Mary And The Giant: Encounters On Foot In The Nearby Deep

An essay about how the words of a poem can inspire one’s trail running.

By on December 27, 2017 | Comments

“I hope to see everything in this world before I die.” — Mary Oliver in the poem, “May.”

Perhaps you too take a favored writer’s phrasings with you when you run; perhaps running’s varied cadences recall lines, both quick and slow, and the way one word becomes the next; perhaps the images that appear and flare before you are like the cloudscape on the ridge you run. For me, that runner’s writer is the poet Mary Oliver.

I don’t, as Oliver has over years, go out at first light before splashing down into my coffee. But I do have a morning seat before a window that looks out and up at white pines, and there I read first a few poems, hers or others. This morning, I chose to begin reading again in White Pine, and a few pages in, I got to the prose poem, “May.” Never mind that we are on the other half of light’s seesaw, there was Oliver’s rendering of a copperhead, snake of substance, and that sighting sent me on my way, as poems will.

In southern Connecticut, where my father-in-law angles on into deep age, nearby his apartment, I often get a couple of hours of running in a small state park (roughly three miles long by one wide) shaped around a little mountain, The Sleeping Giant.

The Giant has its own mythology, as is fitting. We come from the sea. And from the south, from New Haven’s harbor, the west-east traprock ridge some eight miles inland looks like a recumbent being; that view from the coast gives the Sleeping Giant his name. But his story originates as many do with those who trailed over this landscape for thousands of years before us. The New Haven area’s Quinnipiac Indians had a storied geography and a primary relationship with the long fluency of the nearby Connecticut River. It seems also that their land was peopled by walking mountains, in particular one Hobbomock, who was ill-tempered as big beings tend to be. Anyway, feeling snubbed, Hobbomock conceived of a torment the locals wouldn’t forget; he set out to divert their huge river, thereby disrupting the Quinnipiac’s way of life. The Indians offered prayers and sacrifices to calm their moving mountain and, finally, Hobbomock was quieted, given to a giant sleep, which goes on today.

The Sleeping Giant is also a rugged little mountain, shot with hundred-foot cliffs, and threaded by trails that only a few visit, even as its graded, 1.5-mile Tower Road to an old castle on top is often thronged with weekend walkers. Many of these trails have hidden vales and rock-rich ‘technical’ sections, gifts from our not-so-long-ago glacier that would challenge a goat. The mountain is also on the northern fringe of copperhead range, and, as I run, I keep my eyes attuned for their looped power, especially when I’m along the sun-soaked southern edge of a ridge. In doing so, I’m only genuflecting to prudence. What I hope for really is to join Oliver and see my first copperhead.

So far, no snake, but recently I came as close as voiced rumor. As I took a mid-run break from technical trails and ran the broad gravel Tower Road up to the 739-foot high point, two descending twenty-somethings with buzzed, orange-tinged hair held out their hands: “Hey, man,” they said, “we just saw a copperhead. Better watch out.” Yes, I thought, Yes that’s possible, even though it is improbable (their dyed mohawks undercut somewhat their naturalist creds). “That’s so cool,” I said and began asking for details, which puzzled them some. I then kept on uphill, scanning now for coppery movement. I’m not sure what response they were after or expected, but my enthusiasm for the snake didn’t seem a match for it. “Silver hairs running up hills,” their expressions seemed to say. “WTF to make of them?”

On another run along the edge of some pronounced ledges, I was in mid-flight, that ephemeral moment when you are airborne, weightless a few inches above the earth, when a snake wriggled away from my next foot strike. I barely touched stone before I was airborne again. When I’d stopped and come back to look, I found a sizable but benign black snake. Copper’s still in the future.

Rising with the Poet

Sometimes, when we run and everything coalesces, we feel we have wings. In another poem from White Pine, “Wings,” Oliver is on a mission that takes her deep into the woods. It’s a poem about returning fox bones she had found earlier to the forest, about coughing back owl-like some of what you’ve taken, and so about being in balanced relationship, which, it proposes, is very different from being ever-acquisitive, to hoarding what you find. Fellow woods-runners know us, perhaps, by our coughed-back pellets of time and care.

Oliver writes: “So it didn’t take long. I could see how it was, and where I was headed. I took what was left of the fox back to the pinewoods and buried it. I don’t even remember where. I do remember, though, how I felt. If I had wings I would have opened them. I would have risen from the ground.”

With “Wings,” in mind and some miles into trail time on this little mountain, I was reminding myself to pay attention as I stepped amid its obliquely angled rocks. Running, like much of life, is all about being where you are, even as it seems to aim at ‘getting there,’ and so, on a hard trail with a good mind, the 10-foot puzzle before you may be all you see. And that kind of focus can spawn rhythm and coherence that are pure pleasure.

I’d reach such a state, and it had been amplified by the occasional laughing call of a pileated woodpecker, a top-five bird in my thin book, when motion on the front periphery of vision startled me. My head lifted to the sight of wings–broad wings–and, predictably in my jostled state, I caught a toe. It took a few steps to settle the enterprise that is me in motion and regain balance. I looked up: the wings hadn’t gone far, and they resolved in a large brownish bird perched on a limb a dozen feet above and ahead. The bird had his back turned to me; I was being shunned.

Then, in that eerie way some birds can, this one rotated his head 180 degrees, and suddenly, I felt seen. We locked eyes and I thought, Ah, that’s why there was no sound as he rose from the ground–OWL!

At first, we simply stared at each other. I felt compelled not to look away; he was not shy or shying. As the moment settled into the stillness of wonder, he kept on looking, and I began measuring–somewhere over a foot in length; rounded head (no tufts), thick body–and I noted his coloring aloud to fix it in my mind–middle-to-light brown stripes, slightly-dirty white.

I wondered if, in his fixed gaze, he was doing the same: whitish hair (what there is of it), a little short for his species, curious, and (what’s this?) given to talking to birds. But now, he’s calling me Mr. Owl, and I am Ms. to begin with, and he’s going on about meeting me. Well, the few who do come here do seem different from those I watch while I soar out over the roads and fields at dusk to look for dinner. He seems harmless.

After a while, the reel that is time caught on it sprockets and the day jerked into motion again. I had to reach the end of my trail-puzzle and move on, and the owl, as the sun slipped down, had rodents on her mind. I began searching for rhythm in the rocks, and Ms. O swiveled her head that 180 degrees and looked forward into the forest. We both moved on.

Postrun: a bird-ID-search easily turned up a Barred Owl as match for my meeting, and I read a little family history, noting that, when followed over time, most Barred Owls stayed within six miles of their original sightings. So it’s likely I’d been in the house of Ms. Owl, a visitor there. It’s likely also that I’d been with a Giant owl, one of this mountain. Whether I was welcome or not was hard to tell, but the wonder was easy to feel.

Oliver, I reflected as I ran down the Giant, does have wings; they are feathered with words. And sometimes, when I run with her, I feel as if I’m rising from the ground.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How often do the lyrics of a song or the words of a poem echo in your mind when you run?
  • Does the creativity of your mind and body comingle while you run, or in other aspects of your life?
The Sleeping Giants woods

A green ravine on The Sleeping Giant. Photo: Sandy Stott

Sandy Stott
Sandy Stott lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at [email protected].