A footfall sounds on the unfrequented trail. There it rests. The encasing boot prepares to release its rubbery grip. However… the order does not arrive; a bizarre feeling for an instrument so well-tuned to chewing up endless, winding ribbons of land. Up above, a contented, chesty sigh echoes; it’s the young man, outfitted with crumpled map and a thirst for wildness, scanning the forested surroundings while his travel mates hike up and strap tight their backpacks– each rucksack in and of itself a portal, and a barrier, to the backcountry. Nature cannot force a man to muster his will, gather his meager belongings, and cinch them to his frame for a lengthy trial by foot. Nor can the man’s boot choose to make its way from the rear of his consciousness, and bedroom closet, to be here; still tasting the supple, earthy trail while the twilight plays catch-up to the day and the leaves rustle expectantly from a late September’s wind.
He is but a visitor, this man with backpack and boot. To pretend otherwise would be foolish, and disrespectful to his gracious host. This is why he signs only with footprints, lugs out but memories and perhaps a stick to walk with, keeps his voice down when the community quiets to a whisper, and will attempt to impart the same on the group of college-aged adventurers he is leading– who are now about ready to set off.
It is a strange dichotomy of modern society, the man thinks, that in the span of hours one can magically be transported by machine from one state to another– in both a political and mental sense. Perhaps such a privilege should not be taken for granted, this land steeped in serenity seems to impart without the slightest word. Nearby, at the base of a knotty evergreen, a red squirrel forages for a pine nut. Finding his buried treasure under a mess of underbrush, he dashes past the group of hikers who come from worlds away, oblivious to the existence of any other forests, travails, or homes. These hills, this wooded clearing, the tree hollow cradling his babies– they are his raison d’être, his place and purpose of being. He will not abuse, nor inalterably change, his surrounding habitat. Our friend knows his place in space, and respects it, as his ancestors always have and descendants forever will. And so he is provided a fair chance to survive, ample opportunity for nuts, and peace in his time.
The man ponders this, but not for more than a fleeting moment– or a flash of red tail bounding away. For the packs are tight, the hour tolls, and the twelve travelers uncork their boots from the dirt and venture into the untamed.
A leaf falls on the well-trod pavement. It is autumn here, too. Across this cracked, battle-tested path blows a hazy gust rife with dust, aspiration, and stale dining hall smells. The leaf skitters slowly, lazily, oblivious to the harried intensity of step all around. It puts on a kindly face, nature’s rouge patted into its cheeks, and tries to empathize with the hunched shoulders and furrowed brows nearby; but it cannot. For to think like a leaf is to think like time itself; never plotting, never rushed… never dissatisfied, nor spiteful. Crinkled and golden like a warm smile, it does its worst to inflict the spirited brevity of this sun-drenched, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it day on all who dare trudge by.
The same young man sits nearby. He has not yet departed for his backpacking voyage. Enjoying one of the brief moments of simple, outdoors reflection he can seem to find in each hectic week, he sees the fallen leaf and cracks a small smile, a bit ruefully. Time seems to slide by like a ship in the night here on this college campus, and the man knows that, by his next pause, civilized life will have marched on past this beautiful change of season with hardly a second glance.
If only leaf spoke man, sighs man.
If only man spoke leaf, sighs leaf simultaneously.
How much better things would be, they equally echo, should human beings ever think to float a mile in a leaf’s veins. Should they see time not as a commodity to be parsed and fretted over, but as an infinite series of moments, each a fortunate happenstance– connected and precious within this chaotic universe. Should no organism, place, or thing, not the grandest mountain, most revered king, nor littlest pine nut, intrinsically hold more value than any other. Should they work harder to empathize with other manifestations of life, and see a falling leaf, buried acorn, or gentle squirrel as but fortunate extensions of themselves– as representative of both where they began and where they will go, hurtling along on a cosmic speck through an endless, rippling ocean.
For today, then, the leaf frolicks to its heart’s desire. But soon enough, Father Time’s clock will toll for it too, one happenstance will morph into the next, and life will graciously cycle on. We can imagine leaf lending itself to soil; who could come to an agreement with flower; who will joyously welcome bee; who could decide to pollinate man’s garden… whereupon all of these embodied elements might come full circle, as the young man finds a seat sometime next autumn, pulls out his lunch, and bites into a homegrown carrot, a new batch of leaves parachuting down all around.
What tales we could be told, the man wonders, still fixated on today’s rouge-tinted storyteller, if only we made a better effort to listen.
But this again percolates for only a fleeting moment– or a solitary leaf flicking away. For the church bells hail the hour, the students spread like caffeinated wildfire, and the young man shoulders his schoolpack, takes a deep breath of the fall-infused present, and continues on to class.
A quiet thud cascades a puff of sediment into the crispening air. With an audible groan of relief the young man smiles, stretches, and takes a few liberated steps away from his hefty backpack into camp. Staunch, solid, and road-worn, the pack feels great satisfaction as it rests its frame on a thick tree stump. One day, eighteen miles, and several dozen PB&J tortilla rolls have come and gone for these twelve hikers. With wonderfully sore legs, campfire-scented clothing, and a tinge of melancholy they will soon lug themselves and their belongings down the back stretch of a September weekend well spent. Willing oneself from the warm, accessible confines of home into the bitterly chilly, variable vastness of a Michigan State Park in autumn is one kind of challenge, but that which is presented by the sudden, civilizing return to everyday existence is quite another.
