Remembering What We Leave Behind
Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Walks in the woods shouldn’t challenge me, but they always do. Keen attention develops when taking those steps among the trees. Most commonly, I see the beauty and strangeness of that place. However, more than grace can be seen out there; behind every bloom is a story of degradation. Small marks of mankind seem to be scattered everywhere these days. What I fear most whenever I take my first step into the woods is what I might realize. Possessions are left in these places, and once I have them in my sight, I struggle to turn back. Each item, or litter we may call it, has a story, and I have been trying to figure out those stories for a long time. That unknowable junk haunts me, as it will outlive me. The worst thing about these items is that most everyone isn’t giving it a second thought, but they should. When awakened to these stories, we have a responsibility to remember the influence that they carry. This essay, a recollection of three walks, could be my attempt at remembering. — Balloons and tiny booze bottles seem rampant these days, or so I thought as one came into sight on the trail. A balloon that was of the blue foil variety. $2.99 at the craft store, or the card store, or Walmart, or what have you. As for the tiny booze bottles, I mostly left them behind when I walked onto the trail, expecting to be far away from any trash among the trees, and yet here they were in front of me. What is strange is how the trash changes the further you walk into the woods. It becomes more intimate, deliberate. As I continued down the path, I knew that some real work had to be done for the litter to get to this place, the woods place, set beside the pond in Amherst, Massachusetts. Two miles of walking brought me to the pond with a barren shroud of hemlocks on a winter day. The balloon’s shimmer caught my eye. It had landed in a thicket, tangled in a half- deflated mess, more like garbage than anything else. I wanted to have it in my hands, and so I thought I might grab it and throw it away. I pushed through the bushes with thorns. They caught on my shirt and clung to my skin. Here, just off the trail, five feet of walking was much denser. I thought to myself, Work needs to be put in when tidying a forest. When I reached the balloon, I found a message written on its side that read, “Hi Dad, We miss you, love you.” Three names followed the message, which I assumed were the names of three daughters writing to their deceased father. They must have gathered together in their yard and in a somber requiem released the balloon into the air. Just days later, and miles away, I had it in my hands. At that moment, I realized that I had come across a message to heaven, or that’s what my brothers and I called it as kids. Leaving the dentist, with our reward of aching molars and smiley balloons, we would release them high into the air, saying they were en route to Beep. He had died before we had known him, and so this was our best attempt at a connection with our faraway grandfather. Foresight is difficult when it all seems so good, and when a balloon is shooting higher and higher into the air, reaching up near the sun. Just like those daughters, my brothers and I sought connection in a physical form where Beep’s presence was lacking. This one, a balloon, happened to be plastic coated and able to drift half a state away. All my balloons at the dentist, like the one in the woods, were Mylar, non-biodegradable. The Mylar balloons are the shiny foil kind, the ones that you get for birthdays and graduations, although the microplastics will remain for a much longer time than those celebrations. I didn’t know the name then, nor did I know the plastic pollution being released out of my hands. How could I have known? Nobody told me. Every adult in my life thought it endearing that our love found a tangible form, that our mourning could be swept away with the wind. — Another day, I followed the blue flares leading through Amethyst Brook in Amherst. It was early June, and the day was hot. As I moved through the trail I came across a wooden footbridge. A stream flowed underneath, adding sound to an otherwise silent day. Following the markers, I soon reached the bottom of the first hill, where the trail jut out on an unmarked path. Many fear to tread further than where the markers end, but that is often where well-kept secrets can be found. While walking down that path for a half-mile or so, I came across a collection of dilapidated automobiles left to rot. I assumed the woods had been a car dump, left for regrowth. Among the cars, I caught sight of a 1953 Ford Thunderbird in its final resting place. Although rusted, dented, and covered with tree droppings, the Bird still had a shimmer of its past glory. The roof had caved in, and a pool of acorns and pine needles filled the empty spaces. The original teal coat remained where the rust hadn’t yet reached, and the bumpers still shined like new. The wheels and doors were long missing, but it all still felt intact, like old engineering done right. Over sixty years old, the car still had so much going for it. Sure, it needed some work, but it was salvageable. It had found its end too soon. Coming across an abandoned car deep in the woods really makes you question how it got there. The Thunderbird is considered a part of the movement towards luxury vehicles. This wasn’t a daily driver, especially not with Amherst’s New England winters. No, this Thunderbird would have been used for special occasions and