Adventure, community, Outdoors

Think Global, Hike Local


You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.

– Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

With a little vacation away from work and my kiddo off canoeing at day camp, it’s time for a fix of woods.  I pull up Hiking Upward to find something near enough to hit in a few hours but far enough for solitude.

This is the goal: solitude.  And its accompanying quiet.

Humans are social creatures, sure, and we need to be in proximity to people as much for a sense of connection as for all the stuff — the supermarket and hospital, the auto mechanic and school.  To survive, we need to be in community.  Even so, too much proximity to too many others can take its toll.  The buzz of engines and clang of machines, the soundtrack of urban and suburban life, can jam the signals.  When I start to notice myself too focused on the clock and task list, too alert, too aware of every demand and every passing vehicle, I know it’s time to seek out a forest. Continue reading “Think Global, Hike Local”

Learning, Living in the Moment, Things I Can

55. Things I Can Attract: The Nameless Ones

A rogue yellow blossom has annexed the cilantro’s territory. The butter bright petals bob at the end of a stalk that’s bolted into white lace.

In a blink, the flower takes flight. It circles the railing and alights on the end a strand of Thai basil. Slender feathers flash golden black. The breeze coruscates leaf, stalk, bird, into a kaleidoscope of shapes falling together, spilling away.

I am far across the room. If I had missed that moment of flight, it could still be butterfly, bumblebee, invading weed. I step closer and see now that the bird is dipping the brush of its beak into a tiny violet thimble budding from the basil stem. Its vertical sips meet a circular breeze. The oblique collision jars this usually quiet corner of the garden.

My Audobon book is unopened on a shelf in the bedroom. When I head to the woods, I try to remember to pack it along with the wildflower guide and The Trees of North America. To be honest, the opportunity for a hike rarely presents itself these days. When one comes to fruition, it tends to be a scrap shim I jam in to shore up the edges of this teetering palafitte of responsibilities.

The last trip out, I was halfway to the mountains before realizing the hiking boots and trail food were sitting back by the front door at home. After a few detours, I was strolling through the meadows of a local nature preserve. Hungry and shod in busted sneakers, I found modest satisfaction in having brought my guidebooks. One told me that the fragrant flowering shrub bursting along the forest edge is called a Small White Rambling Rose.

This bird here may be an oriole. A finch. A butterwing, sunpincher, pinbrush. It could be Ramone for all I know. Taxonomies of my animal kingdom neighbors are as foreign to me as the musical notations of a zither. I try to step closer to see what I can discern about this fellow’s tail or shape, but he’s done with his snack and flits up, around, down to the concrete floor, up against the glass door, then off into the much bigger green shadowing this modest corner.

His name goes with him.

Or maybe he left it here with me, that odd marking made by someone who only imagines the scratch and heat inside a nest, who only wonders how the nectar of summer’s purple herb tastes against the tongue’s single song.

Change, Outdoors, Things I Can

21. Things I Can Unravel: Equanimity

We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie.

– Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

The sun rides in on the back of a fierce wind. Even though the equinox is just days from now, this taste of spring will slip away again tomorrow. Thank goodness. Winter is much safer.

The inevitability of change is worrisome. Buds unfurl and something in us pushes open. That something undoubtedly lacks the social grace to wait for an invitation. Who knows what will shatter? What will bruise? All of this is in the service of “growth.” What seems so lovely when talking garden metaphors is brutal when ripping old scar tissue to realign poorly set bones. It’s all a matter of location and scope, and so much is out of our hands.

I step out onto the scoured mud of the battlefield. The gusts whip through my hair. They bend the dog’s leash into a bow that moans like a cello string. I did not expect this violence in the air. We walk anyway, all 5 1/2 miles of swamp and field, in the last of winter’s glare. The dog leaps after grasshoppers, burying her nose in crackling grass.

With every step into relentless headwinds, I make my plans, rehearse my lines, catalog the tasks undone. Each thought is a scrap of debris stuck to the walls of my skull. Eventually, I remember to let the rushing air scrub the hull clean. I have to remember this over and over again.

The dog trots ahead, snuffles in damp leaves, falls back, prances up onto a berm. With one a paw raised, she surveys the thrashing field, alert for predator or prey in the brush. Down in the low wet, peepers sing and sing.

The sun creeps across the celestial equator. Under the vast and rippled blue, I walk blind into the next churning eddy. My skin thrills at the prying insistence of those gusts. Light snakes in under collar, hairline, wrist.

I am not ready for what’s coming.

I stride towards it anyway.

I gulp it down.

I howl back in its face.

Love, Relationships

Flushed and Fleshed

Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

So we stand in the low sun and try to flush out need with questions. As if need is the fat, slithering shush roiling the fallen leaves. As if words are the stick driving it to face us.

Smelling of mud and green apple candy, we lean against each other and try to flesh out need. As if our voices can give shape to something that may have just been a hiccup in the breeze.

