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Oct 23, 2013 08:58AM

Into the woods: A familiar trail, seen anew

Sarah J. Gardner, sjgardner@qconline.com
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Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Sarah Gardner and Joe Gauthier follow a trail at Black Hawk State Historic Site.
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A species of wood aster photographed at Black Hawk State Historic Site on Sept. 23, 2013.
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A spiderweb hangs on the underside of a species of fiddleneck found at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island on Sept. 24, 2013.
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Cracked chestnut shells found on a mossy log at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Ill., on Sept. 27, 2013.
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There are trails we walk many times in life. They change with the seasons and the passing of years. We notice what is different as we hike: the leaves that color and fade, the gullies that erode into gulches, the flowers that spring up. All the while, we are changing, too. As time passes we bring new experiences into the woods and new abilities to perceive.

Lately, it's what I don't see that entrances me. What is right in front of me in the woods that I simply pass by, out of habit or inclination or lack of vocabulary? What do other people notice when they enter this same woods? Out of curiosity, I decided to invite three different people a meditation instructor, a biologist, and an artist on a walk for an hour at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island. The idea was simple: Follow the same trail each time, but allow the conversation to go where it will. What would we see?

Don't take everything else with you

"I love how it gives your mind space to think," says Joe Gauthier, who teaches meditation at the Lamrim Kadampa Buddhist Center in Davenport. Gesturing at the canopy of trees overhead, he adds, "There's enough here to keep you occupied, but there's space, too."

It's a Monday, sunny and warm. I feel especially lucky to leave the office for an hour in the woods. Gauthier, too, who talks about retreats he has attended where the opportunity to spend time outdoors has come as a welcome break in the meditation schedule. "When you're spending six to eight hours in meditation, you need to move. It helps everything synchronize," Gauthier explains. "We forget the mind and body are connected."

The trick, he says, is not to take everything else with you. As human beings, we love to bring distraction with us, and that can prevent us from seeing and experiencing what is happening in this woods in this moment.

Mulling the thought over, I say, "I've never really done this in an interview before, but do you think we could walk in silence for a few minutes and then share our impressions?" Grinning, Gauthier agrees.

We proceed down the trail. I take time to note the sandstone outcroppings we pass, the dusty spider webs hanging between layers of rock, the crunch of the same stone under our feet. We come at last to a bridge by the river, where we pause and Gauthier points to a bit of graffiti scrawled on the handrail. "The world is its own magic," it reads.

It seems uncanny, in more ways than one: even though my hands were resting next to the words, I had not noticed them. Instead, I had been thinking about another bridge on another trail. Gauthier, too, had been letting his mind wander, thinking about another time he had been on this same trail. "It's true that we have associations with everything," he says.

If you leave all that behind, I wonder, what takes its place? "The distraction gets replaced with a more direct experience of life," replies Gauthier.

I close my eyes and take in the crosstalk of crickets. Sounds good to me.

See a complexity you've never seen before

The moment a thin, dark garter snake slithers into a clump of grasses overhanging the boardwalk just ahead of us, it is clear which one of us is the biologist used to collecting animals in the field. Gingerly, I nudge the grasses with the toe of my boot, hoping to get another glimpse. Dr. Tim Muir, meanwhile, drops down into a crouch and begins moving the grasses aside with his bare hands.

Muir is a biologist on faculty at Augustana College in Rock Island who studies the physiology of animals. Only minutes before we had been discussing his suburban upbringing outside of Detroit, in which "time outdoors" generally meant being out on a athletic field, not in a woods catching animals.

Now raising two sons of his own Liam, 4, and Jude, 2, he often brings them to Black Hawk to visit the nature center and take walks in the forest. He's come to appreciate how such direct experiences of our natural surroundings can foster a sense of place. "Even just to know what kind of tree is in your backyard gives you a sense of rootedness; I hope our boys have that sense," he says.

His research into how cold-blooded animals, turtles in particular, function in low temperatures often brings him and his students out into nature, including to a spot not far from where we are walking. They gather turtle eggs to monitor the hatchlings in later months. "Turtles hibernate above the frost line, and as a result their blood turns to ice," he says, a fact so amazing, I repeat it back to him to make sure I understand it correctly.

As we follow the trail, Muir pauses from time to time to point out insects a brachonid wasp with a long, thin ovipositor that Muir explains is used to deposit eggs, a large shield bug that belongs to an order of insects known as "true bugs." I let it crawl onto my finger and we admire the hind legs, which look like bits of torn leaf.

Even though the insects aren't directly in his field of study, or the plants we pass that he points out along the way, Muir derives a clear sense of pleasure from being able to give a name to each. "If you stay out long enough, you'll see something you've never seen before," he offers. "Then it's more than just a walk."

It's an experience that isn't just restricted to being in the woods, either, he says. The unexpected can arise in our own backyards as well, if we take time to notice. Sometimes, while in his own yard with his children, Muir will give himself a few minutes to identify bird species.

"You only expect three or four (birds), but it's so easy to get to eight or nine species in a short time," he says. "That's comforting to me. Biodiversity is down worldwide, so to know it's not one species of bird, it's a community out there that is more complex than it is simple, that is a good thing."

Go slow, take it all in

By luck, I have picked a week of unbroken sunshine for these walks, but a chill in the air Friday that wasn't there on Monday tells me change is coming in the days ahead. So does the hickory by the parking lot. I have parked near it each time, but only today do I notice a change of color spreading through the leaves. Maybe because I am meeting an artist?

Kristin Quinn, a painter and art instructor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, approaches me briskly from the other end of the parking lot, her arm outstretched. She has brought along two pairs of binoculars, one for each of us, and has already been walking in the other side of the park. We've got our work cut out for us, she explains, enthusiastically.

"It's harder to spot birds now than in the spring. Because they aren't mating, they aren't singing. They aren't in their bright plumage," she says. "It's a real detective time of year."

And it's true, as we head into the woods very few bird calls are audible. Instead, we hear the rattle and clang of machinery at a quarry across the river, which only seems to grow louder as we descend the bluffs. We see a few birds as we follow the path, but not many. Some vireos. A lone cormorant flying upriver. A rather drab cardinal.

Quinn, who describes herself as a "wannabe birder," is drawn to the pastime because "I really like a puzzle. I love the idea of patterns and what's coming through," she says, sweeping her hand toward the trees. "It's the hunt. It's like painting. You never quite know what is going to emerge."

The practice, she says, has had a big impact on her work, and not just because birds often appear in her paintings. "It helped me create a layered space, looking through a layered space to find a bird," she explains. "Even the sounds, far and near, are layered."

I think about this, and about the tangle of branches the birds must navigate, as the trail curves back around and brings us alongside the tops of the trees. Only a few minutes ago, we had been walking among their trunks, silent and stately. But up here, there is a sudden burst of chirping and fluttering nearby: warblers, chickadees, wrens.

"Oh, this always happens!" Quinn exclaims. "Always when you are about to leave you see something. My friend and I have this trick where we jingle our keys and say, 'Leaving!' just to see what comes out."

The challenge for painters is to take something two-dimensional and make it three-dimensional, she says. This is one of the reasons she loves to take her students to outdoor spaces like Vander Veer Park in Davenport. How do you get that depth? How do you suggest water and wind? Figuring it out can be a little overwhelming for students, initially.

Her best advice? It works for art students and hiking enthusiasts alike. "Go slow," she says, and allow yourself to take in the sensory-rich environment.

Sarah J. Gardner is the editor of Radish magazine.

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