By Kate Gilday
I pause before stepping into the forest, halting to listen, to take in the beauty before me, and breathe in the fragrance of the evergreens welcoming us with outstretched branches. In these few moments, before entering this wild place I ask permission to step onto and off the path ahead, to wander among the trees and through the streams we will encounter. When a soft breeze touches my face, I share my deep gratitude that such a place as the Adirondacks ( the land we call home) exists, where we are invited to participate in reclaiming our own wild natures, simply by showing up and allowing the untamed land and animals to be our teachers. The spirit of the land, of the trail, of this vast wilderness has its own rules and ways of being.
What makes this forest a wild place is that it holds the unknown, the unremembered. Even after years of walking through the forests of the Northeast, I continue to be humbled by the vastness and silence these places hold. The stillness is in the land itself, though under the surface of the soil, mitochondria and roots communicate extensively. We listen with heart as well as ears. The call of a loon on a lake, sounding through the deep forest is haunting and beautiful. The sound of bear running through the woods, pushing over saplings on its way, brings a wave of fear and awe. We are not alone. The silence that blesses us is the internal stillness that deepens as each day passes on our 11-day backpacking trip on the Northville- Lake Placid Trail, taken some years ago. My internal chatter, and to-do list melt in the face of the trees and wildflowers, raindrops on the tips of green leaves and the coyote’s call at night.
Just before we began our walkabout, strong winds had come through causing many a tree to fall across the trail. We would walk the length of a downed tree, at the end often caught by another snag before us- wandering until sorting out where we were in these woods and making our way back to the trail. The wild does not move nor is it built in a straight line! The signs to follow are not the written word, rather the flow of the land, the openings in the trees, the patterns that emerge and can be read after slowing down and practicing what we think we recognize. We call this the 10,000 footsteps learning path. In time we read the language around us, and delight in learning more. I feel it somehow brings me closer to my ancestors who lived among the trees of another land, depending on the forest for food and shelter, water and clothing. I love my hot shower that awaits me back home, but I treasure the moments of swimming naked across a wild lake, immersed in silky water, feeling exhilarated and wild! Some part of me wakes up, shows up and re-members.
Every day we witnessed life and death all around us. The fallen trees create a safe haven for snowshoe hare and partridge, an easy bridge for fisher and mink. After many years the action of other wildlife- moss, mushroom, worm and others will move the tree to its stage as a nurse tree- enough soil for a seedling to take root and begin to rise. Time has a different taste in this forest. Not so much measured in minutes and years as in a fluidity of change~ life, death and certainly rebirth. One autumn years before our trip, I spent an entire day simply walking alone through a certain wilderness area, occasionally feeling called to lay on the dry, crackling leaves. Alone but not lonely. Alone, but not alone. I could only imagine, but did not worry who was watching. Looking up through the tree canopy to a soft gray sky, hearing Canada geese flying over and taking in the fragrance of mushrooms, I experienced a moment of understanding that I could welcome death when my time here on earth is through, knowing life in its fullness would continue.
Backpacking through the wild lands keeps our senses honed, our awareness heightened; unsure of what we may meet over the next hill makes me feel more fully alive, more present to the weather, marking time by sun and moon, letting hunger dictate a time to eat and fatigue to tuck us in at night. There develops a natural flow in the way we walk, the quiet we keep, that begins to match the rhythm of the trees, wind, bubbling creeks and night sky. The wild has woven a fabric of the elements that both nourishes and demands one’s attention. Nature can be kind. And nature can be unforgiving. It may depend on a state of mind, or a useful compass, good gear or strong perseverance.
After years of forest wandering, napping under Old Growth trees, watching the northern lights from the crescent beach of a lake miles from any road, making eye contact with a pine marten, discovering fox dens and reading tracks of those who live here, I realize this is where I feel most at home, where I can re-member and will walk the many trails and years to come. Where the wild things are!
Kate Gilday is a life-long lover of nature, an herbalist of 30+ years and the founder of Woodland Essence, a forest botanicals and flower essence company and workshop center that she guides with her husband Don Babineau. Kate is well-loved for the clarity and clinical relevance gleaned from decades of experience in her teachings. She is a creative medicine maker, having developed several lines of flower essences, as well as herbal compounds, salves, and cremes. An Adirondack guide for 15 years, Kate is also a renowned teacher at conferences where she brings her love of the wild places, song and healing to the workshops she presents. She has just ( finally!) begun writing a book about the woodlands she loves so well. www.woodlandessence.com