Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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The nature trail closest to my house doesn’t take me to any overlooks or waterfalls. The scenery is a few flat acres of meadow grass, a shallow pond, maples, and oaks. On a map the trail would form a blocky figure 8, like the digital number on a gas pump, but there are no maps of this park, and the only visitors live within a couple of miles. Most of them come here to walk dogs that run ahead and crap within a few inches of the path.
I walk here alone or sometimes with my daughter. Once we strayed from the path and into a grove. She was hoping to see a fox, though we were more likely to discover a spent condom or a discarded handgun. Some people live near national parks or the ocean, or near canyons or in valleys, or on the sides of mountains, and some live south of Detroit.
On vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains my wife and I buy groceries and coffee mugs and two bottles of wine made at a nearby vineyard. As in any tourist town it’s the locals who sell the groceries and the souvenirs, the locals who framed and roofed the cabin we’re renting, the locals who maintain the roads we travel to get to the hiking trails. They send their children to high school at the base of a mountain, and from the parking lot teachers and students can watch the progress of a cloud’s shadow, which this afternoon looks like a dark green keyhole, across the bright slope to the east. We live near other schools, near other grocery stores and parking lots and post offices and dry cleaners, but not by any mountain.
We left my home state of Michigan for almost a decade before moving back, two months before our daughter’s birth, so why not leave again and live here? Twice a week, maybe every Wednesday and Sunday, I’d hike into the mountains in the early morning, either with my family or alone, and I’d break a sweat and test my muscles on the ascent. Summits and waterfalls and groves would reveal themselves to me in all seasons and weathers. My daughter would learn the names of butterflies and wildflowers even faster than I could, and would be quicker to spot a peregrine falcon or a Shenandoah salamander.
On our Grand Canyon vacation, too, I thought about moving trucks and finding a new school district to teach in. If we settled in canyon country, I thought, I could see fall become winter there and winter become spring, and not just glimpse the rock formations for two blazing days in July. I’d come to a stop on a sandstone trail and watch snow fall on the canyon rim, and I’d backpack for three days at a stretch, exploring gullies and ravines. Fat tourists from Michigan might foolishly take on too much trail during summer vacation, collapse in the heat, and get helicoptered out, but an Arizona local like me — having lived there six months or even a year — would know how to survive without help.
Sitting outside our tent, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a book labeled “the Walden of the Southwest.” My wife gets nervous each time I read the Walden of wherever. She anticipates my mood swings between vicarious joy and miserable envy. But in Arizona she could relax, because I didn’t want Abbey’s waterless retreat, or his aluminum trailer frying in the sun.
Last summer, on our trip north, the school’s view had been of Lake Superior, and the fantasies of moving to a cabin forever and twice-a-week hikes had been the same. We would drop the kayaks into the water after work and paddle across a cove at sunset. Through the winter I’d use cross-country skis or snowshoes, finding a way to stay outside. I picked up the local paper and read the obituaries, imagining that I might someday know the dead, and I marveled at the number of generators and wood stoves for sale in the classifieds.
Middle-class life, like life in general, can be established in the unlikeliest of places. If water and power can be diverted to the wild desert or to the tops of jagged mountains, so can a few jobs that require a college degree and a command of grammar. Among all the small towns in America’s remote and beautiful territories, there have to be some that will alter their character and furnish suburban amenities. There must be at least one whose chamber-of-commerce plaque reads, Give us your bourgeois, your moderately pampered.
I tell my high-school sophomores that if you were a Transcendentalist in the 1800s and you had a tough decision, you’d put the question to Nature. Whatever the goose or the frog or the lilac or the willow or the chambered nautilus did is what you should do. When the students are gone, I ask Nature if I should move away from here. But for every migratory animal that crosses the continent, there is another that spends its entire life within fifty yards of where it was born.
At the end of March I walk the nature trail closest to my house and notice a grackle flying across the pond into the afternoon sun. A grackle ignores the cup of a nest it made last year, truly not even recognizing it. The thick-breasted bird must be full of exotic food and good travel stories. It has checked off an impressive number of entries in its copy of 1,000 Migratory Stopovers to Make before You Die.
The sound of an aluminum bat striking a baseball carries to the nature trail, and so does the clapping of a coach’s hands. I know him; he played on this field as a boy. He pitched from that mound, hit home runs into that same endless outfield, and sat on the same bench to wait his turn at bat. Now he stands, tall and overweight, just off the base path, sending the boys out to their positions at the beginning of an inning.
Like most of the town, the coach is Polish, and sometimes he’ll take his family to Polish Mass at ten o’clock on Sunday. His uncle once served on the city council, and his father ran the parks department. His last name is on a church window, on a brick outside the school, and on an annual college scholarship. His great-grandfather traveled five thousand miles by ship and train to take a factory job in Detroit, and the three generations since haven’t moved a mile.
