Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks

Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks.
Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks.

By Mark Woods

Many childhood summers, Mark Woods piled into a station wagon with his parents and two sisters and headed to America’s national parks. Mark’s most vivid childhood memories are set against a backdrop of mountains, woods, and fireflies in places like Redwood, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon national parks.

On the eve of turning fifty and a little burned-out, Mark decided to reconnect with the great outdoors. In his latest book, Lassoing the Sun, a Year in America’s National Parks, he reflects on his childhood love and his yearning as an adult to return to the parks.

He’d spend a year visiting the national parks. He planned to take his mother to a park she’d not yet visited and to re-create his childhood trips with his wife and their iPad-generation daughter. But then the unthinkable happened: his mother was diagnosed with cancer, given just months to live.

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Mark had initially intended to write a book about the future of the national parks, but it grew into something more: a book about family, the parks, the legacies we inherit and the ones we leave behind. In Lassoing the Sun, Woods presents a series of memories from a childhood filled with trips to National Parks which gave him a life-long love of the outdoors.

Excerpt from the book:

Gordon Hempton bent over and picked up a large maple leaf.

We had barely begun hiking into the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington State, but already the sounds of the visitor center parking lot—the slamming of car doors, the beep-beep of alarms, the murmur of conversation—had faded and been replaced by the sounds of the rain forest. Which on this afternoon didn’t include rain. Sunlight was streaming through the trees.

Gordon, who describes himself as an acoustic ecologist, used a handheld device to measure the sound. We were less than a hundred miles from downtown Seattle, and it was one decibel quieter than Benaroya Hall when the symphony wasn’t playing.

“Quiet enough to hear a single leaf drop,” Gordon said as he let go of the maple leaf.

It floated through the air, swishing back and forth, falling slowly, before landing with a soft scrape and a muted clap.

This, Gordon said, was just the beginning.

“Very soon… comes the final applause,” he said, whispering. “See the maple above us? Those leaves will dry further and then a breeze will come through after a still night, that first breeze of the morning, and we’ll hear the final applause of the season.”

He smiled, laughed, and said in his normal voice, “And then be- gins the deluge we call winter. Thirteen feet of water.”

He turned and started hoofing it back down the trail he hadwalked hundreds of times, leading us to the place where in 2005 he had taken a small red stone, placed it on a log, and proclaimed a spot in Olympic National Park to be the One Square Inch of Silence.

Some people fight to save trees or bison or air. Gordon had spent most of his adult life not only recording natural sound but fighting to save it.

His quest didn’t involve answering the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Gordon would say that of course the tree makes a sound. Lots of them. Cracking, groaning, whistling, and crashing with a thud. Does the tree make a sound? That’s a silly question, kind of like asking if the sun rose on the Grand Canyon and nobody was standing on the rim, would the view still be beautiful?

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Bob Self-031716-Mark Woods photographed at the Fort Caroline National Memorial, a part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, Florida.
Mark Woods photographed at the Fort Caroline National Memorial, a part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, Florida.  All Images Copyright 2016, Bob Self

All Images Copyright 2016, Bob Self

Gordon’s quest and question were more like: If a leaf falls in the forest and you are standing right there but still can’t hear it—if all you hear is a jet—what happens to the sound of that leaf ? And be- yond that, what happens to you?

He said he was losing the fight, that silence had become an endangered species, that by his own standards for a quiet place— fifteen minutes or longer during daylight hours without interruption by man-made noise—fewer than a dozen such places remained in America. And he was leading us to one of them.

Sound and Light

When I arrived in Washington, I was acutely aware of sound and light.

A few days after returning home from Shanksville, I went for a bicycle ride and crashed, breaking my left collarbone, cracking my helmet, and ending up with some of the classic symptoms of a concussion.

I spent about a week on the couch, my shoulder wedged against a cushion. I tried watching Breaking Bad and decided it was too depressing. I tried watching some cable news and found it to be even more depressing than Breaking Bad.

I eventually put in a DVD of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There was one story in particular I wanted to find, about a Japanese immigrant who was put in an internment camp during World War II. Chiura Obata coped by painting. And after he was released, he went back to his life as a professor at UC Berkeley and became a painter best known for capturing Yosemite on his canvas.

But when Obata talked about the High Sierra, he often didn’t describe it in visual terms. He talked about its stillness, its sound.

“In the evening, it gets very cold; the coyotes howl in the distance, in the mid sky the moon is arcing, all the trees are standing here and there, and it is very quiet. You can learn from the teachings within this quietness…. Some people teach by speeches, some by talking, but I think it is important that you are taught by silence.”

I turned off the TV and listened to tree branches scraping against the roof.

I thought about Mom. She craved silence more than anyone I know. And not just the kind of silence you get when you sit inside and turn off the television and phone. That kind of silence often feels lonely and hollow.

The silence that Mom craved was far from silent. It’s what she got when she walked in the desert every morning. It’s rich and full, and when you listen to it, you don’t feel alone. You feel like you’re a part of something infinitely bigger than yourself.

After Mom died, I wandered through her house, looking at what was on the walls and shelves. In a hall near the guest room, there was a small framed poster that I hadn’t paid much attention to before: “Desiderata,” written by Max Ehrmann in 1927.

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence,” it begins, winding its way through a guide for life before finishing with another reference to sound. “And what- ever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”

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A couple of weeks before the trip to Olympic, I went to a follow-up with the surgeon. I asked if I could still do the trip, if I’d be okay flying and driving and going for some hikes. Sure, he said. Just be careful not to fall, and don’t put weight on the shoulder held together by a plate and screws.

I told him that part of the plan was to put a backpack on my shoulders—nothing too heavy, maybe twenty pounds—for a hike into the Hoh Rain Forest.

“That ain’t going to happen,” he said.

This is how I ended up buying a fanny pack. Not that I ever referred to it as such. Yes, it rested on my hips and had one strap that went over my one moderately good shoulder. But when I called the longtime friend who lived in Tampa and was going to be meet- ing me in Seattle for the week, I didn’t say I had bought a fancy fanny pack.

“Jimmy,” I said, “I got a lumbar pack.”

We met more than twenty years earlier, when I lived in Tampa. Jimmy’s real name isn’t Jimmy. It’s David DeLong. But we had stopped calling each other David and Mark years ago. I called him Jimmy. He called me Jimmy. We had been doing this so long that I didn’t even think about the roots of it anymore, an episode of Seinfeld where a character in the gym named Jimmy always refers to himself in the third person. Jimmy will see you around. Jimmy likes Elaine…. Jimmy has a fanny pack.

A friendship that started out because we lived nearby and ran about the same pace grew as we aged and became fathers. When I moved, we stayed in touch, talking pretty much ever y weekend, planning trips. We kept returning to the Grand Canyon. When we weren’t there, we talked about getting back. And when we were there, we were looking for The Spot.

We noted that there probably was a time in our lives when The Spot would have referred to the place we dreamed about ending up with a female hiker who looked like she stepped out of a Patagonia catalog. But now we were husbands and fathers and, in a sign wewere aging, The Spot referred to the place where we wanted our ashes scattered.

Now we were headed to a spot in a rain forest.

Mark Woods is the author of Lassoing the Sun: A Year In American’s National Parks (on-sale from Thomas Dunne Books June 14, 2016). He is also the Metro Columnist for the Florida Times-Union, the daily newspaper in Jacksonville, FL, and recipient of the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship. Mark Woods lives in Jacksonville, FL.

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