I remember when love was a surging state. It had to rise up and flood the senses and then loving acts followed. Much like confidence. Like hope.

This was truth unexamined.

When does the possibility of bidirectional causation emerge? Is it when you grow up?

Or does seeing the relationship turn back on itself finally make you grow up?

Now I understand this: Act as if the capacity exists and you make it appear. You make it appear to be so, yes, and also to take shape, to arrive. Accumulate enough instances of contrived appreciation or optimism or boldness, and you become enamored. Hopeful. Brave.

Maybe like me, you don’t buy any of it. You’re sure you are fooling yourself and it might all come crashing down. Maybe you sort of wish you believed your choices are good ones and could possess the kind of conviction that clarifies each subsequent decision. Maybe you sort of envy the positive thinkers (upbeat or certain or — worse yet — both).

Like me, maybe you suspect the equanimity that must accompany conviction will never balm your fears. Indeed, doubt may itch at you until the day you die.

Face it. You are too far gone for faith. Or maybe too much here. You would never seal those doors lining the corridors of perception. A mind that knows (knows!) it is always missing something only needs a pinhole to chase light to its source. Your curiosity is the thrumming, silver string. It is one note that strikes at your key. You could no more still it than you could give up sight. Or sex. Or speech.

Like me, you want to move towards something. Like you, I want to stop moving and be.

We pause and hold the map between us. We start to draw along the contours. Instantly, the delineation becomes a perimeter. A boundary.

Even just tracing a route with our voices, we hedge.

Precision is folly. Orderly sequence is illusion.

Because the trail we choose forks. It always does. Yellow blazes then green and then maybe none at all. And here is a river, and here is a burl on a dying oak in the shape of a devil with a broken horn. Here is a sound like a creaking open door. Here is the shush, the movement at the edge of sight, the tunnel out from under the bounds (the bonds) we trusted held us to this place, and this place to the earth.

We lean against each other, word as breath drawing need.

Drawing it out. Filling it in.

We decide it is in fact a snake. With nothing more to go on than a single word from me, you step into the now-still leaves. I sense it. You name it. We add it to a collection that includes a single yellow butterfly and five slender minnows darting from their shade.

Today’s choice is the only one.

To you, I hold.

Like you to me.



Giovanni and I keep our cameras handy. We want to capture the cool Allegany waters and the dripping tamarack boughs. He turns the lens on me. I cringe. In those frozen moments, I can see how tired my eyes looked. How stained my shirt, how disheveled the campsite, how absent my son. Giovanni laughs and just shakes his head. “You’re beautiful, baby.” He glances at the photo in the camera then grins up me. “That is a good looking woman.”
In the archive of forever ago live photographs of the first weeks Bug was home, nursing at my breast. Wedding photos. Christmas pictures with Tee and Bug and me in the Colorado forest, cutting our own scraggly pine. Tired eyes there, too, and bright and distant and everything in between.
I ask Giovanni to keep taking photos. I know better than to let vanity scrub history of its texture. Still, it is hard to look at the images of this north country camping trip without feeling a bit of remorse. Where is the open face of a girl with no bitter seed tucked inside her cheek?

Every time you raise a camera to your eye you’re composing a picture – the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a conscious or sub-conscious decision about what you want to include in the picture. – Lee Frost

Begin again. Turn the head. Unhitch, release the remains of the gift freely given but poorly maintained. Gone, the days playing in the mountain creek with the tiny minnows flitting past my little boy’s ankles. Gone, too, the tulips curled deep in their bulbs beneath December frost along the hand-made fence. Gone is everything before.
Giovanni and I walk on.
The residue of a recent conversation with Tee still dusts my skin. We were chatting about their father-son adventures: fishing trips, air show excursions, visiting the tall ships in the Baltimore harbor. Tee is a fun daddy. “I can’t give him the childhood I had,” Tee explained. “So I have to make the best of what is here.” Resignation. A touch of martyrdom. I could almost hear the quiet, cresting cheers at Tee’s strength. The truth is, I listen for them myself when I speak of settling for less in order to provide stability for my son. This is the attitude of survivors.
Is that what we are doing? Surviving? If we start with the premise that we are handicapped, then our fortitude is certainly a strength. I hear the father of my son hint at disadvantage, and I think (quietly, because I am learning to hold my tongue), This pulsing place? The nation’s capital? The diversity of experience and background in every neighborhood? The colleges and museums and historic battlefields? The curry and pho? The political stage? The assembled masses? All of this is a shortage?
Bug’s childhood is not deficient. He is missing nothing at all. Nevertheless, it won’t be long before Bug believes he lacks the golden ticket if we believe he does. The kid is sharp, but it does not take a sixth sense to sniff out the secret Tee and I both carry: we have fallen short. We have not provided our boy with what he should rightfully have. The odor of failure clings to us both. We do not believe we have done enough, that we give him enough. Something is “supposed” to be better, or more, or different.
In another context, Giovanni once suggested that a shift away from wanting and towards appreciating might help us see each other a little better. When we pause to notice the composition of the object before zeroing in on its flaws, something good has room to grow.
Where I aim my gaze determines more than a single point of view. Bug will learn to orient his attention by watching the grownups in his life. Do I want to apprentice my son to a taxonomist of shortcomings? It seems a wiser course to teach him to identify the call of a whip-poor-will from its perch on a cedar’s low shoulder.

