Tuesday, April 11, 2006

If there is sadness, and it is springtime, is there sadness?

Coming soon.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Footprints

Out in the woods, one thing that sets winter apart from the rest of the seasons are the footprints. Think about it. Spring, summer and autumn are the days of anonymity, when wanderers among the trees drift like rivers of dust through the branches, unnoticed. But when that snowy stillness drapes over the land as it does in the winter, the forest is like a camera eye that captures the footsteps of passers-by and arrays them in chaotic rows like frozen photographs along the trail for all to see. No, in the winter there are no secrets. And that's a good thing, too. Because walking through the woods one Sunday morning it was the footprints that taught me something new about the hazy mathematics of human solitude.

It was one of those winter Sunday mornings, if you know what I mean. The kind when you wake up, turn your head on the pillow, look through the window at the snow pouring over the woods and just know there's a magic show out there, that if you don't hurry you're going to miss it, and that the price of admission is three or four layers of clothing hurriedly thrown on, a long slog over deep, wet snow and the sharp sting of the wind and ice on your cheeks and in your eyes and nose and mouth, and hurry it's going to end before you get there. That kind of Sunday morning. And also the kind when the thought of trudging through well-worn, familiar paths simply fails to excite.

So I took a friend's advice and headed in search of a mystery trail, which thread, she said, above the southern rim of Six Mile Creek, then around the eastern shore of a large reservoir and from there to the other side of the gorge, where paths I had yet to explore lay waiting just for me.

It was a time meant for sleeping, that Sunday morning, and it was all stillness except for the wind and the driving snow, and the cold, too, which was a heavy weight leaning on everything, muzzling all sound. The hike was strenuous from the start, the fresh snow almost knee deep as I plunged into the woods at the end of my street. With no hope of finding a trail on the ground, I did my best to look for the telltale narrow corridors of openness wedged between the brush and - as I sank deeper into the woods - between the tall trees. Here and there I thought I had discovered a path somewhat obscured by the snow, only to find the space close in on me after just a few steps. After that I'd return to winding haphazardly through the dense webs of wiry branches and over colonies of felled tree trunks. Stubbornly I kept my course, continuing to head in what I was sure to be the direction of the reservoir even as I began having to tiptoe over thin, slippery sheets of ice above streams descending steeply into the gorge somewhere through the woods to my right.

I reached the western edge of the reservoir just as the snow began to come down even more self-assuredly than before. Without meaning to, I had managed to stumble onto the main trail skirting along the very rim of the gorge on the south side, a wide, well-trodden strip of packed dirt lodged between the craggy chasm and the hills from which I had just descended. Near me was the the top of a dam that controlled the flow of water from the reservoir into the creek way down below.

The scene was worth staying and admiring for a few moments: the silent snow falling deep into the gorge, the roar of the water as it rushed toward the west. A chorus of creaking, frigid tree limbs sang all around me with each gust of wind. I even enjoyed the way everything - not least the gray sky looming over the earth in one giant unbroken piece, fringed at the bottom by the sparseness of the treetops - seemed to be just slightly out of focus. But it was those solitary trees perched impossibly on tiny ledges spread out along the walls of the gorge, or the ones that somehow grew right out of the cracks in the seemingly impenetrable stone high above the water, that made me suddenly aware of that morning's desolation: my only company since leaving home had been the swishing of boots through deep deep snow and the steady rhythm of my breathing. Nothing else.

And that was precisely, I knew, why I'd set out in such a hurry in the middle of this snow storm, this early in the morning, and on a Sunday. To experience the howling solitude one might feel if one went for a stroll on the sands of a distant moon.

But why?

It's a funny thing, being alone. There are those of us, you see - or is it only me? - who at once love and hate the act of disconnecting from the world like a plug from a socket. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but the image of electricity is an apt one, really. Because on the one hand there's the relief that comes with extinguishing the currents of the quotidian: the clashing of shopping carts in narrow grocery store aisles, cheap small talk at the bus stop, shards of banal cell phone conversations overheard at the coffee shop - you know, the ordinary, continual, positively charged annoyances of human community. Along with that there's also the recognition - rare amidst the incessant buzz of daily life - of our own singularity, of our existence as whole, bounded, individual things here on this crowded pebble.

