Walking the Woods: An excerpt from _ Back to Earth: A Backpacker's Journey into Self and Soul_


Author: Kerry Temple ’74


It really isn’t much, as parcels of nature go: an ordinary wedge of land, common in appearance. But it is to me a hallowed place. For eight years I ran my dog here; we didn’t miss a day. No matter how surly or mean the weather, we’d come to these woods tucked into the crescent bend of a slow, brown river. We would walk a loop, a meandering circle, with my dog racing ahead, galloping after groundhogs, sniffing out squirrels, treeing raccoons.

There are houses across the river, and a waste-water treatment facility. Just north, Interstate 80 hums with east-west traffic 24 hours a day, and to the east is U.S. Highway 31, which runs from the straits of Mackinac to the Gulf of Mexico. When that particular byway runs through here, it is lined with laundromats and motels, convenience stores and a smorgasbord of fast-food franchises that make the whole strip look ugly and cheap and in a constant state of disintegration. The non-renewing and non-renewable entropy of human contrivances.

But these woods are largely insulated from all that by geometrically proper sheets of cultivated fields—beans one year, corn the next—subdivided by fencerows of tangles and trees that shelter the groundhogs and rabbits who burrow there. In a sense those fields shelter me, too. They distance me from human development. They comprise a wide moat between the refuge-woods and the concrete and steel of middle America, making the people-things fall away, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the affection of this good place.

Although I prefer the woods, I like the fields, too. They bring breadth to the surroundings, a depth of vision not available in the midst of trees. When I stand on their deck, I can watch the giant thunderheads advance angrily from the west, survey the reddening sky at sunset, and lean back to star-gaze on clear winter nights. I can watch the red-tailed hawks sail gracefully on soft summer breezes, and the Canada geese, in formation and unflaggingly honking, make their autumn flight. It is here that the wind blows most freely—swift and lean and undeterred by building or hill, or copse of trees.

But even these plowed fields are broken by an occasional oak, sycamore or cottonwood tree standing as a stark vertical totem in the horizontal plane of mid-America. Sometimes I think of these deciduous creatures as the proper inheritance from a time when this whole territory was covered in wild forest, and home to bear, elk and panther. I am grateful to those who first cleared this plot for sparing these trees; they make these fields less commercial, more personal. The solitary tree offers something of real stature to dignify the surroundings.

In the hierarchy of natural wonders, this place, and the woods where I live, would be thought by many as common and plain. But there is beauty in the details here, and rightness in the symphonic resiliency of life. Besides, it is largely left alone, and I like it here. I have an excursion everyday.

I usually make the long sojourn at dusk because my workday is done and that is the best time to see the wildlife in this island of woods that blanket the gulleys and bluffs along the rolling river. I like sunset—the rose-colored light that washes over the landscape, the hush that descends upon the world, the appearance of deer and fireflies and evening stars, the moment when you stop and look around and think of spheres turning, of planets and moons and the dizzying machinations of the universe . . . and what you did that day.

But I have walked at sunrise and noon and late at night, in chill, pelting rains and on sultry, mosquitoey days, and when it was dark and 20 below, with gale force winds that stung and numbed my face. There were three consecutive nights like that one December which I remember for their sheer extravagance. The cold was brutal, the snow knee-deep—with the wind driving it sideways and piling it into four-foot drifts. But the jeweled sky was radiant, and the land seemed pushed right to its edge, and each night I saw a lone fox, was able to watch its silhouette romp over the frozen fields. On two of the nights I was startled by a large owl perched in a twisted tree, and once he buzzed low over my head before he stroked ghostily away and disappeared into the night. Despite the howling, needling cold, the place seemed wonderfully alive, even magical. And somehow I seemed far less lonely and insignificant on those frostbit nights as I stood and savored the stars.

