Matthew Dickerson: Woods and fields offer different walking pleasures
My wife Deborah and I recently moved from an in-town dwelling in Middlebury back to an in-woods dwelling in Bristol. In the house we just left, it was hard to look in any direction without seeing another house. In the house we just moved back into, it’s hard to look and not see trees and leaves. Most of the year, we can’t see neighbors.
We enjoyed our six years living in town. But now I have traded the pleasure of morning walks down to Haymaker for a bun and mocha for the very different pleasure of morning walks through the woods and fields by our house — leisurely, mindful, attentive walks full of looking and listening.
Along my driveway, and in a small clearing in the woods, grow some patches of milkweed. When I mow that clearing or mow along the driveway, I try to leave the milkweed standing for the monarch butterflies. The effort makes my meadow look a little bit like a cartoon face of somebody who is learning how to shave and has a very dull razor. The meadow is randomly dotted with little scraggly patches of milkweed surrounded by stalks of grass and stinging nettle that is too close to the milkweed to cut. But the patches make me feel proud, more than embarrassed. Whenever we walk nearby, I check to see if my efforts were successful: whether there are any monarch caterpillars chewing their way through.
Combined, I think Deborah and I have only spotted about six over the course of a dozen or more walks. That might be a little disappointing. But the effort has revealed many other creatures besides the monarchs making use of my standing milkweed stalks. We’ve seen a handful of grasshoppers sitting in the shade of the broad milkweed leaves, some beetles, fast-moving spiders, and even a bumblebee. It is a good exercise in looking closer. It is also a good way to enjoy the beauty and diversity of the natural world.
One morning, out walking our dog without me, Deborah spotted numerous red efts (a juvenile newt). I went with her the next morning but we didn’t see any. I did see some beautiful wildflowers. I am more used to paying attention to the progression of spring wildflowers in the woods. The fall ones were a delightful surprise. Now we are both accustomed to taking a camera with us, to capture image of those flowers and small creatures.
We also see some bigger creatures. On another walk without me, Deborah startled a young black bear just 15 yards up the trail from her when she came around a corner. (It was meandering away from our house, where it had probably been checking my honeybees to see if my electric fence by wild chance was off.) For whatever reason, our dog never saw the bear, perhaps because our dog was so busy sniffing the ground where the bear had left its sent. Deborah looked at the bear. The bear looked at Deborah. The bear hustled off up the hill. Deborah continued on her way. I was a bit jealous when she told me what she had seen. She said I needed to get up earlier for morning walks if I wanted to see bear.
One afternoon it was a bobcat that Deborah saw. More often, though, the loud mammals crashing off through the brush are whitetail deer — either our lone doe, or our doe-fawn pair. I have several pictures of them from my evening walk two days ago. Or, rather, I have several pictures of a patch of trees through which they were running away from me, with the camera focused on the trees. I haven’t yet found the deer in the photo, but I think they’re there somewhere.
I’ve read a lot about the value of walking. Nature writer Gary Snyder does a wonderful and poetic job extolling the virtues of walking in his various writings. Lately I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lovely work “Braiding Sweetgrass”; it isn’t explicitly about walking, but it’s clear in her writing that taking the time to move slowly in the woods and observe is both a poetic and a scientific exercise. (It’s also just good exercise.)
I think even of two of my favorite writers: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Neither of them are thought of primarily as nature writers. They are best known for their works of fantasy. One critique of their works (from less appreciative fans) is they are full of scenes of people just out walking in the woods, with lots of descriptions of trees, flowers and landscapes. That’s certainly a good description of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” For me, though, it’s a point of praise, not critique. I wonder if my own delight at walking in unbuilt or undeveloped environments has been shaped, in part, by years of reading those two authors.
We can read to learn. Some say, also, that we write to learn. But I think it’s equally true that we walk to learn. Now that I live back in the woods, I’m planning on doing a lot more learning.
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