As September surrendered to October, I hiked the sun-dappled paths of Tryon Creek State Natural Area. I hoped this sanctuary would renew my soul in times of national peril and my own uncertain health.
Pausing to quench my thirst and savor my randomly chosen path's solitude, I rested on a log carefully hewn into a smooth, flat bench. Then, from around the trail's bend, an elderly woman supporting herself with hiking poles smiled eagerly at me, boldly interrupting my reverie.
What could be so important to share, I thought?
"You know that's 'Mary's Bench'!" she exclaimed. "Anyway, that's what we call it."
I was clearly perplexed. "Mary who?" I wondered.
Seeing I was baffled, she pointed to a place on the front of the log beyond my view, just to the left of my knee. "Look there!" she said.
I bent forward and looked down to find a modest plaque. Its words were upside down, of course, so I stood and crouched to set myself right to them. The plaque read: "'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' — Mary Oliver."
The quotation, I later learned, is among Mary Oliver's best known, but it was new to me as I righted myself and smiled broadly at the woman.
"Have a good day," she said as she meandered off, buttressed by her hiking sticks.
"I will," I said, "But Mary has given me reason to stay on this bench longer than I had planned."
She chuckled, waved and vanished.
And so I did stay longer than planned, turning over Mary Oliver's question, thinking about time and how little or much of it remains for me. "'Precious'" indeed, I thought, surrounded by trees. How precious and vulnerable they are in this time of The Great Warming.
And "wild" too. What could be wilder than the Tryon forest, with the sun glinting through its maze of maple and fir? At times it's too wild. Teams of volunteers routinely tear out invasive plants here.
Mary's question clung to me as I resumed my hike. "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
Words are my playmates. So I danced with Mary's question. She seemed to have posed it to a younger "you," readers with most of life ahead of them.
Juggling Mary Oliver's words to fit my own place on the wooded trail, I asked, "Tell me — wooded Tryon path — where is it you plan to lead my one wild and precious life?"
I love the leaps and bounds of poetry. In the days since my time on Mary's bench, I have thought of other verses that have guided me down life's "wild and precious" paths.
Of course, early on I encountered Robert Frost's "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood ... and I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."
Tryon is full of paths that diverge again and again. The signage dutifully tells you where they lead. It is nearly impossible to get lost. But there is no sign directing you to Mary's Bench or its probing question. On this day, on this hike, my random choice of path had "made all the difference."
In recent years, I have come to cherish the poetry of Nancy Richard, a fellow Quaker. We are close contemporaries, finding surprising truths in age and even infirmity. She lives near Gabriel Park with her husband Charles and their two Scottish Terriers (brothers Max and Leo, one black and one white).
Nancy is a neighbor of ours — yours and mine. I keep her poetry near at hand, and reach out frequently to her compilation "A Small Steadying Sail of Love." (The book is available at Annie Bloom's in Multnomah Village.)
Two poems there pick up where Oliver carried me on that autumn day.
Nancy writes in a poem titled "Living With Diminishment": "It is a challenge/to accept the truth/of what no longer is possible/and yet embrace all that still can be."
And now, as we approach and share December, here is Nancy's poem "December": "As the days darken down/in this year's ending,/what in me awaits/healing transformation,/what new life is preparing to be born?"