This piece is part of the Excursions series.
I don’t get much company on my daily walks in the wild places of south central Illinois. This isn’t surprising. These are neither lovely nor pleasant places. These are small patches of woods sectioned off between poisoned cornfields and along the various muddy creeks. They have been logged too many times and are littered with no trespassing signs, old barbed wire, and beer cans from deer hunters from seasons past. Throughout these impoverished woods are the ever-present bush honeysuckle and autumn olive, two invasive species that have conquered the understory. They grow fast and leaf out sooner than most natives, so they choke out the plants that long ago learned to live together in this place. The presence of these invasives along with the absence of fire has made these woods a difficult tangle where the way, if there is a way at all, is always thin and winding, and seldom can one see farther than fifty yards ahead. In places, the shrub layer is so thick that one must go on all fours to get through, as I have done more than once, and this denseness means there is very little breeze, so the summertime humidity here, already oppressive, is made worse. And the few openings I find have already been found by spiders whose webs will inevitably find their way into my hair and across my face and into my mouth. And of course, the chiggers and ticks and mosquitos and poison ivy. And the occasional patch of multiflora rose, another abundant invasive, this one with delightfully recurved thorns that are not forgotten when found and avoided ever after.
My only regular companion is Rambo, a shelter dog still recovering from heartworms, who is easy to please and comes gleefully with me each day. We’re friends, but we have very different ways about us: I like to walk slowly and look and listen; he is led everywhere by his nose, always frantically on the hunt for what he can find, and one day, he tells himself, he will catch that deer or squirrel or rabbit. He hasn’t yet, but he’s a wonderfully cheerful failure. He’s good company. He never complains, and seems to enjoy this awful place as much as I do, but even he wearies, and after a few hours I catch that look in his eyes telling me, don’t you think we should be going home now?
Sometimes I wonder why I am sweating and itching and spitting out spiderwebs. And sometimes people ask, not specifically why I walk these woods but why I live here at all. You see, I went to college. I have three advanced degrees, and growing up it was always assumed that if you were fortunate enough and smart enough to go to college you went so that you could leave this place. Most of my friends from high school moved away a long time ago. Why are you here, they ask, directly or indirectly. Usually, I shrug it off, but sometimes after a few glasses of wine I might tell them the story about when I did live away from this place and then came back for the first time. It is the story of my mystical experience on I57. I had not been homesick and was quite happy living where I was then living (at least at that time), but driving back home that day on I57, I suddenly felt that I was not simply coming home but returning to my body. It was an idea that felt like a presence. This land is my body. This place is me. I am part of it. I don’t know of any other way to put it.
I suppose, too, that there is something almost Christian about loving a place that others have scorned. Jesus went among the publicans and prostitutes, the poor and wayward. I spend my days with snakeroot, hackberry, jimson weed, the prickly greenbrier, and mudstone. And I admire them not that they might become better one day, but simply for what they are as they are. Does not every place, like everyone, need love, need someone to say you’re special, too? So, I guess you could say I’m doing a good deed, but I’m not going to put you on. I don’t do this to do good.
In the Tao Te Ching, we read that the sage regards nothing as large or small. We climb mountains, but the ant climbs the long cylindrical mountains of the redbud. And is not the little pill bug’s exploration of the intricately rotting sycamore like a human discovering Mammoth Cave? Take your telescope and look out into all that infinite vastness of space, and then take your microscope and look into the infinite vastness of the little spaces. In every direction from everywhere, it goes on forever, and every new moment is a place of wonder. It is all miraculous. And here’s the thing. Yes, you may experience the wonders of nature in Yosemite or Yellowstone, but if you are truly seeing the wonder for what it is, then you know you can see it in any wild place no matter how small or insignificant. You can see the miracle in a teaspoon of creek water. It is the mystery of creation, an ever-unfolding extravagance which miracles forth every moment. It is not far away. It is right here, today, at home.
Not too long ago, I made a new friend. I was participating in the Plants of Concern Program, which monitors rare and threatened plants in Illinois. We were looking for the blueheart, Buchnera americana. We were hiking in a remnant prairie clinging to the limestone bluffs of Monroe County. The way was thick and steep and stony, and the afternoon sun on the westward facing slope beat us down. We were sore and thirsty, so we stopped for a rest; he told me that he’s never had a bad day out here. I knew exactly what he meant because I had marveled at it many times, too: that, in the wild places of the world, no matter how superficially unlovely or unpleasant, this is the thing itself, filled with such beauty and wonder. The mystery of contact and presence. The magic of the simple face of existence. It is here. Look at it. The spider whose morning work you just destroyed in your walking–stop, turn around and watch. Observe her auburn body and her brown and beige striped legs. Those strange eyes. The poise and grace and dedication. The unflappableness of her doing what she does every day. Sit there and watch her at her work. Then, this time, don’t walk through her web but reach out and touch it. You will see that there are two different kinds of silk: the support strands going to and from the center that are not sticky and the lateral strands that are. I love little things like that. It’s all so amazing.
About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.