I arrived at my silent, snowy woodlot Jan. 20 – the recognition date of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
I wanted to be in the woods. I wanted to strap on my snowshoes and walk the two-track trail my grandfather created with his Oliver 60 tractor. I began winding through the maples and basswoods, ending in a clearing that could have been the location of a sawmill.
I ventured off the trail to make my way through a cedar swamp down to the east branch of the Big Sandy Creek. The old plat books have it listed as Cripple Creek; it’s difficult not to prefer that less-official title that describes its crooked nature. The creek was high and still open in spots. The water slid over granite boulders to disappear under ice shelves. Its bubbling was a pleasant high pitch like a wind chime on a sunny front porch. Sometimes I wonder why I’ve let this place define me like I have.
“No Service” it said on the upper-left-hand corner of my cell phone. Away from texts, tweets, notifications and robocalls telling me my auto warranty is about to expire, I planned to do nothing but watch the creek meander while contemplating. I’d been reading about King. He often referred to India’s Mahatma Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” King traveled in February 1959 to India to learn more about the use of non-violent protest to create social change. He eventually led marches for the black right to vote, for desegregation and labor rights, and for other basic civil rights. In April 1968 he traveled to Memphis to help organize a sanitation-worker strike.
It was April 3, 1968, that he delivered the famous “Mountain Top” speech.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he said. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … like anybody I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now.”
His speech went on to use the New Testament’s parable of the Good Samaritan to stress the need for people to become involved. The next day his life was taken by a bullet fired by James Earl Ray, who had been on the lam since escaping from a maximum-security prison a year prior. “Reject the blind violence” that had killed King, pleaded President Lyndon B. Johnson, who referred to King as “the apostle of non-violence.”
I headed back to my shack along a different branch of the trail on the northern edge of the woodlot. A pileated woodpecker swooped above in solo flight as if to lead me on toward a small clearing at the corner of my property. I passed a cherry stump covered with bracket fungi, located 20 yards from my workshop where I’d just accomplished making a sink top from the boards sawn from the tree that grew from it. I looped around the trail – and noted the absence of activity at the birdfeeder I’d hung at the edge of the clearing. But the pileated hammered at a dead ash. Closer to the shack a crude wooden portrait made from a cross-cut slice of hemlock rests on a maple stump along the end of the trail. It’s always facing the sun with a smile on his face. The birdhouse gourd hanging from an ironwood limb was vacant.
The third week in January is when I sense winter turning a corner. It’s when the days are finally becoming noticeably longer. But it’s a slow march toward spring with plenty of winter left. Along the way there’ll be times of two steps forward and one step back – similar to the slow progress of racial equality that Martin Luther King Jr. strove for through peaceful protests in the mid-1950s to his eventual assassination in 1968.