rotted in a garage long before it was driven into the woods and stripped of its wheels. Long before the days of environmentally efficient vehicles, this car would have once been shooting condensed poison out of its exhaust. With each mile, that small-town air the Bird was driving in would have become a little more exhausted. All of that for a temporary shimmer of status. But status doesn’t last for more than a generation, and this car had been destined for the ground the day it left the lot. I walked clumsily towards the car as if approaching the grave of a stranger with a familiar name. The sun shone on the interior as I reached in through the missing windshield. I could almost feel the glass that had once inhabited that space. The driver would have rolled the windows down on a day like that and held on firmly to the steering wheel as he sped through those curving New England roads. But then, sixty years later, I had the wheel in my hands. It was handcrafted from maple. The hardwood had returned to its place back among trees. I thought of the day to come when nature had done its work and corroded the car down to its final elements. The wheel would rest among the soil then. The Bird seemed so at home among the trees. The clearing, brimmed by hemlock and beech trees, seemed a graveyard to me. All the cars had long been set in rows and, like headstones are forgotten, were slowly sinking. A certain clarity arose when I passed through the gate into that collection of fading memorials, and a recognition that whatever lay there wasn’t coming back. — In the winter, a mouse hung from a branch. Draped over the branch head first, with its body and tail dangling toward the ground, it seemed as though the mouse stared back at me. Beside the corpse hung an orange peel, which was left wrapped on the tree by a passerby. I was on the Robert Frost trail again, heading up the hill and hoping to escape the cold on higher ground; it’s counterintuitive, but sometimes it works. I would have missed the mouse completely. I usually just tune into the ground below when walking on the trail; the trees can quickly become overwhelming, but the ground is solid and still, consistent and cold. Cory, my friend and nature guide, shrieked behind me when he saw the mouse hanging there. We almost believed it was resting, hanging eight feet above the ground in that low branch. It was February 8, and cold. Real cold. Cold enough that people were telling me not to go out at all. Mice don’t have friends like that. The passerby, who dangled the peel on the branch, must have walked the trail the day before. It was even colder then. The temperature reached only 20 °F. Even I wouldn’t have gone out with a high of twenty degrees. I tried to picture him, the passerby, while I walked away. He must have strolled onto the trail in a jacket far too light with a water bottle and an orange in either pocket. I was sure that he had walked past all the same markers as I had: the blue flashes leading up the first hill, through the tree farm, over the streams, and across the rockslides. All that time he had held the orange in his hand. When he reached the summit, he must have pulled it out and ripped back the peel. He must have feasted while looking out over the Pioneer Valley. On the way down, he must have flung it onto the branch, and called out to his friend, saying that it’s biodegradable, of course! The orange peel was, of course, edible too. The mouse must have known this as it drew forth from its warm shelter and moved up the tree and across the branch. The temperature must have been two below zero by the time it reached the peel. The mouse froze in place just before it reached its dinner. Frozen in time, dead and waiting-food for a passing bird. As I sat in the back seat of Cory’s car as we headed home, I thought of “The Salmon Fisher To The Salmon,” the poem in which Seamus Heaney depicts himself fishing as a child. As he hooks a salmon he thinks, “We’re both annihilated on the fly. / You can’t resist a gullet full of steel. / I will return home fish-smelling, scaly.”. Heaney couldn’t help but to take the memory of the fish back home, dragging the smell with him years later. That day on the trail, I took a picture of the mouse and the orange peel. It still lays where I stashed it, hidden under some scraps of half-written poems and books that I haven’t yet read. — We are forgetful creatures. Our realizations fade away in the ridiculous babble and complications of life. E. E. Cummings once wrote: all ignorance toboggans into know and trudges up to ignorance again: but winter’s not forever,even snow melts;and if spring should spoil the game,what then? I feign to know how to live in the spring season, always acting as if there is an answer to staying awake all the time. My walks in the woods help me to remember the horror and the beauty that is still around us. Like a balloon that honors a lost father but pollutes the soil where it lands. Like a Thunderbird still flashing its glory, but left rotting on the trail. Like remnants of a determined hiker who had good intentions but caused an unnecessary death. I think sometimes of a picture I once saw. A water bottle floats in the open water of the North Pacific Ocean, caught in the heap of plastic drawn together by currents much larger than any of us. The sunshine shimmers across the water and catches beautifully against the transparent and distorted plastic of the bottle. I often wonder how the trash is so glorious and tormenting all at once. I also wonder, who is going to fish the bottle out of the water?