Invitation to Sanctuary

(Appeared in Blue Ridge Syndicate, 7/2/2001)

I’ve been walking Spartanburg, South Carolina’s Cottonwood Trail a few times a week for the past 10 years. There’s nothing epic about my three-and-a-half mile ramble out and back along Lawson’s Fork Creek. It’s not Yellowstone or the Appalachian Trail. It’s an ordinary Southern suburban trail twisting through a flood plain and under a wide power line right-of-way. It’s also my local sanctuary: a great place to walk, my nearby nature, safely protected by a conservation easement. It’s not the kind of place-or so I thought-where an environmental activist would put up much of a fight.

The maintenance of our green space is casual at best. There’s no government crew watching over it. Mostly, those who use the trail keep it passable. After thunderstorms, we’ve seen fallen oaks block the trail for a week until someone finally cranks up his personal chain saw and clears a path through the smaller branches. We know that sooner or later the local conservation group that holds the easement on this 50 acres of bottomland will cut the tree into manageable lengths and roll the rounds into the weeds.

It doesn’t take much to prepare for a trip to the trail. Three seasons a year it’s hot enough in Spartanburg for shorts. I walk as often in sandals as in trail shoes or boots. All but the coldest days my dogs, Toby and Ellie Mae, head down the high bank and dip in the creek to cool off. If my footgear is right, I’ll wade in after them, watching the spent shells of freshwater clams on the creek bottom wash downstream in the current.

I often loose the dogs at the same spot on the trail, a shallow crossing, an old wildlife path intersecting the human one. It’s here where boot and bike tracks mingle with hoof or paw prints, where the dogs catch a scent and zigzag away through the dense cover after a deer or raccoon or other remnant resident of Southern wildness.

Am I selling myself and my bioregion short with my contentment for the Cottonwood Trail? Should I always walk this suburban trail with hopes that someday wildness will return-that wolf and panther will come back?

Last year one of my friends, an environmental activist, a lover of wilderness and restoration, came to visit. We walked the Cottonwood Trail, but it didn’t seem to give her much peace. All she could see was the privet and Japanese honeysuckle, the kudzu and knapweed. “Invasives! Exotics!” she declared, ready to do battle with these plants that were not part of the original Southern landscape.

I pointed out how good it feels to walk next to the creek, so close to home. She said that might be true, but there was a war going on around us, a struggle between native and non-native species. She couldn’t ignore it, had to take sides. She was quickly off the trail, pulling up privet by the roots and snapping off honeysuckle. She told me that I could change things, that an hour’s work an evening and the whole bottom could be cleared of invasive plants.

But I didn’t want to think about our path as a battleground. The Cottonwood Trail is where I come to relax, to run the dogs, to think, and drift into the hazy distances. It’s my escape from pavement and lawns. I know it’s not wild, and sometimes I even like it better that way. I love the red-tailed hawk soaring, but I also anticipate the hum of the grid, the power lines overhead. I even like meditating about the privet, which is like some horticultural slave escaped long ago from a pioneer yard.

I wonder if my friend ever saw our trail as we see it, packed hard by local walkers, joggers, and mountain bikers seeking sanctuary. She clearly saw its long local history-same as everywhere else in the South-a thorny record of human use and abuse. She saw what you’ll see on the edge of Richmond, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Knoxville. Most areas we call “green space” in the South today were “exploited but now abandoned,” as Michael Godfrey puts it in his Naturalist’s Guide to the Piedmont.

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure,” Thoreau said in his essay “Walking.” The New England countryside this naturalist tramped in the 1840s was as badly compromised as our Spartanburg creek bottom.

Like Thoreau, my adventure comes from returning to explore the same nearby landscape over and over. There are paths much like my Cottonwood Trail threading along all of our cities’ tattered green margins. Walk them this summer. Watch for signs. Find out where the deer cross, where the dogs are distracted into the underbrush. When they run, ask yourself: “What does wild mean?”

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