Mind Trails

At the school I attended from pre-k through fifth grade was a wooded area with a network of nature trails where my teachers would often take us for walks. As a small boy, I marveled at the woods’ vastness, and since my classmates and I were always chaperoned, I never learned to navigate the trails on my own. Over the years, I grew familiar with certain features of the woods – a stream, a gully with planked steps going down one side and up the other, various pieces of Outward Bound equipment such as a balance beam and a climbing wall – but having never internalized the trail system, I never knew exactly where in the woods these features were located. Rather, I always came across them by chance, over and over again, as if for the first time. Even in later years, revisiting the forest as an adult and realizing that it cannot be as big and boundless as it seemed to me as a child, I found myself still unable to conjure a corresponding mental layout of it, to reduce even its diminished vastness to something defined and navigable. And so I rediscovered anew the moss-covered boulder, the swallows’ nest, and the cargo net. “Oh, I remember this,” I would say; but the memory was connected with the place only when I was at the place. At all other times, it was locationless, a thing that existed only in my mind, with no set position in the actual world.

At the school where I now teach in my fifties, there is also a system of trails in the woods. Aerial maps of the entire network are placed wherever two paths intersect, and it is easy for me to guide myself along the well-marked routes. However, I still cannot recall exactly where in that little world certain interesting things are. My favorite stretch of pathway is a sunken trail, with a foot or so of sand wall on either side; but it is unmarked on the signage and unfixed in my mind. I could not find it if I had to but am always pleased to see it open before me. The other day I took this picture of a giant mushroom, yet where it stands I cannot recall. It exists not in a definite place but only in my memory. Perhaps I will rediscover it on a future hike. Perhaps I won’t.

I feel like a knight on an Arthurian quest, advancing through a mysterious country, searching for whatever fate may place in my way.  

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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