In good weather I walk to work, from Twenty-second Street down to Thirteenth. In the mornings I trek an extra block to a side door that is quiet and student-free. While I walk, I listen on headphones to lectures and symphonies, but on a May afternoon a man with a rake asks me if I have the Tigers on, and I say yes, though I didn’t even know they have a game today. “Can you believe that bullpen’s going to blow another one?” he complains, and I tell him I guess there is no such thing as a safe lead.
Magnolia petals, each one bigger than a toy boat’s sail, are glissading onto the man’s driveway and his neighbor’s yard. It is nice to see someone let the saucer magnolia live, and also to see that the fallen flowers from one yard are removed from the next without involving lawyers. Wallace Stevens walked to work, composing poems as he went, wondering what he was doing in Connecticut instead of Key West. And I, instead of the Tigers game, am listening to a lecture about Macbeth.
There is property being sold at a reasonable price on a clear, sandy river in northern Michigan. The ten-acre lot includes a cabin, a sagging dock, a stand of pines that have dropped many inches’ worth of cushy red needles, and a footpath that connects to the North Country Trail. My wife and I read the details and dream for a few minutes of living so well, and then we go back to life among the expressways. We call such decisions “being realistic.”
If a trail has to declare that it is a “nature trail,” then it is not much of a trail. It’s not the North Country Nature Trail or the Appalachian Nature Trail. I could live among the great trails, yet I stay put. Macbeth has it easier: Great Birnam Wood actually marches to him, as the witch has prophesied.
“Absolutely no talking during a quiz,” I warn a student. He has finished his work and is whispering and tittering with the girl in front of him. “I wasn’t talking!” he says, and you’d think I’d accused him of selling arms to terrorists. When I give my attention to a student who’s confused by the word paradox — a term I taught at length and therefore cannot define during the quiz — the talking boy scratches an anarchy symbol on his desk in blue pen.
Walking the nature trail closest to my house, I pass a wide-trunked beech carved with hearts and the names or initials of boys and girls. Once again I decide that moving back to Michigan in my thirties was a mistake. Which is stupid, to blame the graffiti on southeastern Michigan, with its ho-hum landscape and its failing auto industry; stupid to think that adolescents growing up near a national park wouldn’t desecrate tree bark; foolish to think that every petroglyph ever carved was done for the sake of art or to please the gods and not just scraped mindlessly by someone bored and waiting for prey to pass within range. A thousand years from now archaeologists will uncover the desks from my classroom and admire the fertility symbols.
Beige single-winged samaras and mint green double-winged samaras coat parts of the nature trail closest to my house. Kids everywhere call them “helicopters,” like my brothers and I did; we’d scoop them up singly or in handfuls and toss them and watch them flutter, sometimes coasting in for a soft landing and other times dropping so fast the blades barely turned before they were back on the ground. Go ahead and miss your innocence if you want, but I like knowing the word samara, and I like seeing the connection between the samaras on the ground and the jagged-leaved maples above, something I never saw as a boy. I never even wondered if they had a name aside from “helicopter,” never wondered what living thing produced them and sent them whirling through space to the sidewalk, so you can’t call my childhood the “age of wonder,” because that was my age of passive acceptance, of not asking questions or following the stories that take place over days and seasons and millennia.
I don’t think I believed — not deeply, not in my growing bones — that kids lived anywhere but in Michigan. I knew where New Mexico was on a map, and Alaska and Brazil and Norway and New Zealand. But those places didn’t have real kids or real families living in real houses any more than Neptune did. And I could no more picture a dozen years passing and see myself living overseas and carrying a subway card than I could understand that the wing in my hand was a way to spread seed and that a hundred thousand years ago maple trees were casting samaras to the ground.
At first I scoff at the man who wears headphones as he walks along the loops of the nature trail closest to my house. He misses out on the creak of old branches and the sound of his boots scuffing the earth. You can buy CDs of ocean waves, crickets, brooks, and bird song, but the sound of boots on dirt, especially when they are my boots, outdoes any Echoes of Nature album. But I should take my walk and let him take his.
It’s possible he has a houseful of kids, and this is his only chance to listen to Brahms or Miles Davis. Or he’s listening to William Butler Yeats read his own poetry — which is more than I’ve ever done — and all the while identifying the trees that I can’t name and noticing the birds that escape my eye. Or he is confounding my attempts to judge him by walking among trees, appreciating every wildflower and savoring the Latin name of each living thing, and listening to right-wing talk radio.
I am parked by the nature trail closest to my house, engine off but radio still on, waiting for the interview to finish. A Detroit author is discussing Don Quixote’s influence on her storytelling. All I can say about Don Quixote is that I watched the movie in Spanish class my sophomore year of high school. I wipe the dust from the odometer and realize that the woman on the radio is more intelligent than I am — which makes no sense, because if you’re smart enough to write a book, you’re smart enough to get out of Detroit.
