Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Network of Lines That Intersect

Sometimes I surprise myself by not being able to read a map as well as I usually can. Like Bilbo Baggins, I love maps - there's a stack of maps on a shelf in my room, along with a collection of rolled-up Green Trails topo maps resembling old scrolls. But on Saturday morning, in Tryon Creek State Park, I found myself at a crossroads of trails that had me thinking of Calvino's chapter title from "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler." And no matter how long I stared at the map, my sense of direction was just as deliciously skewed as it was when I first read Calvino.

Needless to say, I figured it out eventually, and took the trail running along the creek. A year ago last fall, I took a Portland State class that taught children about the outdoors by leading them on hikes in this park. It was an incredible experience, but I hadn't been back since. Now, walking through the winter woods, I found a peculiar mix of old and new, and a strange sense of place.

Old and familiar, because I remembered some of the fun places in the park we would show the kids: the hollow cedar stump you can crawl into, the squirrel's nests, the bridges over the clear rushing stream, the nurse logs and the evidence of logging. New and unfamiliar, because the underbrush and deciduous trees were bare and empty, and the trails less crowded.

One of our assignments was to hike the trails, learn the landmarks, and build a plant journal to help us identify species for the kids. The forest then was thick with leafy elderberry, currant, thimbleberry, and vine maple. Now, moss, licorice fern, and Oregon grape rule the understory, and the shadows of bare branches darken the ground like vines. The forest is more open with the understory thinned. The light is clear and more pure, somehow; the distances between the trees and across the creek seems much greater. I looked across these spaces and thought about how the distances in our own lives seem that much vaster in winter. Yet, these distances aren't empty - they're pregnant. "In the depths of winter," Camus wrote, "I found within me an infinite summer." Life isn't waiting; though imperceptible to our senses, it's moving and growing. We just have to slow down to see it.

After a year, and in a different season, I was reminded what makes this urban state park so great: it has something to teach everyone. Nature is not dead, in winter; it just wears a different fashion. And the trails, though not steep, still climb and fall enough to force a negotiation in balance and perspective. The morning light on the cottonwoods, and the glowing mossy limbs of maple, are enough to make you smile. And in those moments of silence after something falls from a tree or stamps a warm-blooded foot in surprise, you can pause and listen to the trees creak in the wind. You can listen to the birds. You can listen to your breathing, and to the beating of your own heart.

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