The Silence of the Wrens

The dog and I are essentially indifferent to each other, an engagement which suits us both. Still, a walk is a walk, and as I set out toward the wood line the dog rouses itself and follows a bit behind. It has nothing better to do. Later it runs ahead. I make no claim on the dog’s time nor it on mine, and am content for it to do as it pleases.

The walk itself follows a mile or so of well-kept trails that wend around my father’s property in Michigan. They aren’t trodden often enough to be dirt, but the old man careens around them from time to time on his riding mower, keeping the local grasses neatly cropped and the main trails clear. There are other trails too, ones that I’ve learned through two decades of visiting, that aren’t so neatly kept, but still discernible if you know where to look. The indifferent dog and I know how.

I proceed in a roughly counter-clockwise loop, and the first leg leads by my father’s meditation hut. He built it a few years back, and I installed a durable tile floor which seems to have stood the test of time. As we approach, a deer breaks off to my left and goes galumphing away with a ridiculous crashing of branches. It occurs to me that an animal, biologically selected over millions of years to evade predation, might be expected to show a bit more grace, but that’s where I’m not an evolutionary biologist. The incompetent deer stops a couple hundred feet away and peers back at me, ears like satellite dishes tuned in my direction. The dog and I are not interested. We continue.

The forest is deciduous and dense. I don’t know many of the trees. The literary thing would be to name a few of the species, making me sound woodsy and soulful. But that’s where I’m not a botanist (or woodsy, or soulful). I know that there are maples because people talk about them, and I think there’s probably something like a birch. But they’re very tall, and very lovely, and they give shade. The sunlight that makes it through is green and does dapply sorts of things. I think about walking meditation, which I’ve been taught how to do, and acknowledge that that’s not what I’m doing. I’m okay with that.

From the hut the trail rises up a small, gentle hill (in family lore this is known as the Mountain), at the top of which is a bench. My stepmom’s mother passed away last year, this was her property and she was very fond of this particular place. The family brought her ashes up here, and there’s a small stone marker. I can see the appeal. I suppose it was a pleasant spot from which to survey her domain. There’s no particular view of the domain, but then again she couldn’t see. This strikes me as the sort of graceful symmetry that the universe doesn’t serve up often enough.  Wasps, on the other hand, have lately nested under the bench. This strikes me as being typical of the universe, and I move on.

I notice that I have lost the indifferent dog. I hadn’t noticed its departure.

The path curves gracefully through a long loop, and I detour at an obscure junction. Around a squat pine, a secondary path curves off to the south. It isn’t really a path so much as a slightly different pattern of undergrowth, spotted with ferns. This path is mostly in my mind, a function of ancestral memory. It leads through a sparser section of conifers, and terminates at a disused orchard. Now the story, likely apocryphal, is that years ago someone tried to plant Christmas trees here, but mistakes were made and the wrong species was chosen (a mixup between Norway pine and Norway spruce is plausible). In any case the result was an orchard full of towering, 60-foot pine trees suggesting nothing whatever of yuletide. No one did anything with the trees (what would you do?), and the orchard is a remarkable and ghostly place – long, perfectly straight rows of tall, perfectly straight trees, swaying gently in the perpetual breeze. The color palette changes here from rich green to grays and browns, the thick carpet of pine needles underfoot working with limited light to keep growth to a minimum. It’s a blend of spooky and peaceful, and it’s the first place that my sons always want to come when we visit.

The orchard is also, technically, part of another property, though this has never been much of an issue. Still, today I opt to walk east along its periphery, following an old access road long given over to nature. Down the end of this is, I know, a small sandy depression, bordered by a dune, which often has a bit of murky pond at the bottom. Now that’s an odd place, having felt a little funny to me when I’d been there before. I thought to check it out again and test that impression, but this proves difficult, the path being more and more heavily overgrown as I approach. The final stretch passed through a break in the trees (thus the growth), and I start to get hot in the sun. Some sort of energetic fly, attracted to my sweat, starts to belabor the area just behind my ear. Realizing that the mystery of murky hollow isn’t going to be accessed without traversing a couple hundred yards of sunny tick habitat, with the full attention of my new insect admirers, I surrender and turn back.

The final loop winds down through shrubs and past my father’s grape vines, and by the time I return I’m officially too warm, but feeling good. At the boundary of the forest is a bird house with a removable top, in which some wrens are nesting with babies. The fate of the babies is a preoccupation around the house. They’re doing fine, to my eyes, but it seems that mommy and daddy wren spend a lot of time away from the nest, and everyone gets anxious about this. It all just sounds like modern parenting to me, but that’s where I’m not an ornithologist. Still, as I approach I can see adult birds coming and going, and I hear a shrill, abrasive squawking from inside that I assume is a sign of life. I’m encouraged.

Inside, my youngest is dancing to videos, my oldest is designing ships on my computer, and there’s homemade wine for later. I towel off, get cool, and observe the indifferent dog napping on a sofa.

And in this manner I, even I, once in a very great while and probably not often enough, take vacation.



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