All actual life is encounter.
– Martin Buber
A Sunday morning in early spring, not a cloud in the sky and very quiet. The thick moss on the trail muffles my footsteps, so that I am able to sneak up on the same small herd of deer three times. But I am not stalking them; each time they catch a whiff of me and spook, I’m surprised anew.
The second time this happens, I’m right at the intersection of trails at the bottom of the hill where, two Sundays ago, my 14-month-old niece Elanor took her first-ever hike. It occurs to me that this stretch of trail has been permanently altered for me by that milestone event. The trail I walk on now is both the same and not the same as the one in my imagination, and my impression of stillness now is made more vivid by contrast with the excitement and commotion preserved in my memory like stills from a movie.
For weeks, Elanor had been fiercely resisting the imposition of shoes. For her first birthday back in February, her cousin Eva in Mississippi had mailed her a pair of baby shoes that she felt would be sure to get her walking, because they were designed to squeak in an amusing fashion with every step. At first, we weren’t sure whether this was a good idea. Sitting out on the lawn in front of the house, her daddy and grandpa got the shoes on her feet without too much trouble, but she began to fuss as soon as they cajoled her into taking a few steps. The loud squeaks seemed to add insult to injury – “What in the world have you done to my feet!?” – and we were only able to distract her from the misery of this new form of confinement by showing her the crocuses up at the edge of the lawn. She seemed a little disappointed that those brightly colored objects came apart so easily, however.
If we wanted to save any crocuses for another day, we thought we’d better relocate to the woods. Steve put his daughter on his shoulders, and we headed up toward the top of the watershed, where four, wide trails come together right below the spruce grove. It’s a big, mossy clearing where little kids always love to hang out and play. As we headed up through the laurel woods, we marveled at the way the mid-afternoon sun illuminated Elanor’s frizz of unshorn, blond hair, giving her a halo of sorts – a very misleading impression! She had been sick for much of the previous week, and her mood was still a bit uncertain, though she was clearly enjoying her ride.
We all sat down on the moss, and sure enough, Elanor was soon distracted by the plethora of twigs, acorn caps, and other small objects that needed to be tasted. She took the few steps over to my lap and was rudely reminded of the shoes still on her feet. Soon she began to fuss about the prospect of toddling back to her grandparents, who held their arms out and made encouraging noises. Steve took pity on her, got up, took her hand, and started to lead her down Laurel Ridge Trail, speaking soft words of encouragement while Elanor glared at her squeaking feet. After less than a dozen steps, he let go of her hand and followed as she continued walking on her own.
Realizing they weren’t coming back, we all got up and joined the parade, expecting it to end after one or two hundred feet. It didn’t. I raced ahead to get pictures as Elanor toddled along the 200-year-old woods road, following the wide stripe of moss. The pictures show a look of intense concentration as she rounded the big curve and picked up speed heading down the long, steep hill toward the intersection with the Dump Trail.
All this flashes through my mind as I stand at that same intersection two weeks later. In our neighbor’s recently cut-over woods to my left, the deer have just spooked for the second time. In the woods to my right, a blue-headed vireo is calling not far from where I found the nest last year. Might it be the very same male, I wonder? A pair of downy woodpeckers taps somewhere up ahead, joined suddenly by the loud and very resonant drumming of a pileated woodpecker.
There’s often a pileated hanging around this spot, but I have yet to get close enough for a picture. In this morning’s strong sunlight, he should make a brilliant spectacle, I think. He sounds as if he’s right up at the top of the hill.
A tall laurel bush standing alone beside the trail catches my eye and I go down on one knee, admiring the way the light pours through its sundress of leaves. When at length I stand up again, there’s a sudden explosion of wings as a well-camouflaged ruffed grouse flushes from a few feet away. It arcs toward our neighbor’s new hunting platform, wings clipping the skinny trunks of black birch saplings. The pileated drums.
I am walking so slowly now I’m almost going backwards. Really, though, why hurry? I’ve walked this trail thousands of times – tens of thousands. I know what’s around the next bend. Or do I?
I pause to snap some pictures of interesting swirls in the grain of a fallen oak log that spans the trail. Ordinarily, we clear such obstructions, but in this case, we thought it best just to cut out a little notch that one can walk though, leaving the rest of it in place in order to discourage possible trespassers on all-terrain vehicles. Two Sundays ago, I remember, Steve had had to lift his daughter over it; she isn’t very good at stepping over things yet. As soon as she had started down the hill, her daddy and grandpa had come and held her hands to keep her from falling face-down on the rocks that poke through the moss. She seemed a little frustrated that they wouldn’t let her run as she likes to do at home, careening around from room to room of their apartment. But it wasn’t clear to us that she quite understood what a hill was: not all inclines come with stairs!
Just as I lift my head from photographing the log, I hear a wft, wft, wft overhead: the pileated! I watch in frustration as he arrows up the trail and veers off to the left, his great, black wings rising and falling with a woodpecker’s deliberate beat. Where did he come from? How could my ears have so deceived me about the distance between us?
I hear a distant, laughing croak – that all-purpose ark, ark, ark that ravens have been saying to each other since long before Noah. It’s a sound I associate especially with fine mornings and clear weather. I look off to the left, through a 30-year-old stand of pole timber, and spot the pair of them turning in a slow circle over the valley about a half-mile away. Ark, ark, ark! A few more circles, and then one of them turns and soars off to the northeast, followed by its mate. Half a minute later, a crow caws overhead in vain pursuit, incensed as always by the presence of its larger, more graceful cousins.
Elanor’s first hike in the woods (or anywhere, for that matter) only ended because her daddy picked her up and put her back on his shoulders. She had begun to sound a little fussy, and we figured that we better make her quit while she was ahead. In all, she walked at least a thousand feet over terrain that even some sedentary adults might find a little challenging. Two days later, they went to a store that specializes in baby shoes and got her a couple different kinds of non-squeaking footwear, and she’s been walking happily ever since.
That wasn’t a day for wildlife watching, of course, though arguably there’s little to distinguish a pre-lingual human child from any other natural being, aside from its much more protracted dependence on adults. In fact, watching the way otherwise reserved people, strangers, can go gaga over small children makes me a little sad, sometimes, realizing that this might well be one of the very few avenues they have for encountering something truly wild. But then again, isn’t this preference for cuteness and cuddliness part of what separates us from wild nature, ever since the original sin of domestication? How many self-described nature lovers would actually prefer the harsh cry of a raven to the lamb-like bleat of a fawn?
As I reach the top of the hill, the pileated is just visible on a tree a few hundred feet off the trail. His call, which I tend to think of as maniacal, is no doubt perfectly sane, simply intended for other ears than mine. I hear the deer moving through the laurel, nervous footsteps following their own network of trails. It must be right about the time the churches are letting out. I picture the congregants emerging from their well-lit caves, blinking and smiling at each other in the warm sunlight. May they, too, find inspiration in whatever lies just beyond their grasp.