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Empty Benches

picture of empty benches in the woods

The benches under the trees in the woods on the hill by the lake are empty.
Bye mom.

Footsteps in the Dark

It was night. It was late. The forest was dark. 

The ground was marvelously soft from the rains the week before. Yet even though the man knew the path well, whenever he took his eyes (and his headlamp) off the ground at his feet, he found himself wandering into the softer softness of leaves and pine needles to either side, sinking sometimes well above his ankles. Often when he did this, his bare feet would step on a concealed bough fallen long ago and buried under the litter but still pokey enough to make him hobble. In this way he made his way to the outhouse. 

When he reached his destination, he went around the corner and stepped inside. The small space exploded in the brightness of his headlamp. Then he heard footsteps in the dark outside.

He turned quickly. His headlamp shined out the open door, lighting the forest floor and tree trunks standing in the dark and other trunks fallen rotting on the ground. Three feet away from him was a porcupine. It stood next to a log and had just turned its back. Its black and white spines stood erect. 

The man stomped his feet. He slapped his hand on the outhouse wall. The porcupine held its ground and shifted defensively. The man began to reach toward a stick to poke the porcupine so to scare it away. But at the last moment, he decided otherwise. There is no visit to an outhouse worth that risk. 

Instead, he tucked his head, stepped back out onto the soft, leaf-strewn path and walked back whence he had come. He would take his business elsewhere.

End of Another Day

1. Gold

I was on the phone with cousins when I stopped mid-sentence.

Something is dreadfully wrong with the forest over there, I thought to myself. How is it possible that the leaves have turned yellow in just the last few days?

My heart was breaking.

There are Pines and Maples and Oaks and Black Walnuts down there. It’s June, for heaven’s sake. The leaves should be green. But the leaves on a large swath of those trees had turned yellow. And there was another bunch just a bit beyond.

I turned around, and there was another bunch behind me in the other direction. And now, it was all around me. Everywhere I looked, the green was changing to a shimmering gold.

“Oh my god you guys,” I said on the phone. “The sun has just come out from behind the clouds before sunset and is lighting the tops of the trees!” 

2. Rose

Just as I finished telling them this, I turned to look into the heart of the forest. The golden sunbeams didn’t reach back there, but in the few moments that had passed, the sunshine had changed from gold to pink. There were red sunbeams cutting deep into the woods painting the trunks with vivid stripes of fuchsia and magenta and rose.

“Oh my god you guys,” I gasped into the phone. “The sun has turned neon pink and it’s lighting the trunks of the trees way back in the woods!”

They were patient with me, my cousins on the phone. Because they know this place. And they know the wonder of the gold and the green, of the red and the rose. 

3. Echoes

Later when I sat to write all this down, later after that magnificent sunset had faded to gray, a Loon called from across the lake — a loud, deep call, resonating in the canopy of the trees across the water, echoing around the lake. I looked up.

The sunset that had faded was now rekindled and a stripe of neon pink was burning just above the distant treetops in the west.

Then the Loon called again. And again. And again. It called a total of eleven times. Each time its haunting, lonely echo sent goose pimples down my spine.

I have never had a day’s end quite like this.


It gets a bit wonky around Baldwin Lake. The Flat River Trail map shows that the trail doesn’t officially go around the lake but rather ends at a narrow road by the water’s edge. But that road follows the shore, wraps around the northern arm, cuts across a tiny strip to Manoka Lake, and from there rejoins the official trail.

Thing is, I didn’t know about all this wrapping and following and cutting across. Undoubtedly the fair and industrious Trudy would have explained it. She had researched the Greenville trails and even ridden this one with Jenny last week. But I had done no research other than to learn that if you followed that road you’d eventually find yourself back on the trail. So I followed it.

There came a point where the bike lane diverged, and both paths looked equally travelled. So I took the left one, because it climbed a hill into a White Pine woods. I was optimistic that I really couldn’t choose incorrectly. Greenville, Michigan is not a big place, after all. Any of us dropped anywhere in the town could find our way back to the trailhead.

The climbing, winding path passed cutouts where benches might eventually go and turned in sharp switchbacks and passed a playground until finally at the top it emptied out onto a parking lot. Not far away, a guy was trying to start a weed eater. This was The Greenville Optimist Camp. My optimism thereby rewarded, I turned onto a street that Trudy and I had driven on just the other day, and from there, the true trail what just several heartbeats away.

White Pine

White Pine trunk with white sap dripping down

Why yes. That would be a White Pine.

The Fred Meijer Heartland Trail

1. Waiting for Wildlife

Northeast out of Greenville on the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail. It’s a flat, dedicated trail with only one stretch along Peck where you have to share the road from narrow bike lanes painted on either side. The vehicles go by fast, but they go by only once in a while and leave plenty of room. (At least they did today.)

Not long after the route becomes a true “trail” again, there’s a bridge over a small creek. It seemed a good place to view the land. The water was brownish-clear, just like the Flat River into which it eventually flows if you follow maps south to near Belding. 

So I leaned against the rail and watched the water run, waiting for something to happen down there. A snake. Or a turtle. Or a fish, perhaps. Waiting for some kind of wildlife event.

