Bridges are sacred.
As a child, anytime we crossed a bridge on foot, and I mean anything that spanned water, my mother insisted on mindfulness. She talked of bridges being representatives of the three pathways. You were standing on a path, with a path above you (the sky) and a path below you (the water) and that was a powerful place to be, because in that spot, infinite possibilities, times three had access to you and allowed the gods, goddesses, the spirits and the universe itself to notice you and in her estimation, it was a good thing for me to be noticed by those things. Her? Not so much. She went out of her way to avoid being noticed.
Bridges had many forms, from ones that spanned mighty rivers like the Ohio down to simple logs that had fallen across tiny rills and brooks. I think perhaps it began as my mother’s influence but with me it developed into an addiction/obsession. Soon, any time we were out walking or exploring and we came across a bridge, especially small ones, handmade ones I needed to cross it, slowly, reverently and if time permitted, to clamber over it and explore it from below as well.
This came to pass more than it might have as my father had an interest in covered bridges and we would often drive hours to see them, photograph them, commit them to memory and I crossed them all.
I remember an incident that happened to us when I was just a small boy. We were on a wildflower hunt down along one of the streams that runs parallel to state route 30 in Beaver County Pennsylvania. It was early May, perhaps even late April. The toad trilliums and dutchman’s breeches were in bloom and dad was collecting saxifrage from the shale hillside to plant in one of his miniature landscapes at home. Mum was cataloging species and locations in one of her little notebooks and I was using a small net to catch Sculpins, crayfish and darters in the stream. We spent about three hours playing about in the woods and then gathered for sandwiches on one of the fallen logs that crisscrossed the bottomland.
Dad suggested we change locations and perhaps go up along Tank Farm Road to look for young sassafras saplings to harvest for tea, and we all rose, dusted ourselves off and began crossing the distance to our orange Datsun station wagon.
Just as we had begun to walk, a crack resounded across that small patch of forest that sounded like a rifle shot, only deeper and more resonant, like a small explosion had gone off underground right behind us. We turned toward the hillside in time to see one of the massive 100 foot tall London Plane trees leaning out toward us as it wrenched its roots free from the ground and began to fall. Its shadow found us first and my father, for the first time in my experience screamed, “Run!” and pushed my mother and I upstream while he turned and ran in the opposite direction.
We ran, tripping over the branches and stumbling through the leaves and stones until with a sound like a bomb going off behind us the huge tree struck the ground, burying part of its massive trunk deep into the spring mud.
We had narrowly escaped the assured death of the trunk but mother and I were caught by some of the branches and battered to the ground with scratches, bumps and scrapes. There was no sign of my dad.
The moments ticked by as we tried to get our wits about us, and then I, and soon my mother, began to call out for my father.
For what seemed like an eternity, but was in all truth, maybe two minutes, we got no response, just the deathly silent woods that was still shocked into a vacuum by the event that just occurred.
But then, just as I began to read panic in mum’s eyes, my father began to cough and sputter and then swear up a blue streak. In kind of a post traumatic haze, mum and I found this hysterically funny and laughed until our sides hurt.
One of the large branches had caught dad on the shoulder and had driven him face down in the mud, shattering his glasses, cutting his ear nearly free from his head at the top and knocking him out for several seconds. But he arose, bruised, bloody and grateful to be alive I think.
It took a few minutes for him to get his wits about him and for all of us to survey the scope of what had happened. The tree now lay, spanning the entire bottomland where we had been exploring and reached almost to where our car was parked in a gravel pull off along Route 30.
Mom and I started looking for an easy way to climb over the downed behemoth, but dad stopped us and called me over to the trunk and he said, “Lance, use one of those heavy branches and climb up on the trunk and then wait there for a second.”
I did as I was told by the voice coming to me from the other side of the tree. I sought out and found a good, stout limb and using my toes (I spent much of my childhood barefoot.) I climbed up the branch until I stood, rather proudly on top of this gigantic being.
I looked down at dad, a little shocked at how beaten up he looked, and worried about the amount of blood on the side of his face. But he paid it no mind and let me stand there for the length of several breaths, before saying, “Okay, now climb down this side and when you are on the ground, wait before you do anything else.”
And so again, I curled my toes and fingers around the wood and climbed down until my feet sank back into the forest mast.
I did not move, waiting to hear what my father might say, and for a minute there was nothing and then in a quiet, reverent voice he told me, “Unless man comes along and interferes, this tree will lay here for decades, it may be a part of this valley for a man’s lifetime, and in all that time, no other human being, no other creature will be able to say that they were the first one to cross it, except for you. This tree is your tree, it is our tree. It took blood from each of us and left us alive and now it will change this place and we were here to witness that and I am grateful for all of that.”
It took me by surprise, the significance of it and the mystical nature of it, coming from a devout atheist who thought of my mother’s paganism as quaint and superstitious but never disrespected it. His words had the ring of a Druid’s or a Zen monk’s, it spoke of us as part of nature, not in dominion over it and I couldn’t do anything but turn around, walk over and put my hands on “my tree.”
For almost a decade following that, whenever we decided to go out there, it was no longer the “wildflower haunt on 30”, it had become a trip to see “Lance’s tree.”
Over the years I walked the length of that tree, running along its trunk like some poor American Tarzan, I slept on it, ate my picnic lunches on the flat side of its trunk and carved little symbols in hidden places on it with my little Barlow pocket knife, purchased for me from Mellinger’s Nursery in North Lima Ohio.
It became a bridge for me, it was a day that I crossed over from being a human child to a creature that is a part of nature and as integral to her balance as the sharks in the oceans, the crows in the air or the bats, sleeping in the beams below the covered bridges.
Be mindful in your practice, be aware of the sacred in the everyday, cross bridges, both real and symbolic, it will help you find your way…
Be good to yourselves and each other until next time…