Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Things are Different Here

This Saturday, I went for a walk in the woods for the first time since moving to Memphis. It was an uncomfortable and bewildering experience. For the first time since moving here, I truly felt that I was in a strange place. A place I am not sure I belong.

For as long as I can remember, I've been at home among the trees. Instinctively, I was drawn to the woods. A tiny patch by the local high school was a favorite hide out as a child. When I got my license, I would drive out to state parks and spend hours walking the trails. The forests of North Jersey were more home than my parents house.

Yeah, you heard me. I know for a lot of people Jersey equals 'Jersey Shore', Atlantic City and the Turnpike. Let me show you my New Jersey.

Red Trail at the Tourne NJ by Steven Reynolds

Terrace Pond Trail Clearing by Steven Reynolds

Jockey Hollow, by Karendotcom127
These are the state parks and reservations that can be found throughout North Jersey. In the south, is the giant pine forest known as the Pine Barrens - an area bigger than Rhode Island. No matter what you see on TV, NJ is a beautiful area. And even growing up by Paramus (mall capital of the world) and off G.S. Parkway exit 63, I am still a child of Appalachia.

My biggest worry about moving to western Tennessee, was leaving the mountains and forests where I feel I truly belong. The move was necessary, the right thing for my family. And friends assured me that even if there were no mountains, there were forests a-plenty.

Saturday, I entered one of those forests. With the feeling of a weight lifting from my chest, I returned to the trees. I knew that in the green depths I would be welcome, and at peace. I knew it wasn't the woods of Appalachia, but it was a forest, and that, I thought, would be enough.

Instead I stepped into an new world.

In the forests I am familiar with, the trail and forest alike are carpeted with leaves. Trails are marked with small signs 'trail marks' - usually just a square of paint - on the trees. The trail marks aren't close together - you can usually only see one at any given time. If you walk a dozen paces off the trail, and lose sight of the next trail mark, you can cross the trail a dozen times looking for it, and never know. The trail is an invention of man, and except for the trail marks, no different from the rest of the forest floor.

In this strange woodland, the trail is a dark brown blaze against a riot of green. I'm sure there are leaves beneath the verdant growth, but they are hidden by vines, bushes, and saplings. If I were to step off the trail two feet I would not be able to see the trail, because it would be hidden by this overgrown jungle. Assuming I could step off the trail, without a machete to hack my way through the undergrowth. It is almost disturbing to know that if I stumbled back onto the trail I would recognize it immediately.

The mountainous parks and reservations I am used to are filled with granite outcroppings, low ridge lines, dried water courses that turn into raging streams in the spring melt. The underbrush is thin unless the forest has been disturbed - the wide branching trees block the light, greedily crowding out their lesser siblings.

Here, tall, narrow trees stretch upwards, with no branches or wide limbs. A sudden narrow burst of leaves at their top makes them look like tiny umbrellas with huge shafts. The trucks of these lithe giants often twist and turn, reminding me of dancers frozen in place. They do nothing to block the light from their small siblings, and even the greatest tree is surrounded by a burgeoning court of greenery. Often the trees themselves are overgrown with vines, forming shaggy monstrosities that fit perfectly in their madcap world.

I am used to silent woods. In the dry seasons, one is accompanied by the crackle of leaves beneath ones feet. Occasionally a bird will call, or a squirrel with disturb the underbrush before darting up a tree. Otherwise, all is quiet. It is a good place to hear God's whisper

This forest has a voice that never stops. Frogs sing in constant counterpoint to cicadas, whose drone rises and falls at unpredictable intervals. The bird calls, at least, are almost the same. But the constant hum of these woods is a pressure on my ears, a weight on my mind that disquiets me even while it sings of peace and life and growth.

I am welcome in these woods, among these trees. I feel, as I always have, the green things and those that live among them. Stranger that I am, they whisper that I belong here. That the paved and manicured lands in which I live are just a stopping place, and my true home is among the woodlands that call to my heart and soul.

Yet here, in the woods that call out welcome, I feel for the first time a stranger. I have been told, constantly, that things are different in the south. I felt no culture shock, no dislocation here. There were things that were different, but no more different than Pennsylvania is from Jersey, or both are from the City. Walking into the woods, the welcoming woods that whisper of home, for the first time I truly felt it - things are different here.

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