Monday, July 17, 2017

A Walk at Dusk in Summer

Photo courtesy of Amio Cajander/Flickr

Lately, after we get the girls to bed, I've been taking the dog out for long walks. It's really the only sensible time of day to be outside doing anything mid-July in Virginia. At dusk, the air is still thick and woolen, but the sun is sinking down and there's usually a breeze.

Snacks expects it now. After I've sung "Blackbird" to the last kid and closed the last bedroom door, I'll find him sprawled on our bed. As soon as I reach for my Chucks he leaps off the bed and clamors downstairs, whining at the front door.

He'll drag me down the sidewalk past the first few driveways before settling into a more reasonable pace– still yanking the leash, but not toppling me in the process. He's better than he was years ago when a random dog trainer stopped me on a walk to give me his business card. Older, a bit slower now. 

I find myself shaking off the day like the horses at the farm used to do when we'd let them out of their stalls after a long time being cooped up. Their skin would twitch, straw and dust flaking off as they trotted into the pasture, sniffing the air before settling to graze. I can feel the annoying bits of the day– Lily's impatience, Jovie's whining, my own irritability– chipping off. These long summer days can make our little ecosystem especially sensitive to the moods of one another. 

By the time I reach the magic tree down the block and around the corner (the one with all the wind chimes and hanging flower baskets), I can breathe evenly. Sometimes I'll listen to the latest interview on "On Being" though I also like to just listen to what's around me. There are always a few birds trilling and whirring cicadas. I listen for the local crows– there's a large group of them (OK fine ... a murder of crows... but I don't think they deserve such violence)– that hangs out in the tall trees in the neighborhood next door. At dusk they're always calling to each other, flying over in packs of four or five. An odd straggler cawing from the way back from time to time. I like to think they're keeping an eye on the proceedings below and reporting the days happenings to each other, like nosy grandma's on porch swings.

I use the walks for meditation, sort of. I focus on my breathing. Being in this moment. I catalog all the sights, sounds and smells. The gaggle of middle schoolers shouting hello to anyone they pass– daring for a response. The nearly naked gardener out mowing his lawn (no, this is not a Desperate Housewives-worthy hot lawn boy sort of situation. This man should not be gardening shirtless). The high school boys talking about God and girls down by the stream. The lazy blinking of fireflies. The light lemony tang of the mimosa's fuchsia blossoms– the girls and I call them troll flowers. The sweet scent of the honeysuckle that's draped over young trees in the woods. 

I just finished reading "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohllebon and so the park near my house has become sort of a laboratory where I test my new found knowledge about trees. I try to spot things mentioned in the book. Honeysuckle vines strangling young trees for instance. Bracket fungus climbing up the side of an old, slowly rotting tree. Trees of the same species that are grouped together looking out for each other– ceding space in the canopy so that everyone gets enough sunlight and communicating with one another through a series of fungal networks below the ground (that part I can't see obviously, but I think about it as I'm walking by. I wonder what they communicate to each other about these humans and their dogs constantly stopping to pee on their trunks). I've always loved trees and now I feel like I know just a little more about what's knowable of them (they live for hundreds, if not thousands of years– just not enough time for us to fully understand them, really. Though I think Tolkien was on to something with his Ents). 

Wohllebon writes that a beech tree will produce 1.8 million beechnuts in its lifetime. Of all of those seeds the mother tree produces, just one will develop into a full-grown tree. The rest will be eaten by animals or attacked by fungus or bacteria. I think about this as I'm walking. How we've pretty much won the lottery each time we see a mature tree. How lucky we are to all be balanced on the head of this pin spinning at the edge of a knife– humans, dogs, trees, crows and the rest.

The dog has become a bit more selective about our routes for the evening walk recently. I like to make a big loop– through our neighborhood down the tree-covered trail, then back to our street cutting through the next community over. But we haven't been making it that far. The other night it was the rubber-band twang of a toad in the stream that got him worried. He refused to go any further, so we turned around. A couple times we've reached a dark section and he'll stop in his track and spin to point the direction we just came. He can't be urged forward. I follow his lead, telling myself he's probably just looking after me when I really think he's kind of a pansy about the whole venture. What type of dog is afraid of the dark? 

