Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ideas of order along the Cinder Path

I’ve been thinking lately about order and harmony and some of that thinking has been going on along the Cinder Path, a 13.5-mile trail that follows an abandoned rail bed from southwest Chariton down along the river and then up across the prairie to Humeston.

The trail dates from 1974 and is the first of Iowa’s rails-to-trails project, a creation of the Lucas County Conservation Board. We’re more attuned to such projects now, but its development was a challenge then. Many land owners along the right-of-way were appalled at the thought of long-haired and dangerous hikers and bikers and heaven only knows who else passing unsupervised near their property. They wanted the narrow strip sliced into tiny parcels and divvied up among them to keep the Other out.

That reflects one idea of order, the demand that land be surveyed, divided into grids of sections and quarter-sections, then sold and owned and that what the owner does with his or her slice of it is no one’s business but his or her own.

This was not an idea shared by the first people here, who were territorial but had no sense that they could or should own the woods and hills, prairies and river valleys. Mother Earth owned herself, they thought.

That difference of opinion resulted in much conflict and many sorrows --- and still does sometimes.


The three miles of trail from town edge to the first east-west road south, now minimum-maintenance and often disabled by high water, is the part I know best. Down to that road on foot and back is a 6-mile trek, about the maximum I have time and energy for. My usual walk is 3 miles, down to a stand on the river bank just beyond the 1.5-mile marker, up into the stand to observe the river, then down and back.

But I have traveled the trail as far as Derby on days when the Conservation Board opened it every fall to one-way vehicular traffic so that those who couldn’t or wouldn’t walk or bike it could enjoy it briefly, too.

Those were interesting trips, especially when some poor soul started driving from the wrong end down a path barely wide enough for one vehicle and met our procession head-on. Impasse created by defying the order of the day.


In summer, I like the trail best on sunny mornings. The elderberries have been in bloom this week, scenting the air when warmed by the sun.

Summer wildflowers including the Michigan lily (Lilium michigananse), above, a native, and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), a pretty import from Europe that has become a serious weed, are coming into bloom.

And the continuous concert of birdsong. It strikes me as discordant, out of order, to meet a jogger or walker with earphones, eyes fixed, focused only on his own movement and on sounds imported from somewhere else.

On the late afternoons and evenings of summer days and on cloudy days I do not like the trail so much. In many places it becomes a dense and dim green tunnel through overarching trees, vegetation pushing in from either side, almost ominous. I suppose my uneasiness is an old and primitive one.

My sense of order involves the sky and I am most comfortable when I can see it --- on the prairie, in the savannahs or on the trail in late fall after leaves have fallen, in winter when the snakes are sleeping and in early spring.

That occasional mild discomfort is not shared by the deer, always present, nor by the owl I startled from his perch last week with a burst of camera flash I hadn’t expected either. We both jumped.

The owl circled me twice then in powerful and total silence --- a sudden splash of shadow on the trail ahead, a glimpse of spread wings and gray feathers as he soared above me beyond the trees. I knew for a minute how it was to be hunted although I am far too large to serve as an owl’s supper, or at least I think so.

Coming back up the trail 45 minutes later, a coyote concert from a bluff on the other side of the river.


The trail itself is a wound slashed through the landscape even through naturalized. Nature would not have tolerated a path here before the railroad grade was built. The land is low and marshy, the vegetation too dense, kept beyond the reach of prairie fires by water. There are a few remaining trees down here from those days, venerable and vast.

The trails of earlier humans skirted the river bottom to the west, keeping to the ridges where travel was easier and the view could be measured in miles rather than feet.

Nature’s idea of order demands that wounds be healed and if the trail’s surface were not regularly groomed, fallen trees cleared and the bridges repaired the grade and its hard-packed surface would be breeched and the Cinder Path would vanish.


The only discordant notes along the trail are human.

When the trail was developed, redwood benches with concrete bases, outhouses and small shelters were scattered along it. It was thought trail users would move slowly along it, stopping often.

That has not been the case and these constructions have been allowed to deteriorate, vegetation obscuring them, nothing here now that anyone would care to sit on.

A long stretch of rubberized matting, once laid across bridge planks so bicycles could negotiate them more easily, has been pulled off to the side of the trail and left. A stand near a marsh is missing a step, hazardous on the way down, and the walkway above water to it has partially collapsed. And near the Chariton trailhead, rusty machinery has been allowed to accumulate in a row alongside a deteriorating shed with gaping door.

My sense of order demands repair or removal to a landfill. Nature’s sense of order will deal with them in its own way in good time.

Both human and nature’s ideas of order often disconcert me. Human ideas of order are often wrong, I think, but nature’s, never --- even when it sweeps us away in a tornado because we built in its path, drowns us in a flood or perhaps feeds us to a hungry owl.


The title of this odd little meditation is a paraphrase of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the title of a work by one of our best but most difficult poets, Wallace Stevens.

That poem offends my sense of order because I cannot penetrate it. It seems to have been one of Stevens’ favorites.

On the other hand, Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” lyrical and evocative and about lost faith, fairly sings in my head and I know its opening lines by heart:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.”

Stevens, a lawyer and insurance executive, too, could be contentious. He reportedly fought repeatedly with Frost and slugged Hemingway. Much of his poetic effort was devoted to exploring ideas of order in a world where he was convinced God was dead or absent or never had been.

Dying of cancer, he was baptized a Roman Catholic and took Communion, entering, as he put it, “the fold.”

One idea of order toppled by another, as often happens.

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