. . . by using different lenses, choosing your viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to capture on film, it’s possible to create successful compositions every time. – Lee Frost

In the snapshot of Bug’s life today, here is what I choose to see:

  • Two homes.
  • A mom and a dad.
  • A lop-eared dog.
  • Woods near his house with pricker bushes and a creek and all kinds of ways to get lost.
  • Public parks, public libraries, and some of the best public schools in the country.
  • Books splitting the frames of shelves in his rooms.
  • Parents who read to him every night.
  • Road trips and campfires.
  • Healthy food in abundance.
  • Quiet time.
  • Neighbor kids who ride bikes up and down the cul-de-sac.
  • Three sets of grandparents who make room for him.
  • A cozy bed.
  • Songs in his repertoire.
  • Questions galore.
  • A floor onto which he can pour his tired body when he wants the world to stop.
  • Dreams about pirate ships.
  • Climber’s legs.
  • Dancer’s feet.
  • Paper and markers, glitter and glue.
  • Wonder.
  • Grit.
  • Anger and sadness and sweet, tender kisses.
  • One bad joke about a duck.

Tee says he cannot give Bug the childhood he had. He is more right than he knows. A childhood is not ours to give. In fact, Bug does not have a “childhood” at all. He has a life. His own. This very one.
As long as I am living with wishes that things could be more X and less Y, and as long as I carry the burden of loss, then I model for my child the fine art of holding off on joy until real happiness comes along.
Begin again. Turn the head.
All we need is right here.
Circumstances will change, of course. We will seek new doors down corridors we have not yet explored due to blindness, fear, or simple chance. But a belief in adaptation and expansion does not require us to disparage the now. We can love possibility while also wrapping our arms around this very whole moment, draw it close to our hearts, and shiver in awe at the perfect fit. So complete, this day, this configuration of things, this this.

The fact is you’ll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find, but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different angles you’ll never know the alternatives. Sometimes all it takes is a slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition. – Lee Frost

As Giovanni and I walk the trail through the northern woods, I make a promise out loud. When I see a photo, I will find something in it to like. It is a simple act. The practice, I have learned, has a way of revealing the path. In every snapshot, seek something that opens the eyes. Appreciate the image as evidence of riches. Find the pulse. Land the gaze there and call forth the living yes.

Lee Frost Photography.


Floral Tradition

I told him I do not like cut flowers.
Colombian workers, pennies per hour, chemicals baths,
pick your poison.
Porn is no fun
when all you can think is
Those poor girls.
In autumn, he brought a cutting of lavender
dried and dropping a cascade of violet nibs
all over the bedroom floor.
It came from a local farm
where it had been put up in the rafters last spring.
At our first dusting of snow,
he wound silk ribbon in purple and blue
around a taped stem
until it became two roses
fastened in place with pins.
In February, when other women in the office
received their fragrant splashes
carried in on cargo planes from sunnier places,
he set upon my desk a Dracaena
in a pot of soft soil,
its minute trunk grown from infancy
in the shape of a heart.
When April became summer,
he plodded, sleep-deprived and stomach growling,
on a winding trail along a creek
because I asked.
I saw a spray of white blossoms
but walked on because he needed to eat.
He stopped for me. Planted his feet.
“Come look at your flowers,” he said.
I did. Sugared petals threaded with candy floss.
He motioned to the purple ones and bent to help with those.
Spring Beauties.
Wild Sweet William.
Blue Creeping Phlox.

My collection grows.
Alongside his,
the names bloom
from my tongue.

