Sunday, September 19, 2010

Where Am I?

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself;

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Wallace Stevens from “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”

A bird, blackish brown in the intense summer afternoon light, is walking on water. Well, not on the actual water but on golden green lily pads, skillfully hop-flying, then step, step, step, moving just fast enough not to sink. Pin oaks, I see, and white birch, young sycamore. Water stretches into a thick woods and appears to curve as if it might be a river but it isn’t, it’s a marsh, a very old one, one that somehow survived over hundred years of American industrialization. Sedge, that ancient plant of prehistoric times, grows out of the rubble I’m walking on, limestone and slag and railroad spikes.

A marsh hawk startles the heavy afternoon heat, its white and brown belly, as it sweeps down over the marsh. A white egret lopes over the water and disappears into the darkness of the tall stand of sycamore shielding the marsh from the highway beyond. Moments later a heron labors to pick up speed to rise over the trees. Two goldfinch, blurs in the sunlight yet identifiable with their undulating speed, trigger the memory of other summers and other places where I have stood stock still and felt that strange sensation deep in the belly of my body wanting to lift and follow what I was seeing.

Where am I?*

Where am I? That’s a good question. But is it a question of place? Or is it a state of mind that I’m in as I walk through this marsh? A reciprocal experience of the land imprinting itself in me as I walk through it.

Like many people, I could tell the story of my life by describing the places where walking somehow figured in my education and experience. I’ve hiked since I was a teenager, along highways, up mountains, through deserts, along borders, through savannahs, along lakes and rivers, down streets of cities, and into and out of my wayward emotions and imagination. Your legs turn out to be allies, and as Nietzsche, a walker himself, would say, they often can offer infinitely more wisdom than our best thinking.

My recent interest in walking began as a way to combat serious bouts of depression that not even years of study and practice of yoga seemed able to help me handle. I hiked as a way to counter spells that sunk me every winter. As I began to hike more and more, in places of profound beauty and in places familiar and local, I began to notice how the simple act of walking offered more than benefits to my physical and mental health. Walking began to make me see or feel so much more of what was going on inside and around me. Walking I’m learning has so much to do with developing the body/mind’s ability to perceive and read the rhythms and relationships that bind us to the elemental world: to rock and water, wind and weather, sky and space. And perhaps most important of all, walking alerts us to how our health depends on the health of the land in which we live and work and walk.

*These observations about walking were inspired by a walk down an abandoned railroad track through the Clark and Pine Nature Preserve in Lake County, Indiana a few miles from Gary. It is a remnant of the vast marsh and interdunal ecology that once covered the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Surprisingly, the marsh flourishes, teeming with life and birds, though it is next to an abandoned steel processing factory, a gypsum plant a mile to the east along Lake Michigan, Gary’s Sanitation Works and acres and acres of wastelands that is a Federal Superfund Site.

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