Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Woods

I've gone for a walk today, as I often do when I can spare the time. I put my things away, pulled on my jacket, and headed up the hillside behind the garden. At the far edge of the last plowed field, looking down over the village, there's an unmarked trail that leads into a ragged stand of sumac, aspen, and yellow birch. Go a little further, as the trail dips and climbs and weaves over outcroppings, little clearings, and rockfalls, and you come before long to the deeper woods, the smooth-barked beeches and great oaks, the mottled sycamores, the tulip-trees that rise like columns and disappear into the canopy above.

These woods have become my refuge when I need to be apart. I rarely meet anyone else up here, though the paths are well-worn. The others who tread here must do so in their own hour. On those rare occasions when I do meet someone we nod and smile, if we are strangers, then continue on our way; or if it is a friend we might linger for a moment's conversation, but then move off, respecting each other's need for solitude.

In a little hollow, near the foundation of an old cottage, there is something like a tiny shrine, though I have no idea what religion — if any — it might belong to. It's just a little alcove formed of stone, set above the ground a bit. Maybe once, long ago, it had some utilitarian purpose, a place to stash a pail to keep it out of the way, or something like that. As time passed and the cottage was abandoned the alcove was adopted and set to a new purpose, consecrated perhaps, to some resident spirit whose name is now no longer known — or maybe it just became the backdrop for some children playing some game invented on the spot. Occasional visitors, myself among them but I see I am not the only one, keep it swept out and adorn it, from time to time, with whatever is in our pockets or strikes our whimsy: bits of thread, wildflowers, a coin or a button. Sometimes I find snails sheltered inside, tiny ones, small enough to take shelter on the underside of a leaf, or the big brown ones that are said to be good eating though we never eat them. I'm careful not to disturb them if I can avoid it. They are there for their own reasons, as unknown to me as mine are unfathomable to them.

I go walking when I can, but that doesn't mean I come here often. Naturally there are many other things that I do; I have responsibilities. Who among us has the luxury of idleness? During the day, like everyone else, I work where I am needed, here and there, or in the fields around home. I have a wife, friends, I have children and animals to mind. And because I am not a hermit but a man who lives and works among men and women, who as we all know are spread over the surface of the earth as far as the mind can imagine, I have been known to travel, for weeks at a time even, journeying into cities and landscapes that are very different from my own familiar precincts, attending to the affairs that we share with others, in so far as it adheres to the habits and the laws we hold in common.

In time I always return, to the ones I love, to my own fields and hills. When I'm settled I make my way up to the woods again, noting the changes since my last visit, because these woods are in their own way a kind a river, of the sort of which a man once said that you could not set your foot in it twice without it being a different stream. Its current is a slow one, to be sure, but perhaps, measured in its own, infinitely longer scale of time, it flows just as swiftly as the river that lies, hidden by trees, behind me in the valley from which I have climbed.

There is much more I could say about my affairs, and I may get to all that, in time. The story of a man's life, of his works and days, can not be told in one sitting, nor from one vantage point, not even from so fine a prospect as the top of this hill, where the woods, as I walk on, have now thinned out into blueberry scrub, where the air cools and the wind scours, flicking a scattering of fine, sparse sand around the bare rocks. I eat and drink, I love, I watch my fellows age and I watch their children grow and seek their own way in the world, as I have sought my own, without, perhaps, finding it any more or less than they will in their turn. I spend my days doing what it has fallen to me to do, being whom I have become, whom I have been, perhaps, from the very start.

At night, like everyone else, I dream. Eyes closed, I step into the borderlands that lie between things as they are, as I know them to be, and things that are — what? — as I don't know them to be? If my dreams, now, seem as real as my waking life, am I then living only half my life at a time? Am I the same man in the hours between midnight and morning that I am between dawn and dusk? The longer I live the less sure I am of the answers to any of these questions.

Written in 2007, the above text has various fictional elements, although in essence it could almost serve as a journal of how I've been spending much of my time of late. It was originally conceived as part of a larger project that instead went in an entirely different direction.

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