An older Irish man who lived alone would walk two hours from his house to catch the bus to the nearest fishing village. He’d spend the day walking around the familiar streets, have a meal, take the bus back and walk another two hours home again. When his neighbors finally asked him why he made the same trip over and over again he replied:
“Pity the man that doesn’t travel.”
While pulling trash out of a gully along the side of Snake Hill Road in Chepachet, Mindy and I came across some small patches of horsetails. I had just taken hold of the corner of an old, thoroughly buried black plastic bag. I could hear the crunchy, crinkling sound of old trash inside. Whoever had dumped it had done a poor job tying it off or over the years the knot had finally slipped and belched out some of the garbage. The hard plastic that lay around it, laundry detergent and milk bottles and such, were now bleached and brittle, crumbling into smaller and smaller pieces. The tiniest fragments of the desiccating containers would be impossible to fully remove. It would take the Herculean effort of sifting the wet, root-filled soil to the fraction of a millimeter, which is a disturbance and time commitment that would be hard to justify.
I held the old trash bag by the corner. It was mostly sealed in the ground, covered in washed out soil that had since become home for roots of tending trees, sedges, grasses, vines, forbs, and horsetails. I had dislodged a shallow wedge of sod in order to get a grip on the bag and it immediately began to tear as I tugged at it. Instead of shredding it and making matters worse I improvised a small-scale landfill on the spot. I tucked the corner of the frayed black trash bag back into the muddy groove I had exposed. Then I slapped the wet sod back on top of it and dedicated my limited time to easier objectives. My little landfill sits in a notch below the gentle tilt of a wetland and the steep embankment of the road. With each wet season a little more soil will be deposited in that low place until the 21st century relic I could not evict will be firmly ensconced in the geological record of what people once called southern New England.
Mindy and I were out on a beautiful spring Saturday morning in April, slightly damp from evening showers and cool. Everything glistened in the cloudy light and lots of plants were pushing out of their dormancy. The red maple had already begun shedding its blossoms and the hard crimson color of the sprouting poison ivy was littered with piles of washed maple flowers, something of a sickly brown, grey, pink. Wild cherry buds were swelling, and dozens of different perennial herbs already had formed proud rosettes and upright stalks. In another week this ground-cover community of green, red, and purple plants would thoroughly shade out much of the trash we were unable to remove. Of all the spring growth we saw the horsetails were the most captivating. Small and feathery with their tiny upturned whorls of microphylls they resemble nothing else that grows around them.
Horsetails and Scouring Rushes are two common names for plants of the Equisetum genus. In Rhode Island four different species can be found. These plants are quite ancient in evolutionary terms. Most of the plants people are familiar with are seed bearing plants. Seed bearing plants form flowers and fruits like an oak tree or a dandelion, or they make cones like a pine tree. Flowers are the most recent major adaptation plants have made in seed production, developing complex cross-pollination relationships facilitated by animals, insects primarily. In flowering seed bearing plants the developing seed is protected inside the ripened ovary of the flower, which becomes the fruit. Flowering plants are the most successful and therefore the most abundant and diverse plants globally. Previous to the evolution of flowers plants developed “naked seeds”, seeds unprotected by fruits but housed safely in woody cones that we see hanging from conifers. Prior to the evolutionary development of seeds, plants like ferns, lycopods, cycads, horsetails and mosses evolved to reproduce by spreading spores about, similar to fungi.
These spore-shedding seedless vascular plants were some of the earliest plants to colonize the land and Equisetum are the living descendents of ancient horsetail species that once covered much of the planet. More than three hundred million years ago the order that horsetails belongs to enters the fossil record. It consisted of many genera and species, some of them massive in size. The genus Calamites was tree-sized, a horsetail that sprouted off a horizontal rhizome much like modern day quaking aspen trees. Calamites grew to be over sixty feet tall forming trunks of dense silica that must have been stronger than any tree of modern comparison. The horsetails Mindy and I noticed in contrast were about two or three inches tall, and might grow to be a foot or two by the summer. All of the ancient genera in this taxa, like Calamites and others, are extinct. All of them are gone from planet Earth… except Equisetum.
Thinking about the giant ancestors of these humble plants on the side of the road in rural Rhode Island reminded me of a trip we took to Sequoia National Park. The giant sequoias, unlike their sister trees the coastal redwoods, grow in the high Sierras. Driving up and up through the park you pass through several distinct ecosystems. Eventually you reach an altitude where you begin to see the huge trees here and there. By the time you reach the high points of the mountains the giants are all around you, some standing tall and wide while others lean in precarious postures, growing crookedly for presumably hundreds of years. From the visitors center you have the option of taking a shuttle bus to the grove where the General Sherman tree is found. Many of the trees there are named for Civil War era personalities such as U.S. Grant, Tecumseh Sherman, and Abraham Lincoln. Being in the presence of these ancient creatures makes you wonder how many years it will take until the nineteenth century human names will be sloughed off and forgotten like the millennia of old bark that is constantly being shed and replaced by the giant trees.
