RSR ~ ESSAYS
NOVELTY AND NUANCE
Each day over the last several months, about an hour before sunset, I’ve made my way to the south entrance of Woodlawn Cemetery, two blocks from my home in Keene NH. When I enter, I angle along and down the spine of a small hill, skirt the edge of a stream and marsh that nestle against the hill’s northern flank, loop the perimeter of another hill to the east of the marsh, and meander back along the stream, crossing it before I ascend to the cemetery’s west exit.
My walks began in early March, when snow still lay heavy amid the gravestones and ice yet coated the macadam. Signs of spring appeared gradually; a warmer cast to the sun that set a few minutes later each day, a subtle reddening of the tips of branches, a stray bird here and there. In an early April thaw, the snows melted almost all at once, flooding the road where the stream crossed through a sluice pipe at the west end of the cemetery. An incoming torrent of nesting birds arrived through the same warm spell, followed later in the month by the appearance of chirruping tree frogs. In May a dozen shades of green exploded on the branches of oaks, maples and marsh shrubs.
Each day yielded new changes to the landscape. New stories announce themselves from the ditches and pussy willows with every perambulation. The point of each stroll is to move slowly and regularly enough to allow my senses to pick up the subtleties of changes in my chosen place. My cemetery walks constitute an extended exercise in pace and presence. The first step is to notice. Only what is noticed can be responded to. Responsibility then emerges, literally, from our ability to respond. I make my way through passages of time by altering my pace. I attune myself to space by means of developing presence. Pace and presence are my means of mediating my relationship with place. Enduring connection may require more of us than keener perceptions and more watchful stillness. Building relationship, with a place, with one another, with our deeper selves, requires constancy and a commitment over time.
Modern culture oft honors novelty over nuance. Rather than work through the problems – in our jobs, our marriages, our homes – we are increasingly prone to leave at the first sign of trouble. Wendell Berry writes of fidelity, that what and how we are in relation to our land, colors how we are in all our relations. Fidelity promises a special gift, not the shallow gift of new love (work/home) but the return and renewal of the old. Appreciation of subtle nuances, as familiar terrains and companions shift over time, requires practices which prepare us for fidelity, and enable us to repair the worn spots on the fraying fabric of life. The daily perambulations I’ve taken through Woodland Cemetery this spring echo another set of walks through winter’s transition into spring from almost thirty years ago.
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My vain attempts to become a high jumper as a teenager offered lasting lessons about the requisite fidelity of a naturalist. Starting in 8th grade, I spent each February through May of high school laboring with the rest of the team in the oft brutal winter’s end and spring thaw of northeastern Pennsylvania. However it was not the squat thrusts, the five mile runs, or the endless repetitions of my approach to the bar that enlightened me about the subtle intricacies of nature, but the journey home each evening.
Montrose Area High School was approximately fifteen miles from my home. My stop at Laurel Lake was the last before the bright yellow ‘Bluebird’ bus turned around and headed back towards town. My home, however still lay a good two miles from the drop off. Kids from the regular end of school bus run were picked up by a neighbor who was paid a modest sum as a rural carrier, but after-school participants did not have the same luxury.
There were no short cuts home. Every night after practice, no matter how tired or sore my body, I trudged through snow, mud or rain on my appointed homeward bound rounds. Within a quarter mile up the misleadingly named Wilkes-Barre Turnpike (a barely blacktopped, broken two-lane, which dead-ended at a T-stop some fifty miles shy of it’s namesake city), I would leave most of the ramshackle summer houses clustered around the lake. At the top of what we all unimaginatively called “The Big Hill,” the vista opened up, overgrown pastures and scattered mixed stands of evergreens and hardwoods slanted away from the road.
An abandoned house and a falling down barn flanked the road about halfway down the road. My brother had told me that a woman had died there once, kicked in the head by her horse, which had to be put down for its streak of violence. The dogs chained in the base level of the barn were supposed to have gone crazy after that, perhaps from the grief at losing their mistress. They too were purportedly put down. “Sometimes on a dark day”, said my brother in the whispered voice of a born story teller, “you can still hear the whinnying of the horse and the wild baying of the dogs, and the shadowy wraith of their mistress could be seen galloping midair in the empty fields.
I paid especial attention to my surroundings on this stretch of road. At thirteen years of age, I was still an impressionable youth, subject to the suggestions in my brother’s hypnotic renderings of rural tragedy. The syncopated chattering of Snake Creek from the bottom of the hill lent voice to all manner of imagined beings. Bushes in the shadow of twilight needed identifying, not to satisfy the growing curiosity of a young naturalist, but to set aside the specter of a ghostly apparition.
At Snow Hollow, where creek, turnpike and a rambling dirt track intersected one another in a gloomy copse of white pines and firs, my fear ripened attention grew feverish. Starting in February through much of March, I would take this stretch in dark or twilight. Two squat hunter’s shacks sat across the stream from one another. To the possibility of ghostly encounters, my imagination fabricated murderous tramps holed up from the law, peeking out at me from the darkly shuttered buildings. White-tail deer would feed and water at this time, descending from the hills to the melt-swollen stream. I would hear the carefully chosen hoof steps on the steep slope, the sudden crash and flash of a startled buck. The dark bulks would glance up from their drinking, suddenly alert, as wary of me as I of ghosts.
