Saturday, September 13, 2014

A WALK IN THE WOODS

Lately, weighty problems that occupy too much of my thinking have forced my "writerly" body away from the computer and onto a walking trail called The Mountain Goat Trail, a hiking/biking trail that has gained national attention. The Mountain Goat Trail at Sewanee is an ideal walking path for those who prefer pavement to grass and want to enjoy the woods at the same time. I walk a portion of the paved trail as often as I can and complete a two-mile stint in the afternoons. When I first stepped onto this trail, I thought of Robert Frost's line, "the woods are lovely, dark, and deep," and the deeper onto the trail I walked, the deeper and lovelier the forest became.

During the first meandering hike I just surveyed the woods on either side of the road and didn't try to meditate on answers for the weighty problems I carried with me. Wet tulip poplar leaves blanketed the trail, and I almost stepped on the scat of some large animal, possibly a horse's droppings, and, hopefully, not a bear's offerings! The woods on either side contained oak, poplar, walnut, and red maple trees, to name a few, and farther down the trail, I peered into a deep ravine where slippery
elms grew in the bottomland. On a path into the ravine, someone had built a rock bridge that crossed a small run-off ditch, and I could have crossed this bridge and ascended a trail that led to a road on the other side of the forest. However, I stayed on track and took the one "most traveled by," (in contradiction to Frost's "less traveled by" line in the "Road Not Taken"), more sure of my footing on the flat grade of a railroad bed that had been paved over. The paved road is the result of the efforts of Ian Prunty, a high school student who obtained a grant from the Tennessee State government to launch the project in 1998, then raised more funds to solidify plans for the road.

The first phase of my walk ended at Lake O'Donnell Road where three metal posts, waist high, were imbedded in the pavement, and I lightly tapped the top of the center post as if I had reached a "personal best" goal. When I turned to retrace my steps, I met a woman pushing a baby carriage in which a round-faced infant dozed placidly, unmindful of the sound of locusts perched on tree trunks, whirring their monotonous songs. I felt poems stirring within me and wondered if I had achieved the "high" that runners feel when they've run long enough and far enough to energize the brain for a peak experience.

On that first walk, I didn't realize that Sewanee and surrounding environs were buzzing with the news that Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee had awarded a $600,000 grant to the non-profit organization, Mountain Goat Alliance, to extend the rail-to-trail outdoor recreation project called Mountain Goat Trail. This abandoned railroad right-of-way is being converted into a multi-purpose corridor (e.g., walking, biking) between Grundy and Franklin Counties of middle Tennessee. This week when we traveled to Monteagle, we passed giant road machines that were creating a trail linking Monteagle and Sewanee on a five-mile stretch of Mountain Goat Trail.

From 1856-1985 the Mountain Goat Railroad transported coal and passengers between Palmer and Cowan, Tennessee. It carried coal from mines of The Mountain, beginning at Sewanee and going through Tracy City, Coalmont, Gruetli-Laager, and Palmer, and was dubbed the Mountain Goat Line because the climb on the Cumberland Plateau was one of the steepest ascents in the world at that time. Once mining ceased, the tracks of the Mountain Goat Railroad were taken up.

I haven't solved any of the weighty problems I mentioned at the beginning of this blog by walking the Mountain Goat Trail, but in the company of wildflowers, fern, and old stands of trees, I kept thinking of the end line to one of my poems: "Let the trees answer." So far, most of these old friends have been mute, but they seem to approve of the fact that my "writerly" body is becoming more fit. Twice, I've heard a lone bird singing, waiting out a human invasion in the understory of these trees, and have felt hopeful.

Trees inevitably "people" my poetry, and here's a poem that mentions them in my book, Alchemy, published in 2011:

PRAYER WHEN APPROACHING OLD AGE

God help me to know
you are now being fulfilled
in the moment of my writing.
How many dense woods
I've traveled through—
magnificent silent creations
reflecting your good will.

When I see the leaves fall,
brighter in color before dying,
the blood red of still-alive,
I realize that in their blaze
you are being fulfilled
in a final act of ecstasy.

In my seventh decade, I ponder this,
realizing that these late years of poetry,
my own forests of good will,
are acts of co-creation slowly culminating,
becoming a fulfillment
measured by your time
and guided by this light...
evanescent among the trees.



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