In summer, the song sings itself. ~William Carlos Williams
To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~John Burroughs
There are certain summer mornings that hang like Spanish moss off of a sapphire elm of sky. The whole world seems pregnant with possibility and willing to extend almost until tomorrow. The heat from the previous day still lingers and causes you to hesitate, waiting for a breeze to breathe. It is a time of simple pleasures and slow, economical motion. The green grass is dry and bleached in places where water cannot relieve the relentless penetrating sun. The air is alive with the croaking of toads pleading for rain, insects conspiring to multiply, birds serenading the verdant Gods of summer and squirrels and chipmunks quarrelling along sienna and slate rock walls which line my hiking path.
This is a morning to wander in the New England woods along a cool river filled with shadowy brown trout. Here, in this grove of trees, the river is little more than a wide stream in most places. Yet, it is an ancient artery feeding this living place – a natural dividing line in the wild with each side appearing different once you have crossed over and have the advantage of looking back.
The woods that buffet this particular stretch of water are a restless contradiction of growth and decay. The pastel sky heats up pushing golden filtered light across the clear, determined water. Cool air idles listlessly above the brook’s cascades and in the shadows of an old footbridge. It’s uneven planks and irregular length creak as I step above the shallows. It is the kind of isolated crossing where one would expect to meet a troll who might quickly scurry up onto the opposite bank and demand a tithe for passage. The north side of the water’s edge is a cat’s cradle of ferns, vines and wild flowers that fall down to a broken root and stone pocked shore. A butterfly floats into the spotlight of sun, lighting on a giant midnight purple foxglove – its fanning wings moving rhythmically like the colored sails of some exotic Chinese junk.
My Australian shepherd, Brody, canters at my side. Moments earlier, we had been content to rest underneath a giant oak at the edge of a meadow, readying for our morning adventure. He is forever indentured to my whims and obligations. Yet, he is secure in his purpose. He is a working dog and is content to patrol the edges of my world and to shadow me with quiet, unconditional companionship. He runs ahead and turns to be certain that I have followed his padded path. He leaps and pivots as a hidden deer breaks off in the distance, crashing through impenetrable undergrowth to watch us from a safer distance. His ears rise and fall as he digests a world filed with constant motion and commands. He is my eternal scout forever probing for the hidden pulse of any new place.
It is ten o’clock. Already great galleons of thunderheads gather off in the distance – – an invasion force of chrome cotton man-o-wars armed with lightening and bursts of rain. There is a shrill sound like cicadas that seems to be warning us that this day may be conquered by a sudden storm. Yet, on a morning where one is so alone and yet so surrounded by life, one must accept the notion that anything is possible. It is hard to not think of grander things on a delicious day such as this. My best laid plans of July pour forth from a soul at peace – goodwill that bubbles up with great expectation and grand intentions – only to later lose momentum falling still in stagnant pools of inaction like the brackish water that sits silent between rocks of dry August streams.
I am carrying only a backpack, water, my journal and a water bowl for my companion. Our plan is to climb away from the stream working our way through pines and hickories up the southern ridge of this wooded canyon. We pass ebony ponds along a wide path swept of its topsoil by wild spring streams and winter run-off. The trail is marked by dark, muddied edges and deep pointed imprints of deer that had passed this way in the soft dawn. Brody suddenly stops and looks up the trail. A young couple is moving briskly in our direction. The man in his late twenties immediately slaps his leg and beckons my companion to him. The young woman appears more cautious, uncertain if my tri-colored partner harbors bad intentions. My shepherd joyfully accepts the overture and bounds in two leaps to the young man – leaping up to tattoo two perfect muddy prints on his white undershirt. “I asked for that.” He mused as he unsuccessfully wiped the marks only further smearing the mud. Sensing his faux pas, Brody circles back to me. Gathering that my absence of criticism should be construed as praise, he pushes forward to reconnoiter the trail.