On the other hand . . . Well, there's also that dizzy feeling you get when you contemplate a universe containing only a single person. It's sort of like that nightmare you have some nights, in which you lie petrified in bed struggling desperately to scream but unable to emit even the slightest whimper, so that nobody – not even the person under the covers just inches away - hears you cry. That usually sends me scrambling right back to the electrical outlet to plug that cord back in, if you know what I mean.

But it had now been over an hour since I'd left home, and there were still miles to go. So I pried loose from my thoughts and pushed on toward the reservoir, making my way around its southern shore. Heading east, I found myself once again unable to find a real trail: as before, either none existed, or the snow had seen fit to hide it from view. I tried as much as I could to tiptoe along the icy shore, at the moment the clearest path, though at times I'd be forced to climb up the steep embankment to avoid stepping on patches of thin ice. And in what felt like a very long time, I finally wound up on the northern shore of the reservoir.

[More to come. . . . ]

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Snow

I was walking along the bend in the creek when it happened – the snow, I mean – and I stopped to watch it as it fell. From where I stood on the shore, the water rushed toward me over the smooth gray rocks of the creek bed, turned right and forged ahead behind me on its way to Cayuga Lake. I looked around. There was something about the woods that afternoon, a sort of autumness that was out of touch with the season, which was winter. The trees were bare; frost still clung to some of the gorge walls; and my favorite spot in these woods, that cathedral of ice that sat on the opposite shore of the creek [pictured], remained unscathed by the recent warm spell that had melted all the snow on the ground.

But there were poignant counterpoints to all this wintriness. Take, for instance, the brown leaf-ridden paths below my feet. Or the glow of bare, raw earth like dusk on everything. The breeze spoke of autumn too, gliding over me with that familiar whisper of slow decay, and carrying with it, it seemed, the scent of fall colors.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me that a winter shower might suddenly fall on such a scene. Or that I would be chosen as the solitary witness to this little joke nature played on itself. Yet there I was, standing on the shore of the creek as the snow came suddenly down and without hesitation, a mute spectacle of whiteness.

It came down in torrents, the snow, like – (oh I don’t know; I’m tempted to write “like confetti over the Yankees on Broadway in October,” but, really, who wants to hear that? Or I could say “like dandruff from the mighty shoulders of the Lord,” but then again what kind of god would be plagued by dry scalp? “Like a scene in a snow globe” might work, because-is-art-imitating-life-or-life-imitating- art-oh-I'm-so-clever-etc.-etc.-etc. But, in the end, it takes only a small bit of reflection to conclude that when dealing with things of such natural simplicity, deferring to the primordial, to the source of things, makes the most sense.)

Consequently, the snow, I’ll say, came down snowfully, and in a fit of snowness, as if snow itself were falling all around me.

In any case, seconds passed. Then minutes. And though I’m not sure when the giddy surprise that stopped me in my tracks turned into silent veneration, I do know that I soon found myself rapt with awe like some pilgrim happening upon the ruins of an ancient church in a lost forest. It was not the snow, only, that got to me, but what it did. For this was no mere sprinkling of tiny icicles; this here was a changer of things. Drifting over the creek and the trees, the snow transformed as it fell. The path that had been all mud and leaves was now paved in white, my footprints gone. The brown shore on either side of the creek turned into white sandy dunes. Grey branches all around me became frozen, snowy tentacles. Everywhere, everything burst forth in a festival of becoming. Even the sky, not much to look at in its dull grayness just a few minutes earlier, was now blushing in a strange hue – an organgewhiteness, you might say, recalling melted marshmallows in a bowl of orange sherbet – gradually, deliberately, covering the entire scene with this new unworldly phosphorescence.

