There could have been a day in mid-May. High 50’s, clear, light winds, and no chance of rain. I would have mentioned foraging while talking with you a few hours earlier. You would have said you’d always wanted to try it, again. I would have offered to take you, again, for the third or fourth time. This time, though, you said yes. I most likely told you we were going over the bridge to the Hartley Nature Reserve in Duluth. Information is the enemy of anxiety, so I can see myself wanting to make sure you were well-informed. I would have told you I have a compass, a fully charged cell phone with a downloaded Google map of Hartley, a bear whistle, a first aid kit, toilet paper, and a lighter in case we get wet and need a fire. I also probably told you to make sure and bring a foraging knife, because you’d need one. Also, because I understand your anxiety, and I want you to feel safe alone in the woods with me. I wouldn’t take it personally. I see you. I imagine the day of our foraging trip would have been a bit of an oxymoron. Hot summer sun and a cool upper Midwest breeze. The kind of day where you alternate between feeling the hot threat of sunburn on your exposed skin and fighting back shivers in the shade. It’s the kind of day that is often experienced in the Twin Ports area—a day that can’t make up its mind. It wants to be summer, but the wind off Lake Superior still remembers the chill of spring. Progress and regression play out on our skin. It serves as a reminder that all things are in flux. The order of things, at least. The form is all the same. I’m leading you up a steep winding path to my favorite oyster mushroom spot. A long ridge line flush with aspen, birch, and oak. The trail is a little on the narrow side, so I take the lead. I feel the focus of my consciousness broaden as my eyes begin to relax, and I become more aware of my surroundings. Walking is my favorite form of meditation. The repetitive motions lull me into stillness. The oscillation of my arms and the crunch of my boots are my mantra. My thoughts become quiet as I take in the simple pleasures of the natural world. The thimbleberry plants masquerading as maple saplings with their broad three-pointed leaves that line the down-slope side of the trail. The statuesque stump of an old oak stooped over in a sea of cinnamon ferns that flows along the bottom between this ridge and another. I stop to test the air for the tell-tale smell of anise, a sign that oyster mushrooms are in the area. Their mycelium smells like black licorice, and you can smell it from several yards away. Nothing yet. The aspen oyster mushroom is light beige in color with a round cap in the shape of an oyster shell. Its underside resembles a partially open hand fan with long deep gills that stretch from the edge of the cap down through its short stem. Aspen oysters grow exclusively on dead or dying aspen trees. They are prized among foragers. They have a nutty seafood-like flavor, and, ounce for ounce, they have as much protein as red meat. They are also very easy to identify. This makes them an ideal choice for a beginner. Speaking of beginners, I realize that I haven’t spoken to you in several minutes, and I look back at you a little apprehensively. This is your first time out foraging. I want to make sure you’re enjoying yourself. I’m greeted with a warm relaxed smile, and I can see that your eyes have lightened into a rich hazel. You are like me. The walk has stilled your mind, and you have found yourself in the middle of open-eyed zazen meditation. All things lose their definition when you begin to simply see. The mind shuts off as the inner monologue of signified signifier descriptors quiets. You begin to see things as they are, and not as you have learned them to be. The universe makes itself known to you in the thing you would normally call an aspen tree or a clump of moss or maybe your hand painted with the moving shadows of the forest canopy. The order of things is different, but the form of them is always the same. It's always the same. That bitter thought struts right into the middle of my inner-peace at three-quarter speed like the titular character in a Tarantino film. Suddenly, the uphill hike becomes a chore as I push against the weight of my emotional Déjà vu. It's happening again. I’m falling for a friend, and you’re really happy with someone else. You’re “all other love was just a layover en route to my forever home” happy. This means I get to burn willpower prying agency out of the clenched jaw of my heart. I get to manage expectations and frame self-talk as I push the same stone up a different hill. I concentrate on my breathing in hopes that Hatha yoga can give me some respite. Inhale for two heartbeats. Hold for two heartbeats. Exhale for four heartbeats. Walking up the incline has made my heart loud and easy to follow, but breath work is doing nothing to quiet the feedback loop of bitterness distorting my emotions. My mind retreats into the metaphysical in search of some philosophical chrysalis to transform my mood. A quote slowly flutters through my mind, One must imagine Sisyphus happy. The famous existentialist author Albert Camus once said that Sisyphus was smiling. That’s right, the quintessential Greek boulder-pusher himself pushed that stone with a big golden Buddha grin. Camus’ reasoning for thinking