On the first real day of spring my son and I take a walk in the woods, the dog tethered to my fist by her leash. Our corner of Southwest Ohio has finally shaken off the remnants of yet another winter that felt like it would never end, a drag of gray skies and old, slushy snow. But today, finally, the still-bare branches of the trees are thrown into relief against a cloudless, cornflower-blue sky, green creeps up from the forest floor, and the wildflowers are blooming, their tiny, colorful faces bobbing amongst last year’s fallen leaves. We used to call the colorful petals fairy wings; the clusters of may apples, like tiny green umbrellas, were fairy houses. But now my son is eleven. He no longer believes in fairies.
Our path cuts between high walls of moss-covered limestone, dripping with bluebells, wisps of red columbine, and the feathery leaves of Dutchman’s breeches. Most of the Dutchmen have lost their breeches by now, the tiny, once-white bifurcated petals wilting under our feet. Like many wildflowers, their season is short. There’ve been years when I’ve missed the trillium and the trout lily entirely, even though these woods are walking distance from our house, and we come here as often as we can. My sonand I have beenexploring this place together since he was a baby in a carrier, his belly flush with my back, his sleepy head drooping against my shoulder. I used to hold onto his little bare feet while I walked, their soles silky-soft, his toes like pebbles, just the right size to cup in my palm.
Now he’s as tall as I am. It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to lift him. There’s no more hauling him on my hip or back, and he’s not one for long hugs or cuddles. Still, he walks beside me, companionably, passing the dog’s leash back and forth while we scramble over rocks and roots and wade across the stream.
There are twenty miles of footpaths in these woods, looping and intertwining, running by streams and springs, a cathedral-like pine forest, and a small waterfall. Although we come here enough to know it well, last summer we got lost. The paths werecrowded with weekend visitors–teenagers smoking cigarettes and shiny blonde families in hiking boots–so I decided to take a smaller path, one we’d never taken before. I found the solitude I’d craved and our conversation dropped off, leaving only footfalls and the sound of brush rustling at our ankles as the unknown path narrowed. After awhile I realizedwe were going in circles. We’d passed not a living soul–besides squirrels and chipmunks–for at least an hour. My son was oblivious. Meanwhile, I started to think about wild edibles and run-off in the streamwater. Why hadn’t I brought my cell phone, packed granola bars, remembered to re-fill our water bottles? Eventually, it occured to me to take the wider path at each fork, and gradually we came back to our familiar landmarks: the climbing tree, a crumbling stone wall, the stream that would lead us back to the main path. No harm done. We were just a little bug-bitten and sweaty.
It’s funny to think I’d ever imagined we could be lost in a place so small. I’ve been on an airplane passing over our little corner of Ohio, and the truth is, our woods are just a patch of dark green sewn to an endless quilt of the Midwestern industrial farmland that’s erased a millenium of forest and prairie. At one thousand acres, our woods are but a drop of wildness, a fishbowl to what was once an ocean. But as small as it is in the scheme of things, this place reminds me of that which returns year after year, of what survives: trillium waving like little sails from a sloped riverbed, bluebells and mayapple blanketing the detritus, a jack-in-the-pulpit peeking from behind a fallen log.
That’s the point, isn’t it? The hum of the constant, the cycle of return. The boy walking with me is a different person each time we come back to this place–a little taller, a little further away. I’m different too, although in midlife, my transformationmay be slower and more subtle. And we are quite capable of losingourselves and each other in the midst of the most ordinary of lives–how many days passby without asking, without noticing, the space for relationship choked out by to-do lists and the sisyphean tasks of our daily lives? The trick is to listen to that gravitational ache that pulls towards the center, that leans ustoward one another. Family life is a chosen web, a constant play of release and tether.
My son and I climb a cleft of limestone steps built into the steepest slope of the path we’ve chosen, and the dog bolts, spying a chipmunk. I have a split second to decide whether to hold onto her, risking my own tumble, breaking skin against stone, or let go. I let go and she flies, a red-brown blur racing through the brush, then burying her nose under a rock ledge for her quarry, ears pricked, her boxer-brow furrowed. My son takes a few steps down and calls to her. She shakes off his voice, whisks her body this way and that, as if deciding whether to stay or keep running. He calls to her again and she bounds back to him, her boy, her attachment to him stronger than the grip she’s broken. He takes her leash and turns to me, no big deal, as if he has no idea he could ever really lose her. He’s ready to resume the climb.
Melissa Benton Barker was raised in San Francisco, CA and Sasebo, Japan. She currently lives in Ohio with family. Her personal essays can be found on Lunch Ticket and the Manifest-station.