The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.
It’s become a bit of a cliché that people don’t look up enough; they don’t take the time to gaze up at the clouds, the stars, the echelons (you know, that V pattern!) of migratory birds.
But what about looking down? My recent early morning walks have yielded foot-level sightings of rabbit families, colonies of funnel web spiders, a scurrying vole, entire condo complexes of ants, and a visit with a stunningly decorated moth in the center of the brick sidewalk. The pattern she boasted was reminiscent of some of the fine, filigreed, turn-of-the-last-century marcasite you can find at estate jewelry counters. My Golden Guide told me she was a caterpillarworm moth. They are known to lay their eggs near wounds in tree bark. My find, if she is lucky, will live three or four years. I think I increased her odds by removing her from the flow of foot traffic.
Of course, my casual observations don’t hold a candle to those devoted to looking down, probably at the risk of getting stuck in a stooped position. EO Wilson, Pulitzer prize winner known to many as “the ant man”, can’t stop waxing enthusiastic about his favored species and his newer, inspired project, the Encyclopedia of Life. In The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell spent a year observing all manner of tiny life in a meter-wide mandala. And a chapter in Alexandra Horowitz’ On Looking is devoted to “Flipping Things Over”, in which field naturalist Charley Eiseman is a vigilant and enthused observer of insect (and other small creature) signs—tiny larval trails in a leaf, slug teeth marks, and such. This is the kind of guy who spends five hours in a driveway turning over leafs and logs before setting out on the “official” invertebrate tour he’s planned.
Those of us of a certain age, especially, will hear Casey Kasem’s voice in our heads when we read the quotation: “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”It’s a phrase associated with American Top 40, but I think it’s okay to adopt it for much quieter time outside in nature, too. There’s a lot to see curbside, right alongside your sneakered feet.
I haven’t made it up or down the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails yet, just short arms of the former and books about the latter. Cheryl Strayed can take the credit for making the PCT wildly famous with Wild, but before that I enjoyed A Blistered Kind of Love, about a couple who made the same journey—a true test of togetherness that’s definitely something to crow about. Before that, of course, there was Bill Bryson, with his A Walk in the Woods on the Appalachian. And then there are the ancient trails across the sea. Joyce Rupp told the tale of her pilgrimage walk along the Camino de Santiago with a quiet and strong voice in Walk in a Relaxed Manner. The list goes on ad infinitum.
It’s not clear anymore where I first read about trail magic–the trail in my mind is littered with books. But the author who introduced me to the magic so joyfully and vividly described stumbling on a cache of cold beer in a stream that I wanted some. And I hate beer.
Lucky for me, trail magic isn’t limited to just suds. The term is most often used to describe a small gift left behind by a fellow wayfarer, someone who knew you’d come along and appreciate the gesture amid the requisite sweat, blisters, and bug bites of a long journey on foot. But it can also simply indicate an unexpected joy on the path.
I almost missed my own trail magic today. I only had 20 minutes between summer camp drop-off and my work commute to walk around the bend of Cedar Lake in Chester, but I was quickly rewarded with the honor of depositing a wayward baby turtle back up onto the lakeside grass. Not long after that an unusually large (extended?) family of geese made a little parade across the street and down the bank. I walked by a slightly derelict French farmhouse-type house for sale, full of fantasy about the writing retreats I could host there, complete with forays to the water. Finally, I visited a unique gravestone at the tiny West End cemetery, painstakingly encrusted with colored stones. I waded through the damp grass and spoke to the soul honored there, reminding her that she must have been very much loved–and such a spot those who loved her chose! Across the lake from the grave, summer camp was in full swing with hoots of happy children and bustling counselors. Trail magic, just from rounding the bend. Imagine what could happen with a whole coast!
The best days are those that allow a long, thoughtful ramble in the warm summer air, but real life doesn’t always allow for such physical and mental perambulations. Today, I am settling for mostly “armchair” naturalist excursions—I grabbed what nature books I could stuff into my work bag, knowing I’d have a little interval between errands to flip through them.
Try this some time–pick up 3 random books on a subject you love and see if you can not find something in each that delights. For me, the first pick was a Golden Guide, not much bigger than my outstretched hand, to Butterflies and Moths. How many years have I been using the term “inchworm”–during my own childhood and later during countless forays into nature with children I taught or babysat, and eventually including my own child? Only today did I learn the more formal term: it is “geometer”—translating to “earth measurer”. And what knower of inchworms and lover of discovery couldn’t cherish the specifics of these descriptions: “UNADORNED CARPET is commonly seen in the larval stage in nests of wild cherry leaves…CURRANT SPANWORM is a pest of currant and gooseberry.” Who could begrudge these earth measurers their fine, colorful, and fruity choices, even if they do turn out to be pests to the farmer and gardener?
I chuckled at the silliness and synchronicity that greeted me when I randomly flipped the next book open: The top of page 51 in The Outer Lands, a natural history guide to local New York and lower New England coasts, told me that “Worms Can Be Beautiful” when “viewed without prejudice,” further flattering the reader by adding “they are only lowly when compared to the readers of this book, but their bodies and behavior are admirably adapted to the tidal world in which they live.” The author extols the iridescence of the clam worm, the castings of the lugworm, and the parchment worm’s homey residential tube. Would that I had a shovel and another hour and I’d be out on a nearby beach in Old Lyme, worming.
It was the comic book version that finally got me to read, at least in some approximate way, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This was the third and final book I got to peruse over coffee, and was a fitting followup to all of the gushing over the marvelousness of worms. I’ve never understood why some feel that a belief in evolution must negate a belief in God–couldn’t a higher power have caused it all to happen? I’m no expert on Darwin or creationism, but phrases like these lead me to think that Darwin had faith in something more than the increasingly upright ape (in the comic book, these words fall below colorful depictions of skeletons alongside full-fleshed animals–the scaffolds and the engineered marvels they support):
Can we wonder then, that Nature’s productions should be far ‘truer’ in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?