this was because he saw the endless repetitive menial tasks of everyday life as the good stuff. They mean you’re alive and doing the work in the now. Life may be painful, but you get to live it. I might be struggling to whisper the joys of friendship over the yell of unrequited love, but I’m here. Why not push the stone with a smile? Why not grow emotionally and not fall into the systemic trap of male pain deserving female sympathy and attention? I am blessed with friendship. This realization doesn’t mean I wouldn’t avoid eye contact with you. I have no poker face in situations like this. My sad resting face tends to show all my cards. I would probably stop to over-analyze a polypore. One similar in color to an oyster with the same general shape, but hard to the touch and much thicker. I’d break it off a birch log, and make a show of flipping it over and back again a couple times. I’d know what I had. The differences between polypores and oyster mushrooms are obvious, but it would give me an excuse to not look at you. You’d walk up to my left side, and your brow would crinkle a little as you examine it more closely. I’d tell you it’s a birch polypore. They are not considered an edible fungus, but they have been ingested by humans for thousands of years. They’re medicinal. They kill intestinal parasites. They take all the bad little shit floating around inside you and flush it out. I’d be dropping little hints by this point. Obtuse and obscure little things you wouldn’t get, but they would make me feel better. I’d give the polypore a toss, and our eyes would follow it as it rolls and bounces down the ridge like a white rabbit running for the safety of the cinnamon ferns. From the ridge line, the ferns look like aquatic plants dancing in currents of crystal-clear water. They highlight a hidden world and show me patterns that are beyond my ability to see, because the cinnamons, like all ferns, follow the Middle Way. They spend as much time as gametophytes that depend on water to carry their sperm and eggs as they spend as sporophytes trusting their spores to the wind. They’re not like moss that spends the majority of its time carpeting forest floors in the varying shades of green of its velveteen gametophyte form, and only occasionally allows their sporophyte stalk selves to pop-up. They’re different from trees that prefer to tower as sporophytes, and rarely emerge as the small and vulnerable skinless grape of their gametophyte bodies. No, ferns accept the opposing aspects of themselves and live in harmony. A being of water and a being of air sharing time as fern. The murmuration of cinnamons’ fronds in the cool breeze would pull at my attention so much I’d almost forget you were standing beside me. I would have to fight to pull my eyes away from their siren sway; pitted against the call of some of the oldest living plants. They have laughed in the face of comets and come out of continental wildfires with nary a singe. How do you just look away from the beauty and majesty of true survivors? I would definitely tell you at least some of this. I do have a soft spot for waxing eastern poetic. I wonder if you know the Japanese word for fern. I wonder if it sounds like wind-blown rain. A word that begins with ssshhhh and ends with whhhhh. A word that starts out wet in the mouth, and then is blown dry by breath. Something that sounds like yin and yang being spun into the unity of gray—or, in this case, green. As we reach the top of the ridge line, I can see myself chancing a look back at you. You’re probably a little winded and red-faced with beads of sweat dotting your forehead like sequins. I know I would hold eye contact just a little too long. You’d feel self-conscious with your damp hair clinging to your temples, and the little wisps popping up at the top of your forehead. I see your feet pigeon-toeing a little more as you open your chest and stretch your lower back. You know I’d shift my gaze from your eyes, to your eyebrows, then to the center of your forehead to avoid peripheral sin. You would cock your head a little to the side and give me a smirk as if to say, “The fact that you adjusted your gaze proves the intent to look was there.” I would return the smirk with a shrug that replies, “The effort means I’m doing my best to see you.” I would turn back around more than a little self-satisfied at having the last gesture and continue on. I would hear the whispering wheeze of asthma-weighted breathing lift from your breath now that we have entered flat ground. There’s something I would have known that you probably wouldn’t. The odds of us foraging anything this time out are small. I wouldn’t take you off the trail and deep into the woods your first time. We’d stick to well-trodden picked-over areas. I’d want you to feel safe as you got acclimated to Hartley. I’d want you to feel the tranquility I feel in the natural world. I would also hope that being in my quiet place would help me clear away the unrequited fog I choose to squint through when I’m around you. You deserve better than being an object I pine for. You’re my best friend, and I love you. I have to learn to love the fact that you have found happiness. I’d think about this as we come to a dip in the ridge line and walk down into an oak thicket. This area is a bit of a wind tunnel, so there’s plenty of fallen