I first hit the trail by my office two days into my new job and two weeks after Rob died.
It was pouring – something in between a winter and spring rain – and the fat, cold drops were enough to keep the parking lot empty and the Chattahoochee River churning. I changed out of my work clothes, shoved my feet into a pair of bulky trail running shoes, and dropped some cash into the fee box before seeing what the Cochran Shoals National Recreation Area had to offer.
I am an avid trail runner. The technical aspect of trails adds a little challenge and eliminates some of running’s inherent monotony. And, normally, I try to hit the trails every few days. But I hadn’t been feeling up to much activity in the weeks since my friend Rob took his own life.
So I began again at Cochran Shoals.
My treds cut deeper and sloppier footprints into the mud as the main soft-dirt path branched off into a tucked away mountain biking trail. Here, as the trees got denser and the trail narrowed to singletrack, things began to shift. Alone on the trail, my chest loosened and the tight ball of grief I was holding in my brain, not sharing with anyone, loosened some too. As the trail began to ungulate, I let myself further pick apart that loosening grief, for the first time turning over the “why’s”, “what-if’s”, even the “how’s” running through my mind.
This would turn out to be the first of many runs at Cochran Shoals, but none stick in my mind the way that first one does. As I write, I can picture a cluster of leafless dogwoods or rock formations that crossed the trail and tell you exactly what I was thinking – or, more accurately, feeling – as I ran past each landmark that first afternoon. It turns out the motifs from every college environmental literature course are true: Nature offers a sense of place. Nature grounds you.
Despite steadily working my way through this period of grief, I was still struggling. Like the patterns we find in the natural world, grief is neither linear nor one-dimensional, and that does not feel like coincidence.
Rob’s passing came right before I started a new and (I would soon discover) demanding job as an ecologist for an environmental consulting firm. In the interim, I was counting down the days until my start date, banking on this new challenge as a welcome distraction from the deep hurt I was experiencing…. It wasn’t. Instead, I was a bad employee: error-prone and forgetful, rather than the “quick learner” and “self-starter” I professed to be during the interview.
And boy did this job require memorization.
As an ecologist, I was tasked with assessing environmental impacts of proposed transportation projects. Field work was wrought with hydrologic determinations, mapping, and habitat assessments for protected species. Habitat assessments, by the way, entail listing every plant species within a project boundary. Though I had a background in plant ecology, this was a whole new game to me and I was losing. Grief had done a number on my memory, and I struggled to discern beech from birch.
Still, after work, I kept running. And noticed a change. Each week I recognized more of my surroundings. Those woods, it turned out, were stocked with Virginia creeper, bigleaf magnolia and red maple. As I kept showing up to Cochran Shoals, so did the ecology. Eventually “trillium…?” turned into “yellow trillium” and yellow trillium turned into “Trillium luteum”. I could identify patches of riverine wetland and recognize that the stream paralleling the trail was intermittent. These trails weren’t just healing me…they were making me better at my job.
By the end of spring, my mile times were shorter, Strava routes longer, and plant identification instant. Though my heart was on the mend, I began slogging through a new set of problems on these runs. As I got a handle on my job, I began to see how futile parts of it were.
While I served a necessary role as advocate for Georgia’s most vulnerable and valuable environmental resources, I realized my scope as ‘advocate’ was relegated to small victories and,
mostly, compromise. Many of the projects I was working on were antithetical to urban green spaces like Cochran Shoals and instead were plans to build onto…! above…! around…! existing major roadways. Their environmental components: a farce. I was nothing more than red tape.
One summer afternoon, I emailed out a finalized map of a project boundary lit up with gopher tortoise habitat and changed into my running gear. It was nearing five o’clock and I-285 traffic was audible from the trailhead. Like many runs prior, I wrestled to reconcile the conservation and development components of my job. However, this time, I had an out. A grad school offer.
And it was on this stifling, warm summer day that I decided – despite the pay cut, despite the move, despite the commitment – to take it. I decided to do more with my current knowledge and to build upon that knowledge to become a better informed, more effective scientist and steward of the earth.
A few days each week, I gave this trail three dollars and in return it gave me sustenance. It sustained me after the world got unsustainable for Rob. It provided me with sustained knowledge about the natural world. And it forced me to examine what my job meant for sustainability and
pushed me to make big changes.
I make a point to fit in a run at Cochran Shoals when I’m in the area, and – to be clear – I don’t always find something profound on the trails. But even still, my favorite days there are the rainy ones in early spring, just before the trillium arrive.