For almost a decade now, I have seen these woods daily in all their seasons and have become attuned to the rhythms of their life—even the quotidian changes one would not notice without the constancy of being here so much. And in time I have learned the animal trails, the timing of dogwood blooms and the ripening of berries, the rise and fall of the river. And I have seen this place as its moods have shifted, when it was shrouded in fog, baked by drought and riled in storm—winds whipping, lightning crackling, and the thunder reverberating off the trees as the rain-laden clouds surged down from the sky. Sounds of the cosmic drumbeat.

Of course, on most days the walk is uneventful, but over time something meaningful comes through, is somehow absorbed through the skin, the soles of the feet. Much of this is due, I think, to the solitude, the stillness, the time free of distractions and noise and all the clutter that separates us from the living world. We are so cut off from the land from which our species emerged. Even the walls of our homes are barriers between us and the soil and winds of our beginnings, to say nothing of the genius that dwells therein. The full-throttle engine of our culture has carried us far away from here, away from the roadbed of our existence.

In the quiet here I have listened to the air rushing through the wings of geese, have watched the stilt-legged blue herons sniping fish in the shallows along the riverbank, and have learned that each twilight sky is a singular expression of light and life, of cloudscape and sun. I’ve come to appreciate the little things here—the blaze of a cardinal against the blue-white of a winter day, the smell of the earth after a summer rain, the nervous irascibility of opossums.

Sometimes I think our infatuation with nature is too dependent on its show. Sometimes it is the ordinary that speaks most eloquently, and in the monotony of walking here daily I have at least opened myself to its voice. Being here has become a ritual; the place a part of me. But in this geography of the familiar dwell all the elements and essences of our human connections to the earth.

Sometimes I think it is more important to find those bonds here, where the geometric designs of agrarian man commingle with nature, than in the great wide open. This, after all, is our habitat. Too often, I think, we let the wild and special places, the pristine reservations, represent all of nature; and we let the rest go, as if its meager beauty did not merit protection from bulldozers, shoppers and condominiums, as if “the rest” is all expendable. But it is in these neighborhoods, where the earth is largely hidden, that our need for its strength is greatest. For the more estranged we are from the earth (even in its most humble guises), the more impoverished is our existence, and the more cut off we are from the precious chords of our very nature. This place keeps my toes to the ground.

Perhaps it is the setting, but I can recall few other places where I have stopped to look at trees. But I do here. I watch them closely in summer when their leafy branches pitch and roll in the gusts of stormy winds, and in winter when their limbs are bare as whips and more exquisite than lace. Trees, a local naturalist once wrote, are best, because they stand still and let you look at them. Yet they change: the flashing of autumn colors, the first green shoots of spring, the rotting, mossy husks that are home to mushrooms and worms. And deep in these woods, on brittly cold winter days, you can hear the old ones creak and moan, you can hear their joints pop and their spindly arms rattle like bones as arctic air rakes through them. I like the trees, both singly and leaning all together where I can be among them. They keep the cold away.

There are footpaths in these woods and a winding loop of road—twin tire ruts with a green grass median—that make the walking easy, and quiet. But these are narrow and over-arched with foliage, more like tunnels than expressways, made by the treading of feet, not by tool or asphalt. So that, when you’re in these woods that rise and fall upon the bluffs here by the river, you feel immersed in them, enveloped, as if caressed. Even when you emerge into a sunlit clearing or wade through a thicket of stickery brambles, you feel the woods around you.

One night, for example, I passed beneath the raccoon tree and felt I was being watched. The raccoon tree is an old hollow oak. It has only a few remaining limbs and several knotholes which serve as doorways for the animals that live there. I had noticed a large coon there on several winter nights and that spring I saw a family—mother shambling up the scaly bark followed by four young ones at her heels, stopping to look at me looking at them. Later that summer on a moonlit night I heard a fierce racket in the woods and followed the sounds to the raccoon tree where I spotted a pair of teenage coons sparring raucously. They were out on a limb, apparently trying to knock each other off. It wasn’t until my dog twirled and jumped below them that they froze— mid-push—and did not budge until we had ambled off.

