Mornings begin cold and dark for in the late fall. I often go out walking before the sun rises and wander the sides of roads past rows of houses lit by the moon and an occasional street light. On days when I am fortunate enough to walk at dawn I almost invariably choose the same destination: the Quinnipiac River Linear Trail at Lakeside Park. This trail, which passes by a lake and through a forest, provides a continual source of experiences with nature. I come to nature with a firmly scientific view of life’s origins in evolution, and believe nature can be used as an inspiration to help humans construct meaning and purpose in their lives. Strictly speaking, humans are as much a part of nature as any other animals, but for the sake of avoiding unwieldy language I will use this term as a shorthand for describing places and creatures that have been left free, or mostly free, of human development. It is easy sometimes to be swept up by the conveniences of modern life and become disconnected from the natural world. Certainly, the progress of technology and the myriad benefits humanity can gain by exploiting natural resources contribute strongly to the quality of human life. All the same, time spent in nature is also a vital part of the experience of life, and it is in humanity’s interest to preserve some portion of wilderness and to spend time out in that wilderness. This time in nature offers an opportunity for quiet contemplation, a sense of a connection to the earth, and the chance to experience unmediated lessons about life.
The essential method of connecting with nature on the trail is walking. Walking is a slow and contemplative means of transportation. It is also a physical process, and puts the walker in contact with the earth with no separation aside from a thin layer of clothing. Henry David Thoreau used walking as a means to connect with nature and even cast it as an extended metaphor about a way of approaching life in general. Thoreau calls for all walks to be taken in the “spirit of undying adventure” (Thoreau 181). Only if you are “ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,” and if you have “paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs,” are you truly ready for the sort of walk he advocates (Thoreau 181). Thoreau sees walking as a way of separating oneself from the stifling culture of civil life and seeking “absolute freedom and wildness” (180). Walking is more than a way of learning about nature. The act, the very experience of walking, is the essence of its significance. Thoreau believed he could not neglect walking for a day without “acquiring some rust,” and even feels sorry if he waits to walk until too late in the day (Thoreau 182). He cannot understand how his neighbors can “confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together” (Thoreau 182). This sentiment mirrors my own. I go out every morning regardless of the weather or the amount of work that needs to be done. By now, like Thoreau, I cannot imagine starting a fresh day without a walk. Thoreau stated that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (192). This wildness must be experienced directly. There is something inherent about the physical experience that must be felt, and not merely read, contemplated, or considered.
It is important to realize that Lakeside Park is not absolute wilderness. It is more of a negotiation between wilderness and civilization. The trial is paved, for one thing. How much more aesthetically pleasing it would be if, rather than homogeneous black tar, the trail were blazed out of hardened earth with the forest encroaching to varying degrees on either side. It is also less than a mile in length and incongruously ends immediately after crossing a large, rusty bridge. Thoreau bemoaned the development of wild spaces, and wrote about observing a “worldly miser” overlooking formerly wild land the he was planning to fence in (184). Thoreau imagined taking a second look and seeing that the “Prince of Darkness was his surveyor” (184). Thoreau’s Prince of Darkness has surveyed every inch of this place, but even so, he has spared an amount of land sufficient to provide a genuine experience of nature.
The intrusion of the highway is the most difficult obstacle to overcome when experiencing nature in the park. Annie Dillard notes at one point in her explorations that there is a “55 mph highway at one end of the pond,” but then she goes on to causally cross it on foot, which is not something those who value life would do on the Parkway (877). I have tried using my sound canceling headphones to combat the noise of the passing cars, but found the experience eerie and disconnected, far worse than the problem I sought to correct. It would be easy for me to hate the highway, but then any other day I could just as easily be on it. While I might never miss that particular highway if it were closed off and torn up, I would by no means advocate destroying all highways. It would be short-sighted at best to rail against the highway that interferes with the enjoyment of my walks as I blissfully drive past other people’s special places. It may be that humanity can find better ways to manage its incursions into nature. For now, if the price of technological progress is a bit of noise on my walks it is a reasonable, if unsavory, price to pay. Even Thoreau at Walden had to contend with the train, and if the intrusion of the highway is more present and disturbing than the train it only serves to mirror the greater development and penetration of technology in the modern world.
Upon entering the park and following the paved path, the lake itself is the first major sight. Community Lake takes its name from the Oneida Community, a utopian religious commune that resided beside it in the 19th century (Quinnipiac River Trail Advisory Committee). What is called the “lake” is actually three distinct bodies of water all fed by the Quinnipiac River that runs between them. The west-most body of water, middle in size, is the only one of the three accessible from the trail. Its coast is densely crowded with brush, but there are several small paths and one slightly larger one carved out down to the bank. The lake is modest in size, but beautiful at any time of the day or year. In the winter it freezes over; in spring its banks are renewed with life; in summer it is home to such a multitude of plants and bugs that it absolutely teems with life. It is not possible to escape a summer trip to the lake without feeding half a dozen mosquitoes, at least. In fall it becomes ablaze with color for a fleeting moment, and now, in late fall, the lake is in transition. Loren Eiseley might call this transition a “border of two worlds,” and the experience of witnessing it can allow one see life from an “inverted angle” (488). As the lake’s still warm water meets the frigid morning air, mist rises and drifts across the surface. When illuminated by the rising sun, making its way over the leafless trees of the far bank, this offers an experience of nature that defies any attempt to reduce it to coldly rational scientific processes.