Instead of the shuttle the other option is to walk the short distance to the big grove. It was probably a quick one to two-mile hike but despite the parking lot being full of cars Mindy and I had the trails primarily to ourselves. We passed some people here and there, yet we had many opportunities to be alone with the sequoias we found along the way. Walking through this stunning, quiet forest felt similar to other places I’ve been in California, Arizona, and Chile. Like Muir Woods where the coastal redwoods grow above a carpet of purple wood sorrel and the boardwalks are shaded and quiet you feel like you’re inside a cathedral. California landscapes in particular always seem to push against the boundaries of gorgeousness, almost impossibly grand.
The reverence you might feel for such a profound landscape is very often a humbling experience. Again, the grandness of it all can be very overwhelming. Returning to our own simple places in the world might make them seem all the more drab in comparison. I don’t think so. Huddled down under the splitting cherry blossoms, among the trash and the horsetails may not exhibit the same awe-inspiring vista but the simple beauty and divine normalcy of this natural setting I think provides equal value. After all these simple places are the ones we inhabit on a daily basis. Together they form a quilt of ecosystems, something like gaining altitude in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Driving from Chepachet where pine warblers and pileated woodpeckers live, and where spring blooms are sometimes two weeks behind, to Aquidneck Island where it’s salt and wind whipped scrub grow in tangles, seem like another world. In our corner of the state we see the previews of northern forests, with red pine and striped maple scattered around while traveling to Washington county provides a more southern feel with it’s inkberry, bearberry, and pitch pine.
Burdened by our limited ability to conceptualize between private and public concepts of landscapes many of us see nature in a myopic way. Nature is where the land trust and Audubon parking lots provide access. Nature is some precious or frustratingly unkempt part of our property, maybe a city park, or a national forest. It is a difficult and heart-braking sentiment to consider, say, all of route 6 as part of your natural inheritance. Most of the natural landscape we live in seems to in a state of constant vulnerability. It seems to inevitably be awaiting some undemocratic, unnatural disaster, veering helplessly towards the rampaging blight of progress. It is undeniable that our mental health and satisfaction, albeit often subconsciously, are tied to the larger natural settings we reside in: our yards, our streets, our neighborhoods, our towns, our cities, our state. The conduits we use are precious to us wether we acknowledge it or not. For instance, a farmer down the road is cutting down his healthy peach trees. It must be some clause in the purchase contract he signed when he sold his farm, to clear out all the trees. My wife can’t even drive by that property lately. With the limbs scattered around the cursed orchard this private piece of property is suddenly a wellspring for public sorrow, a loss of character, a loss of sustenance and the stunting of shared natural beauty.
Grand places like Sequoia can be and are taken for granted of course. At Mindy’s urging I’ve edited more than a few biting quips from this story about how flippantly the groves were regarded by the people being shuttled back and forth from the parking lot. But of course for me too there was an enormous feeling of disconnection from this place, something similar to how I felt in the Andes, or in Yosemite Valley. It’s something similar to a no place like home feeling, but I think somehow more closely related to the removal of obstacles of time and space it requires to visit such a place.
We live in a world where traveling from the east coast of the United States to the west coast can be accomplished in six hours. There is something I think inherently dumbing in this, something that corrupts our sense of place and our concern for places. An explicit example of this type of perversion might be when we get frustrated about interruptions in our travel plans. Sitting on the tarmac for an extra hour or two strikes many of us as an inexcusable violence to our person. Some of the earliest American immigrants to California came there during the gold rush of the 1840s when it required six months to make the same trip. Maybe there would be one or two literate people in the party that could read to the kids to pass the days and months a trip like this demanded. Now being without Wi-Fi for half a day on a plane ride is almost unbearable.
Yosemite Valley was “discovered” by white Californians in 1851 when a militia was sent to remove the Awahnechee tribe from the area. These Native Californians had Yosemite Valley as their traditional homeland. These people knew this valley in a way that is basically unknowable today, knew it as food basket, church, a sentient provider. With their removal it became a tourist destination almost immediately, was sanctioned as a protected site by the Lincoln administration, and led the way for the creation of the National Park system some decades later. It was famously a temporary home and inspiration to John Muir who herded sheep and worked at a lumber mill in the valley. Today landscapes like Yosemite are primarily if not solely used for recreation. Those deeper, soul-deep utilities have been developed out of them through conservation, the great “othering” of Nature. In the words of Bill Bryson Nature is becoming more and more a place “that you drive to.”
The dispossession from Native People of these beautiful and bountiful national parks was nearly universal, is well understood, and is not repaired. What we have been starting to understand now is the historical mismanagement these ecosystems underwent once bereft of their original stewards. The disarticulation of people from place creates an ecological corruption that rips the heart out of the human-nature bond. Nature becomes more of a museum in this picture, a fictitious undisturbed canvas that is really just a hall of mirrors.