And so at dusk one summer evening I walked past the raccoon tree—and stopped. I felt like I was being watched. I surveyed the tree for signs of the raccoon I had seen there of late. But I couldn’t spot anything, so I moved on. After walking a few paces, though, the feeling tugged at me and I went back to study the tree again. And this time I spied it. A barred owl. Perched erect as a magistrate in the oval of a large knothole, it peered down at me. And as I stepped this way or that, I could see its ear tufts turn as its head swiveled to follow my movements.

Emerson wrote: “I conceive of man as always spoken to from behind, and unable to turn his head and see the speaker.” I have felt that way a lot in these woods, as if secrets were being whispered in my ear and I couldn’t quite make out the words. Sometimes some vague intuition reports a presence hiding in the shadows; sometimes I think it’s just the hushed murmurings of wind in the trees. There have been other times, however, when I’d swear I felt a tapping on my shoulder. I recall the day I saw a bobcat here, and the night a fox danced in the snow.

But I am talking now of the meaning of trees—the way they form a canopy overhead, a playground for sparrows and squirrels; the way they filter sunlight through their fingers, until it pools at my feet; or the way they look at midnight in winter when they’re splashed with thick, wet snow. I like to touch the trees. I like to touch the bark, to run my fingers over their scratchy surfaces like a blind man reading Braille. I like to rub my hands along their rough-skinned roots, the ones that protrude from the soft, gooey mud along the river bank—sturdy ropes coiled along the water’s edge, holding fast. I find solace in the company of trees; they teach you how to live.

It has occurred to me, walking here these years and reading the landscape like a poem, that most anything a person needs to know can be deciphered here. The lessons are here for the taking; the glory of stars, the softness of earth, the endurance of rock—these are field guides for the living. The place becomes a melding of story, metaphor and myth. Even here, where the visits are often commonplace and the natural wonders tryingly subtle, the narrative is unfolding. So I come here, walking out of the tedium of my life, to read between the lines. I go by signs.

I have seen a multitude of deer here, their leaping and bounding as elegant as angel flight. They are so gentle, so fleet, so beautiful that I can watch them browse, graze or escape, and marvel at the grace of their movements. I have seen them at night clustered in twos and threes, mere silhouettes upon the snowfields under a silvery moon. I recall a foggy night when a small herd was backlit by moonlight in the mist and they moved hurriedly past a grove of trees like soldiers stealing away under cover of dark. And I have sat and watched a mother whitetail skitter and snort to drive me away from two unwatchful fawns.

But I have encountered deer, too, in broad daylight, coming upon them up close, poised face-to-face—they as startled to see me as I to see them. On a brilliant blue-sky day in winter, with a generous white frosting spread on every trunk, branch and twig, I came upon a large antlered buck hunched under a trellis of snowladen vines. We stood and stared at one another for awhile, with no language to span the gap between us, except for our stillness and a respect to leave the other be.

I have been close to deer on many occasions, and have often stood still enough to be approached by them—their heads bobbing and craning as their liquid black eyes try to discern my meaning. I like to stay long enough for them to mosey away, paying me little heed, perhaps glancing back occasionally to check on me. When it is clear they do not mind my presence, I feel as if I have entered their world and become part of its texture. When they run, I sense that I have disturbed the composition, that I am an interloper who has broken the spell, the uninvited guest who disrupts the pastoral contours. So I go still and softly, and try hard not to disturb the animals living here. I admit, though, to a time or two springing into a pack of deer and racing with them for as long as I can, finding some joy in that sport until I feel leaden and slow—like a pelican flying with falcons— and the deer have disappeared from sight.

In these woods and fields I have also seen groundhogs in trees, opossums playing dead, and twin hawks performing an aerial show, riding the invisible wind, banking, arcing, somersaults of grace and style, playing follow-the-leader. I have watched an owl pose rigid in its nest while being scolded harshly by dive-bombing blackbirds. I have admired the feats of acrobatic squirrels and have watched whole clans of raccoons devour mulberries while hanging from their hindfeet in the lush, leafy limbs of mid-June. And I have seen butterflies and fireflies, hummingbirds and hoptoads, feisty skunks and one autumn day a duck perched in a tree.