There is something healthy in a high-school boy thinking he’s too big for his hometown, but a grown man who blames the town he lives in for his own failings, who refuses to see the intelligence and goodness in his suburban neighbors, who believes that nature is only beautiful when it is extravagant and remote, is not a grown man at all. I get out of my car and start down the trail. To the first tree I see, I say, “Michigan tree, you’re as good as any northern-California tree.” I don’t fully believe it, but I don’t fully disbelieve it, either.
This spring my favorite tree between home and work has been a shagbark hickory. The mad contours of its trunk let me believe that I am somewhere wilder than a sidewalk four blocks from home. Walking to school in the predawn dimness with my bag of graded assignments slung over my shoulder, I pause at the tree to touch it, running my fingers over the antediluvian trunk. The tree grows right in someone’s front yard, and I worry that the homeowners might look out their bay window and see a grown man with his palms against their hickory.
If I lived on the planet’s most wondrous mountain overlook and daily walked the switchback trails near my hermitage, past precipices and through a great forest, how much better of a tree would I find? No better tree at all, I’d say, except for this: because I am on a sidewalk in Michigan and headed for work, the tree’s curling sheets of bark remind me of a jammed paper shredder asked to chew up too many work sheets on compound and complex sentences. To be fair, I have two crimson maples in my front yard, and I hope I never see a stranger caressing them. And as a public-school teacher living among my students’ parents and grandparents, I think it’s probably best that I not get caught doing something that could be perceived as trespassing, or as praying to wood spirits.
At the edge of the meadow on the nature trail closest to my house grows a trio of paper birches, bright totems of light. They are clumped together at their bases but slant away from each other, as if dancing. They enthrall me, make me stop and find a boulder big enough to sit on so I can rest and stare. Because there are three trees, and because the taped lecture of the other day is still fresh in my mind, I think of the three hideous witches in Macbeth.
The birches of my nature trail are not hideous, though, but resplendent — white and awash in sunlight, unlike those Scottish witches dwelling in their mist and rain and smoke and darkness. The witches spur Macbeth to forget what he has and dream of being king, and after he becomes king, he looks even farther into the future to when he is dead and his nonexistent son inherits Scotland. My trio of paper birches do the opposite for me. They offer no riddle, no tease of the future, but instead show me that there is glory here, more than enough glory to last me.
Forty years ago the nature trail closest to my house didn’t exist. One spring day in the 1970s someone from the parks department used a brush hog to mow the figure eight in the high grass. How unlike other American hiking trails, some of which have been around for thousands of years and were traversed by Native Americans on trade expeditions and mastodons on their annual grazing circuits. Here a dying landowner donated a piece of property, thinking people might want to walk beside the pond, past the birches and the maples, and notice the grackles and the samaras.
A trail does not need to be sanctified by natives’ heels or the feet of prehistoric animals to be a worthwhile trail. Butterflies look joyful enough here, bobbing down the straightaway, so who am I not to be happy? I’ve walked this trail on a humid morning, swatting at mosquitoes, spotted a 7-Eleven cup under a jumble of sumac, and cursed the entire Midwest. But how differently does the nature lover who’s abandoned the belly of the continent for the West Coast react when, wandering outdoors within earshot of the Pacific, he finds, among the driftwood and the boulders, a 7-Eleven Slurpee cup?
I don’t know anything. I don’t know if this half-disintegrated oak leaf fell two autumns ago or three. I don’t recognize the chirp of the bird above me, can’t even spot the bird, and probably wouldn’t be able to identify it if it swooped down and landed on my nose. I look at the gray clouds gathering and can’t tell if it’s going to rain or not.
There is time in life to read tree books and bird books and wildflower books so that no trees you pass will be mystery trees and no birds you hear will be mystery birds. But there is not time to live in every state and every country and every ecosystem. So this is the moment to let my best guesses turn to certainty. This oak leaf fell three autumns ago, that bird song is coming from a dark-eyed junco, I’m confident those stalky wildflowers are beechdrops, and I know, I know, that I belong here.
I commend Rob Keast for writing “The Nature Trail Closest to My House.” No matter how sophisticated our understanding of the natural world, it is all too easy for us to overinvest in an elaborate outdoors experience — be it swimming with dolphins, hiking in the Grand Canyon, or watching polar bears in Manitoba. In his lyrical elevation of the quotidian, Keast reminds us that the most rewarding encounters are nearest home.
The other day I was sitting in my car at a park close to my workplace, eating my lunch and reading Rob Keast’s essay “The Nature Trail Closest to My House” [February 2011]. As a native of the Los Angeles suburbs I can relate to his longing for nature. I too have felt constricted by the concrete jungle.
After finishing his piece, I decided to get out of my car and take a walk. I spied an old craggy tree I have passed by many times but have mostly ignored. It is a grand old tree with withering branches that has seen decades of life. I didn’t go so far as to caress it, but I did speak to it and let it know how beautiful it was. On that afternoon I felt, like Keast, that I belonged right where I was.