The backpack feels a twinge of regret, or perhaps longing, too. It is but a liaison for the young man between day-to-day life and those brief forays out of it. What is a backcountry camper without his backpack? What is a backpack without a backcountry camper? For the young man and his compatriots, there is an inextricable link between themselves and these possessions, a sort of love-hate tether– the latter entity being burdensome and back-aching to use, but also quite bonded to the former’s experiences in the wild.
For a loaded pack carries many things, yes, but not simply cookware, squished granola bars, and extra long underwear. It has stuffed and strapped within memories, feelings, moments; times of great movement across the land, times of awed stillness. It holds bitingly windy nights huddled four-wide under flimsy nylon like sardines. It holds batterings by freak hailstorms, late hours of wonderment stretched out under starry canvasses, and reels upon reels of conversation, riddles, and laughter. It holds these things, and it holds them tight, feeling great pride in being such a middleman between humans and the non-human world.
Therefore, as the young man gathers the group in preparation of making camp, his pack sits quietly, waiting. It cannot help but ponder the brevity of this expedition, and hope simply that it has fulfilled its duty, helping to foster a time of appreciation and presence over these few days.
But this again lingers for only a fleeting moment– or an auburn disk dipping rapidly below the horizon. For the twilight hour is short, the campers disperse, and the man returns to the stump, re-hoists his pack, and heads over to pitch tents for the night.
A footfall sounds on the frequented step. It does not rest for long. A stairwell is exited, keys jingle, and an apartment door creaks open. No roommates appear to be home, which, for the moment, suits the young man just fine. The man crosses wearily, somewhat trance-like, to the adjacent bedroom. He leans his newly-gained walking stick against the bedpost, disentangles the ever-more crumpled map from his pocket, and, for one last time, relegates his backpack to the ground with a quiet, dirt-less thud.
A chesty sigh echoes, one of contentment… but not entirely. He should know by now to expect this feeling of pensive nostalgia, the young man. Each time, though, each time that he pines for the sanctity of the pine, yearns for cool wades into crystalline rivers, and feels a deep regret for the wastefulness of man in endangering these innocent places… it seems telling. He feels present, feels whole in the wilderness, in ways that his society in aggregate has stamped out, like a boot on smoldering embers, throughout its meteoric invasion of the Earth’s lands, waters, and lifeforms.
We may think like the wild, or we may think like the tamed. We humans, products, beneficiaries, and dependents of the web of life from which we were spun, can continue our collective course on this tangential path from the natural processes, limits, and communities of this planet. We can pinwheel further and further away from these things– constraints heeded by wolf, by squirrel, by pre-industrial hominid– and justify it as our destiny, divine will, or inalienable right.
We may peer from our most-civilized perch and see wilderness as destitute, chaotic, unrestrained– which, in fact, holds a kernel of truth. Survival is not a given, nor an entitlement, for other actors in this evolving, ecological drama. Yet, within this chaos nestles a forgotten order. Such order gives each his chance to survive– to live, grow, howl at the moon, glide through the sea, or poke a shoot through the soil. To think like the wild is to accept one’s mortality, to accept that a single part cannot be larger than the sum.
But this does not sit well with modern Homo sapiens. We are productive, ever-connected, globalized, and diverse, yet more fragmented than ever before. We fear change, loathe discomfort; fence away our neighbors, purge our homes of darkness and creepy-crawly nuisance; crave ease, surplus, and constant entertainment. We over-impose unnatural, mechanized order on our lives, hijacking and turbocharging our minds with stimuli for which we were not evolved. We tame ourselves into complacence, taking our bread, enjoying our circuses, and becoming ever-less present to the simpler joys of life all around.
And, through all of this, the voice of the wild dims. Stress, unhappiness, and discontent balloon throughout human society. Few wonder if there may be a connection between the two.
Soon, a footfall will again sound. The unfrequented trail is a persistent one, and will never cease its call. Maps will be smoothed, backpacks strapped, and boots lifted from dusty shelves.
Somewhere not too far, a squirrel returns home, proud father with nut in tow, to infant squeals of longing and relief. A tree gives a great shiver of wintery anticipation, deploying showers of multi-hued prophets. A wolf pup finds his voice, a forest tenses, and a new timbre is added to the symphony of life.
We are never truly alone, and we are hardly at all different. Though capable, intelligent, and evolved, we are nowhere near the peak of evolution. This, however, should cause us comfort rather than worry, and bridge understanding rather than distrust. We seek family, belonging, sustenance and peace like any of our brothers and sisters of nature. Quite literally, we live, and die, as one world.
At the same time, it will be up to us– and only us– to decide our path going forward. As a species, we face an unprecedented predicament. To the best of our knowledge, never before has a self-aware organism both caused and had the ability to recognize the potential scope of its own demise. This is humbling, and tragic, yet should seem to be equally galvanizing. No one, and nothing, will offer a silver bullet solution to our fallacies. Our planet is resilient, but in the blink-of-the-eye timescale of the changes we have induced, fragile.
Therefore, we must act in service to the future health of our home… today. This boozy, fossil-fuel-slurping trance we are under must be acknowledged and met… today. Resolve, will, and commitment to the well-being of all lives current and future must be realized… today. And, becoming present to our present must be strove for… today.
So let us keep packing light, breathing deep, and setting forth with purpose and gratitude throughout the facets of our lives. There are innumerable trails to foot, and no finish lines in sight.