Living in the Moment, Outdoors

Maiden Name

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Tao Te Ching

In Shenandoah, the first of the wildflowers are beginning to open. A few eager trees lead the pack, popping with pastel confetti. We walk slowly, the dog in tow. Coming here was a last-minute plan for a lazy Sunday. Giovanni’s pack is perfectly provisioned, as always. He has brought not only water and mixed nuts, but a first aid kit, toilet paper, and a knife. Should we end up stuck here a few extra hours, he has a flashlight and an emergency radio.
My pack contains two Audubon guides and a single wilted band-aid. The latter makes a passable bookmark. Also, I remembered my boots.
On the way up the Compton Gap trail, we spot the first of the small purple blossoms tucked into the crevices of the cool rocks. I am fairly certain of their name, but I stop anyway. Flipping through my wildflower book, I find a matching description. With their fifth petal a pointed tongue, violets are almost impossible to mistake for anything else. Among the earliest arrivals in the Appalachian chain, they are poorly hidden Easter eggs, peeking up from random turns in the trail.
At an outcrop, we drop our packs and peel off our fleece jackets. The sun has joined us, brushing against the early leaves. Many trees are still bare-knuckled, fighting a pointless battle against a forgiving sky. One, however, is feathered in a cloud of snowy blossoms that spring from a clutch of slender trunks. She is probably more accurately called a shrub, but since she stands as tall as any of the surrounding oaks, she deserves the more robust title. She seems to think so, too, puffing herself out over the edge of the mountain. Neither her more staid companions nor the wide-open pull of gravity intimidate the brazen thing.
I try to find the tree-shrub in my book, seeking out “white radially symmetrical blossoms.” Her leaves are still embryonic while her slender petals insist on their pull towards day. They are long and translucent tissues, five to a blossom, veined with cracks that make them appear both newborn and wizened.  I cannot find the tree despite trying to match the thin, vertical striations of her bark and the dried leaves below to the photos in the glossy pages. She clearly exists, and it tickles me to imagine I have beaten John Audubon to the pleasure of an introduction. One last time, I look into the yellow-tipped stamens and the blushing bud where the petals grip the branch. The tree is herself. Her greeting of the sun is no less bright for the absence of a name.
Above, an airplane grumbles past, then another. They are high enough in the thin streak of clouds to be invisible, but their whine echoes against the valley and does not end, not for one breath during our extended moment on the mountain. We rest there on the exposed rock, stretching pores and bone. Giovanni has stashed a surprise in his bottomless pack. We share a piece of chocolate cake, taking slow, melting bites.
Down the path, we stop again. Where a trickle of water slicks the rocks dark, more bright clusters shoulder their way through the soil. I park myself on the side of the trail and bend close. The tiny blossoms are no bigger than my pinkie nail. They are white. Even the centers with their aurora of hair-like petals are white. The stems, a furred and frosted green, stand in close bunches with an explosion of flowers at the end of each. Giovanni a little further up the hill. I am worried he is bored, but he tells me to take my time. He steps closer and leans in. “That one?” he asks, glancing between page and blossom.  “No,” he says, answering his own question. “This one is too white in the middle. It’s not as fuzzy, either.” He rests on his haunches, holding the lead as Fenway snuffles in the damp soil. After a few quiet passes, I close the book and shrug.
“Maybe it’s a wildflower,” he tells me.
“Yeah, a wildflower.” We begin walking again. At the crossroads where the Compton Gap spur crosses the Appalachian Trail, a small marbling of grayish white appears at our feet.
“What’s that?” Giovanni asks. This time, he is the first to crouch. I join him. Our foreheads touching, we gaze at the alien flower. It is a midget, milky and bulbous and growing in the low shade. It is nothing anyone would call “beautiful.” Small shoots of the simultaneously spiked and rounded flower push through the moss. We gaze together, naming what we see before we even open the book.

“It is sort of pink underneath.”
“The stalk is furry.”
“The leaves are ovals. See the veins? And they are spread out on the ground.”
We count the seeds, if that is what they are. Finally, I pull out the guide and we leaf through the pages. “No,” he murmurs. “Uh, uh. Keep going.” Then, he cries, “That one!” His shout gets the dog’s attention. She trots over, ears up. All three of us hover between flower and page.
“Plantain-leaf Pussytoes,” I read.
He chuckles. “Pussytoes.” I turn to the page with the description and as I read it out, Giovanni touches the flower, nodding as the particulars of the living thing fall into line with the words describing it. “That’s it,” he says.
We are up, a second wind carrying down the final stretch of the trail towards the car. I am giddy about the flower and its name. “We found one!”
“Two,” he corrects. “That bluebell thing, too.”
“Blue violet,” I say.
We have found nothing, of course, nothing but a series of letters in a book corresponding with what is right in front of us. Why does it satisfy so well, this puzzle and its specious solution? Why are we so compelled to bend in close and inspect the organs of a small, gray seed pod, and to describe it with such precision?
Vision cares nothing for beauty. It cares even less for the confines of language. The eye’s only pleasure is in gazing intently at a thing and painting the edges into memory, rubbing light against husk until a shape appears.Looking closely confirms what we know in our uneasy hearts: every incarnation both clings to and recoils from the earth itself. Borders bleed away. Shrub, stone, seed, sun: each works its component parts into the soles of our retreating boots, catching a lift to someplace entirely new so it can become something entirely different. We take comfort in image as it fades into name, then legend, then just a phantom whispering at the limits of memory. Meanwhile, the living thing has not only forgotten us, it is already gone.