Hiking Alone

I’m not sure which of these rings the truest for me: I’m not crazy about hiking alone, or I prefer to hike with other people.  I know they both say basically the same thing, but for some reason there seems to be a subtle difference. 

It’s tax season.  

Wow, Tim, you sure did take a left turn there, now didn’t you?

Well, it’s tax season, which means my favorite hiking partner–my wife, Lisa–is working.  She’s working a lot.  She, you see, is a tax preparer.  And if she’s working, she’s not hiking.  Which means I’m hiking alone.

See, that makes sense.  Hiking and taxes?  They’re related; at least, they’re related for me.

That’s why, just the other day, I found myself alone on the trail.  

(Looking back to my first sentence, I suppose I prefer to hike with other people.  I don’t have a problem hiking alone; I’m comfortable in the woods, and I’m a phone call away from help if I need it.)

The weather was unseasonably warm for the last day of February, and we’d had quite a bit of rain the day before.  The trail was muddy, but not too muddy, and it was gloriously empty as I started out.  I did an out-and-back hike, and while there were other hikers I passed on the way back, I seemed to have the entire mountain to myself on the way out.  

There’s something about having the trail to oneself, especially if it’s a solo hike. On that day, the quiet was glorious, and more than once I surprised a chipmunk or squirrel as I came around a tree or rock.  I even found myself surprisingly close to a doe who shot off away from the trail as I approached.

There’s still plenty of tax season left, and I imagine that won’t be my last solo hike for a while.  I’m eager, though, to get back out on the trail with my wife, even if it’s only a short hike before she’s off to work.  Am I the only one looking forward to April 15th?

Yes, Tree Farts

“Oh-my-gosh-do-you-guys-know-about-tree-farts?!”

There was, for a second or two, a silence among the members of the group.  Glances were exchanged, weight shifted from foot to foot, lips were pursed, and brows were furrowed.  The only sound was the steady rain hitting the brown leaves covering the ground, and perhaps a bird or two in the distance.

And in that north Alabama woodland, there was curiosity–curiosity that manifested itself in a sudden and concurrent movement toward the tree which prompted the outburst a moment before. 

A large tree, perhaps an oak or maple, was apparently oozing bubbles from a spot on its trunk some 10 or 12 inches off the ground.  If the weather was warmer and the foam on a smaller plant, a spittle bug might have produced the phenomenon we were seeing. But the weather wasn’t warm, and the plant bearing the foam stood above us some 40 feet off the forest floor.

“Yeah!  I was listening to a podcast about it just the other day.  It turns out that trees absorb methane and other gasses from microbes in the soil.  The gas travels up the tree through the xylem and comes out from breaks in the bark.”

There it was, right in front of us: foam that appeared, indeed, to be tree farts.

“But, it looks like this might be coming from water running down the trunk of the tree.  Maybe it’s a physical thing, those bubbles that are forming.”  This insight came from another member of the party, her eyes mere inches from the trunk as she knelt there on the humus and leaf litter around the tree. 

So we all had to take a close look, one after another, at the foamy mass.  

We were a group of eight educators, out for the morning to explore the oak-hickory forest on this Alabama hillside just a few miles outside the city of Huntsville.  Our gathering was an event held as part of the state’s environmental education association’s annual conference.  This year, given the circumstances of the pandemic, it was an “unconference.”  No group meetings, no dinners, and no large-scale socializing with friends from around the state.  As an environmental education group, though, we were able to keep our field trips as they’re all held outdoors.

Environmental educators being the people we are, we weren’t deterred by the steady rain falling over the northern third of the state.  Truth be told, I believe some of us took a strange pleasure in being out in the inclement weather, but that’s just my opinion.  

The steady rain, the result of a slow moving weather system, gave us a forest filled with the sounds of running water.  Without it, we wouldn’t have experienced the boisterous creeks and ubiquitous rivulets of water that flowed around us as we walked.  More often than not, the limestone trails we trod upon were those rivulets, and I walked more carefully than I normally would.

