It’s late summer and the blackberries are ripening. A few steps from our new house they grow wild. I discovered them a few weeks ago.
They grow along the pathways between our house and the nearby quarry – a good place for a short walk. Wide pathways riddle the local woods. And where sunlight strikes, blackberry bushes magically appear.
From green to red these berries ripen. When they get that deep purplish hue, they’re ready to be picked. I can hardly resist. Their plumpness is alluring. Pop a couple in your mouth and you know what happiness tastes like. Sweet, yes, but with a zing to them that all wild fruit seems to have.
My wife Judy has gone through several pints of them. She went a-picking with me once but is happy enough just eating them at home. I, on the other hand, like picking blackberries more than eating them. It feeds my compulsion.
Don’t get me wrong. I eat plenty of blackberries as I pick them, popping one in my mouth for every two or three that goes in my container. That seems like a good ratio.
Between picking and eating, I grow lighthearted, almost giddy. Wearing only shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops, I am scratched by the thorny blackberry bushes and take plenty of bug bites, but I don’t care. I sweat in the sunlight breaking into the humid woods, but I don’t care. Picking becomes my raison d’être. I pick therefore I am.
Picking and eating, picking and eating… It’s a simple countryside pleasure that keeps me connected to the earth, making me glad to be alive. The world is going to hell in a hand basket, or so I hear. But while I’m a-picking, none of that matters.
I don’t like to mix business with pleasure. It’s hard to stay focused that way. But I made an exception last week when I headed south of Albany, New York to hunt for books for a couple days. Instead of car camping between book sales per usual, I parked my car at a trailhead Thursday afternoon, changed into hiking clothes, and slipped into the Catskill Mountains for the night.
I didn’t go far. A mile into the woods, I tagged a small stream and followed it back to a high, dry spot. A patch of wood ferns called my name. I pitched my tarp in the middle of them. Then I made a nice place to sit against a tree. Home sweet home.
Mine was a modest dinner: a cup of juice reconstituted from powder, an energy bar and a carrot. Lord knows I’d consumed plenty of calories on the road – mostly junk food. No campfire. I kept things simple. Didn’t want to smell like wood smoke while book hunting the next day. Yeah, business and pleasure don’t mix well. Not really.
A barred owl hooted while I was scribbling in my field journal. I hear them at home, now that Judy and I have moved to a wooded place in the country, but it’s different hearing them in the mountains. Alone in the wild, I felt closer to that creature.
I slept well that night despite having a rock for a pillow. The forest was cool and calming after a hot, crazy day on the road. Funny how I feel more comfortable in the woods than anywhere else. A lot people think it’s dangerous in the wild – bears, the prospect of getting lost, etc. – but I find the opposite to be true. I never feel as threatened alone in the wild as I do moving among my own kind. Few places are as dangerous as a busy highway.
Thirteen hours. That’s all the downtime I got. Enough to get me by. I broke camp in a hurry, eager to begin another so-called workday. I’d hiked out to the car and changed back into street clothes a half hour later. By mid-morning I was working another book sale, chasing the dollar. Yet a touch of the wild stayed with me. The people book hunting around me never knew the difference, of course.
Another hot day. It has been that kind of summer. Before going over to my old house to do some more renovation work, I slip into a pocket of local woods for a short, relatively cool hike. I know my dog Matika will appreciate it. They call these dog days, but this certainly isn’t her favorite season.
The forest is shady for the most part even though sunlight filters through the canopy. The bright hues of fresh springtime verdure have given way to a more mature midsummer green. The trail looks moist because of a recent rain. I am not deceived by it. I know that down deep the earth is still dusty. Thunderstorms are numerous this summer, yes, but we haven’t seen an all-day soaking rain for quite some time.
Hot and dry. I resist the urge to jump to environmental conclusions, hoping that August and September will be a little cooler and wetter overall. I plan on doing some serious hiking at that time, after finishing up the renovation. Lord knows I’m overdue for it.
But for now these woods will have to do. A few deer flies follow me as I amble up the trail. Aside from their buzz and the occasional songbird, all is quiet. Matika sniffs around, wondering where the squirrels are. My mind clings to work-related matters until I catch a whiff of forest decay. Then I entertain faraway thoughts. Yeah, a serious hike very soon – one to make me forget all the nonsense in these lowlands that passes for civilization. That’s what I really need.
My wife wants me out of the house while window shades are being installed. That’s all the excuse I need to drop everything. Never mind that thunderstorms are in the forecast for this afternoon. As soon as I finish doing the bare minimum work for my business, I grab my fly rod, load my dog Matika into the car, and head for the hills.
