Our Kind of Place

Soaking Up Serenity on a Mississippi Trail

A Mississippi professor and poet wanders through the seasons of Oxford’s Whirlpool Trails

Photo: Erin Austen Abbott

More than thirty miles of paths wind through the woods just off campus in Oxford, Mississippi.

It might seem odd to talk about electricity in the middle of a forest. But that’s the word that springs to mind when I visit the Whirlpool Trails in Oxford, Mississippi, to unplug from social media and the tyranny of my email in-box. The walks I take in autumn feel differently charged when the forest lights up for fewer and fewer hours as the days get shorter. Leaves scatter and fall as the school year ushers in new students who gingerly step wide-eyed into these cooling corridors for the first time to see a vibrant array of locusts, red maples, American beeches, and my favorite—with the three distinctive prongs of a leaf that looks like the footprint of a giant ancient bird—sassafras trees.

The Whirlpool Trails have become my place to unwind from the noise of a busy college town, where I teach poetry and nature writing at the University of Mississippi. This verdant jewel box of a trail system for cyclists, runners, and walkers got its name from an appliance factory, now shuttered. But while it may be electric, there is nothing mechanical about the lush and tightly canopied treasure that sits near the edge of campus. Now officially called the South Campus Rail Trail, it encompasses more than thirty miles of paths connecting in a tight web, including a mostly flat and straight five-mile route bisecting the woods.

The campus recreation department manages the property and coordinates events and races during the school year, and local groups maintain the bike trails. My friend Katie Boyle, a children’s environmental educator, brings her Wonder Walks classes to tromp and climb. My colleague and pal Jason Hoeksema sometimes holds his ecology classes here, and I’ve brought my undergraduate nature writing students to feel the textures of tree bark and velvet moss under their hands and smell mint leaves crushed in their fists. There is no age limit to experiencing wonder. 

Earlier in the year, the trails put on one of the most dazzling firefly shows in the country. The “Snappy Syncs,” or Photuris frontalis, here are one of the only kinds of synchronous fireflies on the planet, much to the surprise and delight of most people, as it is commonly assumed this rare display happens only in a certain part of Japan and the Smoky Mountains. For about a week as spring turns to summer, money over marbles you’ll soon see thousands of fireflies, blinking erratically at first. But then, wait for it, soon they will blink and pulse all together, in rhythm, like a light-up heartbeat in the center of these woods. 

After the hot and slow months, full of the apple-red feathers of summer tanagers and the spooky sounds of chuck-will’s-widows hooting into the dusk, the leaves begin their color transformation before adding to the forest floor’s cushion. The cooler temperatures and moisture from fall rains bring out oyster mushrooms in November, and more and more great horned owls ask their plaintive question, Who, who are you?

Who I am is not the cross-country team galloping at a fast clip down the main trail as they train for an upcoming meet. I’m not the speckled king snake that made a wrong turn in the leaves and hurries back to its home, nor the black-eyed Susans still growing strong just before Halloween. And I’m not the wild blackberry bush giving out one more gasp of fruit before it shuts down for the winter. Who I am is not the giggling bundled-up kids holding the leashes of their dogs, who, let’s be honest, are really walking the kids.

But who I am is a woman who is home on the Whirlpool Trails, in the seclusion and sanctuary of the (mostly) quiet minitrails, with names like Fruit Loop, Middle Earth, and Velvet Ditch. Who feels like she can finally recharge after a boisterous football game or a day spent in student conferences. Outside, for me, has always been a place of comfort and magic. As an Asian American, I could breathe fully in nature and not keep my guard up and worry whether, say, a water oak will bend its branches to ask me the dreaded questions “What are you?” and “Where are you really from?” I also realize with great sadness that that feeling of comfort does not exist for everyone, especially for many of my friends of color. But perhaps by taking the time to unwind under branches and birdsong, we can let ourselves return to that kid-like tenderness and curiosity for things—and people—we aren’t yet familiar with.

I can’t help but feel a little sad when I see the once-strong kudzu vines lose their voltage and shrivel in the colder temperatures. But it’s also a reminder to slow down and notice what’s right in front of us. Like this little part of the world is telling us to use our senses to bring back memory souvenirs for when it gets too cold to venture out. Perhaps that spark can light a path to help us remember that if we make a habit of going outdoors and letting ourselves be astonished, we set the groundwork for cultivating a more tender outlook toward others, too. The Whirlpool Trails offer up a chance to absorb a different energy as we turn toward winter and so much of that trail life buzzes down to a stillness, a different thump inside us.