Sunday, September 24, 2006


As the year goes on, I find myself looking forward to my Moose Hill visits with increasing eagerness. I truly crave a little time alone with nature and alone with my thoughts. I’m beginning to wonder if this meditative activity could be a bit like exercise: The more we do it, the better we get at it. I am finding that once I decide where I want to go, and then find a place to sit, it doesn’t take long for my mind to relax and for interesting thoughts to begin to flow. As I discovered today, even if I only have an hour or so, it can be worthwhile to pull the bike from the shed and head up the hill for breakfast.

I live right in the older heart of a rather typical suburb in the northeastern U.S. My town is primarily a bedroom community for Boston and Providence. Perhaps I’m luckier than most in that I have a great place to find solitude so close to home. With just ten minutes on the bike, I can be completely alone in a mature forest. I think most towns like mine have some open space. Cities have parks. Those who live in the country are surrounded by nature. But I sense that fewer and fewer people seek the solace that time alone in the open can provide. People are busy. There are many sources of comfort, entertainment and distraction in our modern lives. On the one hand, it’s sad that more folks don’t take advantage of the beautiful places around us, but on the other hand, I like having these woods to myself. Maybe people are simply content and don’t hear voices from the depths telling them that there is something unexamined, something unexplored.

With limited time today, I went back to the Kettle Trail. This is the trail that I’ve taken a few times before on my way to Hobbs Hill. I chose it because it is so easy to get to, and on both my earlier visits I saw several small birds on my way out of the woods but I didn’t have time to stop and watch them. I was curious to see if these were residents that could be visited on a regular basis.

I selected a small, rounded hill far enough into the woods that I couldn’t see the road, but not so close to the swamp that I would have too many mosquitoes. I sat in the soft duff at the base of a tree and set up camp with my bagel, coffee, binoculars and notebook at the ready.

It was warm, windy and muggy for the first weekend of autumn, almost like a tropical storm was heading up the coast. The light in the forest was not good, thanks to a heavy overcast. A few mosquitoes found me, but not so many that I needed any spray. I’ve heard that even the Dali Lama would swat a mosquito if provoked, so the self-defense plea would also work for me. Our first frost may be just a few weeks away, and then I won’t have to grapple with this dilemma for a while.

Noisy gusts of wind alternated with periods of quiet. There was the base layer of sound from the crickets. A jay was squawking in the distance. Periodically, like a spent rifle shots, falling heavy acorns could be heard slapping through the leathery oak leaves. The little gang of chickadees, nuthatches and titmice I came to see were absent or silent. There was plenty of deer sign, but no animals were seen or heard. There was a persistent but unfamiliar bird-like chirping in the direction of the swamp. After a while, I decided it could be the last hurrah of some frog species, but I didn’t have the time to seek them out. Any movement that caught my eye turned out to be a leaf drifting quietly to earth.

Most of the trees were still green, but the witch hazels, red maples and birches were starting to change. The yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), is not abundant here, but there are enough to remind me of more northern places. One in particular was littering the trail with its yellow leaves as if putting out a welcome mat, inviting me deeper into the forest.

Where I sat, most of the dominant trees were white pines and red oaks, with the witch hazel, maple, birch and a few dying chestnut sprouts scattered about in the understory. The most common understory trees, however, were young white pines. Perhaps it is wrong to call these small pines young. I examined one nearby. It was only a little taller than my six feet, but I counted about 20 whorls of branches, telling me it had been waiting patiently on the forest floor for two decades, growing only about three to five inches a year. It stands at the ready, waiting for its opportunity. It clings to life, barely getting by. If it is lucky enough to survive long enough, maybe a bolt of lightning, a big wind or a logger’s saw will create an opening in the canopy and its wait will be rewarded with a chance to leap toward the light.

I was struck with the thought that a human life can be like that, too. Patience is a virtue, we are told. But can one be too patient? Can one have too much faith? In a recent early-morning meditation, I was dwelling on the difference between pro-activity and re-activity. So much of my life has been driven by reaction. In the past, a boss would decide and I would respond. More recently, the phone rings, and I react. Something breaks and I have to fix it. My wife or a child asks for help or a favor and I am there. Many hours are spent attending to the needs and activities of others.

Sure, we all have responsibilities to those around us, but for some of us, maybe it’s too easy, too comfortable to squat in the shade of others. If a tree waits too long in the shadows, will it be too weak to respond when finally struck by the light? Can that happen to people, too? We serve others for so long that we forget how to satisfy ourselves. How does one choose a personal goal and proactively strive for it without seeming selfish? I know people who are almost entirely focused on their own comfort and happiness while some give themselves almost completely to others. How does one find a balance?

What happens if that hole in the canopy never opens up? Too often, I use phrases like “some day,” or “one of these days.” Some day we’ll take that bike ride. One of these days I’ll clean the basement. Sooner or later someone will notice what a great job I’m doing and give me that big break. It’s too easy to waste time waiting patiently for a moment that never comes. Some of us need to learn that we have to make things happen on our own. Faith can be misplaced and chances are no one is looking out for us. We have to do it for ourselves.

A little pine tree had me asking a lot of questions today. Answers didn’t come easily. I pushed my bike back to the road, and just as I started to coast down the hill on my way home, I heard a chickadee. I knew I would be back, looking for that little black-capped sprite and his band of cousins, and looking for some answers to questions that came to me from the pines.


At 10:15 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

There must be something in the air. I've been wrestling with similar questions of how we label ourselves and how those self-labels affect how we see ourselves, and interact with the world around us.

I need more coffee...

At 12:38 PM, Blogger I_Wonder said...

I think I've found balance in my life wherein I feel good about my responsibility for myself and my responsibility for others. It took years to get to this point. But, life is not static and I may lose this sense of balance. I've found life to get easier as I get older. One thing is certain, the older I get the more I value solitude and quiet time with nature.


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