A water bug skates across the smooth surface of the water, leaving a tiny V-shaped wake behind. Ok, I guess that’s it. Then snap! a bird swoops out from under the bridge and snaps and misses and snaps again, grabbing the unsuspecting bug.  It swoops back under the bridge and out other side into the woods. Circle of life.

I put my feet on the petals and resume riding.

2. Lunchtime

There was an octagonal table in the shade of some Maple trees on the other side of Derby Road. It had been about an hour, and it was time for a little something. So I pulled a ham sandwich out of my pack and a can of fizzy water. I devoured them.

There were Aspens with quaking leaves mixed in with the Maples. The air in the shade was cool. There was a garbage can with a new trash bag liner beside the table and a portapotty on the other side of the trail. 

A guy on a recumbent tricycle came from the other direction. He stopped for a break in the portapotty and smiled when he saw me.

“How far did you go?” I asked.

In halting words, he said he had ridden from Greenville to Alma. My eyes widened. (That’s the full 42 mile trail.)

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a long ride.”

His eyes widened and he puffed up his cheeks and blew air out his mouth as if to say that he was bushed. But he didn’t say anything.

“Right,” I said. As he began to turn back to the trail, I said, “You want a protein bar?”

He shook his head and then strained to push a couple more words out. “Burger,” he said. “Burger. King.” It took quite a bit of effort for him to get those words out, and even then, they were a bit garbled. But the point he was making was obvious — he had devoured his lunch, too. We both laughed.

He turned to the trail again, but then he stopped and looked back. 

“Baandt pottock,” 

I cocked my head. “What?”

He squinted and pushed the two words out again. “Bland pottik.” 

I still didn’t understand.

He shook his head and pushed a different word out. “Stroke,” he said, pointing to himself. 

“That’s ok,” I said. “But what were you saying?” I walked a little closer.

“Baandt. Bland. Blandt. Plant,” he said.

“Plant product!” I said laughing. “You had a veggie burger?”

He laughed and nodded.

“I had a ham sandwich,” I said.

He smiled, nodded and waved as he drove back towards Greenville.

“Have a good ride back,” I said.

He pushed out words of thanks and was gone.

Sky Turns Black

Forty years ago a young man spent the summer with his grandparents. They lived in a tiny town. His grandmother talked with him sweetly, showed him where the wild strawberries grew, marveled at his soft hands, introduced him to good friends down the street. His grandfather tried to teach him to use a theodolite, how to lay straight runs of concrete blocks, took him walking in the woods, showed him the shadows under the Hemlock trees.

It was summer. They were at the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone. The sun set late.

From his bed upstairs, the man would look out the window and gaze at the lingering light of the summer night sky. It was hot that year, and a window fan helped cool the room as the sky slowly darkened. He would breathe deeply to smell the air. He would roll over and gaze again and again until the sky beyond the fan was finally black.

His grandparents have long since passed away. The house where they lived is gone. That young man is not young, anymore. But a summer sky on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone still holds his gaze. It makes him look up again and again. He smells that air. Outside, the summer sky finally turns black, letting the man know that he may finally go to sleep.

Morning Activities

1. On The Western Shore

The camp on the western shore of the lake gets direct sun until noon and shade after that. So they swim in the morning. 

Today after the swimmers swam and some kayaks returned from a trip perhaps into the next lake, a mass of campers embarked in canoes. (How it is possible to make such cacophony with paddle against canoe?)

They move in the quasi-direction of the next lake, zigzagging and spiraling and meandering until social forces pull them into spirals and tight circles. They glom together like magnetized iron shavings.

But look! There are two campers who have their heads on straight. They have gone in the other direction and are sitting still, paddles in their laps, heads turned in wonder at their noisy compatriots.

These two have it right. Sit silently in the noonday sun, don’t paddle because you don’t have to. Summer breeze makes me feel fine. Every thing’s alright.

Alas, the social field lines reach even this distant pair, the law of attraction allures them. The camper in the back begins to paddle. They join the drifting glom.

2. On The Eastern Shore

Nothing going on over here, folks, except…

...a tray of breakfast and a book

Gone the Sun

The sunset came and went simply this evening. No pyrotechnics.

In the distance, there was a pastel blue sky. Central Time Zone over there, don’t you know. Still daylight. The fair and industrious Trudy would have been coming home from shopping at Target under that daylight, perhaps.

Nearer at hand, there were clouds gliding over the White Pines across the water. They were already in shadow, and there was barely a hint of lavender in their gray. Beyond them were wisps of higher clouds still in golden daylight, now more golden-orange, now more orange-pink which gradually faded to gray-lavender as I stood on the dock. It did not take long.

When I began writing this, enough dusk was still in the sky that the silhouettes of those Pines were visible. But the dusk had faded to black, and there are no silhouettes left to see. Day is done. 

How’s that, Jasper?

Sharing the Golden Glittering

How to share it with you, that sunlight on the water? How to describe it, the brilliance of its golden glittering? I cannot. Even the camera cannot. But wait. Perhaps the camera can.

the camera capturing the golden glittering using comic book mode

There you have it.