Posted by: SDHSPress | 11/17/2009

Following and Blazing Trails

From the beginning, I was lured by woods. As a child on our 50-acre farm east of Oklahoma City, I followed the creek south from the house, crawled under a barbed wire fence and slipped into the woods my father rented for firewood and to graze his milk cows—80 acres of oaks, hickories, willows, cottonwoods, persimmons, meadow and swamp. To a boy of seven, an 80-acre forest is infinity. I knew the eighty’s orientation to the sun, where the land inclined, where the soil was boggy or dry, where groves of various trees grew, when and where to find ripe persimmons and why to avoid those that are not.

American persimmon tree

I knew the trails made by cows and men, but a boy of seven can follow trails of smaller animals too, and gradually I sketched ever-finer details on my mental map. I found the tracks of raccoons and possums and deer, sometimes following, sometimes intersecting the more predictable foot-wide paths of cows. On hands and knees, I followed the lower, narrower trails. Some tracks I didn’t know, but I followed them all, ever deeper into brambles and underbrush. I found where the possum crawled into his hollow hickory log. I knew the tall cottonwood in whose rotting trunk the raccoon lived. I found the limb on which he dined, saw where he dropped his waste, and learned what fruits and creatures he ate. Following trails expanded my universe of mammals and birds.

But nature herself is not a fan of trails. Decades before I read Rabelais’ observation that “nature abhors a vacuum,” I found it true. The height and width of each trail was no greater than that of the largest animal that regularly passed. A few large animals, moose for example, are equipped to keep trails wide, and deer help maintain trails by browsing brush. But of all the animals in the woods, only man carries nippers or saws to efficiently counter nature’s tendency to close trails. I am such a man.

There are rational reasons for trails. They provide access to otherwise forbidden places and to fallen firewood trees. They allow fuller access to the woods, whether by foot or on skis. And on the Missouri River bluff, where eastern red cedars are invading every square foot not otherwise occupied, trail blazing keeps remnants of native prairie alive and exposed to sun. So when fall rolls around, I take to the woods to make or maintain trails. That has been my occupation this fine November week. The result is a pair of new cross-country ski trails, the longest a quarter-mile run from bluff to river bottom.

But truthfully, all the logical reasons for trail maintenance are on some level rationalization for being in the woods. Perhaps my personal motive is not so different from that of the hunter who carries a gun instead of a saw, and whose object is deer rather than firewood or fun. Given the ingrained work ethic of our culture, we seem to need an excuse for frittering away an afternoon in the woods.

Trail maker that I am, I admit there is a problem with trails. Once constructed, whether by cows or coons or men, one may follow them without asking why. And perhaps that, in the end, is the attraction of cutting a new trail to find what lies in a tangle I have yet to explore. So do I face an inescapable conundrum—the paradox that in seeking adventure I tame the very wilderness I love? Probably not, recalling nature’s efficient way of countering our every move—and that we live amidst cedar trees, one of her most efficient tools.




  1. Your cedar tree, nature’s efficient tool to take up that vacuum, has a cousin down here in the Texas-Southwest, known as mesquite, from the Nahuatl, mizquitl. It’s a never-ending chore to keep mesquite cleared from pastures.

  2. “What lies in the tangle I have yet to explore.” Jerry, the tangle is out there. We are curious, blasting ships into space, into the tangle. Your prose is beautiful. Have you studied under Annie Dillard?

  3. Do you happen to read Jerry, you should.

  4. Thanks, Jack. I’ll take a look.

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