Speaking of trailwork--
I mentioned the craft I'm learning, trailwork, last week. I haven't talked about it in a while. I was really busy for the first part of the summer but there hasn't been as much to do recently.
The trails I'm responsible for are in the woodlot behind campus and the conservation land behind that. Neither is open to the public because the land conservancy behind us doesn't really want visitors--the idea is to protect some rare wetland plants that they don't want anybody in there messing with. We're allowed in, though, because that was a condition of sale--the conservancy land used to be part of the school's property, but the masters sold it on the condition that we could use the land for educational purposes. Now and then, scientists and other people associated with the land conservancy walk through our campus to go up there. The trails are for them and for us.
Charlie's landscaping team also maintains the conservancy land--we've been up there removing invasive exotics a few times this year. I'm doing the trails, though, myself. I had to patrol every single trail in its entirely, removing blow-downs, cutting back brush, and cleaning drainage structures. There's miles of trails back there. Charlie says that there isn't much to do because the trails get so little use, but that must be relative. It took me many weeks to do all of it, because I never had time to do much at a stretch--and if I had to stop halfway through a trail, of course I'd have to re-walk the section I'd already done when I went back to work, so that made it take longer. That project was part of why I was so busy this summer.
Now, I'm done all of it, but Charlie has me surveying for invasive exotic plants we missed earlier, so I have to walk the entire trail system again. I've gotten very good at hiking quickly and now I'm getting good at reading a trail map and using a compass, since I have to mark where the plants I do find are. And of course, I'm still going tracking once or twice a week with Rick. So, basically, I'm spending almost more time in the woods than out of it.
Charlie also keeps assigning me landscaping work that relates to trailwork somehow. If someone has to dig with a pick-mattock or cut with a machete (Charlie's two favorite tools for trailwork, besides the axe), that someone is me. The other week we had to re-do the lining on the frog pond in the Formal Garden, and that involved taking apart the rock walls lining the sides and putting them back together--a job for three people, one of whom was me. I still end up getting stuck with cleaning and maintaining the tools, more often than not, and that is not a coincidence. I know he wants me to learn these skills viscerally, not just intellectually.
"Anyone can memorize the procedure for building a waterbar," he says, "and everybody who can comes up with a new way for how waterbars should be made. You won't find two organizations that do trailwork the same way and you won't find many that will pay you more for your skill than they'd pay a new recruit. But you learn how to work with the soil, how to work with your body, that stays with you."
Spending all this time in the woods, I naturally run into Rick fairly regularly--he comes onto the main part of campus every day and attends classes and other events, but he gathers most of his food and supplies in the woodlot, so he's there a lot. Sometimes, especially if I took my dinner into the woods with me so I could work late, I'll pass him going in while I'm heading out.
The days are getting shorter now. It's dark by 8 PM, and it's sort of surprised me. I've gotten stuck in the dark a mile or two from campus a few times, though of course I always carry a flashlight--everybody does, for moving around the Mansion at night. It's just wasteful to light a whole room up so that one person can spend ten seconds walking across it.
So, last Saturday I was walking out of the woods by flashlight around 9, when I saw and heard a large, moving, dim darkness approaching. I called out and Rick's voice answered me. I turned out my light to save his eyes and we stopped to chat a moment.
"Why aren't you using your light?" I asked him. I'm sure he has one.
"When you go in the dark with a light, you know the light,*" he replied. "But the dark, too, is important to know, and I want to know it. Besides, what if my flashlight broke? What if my eyes broke? I still want to know how to get around."
I smiled in the dark and, on impulse, sang "if I ever loose my eyes and all my colors all run dry, oh if I ever lose my eyes, away-ay-o, I won't have to cry no more.**"
I heard Rick chuckle in the dark.
"Did Charlie teach you?" I asked him, meaning the trick of walking in the dark. "He started to teach me, back in June."
"He taught me it was possible," he said. "I've been teaching myself. He did give me the idea of using a walking stick--it's better than a cane, you know. It can stop me walking into things with my face." His walking stick is as tall as he is, with the hand-grip near the middle, in contrast to canes made for blind people, which have hand-grips at the top and are used only to investigate the ground.
"Heavier, though, I imagine," I said.
"Yes. Ebony's cane looks very light."
"You know," I began, "Ebony would probably laugh if she knew you were out here learning to be blind. Does she know? She has no interest in being blind at all. She's convinced she can see, or that she should be able to. Or something." I still can't quite explain what Ebony says about herself. It comes out all muddled when I try. I could not see Rick's expression. His voice came to me out of the dark.
"I've hardly ever talked to her," he admitted. "I doubt we know much about each other. But she should be able to see, in a way. I imagine that for human beings not to see must surprise the brain. Like missing a step on the stairs, you know? But I should be able to have darkness. I should be able to navigate with my ears and my toes."
I remember Charlie telling me, that night we explored the woods together without flashlights, to pay attention to what I could feel with my toes and how I found I could stay on a trail by texture alone. There was a pause, and then Rick spoke again. He sang.
"And if I ever loose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south. Oh, if I ever lose my mouth, away-ay-o, I won't have to talk."
"Goodnight, Rick," I said, smiling, and without another word he walked past me, into the living, green dark.
I took off my shoes and walked the rest of the way without my flashlight, by the feel of my toes and the shape of my view of the stars. And I got where I was going.
* these words are a somewhat mangled quote from Wendell Berry. Rick could not remember the quote accurately.
** these words are from Cat Stevens, also imperfectly remembered.