Marnie, my sister, told me this story about a walk she took with her friend Bethany. One morning in late February, they went to Nelson Memorial Forest in North Marshfield, a 130-acre parcel bordered by the North River and Cove Creek, and managed by the New England Forestry Foundation. The trail by which one may access the property tends to be muddy throughout the late winter and early spring; I warned Marnie of this when she told me her plans for the walk. She had already put on her hiking boots, and she said she’d make sure that Bethany wore hers as well.
Thanks to a volunteer group known as Friends of Nelson Forest, the first hundred feet or so of the trail leading to this property has been bolstered by a 1-foot deep layer of wood chips which, so far, keeps the walkway relatively dry. This could be considered an extravagance (our own version of Yosemite’s paved trails?), but upon reaching the end of the wood chips, it becomes clear that such a buffer is a necessity. The raised portion of the path ends abruptly, and if you’re not paying attention, you can step calf-deep into some thick, slick, boot-sucking mud.
A few years ago, one could avoid the muddy parts of the trail by walking on the high sides of this rutted logging road. But over time these dry sections have worn down, and since the brush on either side of the path doesn’t always permit easy passage along the perimeter, sometimes there isn’t much choice but to slog through the mud. Still, a willingness to proceed slowly and a deftness in leaping from tussock to tussock will get you to the end of the trail with dry feet.
As the story goes, Marnie and Bethany were walking along this trail, on their way back, I think, from a stroll through the drier paths of the forest itself. Bethany had indeed worn boots, but she had chosen the low-cut kind, so while Marnie was content to march straight through the mud puddles, Bethany was skirting them as best she could. A sprightly soul, she was doing a pretty good job of it, but before they reached the wood chips, Bethany slipped. As her foot sunk in deep, she could feel the mud oozing over the uppers of her boot and into her sock.
Bethany was just back from a 3-month journey in India — the adventuresome type, she was certainly not the kind of person who would be swayed by a shoe-full of mud. She laughed, and then attempted to extricate her foot from the quagmire. The foot came free . . . but not the boot.
Standing on one leg, stranded in the middle of a mud puddle, she called out to her companion for help. But before Marnie could come to the rescue, Bethany had lost her balance. The choice was to place that shoeless foot down in the soft, wet earth or risk falling in completely. The foot came down, and Bethany took her first step into spring.
Losing one’s shoe in a dense patch of mud, while amusing, is not remarkable. It’s an experience that just about all of us who regularly spend time outdoors have in common. But what about losing two shoes? Bethany retrieved her boot from its earthbound hold, even got it back on her foot, but when she set forth on the path, she found that her other shoe was now stuck in the mud. . . so stuck that she could not move her foot without leaving the shoe behind. Before long, her other, now shoeless foot was firmly planted in the ground. She departed the forest that day, shoes in hand, promenading through the mud puddles in her socks.
Springtime is mud time, and with all the rain and mild temperatures we’ve had these past two months, winter has been pretty soggy as well. I actually enjoy the mud. In fact I like it so much that upon hearing this story, I put on my tallest boots and set off for my own hike through Nelson Forest.
The last day of February started off sunny and relatively warm: a good day for walking. But by the time I arrived at the forest, late in the day, clouds had filled the sky and a light mist was in the air. There was only one other car parked at the entrance to the forest, but it was clear once I reached the trail that quite a number of people had been to the woods that day. The muddy path was filled with fresh footprints, most of them several inches deep.
With good boots, and absolutely no intention of keeping them clean, I was free to slog through the mud at will. Instead of avoiding the puddles, I headed straight for them. The winter-stripped forest was dark and almost devoid of color, but the squish and bubble of mud gave it new life.
Inhaling deeply, I noted the rich scent of the damp woods . . . “mudluscious” as e.e. cummings would say, and rife with spring. The small, promising heads of crocuses had just begun to peek out of the ground. Thanks to the low-lying fog, I could even smell the ocean. “It’s good to be outside,” I thought to myself.
Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about striking a balance between being and doing. Americans in particular tend to be doing things all the time. We are so set on achieving something, on accomplishing more and more, that we rarely, if ever, take time to contemplate and appreciate what already exists.
I could consider the mud puddles a metaphor. In the past, when walking down that path in the springtime, I focused all of my attention on avoiding the puddles, finding ways to leap from one dry spot to another, all the way down the trail. With my mind — and eyes — thus set on the placement of my feet, I never really took the time to look around. As I saw it, the forest didn’t really begin until I reached the far end of the path, where a sign declaring “nature preserve” was posted high on a tree.
But this time, liberated from the need to keep my boots clean, I was free to look around, to see this section of the trail, not just trudge through it. I could appreciate it as a place, and not just an obstacle blocking my way from the parking lot to the forest. The trail, bordered on one side by an old stone wall, and by a meadow on the other, was just as much a part of the nature preserve as the hemlock grove, the salt marsh, or the tree-lined clearing at the river’s edge that was my destination for the day. More than just a series of mud puddles, the trail had a character all its own.
by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.