We parked across the street from the entrance to the Cascade Falls trail in Patapsco State Park. After our ritual adumbrations with bags and snacks and water and toys, I crossed the road with my 5-year-old daughter, Evelyn. On the other side, we found an arched doorway in the woods, formed of branches and thorns. I ducked through, dropped off the edge of the asphalt onto a sunken path, turned, and held out my hand.
Evie hesitated, then took a cautious first step, unsure of her legs grown too long, too fast.
A few steps farther and the noise and heat and sunlight that baked us in the street were reduced to a hush, much the way the city is silenced as you walk through the front door of an old church. The stone walls and dusty shafts of sunlight reduce the bustle outside to a memory of a faraway place. You hear only the silence ringing, the minor-key echoes of centuries of prayer. A forest is the same: a natural cathedral built by (and from) billions of organisms simple and complex, working in a community of silence. Sunlight is scattered and tinted green and precipitated among the shadows and there’s nothing I find more calming. I’m home.
The trail branched and we stopped a moment to choose. Blazes on nearby trees marked each diverging path: a loose ring of color swatches floating around us in the dense veil of leaves.
It was a nice day and the trails were busy. Other voices emerged in glimmers around us. The wristwatch-ticking of bicycle freehubs wound their way along adjacent trails. Birdsong was draped like ribbons between the tree branches.
Another voice was Evelyn’s, persistent beside my elbow. She had questions: questions concerning the cars, bicycles, pedestrians, dogs, squirrels, birds, trees, signs, flowers, and bugs she’d seen so far. I struggled to answer each as they tumbled endlessly out of her. She always expected an answer. Yet the stimuli-process-query loop ran so fast through her hyper-metabolic, preschooler head that I could hardly begin to address one question before the next began. We’d hiked a total of 50 feet and it’d taken a solid 15 minutes of breathless discussion to get this far.
But she was asking questions, and that, I reminded myself, meant she was interested. I felt relief and delight. I hadn’t realized, until we’ve finally gotten here on this lovely Sunday, how much I needed her to understand what I saw in this place. I have some history with this forest. I've been returning here, for better or worse, for more than 20 years. This forest has, in a sense, raised me; it's been a constant in my life since I stumbled into Baltimore as a student, slightly lost and slightly terrified. Now I found myself introducing it to my daughter.
There’s a fear I presume most parents share (Note: I hope it's not just me. ) : that your child will be so different from you that you’ll never truly connect. You’ll love them no matter what; you know that to be true. But a part of you — perhaps the more selfish part — also wants to find common ground. You want a shared interest, something to talk about, some private ritual, some inside joke, something to reinforce the genetic lifeline between you. You hope that when their adult selves come home, 30 years hence — when they step off the train or airplane or spacecraft or whatever they’ve got by then — that your connection remains stronger than merely the nose or eyes or freckles you share.
That part of me, perhaps the more selfish part, really needed Evelyn to love this forest.