By midday I am bushwhacking downhill to a favorite brook. A tremendous sense of relief sweeps over me as I tramp through the woods. This is my first excursion into open country in months.
The stream is low, even for midsummer. We need rain. That said, I hope the dark clouds gathering overhead hold off long enough for me to make a few casts. After that, it doesn’t matter.
The stream is beautiful. Crystal clear water finds its way down a rocky streambed surrounded by lush green vegetation. I have walked this brook or ones like it a thousand times yet they never fail to charm me. The rush of flowing water, the cool shade, and that earthy smell – I’m a real sucker for this kind of wildness.
Matika sniffs around as I ply the water with nearly invisible line and tiny fly. When I pull an eight-inch brook trout from its hiding place, she dances around me, chomping at the creature flipping about desperately in my hands. I release it into nearby shallows so that Matika can give chase. She doesn’t stand a chance. The brookie torpedoes out of sight in seconds.
Dripping sweat and menaced by biting insects, I hobble over rocks and around fallen trees for another hour or two, maintaining a low profile to keep from spooking the fish. I catch and release a couple more brookies despite the less-than-ideal fishing conditions. When finally thunder rumbles in the distance, I splash cold water into my face then leave the brook.
The uphill scramble to a dirt track is hard. The amble down the road is easy. I reach my car right before the first raindrops fall. It’s raining by the time the wheels touch pavement. On the highway it’s a downpour. All the way home, I marvel at how lucky I’ve been.
At long last, I stopped working long enough to go for a half decent hike. I had the perfect reason to do so. Five of my grandkids came to visit last week and they were ready for action. We went swimming and boating at a local quarry. We went fishing. And when the opportunity arose, we hiked up Stowe Pinnacle for a great view of the valley.
My dog Matika went with us, of course. Grandma Judy stayed in the trailhead parking lot and knitted. She’s not a big one for bagging peaks. I fashioned a hiking stick for Johnny, who stayed close to me during the hike, asking all sorts of questions about the natural world. The others charged ahead.
The eldest boy, Hunter, stopped the gang every once in a while, making sure to keep Grandpa in sight the entire time. I was carrying a rucksack full of water bottles, rain jackets and other accoutrements. That’s my excuse for bringing up the rear. Fact is, all the kids play sports and are in good shape. And Grandpa, well, he’s not as strong a hiker as he used to be.
We started early in the morning. T-storms had been forecast for that afternoon. Tight window. I wanted to get everyone up and down the mountain before the rain came.
The forest was still wet and humid from rain the day before. I kept warning my young hikers about the dangers of a wet trail, but they seemed more interested in the red efts underfoot.
On top I gathered them all for an obligatory snapshot. Then we drank water and ate snacks while enjoying the view. We didn’t linger. A squall crossed the valley just to the south of us. I thought it best to get off the mountain right away.
We felt a few raindrops on the way down but the predicted storm didn’t arrive until we were eating lunch back at the cabin a couple hours later. Nearly everyone slipped and fell once. No one was any worse for it though. Kids are resilient. I was exhausted from the hike yet happy to have done it with them. One doesn’t get a chance to create memories like that every day.
Next year we’ll do Camel’s Hump.
Daisies. Such ubiquitous wildflowers. You find them in clearings in the woods, open fields, or anywhere there is ample sunlight. Summer is in full swing when they start to bloom, so is it any surprise that so many of us associate them with happiness?
There are domesticated varieties, of course. I planted some daisy mums in front of my old place years ago and they took over my garden. Pretty, yes. Dainty, no. Give them half a chance and they’ll grow just about anywhere.
The other day as I was weed-whacking the drainage ditch in my front lawn, I noticed that a patch of daisies had taken root there. I steered clear of them. I let them do their thing, adding a little floral delight to the greenery.
Like so many other wildflowers, daisies gravitate to marginal areas. The other day I found them growing near the entrance to a nearby woodlot where I like to walk. Their carousel of bright white petals is an endless smile. They strike me as nature’s welcome mat – ambient to say the least.
My wife prefers daisies to roses. My kind of gal. Roses are aromatic and elegant, no doubt, but daisies shout a different kind of beauty into the world – a beauty accessible to everyone and not easily diminished.
We are well into the growing season now and this humble wildflower is everywhere. The simple, earthy pleasures of this time of year are manifest in daisies. I’m no mindless optimist, nor do I readily engage in frivolity, but the world seems less dour to me whenever daisies are in full bloom. One look at them and my soul takes flight. Silly me.
