Thursday, May 16, 2013

Walking the Sacred Cove

I take off my shoes and socks before alighting on the trail into the sacred forest. Today this forest is almost overwhelmingly fragrant. It is so very quiet around me, save for birdsong and the occasional mysterious wail of one tree’s rubbing against another, both shifting in gravity’s pull. Joe would always get excited and exclaim, “sounds just like a woman moaning!” But I hear something else in it - something more like a gentle sigh or a stretching creak. Sometimes it’s a sharper sound, like a squeaky door.

(It was this tree, for whom Joe lovingly scraped paint off of its bark. When I am here, I remember Joe, and sharing chocolate and oranges. I remember taking his photo one year ago right in front of this tree.)

The only other sounds I am noticing come from underfoot. The soft crinkle of papery leaf litter and duff, the muffled crunch of tiny twigs under those leaves under my footfalls. I feel the soft clay, firm but not quite granular and just cool enough to differentiate from the warmth of my feet.

As my soles meet this clay it’s more like meeting the flesh of another. We meet each other. I am not walking on the ground. The clay and I are greeting each other. We welcome each other with some vague knowing that we are related - deeply so.

I move slowly through the forest, deliberately and gently. I allow myself to be called by the beauty - by the pink Trillium, fading fast, its cousin whose burgundy hue is so dark as to appear black in contrast. I am called by the gently flowing water, right over the path. My feet find clay under the water - black clay. The soil in this cove is rich and dark - the blackest brown I know. The water surprises my feet with its fresh coolness, flowing across my toes in ripples.

I step off the trail up into the spring ephemerals, sinking into the loose earth. I imagine this rich dark soil is a result of the graceful decay of a natural forest, largely left alone and unmolested by the hands of men. Each time I return, resting logs have melted further into the earth, acorns resting around and on top, litter of the little critters of the wood. Each time new deadfall and this time a young black cherry laid open in a storm, bright with shades of warm fire in its flesh.

My favorite ancient Black Gum tree lives along this trail, a spry youngster standing close in reverence. He is so old that clumps of bark have dropped away, leaving smooth expanses accentuating just how deep and thick is the bark that remains.

Meandering through the soft filtered light of the end of day, I make my way to dinosaur rocks who feel like ancient beings to me - sometimes whales, sometimes the spine of an unnameable creature, alive and breathing so slowly as to appear stone still. I walk out on the narrow bridge of this boulder, its aliveness meeting my feet - almost as if it reaches up through me just to look out through my eyes - maybe even to show me things.

As the sun is dipping lower behind the ridge, chartreuse and vibrant greens shift toward muddy grey, and I know I should begin my return back down the mountain. I make my way down below these silent giants, through the slightly drier, more westerly slope, back north toward the trail.

I had hoped to glimpse a Yellow Lady’s Slipper today, among the Foam Flowers, Umbrella Plants, blooming Blue Cohosh, Trillium of various colors, white Clintonia just opening, Blood Root leaves still standing and not yet blooming native Geraniums. I wonder if something has eaten them or if someone has taken some away, but having been away so much this Spring, I figure I have simply missed them. Of course sometimes they simply hide there in plain sight, how I think some species, people, places find a simple grace of protective invisibility.

I look further across the wildflowers and decide to step lightly back up to the trail. I don’t want to disturb any more delicate plants, as even in my bare feet I know I can. As soon as I shift my gaze back toward the trail, there she is. This lonely lady with long tresses and an intensely cadmium yellow slipper. She greets me as if to say “thank you for caring where you step - now you may see me.” I turn and look back down the slope and see a plant I don’t remember ever seeing before. It shows up like a trillium, but without a flower and with 10 instead of 3 leaves. I wonder if this is a fluke of nature or maybe a rare plant. Continuing along, now I am called by a Showy Orchis with 5 flowers on its stalk where I usually only see one.

There are other treasures on the way back to the trail, and I gently step back onto the path out of this sanctuary, through the sweet fragrance and melodious birdsong, past the sighing trees, down past the rushing branch - full with recent rains - and into the warmer air on the southeastern slope back down to the car.

There are truly no words or images to convey this experience, so I heartily encourage you to slow down. Take off your shoes and socks. Let your toes find the earth - if tentatively - and remember what else these feet are for.


Holli said...

Beautiful! I can feel the coolness on my feet, too.

Laurence Holden said...

“Take off your shoes. You are standing on sacred ground” God said to Moses before the burning bush. I understand that the Hebrew is “shed your shoes,” and this seems closer to the underlying potent commandment - shed your protective covering, and stand bare and physically connected to the sacred ground of Being. Honor catches this inner sense here in her walk; and casting it in the present tense, she takes us too along in the present tense. She doesn’t say ‘walking in the sacred cove.’ She says “walking the sacred cove,” to alert us subtly to the sacredness that is within the walking and the meeting in the flow of ever enveloping present time. She says “ soles meet this clay...[is] meeting the flesh of another.”

So she takes us on a stroll not in a cove but in a community of others, and she includes us in a conversation between related beings - “the water surprises my feet...”, “My favorite ancient Black Gum lives along this trail,” “This lonely lady with long tresses and an intensely cadmium yellow slipper. She greets me...”

I have been intently rereading William Bartram’s Travels lately, and William would be perfectly at home on Honor’s walk. He would understand because he had this experience many times in his trek across the Southern frontier in the 18th century. He would heartily agree with Honor when she says “The clay and I are greeting each other. We welcome each other with some vague knowing that we are related - deeply so.”

To say that “Walking the Sacred Cove” is a communion with Nature, while true enough, only echoes Bartram, Wordsworth, Thoreau, Muir, D. H. Lawrence, and countless others. Out of that traditional sense of communion, we have built city parks, nature trails, National Parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife sanctuaries. On weekends now crowds are streaming to these mountains for refreshment and recreation. All this is well and good. People need the special respite and rejuvenation nature offers. We need times in which to forget ourselves, and all we think we are, in a natural environment that makes perfect harmonious sense.

But this glosses over the particularly important way Honor strives to invite us. Here she doesn’t forget herself for one moment, for she describes how we can actually be in a connected conversation. Not a chat, but an interacting conversation in which neither side is in control and both sides are affected. And of course, in the face of disastrous climate change, of coming consequential decisions we can not even imagine having to make, we will not survive without first taking off our shoes, and acknowledging that we stand on sacred ground, and that this begins in actual conversation between beings we have too long ignored.

I take her ending benediction to heart - “There are truly no words or images to convey this experience, so I heartily encourage you to slow down. Take off your shoes and socks. Let your toes find the earth - if tentatively - and remember what else these feet are for.” They are for meeting!

Thank you Honor.

Marie said...

Thank you Honor. You bring prose to my own walk in the woods yesterday. Your words deepen the memory and meaning of that experience.

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