It’s been a year since I began to regularly walk the Cabin Creek trail through the woods to the Chattahoochee River: an experience that has never failed to provide me with peace, inspiration and new discoveries through the seasons. With the closure of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in March, due to the coronavirus, these walks have come to an end, at least for the foreseeable future. Sadly, I have missed seeing spring unfold in the ravine of the talking creek, under the greening forest canopy, and beside the constantly flowing river.
Memories of past walks, augmented by my journal and photographs, help my mind’s eye recall many of the sights, sounds and smells from these life-affirming rambles. I am also comforted by the certainty and the rhythm of nature: the knowledge that spring will come again to Cabin Creek (and again and again) – and that I will be able to return to the ravine and the river “to lose my mind and find my soul,” as America’s most famous conservationist John Muir once said. A few selections from my journal may help your mind’s eye recall similar experiences in nature.
May 29, 2019: It is dusk, when I start down the Cabin Creek trail on this day in late May. The walk through the woods to the river is different this time: quiet, but for the squirrels racing up and down trees. I walk quickly in the darkening forest tunnel. The Chattahoochee is very low, drifting slowly downstream, around dozens of exposed rocks; the river’s geology – its bones – are on full display. The early evening light on the water is glorious, triggering all my senses. I walk into the river, jumping across the rocks that jut up from the water at angles like frozen waves: an example of foliation, the repetitive layering of metamorphic rock, I learn later. With the work-day over, many boaters float past me; I perch on my sitting rock and watch the flowing tableau.
October 23, 2019: A hiker shouts: “Look!” We turn our attention to the Chattahoochee, where a river otter cavorts in the fast-moving water at the bottom of Devil’s Racecourse Shoals. He dives into the water and comes up a short distance downstream with what appears to be a fish in his mouth. Underwater again, and then he emerges back upstream – splashing and flipping his long body, while propelling himself with his powerful tail. The joyful performance repeats itself over and over again to our great pleasure – and clearly his. I realize, in a moment of startling clarity, that this river – the life-sustaining flow of water that I’ve long thought of as being “my” river – belongs, in truth, to this otter, his kin and all the wildlife who depend on it. A memorable passage from The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson comes to mind. Observing a small ghost crab on a night beach, she wrote: “Suddenly I was filled with the odd sensation that for the first time I knew the creature in its own world – that I understood, as never before, the essence of its being. In that moment time was suspended; the world to which I belonged did not exist and I might have been an onlooker from outer space.”
March 15, 2020: Spring is beginning to show itself along the Cabin Creek trail with glimpses of hepatica, purple toadshade trillium, and halberd-leaved yellow violets. It’s been ten months since I began my walks on this trail to the river, yet I’m still making new discoveries. The previous week, my eyes finally focused on a fallen beech tree with young trees emerging from its prone trunk. I had passed this family grouping dozens of times, yet never noticed it. Three sprouts that had grown from latent buds in the trunk of the fallen tree grow a few feet apart, ramrod-straight, reaching for the sun. Sustained by their mother’s decaying body in their early years, they now have their own roots that reach around her trunk in an embrace before entering the rich organic material in the bottom of the creek’s ravine. A friend accompanies me today, to take a look at my finding; fortunately, he always carries a tape measure, among other tools, and we determine the circumference of the fallen mother tree and the largest of the three tree sprouts. Based on later research on these slow-growing trees, I calculate that the mother beech began growing sometime in the 1880s, during the decade when my grandparents were born, and that she fell in the late 1950s, just a few years after my family moved to Georgia; the largest sprout is now more than 60 years old.
These connections to nature, even in the city, are fascinating and they are comforting; they make us feel secure. Life is affirmed for me by the barred owl that never fails to surprise, when he hoots from the top of a tree near my home in the city. In this period of waiting, I find that I am more attentive, allowing myself the time to explore: leaf veins, tree bark, light and shadows. In “Wild Geese”, poet Mary Oliver eloquently describes the powerful bonds between all living things.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile, the geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown.