Westmont Magazine To Build a Trail
BY PAUL WILLIS, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH
from “To Build a Trail: Essays on Curiosity, Love and Wonder"
“[S]he being dead yet speaketh.”
Though I didn’t disappear with a shovel into the woods until the first week of June, I think now that it started when my mother died in April. Hers was a lingering death from cancer in her abdomen. After nearly a year of ineffectual surgery and treatment, she was put under hospice care and lasted for another month of morphine and popsicles (mostly grape). She and my father lived in a comfortable retirement center near Portland, Oregon, almost a thousand miles north of my current home in Santa Barbara. I was able to be with them for the first two weeks of hospice care. Then I had to get on a plane and resume my neglected classes.
Leaving my mother as she lay dying seems to me the most cruel and arbitrary thing that I have ever had to do. I bowed my head and sobbed, and she roused herself and stroked my hair. Not very coherent in her last days, she managed to pull her thoughts together for some earnest words of parting. “I have given all of you boys, each one of you, to the Lord,” she said. “And I have lived to see Him give each one of you a purpose.”
Now that I reflect on her words, I see how much they are part of her, a woman of faith and a woman of duty. A year or two ago, at an English Department potluck, we played a spontaneous parlor game that arose from a question. “When you hear your mother speaking to you in the back of your mind,” someone asked, “what is she saying?” I knew immediately. The voice in my head says, “Doesn’t it feel good to have your work done?”
In those weeks with my parents in Oregon, I spent an hour or two every day on a stack of essays and exams that I had brought along with me. And almost every day as well, my mother would ask if I had finished grading my papers. Each time, I had to say that I was making progress, but there were still more to read. “You better get going on those,” she would say.
A few days before I left, I told her that I had marked 85 papers so far and had only 16 more to go.
“That’s terrible,” she slurred.
“What’s terrible?” I asked. “That I have so much work at the college?”
“No,” she said. “Sixteen. That’s too many. You need to get those done.”
In some ways I may have disappointed my mother. I never became the missionary she herself once hoped to be, or the church organizer that she most certainly was. And my short stints as a department chair have routinely ended in frustration. My repeated attempts to cut back on administrative responsibilities to spend a little more time on my writing were only met by her incomprehension. “Don’t you want to be in the know?” she would say. Or, “I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to be in charge of that program. It helps so many people, and when you think about it, your writing is only for yourself.”
But I have not disappointed my mother in that I have become, like her, a very faithful doer of tasks. When I played high-school football, my coach had a nickname for me: “Hardworking Willis.” The name embarrassed me somewhat, but I’m guessing that my mother was in love with it. “Hardworking” identified the person she wanted me to become, the one who ran every sprint at the end of practice as hard as he could. Not faster than others—just harder.
My mother’s memorial service took place during finals week of spring semester. Then came a flurry of grading, and after that an ill-timed reading tour to colleges in the Northwest. When I arrived home near the end of May, I was not eager to dive into the writing projects that normally make my summers so enjoyable. Instead of hunkering down at the computer, I read novels. I walked the dog. I sat with my wife and son and daughter whenever I could, and listened, and talked. But I wasn’t writing. And I couldn’t get used to the fact that my mother was dead.
That’s when it occurred to me to scout out some overgrown fragments of trail that led up a little canyon above our house on land that belonged to the college. It had been a wet winter in our part of California: the browning thistles were head high and the poison oak was luxuriant. The isolated remnants of path were wildly impassable, the links between them located only in my imagination. Thrashing through the brush, however, I thought I saw a way.
So one evening in early June, I put on long sleeves and long pants; gloved up; grabbed shovel, hoe, rake, loppers, shears, clippers, and tree saw; borrowed a large wheelbarrow from under the redwood baseball stands; and headed through a screen of laurel and acacia into a stand of eucalyptus. After a bit of trial and error, I developed certain habits and methods that varied with the territory. There in the woods, the first order of business was to cut away dead limbs at eye level, then to dig up the worst of the poison oak. I soon learned that the poison oak had thick, continuous root systems. They could be arbitrarily cut off but never completely pulled out. I tried to keep the shining tangles of roots and vines and Trinitarian glabrous leaves at a shovel-handle’s distance, but after a while I grew careless, and a few days later the flesh on the inside of my wrists was the first to know it.
But I was getting somewhere. Branches and shrubbery out of the way, the next step was to pull away the herbs and leaves and duff and detritus— anything that could be raked off or tossed aside. Then came the shovel work, digging up the more stubborn roots and shaping the trail to the terrain, carving it into the side of a slope where necessary, sometimes even cutting steps in a steep bank that didn’t allow for a switchback. Boulders had to be rolled out of the way in places, then rolled back to shore up narrow sections of loose trail. There was also garbage to put in the wheelbarrow, and plenty of it: cans, bottles, tires, chairs, batteries, buckets, baseballs, condoms—even a rusty bedspring and mattress. My favorite find was an ancient flask of cinnamon schnapps, distilled in St. Paul, Minnesota.
But I am getting ahead of myself. That first evening I cut the trail in a sinuous line that dipped through the poison oak and eucalyptus near the creek and then climbed into a border of live oak. Because of the deep tree cover, the undergrowth was not terribly thick there. And so I was able to rough out perhaps a couple hundred feet before stopping at dusk on the edge of a field, just where the branches of oak framed the tall, yellowing grass. This felt satisfying—not just the work, but this particular pausing place. A friend once told me that most primitive campsites in Africa are found where forest meets savannah. This is where hunters could see their prey without being seen in return. And this practical preference has apparently been translated over the years into an aesthetic one. Think of the landscape paintings of Constable and Turner, or those of the Hudson River School. Safely embowered under the spreading chestnut tree, we gaze out under arch of bough to open lands that verge upon terrestrial infinity. I had arrived with my nascent trail at this archetypal place. And then I walked toward home through another, the darkening woods that I now safely navigated on a dirt path which my feet could feel better than my eyes could see. I emerged from the trees by the baseball diamond and returned the trusty wheelbarrow with the firm feeling that I would be back.
And I did come back, whenever I could, off and on for two months, until I had crafted a trail that stretched a half mile up the canyon to a road that marked the upper end of the land owned by the college. There were trials and tribulations, of course. Brambles and thistles by the acre, downed trees, and twining stocks of poison oak as thick as my now-oozing wrists. But day after day I awoke before dawn with a quiet excitement and wheeled my tools into the forest at first light on a lengthening path that tangibly measured my progress. The Santa Barbara morning fog created a quiet and coolness about me. The fog might linger until the early afternoon, and sometimes. I kept at it for that long, pausing only to sit on the ground with a water bottle and candy bar, watching the lizards do their push-ups.
The work was interrupted twice by trips into the High Sierra, the kind I would normally dream about for weeks and months ahead of time and then recount ad nauseam to anyone willing to listen. But on each of these hikes into stunningly pristine alpine country, havens of rock and snow and sky, I often lay awake at night thinking about the next section of trail to clear in the lowly barranca near my home. I thought about it the way I would normally think about a peak I especially wanted to climb. And I did climb some of those on my two trips—Humphreys, Darwin, Julius Caesar—but as much as I enjoyed these mountains, something in me wanted to exchange my ice ax for a shovel.
From time to time, one of my colleagues would chance on the trail, such as it was thus far, and offer to help. As much as I appreciated their interest and generosity, I gradually came to realize that I wanted to do this by myself, the same way I could only imagine writing a novel by myself. I was going to say writing a poem, since I haven’t tackled a novel in a good while, but making a trail is much more like conceiving a long narrative line. A trail has plot, and progress, and duration. It is more than a few metaphors: it is a journey over time. And, as in the writing of a novel, whole chapters sometimes have to be scrapped. Early on, I abandoned and covered up a hastily built section of trail to reroute it in a more pleasing place, dropping down below a row of eucalyptus to stay out of sight of a couple of outlying Quonset huts. Higher up, I inadvertently threw a switchback onto the property of a neighbor of the college. He was nice about it, but also firm: for the sake of liability, he didn’t want this trail on his land. So I promptly rerouted that bend in the path, making it unavoidably shorter and steeper in the process. It is passable, this newer way, but I look at that old switchback with longing. My original line was much gentler, and much more artful in its curve. I think of it in the way I think of some favorite passage of mine that some not-so-favorite editor has done away with.
So trail-making is like writing, which, for me, is not a very collaborative process. But I also suspect that making this trail has been a very personal task in more than just a writerly fashion. I wonder now if I have been doing the work of grief, if I have been making literal what each of us is always doing, all of the time, but especially in a time of loss: clearing a new path for ourselves, making a way, finding direction. At the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s pilgrim finds himself in the dark wood, the selva oscura, at midlife, and so do I. He discovers the gates of hell, which lead him at last to paradise; I just get out the shovel.