There were reports that a bear was spotted crossing a road not far from here. Maybe it's the bear he smells. I consider what I might do if faced with a bear in the woods. Would Snacks fight valiantly to protect me? If he ran away or was incapacitated by said bear, what would I do? Generally, I think of myself as more of a "curl up in a tiny ball and hope for the best" sort of person rather than the "punch bear in the face" person. But who knows who I'd turn into with a little adrenaline? Probably "Pick up terrified dog and run like hell" person. 

My mom texted a picture of a mother bear and two cubs, spotted on the driveway of their home in Colorado the other day. We're visiting in a couple weeks, so I've had lots of reason to ponder these bear scenarios. 

Tonight, we made it down the steep hill to the creek when Snacks got spooked and wanted to turn around. I grumped at him, but we trudged back up the hill. We were nearing the entrance to our neighborhood again when he stopped in his tracks, sniffing the bushes just off the path. Something caught his attention. Probably a squirrel or a chipmunk I figured. "Come on buddy," I urged. "Let's go." But he started growling, his ears perked up. I looked down the path behind us, there was a red fox. She regarded us, and I regarded her. She didn't hurry off, just stared. Snacks seemed to feel pretty confident he could take down a fox. He had size on the fox, but I'm certain not the street smarts or cunning. He barked and tugged at the leash.

I thought about an essay by E.B. White I'd read earlier today. He writes about his attempts to kill a fox who'd carried off one of his chickens. 

"One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy. The fox is mine. He wants to destroy my form of society– a society of free geese, of Bantams unconfined. So I react in the natural way, building up my defenses, improving my weapons and my aim, spending more and more time on the problem of supremacy. ... When I realize what a vast amount of time the world would have for useful and sensible tasks if each country could take its mind off 'the enemy' I am appalled. I shot a fox last fall– a long, lucky shot with a .22 as he drank at the pond. It was cold murder. All he wanted at that moment was a drink of water, but the list of his crimes against me was a long one, and so I shot him dead, and he fell backward and sank into the mud.The war between me and the fox is as senseless as all wars. There is no way to rationalize it. The fox is not even the biggest and meanest killer here– I hold that distinction myself. I think nothing of sending half a dozen broilers to the guillotine. Come June, heads will be rolling behind my barn."

I pulled Snacks away telling him that this was the foxes place, not ours and that he wasn't going to bother us. We went our way, and she went hers.

Further down the path, I ran into Jovie's swim coach out with her brother walking the family dog, Snickers. "Our dog's under quarantine right now, so they can't meet each other," she tells me as I tug Snacks back from her little mop-headed dog. 

"Oh no! What happened?" I ask.

"He got attacked by a fox."

So that was a bit unsettling. While I'd been trying to figure out evasive maneuvers for bears, my fox playbook was completely blank. Even having been face-to-face with a fox moments earlier, I hadn't considered what I'd do if the fox toward us instead of slinking away. I still don't think I would've considered it the enemy. Just another critter trying to establish its space in the world. But then I guess that's where enemies are born, right?

I leave my moral quandaries for another day. 

I wrote this poem a few days ago ... so will close with that tonight.

"A Walk at Dusk in Summer"

The dogs too long toe nails click on the pavement
To the rhythm of his panting
Tongue out long and lean.
My own breath, my own soft Converse footsteps on concrete,
These are constant
As we walk down the concrete sidewalk.
The cicadas in the trees rattle
Like thousands of pennies in thousands of tin cans
Crescendoing in and out.
The soloists join in than fade as we pass.
The songbirds tucking the day away.
The lawn mower resting and sputtering–
An old man clearing the phlegm from his throat.
The long roar of a jet engine. 
The dull whir of a car engine.
And faintly, the people on their porches
Or walking by saying hello
Saying the dog is nice.
I don't know what jazz is really.
But I think all this is jazz.
The mellow concert of a neighborhood at dusk.
This is the world's music.
The music we all make together.
Trees, bugs, birds, people
And on and on and on.
Once I hear it, I can't stop listening.
Which is good–
Because the music won't stop anyway.
And anyway, it's glad that I finally heard
My part in it.
While I don't know what jazz is, really
In this place I know being here right now
is instrumental
To the story. To the music. 
To the song we all play,
Whether or not we know it.
But it's time we start knowing it.

P.S. I left on my walk today feeling bummed that I hadn't updated the blog in a couple weeks and that I had no solid inspiration for this week. But as always with stories, they unfold at surprising times. I wrote this in spirit of E.B. White and for the love of prose and poetry. And walking at night. 

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