Confessions of a Guy Who Quit ii: Things Forgotten by Ryan Koch

In the fall of 2018 I took a two month long sabbatical and I am still trying to figure out what this has done for me, or to me. For part of my time away from Seedleaf duties, I took a long walk on the Sheltowee Trace. What follows is one reflection from my time on the trail.

Sharing notes on introversion with this old pro.

Sharing notes on introversion with this old pro.

I walked through a steady rainstorm for much of the very first day of my journey. Everything I was wearing got wet, soaked, by midday. I saw my first turtle right on the trail that morning, twenty feet from a marker that bore her image, but it was raining too hard right then to get a photo. My spirits were good. I was thrilled to be out, finally, after all the planning and studying. My steps remained prayerful that day, not resentful. It was mid-afternoon when I started to climb a ridge and saw water flowing down the trail. Down the actual trail. The trail ran alongside a stream, which was filling with water too. It was all just funny at this point. I walked up that stream/trail smiling, trying hard to be in on the joke.

Part of what buoyed my demeanor was a week’s supply of food. I couldn’t wait to get under my tarp and eat something hot! The rain eased a bit in the late afternoon, then started up again. I was exhausted. I settled for a spot and quickly made camp. My water and pot ready, I went to light the stove. But the lighter in my hand would make no flame. That’s funny, I thought: this thing has worked steadily for years! And while this was a true statement, it was not the sort of thing one should be able to say regarding a one dollar disposable gas station lighter. This thing had probably been running on fumes for quite some time. Now it had sighed its last.

I took a deep breath and laughed at my luck. I found a granola bar and some dried fruit. I felt silly not having a backup for something so critical. But I knew I could get something in Morehead the following day.

I got into my mostly-dry hammock in that day’s last light. I thought so many thoughts. My body was exhausted, but my mind was flooded with ideas, concerns, there on that ridge. I had no music, no podcasts or small tasks to distract me. All I had was this persistent rain on my tarp, and all of these thoughts. It occurred to me to write some of them down and get a bit of peace. I reached for my journal and started digging for a pen in one of my waterproof bags. But here was my second disappointment: no pen. No hot meal and no pen.

No problem. More laughter. This was fine, maybe, because I was just so tired. Maybe I was grateful to have gotten through all of that wet mileage. Maybe I was relieved that the trip was underway. For whatever reason I didn’t waste time worrying about what was broken or missing. I folded myself into my sleeping bag and listened to the rain in the fading grey of the hillside. I turned off my headlamp. It was 7:15pm.

The next morning brought me down a steep trail and through the campus of Morehead State University. I saw a huge bird that didn’t quite look like a vulture near a body of water called Eagle Lake. I saw students and I considered my appearance. Everything I wore was wet. My bag contained one book and no pens. I felt strangely underdressed.

I spied a gas station and entered. I found a lighter. A woman named April rang me up. I asked if they sold pens and she said they did not. Then she rummaged behind the counter a bit and presented me several. I took two.

As I repacked my bag outside the gas station, another fellow driving by said he had overheard my need of a pen. He too offered me one. I was suddenly rich in pens and falling in love with this town! Only later, down a quiet trail, would I think to be grateful for my forgetfulness, which elicited these kind acts.

Envy by Ryan Koch

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My daughter and I envy the dog
who is not made to wear pants, or go to school.
The dog envies the leaves
moving over the grass, carried by the wind,
unconcerned for their destination.
The leaves envy no one.

Confessions of a Guy who Quit i: Earnest Hiker Takes a Walk Instead by Ryan Koch

In the fall of 2018 I took a two month long sabbatical and I am still trying to figure out what this has done for me, or to me. For part of my time away from Seedleaf duties, I took a long walk on the Sheltowee Trace. What follows is one reflection from my time on the trail.

Why were we both so happy when Jodie dropped me off in the woods?

Why were we both so happy when Jodie dropped me off in the woods?

Earnest Hiker Takes a Walk Instead

“You picked a hot day for a walk.” It was a true statement that made me smile. It was also some of the only words I heard spoken on day four of my journey. The speaker was a woman with white hair in a cream-colored Oldsmobile, about to turn in front of me on the paved county road on which I had walked for the past hour. She smiled too. We started to visit.

I had woken up very close to Cave Run Lake and was ready to hike a long way. My pack was heavy with all the food I would need for the rest of the week, but still, I had mileage on my mind. My trekking poles, still a new set of tools for me, seemed to be helping with my balance, and with impact on downhill sections. I didn’t mind the road, as it was not very busy, and I was making good time.