Boy, it was a pageant, alright. A disappearing act, a makeover show as seen on TV. Just like that, right before my eyes, everything had become something else. The woods had seen fit to erase themselves, begin again. But not just that. There was a note of triumph to the whole thing, as if nature were claiming victory over its own past, announcing to all the world and me that from this moment on things would be different, and better: Gone would be all the black mud, the lifeless tree limbs, the brokenness; no more would dead leaves cover the ground like a brittle ocean of brown decay; there would even be an end to all greyness.

In short, the reign of white had begun.

And as I stared, I wondered. If I stood there long enough, could I too be remade? Might I become some new thing cleansed in orange and white? Could I start again? Or would I simply vanish like footprints under the snow?

Friday, February 17, 2006

The road taken

So these two roads diverged in a yellow wood. . . . Sounds like the start of a tale told by an old man, doesn’t it? You know, like that familiar one your grandfather recited in those rare animated moments when time's weight slipped off his shoulders for a lunch break.

“I couldn’t possibly take both, right, and still be one guy,” he’d add, offering his cigarette up to his cracked lips with yellow, hesitant fingers, you looking not at him but through him, a ghost in waiting, an apprentice ghost. And some part of you did listen, there in his garage that smelled like gasoline and sawdust. But the rest of you dreamed of those tuna sandwiches your grandmother was making, the ones she would cut up into four perfect equilateral triangles and arrange in a circle on a paper plate like an enriched white bread mandala, created only to be destroyed, only to be created again, only to be destroyed.

“So I took the one less traveled by,” your grandfather would continue.

“Hmmmm,” you’d mutter absent mindedly.

“And you know what?”

“What, grandfather?” The question was part of the formula, you knew, and the answer too:

“That has made all the difference.”

Your grandfather has passed away, as you know, but damned if that story – ok, poem – doesn’t remain here on earth with the rest of us. And we all know it well. The two roads, the traveler staring down at each of them in succession, the one path more trodden than the other, that fateful decision, way leading on to way and all that. So it wasn’t a surprise when earlier this week I thought of it while walking in the woods.

I’d come, listen carefully, to a fork – no, a wishbone – in the road. One path I knew quite well and liked. It led uphill to a wide, flat route that wound through the woods for a gentle mile or so, crossing a shallow creek before joining a narrow patch along the edge of a steep gorge [pictured]. Close to home, this path had been a pleasant and solitary way to end my walk in the timid glow of the winter sunset.

The other route I had just discovered that day. Its entrance was partly obscured by a thick bouquet of bare tree branches, gray and vigilant, but the thin muddy trail could no longer hide under the snow, which had melted that afternoon. And, ah, I looked up at my familiar route as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth, then took the other – because it was there, and having perhaps the better claim as a mucky and mysterious affair. Somewhere ages and ages hence nobody is going to give a crap about this, but I’ll go ahead and say it: two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and it made no difference whatsoever.

Here’s what happened. I crashed through the clutter of branches and stomped heavily and happily through the black moistness of the new path. Squish squish squish was the noise my boots made on what felt like an ancient river freshly drained. The path became steep, curving down a slope deeper and deeper into unfamiliar ground. I trudged forward, clumsily, now inches deep in mud with my backpack straps tightened over my shoulders in anticipation of the spill that I thought was sure to come. Soon I became aware of a soft murmur, a steady hissing sound rising above the ringing in my ears. It was the sound of water in motion somewhere up ahead, faint at first and growing clearer by the footstep, evolving into a gentle surge by the time I came upon a clearing and the following scene: a small, meandering creek slipping down a rocky bed between two steep embankments.

“Haven’t I been here before?” I heard myself ask out loud. Indeed, there was something so familiar about it all. Wasn’t this the same creek I crossed everyday, the one that lies along the very path I chose not to take? Scanning the site, I began to forge a mental list. Declivitous hills on either side of the water? Check. Pretty, step-like formations running down the center of the creek? Check. North-South orientation? Check. Path beginning on the other side leading off in the direction of the big gorge? Check.

