While sitting before the statue of Horace Mann, a friend of mine thought he heard a voice telling him he should go to China. A student of Chinese at Wittenberg at the time, he went, became obsessed with the culture and language, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in Chinese linguistics. I’ve sat with Horace, too; he is opinionated; thank goodness he never told me to go to China.
Glen Helen is a mystical, sacred place for many, myself included. Despite its being an intensely real place of breath-taking, soul-washing images—like blood and feathers from some hawk’s dinner party, seven leaping deer crossing the creek, the sudden burst of a heron flushed from its fishing pool, shards of sunlight piercing the Pine Forest’s canopy—the Glen has always been mystical and spiritual to me (as well as physically exhilarating). And it’s a place where my imagination runs wild, freed from the concrete and steel urban landscape where I work. Helen is my most constant muse.
Into the Wild
I enter Glen Helen with muted excitement, always. After three decades of frequenting her woods at least once a week, and in good weather a lot more often, I know her well. It was the Pine Forest that first bewitched me: a rusty-red-carpeted sanctuary where I can still sometimes almost hear the sweet strains of “Just As I Am,” the regular altar call in the Baptist Church in which I was raised, as I walk up the “aisle” at its entrance. Hawks soar above, squirrels chatter on the ground—all glazed in holy light, gentle rain or falling snow while wind taunts the pines’ upper branches. A place for prayer, contemplation, even a wedding: one fine October morning, my wife and I sang Jesse Winchester’s “Lay Down the Burden of Your Heart” right here for our friends Jeff and Jane.
But Helen can still surprise me, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not. The elaborate hogan someone constructed in September of ’08 in the Pine Forest after Hurricane Ike made me smile like a boy who’s found a gang’s secret fort. But I’ve also been dismayed to find the remnants of parties: beer cans and bottles, charred remains of fires, and the worst: an old yellow couch sitting where the hogan had stood (perhaps in revenge for its disassembly by, I assume, glen staffers who foresaw the structure as an encouragement to camp). Now that it’s gone, I can chuckle at the memory of that sagging couch, eager to devour beer-drinkers’ butts. I was glad to find my “church’s” sanctuary empty the very next day, the wild restored.
And Wilder . . .
But not so wild, really—not even as wild as the meadow beyond the Pine Forest and across John Bryan Park Road where Horace Mann, first president of Antioch College, stands, wearing his painted-red shoes, adjacent to the monument to Hugh Taylor Birch, who donated the Glen’s land in the name of his daughter: Helen Birch Bartlett. (God bless you, Hugh and Helen. You, too, Horace.)
But the South Glen is a different story. I must’ve lived in Yellow Springs for twenty years before discovering it, despite being an avid fan of Bill Felker, whose weekly column “Poor Will’s Almanac” in The Yellow Springs News, often finds him traipsing there. We tend to find spiritual resources—-or they find us—-when we most need them. But finding the South Glen requires more effort than the North, so easily-accessed by a parking lot right across Corry Street from Antioch. Believe me, this wilderness is worth it.
If the South Glen feels a lot wilder to me, it’s mostly because the lesser-known twin is a lot less populated; I almost never meet any humans there. On my first forays, though, I did meet a few roaming dogs, which can give you pause if you’ve ever been dog-bitten, as I have. Nowadays I just don’t ramble as far, usually satisfied to cleave to the path that meanders beside the Little Miami River, then circle up to the ruins of the old barn.
It’s Tolkien’s Shire all over again. On the prairie, near the South Glen’s entrance on Grinnell Road across from the Old Mill B & B, you might see buzzards bestriding low sycamore branches, wings raised like banners of surrender as they dry their night-wet wings in the sun. The prairie also supports a few small gnarly trees with protruding thorns. Then there’s the barn (before it burned down a couple of years ago), where I used to fancy that I heard the hushed whispers of hobbits warning of dark riders…
Beyond the prairie lie deep, tangled woods from which one can look across the river at a field where occasionally a person can be seen walking a dog (often the only human I see). Almost always, regardless of season, there’s nothing for company but the breeze, whirring insects and bird-call, while in the North, sounds of construction, chainsaws and traffic often reach you, even in the Pine Forest. In the silence of the South Glen, I’m free to think, dream and connect with spirits . . .
I glimpse through the underbrush a woman with a dog. Suddenly the animal is on me, paws muddy from a dip in the stream. The woman comes to stop him—too late—and I’m left dirty and dripping. Turning fierce eyes on me, she apologizes brusquely, and invites me to her place to clean up . . .
Inside the barn sit three figures. Creeping up, I look inside to find two girls staring at a fire. Between them sits a boy. He opens a bottle of wine using a Swiss army knife, hands the bottle to the blonde, the knife to the raven-haired one who takes it without looking, sticks it in the pocket of her jeans...
Just two of the short stories the South Glen dictated while I furiously wrote them down. Both of these muses, South and North, have given me at least a book’s worth of both fiction and poetry. I’ve set scenes from my novels there as well. Plus, I’ve filled many journal pages inside these forested halls.
Sacred Place of Healing
Sometimes I can hardly see the path through my tears. It was the haven I sought, driving all the way from Kettering for its comfort, as my first marriage collapsed in 1981. I stormed down paths full of self-righteous sorrow, composing angry poems until finally, exhausted, I’d hear the trees, rocks and water saying, This will pass.
Ever since that hard time, these paths have never failed to salve my teacher’s soul buffeted by student clashes until at last I learned that most of my suffering was caused by my own wounded self and started to finally heal. Occasionally I’ve even solved a few problems, the world’s as well as my own, but mainly I just walk—or sit—and let the spirit of this ground rise and enter me, change my chemical composition, rearrange my neural pathways and touch my heart before sending me back into the world a little more capable and a lot more blessed.
Your Turn: An Artful Response to Nature
Please join me, Bill Felker, Bill Vernon, Julie Karlson and other nature-seekers on May 1, when Tecumseh Land Trust sponsors an all-day working retreat that begins at the Glen Helen Building before sending participants off to seek their own muse, spirit guide or simply a place of quiet contemplation. There’ll be opportunities to take guided or solitary walks; write, sketch or photograph; then re-convene to share your experiences and art with others. See the Tecumseh Land Trust website for more details (scroll down to the May 1 event).
Helen and I hope to see you soon.