My feet were wettest in the deep leaf-litter. The snaredrum patter of rain on leaf pervaded, echoing through the mind chambers until no possibility of a world apart from it existed. The frequent puddles were easy enough to dodge, but when the trail sank into small gullies, last fall's oak and maple and beech became a half foot of slippery brown carpet, the chill of moisture seeping through my running shoes slowly, measurably.
That it was Marathon Monday, Patriot's Day in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, only added to the swift-arriving knowledge that I was exactly where I needed to be. Home again in the ever-welcoming womb of the old eastern hills, bearing witness to the ageless progression of early spring. The Canada geese and a great blue heron on Plum Pond next to my parents' house, barred owls raucous through my open window at night, each day a sharper raw odor of skunk cabbage in the woods, more of its prehistoric yellow-green and eggplant-speckled flowers sprouting through the soil.
Just beneath the Horse Caves of Daniel Shays – as true a New England Patriot as ever was – I stumbled upon, almost literally, the surest regional symbol of the season yet: a red eft. The bright orange, diamond-spotted juvenile stage of the eastern newt, two inches from head to tail, brilliant as a student's dropped marker, highlighting the brown pages of the forest's spring text. I paused, leaned down close to the salamander, tempted of course to pick it up, to complete the sensory extravaganza, to feel the cold stick of its delicate flanks across my fingers. But no one has picked me up against my will during the latest change in my life cycle. In Coming into the Country, one of John McPhee's magnanimous counterparts refuses to fish the wild rivers of northern Alaska, weary of “take-and-put fishing” and wondering “what kind of day a fish will have after spending some time on a hook.” I left the red eft alone and pushed on, through the tight gap in the old cave-band, up foggy Mt. Norwottuck. The summit view was a mystical deception, the front enveloping the settled valley below, naught but the hardwood blanket and dark stands of pine and spruce visible before the sea of cream-cloud, enough to make one believe himself, momentarily, amidst a vast wilderness.
The day was far from the mild, pastel-hued imaginings of nostalgia’s April. Steady rain, thermometer stuck on 48. The temptation of an afternoon on the couch with the book I'd just started (McPhee) had been significant. Despite the excitement of accepting an offer to attend graduate school in Montana in the fall, I was in a bit of a funk, to be honest. Montana sounded great, but I was not there right now and August remained a long way off. I was barely a week returned to the understated landscape of the East and I already missed the jagged clarity and drama of the West. I missed the New Mexico sky, missed my friends there and elsewhere. But wallowing had certainly never helped me before: if I was going to run the Seven Sisters 20k in two weeks, it was well past time to begin something like a training regimen.
Midway through the run, ascending a steep, leaf-padded stretch of trail, the metaphor arrived, as they often do in strenuous moments. I recalled a passage in the book I'd just finished, All the Wild that Remains, David Gessner's new study of Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the current state of the American West. While the regionally-revered authors espoused very different approaches to environmental protection, both were men of action, staunchly opposing the writer's trap of remaining content and aloof on the sidelines, narrating and commentating with the pen from the comforts of the book-lined study. “One brave act is worth a thousand books” wrote Abbey, the anarchist, the burner of billboards and pourer of sugar into bulldozers. Stegner, committed to the notion that a just and sustainable American culture was still possible, sat through long meetings and authored proposals to protect wildlands. “The highest thing I can think of doing is literary,” he wrote. “But literature does not exist in a vacuum.”
“Cold-eyed clarity,” is the virtue Gessner ascribes to Stegner. And Abbey possessed his own version, too. Both men knew the realities of their region and its recent history of abuse, and they fought like hell to improve its future. Now, as Gessner concludes, with climate change altering the arid west more aggressively than anywhere else, our populace has never needed a stiff injection of these authors' “cold-eyed clarity” more. “Stegner understood the necessity of hope,” Gessner writes, “but in the end knew that cold-eyed clarity was more important.” Do not mistake him – or Stegner – for asserting that the two are mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are interdependent: one has no foundation for hope without a clear understanding of reality.
And the reality is this: we are in the thick of the woods, the changing. The rain is falling, cold and steady, the trail to the ridge ahead most certainly uphill. We cannot wish or deny it away and return to the rosy days of the past. If we are to run this race – truly the race of our time, and of our children and grandchildren's – there is nothing to do but lean into the cold, clear our eyes, and put our best foot forward, one stride at a time, wet shoes and all.
We may even stumble upon some surprising orange inch of beauty along the way.
|"Eastern red-spotted newt" by Bruce Lucas.|