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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

In Other Words: Just How Isolated Are We? It's Complicated Being A Human. Relearning A Basic Truth.

Trailhead for the North Country Trail. 

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The other day we took a long walk in the woods following a segment of the multi-state North Country Trail in northwest Michigan.  

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It was wonderfully quiet. The fragrance of the red pine forest was intensified by the morning sun. The northern ferns grew as tall as my chest. The birds chirped. The wind rustled the canopy of leaves. There was the distinct lack of human created sounds. Life was good.

We spooked a few deer as we began. We saw only their white tails bob back into the forest. The silence returned. They are quite the opposite of our resident city deer that just about eat out of your hand. 

We didn’t see or hear anyone. In fact, we drove for miles to the trailhead and really didn’t see anyone. No one was on the trail. We didn’t see any utility poles, concrete, or signs of modern life in the forest. We were isolated - alone. Or were we? And that got me thinking about connections. 

This particular trail is part of a much longer trail system. According to the website, “The North Country National Scenic Trail is the longest in the National Trails System, stretching 4,700 miles across eight states from North Dakota to Vermont, traversing forests and farmlands, remote terrain and nearby communities.” Part of the trail skirts the Cincinnati area. 

That’s when my cell phone dinged. Friends were a few counties away and wanted to get together for dinner. I quickly made the arrangements and continued my hike. I checked a trails app to find our place on the planet. I took a few photos. I took deep breaths of the northern air, took in as many shades of green as I could, felt the sandy soil beneath my boots, and drank from my water bottle. Life was good here in the forest. We were isolated but we were not alone. The overhead web of wireless communication made sure of that.

My wife on the trail.

There is an order in the deep woods. The canopy of the red pines, birches, and scattered hardwoods provide protection for the rich undergrowth of ferns and wild flowers. The water flowed along streams to collection points in natural ponds and lakes. Beavers built lodges and lived their good life. Animal ate and spread seeds. Trees grew food. Water and sunshine kept it alive. I was the interloper and I tried to blend in, but I would always be the odd man out. But still I wondered.

I thought about a fairly recent favorite book, On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. In it he writes, “We are born to wander through a chaos field. And yet we do not become hopelessly lost, because each walker who comes before us leaves behind a trace for us to follow.” That’s a true metaphor about the trail and life. And so I followed the trail, the blue blazes, set by others. The trail was easy to follow thanks to previous hikers.  Our walk lead tree to tree to tree. Many feet had worn the path. Many more will walk it. But here I am walking on the past and wearing a path for the future all the while trying to live in the present. It’s complicated being a human.

Blue blazes mark the trail.

These plants and animals live cooperatively and competitively under the protective umbrella of the forest canopy. We live under our own canopy creation, what we perceive as a protective umbrella of wires and satellite communication. Ant to a degree, it provides what we need to find our way and to stay connected. Just as the trail leads us forward and backwards, our human webs to do the same. Research proved that the forest has its own powerful web growing underground. We have our world wide web above; the forest has its wood wide web below. 

We live under an umbrella of electric wires and a wireless network of towers and satellites. We are never alone. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are alone when we are part and parcel, part of a greater whole, never in the center, above, or below. We are a data point. But in the forest we are at peace with our place on the planet and that was a gift.

We think we are alone, that we grow on our own, that we are individuals, that we are above and beyond the natural world. The truth is that we are all connected. We have a shared interest in the survival and success of others. 

And as hard as I tried to record my thoughts, emotions, and the details of the day,  I become hopelessly inarticulate as soon as I returned to the asphalt highway. I don’t know if we have the right vocabulary to describe the deep connection that we experience when we are in the deep forest.  

None of these trees was alone. They stand as a group. The undergrowth relies on the protection of the higher canopy. Connections are made underground. Plants, animals, and insects, and soil are all part of the quilt of an intricate world. And here I am following a trail stitched across that fabric. “We move through this world on paths laid down long before we are born,” Moor wrote in his book. That point has been made by poets, philosophers, and parents through the ages.

I keep going back to what John Muir observed, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Everything is connected. This is the truth that we need to learn again and again on a trail in a forest. 

A beaver lodge in a pond. 


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