I’m not sure we ever came to a consensus on the bubbles.  Later that day I did a bit of reading and learned that trees do carry gasses such as methane and carbon dioxide that were produced through microbial digestion in the soil.  Those gasses are released through breaks in the bark of the tree, and, well, if methane released through a crack isn’t a tree fart, I don’t know what is. 

But the bubbling could have been a result of water traveling down the trunk of the tree.  Later during the hike we observed a similar occurrence, though higher off the ground; this time, it did appear to be more of a physical process.

That’s why we were there, though: to learn, to explore, and–perhaps most of all–to be curious.  As our group broke up sometime in the early afternoon, one of the participants proclaimed her joy at being with like-minded people.  I couldn’t have said it better, and I can’t wait to go again.

Most states have an environmental education group of some sort.  Here in my state, we’ve got the Environmental Education Association of Alabama (https://eeaa.us).  To find an organization in many of the other 49 states, you can check the North American Association for Environmental Education’s affiliate directory at https://naaee.org/our-partners/affiliates.

Connections

“I…
      I’m going…”

“I’m going to the dentist
      I…
          I have to go now”

With that, she turned away and walked down the hall

Six years old
A book bag as big as she was
Eyes peeking out between a fringe of bangs 

and a disposable mask
It’s February, 2021
It’s almost been a year

For the life of me
I don’t have a clue who she was
and she didn’t know me

But in that random meeting 
there in an elementary school hallway 
we needed a connection

She needed to tell me about herself
and I needed to hear it

Yet
Less than a minute earlier
I didn’t even know

Nature Usually Wins

“Nature usually wins.”

Those three words can mean a lot of different things, but I usually state them when I’m out on a trail or in some other outdoor setting with kids.  I use them to mean “nature,” shorthand for living things in this case*, can overcome some pretty incredible circumstances.

I use the phrase when I point out tree roots that are splitting rocks, eventually creating gravel from boulders.  I use the phrase when I see tree bark growing over metal trail markers.  But most often, I use the phrase when I see plants and animals living in unexpected places:  shrubs growing through a rusted spot in some sheet metal debris, trees growing through the open hood of a long-abandoned vehicle, and snakes sunning atop abandoned appliances only to slither inside when spotted.

Here’s a picture of a recent example that I love.  A plastic owl was installed at one of the schools where I teach, undoubtedly in an effort to discourage birds from nesting in the frame of a sidewalk canopy. My guess is that it blew over in the wind, but didn’t fall to the ground because of the strap that was used to secure it.

Apparently, the crook between the owl’s body and the post was a great place to build a nest.

Nature usually wins, and I’m okay with that.

—–

*Nature, of course, is so much more than what we see outdoors.  You and I are part of nature, nature is indoors as well as out, and we find living things in so many unexpected places.  For fun, look in all the nooks and crannies of where you live–we share our habitats with plenty of other creatures!

If that idea doesn’t appeal to you, open an internet browser and do an image search for “nature wins.”

Self-Sufficiency is a Myth

February 18th, 2021: Millions suffer through one of the worst winter storms to hit the south in decades.

The strongest man 
is the one
who stands alone.
A self-made man 
told me that
just after, as I recall
he pulled himself up 
by his bootstraps.
A rugged individual
he was
standing 
on his own two feet
helped, perhaps 
by his god
but only because 
he helped himself first.

What a load
of that stuff 
they have
in Texas.

It’s Cold

It is cold in north Alabama.  

I mean, it’s February, so it’s usually cold, but this is different.  Different because, well, it’s really cold–temps in the single digits last night–and it’s cold in a lot of places that don’t normally see this kind of Arctic air.  The Gulf Coast, Texas, Northern Mexico, for goodness’ sake: It’s cold out there!

In addition to today’s cold, yesterday was an unusual weather day all the way around.  It started at around 32 degrees, and it stayed there all day, varying no more than about 2 or 3 degrees.  In addition, precipitation fell most of the day.  That meant we moved from rain to snow to sleet to freezing rain a few different times.  The result: We woke up this morning to a solid quarter-inch of ice coating everything and a thin layer of snow on the ground. 