The couple carries on – – a fourth dimension encounter with my past. It is my wife and I – – perhaps twenty years ago. To be so young and so early on the great trail of life. Passing them and venturing deeper into the shaded woods reminds me of Robert Frost and his spiritual journey into a snow filled winter forest. In these moments, I consider my own mortality and my brief time on earth to breathe in an infinite mélange of scents and experiences. I am a ship – sturdy enough to venturel far from shore – exploring new lands and experiencing the fear and exhilaration of being at the whim of something greater than myself – – an uncharted ebony ocean that is shaped by an invisible hand that guides and contours constantly shifting currents. I could remain closer to shore always keeping land in sight and a safe harbor within my grasp or, I can set out in search of my reason to exist – allowing trades and trust to move me across unexplored places and among new and different cultures. Hell for some explorers is routine, predictability and the absence of diversity.
We descend into a beautiful stand of birch trees that shimmer at the slightest breathe of wind. We surprise a toad as he quickly leaps into an ink blot of dying pond. Brody slaps at the water and noses closer to the eyes that now leer at him from the safety of this muddy refuge. He moves deeper into the tarn swirling mud underneath the surface and obscuring his own view. With a splash, the amphibian is gone. Brody hesitates – half expecting a counter attack. He instead declares war on the darting water bugs as they skate across the pond’s surface. As he uselessly slaps at vacant water, I whistle and he jumps quickly across the trail to lead us to the highest point of our journey.
From the top of this broken ridge we can see rolling waves of green woods and summer foliage. I can almost see the British soldiers in their imperial red as they climb in disciplined cadence. Phantom Colonials crouch behind stumps and trees waiting to ambush this ill-advised scouting party. Somewhere to the northwest, a young Colonial officer named Benedict Arnold would distinguish himself at the battle of Ridgefield, CT by rescuing his commanding officer and leading a rear guard defense. As a result of his actions, he would be promoted to a higher rank. His elevated position led him to Fort Ticonderoga where his heroism would endear him to General Washington as one of his most trusted lieutenants – a faith he would later betray when he surrendered the Hudson stronghold of West Point to the British.
The hills roll like ocean swells across an endless horizon line of woods. A few narrow roads cut the tree lines serving as fragile capillaries connecting small hamlets and towns. It would not take too long for nature to reclaim everything that has been superficially scratched into its thick barked skin.
We linger for a minute – two time travelers. We drink water and split a granola bar. I am once again violating his strict diet for the sake of his sad eyes and endearing habit of licking his lips to signal his to desire to dine with me. He is my companion and it is an unwritten rule that we must share everything. We linger and then move south down another serpentine trail to reconnect to the river.
These woods are old and barely seem to raise an eyebrow at our trespass. A trout rises to a fly and flashes his red stomach as he turns to devour a rare midday meal. The riffles of water stretch further away and finally lap gently against the cut of the river bank. The stream angles and darts along this part of the woods as if it is trying to elude anyone who might be attempting to track its course.
I talk to Brody as we move across an elevated plateau carpeted by pine needles and wet sand. He hangs on my every word and studies me to be certain he is not missing some essential assignment. We round a bend of broken pines and savaged, shattered tree limbs – exploded in an instant microburst of wind from a late spring storm. Our foot bridge comes quickly into view and with it, our journey has come full circle.
We retrace our steps moving along a sunken road between ancient stone walls. We mount a thin rail of two by fours that serve as a bridge across a fragile wetland. We step down onto spongy green grass and climb to the great meadow and where we can now witness the armada of storm clouds as they gather and conspire. We deposit the moment in our pockets and move to our car. He leaps in the passenger seat and settles into a perfect ball of fur and fatigue. The engine whirls and we move off leaving behind dust and the memory of a perfect summer morning. As we turn off a frontage road and skid on to a small country thoroughfare, my canine companion heaves a sigh of utter contentment.
Yes, it is true that sometimes the simplest of things can make my soul smile.