These golden-brown fall days spark nostalgia. The scent of wet leaves underfoot and a wood fire. A campfire. Bright crackling flames in a dome of darkness. Roasting marshmallows and singing old Girl Scout ditties: Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander....
Fall is bright days punctuated by an occasional shadowy day, like today. I pull on my Berkeley sweatshirt and take off for a stroll. I am grateful for the growing coolness after the harsh summer heat and savor the soughing of the paper-dry leaves waving to the breezes, tapping like strings of wooden beads.
Five months without respite from this city stirs in me a need for a distant, uninterrupted horizon stretching out before me. Forest and ferns, paths through moist soil, gurgling streams, fresh cool air filling my lungs. While I wait for an escape to the countryside, I take refuge in a new book, Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration. Just what I need. The author, while hiking the Appalachian Trail, begins to ‘ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl.’ He wonders who created the trail and why does it exist. Some trails are very old, often starting as animal paths. Usually, no one person made the trail; it just emerged satisfying a need.
I wish I’d read this before treading the many paths I’ve covered over the years. Trails invite me to appreciate and communicate with the natural world, maybe spotting a kingfisher, a frog, a coyote, or a delicate forest orchid. But did I stop to wonder how this trail emerged or who were the first to walk it? Native peoples? Deer? Rabbits? Wild boar? I think we humans share most trails with animals. Though smaller animals – skunks, rabbits, badgers – have an advantage over us, carving narrow paths through thickets and prickly grasses where we just do not comfortably fit.
Although a sporadic hiker, I possess a deep treasury of trail memories which bring me great pleasure. In case my memory fails, I can turn to my travel journals that include descriptions of the trails I’ve known. Yet, what gives me the most joy is recalling sharp visual memories of those landscapes – whether they be Patagonian glacial moraines or slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada – which I can call up on a moment’s notice.
Mr. Moor explores the deeper meanings of paths: the roads we choose to follow in life. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken comes to mind. Many writers and philosophers have pondered these meanings: Emerson, Wendell Berry, Lord Byron, Bruce Chatwin in Songlines. Rebecca Solnit devotes an entire book to exploring people’s meanderings in Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
I don’t know which will be my next trail, but I do know I’ll be pondering its origins. Will I unknowingly leave a subtle sign here marking my passing? A bent fern frond? A footprint? Will I be changed by having taken this path? Will it have made all the difference?