Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday, as I was working hard in the morning on my lecture, the announcer on MPR suggested that if listeners wanted to enjoy the day they best get out soon as the weather was about to change. Ah, I thought, the joys of a sabbatical! So, after putting in a solid three hours at the task, I folded up the computer and headed to my apartment to outfit for a 3.5 mile hike on the Pine Knob trail. Outside of a few elementary school students near the start of the trail, I had it all to myself.

It was interesting to go from the bright sunlight (where I spotted a small snake sunning himself) to the shadows of the hardwood forest. There is a sound rather peculiar to early autumn that stirs the blood--of birches and beeches, dappled in a golden yellow, swaying and dancing in the breeze. The leaves almost seem to shimmer. As the clouds would skirt overhead, I noticed the darkness begin to descend--even in the middle of the afternoon. Squirrels and chipmunks skittered away as I would approach and the only sound would be the swaying of the trees, the gentle dropping of leaves, or the plop-plopping of acorns against the forest floor.

I don't have the stamina I once did to almost run up the trail. My biggest challenge was simply trusting the trail map before me. Several times, the trail almost seemed to disappear and I had to pay close attention to what was in front of and all around me. Numerous trees had fallen across the trail in spots and made it difficult to traverse. I saw it as a challenge of faith: could I actually put my faith in what I saw in front of me or would I wimp out and look for a paved road out? Finishing the trail was something of an achievement to someone who usually errs on the side of caution. After all, had I disappeared, who would have known?

At one point, I found myself singing. Given the warnings about global warming, I wondered to myself if my grandchildren and their progeny would be able to enjoy the blessings of woodland that we have so often take for granted. In choir just the day before, we had read from the psalm that speaks of the trees of the field "clapping their hands" (what a beautiful metaphor! [oh, sorry, I forget, the Bible is always to be taken literally]). I decided simply to say out loud, "Thank you, God, for all these trees!" Then, I sat down, opened up a flask of hot tea and read aloud in the cool of the forest.

Shortly after his death in 1862, Henry David Thoreau's "Autumnal Tints" were published--notes, suggest Schmidt and Felch, which "represent lovely expressions of the colors of leaves, of their changes, and of their fall into the woodlots, yards, rivers, and roadsides of Concord, Massachusetts":

"Europeans coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage. There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but few bright colors there. . . A great many, who have spent their lives in cities, and have never chanced to come into the country at this season, have never seen this, the flower, or rather the ripe fruit, of the year. . . Most appear to confound changed leaves with withered ones, as if they were to confound ripe apples with rotten ones. I think that the change to some higher color in a leaf is an evidence that it has arrived at a late and perfect maturity, answering to the maturity of fruits. It is generally the lowest and oldest leaves which change first. But as the perfect-winged and usually bright-colored insect is short-lived, so the leaves ripen to fall. . . October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year nears its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight,"
(Autumn: A Spiritual Biography, 186-187).