Leave it safer than you found it
I turned left instead of right and found myself on the trail in the wooded path. You’ve got to watch yourself along these. Roots and sticks and brambles galore. Every so often an industrious spider has extended himself across the way and surprises me with a sticky netting that needs brushing off. Clearly, no one has passed this way recently.
I navigate the down slope safely and slow to face the creek bed that lies ahead. Exposed roots act as nature’s staircase as I step on down to the stones aligned to ford the small stream. Two jumps and I am facing the far slope. Steep, with one indentation in the dirt several feet up that is meant to hold my sneaker. I hesitate to consider my options. Turn back or risk it. Then I see the root wrapped in black burlap extending from the right ledge. Someone has thoughtfully provided a handhold to assist in the climb. I grab it and mount the bank without incident.
With renewed energy I tackle the uphill. Uphill is safer. Less slippage. More traction. It is cool and shady so I don’t mind the increased effort. What I do mind is the broken bottle that I barely avoid. I stop to lift it carefully by the neck and toss it off into the leaves where it won’t be a hazard. Runners and hikers wouldn’t be in danger, but I am thinking of the exposed paws of four-footed companions who might travel this way. Who would be so careless to leave broken glass?
Then I realized just how close this path was to the road. Obscured by a few trees and a small rise, it ran parallel and only about ten yards away. Any passing motorist could discard debris at will, perhaps even reveling in which tree they could target and how big the explosion of glass when it struck. Their Molsons and Miller Lights would rain gleefully down on this path. Harmless fun until an unsuspecting creature slices a foot or paw.
Looking more carefully now, I see piles of glass scattered at intervals. Shards in several colors, camouflaged among the leaves. I sweep the danger of this pile aside, then move on to the next and the next. I can’t hope to remove all the risk; but what I see, I remove. To clear the path for whomever might come along next. Just as some unknown soul did for me when he hung black burlap on the right hand root so I’d have a hand up and wouldn’t fall.
I ran on, occasionally stopping to shove away debris or brush away spider webs. I took care to keep to the path in the parts that had been narrowed by overgrowth, aware that the weight and disruption of my footfalls maintained and marked the path. This, too, was an offering so the next runner, next hiker, next Labrador Retriever, would find it easier to follow and just a bit safer.
At camp grounds in our parks the wilderness rangers always advise, ‘leave the camp ground cleaner than you found it.’ I can go them one better: ‘leave the path safer than you found it.’
Suddenly, my children come to mind. My flesh and blood kids and all the others I have come to know and love through the years. And I wonder if here in the woods I have stumbled on a mission statement: “To make the way safer for those who come after you.”
I would dearly love to keep them safe from all harm, but that is beyond my power. All I can do is make the path I travel a bit safer, and perhaps even more inviting, for them to follow.