That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

"Compassion is not helpless pity, but an awareness and determination that demands action," said the Dalai Lama. In today's Feathers, Mary Sojourner shows how action is essential not only to compassion, but also to hope.

I am lucky, more accurately blessed, to live a ten-minute drive from a little dirt road in a surviving few acres of Northern Arizona ponderosa forest. A narrow and rocky social trail runs parallel a few hundred feet from the road. I won’t tell the location and I’ll alter details so that the compulsive Googler or Instagrammer won’t be able to find this place.

A social trail is a path eroded into the earth by human or animal use. It can also be known as a game trail, use trail, bootleg trail, or desire path. Eleven years ago, when I first moved back to Flagstaff, this trail did not exist. There were only third-growth ponderosa, Gambel oak, pine stumps, wild grasses, and flowers. There were few walkers or bikers on the dirt road.

Six months after I returned to Flagstaff in 2010, Instagram began to colonize the Internet. Google Maps had arrived years earlier. The corrosion of secret places was well begun.

I had once lived for twenty-three years in a cabin just off the little dirt road. I had no indoor plumbing or central heat. Those of us who lived in the dozen or so cabins used a central shower shack and, a little further up the driveway, a two-room outhouse.


I found seven old ponderosa clustered together and let myself enter their heart and shelter there when the human world seemed increasingly corrosive.

I walked the dirt road almost every day. I walked through blizzards, under a blazing late-June sky, in monsoons, and what the Navajo people call female rain, a mist so delicate that I barely felt it. I found seven old ponderosa clustered together and let myself enter their heart and shelter there when the human world seemed increasingly corrosive. I almost never saw another person walking that road.


The corrosion transformed Flagstaff into a gutted mockery of our once little mountain town. I fled to the Mojave Desert, then to Central Oregon. The corrosion spread—and continues to eat everything: mom ’n’ pop businesses, low-rent housing, diverse populations. It eats the authentic. It eats everything except the furiously ravenous entitled.

A few weeks ago, the epidemic corrosion was spread to the little social trail, to a huge downed ponderosa next to the path. It is a sweet place to sit and catch my breath. I walked toward the old giant and saw dozens of clumps of toilet paper around it.


I thought of the expensively geared-out runners who used the trail, and of the mountain bikers zooming toward some destination that exists perhaps only in their minds. I considered posting a sign that read: This is not your toilet. Some of us are hiding in the forest with cameras—and, possibly, crossbows. I remembered learning decades ago that the quickest way to get reactive humans to do something is to tell them not to do it. And I took the only action that would help—and would keep me from ranting at the next jogger or biker I saw, or stopping their progress with my walking stick.

I went home and came back with a trash bag and rubber gloves. I picked up every clump of used toilet paper and put it in the bag. When I finished, I kissed the log. “I’ll be back,” I said. “I will clean up the human filth. I can’t change the entitled, the thoughtless, the users. I can only take care of you.”

Mary Sojourner is the author of 29: a Novel; short story collections The Talker and Delicate; an essay collection, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest; and memoirs, Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire and She Bets Her Life. She is an occasional commentator at her local NPR station and the author of many essays, columns, and op-eds for High Country News, Writers on the Range, and other publications. A graduate of the University of Rochester, Sojourner teaches writing in private circles, one-on-one, at colleges and universities, writing conferences, and book festivals. She believes in both the limitations and possibilities of healing through writing—the most powerful tool she has found for doing what is necessary to mend. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.


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