It was a little after noon. Morning showers had blown east, opening a vault of blue sky. We sat around the table on the deck at Luke and Cheri’s, our shoulders toasting as quickly as the scones in the oven. Delirious bees cruised the wisteria blooms dangling over the railing. Xerxes would have envied the food on the table but, perhaps out of guilt for such abundance, conversation turned to the deleterious effects of plastics. Some plastics are more harmful than others, Herman said; a yogurt container is not as bad as clear plastic. Grace volunteered that you could tell by the number on the bottom but she couldn’t remember which meant what.
I didn’t lift either of the two containers within arm’s length—both clear, strawberries in one, olives in the other—to investigate. It was not a conversation I wanted to prolong. The thought of the plastic streaming through my kitchen sickens me. I tell myself I’m careful but I’m not careful enough. And if I were? The box of detergent has a plastic handle; the milk carton a plastic nipple, the lid for a cup of coffee-to-go a red plastic tab. Insane.
I closed my mouth around another olive, and slid prone-ward, lowering the hat that Luke lent me. The smell of straw mingled with the sweetness of the wisteria. Leon the cat lounged on my lap, a plush weight, both of us overfed. He had one eye on the last piece of bacon quiche. Mine was on one last scone; the taste of the burnt sugar, spiked with ginger, sizzled in my mouth. What a masterful confection. Firm in the fingers, it crumbled into taste and texture. Despite the oohs of appreciation, Marylou, the baker, squinted into the sun, looking miserable. I handed the hat to her. That softened her expression, but not completely. The wisteria was mainly the problem, triggering her allergies.
“Some people just can’t be happy” was a thought.
I was roused from my semi-recumbent position by a gust of sound, a musical ahem. Up the deck stairs came Genevieve and Maria. Genevieve bore on her chest another masterful confection, a small red accordion, like a dapper relic from a simpler time. Without ado she started to play and, with Maria, sing Mexican songs in which the word “corazon” usually appeared, melodies of beautiful yearning.
“Gracias a la vida,” they sang lastly, “que me ha dado tanto.” Only an abject grouch could not second that sentiment at that moment.
On my way home, thankfulness dissolved like burnt sugar when I got stuck behind a delivery truck parked in the middle of a hilly street. Jumping jackass, he could have pulled into a driveway. By the time he returned to his truck in his cute little shorts, I was ready to knock his cute little helmet off. When at the next intersection, a 4-way stop, someone jumped the line (I was pretty sure), irritation spread like squid ink. I lay on the horn, something I don’t ever do. What? A 2-minute wait on a gorgeous afternoon in which I had nothing planned nor pressing? Clearly on the path to pathology.
Some people just can’t be happy.
A comment Cheri had made buzzed in my head: “Oh sure, I always read your blog. Let me see what Faro is pissed off about today.” What? What about the wit, the humor, the poetry, the use of language? I didn’t say that. What I said was, “Isn’t that what blogs are for, ranting?”
Outside my house I sat in the truck. The sun was not the only thing reflecting. I needed an intervention. The good news, I knew what it was: shinrin-yoku. A forest bath.
A while ago, in the thickets of Googledom, I came across this: “Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity.” It wasn’t the plot of a tawdry thriller but the conclusion of a study (Japanese, naturally) showing that a 2-hour walk in the woods increased vigor and decreased scores for anxiety, depression and anger. Hikers were outfitted with monitors to measure physiological changes. Shinrin-yoku is not, as one might expect, a term and concept as old as the oldest tree but was introduced in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan and promulgated as an antidote to urban stress. A follow-up Taiwanese study discovered that the chemical make-up of the phytoncides, the Natural Killer (NK) proteins that boost immunity, was similar to that of the essential oil of Cryptomeria japonica, a sacred tree in Japan. Essence of cryptomeria helped rats sleep better, increased performance in mazes, and alleviated pain.
But who didn’t know that a walk in the woods is good for you? I felt an acute longing for some extended forest hours but I let it pass. I would be going alone. Isn’t there something weird and/or pathetic, perverse even, about a middle-aged man camping alone? But wasn’t the point of a forest bath to cleanse oneself of grimy judgment, self- and other-directed, to wash away anxiety and annoyance?
Online, Tom Stienstra of the Chronicle came through as always with places to camp in the Bay Area. The “Redwoods” in Portola Redwoods State Park caught my eye. A cursory read of the park website informed me that the park has old growth redwoods, and there were campsites available; every one of them, in fact, if the site was working correctly. I really would be alone.
“I have a great deal of company in the house,” Thoreau wrote, “especially in the morning when nobody calls.” That’s just what I was afraid of, but I was brave. I didn’t bother to make a reservation but began a search for my long-unused tent.
It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
The ranger kiosk is empty, as are the headquarters a mile in. One is directed to envelopes for fee payment, $35.00 per night. Must be paid at risk of citation. Who knew? I stick in 2 twenties, not having change. Visible inside the door, a whiteboard lists the campsites unavailable in respective sections, information useful if there were a map. Not to worry. Only three sites are claimed in the whole park.