But my neighbor was right: it was hot. I was staying hydrated, but the road was on a ridge with very few trees, and I was looking forward to getting onto a trail again soon, under a canopy. 

I told her what I was doing: hiking the Sheltowee Trace for 323 miles from north of Morehead to the Big South Fork in Tennessee, a trip that would take three weeks. “That’s a long way,” she observed. We talked about Morehead, where she and all of her family had gone to school. “What a cool town!” I gushed. She laughed at this, politely. Soon we parted and were moving in different directions.

This brief conversation echoed in my imagination throughout the afternoon. In my planning, I had not considered the amount of alone time I would experience. On good days, with some intentionality, being alone was solitude, something that nourished my soul. Solitude is spending time with, and listening to, someone I respect and care about: myself. This was a new concept in my life, something I am still learning how to articulate.

There were also plenty of times and sections when alone time was just lonely. This is a much more familiar pattern for me. I had cell reception on some ridges and high points, but often I was camping in valleys, near water, and I could not reach out to my usual distractions. Loneliness was something I had to strategize against. The beauty of the landscape around me became an ally in this. The challenge of hiking in a rainstorm, or dealing with minor pains, were other ways to displace loneliness.

But something I couldn’t plan for was a friendly person pausing to greet me. What a grace this was! And how many times had I just endured a bit of small talk, doing everything I could to avoid making a connection, or even eye contact. Now I drank greedily at this fountain: I wanted to tell this stranger all about my previous three nights! But I didn’t. I appreciated the contact, but I did not go on to burden this neighbor, or others with whom I visited. 

Besides the gifts of care and greeting, my neighbor reframed my journey for me slightly. I went into the wilderness with my research, my gear, my plan, my trekking poles, ready to hike with confidence, and to push myself, to learn my limits, etcetera. This hike would be some serious recreation, I must have thought to myself. And really, I wanted to be re-created. 

My neighbor, however, saw what I was doing. She had seen others doing this. She applied a humbler name: she saw me walking. I was a guy with a backpack and ski poles walking on a hot day on a country road. And really, this took some pressure off. To walk is much more playful, much more of an experiment than a well planned hike. Walking connotes an openness, a curiosity, a willingness to stop for a chat, or a swim, or a view of a waterfall, or an arch.

It was a hot and wonderful day for a walk. I agreed all through the afternoon. I kept using the trekking poles. I kept emulating a serious hiker. But I was secretly relishing this slightly downgraded endeavor. Now I was on a long walk, and I was glad for it.

Notes On Dormancy by Ryan Koch

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I wrote this last winter, but all the blessed leaflessness and grey skies moved me to post it again. I hope you will enjoy this winter season too.

As a gardener of food-bearing annual plants, I have been a slow convert to the wisdom and rhythm of the perennials all around me. And in winter it is the urban forest of deciduous trees that impresses me most. These trees have taken up their chlorophyll and left their leaves to dry out in a burst of color. Then, after a number of windy days, the leaves are released to go build soil (or in our city’s context, to be dutifully gathered and disposed of.) This is a slow symphony. After the wash of color and falling leaves we enjoy a coda, bare branches reaching in all directions, glaring in the fall sun. We see nests previously concealed. We see the cold sky unobstructed. There is a clarity on a crystal cold morning that will focus one’s thoughts on elemental things: this icy gate; a cold crunching underfoot; the pale sun in the southern sky at noon. 

I can’t help but feel touched by this dormancy. The growing season is done. Growth itself ceases for a moment. The long nights are not a burden as soon as I accept them as they are: dark; cold. I see nature resting. So I rest too.

The work of Seedleaf, the growing and sharing of food, also becomes distilled in this quiet season. We are not growing food at our community gardens, but we are doing small things to nourish the soil. We continue to compost food waste. We continue to offer workshops to help neighbors learn how to make their homes centers of production, not just centers of consumption. We spend time listening to neighbors and stakeholders in hopes that we can have a more engaging new year. We consider the recent past and wonder about what programs and projects should be developed, and which should be pruned. 

The work continues. The planning evolves. Big ideas from just a couple of years ago (new full time staff person; the Urban Farm) are now coming to fruition. And we have more exciting things to roll out in the new year. Winter is such a short season. Soon things will be leafing out and setting fruit. For now, the anticipation grows but the plants do not. They wait and watch. Let us emulate them.