We live where the suburban edge of a modest size metropolitan area gives away to wooded hills. It’s not exactly country and certainly not rural. But it’s enough of a feel away from urban development and horizontal sprawl where we can comfortably take a walk in the woods simply by heading down the two-lane road in front of our house and disappearing in protected land.
Sometimes we head up the slope that forms the access point to what is very loosely called “a mountain” but really is just a long rise of land several hundred feet above base elevation. Other times we’ll take a more relaxed path along a wooded road dotted with houses every few hundred feet. Some of those houses date to the mid-1700s. Others represent the entire history of American design, from modest cottages and stone-foundationed farm houses to garish modern structures that devote more attention to the multi-car garage in front than to the windows or front porch.
It’s an eclectic mix, one we have been perusing regularly since we launched our encounter with “extreme nesting” back in early March of this year. We have a one-mile loop around a church yard where some of the cemetery stone markers date back over 200 years. We also have a two mile variant walk down to a housing development, and as much as a four-mile route down a quiet back road. Here we never tire of gawking at the exposed remnants of glacier rock, nor the stony creek beds and crazily gnarled old hardwoods along the way.
The signage we saw this year on our walks appropriately documented what we were going through. Back in the spring there were yard signs thanking those nurses and doctors who were on the front lines of the first wave of the coronavirus. These were interspersed with declarations of support for various political candidates vying for party nominations. Then came congratulatory expressions on behalf of school graduates whose matriculation ceremonies had been relegated to Zoom sessions.
“Black Lives Matter” signage followed, not only as an expression for the campaign against police violence but also as a not-so-subtle reminder to people of color in our thoroughly integrated town that they could feel safe here taking a stroll or going out for a drive. Evidence of a presidential campaign followed, with Biden-Harris signs proliferating, often on the same front yard as “Black Lives Matter.”
Our walking regimen along these various paths was interrupted in late October by the sudden onset of a sustained phase of much-needed rainy weather. As days shortened and temperatures stayed low, we limited our walks to shorter trips. By this time the election campaign had entered its final feverish phase; we were preoccupied with the news if not exactly glued to the TV. But there has been no escaping the drama of this Presidential election. Though when Election night produced no definitive outcome and it was clear that it would take days for the results to solidify, a warm spell gave us occasion the other day to head back out on the longer walk.
Your perspective of the outdoors depends far more on sun angle than most people are aware of. The azimuth range decreases, as does the window of vertical illumination from the sun. Once you’ve passed the autumnal equinox most of the light is filtered through trees. And on a clear day there’s an unusually sharp quality to the imagery, though also a short- lived one.
It might have been a case of skewed senses, attributable to our disturbed sleep habits in this bewildering era of pandemic, politics and social isolation. Or it might have been a function of simple sensory contrast as we ambled about outdoors for the first time in a week. Whatever, the triggering mechanism, this walk, on Friday of election week, proved unusually rewarding. Not just physically, as it certainly pushed our bodies in a way that we had not experienced in a few weeks. But in terms of what we saw and shared, the hour-long walk proved incredibly rewarding.
For one thing we engaged in long conversations along the way with ambitious do-it-yourselfers who had been working all year on home/landscape projects. One of them had created massive scaffolding so he could replace his entire roof. Another had undertaken what seemed to me back in the spring as a delusional effort to tame a steep slope and turn it into a manageable driveway. As someone who is not the least bit comfortable – or skilled – in such home projects it was really rewarding to see the care and caution these two fellows applied to their task.
Along the way, the roof replacer – perched 40 feet above us in the lattice work around and over his house – told us a fascinating tale of his having spotted two baby bobcats recently and his encounter with their suitably protective mama. This opened us up to our own stories of encounters with bears – which have continued all year.
During our walk we took note of other self-starter projects. Someone had built a substantial garden shed in their front yard – on a scale that threatened to compete with their small, simple house. Elsewhere we saw the results of efforts to create new gardening space.
Over the previous 25 years I was traveling around 150 days annually. So far this year I have been away, overnight in a hotel that I drove to, exactly two nights since the first of March. No flights. No extended journeys. Basically home the entire time.
You learn a lot this way. Small changes to the environment. The way trees adapt to a drought. The way people work on their houses and yards. And the manner by which animals somehow manage to share outdoor space with you while basically keeping to themselves.
It has been an unusual year. We’ve spent a lot of time outdoors during it. And we’ve also had to spend a lot of time indoors wondering what was going to happen and how long it would be before things returned to a sense of the familiar.
This weekend things got clearer.