This past weekend my family and I hiked through the local game lands. The dogs relish exploring off-lead and I enjoy watching my daughter explore the new sights, sounds and smells. My daughter wanted to hike through the field in the middle of the woods. Every year someone allows the field to be planted; sometimes corn, sometimes hay, sometimes fallow. This weekend we watched twenty three gold finches flitting among the thistle.
A few years ago my wife gave me the book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone” by Jack Turner. Turner’s writing changed the way I view life. Turner defines ‘paths’ and ‘trails’ differently. Without looking for the exact definition, I vaguely remember ‘trails’ have meaning: they allow a traveler to get from point A to point B in a straight forward manner. ‘Paths’ are fickle; they do not get travelers from point A to point B in the most efficient way, but might veer off the trail to allow the traveler a glimpse of a vista. Paths lend meaning to the trail. Trails grow and become more permanent; paths are ephemeral.
Never had I considered the impermanent nature of footpaths in the woods until my wife and I were hiking a familiar path used as a short cut between two longer trails. A mountain biker materialized out of a section of woods where we had no knowledge of any paths. We investigated the area that birthed the bicyclist and discovered tramped down plants, but no defined path. Following the trampled plants we discovered the beginning of a forest path.
That forest path now forms a more permanent fixture in the woods; local trail maps feature this footpath and disused forest floor is replacing a section of the now-unused shortcut path.
Life reflects this transitory nature of paths. The transition of a baby being carried by mom to a two-and-a-half year old running through the field of thistle serves to magnify this ephemeral nature. Three years ago, sunflowers filled the field as my then-pregnant wife and I hiked with just our dogs. This weekend my daughter pointed to tiger swallowtails and meadow fritillary butterflies. I can’t help but wonder where we will be in three years?
Maybe it is too much to jump from woodland paths to the nature of life, but I don’t think so (neither did Robert Frost). I try to appreciate and celebrate the small changes; caterpillars to butterflies, sunflowers to thistles.
If life is a trail then the small changes are the paths that encourage us to slow down and enjoy what we have.