Friday, September 14, 2012

Trails in the Woods (excerpt)

“What wise use we make of all that we take, 
and mindful of whatever we leave behind...”

By Patrick J. Walsh

In the park where I walk each day, there are some 22 miles of officially recognized trails. Originally cut into what was then a far denser tract of woodland by the young workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the trail system has evolved into a complex network of interconnected paths that is populated daily by hikers and bicyclists.

Beyond the marked trails, there are also uncounted byways where individual visitors have wandered, trailing a butterfly, getting a closer look at a tree or shrub, or perhaps making headway toward some new spot that seemed to hold the promise of some different sort of happening.

Democracy of the Woods
Because they are built up and kept clear largely as the unintended side effect of visitors’ desire to explore beyond the well maintained, officially sanctioned trailways, the rough trails represent a sort of democracy of the woods. Individual trails are created by the passage of individuals and left unencumbered for the free use of others, and each path continues to exist in direct proportion to the degree to which others choose to make use of it.

photo © Patrick J. Walsh
...we are the curators of the environments we encounter... 
on trails clearly marked, or barely discerned.

Encountering these trails in the woods, I am struck by the disturbance they've etched into the ground.

Leaves fallen long before, and having long rested on the woodland floor, are barely recognizable in the flaky dust left by the force of ponderous footfalls. Green shoots of weeds are bent in haphazard disarray, and the thin prickly arms of wild raspberry shoots are twisted away from the edges of the rough path cut through the undergrowth.

Here and there, a plastic bottle, a snack food wrapper, an aluminum can litters the scrub between the shaded interior of the wooded area and the point of entry that opens into the park proper.

For Good or Ill, an Impact
And I am confronted with the simple truth that we make an impact — for good or for ill, with wanton disregard or careful attention to necessity —  wherever we walk.

While the very nature of human life requires that we enter the forest, and sail the sea, and explore in the air and beyond, we are the curators of the environments we encounter. What wise use we make of all that we take, and how mindful we are of whatever we leave behind, speaks as much of ourselves as it does of the progress we make, while we wander, on trails clearly marked, or barely discerned.

© Patrick J. Walsh

[Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay, “The Democracy of Trails in the Woods,” which is part of my “Walk in the Park” series.]

The Walk in the Park series:
The Men
• The Hawk