One cold snowy Saturday night my dog once discovered something in the brush beside the trail. It was an ailing raccoon which did not run when I approached. When I stooped to investigate, it looked up at me and watched. With my gloved hand I rubbed the spot beneath its ears as if it were the family dog. It purred. I stroked its cheek and ran my fingers along its rib cage, petting the length of its body. I had never touched a wild animal like this and was surprised when it rolled onto its back and let me rub its stomach in gentle tidings between species.

There were gurgling sounds in its throat and a shiver in its breath as the coon made no attempt to get away, though it never took its bandit eyes from mine. I almost took it home; I thought of carrying it to a vet; I finally decided to let nature have its way—though I carried it deeper into the woods and tucked it into a hole, a refuge from the cold and whatever else might bother it. The next morning I returned and found that it was dead.

I feel a certain kinship with the animals I see here, a recognition that we’re all members of the same grand menagerie inhabiting this heartland district. But I also realize that this is their place that I enter when I leave my house. There is a kind of diffidence that comes with this. I am reminded here of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, the limitations of my senses, my inability to last long where they thrive, my need to eventually get back home, my being somehow on the outside of their domain looking in.

There is something else about animals, and it has to do with this—with nights when I hear the sweet distant song of an owl, a melodious hooting in the air. Usually I try to follow its call until I find it, until I spy the vase-like shape, the cowlick ears, the turret head. Sometimes, when I get near, the owl will fly, revealing a wingspan surprisingly broad, a wraith-like presence, a tranquil stroke, until it fades like an apparition into the night. Just this—this fleeting brush with one wild soul— brings magic to the mundane.

Such encounters may not bring visions of the mystical kind, but to a pilgrim who treads these woods daily they bring their own kind of revelation, a sense of enlightenment, of having been paid a visit by an emissary from the other side. They are rewards for a faith in a universe that is not totally inscrutable, indifferent, opaque, but wondrously alive to those attuned to distant soundings. I have, for example, seen fox out here on perhaps a dozen occasions, but only once did one dance for me. I watched its joy in a clearing on a snowy night as it hopped and spun, jitterbugged and jigged as happy as a faun cavorting with the moon.

I have also seen a bobcat here. It emerged from a thicket some thirty yards in front of me when our eyes met, and held. We watched each other for the longest time, each afraid to move. I am sure it was a bobcat; I took inventory wanting to be certain—the spots and tufted ears and bobbed tail, the broad feline cheeks and padded paws. In time I moved closer, step by watchful step, until I thought I’d gone close enough—some flinching or tenseness in the wildcat’s body told me so. Time passed and we watched each other still, until, after awhile, the cat turned slowly and, stepping easily, slipped back into the hedgerow from which it had come—in no apparent hurry to get away from me.

Whenever I walk these woods, I think of stories. I recall the bobcat sighting and the dancing fox . . . or the night some years ago when I discovered the “electric moss.” It was just after dusk one damp summer night when I spied a radiance in the woods over by the river. It was an eerie glow, as if a fluorescent duffel bag had been dropped from a UFO. I moved closer cautiously, staring in amazement, creeping closer, edging nearer, half-expecting an extraterrestrial.

When I came upon the mysterious luminescence, I gazed in wonder. It was emitting a greenish light, like the glowing of sea-green embers—the color of a firefly’s taillight. I bent to look closer and I still could not make out what it was I was looking at. I held my hand over the radiance but felt no warmth. I was afraid to touch it—this curious incandescence in the darkness of night—so I jabbed at it with a stick. Pieces, like charcoal or embers, tumbled about, some brighter than others. “This,” I thought, “must be where the lightning bugs come to get their light.” I imagined whole squadrons coming here for a refill before heading out on maneuvers.

I later learned it was “electric moss,” a phosphorescent kind of stuff that absorbs sunlight during the day to be radiant at night. I had never seen it before and I have not seen it since. But I like to think I once found the place where the fireflies come for light, the mouth of some secret flyport that was mistakenly left uncovered one night.

