A couple of weeks ago I bought a pair of hunting boots so I could walk in the woods again. The woods stand right across the street, a narrow strip bordering the south side of a farm field of some 60 acres. The north and west sides of the field end at the bottoms of tree-filled hills I used to scramble up and down with my dog, King, but King died many years ago, and I couldn’t bring myself to visit the woods without him.
I’ve been going back, though, since buying the boots, and I was happy to see the terrain is all but unrecognizable. Countless beech trees have been felled by winds, crashing across paths King and I used to walk on. There are new ways up the hillside now, though: the worn paths of deer. The deer population is much larger than before. Their paths crisscross the hillsides.
I used clamber from bottom to top without thinking about it. Now, though, I take my time. I’m out of shape, and these days I see too many obituaries of people my age. Add the fear of a heart attack to the fear of a fall and a broken leg, and I meander up the hill, pausing halfway to check my pulse and catch my breath. During those pauses, I realize the voices in my head, the ever-present monologue/narrative, have gone silent. I am grateful for the calm.An American romantic writer (Emerson, I think) said he was happy as long as he could see far enough. On my walks my views are limited because the field and surrounding woods are bordered by roads and not by boundless space. In the woods, though, being unable to see far down the path brings the same feelings as Emerson’s.
I alternate walks in the woods with walking around the perimeter of the big farm field. The longest uninterrupted view is a little over a half-mile, but Emerson’s words come again to mind outside, a place with no ceiling. A former professor of mine once said, “The sky is always interesting,” and he was right. How many of us take time to notice the clouds as we walk from our cars into our houses? How many times do we watch sunsets slide through orange, red, gold, silver and purple? What are the names of clouds? How many constellations do we know? What are the moon’s phases called?
Can we name the trees? Wild weeds and plants? Birds? I know a few, but shouldn’t I be able to name them all? A life spent beneath ceilings distracts us from these things, which existed long before we were born and will exist long after we die. In our temporary lives, shouldn’t we embrace the permanent?
I clambered out of the woods today and headed for the gap in the trees leading back into my neighborhood. As I walked, I wondered what time it was. I have a good internal clock, but nonetheless, I had no idea how long I’d been walking.
I realized then the greatest gift the woods gives me: I become unstuck in time. The clock cannot dictate the terms of my life when I’m following a deer path and have to stoop to pass beneath scratchy, wild-branched trees that deer pass beneath easily. Minutes and hours have no meaning when I reach a hilltop and look for wild turkeys, which I saw there years ago as King ran for the sheer joy of it, off leash but always coming back as if to say, “C’mon, Dad—we’ve got a lot more ground to cover.”
He was right, then. And he still is.