Moving up from the lake, massive and impenetrable columns of reeds appear first, growing out of several inches of standing water. These give way to a vast field of untamed grasses which gradually merge into the forest. During the winter months there is a dirt path easily followed through the field, but in fall it is still almost entirely obscured by the waist high grasses. If you don your boots and sturdy pants and venture through the grasses, it easy to imagine yourself immersed in true wildness. Although the paved path is behind you, and the highway never distant enough, sensory perceptions can at times blend with imagination to create an experience that almost transcends the reality of the physical environment. As Dillard experienced the eclipse, she imagined herself traveling beyond the barrier of death into another world (884). When the golden light of a setting sun lights up the tops of the tall grasses and the bare branches of the distant maples, I have found myself feeling that the earth is truly alive with mystical potential. I consider it solely an experience of my senses combined with my imagination, and make no claims about any realm of true spirits. Nor would I suggest that such feelings are available only in undeveloped nature, as one can easily be inspired by the ruins of ancient civilizations, a dazzling cityscape, or an unassuming row of well crafted houses. Even so, at times like those, the sense of connection to nature can be profound, and can contribute to a feeling of purpose or satisfaction in a life crafted by the unthinking, unplanning, and uncaring hand of evolution.
By late November the leaves are almost entirely off the trees. They are blown from the path unless the rain sticks them to it, but they blanket the forest floor. Looking up from the fallen leaves, the forest itself is now opening to exploration of both the eye and the body. The visual horizon expands and contributes a sense of grandeur to the environment. Expanding from various areas of the paved path is a network of poorly maintained dirt foot paths. Throughout the summer these trails are consumed by the forest. At best they are crowded by the dense undergrowth, and in many cases they are entirely lost to the forest. By late fall they are fully revealed, and indeed the whole forest opens to exploration in any direction, bounded only by the highway on one side and the river on the other. As the leaves fall away the forest is already starting to take on the starkness of winter which gives the forest a semblance of the kind of desolate beauty Abbey finds appealing in deserts. The lake will soon be covered with a shell of ice, snow will dust surfaces, and even the trees will creek and whistle and crack as the whole world seems to freeze. A crisp fall day or a balmy spring afternoon beings droves of people to the trial, but few are seen navigating the dormant and slippery world of the trail in winter. For me it is the highpoint of the trial’s year. As I wander through the forest, freed of restriction and utterly alone, it is the time when the wildness of the place is most evident and most encompassing.
The experiences of the lake and field, and similar experiences had at innumerous other spots throughout the landscape are emotionally satisfying. Their importance comes from the way the experience feels as it occurs. If, however, one wants to offer explanations or particular insights about the world from nature, myths can be constructed that take experience in nature as their basis. David Rains Wallace argues that old myths were founded on an archaic view of the world, and that in order to move forward, humanity must construct new myths based on its more advanced understanding of the natural world. Rather than “inflating our human consciousness,” by giving human characteristics to non-human creatures, these new myths would attempt to understand the non-human experience of life and discover in it ideas relevant to humanity (Wallace 935). Wallace focuses on living creatures, but also mentions that such things as a “symbiotic superconsciousness” he feels in the forest are “not outside scientific possibility” (935). I would expand this and argue that all of nature, and not merely those parts with consciousness, can be used to construct meaning through myth. These new myths are not fundamental truths deliberately expressed by some natural force. They are interpretations, and rather than discovering meaning in nature, humans are creating it. Keeping these limits in mind, such myths are valuable resources that help attribute meanings to life from the comical to the profound.
Eiseley, Dillard, and Thoreau each construct myths of this kind from their experiences of nature. Eiseley writes about coming across birds that spontaneous burst into song even as a raven sat among them, feasting on some of their offspring (491). He interpreted this song as a “judgment of life against death,” and used this natural event and the emotions it provoked within him to construct a lesson about life (Eiseley 491). Dillard recounts a story of a weasel that attached itself to an eagle that descended down to grab it. When the eagle was shot by a hunter, the “dry skull of a weasel was fixed by the jaws to his throat” (Dillard 877). Whatever happened to it, the weasel never let go. Dillard casts this event as a metaphor for living in the moment the way animals do, writing that it “would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure to grasp your one necessity and never let it go” (879). Like the weasel dangling from the eagle, she imagines letting your pure necessity pull you wherever it might, “till your eyes burn out and drop” and “your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields” (Dillard 879). Thoreau constructs a powerful myth when he writes that “[t]he sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities” (205). Having been inspired by the glory of the sunset, and in awe at its seemingly infinite, everlasting, and fundamentally equal presence, Thoreau is able to glean an egalitarian ideal from nature.
