Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking
By walking you make a path
And turning you look back
At a way you will never tread again.
- Antonio Machado
I took a walk along the Sangamon River at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve south of Fisher, the best place for such a walk in my opinion.
At the Sangamon River Forest Preserve the Bottomland Trail includes 5/8 mile of quality river’s edge walking, followed by a meander through a lowland forest and some of the most massive oak trees you’ll see in this area. Then the path walks through an authentic prairie restoration with its impressive diversity of prairie flora.
I often prefer walking alone in nature, focusing my attention on the tremendous diversity of life all around.
Trees certainly are amazing creatures. I realize how little imagination it actually took for Tolkien to bring Treebeard – half man, half-tree – to life. They certainly are massive living beings, far larger than life. Some here have already been around for over 200 years. Sure they don’t move around or talk aloud, but really, why would they need to?
So I rest my hand on the “Lincoln Ash”, itself estimated to be over 200 years old, and as usual, it communicates with me through my hand.
Today, it says “Don’t look back”, which naturally has me wondering if this ancient Lincoln Ash is suggesting that I’m supposed to go home and queue up my vintage vinyl Boston album.
Looking back is a yearning for what is gone. According to early 20th century Spanish poet Antonio Machado, “At a way you will never tread again.”
According to Genesis, Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah. And having advised her not to, he turned her into a pillar of salt.
As for me, not being entirely certain of the potential powers of a 200 year old Ash tree, I felt I should heed its advice.
Paths take us forward.
Guitarist Derek Trucks has an album called “Songlines” and, besides being a pretty good album in my opinion, it also turned me on to the idea of Songlines, a tradition from aboriginal original Australia that relates how the world was sung into existence along songlines; paths that crisscross the vast landscape. Some songlines are a few kilometers and some several hundred kilometers. These songlines are such that in repeating the rhythm of the song, one finds their way.
As I walk, the notion that paths through nature may have been sung into existence seems somehow right. Or, perhaps paths are created just through experience. Or, as Machado says “The path is made by walking. By walking you make a path.”
And I do feel that as I have moved along in life, the path has become slowly revealed, like paddling a kayak around the bends and curves of a river. I have no way of knowing what’s around that curve until I paddle ahead. Paddling my path into existence. Looking back, the stuff behind the curve slowly disappears.
As I move ahead thinking about the choices before me I lay out my palm. I’m at my palm’s base and my fingers represent my various choices. The arbitrary number five doesn’t really matter, it’s just that I usually confront several choices, not just two, and certainly my choices are rarely simply “good” and “bad”. Rather each choice – each finger – contains unique combinations of better and worse.
So I choose a finger to follow to the tip of my hand, and having chosen, I place my other hand on top of that finger and the process begins again. Once again, I face an array of choices, all dictated by my previous choice.
But I had to remove the hand behind to place it at the tip of the next finger, kind of like the silly hand stack game I used to play with my kids. This hand now represents my choices from there. But the hand behind me is gone. There is no path back, my choices only take me forward. Even if I try to pick a choice that may take me back, it can’t. Behind me is only “A way I will never tread again.”
The woods where I made trails and rode my bike across the street from the house I grew up in down in Florida were long ago cut down to build a Pith Helmet factory (I kid you not). My Dad and my Memum are gone. I have lived in Tallahassee, Springfield, Murphysboro, Philo and I never will again–certainly not with my graduate student wife and our two young daughters.
Of course, this is as it should be. As it must be.
Many of us wish we could see the future, and alas, that’s not possible either. We can’t see around the next bend on the river. We can’t see what’s ahead; what joy or what tragedies await.
Yet, anybody can imagine their future. Here I quote Barney, the Purple Dinosaur, “Just imagine…” All of us have the capacity to imagine a better future and to work toward bringing it about. To quite literally imagine the path ahead of us into existence. To sing it into existence.
Paths go forward. Into the unknown.
As I walk along this path along the Sangamon River, even though I can imagine what lies ahead, I’m still not entirely certain.
To find out I must walk forward, not back, experiencing the joys and tragedies that await. All while creating my own unique path as I go; singing it into existence.
As I walk, I sing to myself The Wood Song, a song by the Indigo Girls about sailing the ship of life:
The wood is tired and the wood is old
We’ll make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, Thursday, Feb 9th, 2017, by Scott Hays