Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts on Healing: Veterans Day

All this year I’ve been researching Civil War sites along the Appalachian Trail for a book on that history and related hikes.

And, on this Veteran’s Day, I’ve been giving some thought to the experience of today’s veterans in contrast to those of the Civil War. It seems to me that the experiences of our modern day veterans in the wilderness of our American parks and forests must be starkly different than from the experience of Civil War veterans just following that war.

Veterans today, like others of us, are drawn to long trails. My buddies I met while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this year – Pigpen and Mello – are two of them. Friends Karma, Hopeful and Footslogger on the Appalachian Trail in 2003 are veterans.

Some vets talk about their military experiences while hiking, others don’t. Some reshape their identity as they walk, as many of us do, to that of a hiker. Some find peace in the quiet. Some find renewed faith in humanity through the friendships formed and kindness offered by strangers along the way. The trail is a healing place – for all of us.

For me, the haven I find in the woods gives me the opportunity to look at the small stuff, the minutiae of life and interconnected webs of dependence found under the forest canopy. All this small stuff helps me forget about the other small stuff in life. The trail offers healing for so many people who come to it – giving us a forum to process the emotional conversation within.

With all the benefits offered to us through long distance trails and the opportunity to come together with nature, it makes me wonder if any similar solace was found along the Appalachian ridges in the late 1800s.

  • What, if anything, did Civil War veterans find in the Appalachian range following the war?

  • Did the natural environment offer them healing that it offers us today?

  • Could there ever be comfort on the land and in the places where so much blood was shed?

I guess those questions could as easily be posed to the citizens of the country through which the war swept – especially in those places where the terrors of war streaked through their front yards or burned their property. The Shenandoah Valley comes to mind – stripped and burned. Caledonia Iron Works comes to mind, too; the people who worked there before it was destroyed suddenly displaced.

Could it ever feel comfortable again to live in this place violated by human suffering?

Or, can it be the place that starts the healing…

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