Near my home, in the woods where I walk, there is a place along the trail marked by a large boulder. The boulder is taller than me and for a long time I had intended on climbing it. Finally, one day, after the first snowfall, I left the trail, approached the boulder for a closer look, and discovered that near it, and behind it, the deer and the rabbits had made a lesser path leading deeper into the woods. I immediately abandoned the boulder and followed the path instead, bowing my head and my body to pass beneath the lower branches, turning first one way and then the other to weave between the trees, climbing carefully over a fallen pine. The deer, as path makers, are far simpler than men. Their paths, as a result, are arguably less efficient. They are narrow and crooked, weaving wastefully and covering more ground than is necessary. They form slowly by gentle steps and their course is determined not by an ultimate destination, which may not exist at all, but by the spaces between the trees that present the least resistance. They meander over uneven ground, where roots and rocks lie hidden and where the next step must always be taken carefully.
It’s impossible to follow the path of a deer without remaining intimately aware of the forest through which you are walking. Trees reach out to grace your shoulders with their touch. The earth rises and falls beneath you. You are conscious of where your foot will fall, but only for your next step. To follow the path requires presence of mind. Ignoring this requirement can result in unexpected scrapes and twisted ankles. You might find yourself altogether lost.
I followed the path with a sense of wonder. The trees here were no different than those surrounding the broad ATV trail, from which I’d digressed. On that trail the forest truly is wonderful, but along the deer path I felt much closer to the trees. I was closer. I brushed by them and stooped beneath them. I felt I was somewhere outside of the touch of man. I felt a part of something wild.
Eventually, I reached what became my destination. Looking up from my careful steps I saw, between the trees, a much larger boulder than the one beside the trail. It reaches half the height of the trees surrounding it and is broad enough to span at least twenty strides. On one side, the boulder is quite steep, but at the place where I approached it, it rises gradually. With moderately careful steps, even with the ice and the snow, it can easily be summited.
That first day was mild, and at the top of the boulder, along its steeper edge, I removed my coat and spread it as best I could over the snow, and then lay there, staring up at the sky. This is medicine, more than anything else I know: to breathe next to the wild trees and be in stillness beneath a sky unmarked by progress. Lying there, I begin to plot how to disentangle myself even further. Lying there, I romanticize reclusion and isolation. Lying there, I feel at home.
I lay, carefully, within the edge of what I know, pressing without pressing into the invisible, amniotic wall that omits me from the place beyond it. The confines of life, tenuous and impermanent, hold me close, but I cannot deny that as much as I exist in this life, I remain unborn. The trees rise around me like so many manifestations of longing, and I, longing to be like them, lay, unborn, atop a rock, yearning to pass through that thin, unyielding membrane, and enter something more like home than this.
I am here. And though my heart longs for something beyond this place I suspect that all boundaries are, in truth, imagined. Which isn’t to say that they do not exist, but that they exist only in the realm of our perceptions. We cast them out from that place and project them onto our understanding of things because we are desperate to make sense of it all. But our perceptions cannot actually separate life from death, or ourselves from God, or our cities from the woods. They influence our experiences, but the truth remains untouched. The truth remains the truth whether we know it or not.
When I awoke, the forest was very still. The clouds had fallen from their higher places and seemed now suspended by the branches. I stood and looked around. I noticed how the sadness, which had led me into the woods in the first place, had lessened, but was still there. I descended, with some resignation, and still with the same gratitude I always feel toward the trees when I walk mindfully among them. There is something about them that alleviates woes. It may not lift them altogether but it does something to remind us of one of the most profound and beautiful miracles, which is simply this: we exist. Rather than there being nothing, there is something. And no matter how exhaustively we attempt to prove, or validate, or protect our existence, it ultimately just is.
Weeks later, I was driving along the highway, nearly home. On either side of me, were the woods. More immediately around me was the machine that carries me from place to place. And beneath me was a very even and straight, manmade path that cuts through the forest so profoundly that it’s possible, even necessary, to ignore the trees entirely. Again, I had to recognize that there was very little, if anything, that actually separates me from it all. We’ve narrowed our perceptions so severely that we often only see the paved road in front of us, and think only of the place it is designed to take us. But these are only our perceptions, and the truth pays little attention to our narrow views.
Moments later I saw a wolf approach the edge of the highway in front of me. I slowed immediately and immediately after passing him, the wolf crossed to the other side. I turned around and pulled onto the shoulder where I drove along side him as he trotted behind the thin veil of trees. I had never seen a wolf before. We watched each other move in tandem, his eyes alight, and his body graceful. He seemed both unthreatened and unthreatening, but I wondered if our encounter would have been the same in a place where boundaries, even manufactured or imagined ones, did not exist. Could we ever regard one another with mutual respect, or have I, with all my machines, and buildings, and vain pursuits, become too foreign to one who has remained so natural?
I wander among the trees when the night brings darkness between the branches and little can be seen of the distance between us. I wander along the edge of the woods, my hand tracing a gentle line along the boundary wall, which bars me from all that I do not know. I hear the wind move, and feel it joining the space between us. I remember to forget all that I have learned about where I end and all else begins. I remember that I belong to life and that my existence is beautiful.