“When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”– Henry David Thoreau (in his essay, Walking)
Everyday I walk. I walk for exercise. I walk to explore new places. I walk to the store. But mostly I walk to connect, to understand, to become familiar. I walk to remind myself I am part of this place, connected to it and supported by it, and infinitely grateful to be sharing this space and experience with all the other living beings here.
The place I was most familiar with and attached to as a child was the farm in North Carolina where I grew up – the place where I fed the calves, milked the cows, hauled hay, and learned to drive a tractor. Combined with picking beans and corn in my grandma’s garden and fishing in the pond behind my parents’ house these experiences shaped my sense of place. This was home, and it shaped my early ideas about how the world worked (or should work). My identity and sense of place was tied to the rhythms of the farm.
As a young adult I moved to unfamiliar territory in southern Florida, staring at plants I’d never seen before and wondering why it never rained between November and June. I missed the “normal” change of seasons and felt a bit uprooted from my childhood home. Soon, though, I began exploring the swamps, marshes, and woodlands of Florida. Walking the same trails and habitats over and over again helped me connect, understand, and become familiar with the more subtle changes of seasons in a subtropical paradise. Decades later, I could tell you what week – if not the exact day – the swallow-tailed kites would return to nest each spring, when the grass pink orchids would bloom, and exactly how high the water would be on your pants legs when you walked the Marsh Loop at CREW in July. Walking those trails season after season connected me to southwest Florida and made it home.
Later, in Oregon, I walked hundreds of trails, learning the names of another set of plants and animals, listening to the sounds of the forests and rivers, connecting to a new and different ebb and flow of seasons. But there was always one place that felt most like home – a place where I belonged – and that was in the Mt. Hood Wilderness. I returned to those trails often to look for spring wildflowers, catch the gray jays hopping on the snow, and breathing in the sight of Mt. Hood. Walking there, in the presence of my mountain, is when I feel most connected to the universe. It is a spiritual connection as well as a physical one. There, when I walk, I am at home.
Now, back in NC, I am trying to reconnect to this place, to know its seasons and rhythms, plants and animals, and my place in it. Recently, I’ve found myself returning to one particular trail over and over again to see the changes through the seasons. It’s not a wilderness trail or a mountain trail or a swamp or river trail, but an old farm turned into a park – The Blackwood Farm Park.
I don’t know why I’ve become attached to this particular place. Perhaps the old farm buildings remind me of my childhood place, a simpler time and those good feelings of family and living off the land. Perhaps its because its easy to get to and its four miles of trails go through mixed hardwood forest, over creeks, into pine woods, by a pond, and near several vernal pools. Those diverse habitats in a small area makes it easy to see seasonal changes in a variety of habitats in a short period of time. Whatever the draw, it is a fun place to visit, and this past weekend there were many signs of spring popping up along the trail.
Just a few weeks ago, the woods there still looked and felt like the dead of winter and the grasses were brown and flat, but this past weekend so many plants had started budding and blooming, the place felt like it had suddenly come alive.
We found tons of spotted salamander egg masses in the vernal pools, too. Birds were singing and squirrels were nesting. The meadows were bright with bluets and violets.
Back on the farm where I grew up, I still feel at home – after all, that was the first place where I connected, where I belonged. But now, I know I can find my way home anywhere… if I walk, and watch, and listen long enough… If I allow myself to become familiar with the inhabitants of a place, let them teach me their ways and patterns and rhythms over time. If I let a place teach me how to be in it, I am home.