A Walk In The Woods

A Walk In The Woods

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio (aired 2.18.17)


Here’s a suggestion for unsettling times: take a walk in the woods. I notice I’ve been doing a lot more of that lately.

However, my personality is the sort that needs to be accomplishing something. I never head outdoors without a pair of binoculars slung around my neck; just in case there’s a bird to identify or some beautiful wild animal, such as a deer or bobcat, to observe from a distance.

For the record, I haven’t spotted any bobcats lately. But the anticipation that I might is part of what pries me away from CNN.

I recently found an even more proactive way to honor nature – by putting up trail makers along the paths that wend through our woods.

I’ll freely admit the idea is a folly. Our place is in Columbia County, not the wilds of Alaska; besides it’s unlikely I’d get lost on my own property. But the concept came to me when we visited our daughter Gracie at college in Ohio and I noticed the school’s nature preserve had very tasteful trail markers.

So I figured if a small liberal arts college, or Yosemite National Park for that matter, can have signs to help you better navigate nature while simultaneously reassuring yourself that you’re not straying into grizzly bear country, why not my place?

After much deliberation about what the design might look like – we batted around ideas such as an owl or our dog Wallie (if Wallie ever stopped long enough to sit for a portrait) I commissioned my older daughter Lucy to draw a pileated woodpecker.


Lucy has a talent for painting birds and the results were elegant: A diamond shaped trail marker featuring the stunning black, white and red woodpecker against a black-bordered white background.

Unfortunately, the cost of making a couple hundred durable copies of the sign turned out to be prohibitively expensive.

So as a Christmas gift, Lucy surprised me with a stencil along with cans of red, white and black spray paint.

Conceptually, this was a brilliant idea. Except that in practice, applied to the ruddy bark of an oak or a maple, the results looked more like an Abstract Expressionist drip painting than a trail marker.

So, after finding a local gentleman who was willing to saw a giant sheet of plywood into almost 300 four by four inch pieces, I set to work painting the squares, or diamonds (depending on how you turn them) bright red.

Just painting them in our basement and letting them dry over night was therapeutic, though not half as much as heading into the woods with a tote bag filled with a stack of them, a hammer and nails.

One probably wouldn’t think that trail markers could stir controversy. But Debbie, my wife, was concerned that my mine would be as much a violation of nature as electronic billboards.

Her fear was that I’d overdo it, that I’d hammer one every ten feet. I’ll admit that’s a temptation but I’ve tried to restrain myself.

My main interest here, besides marking my territory — because I suppose that’s what it really boils down to — is explaining, if only for myself, how the woods and nature serves as a refuge in challenging times.

For starters, it connects you to something larger than yourself. It reminds you we’re part of a bigger picture, small figures in a monumental landscape painting, not the whole thing. Which you could be mistaken for believing if you allow your life to be run by the ever-accelerating cadences of humankind — invested in celebrating our own importance and indispensability — rather than those of the natural world.

Hammering a red square into every fiftieth tree may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, or even the best way to honor the forest, but it’s been working for me.

And Debbie even appears pleasantly surprised by the results. She agrees I haven’t overdone it, that my trail markers lend a friendly, reassuring tone to a walk in the woods.

My latest innovation is double diamonds to denote where trails fork. I think I’ll resist the temptation to mark different routes with different color markers, though my spouse is talking about a trail map.

I haven’t completely given up my dream of pileated woodpeckers, though. Currently Lucy and I are in discussions over the feasibility of adding woodpecker decals.


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