Congaree: A nature narrative

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I drove out to Congaree National Park for a much needed retreat into nature. No friends. No phone. Just me, my camera, my journal, and a book. Inspired by my travels and the naturalistic works of some of my favorite authors, I decided to write a narrative of my experience; enjoy.

I began my trek on a marked pathway which led "around the river bend". It was a nice Saturday, so families and children naturally frequented the more popular areas-- areas I hence sought to avoid. After a mile or two, the walkway expired, my shoes met the muddy earth, and any human company within earshot turned back or fell away. I was finally alone with the wilderness. In this improved privacy, my senses became more attuned; Fresh smells and sights and sounds, new each moment. I picked up a stick. It was a good stick. Sturdy; relatively long; pointed at the end. I wrote in the dirt with it, "here lies my heart." Whatever that meant. It was really just the first thing that came to me. I kept walking with my new tool, feeling more confident in its presence. It was a symbol of inadequacy, in a way; it didn't coincide with some tree's idea of natural selection. Maybe it was severed by an unknown, external force. Either way, it had been cast down as weak and unfit. Yet to the unsuspecting traveller, it was an instrument of creation and new potential; Or, in the unlikely event of predation, could serve as a weapon; a device of the hunt. I dragged Stick along passing trees, wondering if it felt to them as it would feel if I dragged my own finger down the length of my stomach-- like a tingle, perhaps.

As I continued around the river bend trail, I came across a strange pair of trees: 
One appeared to have fallen, but was still virtually standing upright, due to the fact that the second tree was forked into a V around the first-- supporting it. It was a curious sight, and seemed a rather convenient placement for that oddly shaped V tree. What was it going to do?, I wondered, support the other tree forever? I couldn't help but parallel this inquiry with a regrettable occurrence that I had witnessed many a time in the human realm... This act of sacrificial dedication was as much our nature as it was this tree's; The way we often times support and cling to things that are dying. We can't really help it. We've already taken root; planted ourselves next to this person or thing so that when they fall, we are right there, limbs outstretched, ready to catch them. But if we never shift our ground from beneath their inevitable descend, aren't we dooming ourselves to collapse, too?

I kept walking for several miles with these thoughts in mind; watching out for tree roots so as not to trip (again) and listening to the distant sounds of frogs and woodpeckers. 
The second natural phenomenon that I stumbled upon was more confounding than the first. It was a tree-- the largest tree that I had surely ever seen in real life-- fallen; laying off to the left of the trail. It must have been over a hundred feet long; covered in moss. I wondered what could've brought the damned thing down. God, perhaps? Lightning? Maybe it took itself; got so old and tall that it decided it was time to move on to the next beacon of life or rest; let go and ironically yelled "timber!" I walked around to the stump, which was split and mangled in an erratic way and taller than me in any direction. I grappled to get up onto the monstrous thing, still in awe of its condition, and attempted to visualize its former majesty as I walked the length of its rotting body back to my trail.

I was grateful on these walks for the years of literature swaddled within my cavernous memory. Often times I could hear Hemingway, Thoreau and Dillard narrating my journey; guiding my steps; keeping me company. A particular quote from Walden came to mind as I drew closer to the river:

"We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature." 
Stick and I were now walking alongside the miry river which was speckled with weird, bottom heavy trees and little jagged stumps. This nature was captivating in a nontypical sense... It felt fragmented and slightly pained, but appeared to thrive on nonetheless with perseverance and conviction. In another mile or two, I came upon a sign marked with two different trail descriptions. One trail went right, one went left. There were footsteps to the right, and when I listened closely I could hear faint voices; People who sounded amused and giddy; pleased with their surroundings as I surely would be. The right pathway seemed a fine place to be.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I--"
I went left.

Left was the right choice, it seemed, as I came upon the loveliest reading rock just shortly after starting down this path. I laid out a blanket and pulled from my backpack my worn copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book had been given to my mother in 1977 by someone named Greg, which I knew because his name and the date were scrawled on the inside cover. The pages were yellowed and dogeared; the margins filled with illegible notes. I turned to Chapter 1: Heaven and Earth in Jest, and lost myself at once in the ingenious psyche of Annie Dillard. My favorite paragraph from this chapter reads:

"I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn't the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he'll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."
This passage has always been important to me... I think it effectively summarizes why I've often felt in my bones a magnetic pull from urban society into the arms of Mother Nature. Among the trees, the earth and the water, we experience (if we are open to it) a sort of homecoming after having perhaps forgotten where we truly came from; what we coexist with; where we will one day return. I go into the woods to find solitude. But what I actually find is quite the opposite: A magnitude of life, inexhaustible energy, perpetual creation.

I finished the last leg of my journey feeling pensive, peaceful and appreciative. Sometimes we must look outside of ourselves and our archetypal environments in order to discover what has been inside of us all along. We are the trees, the earth, and the ocean; we are the sun, the moon and the stars. 
We are everything and we are nothing. 
If we can learn to view our peers and our planet not as expendable resources, but as extensions of ourselves and our own interminable energy, we will unlock a myriad of love and respect for all living things-- as well as an internal, unequivocal sense of serenity. There is endless opportunity for education in the natural world; I believe, in fact, that nature is the best teacher at our disposal.
I arrived back to my original point of debarkation and smiled. It was bittersweet to leave; part of me felt like I could stay forever and probably fair much better that way. But the other, bigger part of me knew that these journeys were merely vacations that I needed for restorative purposes; to calm my restless bones and refocus my perspective. I would return to the earth soon.  

"This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”


 photos taken by Bailey Bowers with Nikon D3300

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