“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir
I went for what I would describe as less a hike and more a walk Saturday deep in the forest. We took a crowd, five people, two dogs on a quiet path through an ecosystem that changes with every step. I walked in the back to avoid the chatter and to set my own pace. I don’t move fast, I talk slow, I listen slow and I walk even slower.
The loop is five miles and begins in an open field of wild flowers and clover, a sun filled blanket of green, yellow and pink. But the landscape changes dramatically as you enter a thick dark grove of rhododendron and mountain laurel along the banks of a swift stream. The journey remains under this canopy for the next mile and a half. There is a noticeable change in the temperature from the open field to the sub-tropical moist shade. The plant life changes also from bright flowers and grasses to ferns, moss and mushrooms.
The casual observer may see harmony in the forest, flora living together in some sense of balance and cooperation. I on the other hand see chaos, and struggle as plants fight among themselves for resources, like light, water and soil.
About half way in you leave the grove of rhododendron and mountain laurel and come upon an old growth forest. Below these massive trees are ferns, acres of lush, green, soft ferns choking out any and all other forms of plant life. The beauty before me mask the trouble below, young saplings blocked from receiving nourishment from the sun. The struggle is real as the ferns prevent all from competing against their vast army. It is a battle of attrition, won by numbers and force.
Occasionally you will see a small tree that has “made it” through the ferns but what you notice is there was a spot for this youngster among its elders, a place where it has room to grow and spread out. Ten feet in either direction and this young sapling would have been doomed to a crowded and cramped life, starved for sunlight. The ferns, in their effort to take over the world keep this part of the forest in check, and balanced. You see it if you are watching, you see it if you are paying attention.
At the end of this path is a bog, probably my favorite of all the ecosystems. I have been on the trail when this area was filled with water, tadpoles and small fish and other times, like this past Saturday, when it is dry as a bone. Survival is about adaptation in a bog. Revel when conditions are ripe and wet and retreat when conditions are hard and dry. Changes happen quickly here. A sudden storm will cause the streams to over run their banks filling surrounding low spots with moisture. Dry grass turns green. Bullfrogs and crayfish buried in mud tunnels find their way back to the surface. The moments can be brief or extended but the plants and wildlife make the most of what is granted to them.
I took a walk in the forest Saturday away from the asphalt parking lots, grocery stores and restaurants. I took a walk with people I love in a sanctuary of holiness you can’t find in any Church. I observed how nature worked through her problems, creating opportunities for some and challenges for others. I witnessed balance through chaos, growth through struggle, life through death, all in a five-mile walk.
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson