One night, out strolling in the cool, high air of Appalachia

By Douglas John Imbrogno, The Story is the Thing, WestVirginiaVille

“Stay close to anything that makes you glad you are alive.”

– Persian poet and mystic Hafez

I don’t know who the Park Ranger is on duty tonight, but I tend to think of him or her in the uppercase. The Park Ranger has not yet unlocked the cold steel gate which bars entry into Rotary Park. So, the park’s hundreds of ridgeline acres and pathways, its extensive Frisbee golf course and dense pine forest, are closed off here in the far western archipelago of West Virginia before it transitions into Kentucky or Ohio (depending on which road you take). It is the dusk after Christmas Day, the sky going purple. And maybe the Ranger just forgot or the park is still shut to humans or at least to humans in cars. All to the good. I will be glad to be alive on a cool Appalachian evening in a hilly park all to my lonesome. Except, of course, for the thousand-fold citizenry of squirrel, deer, and red-tailed hawk, swooping owl and darting chickadee, not to mention the millionth vole and mole, mosquito, midge and firefly. We have the place all to ourselves.

What am I looking for? It has been a fine holiday. On Saturday, maybe 30 of my extended famiglia congregated in Cincinnati, the inflated clan. The next day, we were back home—spouse and son, daughter and her visiting boyfriend. Some beloved pals. My house has been full of Christmastime, of piles of presents and relentless preparations for their presentation and tearing open. My hard-working wife has an entire DNA helix devoted to ensuring guests and family feel hugged by consideration and comfort—and certainly some of that month’s tastiest meals. Yet, I eagerly cross the steel gate into the park’s fastness, discharged from holiday duty, keen to be relieved of the social face, of banter and riposte. I huff and heave up a steep incline, glad to feel my 66-year-old heart and sinews up to this task. Wondering how many more uphill treks I have left before this slope will be far too much.

“Life’s fortune and misfortune are caused entirely by the mind … Hence, a slight change of the mind can suddenly make a different situation. Should we not be careful?”

Hung Ying-ming
Three Trees.” Rotary Park, Huntington, W.Va. December 2023. photo.

I could run wild this night, snuffling in places it would be best not to land after the dark conceals arrivals. Yet a thousand feet into the trees and then a thousand more (I’ll note my footfalls’ exact number later on my smartphone pedometer), I am happier here, up high. So high I can view the last permutations of the day’s withdrawing light. There is no other explanation, to my mind, for this dusk’s arty watercolor daubs of diverse blues, oranges, and pinks above the far horizon than that some ancient, primordial artistes, ill-supervised and thus free to play, were given charge to design the setting and rising and setting once more—ever dissimilar each day and night—of the sun and its earth relation. Will you just look at that …

“I told myself that I would have done better. That I never would have joined the Nazi Party, never followed Hitler or left my family behind. But then everyone tells themselves that. The more I learned about life in occupied France, the more I could see soft spots in my own character, the ethical give.”

Burkhard Bilger, author of “Fatherland,” quoted in The Atlantic profile ‘What Kind of Nazi Was He?’ on his grandfather

No doubt, I should be frantic right now about the state of the Republic. Trembling at the possible autocracy that a gobdaw, cretin palooka burns to midwife upon America, lit by his dipstick brain and fathomless hunger for dominance and shared cruelty. Yet, tonight I wish to charge myself with no task other than to walk, look up, and look around. To hear Route 60’s traffic whoosh from this high woodland perch and then to refocus my ears’ radar to the territorial, sing-song throw-down of night birds flitting amid ten thousand branches. To breathe the wheatgrass scent of December soil and autumn’s loamy decay, foodstock for next Spring’s surge of purple iris and golden daffodil. How, despite the wet dreams of adolescent dictators and their possibly more-horrible factotums—they’ll move heaven or birth hell to make the tyrant’s toy trains run on time!—this was what was needed. I come out stronger from the woodlands than when I went in.

“When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. / I come into the peace of wild things …”

–  Wendell Berry, an excerpt of “The Peace of Wild Things”
The Road More Traveled.” Rotary Park, Huntington, W.Va. December 2023. photo.

At last, I come to the close of the park’s meandrous concourse trail. On my way, I pass a thick, sloped stand of pine, a beloved sanctuary. Its soft pad of countless burnt sienna needles is a fine place to heed that ageless advice: ‘Don’t just do something. Sit there.’ I start talking to the trees, wondering where the Mother Pine may be. Declaiming, really. Extemporaneous prose. Prosody in pale homage to the forest keep, striking up a conversation about its age and outlook on things. There is no other human soul inside the park, except, possibly, you never know, a fraught, lonely axe murderer, who could spring from behind an oak and cleave my life in two. But this night, at least, my mind dispenses with such blather. (The word, I discover later to my delight, began its life as a verb in a Scots and north English dialect, hailing from the Old Norse blathra or to ‘talk nonsense.’) And the thought arises: Trees do not talk nonsense, ever.

“You meet saints everywhere. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.”

Kurt Vonnegut

And, so, we come to it. The overlook, where the trees part and the flat expanse of concentrated humanity sprawls to the horizons. There you have it. The earth’s dominant species, at least for the moment, at least in our dreams and delusions. Mother Nature, as a friend once notably observed, ‘bats last.’ We humans can no more destroy this world than we can reach up with one hand to strangle ourselves. Yet we can certainly trigger cataclysmic die-offs of companion species. Elect tin-horn despots to unleash more predatory, ravenous capitalists to run amok like Pamplona’s bulls in Earth’s receding green spaces. And, generally, just muck up the place beyond recognition. Yet Nature—since our human species is inextricably of Nature—will, in the end, bat us away, if need be and if only to recalibrate. To re-set the Earth, which will certainly by grievously wounded by our death spasms. For she ever has the upper hand and is tenacious, persevering, relentless and steadfast. We’ve only the poor hand we’ve dealt ourselves, trying to cheat and rob the house. Or, in the alternative, we could take it upon ourselves—one by one, you, me, him, her, they—to behave decently in an indecent society. If you meet a saint upon the road, maybe you have met yourself.

“Last Sky.” Rotary Park, Huntington, W.Va. December 2023. photo.

Douglas John Imbrogno is a lifelong storyteller who spent the bulk of his career as a feature writer, feature editor and multimedia producer at The Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail. Follow his latest writing, photography, video and documentary work at, and


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