Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hiking with Tom Bombadil on Hale

(Photo courtesy of Ken Stampfer.)

This winter our hikes are decided by various factors, the two most important being the weather and my Lyme Disease. On Saturday I was not feeling all that well and the day didn’t look as though it was going to be a great one so the choice was Hale. Even with the road closure it is a relatively easy hike and takes us less than five hours. While we waited in hopes of being joined by friends at the Zealand Road parking area various groups were gearing up. After realizing that they probably weren’t going to show I decided to beat the rush and we made our way down the road towards the gate barring Zealand Road.

Most folks don’t like these gated winter roads but I have come to accept them for what they are. For me, where there is a gate, there may be more miles but there is also the promise of entering another world and leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Mythology is rife with meaningful gates. They represent transition from one world to the next and signify new beginnings and entering a special, magical and mysterious place. The Romans even had a god for gates: Janus, whom the month of January was named after. A new year; a new beginning. Leaving behind one world and entering the next.

And so we left behind Rt. 302 and crossed beyond the barrier to Zealand Road and before long we were striding along a road, much of it was simply frozen mud, dotted with puddles. A road walk eases me into a hike and lets my mind wander. Even over the barren road and through trees both bare and gray and with little sign of snow it was easy to find my mind drifting into a dream world of pure pleasure and simplicity. As always I took inventory of my body and my breathing, an exercise that turns into a meditation for me. I know of no more simple pleasure than man and beast walking in harmony no matter the day or the weather or the season, accompanied on occasion by a birdsong or the wind overhead.

On days such as this one it is easy to relate to Tolkien, who believed there was magic in the woods and mountains. I could feel my imagination melding with what must have been his thoughts as he walked in woods a century earlier. I emptied myself of all my worries and let my thoughts come and go as they pleased and as always we turned from a man and dog to a boy and dog and soon even my Lyme aches and pains were forgotten as we were swallowed whole by the day.

When walking among trees I often think of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil, who hosted the hobbits in “The Fellowship of the Ring”:

He then told them many remarkable stories, sometimes half as if speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.

The magic settled in around us and we could feel the woods pulsing, almost see the cloud-shrouded Hale exhaling and inhaling. But no sooner had my imagination allowed me to enter into the world of hobbits, elves, dwarfs and wizards than we were accosted by the sound of a loud and aggressive beast. It was no troll, no army of orcs, but a manmade beast. A huge lumber truck was racing up the road with two large, rattling trailers. We stood off by the side as the truck raced by. The day had changed.

I could tell we were getting closer to where they were stripping the land of trees because of the noise of machinery and falling trees and the noxious smell of engines in the clean mountain air. Off to the side of the road there is place where trees once stood and it is now rutted and raped and open, the remnants of trees are strewn about and it was as sad a sight as I have ever seen in these mountains or in any woods I have ever traveled through. And Tom Bombadil came back to mind as I stood side-by-side with Atticus looking at this huge scar left in the woods:
As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home. Moving constantly in and out of his talk was Old Man Willow, and Frodo learned now enough to content him, indeed more than enough, for it was not comfortable lore. Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs. [pp.127-128]

“…gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers…” The words echoed in my head and wouldn’t rest until I repeated them out loud. And even then the chorus repeated on occasion.

We moved down the road towards the Hale Brook Trail only to realize they were now clearing out trees right next to the trail. I was stunned to see how close to the trail they were and once again saddened.

I’m no fool, I know the lumbering goes on in these forests but I also know that it’s done with permission granted by the Forest Service, the same Forest Service that preaches “Leave no trace”. And the same Forest Service that has gone to war with hikers concerning the Owl’s Head trail. And yet this is the same government agency that has spray-painted so many of these trees with a bright blue mark to show what should be taken down.

But why so close to the trail? And as we climbed up the trail it was easy to see that the carnage paralleled the trail for a good long ways.

Leave no trace.

Yes, cutting trees is allowed here, but here in the White Mountains National Forest the main industry is supposed to be tourism. And here these fellows were with their heavy and loud machines romping over the land, showing no care or concern for what they trampled, even if it wasn’t marked in blue, and on a holiday weekend when hikers would be going in large groups to and from Zealand Hut by way of the road.

The climb up and down the Hale Brook Trail took a backseat to what I had seen and it was still going on as we returned to Zealand Road. We walked past the active machinery and tried to figure out the rhyme and reason of the Forest Service. We soon came to a father and his young son and daughter walking hand-in-hand up Zealand Road. The children were probably between six and eight and they were delighted to be headed to the hut, not for an overnight but for “tea time”. It instantly brought back memories of my own childhood and the seeds sewn by father and the way his love of the mountains and the woods were handed down to his children. After chatting we parted ways but before too long the father and his children were forced off to the side of the road by another logging truck moving rapidly down the road splashing through the mud puddles.

“…gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers…”

On the suddenly long walk out along Zealand Road I thought of those two small children and the memories they would carry with them into adulthood of this walk with their father. Would they think of the magical woods or of the overbearing machinery?

Before too long I came upon a birch tree with an incriminating blue mark spray painted on it. And yet it wasn’t deep in the woods and wasn’t even on the same side of the road where they were cutting tress and was just above the shores of the river and I felt badly for this tree and its fate and wondered why it too was chosen. I had plenty to think about on the way back to the car and in the ride back to the cabins.

A main theme to Tolkien’s writing was about how the industrial movement was ruining the environment. He understood its importance, but also understood that it had a place and he wanted to protect the special places he knew of. It’s too bad the Forest Service doesn’t approach its job with the same sensitivity towards the environment. Perhaps Tolkien should be required reading.

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