I sat down, coughing out visible puffs of deflated excitement into the cold air. I was convinced; this was the creek I skipped across daily, sometimes twice in a single day. It was a lovely site, to be sure; I had always thought so. But it was nothing new. Certainly not a fitting reward for having braved the road less traveled.

Disappointed, I pushed on, crossing the creek on the slippery stones jutting just above the waterline. Up the other bank I went, and back onto the trail. I walked, paying little attention to anything but the narrowing path below me, which I followed mechanically and near-sightedly step after step after step after step.

Then it happened. . . .

I was there again. There, by that same creek, with the same steep embankments and the same steps, the sound of the water the same, the smell of the cold, damp air mingling with fumes of rotting leaves, the same. But this was not that place. I felt that almost instinctively. It couldn't be, I knew: I had walked in a more or less direct path away from that other clearing. So it came creeping, a new realization. It appeared like a small dot on the horizon of consciousness, and its lines grew clearer as it slouched toward me to be born. This was the creek that I crossed everyday. This was the one I knew well. That first site only looked like it, though it was more than a mere resemblance: they were practically indistinguishable one from the other. They were, in fact, identical.

From that moment on, I felt about me a barely tangible swarming, as if the air, the land around me were suddenly saturated with presences only just visible in the murky twilight. There were infinite roads now leading off in infinite directions, an infinite number of infinite creeks, gorges, waterfalls, existing everywhere at once. And all around me there flittered familiar faces, twinkling dimly like fading stars in the branches of trees and on the rocks and dead leaves, the faces of people I knew reiterated over and over again until their contours were no longer discernible in the endless parades of geometric shapes marching to the music of millions of grandfathers muttering eternal stories to innumerable children. Two roads had diverged in the gray woods but they had both led to the same place, would always and forever lead to the same place, as all roads, I understood, do. Above, the darkening sky burst with the light of tuna sandwich triangles arranged in infinite identical circles, dancing.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Death is everywhere and anywhere a part of everything

In the woods, there is death. No, really, shut up and just look around. There it is. See it now? It is everywhere and anywhere a part of everything. Don't turn away. Walk and look with me. See there the huddled piles of severed tree limbs, and there too, and there. That sound your footsteps are making is you treading on layers of rotting leaves, fallen. In your path you encounter the corpse of an uprooted tree, one of many you see today. I'm telling you, death is everywhere in the woods.

Why is it I hadn't seen it before in other places? Over the years I've walked through woods many many times and all I ever remember noticing was beauty, and all I remember feeling was the thrill of wandering in the presence of so much life. Is it the difference that winter makes? Or have I simply somehow only now truly looked?

Look here at this scene. I've taken a picture of it. A very large tree has died and fallen over across the path. Who knows how or when? Maybe yesterday? Maybe last week? Was it that wind storm that tore from it its life, suddenly? Or was it the silent creeping decay of old age or illness? Look closely at the picture. See that young, slender tree? It's not easy to tell, but you might notice that the older tree crashed dying onto her youthful kin, forcing it violently onto its side and wrenching most of its roots from the ground. I don't know if the little tree has died. Maybe. But if it hasn't, is there any doubt that it will forever know the presence of death? Long after the old tree's body has dissolved to ashes, will he not feel its weight holding him fast? Isn't death the reason why he will never be right again?

I wonder if that's what death does to us, the living: tears us from our roots, bears down on us, makes us broken. And could it be that the reason I hadn't noticed all this death before is that I've only just now been struck by it like this young tree by its dying mother? As people, we do so much to make us forget about death, to not see it. We file it away quietly in neat graves, speak about it in hushed, embarrassed tones in a moment or two of weakness. But maybe those of us who have seen it can never walk through the woods without finding it everywhere there too. I'll tell you this one secret: in our life - in all our lives - despite our struggle to look the other way, there is death. It is everywhere and anywhere a part of everything.