A Magical Place

Psithurism. I’m not sure where I first heard that word. Some long-ago S.A.T. prep course, maybe. The annual spelling bee, perhaps. More likely in some book or article.
Rest assured that this interesting concoction of letters is a real word, and despite the “ism” at the end, it doesn’t have anything to do with some philosophy or religion or medical condition.
It simply means the sound of leaves rustling as the wind blows through the trees. It’s a peaceful sound, a gentle sound, a spiritually calming sound. It’s a sound I’ve heard myriad times over the years as I’ve traversed the 2,100 meters of trails at Collegiate’s Robins Campus.
The site on Blair Road in Eastern Goochland County looks great these days with verdant fields, attractive landscaping, first-rate facilities, an outdoor classroom, and even a brilliant sunset if you venture out there at just the right time.
When it opened in the summer of 2001, though, it was a much different story. The recently-cleared 20 acres designated for playing fields were little more than a treacherous tundra of dirt and rocks, and little relief was in sight. Central Virginia was in the midst of a drought, you see, irrigation was limited, and every time the grounds crew planted grass, a sizeable flock of Canada geese materialized to feast on the seed.
Over time, the drought lifted, our staff won the battle with the geese, and a functional (if not lush) carpet of green began to appear.
The plan in the fall was for the cross country team to share space with field hockey, soccer, and football, but the course, which by necessity ran mostly along the periphery of the vast open area, needed to include a system of trails.
In June of ’01, Charlie McFall, then the athletic director and football coach, enlisted several friends to cut a path through the woods. Using his chain saw, a bow saw, and a stump grinder, McFall and company blazed a single trail roughly 150 meters long in the area behind what’s now the tennis courts and baseball/softball complex.
Over the next few years, several benefactors provided funds to secure heavier equipment to clear trees and underbrush, place gravel in the low areas, improve drainage, and construct two wooden foot bridges to span otherwise impassable ravines. Eventually the present-day network of three contiguous trails that extend around the northern and western fringes of the fields came into being.
The trails have become a hidden gem of the Robins Campus.
Collegiate runners train and race there regularly. Many routinely show up on weekends and during the off-season to do their workouts. Friends of the school use the trails – indeed, the entire facility – for exercise. All along, the good folks on the grounds staff – among them Jesse Garrant and Arthur Johnson – have ensured that they are safe and aesthetically pleasing.
Which brings me to my point.
The trails are a happy place, a Zen place, a refuge for reflective thinking. Even when the fields are in use, you hardly hear a sound except, of course, the wind rustling the leaves of the trees.
The trails are perfect in the fall considering the cool, fresh air and multi-hued foliage. Spring? Pleasant as well, especially when the late-afternoon sun glistens through the high branches. Summer? Easily 10 degrees cooler thanks to the canopy of oaks and pines. Winter? OK, it can be bleak back there, but the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences.
Life moves at a helter-skelter pace. Expectations have intensified. Deadlines stare us in the face. The climate of the times is exhausting and mind-numbing. The treadmill moves faster and faster. The “Stop” button is nowhere to be found.
The trails provide peace, serenity, and, if you choose, solitude. They provide a respite from the worries of the day and (to borrow from Robert Frost) a momentary stay from confusion. They provide an opportunity to think, perceive, and meditate.
They’re a no-stress zone: just the voices of nature speaking amongst themselves in a language that we as humans might not understand but in soothing tones to which we would do well to listen.
My wife Emily and I walk the trails often. We talk of our day, our family, our life together, and our dreams. We talk joyously but quietly. Sometimes we walk for long stretches and don’t talk at all.
It’s amazing, I mused one late-fall afternoon, that dirt, gravel, and leaves can be so cathartic.
The trails are a magical place, she responded.
I could only agree.
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