The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become. This is one of the reasons why we feel such a profound and apparently disproportionate anguish when a loved landscape is altered out of recognition; we lose not only a place, but ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of our life.
~ Margaret Drabble A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature
The Perkiomen Trail is close to home and a regular haunt for me. The 20-mile trail is a place of recreation, exhilaration, peace, reflection, solace, and education. In the 9 years I have walked and biked the trail it has changed. It changes seasonally, trading carpets of spring ephemerals for the russet and burgundy of fallen leaves in Autumn. But I have not witnessed anything so drastic as the change I saw upon returning to my favorite local outdoor place in early June this year.
While away visiting the big trees of northern California at home destruction was being wrought by straight-line winds gusting up to 110 miles per hour. The storm also came with flash flooding of the Perkiomen Creek and the many other smaller tributaries coursing through the region. Luckily, my woodland home was spared damage from downed trees, but the same cannot be said for many in the area. Homes along the Perkiomen Creek were particularly hard hit by both flooding and the strong winds toppling trees. Unlike Ms. Drabble’s statement above – in this case the landscape changed drastically and quickly.
Wandering the trail a few times in the summer after this storm and tubing down the center of the creek behind homes I was able to see the large mounds of leaves that were once 100 feet in the air now cluttering the understory, the creek edge and the yards of many homes. The buzz of chainsaws and rumble of equipment echoed through the Perkiomen Valley as people began the work of clean up and damage assessment.
The downed trees ran in two directions. Some down in the direction the strong winds were blowing while others down in the opposite direction, the way the flood waters were flowing. If you aren’t in the depth of the destruction, worrying about the insurance companies, time off from work and where you are going to sleep, you can reflect on the message of yin and yang in the trees down on the ground. The green leaves once high up in the air are now on the ground. The trees fell one way because of the wind, and toppled in the opposite direction because of the water. It was a lot to take in, on this slow walk along the Perkiomen Trail.
Months later, on a beautiful 60 degree day during Thanksgiving week, I take another walk along this section of the trail. Now that the leaves have browned, crumpled and fallen the large trunks are visible. Now that leaves have fallen the blue tarps covering corners still missing from homes and green dumpsters in driveways are bright contrasts to the muted tones of late fall. Reminders that people are still recovering.
I look above me in an area familiar to me as a welcome tunnel of green. The trees on either side of the 12′ wide trail weaved their branches together creating welcome shade along the trail – perfect conditions for various wildflowers in the spring – and creating intricate shadow patterns on the gravel on sunny winter days. The tunnel is gone. The shadows are gone. The trail is wide open sunshine. Today it feels stark and barren in this area. This upsets me for reasons I am do not quite understand. perhaps because this place has been my place of escape for 9 years. Because it has always been the same, changing in the seasons predictably. A safe place, a quiet space, undisturbed and comforting.
I find tears welling in my eyes examining the wreckage of the trail. I am confused by the reaction and surprised about how close I feel to the trail and how important its predictability and reliable beauty in each season has become to me. It is a resource I mine for comfort and peace and escape and explanation and silence. A long steady swath of green absorbing my silent thoughts escaping or being set free as I walk. It is a place as mentioned in the quote above that links what I was and what I have become.
Perhaps I am experiencing what Drabble speaks of
This is one of the reasons why we feel such a profound and apparently disproportionate anguish when a loved landscape is altered out of recognition; we lose not only a place, but ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of our life.
This trail was once an active railroad bed bringing chugging trains full of Philadelphia residents to their summer homes in the clean air along the creek. The creek created the valley that became a resort area thanks to the railroad. Since the trains stopped running in 1955 and the trail was completed in 2003 I am sure a lot of change has happened. I can tell by the small diameter of most of the trees along the creek’s edge that many of these are relatively young, confirming that this storm is not the first major change this area has seen. I know it will not be the last.
As I examine these new scars along the trail I wonder about the fate of the plants I have enjoyed spring after spring. Will the wildflowers have enough shade to thrive? Will the Virginia Bluebells still tumble waterfall-like down the slopes of the ravine towards the creek?
Will invasive plant species further invade the woodlands with the new soil disturbances and open sun? Will the largest perfect weeping willows I have ever seen, and the ones I count on seeing in their chartreuse glory each early spring still be as magnificent in their new mangled outline?
Will the Columbine and Saxifrage flowers I have marveled at for nearly a decade growing on small wet shaded cliffs still make their appearance in the first spring of the new decade? While I worry about what I will not see, I also wonder about what I will see. Will these new open areas allow for new species to the trail to thrive?
And all around I see signs of hope and regrowth. Stumps from trees cut to allow access to the trail again are sprouting. There is life in the destruction and possibilities in the change. I suppose this is the lesson in this walk and has always been the lesson in my walks along this trail.