This afternoon, after sitting for six hours in front of a computer (school was cancelled, but just my luck: I had a virtual training session with an instructor who’s from a warm place), I had to get outside.  I wanted to be jarred back to life, so I didn’t dress too warmly; just a coat and a pair of gloves.  My walk in the neighborhood, as brief as it was, was wonderful.  Traffic was non-existent due to road conditions, and things were strangely quiet.  

I could hear the trees swaying in the breeze.  I didn’t hear ice falling; rather, I heard it moving…frozen sheaths around blades of wood that were only snuggly encased.  It was a strange sound to hear–one I’ve only rarely heard throughout my life lived mostly in cold climates.

It’s beautiful, but I won’t be sorry to see it go.  This is the deep south, and I want to put my coat back in the closet for the year.  Soon, I hope.

—–

Fun fact: as I’m writing this, it’s ten degrees warmer in Anchorage, Alaska (26 degrees) than it is in Toney, Alabama (16 degrees). What’s up with that?

Down the Rabbit Hole

I think about Alice sometimes
when I drop into the hole
in the palm of my hand

She fell past books on shelves
past cupboards with closed doors
and maps and pictures on pegs

I fall past people and ideas
past the odd author or two
a poet, a teacher, and the news of my world

Alice landed with a thump
and sometimes I do, too
bruised and almost broken

And more often than not 
like hers
my marmalade jar is empty

Brand New Roller Skates

February weather in Alabama is about as unpredictable as it gets.  Granted, I’m biased since I live in Alabama, it’s February, and I like to be outside.  

Today was a beautiful day, clear with temperatures in the upper 50s, and tomorrow is supposed to be even warmer.  Two days ago?  Cloudy and damp with a daytime high in the mid 30s.  This weekend’s forecast?  A daytime high of 27 and an overnight low of 10 degrees!  This is Alabama…we’re in the deep south, for goodness’ sake!

Today, though, was nice, and I can be happy with that.

My wife, Lisa, and I took a look at the forecast this morning and decided we would take a walk this afternoon on a local greenway.  We’ve had a lot of rain recently, so a hike would be an invitation for muddy boots and we just weren’t feeling that.  The Wade Mountain Greenway is a mile(ish) of asphalt that allows folks to walk through the woods on an out-and-back path without, well, walking through the woods.  

The Greenway attracts a lot of people, which is nice.  An afternoon like today had us sharing the path with plenty of families as well as the occasional runner and bicyclist.

And a girl on rollerskates.

We saw her in the distance, looking to be about 10 years old, clearly on skates and carrying herself as one who didn’t have a lot of experience.  Probably not a lot different than I would look.  She had her feet just a bit more than shoulder width apart and her arms were straight with both hands seemingly reaching for the ground.  Concentration.  Loads of concentration.

As we approached, with our efforts more than hers responsible for the gap between us closing, she looked up at us and smiled as we complimented her on her efforts.  Oh, what a smile! Then her eyes were back on the ground, the concentration returned, and she shuffle-skated away behind us.

Her parents came next, walking the slow walk of patience, enjoying their daughter’s efforts.  With beaming smiles returning our own, they conveyed both pride and the tiniest bit of embarrassment at our needing to give their kiddo a bit of extra room on the wide path. We exchanged hellos, complimented the effort we just witnessed, and they were soon behind us as well.

I’m sure the next time we see that family her parents will be reminding her to stay in sight of them, but for today…well, guess who we caught up with on our trip back to the car.  

Flit: verb

Movement ahead brings my eyes up 
from the stone-strewn path that 
demands my attention 

A red-bellied woodpecker 
moves quickly from tree to tree ahead of me 
flashing grey and red with frenetic bursts of flight

“Flit” is the word, isn’t it, for what I’m seeing?  

That’s always struck me as a written word — 
have I ever heard it said it aloud?  
I’ll do that, I decide, and twice declare it to the trees  

With the bird out of site, I drop my head and
start off once more, not quite flitting 
but with a step clearly lighter than before