The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.
(Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)
Perhaps it’s a black poplar or an aspen. Whatever it is, it’s the first thing I see. Shaped like a dew drop, a leaf that was once yellow and green now dotted charcoal gray, speckled with clear pearl droplets of rain. Tiny saw-tooth edges.
It’s strange to look down on rain-speckled leaves on this crisp blue sky fall day. But as the woman at the spring reminded me, yesterday was wet and soggy when she was out with the crew clearing trees. I think I recall yesterday’s rain but it’s easy to not notice in the sheltered worlds in which I live under roof with central heat.
I left my nephew Peter at the Irving Station this early afternoon to catch the Concord Coach to Boston. I’ll miss him. We’ve had fun together these past few weeks adventuring in the North Country. Hikes up Table Rock and Washington, Sunset on Bald, Sunrise on the Kilburn Crags.
When I moved to town, I picked up a paper map to a trailhead just 20 minutes away. It feels right today, the right place to go, a 6 mile loop with two hills to summit on a most gorgeous fall afternoon.
There is something to be said I am sure for the pursuit of ascending the forty-eight “4000 Footers” and the “52 with a view” but I know I’m up North for something else as well. I want to get to know this place beyond the famous peaks and lofty views. I want to immerse myself in the everyday, ordinary worlds of Cooley and Cole.
A series of steep winding narrow roads go up and up to Sugar Hill, Landaff, Easton. I descend slowly down the rutted dirt road, past the yellow forklift to the whirring pitch of the sawing of trees. The crew is working where the parking lot is so I ask for a good place to park. The yellow helmeted forester says a little further up, down towards the trail is a good spot. I strap on my pack, adjust my poles, head up the old dirt path past the “Beware of Dog” sign to the trailhead marker. Smooth granite slabs ascend to the yellow diamond trail to Cooley. 3.1 miles. I have time before sundown. I want to make it.
The trail is a mountain bike path and I wind back and forth, sharp angled turns up and up and up. Not all that steep or hard and just the kind of trail I’ve been looking for this afternoon. Unlike most trails around here, today I don’t have to worry about rocks and roots. A good dirt trail covered in brown crunching leaves.
I pause to take pictures of plants I do not know to look them up when I get home. I remember when I first moved to Maine, I wanted to learn all the names. Perhaps felt that in the naming, I would gain a foothold on this strange new place to call home. Or perhaps I wanted to learn the names because I love these northern woods and if you love something or someone you want to know them by their many names.
At home after my hike, I confirm that the first leaf with the rain drops like pearls on it might be black poplar. Perhaps its aspen. Amidst the brown leaves, here a bright nest of common haircap moss.
Up here on the a sea of little sails is knights plume moss.
Here the little tree of the solitary club moss
and feathery glittering woodmoss.
Is this how you get to know a place, by learning the names? Can we really inhabit a place if we don’t know the names of who we share a place with? But then how it is that so many like me know so few of the the names of what grows and crawls and flies in the world around us?
I few weeks ago I invited everyone at church to stand up and have a short conversation with someone they didn’t know. “How was that for you? “ I asked. Karen said, “All these years and I’d never known who that was sitting in front of me.”
I would like to wander these woods with someone who knows. To learn from someone who has walked these woods and can show me what I’d never otherwise see. Someone like a good outdoor docent like Sarah who I wandered through the Maine woods one cold wintery morning looking for animal tracks.
Here by this stump, a beautiful maroon dogwood.
My Maine pursuit of learning the names, soon ended, however. Did I lose my longing for connection to a place as I took refuge in the familiarity of everyday duties and responsibilities? Will I do that here again? And what does it take to “know” a place? Do my apps for plants and peeks help me to know or do they keep me from a kind of wild immersion in a place? I do not yet know what to think.
The Tao says, The unnamable is the eternally real. (Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)
Suddenly, something heavy thumps off through the woods beside me. A sound like something dropped from a big truck. It’s probably a deer. I can’t imagine a moose bounding like that. Or a bear. I’m reminded again that I’m not alone out here.
Wednesday night we climbed the Kilburn Crags and saw the most gorgeous clouds whispering over the valley, up through the hills. Peter turned to sit on the bench to watch. I joined him wondering on how rare it is to stop and see.
On the way down a strong pungent smell of sewage and sweat and something that really reeked. It wasn’t scat and we hadn’t smelled it ascending. It was growing dark and hard to see the trail much less what was in the woods. I imagine it was a bear or would like to think it was a bear and I looked behind me to make sure that I wasn’t being followed by a bear.
The yellow trail up Cooley joins the blue trail which is now more of a hiking trail and I like it better because it is not all just switchbacks.
Brown leaves and peeling white birch, silver and golden birch perhaps. I turn back to see a long wound in a tree that makes it stand out all the more beautiful like a fine sculpture that makes me pause and wonder on wounding and beauty.
I have lived in the most beautiful of places, my friend Esther reminds me. It is true.
A crossroads. I look at the time. I don’t know how much further it is up the trail to the top. I want to reach the top. I keep going.
I pass round pellets of moose poop which makes me very happy to know that what David at the Community Dinner the other night said is true that there are moose here and everywhere and that its just that we don’t see them. I don’t want to hit one in my car. I’m not sure I want to meet one on the trail here alone in the woods. I am so glad to have found this sign that they are here.
The trail ascends to false summits and sky to more trail and at last the concrete and steel remnants of a fire-tower and what is the end of the trail. So glad, so blessed to have come, to have made it here. A good long drink of water on the granite slab before turning to home. A brisk walk and blessing, up the Red Trail .4 to Cole, a long descent down more granite slabs, dry and smooth. My confidence strides out past a couple on the trail from Massachusetts. I tell them I grew up there and just moved here. I feel strangely, wonderfully proud to say I live here, I am from here. This is my home.
I want to be like water and become this place, inhabit this landscape. I want to find home and be at home here. I do.
Every morning in my various ways, I practice placing myself here, like writing this now, to put down the words, to name and remember.
If you do not remember the smell or feel of the land then you will believe anything they tell you about it including that it is just another body to exploit. (Ben Weaver, from his poem, “Considering Leaves”)
On the way out, another leaf, spotted with pearl drops.
There is not enough time to learn all the names. I vow to learn them all.
There are no arms big enough to hold all this place contains. I vow to be held by it all.
There are no eyes wide enough to notice all that is here to see. I vow to witness it all.
Before turning to home, I turn back to read the marker at the trailhead,
The Forest is created with the conviction that a healthy, vibrant future for the people and environment of our region depends on a strong connection between land and people. The Community Forest is created to enrich that relationship. (Sign at the trailhead for the Cooley-Jericho Community Forest)