Happy Trails

My days begin out on the trails behind our house.   I could easily sleep until seven, but the dogs are raring to go by 6:30 a.m. I pull on yoga pants and boots, pour coffee into a travel mug, and stuff treats into the pocket of whatever jacket seems best suited to meet the crazy grab bag of spring weather that comes with these days of climate change.

This morning, I woke up mid-dream. My sleeping self had been in a strange, anonymous apartment with John and the kids when they were little. In the dream, John and I knew that the world would end that day at 4:12 p.m.   This wasn’t some crackpot Rapture or Mayan calendar scenario. It was a cold hard fact. A climate catastrophe was on the way; we all knew with certainty when it would hit, in that way you do in dreams. I felt sadness that my kids wouldn’t get to grow up, and that so much work was left undone – humankind hadn’t solved poverty or racism; we hadn’t overcome our greed, our egotism, our petty grievances.  There was still so much good in us: love to be made, cookies to be baked, poems to be written, songs to sing. Forgiveness and reconciliation could yet occur. And now, time had run out. I was happy that we were all together, that the kids were safe with John and me. Right before I woke up, I remember thinking that I needed to set aside some time to pray, to thank God for giving me this earthly life, to re-align myself, away from the corporeal, back to the ether, the spirit, star dust, whatever home I came from and will return to.

And then I awaken to Cordelia licking my face, her scratchy whiskers tickling my cheek, her butt wriggling in the excitement of a new day.   Westley’s chin rests on the other side of the bed, his big, brown, longing eyes trained on me, tail thumping on the floor. There’s nothing to pull you out of a disconcerting dream like two dogs ready for breakfast.

After they eat, we are off to the trail: through the pool gates, front and back, down the hill to the stream, over the rattling bridge of loose boards to the woods. Cordelia is on the scent of a critter and off like a shot. Westley rumbles along, tail high. He stops up ahead of me and looks back, waiting for me to find a good stick to toss him. The birds are out in full force this morning, tweeting, whistling, trilling. Rain is supposed to move in around noon today, and the wind occasionally swirls and gusts, as if practicing for a good blow later on. We can hear the horn of the commuter rail sounding at the crossing, about a mile away, ear-budded men and women in business attire, chugging towards North Station and another Tuesday.

I have walked this trail almost daily for nearly twenty-five years, and I know its twists, rolls, and straightaways like I know a loved one’s voice on the phone–John, or one of my parents. After crossing the stream, we turn left, heading out towards the parcel we’ve dubbed “the blueberries,” an open bluff overlooking a pine forest to the south and a swath of farmed fields to the northwest. It’s hard to believe we live just seventeen miles west of Boston.

When the kids were little, we’d come out here two or three times a day with woven baskets to collect acorns, brightly colored leaves, or marvelous, perfectly round, marbled balls that Nate called “extraordinary berries;” these turned out to be acorn plum galls, created by a particular genus of tiny wasp. The trail has four distinct neighborhoods. The first narrow run is banked to the right by a high wooded hill and to the left by wetlands that used to be a cranberry bog. About five years ago, a neighbor gave permission to a local deer hunter to set up a stand just above the old bog. During deer hunting season, we put an orange vest on the dog and talk or sing loudly while passing through this area. I’ve never known precisely where he sets up shop, but today, I spy the hunter’s stand for the first time. He has strapped an office chair to a tree trunk about 20 feet off the ground. I’ve met the guy who hunts out there. He’s a pretty big dude for such a flimsy apparatus. This fall, he killed an impressive stag, according to one neighbor, “an eight-pointer.”

The next stretch of trail takes you over a rise and down again into a broad valley dotted with large, old growth trees. Two PVC pipes, each about three feet high, poke up from the forest floor, off-gassing lead trapped when this land served, decades ago, as the town’s shooting range. No one remembered anything about the range until the 1990’s, when the land’s prior owner tried to get zoning approval for a high-end residential development. All of us whose properties abutted the trail were trying to raise funds to buy the land and place it in conservation, but we were more than a few dollars short of the seller’s sky-high asking price. The situation looked grim for local tree-huggers. The Town Planning Board scheduled a hearing to review the seller’s development proposal. John went, along with a number of other folks from our neighborhood, including an old codger we’d never met who sat in the back of the room, protectively cradling a muslin sack like a homeless person hanging on to all his worldly goods. The abutters looked downtrodden as the seller’s shiny-suited attorney made his glitzy presentation. If the abutters and the town’s land trust could offer 12 million dollars – a 50% discount versus the market price – the seller would be willing to accept it. This offer was a straw dog; there was little chance the people in our relatively modest neighborhood could pony up such a whopping sum.  All of a sudden, however, the old codger raised his hand and was recognized by the Board chairperson. With visible effort, he rose, hefting his sack, and shuffled to the front of the room where, with a flourish, he upended the thing on the table. Hundreds of old bullets and casings spilled out, rattling across the table and rolling onto the floor. “Lead!” he shouted triumphantly. “I dug this up from that land just a week ago. It’s LEAD!”   As John recounts it, the entire room erupted in cheers. It turns out you can’t build homes on the lead-contaminated site of an old firing range. The trail ultimately became conservation land. Nowadays, we’d end this story with a mic drop. Boom.

Down in the old firing range, the trail widens to about six feet across. There’s almost no understory on this section of the path, just a carpet of pine needles. The first time I ever had an allergic reaction to a bee sting was out here. It was about twelve years ago on a humid summer afternoon, the threat of thunderstorms hanging heavily in the air. I felt the sting on the back of my neck and walked a few more yards before a bizarre burning sensation spread to my eyes, the palms of my hands and soles of my feet, my genitals, and throat. I turned tail and ran all the way back to the house. When I stumbled into the kitchen, Nate, then about eleven, was at the computer. “Whoa, Mom, you look weird,” he said. “I need you to call 911,” I told him thickly. “I think I may be going into shock.”   A few days later, back on the trail newly armed with an epipen, I looked up and saw a bee’s nest the size of a beach ball suspended from an oak bough.

The trail narrows again and follows along a lovely, winding run through pines. We used to call this branch of the path “the nursery” because the ground is blankpinus-strobus-le-dcameron-b.jpgeted with hundreds of white pine saplings. Their spindle-needled fingers dance greenly on the breeze. This morning, Westley finds the thigh bone of a small mammal out here, licked clean, pristinely white. I’m guessing it once belonged to a house cat, or maybe a fisher cat. Coyotes and foxes live in this part of the woods.   If you walk through here at night, it must be like one of those old cartoons on TV: canine eyes blinking watchfully in the blackness.

Just past the nursery, we head gently uphill into my favorite portion of trail, a hilly glade dotted with towering white pines and fallen logs. The forest floor here is a layer of pine needles as deep as a duvet. Fallen trunks form bridges and tunnels that the kids used to like to climb on. This morning, Cordelia jumps up on one felled trunk and sticks her nose down a knothole, sniffing for squirrel. The trees are majestic. You sense their eyes on you, their rooted wisdom. You are just a hiccup in time.

At the top of this hill are “the blueberries,”  nooks and crannies of exposed granite boulders and low-blooming wild blueberry bushes. The birds always get the berries before we do. I like to stand in the clearing and drink in the height of this spot, taking a few deep breaths before turning back, feeling at one with the air and sky.  Sometimes I’ll do a sun salutation out here.

When we turn back, Westley runs all the way home. Cordelia loops around me in circles, trotting off into the woods and back to my side. My coffee is long since finished, and I itchily start to wonder how bad the deer ticks will be this year.

I’m grateful for the new day.

I’ll be back again tomorrow morning.










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