Thanks to the generosity of our son Matt and his wife Joy, Judy and I are now moving into a new house nestled in a grove of maple trees. The master bedroom is on the first floor, the kitchen has all the modern conveniences, and we are only two miles outside of St. Albans. There is plenty of space upstairs for my fledgling book business to boot. It will be an excellent place to spend our old age – more than either one of us could have hoped for a year ago.
Judy loves everything about the house. She and Joy have been working together for months hashing out the details, from the clawfoot bath tub and overhead fans to granite kitchen countertops and recessed lighting. She can’t get in there fast enough.
My bohemian brain is having a hard time processing all this. I have lived in nothing but old houses and apartments since I was a teenager, and was resigned to spending the rest of my life in a fixer-upper that always needs fixing up. What will I do with my spare time? More writing and tramping around the woods, I suppose.
I must confess that I wasn’t hep on the idea of moving when it was first proposed to me seven months ago, but I gradually warmed up to it as the house advanced through the various stages of construction. Then something unexpected happened. A hermit thrush sang out early in the morning as I was building bookshelves in the garage a couple weeks ago. That’s when it occurred to me just how sweet this place is. Judy and I now have a home among the trees, and all that entails. What an incredible stroke of good fortune!
Temps reached into the 90s today – the hottest day so far this year. Ridiculously hot for May. I went for a short walk in nearby woods anyway.
After visiting the house under construction that will soon be home to Judy, my dog Matika and me, I slipped into the Ten-acre Wood. That’s the name I’ve given the woodlot less than a hundred yards from where I will most likely spend the rest of my life. Most of the woodlot will be developed someday, but for the time being it’s mine to enjoy.
I’ve been following the procession of wildflowers in the Ten-acre Wood since early spring when bloodroot and hepatica came out. Trilliums and trout lilies soon followed, then came violets, bleeding hearts, and a host of subtle bloomers. Most of those are gone now as the canopy overhead has closed. But today I found Jack hidden in the lush greenery covering the forest floor. Jack-in-the-pulpit, that is – a wildflower that is easily missed.
Jack’s an old friend of mine. We’ve had some good times together during my past springtime excursions into deep woods. It’s good to see him taking up residence close to where I’ll soon be living. Or is it the other way around?
No doubt I will make other delightful discoveries in that woodlot during the years ahead. I still plan on making lots of trips to much wilder places, but it’s nice knowing that I’ll soon be able to take a twenty-minute break from my computer and tramp this small, wild place. Sometimes a few minutes among the trees is all I need to clear my head. What a blessing to have such a place close by!
I took my dog Matika with me when I went book hunting in Burlington yesterday, thereby committing to a short hike at some point. At midday I stopped by a city park only to find it closed. Hmm… Went to another place along the Winooski River, parked my car and slipped into the woods. Matika dashed ahead.
I followed the trail as long as I could then drifted into the trackless woods. Matika followed. A short while later we dropped into a ravine as wild as it was beautiful despite discarded tires, a little trash, and the rusty remnant of an old car. I followed a dry creek bed leading nowhere, all the while listening to the sounds of the bustling city around me.
This is how I got my start as a woods wanderer many years ago, tramping through undeveloped pockets in urban settings, enjoying a taste of wildness close to home. The half-burnt pieces of wood in a circle of stones that I found assured me that kids today enjoy this wildness as I once did… as I still do.
The tramp didn’t last long. There wasn’t anywhere else to go once I had reached the river at one end of the ravine, and the power lines at the other. No matter. Matika got a chance to stretch her legs, and I got a taste of wildness during the middle of my workday. That would have to do for the time being.
A cool, overcast day in early May. I head for Aldis Hill to run my dog. I tell myself that it’s all for Matika, but I need to stretch my legs as much as she does. We’ve both been indoors too long.
I meander up the trail in no rush, noting all the wildflowers in bloom along the way: purple trillium, dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, violets – the usual suspects. They are blooming right before the forest canopy leafs out. Their time to shine lasts only a few weeks.
Halfway up the hill, I spot patches of green on the forest floor – the shoots of wildflowers that have recently pushed up through the bleached, brown forest duff. A little later, I come upon leaves unfolding from a bush next to the trail. Fresh spring verdure. No matter how much I anticipate this, it always comes as something of a surprise.
Spring beauty, hepatica and bloodroot are gone already. The spring season is so ephemeral, so easy to miss. Soon the temps will reach into the 70s and I’ll let out a dreamy vernal sigh. Then the bugs will come out. Then the verdure before me will darken to summer green. And I’ll only half notice the transformation as I go about my busy-ness. With that in mind, I take a long, hard look at the tender leaves before me right now and thank god I’m here to witness their magnificent unfolding.