It took me a couple of years and four months of daily walks, to learn the nuances of the Big Hill habitat and the Snow Hollow deer’s habits, to distinguish the growth of flora and movement of fauna from my fleeting manufactures of feral imaginings. Over time, I learned to mark the days and weeks by the slow transitions of seasonal light, as every new dusk swallowed the woods and fields a bit later on, by the episodic appearances of spring plants and returned migrant birds, each an old friend welcomed home.
Even now I can tell you what time of year it is along that stretch of road by the composition of plants growing alongside the run-off ditch, by the clusters of bird song flitting through the scrub poplar and roses gone wild. The skunk cabbage in the marshy hollow would release its fetid stink in early March. The red-wing blackbirds would begin to call from the willow thickets by the middle of the month. The honking of north-flying Canada Geese overhead hinted to me of late March. The first shoots of blue flag confirmed the rumor.
And so each year, each day, each walk, each step, told me continually evolving stories. This was intimate local knowledge, developed gradually, the tale told incrementally. The soft budding of pussy willow was a plot point surely followed by the denouement of peeper frogs. Each line of the emerging story thrilled me anew, no matter that I had already heard it for year’s running. Attention born of fear, matured to anticipation, fascination and gentle wonder.
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Last night, I entered the cemetery later than usual. Unexpected encounters often arise when a familiar place is approached at an unfamiliar time. My friend and I were chatting at the edge of the marsh, watching the colors of the faded sunset paint the clouds, when a rippling ‘v’ flowed by a stout, brown body, approaching us in the dusky waters of the stream. There is a section in my interior atlas devoted to the places beavers have mapped themselves into my experience. It is as if tiny beavers swim in my cells, yearning to swim the marsh and gnaw on tender spring saplings.While I have certainly gained from the novelty of a lifetime of explorations of multiple places, depth of place-based relationship requires cultivation of appreciation of nuance. Each time I stroll through the cemetery, new aspects of it are revealed to me. Daily exposure to the same place allows me the luxury of tracking changes as well as of appreciating continuity. After the red wings returned to Woodlawn Cemetery this spring, I began to notice the territories they’d staked out – isolated trees, prominent shrubs, the occasional fence post or roof top. I began to associate particular birds with specific singing perches. Every evening, one blackbird would hold forth from a roadside maple, not yet in its leaf. Night after night I would see him on the same perch, singing “Booker T” as the sun down. One evening, I turned the corner to his tree and saw a second blackbird, sitting just below the crooner’s branch. Song was now translated to body language; discrete bows and tucks, feints and curtsies full of redtail meaning. When I passed the tree the next evening, it was empty. A love story? A missed opportunity? Leaves began to sprout, concealing further answers.A slow, thoughtful, sensual walk can be both a journey through place as well as through mind and memory. Meandering through the cemetery each day, I find that I am cutting a transect through space and time in the exploration of my neighborhood, but also through myself as I ramble through reflections, recollections, questions and aspirations. The redwing’s voice triggered memories of other marshes, other springs. The plaintive mourning dove is associated with my fifth grade friend who taught me how to blow through my hands and talk back to that graceful bird. Last week I heard the first crickets of the cemetery year. I closed my eyes and I was in my bedroom in Pennsylvania, being serenaded to sleep.I wandered out the door, a knight errant on a quest. It was not the kind of day I’d requested for the long Saturday walk I felt I badly needed. Promises of sunny warmth had whispered through the weekdays, but today offered only cold drizzle and a tempestuous wind. I took my walk anyway, hunched into the chill as I sat at my vantage point in the cemetery overlooking the nearby marsh.My nervous system damage and regeneration taught me that the course of energy across synapses that have forgotten its flow is a pain that must be borne to again know the depths of pleasure. In my version of the universe, I can no more healthfully extricate comfort from discomfit, or pain from pleasure, than I can ultimately untangle a deer from its wolf, nor vital Northern woodland from both. But it was not an intellectual or philosophical predilection that drew me from my warm bed to the cold marsh, but a visceral desire to be with the redwing blackbirds, crows, swifts and mallards. I longed for their company. I needed to hear their voices.The first redwing call jolted me like an electric shock. A crow caw scraped against my nerves like a jagged knife. I’d been hearing their voices for weeks but without sensation. What made today so different? Recovery from Guillan-Barre was a bit like this; day after day moving in a muted, tingly haze of sensory deprivation, then one moment a sudden flash of pain that presaged the regenerative process.As I approached my sit spot, two crows lifted reluctantly from the ground and flapped to a tree opposite my perch, briefly dislodging a third. The three sat there brooding, glossy black backs turned contemptuously towards me. I tried to speak to them, but they were in no listening mood. I rested for a spell beneath twin white pines providing a measure of protection from the persistent mist. A single mallard, lacking its mate, flew chaotic loops along the channels of Beaver Brook and over the flows of marshy pools, never lighting once. Its calls pierced me like bullets. Something in me bled dry, then filled anew with a substance warmer than the blood that channeled my veins. Sometimes, only by returning, can we find what we left behind. Sometimes, only by returning, can we move forward again.