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By Jessi Uran

I rummage through an old backpack in the trunk of my car. What a mess back here. Camping blankets, a few bins to take to Goodwill. Ah, there it is. I grab my fleece that was resting on a piece of “art” I purchased weeks ago at Home Goods. The red clearance sticker is still stuck in the upper right-hand corner, half peeled from when I impatiently tried to scratch it off. The quote that enticed me, centered over an image of faded trees, reads:

“Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

That’s John Muir. Naturalist and conservationist. Father of our national parks. A life devoted, as one biographer put it, to “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

All a little easier said than done, John, I whisper, shoving the Home Goods bag to the side. Home Goods. A store designed to keep my attention anywhere but on the woods.

I check my wallet for some extra change. Enough for a cup of coffee later. I didn’t dare make coffee at home. The plaster walls of our “house with charm” would send the caustic whirr of grinding beans through every wooden floorboard and wake my sleeping family. It’s not that I don’t want to see or talk to them yet, I told myself. But it’s also just that I don’t want to see or talk to them yet.

I shut the trunk and fill the tank. The early hour is quiet and still but already my mind and heart are loud and harried. Any onlooker would see a middle-aged woman pumping gas. But inside? Inside is a mind marathon of Olympic proportions. Pathways and synapses have been engrained to quickfire as soon as my feet hit the floor. Such well-worn paths. Circuits paved by unbridled worry and the weighty responsibilities of all the things I feel I must DO.

Set up calendar meeting … review budget deadline … print recipe … make grocery list … set up oil change … cancel subscription … catch up on podcast … RSVP to invite … email back … text back … call back … catch up on study … look up weather.

Sixties and overcast. Good. Hiking in the heat is a discipline all its own. This morning is a welcome respite to the humid tem-

The gas pump handle pops. Tank’s full. I finish, turn the key and drive. The radio is on, but I don’t really hear it. I’m listening to something else, a station I never remember tuning to and that most days I forget to shut off. It continually emits frequencies like: thaw the chicken … dust the fans … order the checkbooks … prepare the lesson … bleach the toilet.

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

• • • 

Twenty-five minutes later, I park … and marvel that I’ve arrived at yet another location where I don’t remember the process of getting there. While I gather my keys, I argue with myself about whether to make a veggie tray for a staff function or buy one. Which commodity is more important, time or money?

Then I open the car door.

A strong, fall breeze whips strands of hair across my face. I inhale the aroma of dirt and decaying leaves. I am snapped out of my veggie platter trance. The scent of the woods acts as a smelling salt to my psyche.

I breathe again, eyes closed. Another strong gust of wind. I zip up my fleece and the burr oaks overhead clap their leaves in rippled waves. The bending trees beckon me to the trail covered in moss and acorns and scattered leaves. I smile.

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

• • •

The birds are wide awake this morning. They call to one another and share languages I do not know. I pick up a leaf. Veiny and battered. I think of my high school biology teacher.

Mr. Beckman always struck me as an odd sort of man, with a belly round and taut against the same style button-up oxford shirt he wore every day. Teaching at a private school was no lucrative job to be sure. And while he was constantly writing up students and sending them to after-school detention, he did possess a certain charm. He loved what he taught. And he tried to love us best by teaching us to be fellow learners.

“I’m not going to spoon feed you this information for the test,” he’d always say. “You’re going to need to glean it yourselves. Nowadays everything is spoon fed to kids. Far be it from me to do the same.”

I never took him too seriously back then. But now—36 on a fall morning and remembering things from 10th grade biology class—well, he wasn’t so odd at after all.

I walk beneath a canopy of trees and remember my old notebook, littered with countless drawings and diagrams Mr. Beckman would have us make. I see the maple leaf and remember its food-making process. How most everything the tree needs for food is made in the cells of a leaf, all of which contain chlorophyll that gives them their green pigment. My mind retrieves more old files: factors like daylight, temperature and water tell the tree winter is coming, so its leaves know to conserve their energy and stop making food. This ceasing production of chlorophyll starts showcasing other pigments within the leaf. I even recall the “leaf scar,” where each stem seals itself off from the tree and allows the leaf to drop rather than require any further nutrients.

A fellow hiker approaches. I can see from a distance that he is older. Binoculars swing from his neck and he uses a walking stick. His pace slows as he approaches, so I slow mine. We smile, say hello and exchange ritualistic pleasantries about the cooling weather. He remarks what a “fine morning we’ve been given” and tells me to look out on the trail ahead. “Lots of mud from all the rains,” he says.

All the rains. I think on this as we part.

• • •

Last week, Ellen told me about the specific types of trees here at Severson Dells. She is a strong-hearted woman, with kind eyes and silvery gray-and-white hair, most often tucked under a bandana. Ellen was the director for my daughter’s nature camp this summer. She does not know this, but because she encouraged my daughter’s imagination, taught her about plants and bugs and sent her home to me with dirt under her fingernails and waterlogged creek shoes, I harbor great love for her.

I asked her what kinds of color we would get this autumn. She wasn’t sure. She’s seen a lot of leaves simply dropping already, or turned brown. She said it had to do with the amount of stress they’ve been under this year.

Stress?

Indeed. Over the past year they’ve experienced great extremes–times of intense, dry heat and times of heavy rain that has left them waterlogged. She spoke of last year’s polar vortex and how no blanket of snow for insulation meant the roots took the brunt of the elements.

I look at the trees above me now. I see golds and reds, but also lots of browns. Dead leaves are scattered on the ground everywhere.

So often I have come here in fall, expecting golds and coppers and rubies to be thrown at my feet, a fiery splendor all for my own visual entertainment. But Ellen tells me of a barren beauty that I did not expect. The trees know they have neither the energy nor the luxury of time to end food production slowly. They know what needs to happen in order to preserve and protect. They must let go. And in so doing, they do not apologize for their barrenness or their scars.

• • • 

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

I’ve walked the trails now for near an hour?

It is hard to say.

Time moves differently here.

I tread steadily past

Shagbark hickory, hackberry and black cherry

White oak, burr oak

Black walnut.

Lost in the poetry of their names,

I revel in their company.

I owe them nothing

other than that I am simply here.

To BE.

• • •

In this restful, breathing state, I find myself back at the car. Every hike seems to end too soon.

I hold my coffee now and sit near the espresso machine. The shop door opens often. Friends exchange hellos. A man pours over a newspaper. The drink is warm in my hand and tastes like flowers and chocolate when I sip it slowly. Why have I never noticed this before? My comings and goings here are so rushed between pick-ups, drop-offs or scheduled meetings. What else have I been missing?

I watch people come and go and feel the pull back to my own world. I cannot live in the woods like John Muir any more than I can live in coffee shops like Hemingway. But this pull is not unwelcome. I’m returning as someone different than when I set out.

My family greets me in the driveway with hugs and tales of their daddy/daughter pancake date. My leaving now and then is just as good for them as it is for me.

Before heading inside, I pop the trunk and grab the picture frame.

After a little dish soap and patience, the clearance sticker is gone.

I hang Muir’s words next to our bathroom sink.

 

I understand them a little better now.

• • •

Photos by Jim Killam


Want to take a special hike or two this fall? We have recommendations.

 

 

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Sherry Nelson
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Sherry Nelson

Soooo good Jessi. Thank you. Your writing produces a beautiful descriptive visual imagery of a walk in the woods and it encourages me to slow down and take one!

Peggy Sawdey
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Peggy Sawdey

Thank you Jessi….beautiful 🍁