A Year on Trail 3: February

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In your average year, an extra day of February would be enough to make you want to stay in bed.  But this February in southern Indiana just skipped on by like a small girl on a spring day, and if February is like this, one more day is just fine.  The forboding part is that perhaps this February is a harbinger of many February’s to come.  Mild and pleasant, but with dire consequences come August.   Nonetheless, this extra last day of February found me on Trail 3 again in Clifty Falls State Park.

What I saw:

There is green on Trail 3 now, but there was green before.  The color of spring at this time of year is more red than green.  From a distance, and sometimes up close as well, the beginnings of buds on the trees look red.  You could see it in an apple orchard along side the road and in the trees in Clifty yesterday.  This reddening and the appearance of the tiny buds that goes along with it are too small for my inadequate camera to capture, but one treeling had already moved on from buds to the miniature beginnings of green leaves.  One another treeling, the red buds waved around on the end of a stem of red growth that was at least 3 inches long.  How long had it taken the tree to produce those 3 inches?  A day?  A week?  All winter long?

What I heard:

Water.  Lots of it.  Very early yesterday morning, many of us around here woke to the sound of a clap of thunder that shook the house foundations.  And it takes a lot to shake the foundation of a 170 year old house.  With the thunder came the kind of rain that knocks against your windows like someone whose angry and wants to get in more than it falls from the sky.  An aggressive kind of rain, and though it was over by the time I found myself on Trail 3, you could still hear it down in the bottom of the canyon, tumbling over the falls…making falls in places along the side of the canyon where you’d usually not see any.  Water falling everywhere, and the roaring sound that makes.

On Trail 3 yesterday, I was struck by the fact that what I’m dealing with here is, in fact, a canyon.  Valley doesn’t really cover it.  Valley implies gentle slopes, the kind of incline you might be able to roll down.  An area that is certain sheltered and walled in, but perhaps you could still walk in a straight line up from the floor of the valley to the top of the ridge.  Trail 3 takes you into a canyon; there’s no going straight down.  And today I was struck by the sheer height as you’re standing at the beginning of the trail to the water of the creek far, far below.  It’s not the Grand Canyon, but canyon-y it is all the same.  Water doesn’t make noise like that in a valley.  It does in a canyon.

What I felt:

The proximity and warmth of the sun.  The sun shines in winter, but do you really feel it?  The bedroom in my husband’s old house had several windows, and in the winter you could lay on the bed and actually feel the warmth of the sun.  But you had to think about it.  You had to reach out for it, feel around for the warmth.  If in December the touch of the sun on your face is like the soft hair on a baby’s head brushing against your cheek, on the last day of February it’s gotten close enough to feel like fingertips.  By March, it will be like someone holding your face in their two hands, but on a particularly warm day like yesterday, you could feel the sun beginning to lean in for a caress.  And by August, we’ll feel like we’ve had too much of its affection altogether.

What I smelled:

Spring.  Just spring.  Which is not to say spring’s here in any permanent kind of way, but it came by to check things out yesterday.  What does spring smell like?  Nothing like an air freshener or a fabric softener.  Something like the temperature, which climbed to 67 degrees yesterday.  I’ve been on Trail 3 when it’s wet, but this is the first time this year I’ve been there when it’s wet and warm.  Wet and warm smells distinctly different.

What else does spring smell like?  Dirt, but not freshly plowed dirt in a field.  Wet leaves, but not the wet leaves of fall.  Rain, but also more than rain.  Musty, messy, wriggling, and alive.  That’s what spring smells like.  I would like to be a connoisseur of outside smells, able like wine experts to identify all the different elements that make up the bouquet that is spring.  And like a wine expert, able to differentiate between the smell of spring on Trail 3 in February, compared to the smell of spring on Trail 3 in April.  Or the smell of spring in Clifty, compared to the smell of spring down by the river, or in my backyard, or in our plot at the community of garden.  I would like to be able to take a long deep whiff, stick my nose into the bowl of the outdoors and come away saying something like, “Dirt made of leaf and tree humus with a little bit of rain water and the faintest bouquet of grass and creek rock.  Delicious!”

What I thought:

Here’s something my camera was actually able to capture.  As I sat on one of the stone steps that leads down into the canyon, my attention was drawn to the trees growing alongside the trail and the letters that have been carved into these trees by various park goers.  A few of the carvings are deep and still very visible.  But many of them have already begun to be displaced and distorted by the ongoing growth of the tree.  And then it occurred to me to look farther up the trunk, where the older carvings would have been.  The farther you look up the trunk, the less distinct they become, fading into almost nonexistent ripples on the surface of the tree trunk.  The higher you looked, the smoother the bark became.  Years of attempts by people walking along Trail 3 to immortalize their love or their presence or their existence were already gone.

Sitting there, I thought about this strange ongoing battle between the humans wandering along Trail 3 and the trees who stay there.  We try to carve a place for ourselves onto the surface of those trees, and with time, gently but inevitably, the trees shrug off our attempts.  There’s nothing malicious about it.  Nothing intentional about it at all.  But slowly and surely, our presence is erased all the same.

It’s the kind of battle you need to have a sense of humor about.  I feel certain if the trees could talk to us about it, they would be smiling, if not laughing at us.  It is, of course, a lesson in impermanence, but a lighthearted one.  A quiet one.  A beautiful one.

I didn’t go very far on Trail 3 yesterday, but luckily you don’t have to go very far to learn a great deal.

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