This sequestering of Nature “out there” somewhere works in another direction as well. Society has managed to disarticulate our hearts from the simple places, the public-emotional investment we all share in the land. Is it because fenced in and profoundly beautiful landscapes are ever at our grasp, within a drive or quick flight? I can be in Muir Woods in seven hours; about the same amount of time it would take me to drive to Acadia National Park in Maine. Why should I care then if a simple peach orchard falls to development? Is that why it’s acceptable for a hayfield to become an industrial park, or a meadow a gas station? Have we supersized our minds out of an appreciation for the simple places in Nature?
More and more people swell high profile natural places for pleasure and thrill seeking. On our most recent trip to California the parking at Muir Woods in Marin required a preordered reservation made a month in advance. Hiking Mount Everest these days can mean you’re standing in line near the top waiting for the privilege of holding the summit for a few seconds. In 1953 two people are recorded to have summited Mount Everest. Twenty-two people reached the summit in one day in May 2022. This kind of anthill tourism centers the question for me: What am I looking for here?
Our ideal of beautiful places is a panned-out, wide angled view. We travel around the world to see these impossibly beautiful landscapes to revel in them. Awe is why we’ve come. The privilege of being close to the oldest, the largest, the most unspeakably resolute things on earth is a draw. The history and natural history of these places is fascinating and by being among them we feel as if we are, even if atomically so, part of that story.
I saw that. I felt that. I was there.
Yet even the giant sequoia bares the small, modest cones of its humbler cousin the cedar. You can pick up these cones on the boardwalks, pry open their scales and find the small seeds inside. With your eyes focused on these simple beginnings, when you narrow your wide-angle down for a moment, you can be reminded that the nature you have arrived at here is the same nature you left behind at home. When I do that the question that comes to me is not why did I come but why did I leave? What have I left? What have I lost? What has been taken from me while I wasn’t looking?
My parents impending divorce was greeted by me with a massive sigh of relief. Not because my parents fought viscously or used me as a pawn in their splitting up. Things were difficult during those years but nothing egregious was going on that made my daily life miserable, or really even terribly uncomfortable.
At some point shortly before they decided to divorce, my parents had bought some land and contracted an architect to draw up plans for a new home. The land they were planning on building on was at the other end of the road; a mile or two from where we lived. A small, undeveloped road bordered the land they purchased. It was abutted by a preserve where hayfields, woods, and an old dilapidated hydroelectric station resided. There were no homes yet on this stretch of road. My parents were going to be the first people to build there.
I can still remember how my body went cold when they rolled out the plans to show me our future home, pointing out where my bedroom was going to be. I didn’t mind the idea of leaving our current house. My brother and sisters were a lot older than me and had already left home. It was a big house for three people. But I did not want anything to do with the dissolution of that quiet, simple landscape that they had purchased. I made the trek down to those woods and to that hydroelectric station on a weekly basis to write and draw and think. It could not have been a more typical, more mundane place. There were ticks, hundreds of them. There was stinging nettle and poison ivy. But there was peace down there, a simple, steady, and unprovoked settling. It was my first church. If it were to be a backyard, even if it was left in its current state, it would have been, in my eyes, desecrated. How could a place like that be behind something else? It was holy because it was, at least in veneer, untouched… at least unmanaged, at least away. It was not oriented to a human compass. After all, if a backyard would have sufficed I wouldn’t have walked the four miles round trip to go there.
It’s the simple places like this where people throw their trash at the feet of plants like Equisetum, creatures that have traveled over vast amounts of time to join us here in the now. These are the little treasures that we often don’t see, don’t value, and so inevitably loose. These are the places where the animals that children love hide from us. Some of the most unusual things on earth are common there. Skunk cabbage for instance is one of three plant species on the planet that can regulate its own body temperature. The mottled spathes warm the ground in February and melt the snow. Their massive leaves come later, filling in the wet places that we haven’t managed to develop yet, feed wildlife, and amaze those of us who pay attention to them. As much as I love blue violets I would be proud if skunk cabbage was Rhode Island’s state flower.
Simple places are our true inheritance. The grand parks that we treasure, if you resided in them, foraged in them, grew your crops in them, would also become mundane to you. How could a landscape like Yosemite become common? The same way route 6 has become common, or west main road on Aquidneck Island has fallen to mediocrity. These gorgeous landscapes became mundane, became commodities, and then became the wastelands they are now.
A farmer I know asked her grandfather why he never traveled. On his farm, he said, “I already live in the most beautiful place on earth.” As is clear, I do love to travel and, like the thousands of others who visit them every year, I love the national parks. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some beautiful places but I am richer for having the quiet woods of nettle as a child. I enjoy being in places like Sequoia where ambrosia is on tap but I need to be able to go home and still have my common cup of tea in comfort and beauty with the horsetails. The great cathedrals of Nature are to be revered and honored but no less than the little churches of peace and grace in our world.
Did you go to the woods to find yourself?
There is no self.
Did you learn there how to treat others?
There are no others.