There’s something magical about getting anywhere slowly, especially by foot. When I’m walking in an aimless sort of way, I stretch the thrill by taking my time to get there, even if I set myself a destination. On a new hike, a new trail, the dry pine needles crunch underfoot, sounding the tempo of my pace, and as I listen to my feet I slow them down. Allegro. Andante. Adagio. One mustn’t arrive at the conclusion too soon. But pine woods can feel monotonous, especially in spring before the scrub oak leafs out, before the birds arrive to sing their claims.
On this walk, I could see the waving tree tops thin ahead, but the tangled underbrush betrayed no hint of a clearing. In early April the blueberries and sweetbriar stake their claim to every sunbeam, filling the forest floor with a tangle of twig and bud, vines and leaves.
In the dense cover of full summer leaf, I’d never have seen it till I stepped in it. But this is spare spring. One step hinted a glint of sunshine, and the next revealed the whole, still pond. My eyes were just quick enough to spy the shining, wet back of a muskrat as it silently submerged to escape.
And then I had the pond to myself. Just me and the white cedars sinking their roots into the water on the far bank. Just me and the leatherleaf dangling its bell-buds in the sun. Just me and the wind, tickling the pond into shimmers of laughter and then soothing it into a mirror for the clouds.
Wendell Berry is one of my favorite writers. He’s known for extolling the fulfillment of a relationship to place, a relationship marked by intimate knowledge of the ways and rhythms of the land one calls home. In “The Nature Consumers,” an essay in his collection The Long-Legged House, he describes “the way of Thoreau, who went to natural places to become quiet in them, to learn from them, to be restored by them. To know these places, because to know them is to need them and respect them and be humble before them, is to preserve them.” (My italics.)
To know them is to need them…
This place — with its cedars, its muskrat denizens, its still water — is a place I need to know. I’m already sure I need this place.