Having read and contemplated these new myths, I decided one Sunday in early November that I would write my own. I crafted it as a short poem:
The Stone Wall at Tagamore Swamp
No tame trail leads one there
Through wild rye and tangled brier,
Over paths unworn,
To the old stone wall
That weathers all.
A remnant of lost triumph;
The artifact of forgotten struggle.
When leaves ate wood
And thatch wore to soil,
Crops to seed,
And stock to feral,
It stood there still:
The old stone wall
That weathers all.
My essential point in the poem is the struggle between the human and non-human influences in wilderness areas. I chose to cast it as an old farm that was slowly eroded away by the forces of nature. The crops and animals melded into the wild environment as the house decayed. And yet I did not want to make it a simple story of nature conquering humanity. Rather, nature beats back at the most brazen environmental changes, but is unable to overcome the stone wall, a symbol of humanity’s improvement upon wild nature. A working and sustainable balance is found.
There is in reality no particular stone wall or any eroding farm I observed while writing the poem. Beyond not being called Tagamore Swamp, I’m not sure the small inundated areas of the park could even necessarily be considered a swamp. I did, however, write the poem on the path, and I believe that the atmosphere contributed significantly to the creative process. Thoreau wrote that a poet should “impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him,” and “derive” words “so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring who nailed words to their primitive senses” (196). I cannot say with any certainty how the poem would differ if I had written it sitting at my desk. I do believe, however, that being out there in some semblance of wilderness helped me generate the inspiration for the subject and especially the flow of the poem.
One morning I was observing the shapes of trees in the predominantly red oak area of the forest. The oaks came in every size from scarcely a few inches around, to one massive tree that is easily a yard in diameter. That tree, the giant red oak, has been endowed by humanity with the honor of its own plaque. Around it other trees seem to grow up in every conceivable spot, and fit their structure to whatever the environment will allow. One of the thinner oaks has a bow shaped trunk that starts to diverge into two halves around a nearly hollow center as it meets the ground. A thicker one begins with an enormous trunk that splits into three smaller trunks a few feet off the ground. There are branches that go straight up, and others that bend horizontally or down. Trees grow out of flat ground or emerge from hillsides with equal ability. Some even grow out of shallow streams and ponds with root structures exposed by the erosion of soil. While we have a platonic concept of a tree, every individual tree has a unique shape and structure. Each one is a record of the life of that organism and is its expression of adaptation to the environment.
As I stood among the oaks, noting their structures, I scrawled “trees grow where and how they can” into my notes. Confronted with the oppressive end of semester workload, it was comforting, or perhaps simply alluring, to observe a seeming flow and lack of stress in nature. After Eiseley observed the judgment of the birds, he writes that “the mind which was my human endowment was sure to question it and to be at me day by day with its heresies until I grew to doubt the meaning of what I had seen” (Eiseley 492). When I originally copied this observation into the outline of my essay I was assaulted by these same heresies. I thought to myself that it was too obvious, and besides, it might not even be correct; perhaps an evolutionary scientist would say that plant species fight fierce battles for their territory and the lesson should be exactly the opposite. But Eiseley is convincing, and I realized that it was true in at least one sense: the sense that it was the thought that the forest inspired within me at that moment. So I stand by it, putting my faith in this instance in my own personal experience of nature.
Wandering through a forest and contemplating trees and lakes is my own means of connecting with and experiencing nature. It may not appeal to everyone, and everyone should find their own way of expressing that desire by making the time to be present in nature, however broadly one might define that term. The experience of nature is important to living an authentic life, one that is not solely mediated by society’s norms and values. We all bring these things into nature of course, and our experience there is, and should be, a mixture of what we bring and what we find. It is what we find, though, that would be missing without those direct experiences. These mixtures of ideas from society and those derived from nature can form a new mythology that addresses questions science cannot reach, ultimately allowing us to construct our own meanings for life, what it means to be human, and humanity’s place in the world.
Dillard, Annie. “Living Like Weasels.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finchand John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 876-879.
—. “Total Eclipse.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. NewYork: Norton & Company, 2002. 880-891.
Eiseley, Loren. “The Judgment of the Birds.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 486-493.
Quinnipiac River Trail Advisory Committee of Wallingford. “Wallingford Oneida Community (Lake).” Informational display beside the trial, 2002.
Thoreau, Henry David. “From Walking.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 180-205.
Wallace, David Rains. “The Human Element.” The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Ed. Robert Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton & Company, 2002. 930-936.