I encountered no one on the hike up, and this allowed me to more fully immerse into the environs. I was pleasantly surprised that despite not hiking for several months my legs were up to the ascent. A sense of peace steadily washed over and through me. I became aware how much I missed the familiar trail and multi-sensory forest experience. The steady rains this summer had nurtured a solid canopy of rich green foliage that kept me cool and in shade. Chickadees and nuthatches chattered and a few woodpeckers could be heard tapping away. I noticed my breathing adapted to the pace of my steps. I enjoyed the slight challenge of stepping over decades-old roots and small rocks. I recognized a couple of landmark boulders like familiar friendly faces I hadn’t seen in a long time.
I felt a presence in these woods, I suppose mostly from the trees. It’s a peculiar, hard to define sensation. The soil isn’t especially rich, mostly shallow and rocky, and so lots of the trees are a foot or less in diameter; a few are double that size. Occasionally in my life I’ve felt the power of a particularly large tree — especially potent in old growth forests — but this morning what I felt was not that. It was more like a communal energy emanating from these hillsides. It is impossible to walk in a forest left to its natural course and not come upon hanging limbs here and there, fallen trees, decaying stumps, fungi, moss, and sprouting saplings. The full process of life is conspicuously on display. And prodding our other senses as well with scents of pine or decomposing wood, the texture of smooth bark we and a thousand others have grasped to round a switchback, and even the varied feel of moss, sandy patches, mud, or pine needles crushed beneath our step.
Though savoring the trail, my mind floated to recent news of yet another friend’s passing. Does the opening of our hearts after losing a loved one make us more sensitized to the death of others? Are we as a culture insensitive to death? Do we act this way to avoid dealing with it because we are so lousy at facing it? Unlike the obvious cycles of life in a forest, it often feels like our culture wants us to deny that aging even occurs. If we remove convenient yet quaint ideas of an afterlife provided by our dominant religions, are a cynical atheism or a clinical adherence to “science” the only alternative? I don’t have answers; I only know I sometimes sense an awareness that transcends my experiences.
As I made my way to the top, I noticed a young doe very near the trail calmly, innocently, munching on some greenery. Even as I stopped and stared, it continued, life eating life, listening intently, ready to spring, yet delightfully unafraid. We may not be able to articulate everything we know in words. But somehow, our brief encounter and exchange of presences, our communion, for me felt deeply reassuring.