Of course, the story of these woods, like that of any patch of nature, is not all splendor, whimsy and rapture. The swift beauty of wild rabbit and the keen grace of red-tailed hawk can collide in one sudden, brutal moment. I have seen the frenzied scrambling of a rabbit laid bare in a late-autumn cornfield when a hawk is closing in. Unable to reach shelter, it dashes madly, frantically, zigzaggedly—heart popping—until the hawk pounces, talons flashing. The claws snap flesh and bones; the resistance is brief. The raptor rips apart its prey, applying beak and claw to greedily extract from the bloody mess the tough cords of steaming intestines. Clumps of downy fur wander away in the wind.

Nature does not always smile, but it does things in balance. Its complementary parts preserve an order that, watched closely, can bring an acceptance and faith in the way things are. There is beauty, then, in the interweaving of the harsh and the raw, the elegant and the unremarkable, the fleeting and the never-ending. One sees cycles here, and the constancy of life forms undergoing startling metamorphoses—decaying, ingesting, dying, thriving—until you look upon the living mosaic and see that it is all one big thing.

The river, too, could tell stories—of swollen springs and frozen winters, of mallards, heron and wood ducks, of changing course and quicksilver fish and the holy persistence of flow. This place and its river share a history. I know just a little: that this steady brown stream was once called “the river of the Miamis” because so many of that native tribe lived along its banks. The region then was filled with elk, deer, panthers, wolves and assorted ground mammals—otters, weasels, minks, raccoons, badgers and bobcats. Black bear prowled the woods and buffalo roamed the grasslands. Hundreds of bird species were at home here, including several types of hawk and eagle. And a botanist, writing in 1880 and perhaps giddy with excitement, estimated that almost half the species of flowering plants found in the United States grew here.

There is another story I think of when I walk the woods each day. It has to do with a different place and a different people, on a continent far away. It is about the forest people. Like most native folk, this tribe was intimately bonded to the forest. The forest, which provided all the stuff of their lives, was also a very real presence, an all-encompassing fusion of the material and the divine. So each night they sang to the forest, and in their singing and living sought to be one with the forest, to be wholly within it. But the forest was shrinking, was being consumed by the march of progress and civilization. Its power was being diminished.

One day a developer took one of the tribal elders to the mountaintop from which the two looked down upon the valley and the forest laid as a plush green carpet on the land. “That is the forest,” the developer said, to which the elder replied, “No, that is not the forest.”

The developer, thinking the forest must look too tiny to be believable to someone who has never been outside its embrace, said, “Yes. Yes, it is the forest.” The elder again said no. “The forest,” he explained, “can be seen only from within.”

I think of this story these days not only because of what it means to be immersed in such a place but also because of what it means to see from within, to be held in the grasp of that which can’t be seen. Just as the forest people came to know the deity through the land, I, too, have seen glimmers of it here in these woods.

But the forest is shrinking, and all across America the wild lands are shrinking, and these woods and fields are shrinking, too. I have seen the stakes and ribbons tied to trees. I have heard the chainsaws whining in the distance.

I wondered, years ago when I first heard of the forest people in Africa, how one would know the forest gods once the forest was dead. I think about that now here, too. What happens to the deity when its dwelling places are gone? Who will articulate nature’s gleam and high-spirits when the last of the wild animals are gone from here?

Until then, until the woods are tamed, I savor these walks between the holy and the plain. I favor the starlight. I think of redemption. I watch the moon. I stand still at sunset and listen to the wind. I like to hear the wind as it rolls long and fierce across the land, sails unimpeded over the fields, surges and sweeps through the trees in the woods. I like to feel the restless wind, to know its touch on its journey through this place, flying free from there to here to there. I don’t know how it is that a piece of landscape enters the blood, but I know it happens. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with connecting us—over time—to something even bigger, more wondrous than itself.

Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine_. This essay, about the woods on the northern edge of the Saint Mary’s College campus, is adapted from his book_, Back to Earth: A Backpacker’s Journey into Self and Soul. The excerpt is reprinted with the permission of the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield.

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