this is the place

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.

 

Sweet Gale Catkins

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.

the familiar wilderness

Nestled among the well-mown grass and chickweed, it could have been easily overlooked – a forgotten baseball, a crumpled memo carried off by the wind. I looked again. And squatted to get closer. I often do.

A stout, creamy pillar shouldered aside the grass blades, capped by a large, toasted-marshmallow dome. Shreds of the outermost tissue had browned and lifted, revealing shaggy white cracks lacing the cap. It was neat and tidy and self-contained in the way mushrooms are only briefly.

“Excuse me?” a lady called from the sidewalk.

“Excuse me!” Her voice had an edge this time, that urgency shared by all the busybodies in the world. Was walking on the grass forbidden? Was she alarmed by my scrutiny of the dirt? Was I unintentionally mooning all the passers-by? I stood and casually adjusted my slacks.

“You do know about ticks, don’t you? We have a lot of them here,” she said, wringing her hands.

Here, at my feet, was a surprise, a gift for the curious. Here, four feet from the sidewalk, I found something that didn’t belong. How did it grow here? What could I learn about it? And why hadn’t anyone else stopped to admire it?

Nature often inserts something unexpected into the human landscape, maybe to test whether we’re still paying attention. Something like a lawn mushroom whose perfection might only last for hours. A little wilderness where we only look for the tamed. I’m discovering that the wilderness isn’t confined to national parks. It hasn’t been exiled from the neighborhood. The beetles and birds and bushes and fungi have been carrying on, right under my nose, all along.

So I’m going to find out what happens when I pay attention.