sticking me through my leather gloves, and made me curse when a vine reached over and picked the hat off my head.

Thorns and thickets, dense woodlands, can teach many lessons.  Their wisdom becomes clear when one attempts to forge a path where either it really is impossible to transverse a pathway, or the challenge is too much for the energy level (or the mental capacity) of the pathclearer.  While working on a particularly tangled section of a four-acre parcel I found myself stuck, in more ways than one.  I thought I knew the best way to cut through to a fallen cedar that looked inviting from ten yards away.  I tried two hack jobs that were indeed hack jobs.  I felt sorry and told the trees so.  I also felt defeated and stupid.  I had to back out and seek out another practical way.  Sure, if I had a handy chainsaw (or dynamite) I could have made a wide thoroughfare.  But I am the Mindful Machete Man!  I can’t do such destructive harm, though I may have felt like blasting on a few times. I merely cursed my idiocy and backed out of the density to lick my wounds, whine to the forest and take a walk to cool off.

In the “Great Rite” ceremony of the Wiccan tradition there is a line that says, “Open for me the secret way, The pathway of intelligence, Beyond the gates of night and day, Beyond the bounds of time and sense.  Behold the mystery aright–.”    Bold and noble words.  There are secret ways to be found.  Not all could be opened or ought to be.  When I am out there, alone with the forest and its creatures, I often feel beyond the bounds of time and sense, and up to my chin in mystery.  A powerful, humbling realization it is.  Maybe I am not a stranger or an invader of the forestland, yet it is not where I live, at least at present, until possible.  I do sense a particular and peculiar relation with these wild spots and am continually, often painfully, aware of my intrusion.  But the reality remains.  Like John Muir, I go out in order to go in–inward, to a wild place, an unexplored space, within.  I know a little of Muir’s exuberance and enthusiasm for the wilderness, even the wild nearby in a rural forest or garden.  I also have a feeling for Roosevelt’s attraction, perhaps addiction, to exploration and discovery.  If we have listened closely to modern biologists, we might actually see ourselves, each and all, as explorers and potential discoverers, since we are told that most species on earth have neither been cataloged or even discovered.  As one who senses a certain urge to clear paths, to see what I, and others, may never have seen otherwise, I am thrown back on the wonder of what is beneath my bootsoles; what is being sliced through with each blow of the machete; and what mysteries might be cut open before me as I “make my way” into regions that are never, ultimately, mine at all.

Bounding across Boundaries

I cut, chopped, sawed and cracked a path to the boundary marker.  The Northeast corner of the land marked by a cement slab, a metal pole and numerous bright-pink streamers.  Clearing the area to make it more visible I stopped to wipe the sweat, pull a leaf off my neck, and consider boundaries.  Here is an issue, a concern, I often faced as a counselor and teacher.  Alongside colleagues and staff, we were always concerned with questions of boundaries.  Where does my work cross over into personal areas better left un-touched?  Are there gray areas?  Who sets the boundary lines and why?  Could there not be times, situations and circumstances when the boundaries could be “violated” for greater good and purposes?  Many of the questions remained unclear with no absolutes.  I still feel that way, particularly relating to relationships with land, the earth, Nature herself.  When I was a counselor, people sometimes challenged my decisions regarding boundaries.  For instance, one day I would deny access to our office to someone who was obviously drunk.  The next day I would allow another person who had been drinking to enter, to sit, to join in a group session.  When I didn’t simply cop out and answer the complainer with “Well, it’s My decision,” I would try to explain the rationale for the “inconsistency.”  It might be based on my knowledge of the individuals involved and their level of “management” of their addictions.  For example, I knew that one guy drank a lot but he was fairly respectful of our work and would rarely disrupt.  Another guy was notorious for disrupting everything and disrespecting everyone.  In split second decisions, I or other staff might choose to allow one and deny another, even if no words were spoken.  We simply had a history and “saw it coming.”

In relation to the land and pathclearing there are similar principles at work.  How so?  Primarily, naturally, the earth has no boundaries but those we impose artificially.  I have a software program that shows the earth as seen from space.  I can click on a “boundaries” button in the tool bar and the globe is instantly divided up in lines and nation-states.  Another button will simply show the topography of the land.  Yet another will show colors not appearing in satellite imagery.  The point may be clear:  We choose how to view the earth and what divides the earth.  Personal property issues aside, Nature has only the mountains, the rivers, masses of ice, oceans and such that perhaps separate species one from another.  I want my space and piece of the earth as much as anyone, yet I am also conscious of the fact that I could never personally own this piece of Nature; that bit of dirt, and what grows and lives in that dirt.  Human arrogance has blinded us from this reality but Nature and her processes regularly remind us of the futility of our rights to ownership and control.  An earthquake shifts the boundaries of land; a tsunami washes away property; a hurricane or tornado obliterates fences, signposts and whole neighborhoods.  What can we depend on?  Not much, if we seek permanent stability, solid boundaries.

We have a history.  We “see it coming.”  We know how we act and how Nature acts.  My pathclearing work took months on many acres of land.  I mapped out the trail system and could hand it to others to walk the land.  Yet, to be truthful, Winter was often at the door with his winds, rains and snows, and everyone knows that Spring will come and she will take back that which is “cleared.”  For these paths to remain “open” they will need to be “maintained,” continually cleared.  I have already found fallen branches and whole trees that have blocked the paths I opened.  Chances are one trail may have to close and another open.  It is a truism:  Nature takes back what belongs to her.  Another truism is that Nature does her own opening, and closing.  That’s true for a trail, and it’s true for the humans who saunter trails of our own clearing.  We too will be cleared away (by a Greater Pathclearer?) to keep open the way of Life on Earth.  One closes, another clears, opens.  Keeps it all in perspective doesn’t it?  And I cannot allow myself to be tricked into thinking my paths, my boundaries, my way will even exist in a short time to come.  A good reminder.  An essential twisting, tangle of wisdom.  Perhaps the greatest lesson.  And one I have learned as an opener, a finder, a pathclearer in the Nature I love and respect.

What new ground is yet to open before me?  The ultimate accomplishment is not the trail cut clear and complete.  It is the moment when the gloves come off, the saw is laid down, the machete is leaned against a tree, the mattock is set on a log, and I lay back on a curving cedar trunk, looking up into the tangle of scented branches, and know, deep in my own roots, that I am not the only finder, opener, clearer, laborer present.

Chris Highland

©2005

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.