Author Archives: Sandy Stott

The Way

If I should reverse the usual, — go forth and saunter in the fields all the forenoon, then sit down in my chamber in the afternoon, which it is so unusual for me to do, — it would be like a new season to me, and the novelty of it would inspire me. Thoreau, Journal, 7/23/51, 8 A.M.

I try to work out how the porcupine perched to gnaw the upper left corner of this trail-sign. It seems likely, s/he was upside down, as the tooth-grooves trend up slightly to the left. And I wonder at the wood’s appeal – did it have still a trace of salt-sweat from the trail-worker who picked the 2” X 6” slat from a pack, picked too a nail, and, with 4 practiced strokes, hammered home the marker?

“TRAIL,” is says, simply. This way on. And even now, early in this little tale, you are seeing me as scofflaw: “What’s he doing with that sign?” forms in your mind, followed by images of walkers straying from the point where the sign once was. “Only a real J would take a sign meant to show others the way.”

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Here’s quick defense: I took this sign from a woodland no one could wander any more. Mechanized loggers with their huge capture-claws had been there recently, and, what was once a trail, or TRAIL, simply wasn’t. There was the familiar sign tacked to a thin, remaining tree amid piles of slash washed by unfamiliar sunlight. The relocated trail was higher on the ridge, ambling along its crest, and its signage, while similar, was newly stenciled and tacked to trees also. I was conducting a post-mortem on a trail I knew better than most, one I’d walked for 30 years, until the land had changed hands invisibly, and the machines had showed up…most visibly.

So, my sign’s a symbol…of what was…and, in its new place, a reminder that I’d best remember the best way into the world is a foot path that unfolds at a few miles per hour, the speed of perception.

Yesterday, on the amply-trod Commons trails near home, I was slow-footing along when I heard a chewing sound. I looked right, and, as I did, two heads rose from a berry bush ten feet away. The two fawns puzzled over the two-legger before them; I made eye contact and stayed still. We took each other in over a minute. Finally, one snorted and, turning easily in air, bounded off, white flag of tail raised; the other followed, exactly, down to the snort. Gradually, the space where they had been filled with air.

Just so on a morning trail.

My sign, I think, is really a reminder, a command – TRAIL! Here’s to yours.

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Each Town Should Have a Park

Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation…If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already. Thoreau, Journal 10/15/59

I picked yesterday to be away. I packed enough into the thin needle of my boat and pointed out, at least at first, at the horizon and the uncertain island that appears to slump in that direction. Stroke by stroke , I drew nearer; gradually the island grew. Its tall pines distinguished themselves, its wind-shorn seaside cliff became wrinkled with nearness. I was, I reflected, getting there, even as “there” kept receding toward the horizon.

Once at Ragged Island, I made my way to Mark, which marked also the turn to the north and away from the edge, and on toward Flag (another sort of marker), where I pointed west again, intent of travel’s circle. I pulled over at the Elm Islands, two wrists of rock from the submerged sea-giant; the Elms belong to the birds and, of course, to the sea. A lone tree centers the larger of the two Elms, and it is an elm, brought these two miles offshore by human hand. The local forester who made this transplant did so in honor of his father, who loved trees, elms especially. And so far, the disease that’s after our mainland elms hasn’t crossed the water; it is a hopeful tree.

Stopping at the Elms is free, and, as I drank my water and munched my oats, I was grateful to whatever power has kept it so.

Perhaps that gratitude was precursor to some news that came my way when I returned to the screens and pings of the hurried world. There in local headlines was announcement of a national monument near Katahdin (which, by the way, has no Mount before it – Katahdin means greatest mountain in the Penobscot language, and so, no need for the English repeat). Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is an 87,500-acre seed of preserved land to complement Percival Baxter’s remarkable gift of 200,000 acres that form Baxter Park. Roxanne Quimby’s gift – made possible, I suppose, by the labor of millions of Burt’s bees – matches Thoreau’s ’59 advice and our best instincts at a time when appeal after appeal is being made to our worst. It is a seed of wild happiness.

photo from Wikipedia

photo from Wikipedia

Or, in fitting with my day just floated, a land enough apart for a tree to grow.

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Barred or Welcome?

“One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix Nebulosa (now Strix Varia)) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I was standing within a rod of him…and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings of unsuspected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them.” Thoreau, Walden, “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors.

An hour or so into some trail time on a little mountain, I was reminding myself to pay attention as I stepped amid the glacial gifts of angled rock. Running, like much of life, is all about being where you are, even as it seems to aim at “getting there,” and so, on a good day with a good mind, the ten-foot puzzle before you is all you see. And that kind of focus can spawn rhythm that is pure pleasure.

I’d reach such a state, and it had been amplified by the occasional laughing call of a pileated woodpecker, a top-5 bird in my thin book, when motion on the front periphery of vision startled me. My head lifted to the sight of wings – broad wings – and, predictably in my jostled state, I caught a toe. It took a few steps to settle the enterprise that is me in motion and regain balance; then, I looked up: the wings hadn’t gone far, and they resolved in a large brownish bird perched on a limb a dozen feet above and ahead. The bird had his back turned to me; I was being shunned.

Then, in that eerie way some birds can, this one rotated his head 180 degrees, and suddenly, I felt seen. We locked eyes and I thought, “ah, that’s why there was no sound as he rose from the ground – OWL!

Barred Owl. Photo from http://birdgenie.com/project/barred-owl/.

Barred Owl. Photo from http://birdgenie.com/project/barred-owl/.

At first, we simply stared at each other. I felt compelled not to look away; he was not shy or shying. As the moment settled into the stillness of wonder, he kept on looking, and I began measuring – somewhere over a foot in length; rounded head (no tufts), thick body – and I noted his coloring aloud to fix it in my mind – middle-to-light brown stripes, slightly-dirty white.

I wondered if, in his fixed gaze, he was doing the same: whitish hair (what there is of it), a little short for his species, curious, and (what’s this?) given to talking to birds. He’s calling me Mr. Owl, and I am Ms. to begin with, and he’s going on about meeting me; well, the few who do come here do seem different from those I watch while I soar out at dusk to look for dinner. He seems harmless.

After a while, the reel that is time caught on it sprockets and the day jerked into motion again. I had to reach the end of my trail-puzzle and move on, and the owl, as the sun slipped down, had rodents on his mind. I began searching for rhythm in the rocks, and Ms. O swiveled her head that 180 degrees and looked forward into the forest. We all moved on.

Postrun: a bird-ID-search easily turned up a Barred Owl as match for my meeting, and I read a little family history, noting that, when followed over time, most Barred Owls stayed within 6 miles of their original sightings. So it’s likely I’d been in the house of Ms. Owl, a visitor there. Welcome or not was hard to tell, but the wonder was easy to feel.

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