logs for us to sit on and catch our breath. I’d be a little too curious about how you’re doing. You’d let out a suffering sigh and say you’re fine with a lilted tone that tells me you appreciate the fact that I care enough to be a little neurotic. Your eyes would then become unsettled and begin to dart around. Without the balm of constant movement, the agitations of your anxiety would start to slowly rise again like flood water. Just because one is a strong swimmer, doesn’t mean they like knowing the storm is at their door. It doesn’t mean they enjoy watching the dark wet circle grow on the floor of their entryway. I would have tried to distract you with some esoteric and psychedelic line of reasoning. It could have gone something like this. What if modern science is wrong about quarks being fundamental particles? Can something really come from nothing? What if the nature of an infinite universe is that it goes out forever and is forever growing ever larger even as it becomes ever smaller? Even in you, for you are a part of the universe. Once we go past systems, organs, tissues, cells, and into atoms, you start becoming the emptiness of space. As we journey into one of your atoms, through its protons and neutrons and into the quarks that form them, the line between the atomos and the cosmos blurs. The light of your stars shines, and your infinity can be seen. This infinince can be found even in a speck of your skin, when it flakes off your arm as you pass through a room. It is present even in your dust. If that is not the Godhead, I don’t know what is. Look at you. Hallelujah! I can picture myself standing and motioning for you to take the lead at his point. I follow you down the mountain, and into the lowlands between our ridge and another. We start wading through a sea of green. The cinnamon ferns are up to our chests. Tall and primordial. They are thriving, and we can’t see where we are stepping. Their emerald green fronds agitate the skin of our arms with tiny cuts. An itch that will last several minutes. Forgotten about in the stark, lush, quiet. There is a stillness here. The ferns are so dense they dampen sound. The silence among them feels old. Bygone. An antiquated quiet so all encompassing you feel the anxiety leave, and your shoulders lower and go limp. It is from a time before post-modern dread. A hushed absolute. The serenity of nature. You catch a flash of refracted light and stop just in time to avoid stumbling into a small stream. A roving thing so new its floor is still green with undergrowth. It is haphazard and wild. The water has yet to make its mark, and it is at the mercy of the terrain. Like an excised vein, it snakes along following the path of least resistance. Eerily quiet. Your eyes follow it for a couple yards until it is lost in the dark green of the ferns. You hop over the water. Your shoes dig into the softened earth and release the sulfur smell of decomposition. You are confronted with the catharsis of nature. Rotting death nourishes new life. You look out before you and see a fertile flourishing swath. Nature cresting in a trough of land. The ferns continue on as far as the eye can see. We walk with them, cradled by their silence and rocked by their moving green swaying gently in the breeze. The moment is old. You feel an ancient peace. The smallest little glimmer of bliss settles over you. It too quiet. Epigenetic. You know this is what has made your people feel at ease for generations. The ferns, and the stream, and the hush. You close your eyes, and you feel the fern. Its itch is like laughter. Like being tickled as a child. It is welcomingly uncomfortable like the peccadillo of a loved one. It makes you smile. You stand quiet and still for a moment. You feel the oddest sensation of love. One not transactional or object-based. A call not from the order of things but from the form of them. A whisper from the infinite within the finite. The universe recognizing itself. Eyes open. You look around and are surprised we are alone, then you realize we aren’t. We are with the ferns, and the stream, and the hush. You turn, and we head uphill. The world becomes a little louder as we reach the summit. The noises of the forest return. A gray squirrel barks at us and twitches its tail from a nearby cedar. We hear the knocking call of a raven from high in the treetops, and a chill in the air reminds us that dusk will soon set in. We make our way to the trail and begin to hike back down to our cars. You have internalized the stillness. It is with you as you get in your car. It is with you when you arrive home and go inside. Tonight, you will dream of the ferns, and the stream, and the hush. In my own dreams, wind and water will swirl into a storm that is all eye. I have learned that what I thought was an outside problem is really an internal conflict. Pain without the presence of damage isn’t pain. Sometimes what appears to be opposition is really just a piece of self that has lagged behind. I wait for myself in places of agitation. If I can find stillness there, I’ll know I have grown.
Matt Bearden is a writer and nontraditional student living in Superior, WI. He is proud to be a former Texan and took I-35 as far away from there as he could. He loves entertaining esoteric notions, and always tries to sneak some ancient wisdom into his writing.