I bet you can think of a song from which you can never detach a specific memory. The kind where, every time it comes on, the place you’re currently in blurs, and you’re suddenly in another space, in another time. For me, books have the capacity to bottle up feelings. “Bloom” by The Paper Kites will forever remind me of the novel “The Light Between Oceans,” and “Jolene” by Ray LaMontagne is the faint sound that accompanies any flashback I get to the novel “A Little Life.”
The greatest memory-keepers, however, are walks. More specifically, what I like to call ‘thought walks,’ the ones you take when thoughts become so loud that you feel like you need to drown them out with a tune that is ten decibels too loud. As much of a coping mechanism as it is, music can also be a catalyst, an absinthe that makes a specific moment in time become ingrained in your memory forever.
Let me tell you about my favorite place in Ann Arbor for those “thought walks”: the Pioneer Woods. It wasn’t until late in my time in Ann Arbor that I found it, and I’m bitter I didn’t find it earlier. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you the closest road to it was W. Stadium Boulevard (in my opinion, the noisiest and least appealing road in Ann Arbor).
It is the place where industrial life mingles with nature. There are various entrances to the woods, so many that I am pretty sure I have yet to discover new ones. Typically, I make my way toward the small, almost rabbit-hole paths off the side of W. Stadium Boulevard. Like entering Narnia, you go from being surrounded by street signs to tall trees that drown out the hum of city life. The woods are not big — it takes less than ten minutes to cross through them — but it’s a magical place where oaks, white pines and shagbark hickories engulf you, the leaves below your feet crunching with every step you take.
At the end of the woods, an arched tunnel created by bent branches leads you into a vast open space called the Greenview Nature Area. In the fall season, the meadow grows untamed, and in the spring, the weeds turn into colorful wildflowers that become the home of 55 different kinds of butterflies. A few yards away is a little pond, seemingly so forgotten and untouched that you could imagine the water has been the same since the beginning of time.
The first day I set foot in this place was probably one of the most cathartic days of my life. I experienced nature as one experiences the first snowfall or the first dip in the ocean after a cold winter. It felt pure, so much so that I felt like I was trespassing. Yet at the same time, I was welcomed, embraced by the tall weeds, calmed down by the sound they made as the wind brushed them from side to side.
I sat down on one of the three logs at the top of the meadows, and here is where catharsis occurred. “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” by Wilco started playing, and suddenly, breathing felt like a harder task than it usually is. I am not a crier, I never have been, but in that moment, a tear rushed down my cheek. They weren’t tears of joy, but they weren’t tears of sadness, either. I think it was my body’s way of telling me it was at peace.
“Outside I looked lived in” was whispered in my ear as I took everything in. Those twelve melodic minutes glued every detail in the scenery to the twists and turns of the phrases, the piano motifs and the painfully honest lyrics. I had felt like this before, but it’s not often that a song and a landscape leave you gasping for air. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, exaggerated or even absurd, but I really mean it. A song, “One Sunday Morning,” and a landscape, the Pioneer Woods, had caused a perfect chemical reaction — liberation pickled with sadness. Not out of grief, but by the mere fact that I couldn’t live in that moment forever.
I knew I could still go back to the Pioneer Woods whenever, but it just wouldn’t be the same. Life isn’t static. It’s ever-changing, and I am a different person every time I go back — even if only two days go by between visits. But for twelve minutes, despite what I may be going through, despite the weather or the season or the reason for my escape, the warm tenderness that I bottled up one afternoon in May becomes present. I cannot come to these woods and not listen to “One Sunday Morning.” I make it a ceremony, actually, a ritual to see how this song morphs as I myself morph — reading between the lines and seeing details of the landscape I hadn’t seen before. It’s all part of a continuous narrative, one which parts me from the acceptance that that tenderness will never be as strong as the first day I encountered this safe haven.
Songs being memory boxes is a universal phenomenon, I think, or at least I hope it is. So I reveal my secret, my little treasure — it would be selfish not to. I think everyone should know this feeling of release through alignment. So go out to the Pioneer Woods and allow yourself to feel, whatever that means.
The Wilco prayer said it first: “Something sad keeps moving, so I wandered around. I fell in love with the burden, holding me down.”
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.