As the time approached for my mother’s memorial service—a service my father had carefully planned in the days that she struggled to leave this life—it became apparent that none of us in the family had thought much about how to conduct a graveside service to take place earlier in the day. So I volunteered at the last minute to try to put something together. A couple of pastors that I knew reacquainted me with the traditional words of burial—words penned by Thomas Cranmer in The Book of Common Prayer, which he took over without too many changes from Catholic liturgy. These I adapted without too many changes myself, and I spoke them to our little circle in the moments before we placed a velvet bag of ashes into the ground:
- “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our mother, our wife, our sister, our friend, our mother- in-law, and our grandmother, and we commit her body to the ground— earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. They rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”
Then we grabbed a shovel or two, some of us, and scooped the loose pile of dirt back into the hole on top of the bag. I read a prayer. We sang a hymn. And then we looked out over the cloudy reaches of the Willamette Valley from the damp slope of the country graveyard where we stood.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So elemental. There was something about it that shocked me. This is my mother? A bag of ashes in the ground? And I am dropping dirt on top of her? But there was something pleasing about it as well—something good about helping my mother become a part of the earth again, whence she came and whither she returned. Just a few steps down the hill was the gravestone of her grandmother, buried there exactly a century before. I was helping to lay my mother to rest with her ancestors, with her own people. And that was good.
But according to the liturgy, that was not all. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. They rest from their labors, and their works follow them. They rest from theirs, obviously—my mother and great-grandmother. But it is my works that follow after: a whole trail to be made in their wake, reburying my lost mother with stroke after stroke of the shovel. I can’t prove that this is so—that this is the literal impulse of my trail-making. But it seems plausible to me. My father often talks about the memorial service at their church that took place later that day. Many people spoke well of my mother, and that was very pleasing to him. But there is not much about that service that remains with me. What I most recall about the day is what it was like to bury a velvet bag of ashes, down deep among endless roots of poison oak.
At the close of the summer a poet from Oregon sent me a quote from Anaïs Nin: “Surely our parents give birth to us twice, the second time when they die.” If this is true, my trail-building is not only a putting of my mother to rest. It is also a reenactment of my own birth. And a tangible action of rebirth. The first trail that each of us follows leads out from a shady recess and into the open fields of this world. We pause at the archetypal verge for a painful moment and move on. We leave our mothers at our birth and leave them again when they die. And again there is pain, a pain that is lessened by looking back and then moving on, finding a path, making a trail of blood behind us. This trail I am making is not just recapitulation. It is my beginning as well, the work of the living. It is as my mother would have liked it.
My mother had a twin brother who was the first to take me on a backpack trip in the Sierra: Graveyard Lakes, of all places. He died of cancer years ago as a relatively young man. When my mother was struggling with her own cancer, I dreamed of him. He had been a sickly child and was not a sturdy physical specimen as an adult. But in my dream his legs were rippling with muscle and vitality. He stood with a pack on his back and a quiet smile on his face. In the way that my uncle looked at me, I felt invited on the best hike I would ever take.
I took that dream as a hopeful sign and symbol of the resurrection. And there are other signs and symbols as well. One summer ago, a mountain lion and her cub were spotted coming down the canyon where the trail now is built. A few weeks before I began, they were seen again, the cub now grown into something like an adolescent. This makes us all a little afraid, and one neighbor of ours half jokingly objected to the trail by saying, “Now you are making it easier for the mountain lions to come down to campus.” But of course there is something lovely about these creatures as well. I like to think of them, of course, as mother and son. I never saw them as I worked, but I want to believe that they saw me.
My mother grew up for the most part on an orange grove outside of Anaheim, California. She climbed the trees, chased the chickens, swam in the ditches, and, when she got older, hiked in the hills. Five months before I was born, she was stricken with polio. I knew her as a woman active in will, but not in body. She walked with a pronounced limp, often with the help of brace and crutches. In her last years she was almost wholly confined to a wheelchair. So even if she were still alive, she would not have been able to know my trail. I have a favorite spot on the path, however, where the sycamore grow wild and deep in the canyon below and even in August the sound of water trickling over stones can be heard. This is where the mountain lion and her cub are no doubt waiting for me, and this is where, someday, if this canyon is part of a new heaven and a new earth, my mother and uncle will come striding around the bend, inviting me to walk with them to higher ground.