I drive across the bridge over the creek, following the signs for individual campsites 1 to 55. Every site is empty, both deflating and intensifying pressure. What’s the best? Farther from headquarters? Nearer a bathroom? Within hearing of the creek? They look equally acceptable. I take number 12, backing in near a redwood 8 feet in diameter. Here I am, big fella. Do your thing.
It’s been so long since I put up the tent that I’m pleased I still remember how, but anybody could put up this tent, two poles threaded through loops and bent into arcs. Voilá. I hope whoever invented this tent won a chest-full of medallions, even if it isn’t exactly biodegradable. I don’t need to think about that.
I am ready to unload the truck and settle in when it sinks in, these annoying gnats are actually mosquitoes, surveying bare skin, coming for a landing on my legs. I read somewhere this was one Bay Area park in which you’d want to bring repellent. Why did I think that wouldn’t apply to me? I lift stakes and lay the tent slantingly on the truck bed. Perhaps a site further from the creek…
Twenty-six is my birth date; I pick site 26. Even better trees. I situate the tent so it is flanked front and back by sentinels. What if one falls? I’ll be the bloody host of a mosquito orgy. What would Thoreau say?
Unpacking takes no time; a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a flashlight, a book, 3 boiled eggs and crackers, and granola bars. Now what? I wouldn’t mind sitting here at the picnic table and reading but the damn mosquitoes! Once at a Buddhist retreat, during a discussion about “the precept to benefit all sentient beings,” I said I can’t imagine anyone not killing a mosquito and the guide answered sharply, that I had no cause to impute such actions to others. She was right. I couldn’t imagine myself not slapping at the sucker. Slap. Slap. I could get slap happy. One kind of happiness, I suppose. If I keep moving, they aren’t so bothersome. They’re not like aggressive Carolina mosquitoes, our laid back California mosquitoes. It’s probably from living in the redwoods. Soon they will be vegetarians.
There’s enough light for a short walk, and the Sequoia Trail leads through giant redwoods bearing the carbon mantle of long-ago fires. The seasonal bridge across the creek is not yet set up, so the trail ends abruptly at the bank. I walk along its edge, pushing through brush. Poison oak. I didn’t bring soap, either. It was just my right arm involved. I’m not going to worry about it. Or only a little.
Around a bend in the creek comes a honking duck, gliding over the jade green water, bronze-headed. Who are you honking at? There’s not another duck or human around. Honking to be honking, like me at the 4-way stop. Honk your heart out. I’m going to sit here for a while.
A spider web the size of a dinner plate in a willow over the water snags a ray of sunshine, a diagonal shimmer warning potential victims clear. I imagine the spider hates this time of day. I hope to see one of the skittery flying bugs blunder into the web, but it doesn’t happen. How long will the spider have to wait? Do mosquitoes get caught? I hope so.
To benefit all sentient beings. The creek purling. Otherwise stillness.
As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.
It’s late morning, the night’s chill dissolving. The mind is a caboose trying to be an engine. The trail continuing doesn’t mean I can’t stop. Every minute I have to remind myself. Stop. Breathe. All around is wooded majesty. Nineteenth century woodsmen were thorough hereabouts but they left these trees, supposedly because they were too knotty to make good shingles. Shingles! The firs are as massive as the redwoods. In brighter parts of the forest, ceanothus bushes bloom pale blue.
Directly ahead is a pocket-sized, sunny meadow with forget-me-nots in bloom. The air vibrates not with mosquitoes but with bees feasting, not worried that Myosotis latifolia is an invasive non-native. Should I worry about the obnoxious thistle and broom I saw on the trail? What should I be worrying about? That I worry so much?
A patch of grass beckons. I sit, then lie upon it, sleepy. The city rat’s air mattress deflated during the night, but oh, he feels fine, very fine, settling into a warm bath of air. Happy, even.
The sun seems to have taken a lurch westward when I’m again conscious. That was the deepest nap I’ve had it ages. My limbs feel nailed to the ground, but the mind begins its jig. Now what? I sit up, light headed. I have no idea what time it is, so I start up my cell phone. It’s 12:58. There’s no reception but I try calling the message center anyway. Call Failed. What if the world ended? A plane flies over, heading to Japan. 12:59.
Back at my campsite I disassemble the tent, pack up. There’s still no sign of life at park headquarters when I drive by and I feel like I’m slinking out after check-out time, if there is such a thing. Guilt amid the redwoods. A fine success this excursion has been. Not even 24 hours.
The road heading toward the coast meanders along a creek through more redwoods. I drive slowly, pulling over whenever a car comes up behind. There a blessedly few. And then the invitation to tarry is too strong. I park, and walk to the stream, and sit on a sunny ledge made by a root. No mosquitoes here, only the interminable buzz of thinking, thinking. The redwood beside me seems to say, it doesn’t bother me, why should it bother you? Listen to the soothing stream.
Okay. Now what?