Where is your Walden?

Thoreau believed that we all have our solitary places; places we go to in order to escape a world that closes in on us; a place neither physical nor geographical, but instead mental – a state of mind that exists within all of us and which offers the chance to think and to listen.

Thoreau called his place “Walden” and I’m wondering about what name I might give to my solitary place. Where is it that I take myself to be away from the here and now? Would it be a place like this sand trail through the Pine Barrens? Is that solitary place more about being very present in the moment and separate from memory and its weight? What view in my mind’s eye quiets the thoughts and endless questions from an overactive mind?

There is a place that I feel peace and safety apart from the world, but I don’t know that it’s one that I can photograph. It’s part blue sky and loneliness, the music of water and birdsong, the dazzle of sun and the whisper of wind, and the question of what lies ahead, just around the bend and out of view.

Saturday’s rewards

There’s this sort of game I play with myself so that I can get things done that I don’t really want to do. Most weekends it’s cleaning the house and doing the grocery shopping. Today it was a visit to the dentist and grading mid-term exams that were on the *don’t really want to do* list. So in an attempt to balance out the negative emotions involved in those two activities, I spent a few hours after the dentist wandering around a state park that I don’t often visit.

It’s a very urban park, but with a nice mix of habitats – a sample of the more southern pine barrens forest with lots of pitch pine and a dense stand of Atlantic white cedar, plus the upland hardwood forest with beech, black birch, red and white oak and old growth white pine. There’s also a fairly large bit of salt marsh and a freshwater marsh that I can admire from the Garden State Parkway at 70 mph as it passes through the park.

The trails were very wet; that was the only tangible sign of spring that I found today. No spring azures, no fiddleheads, no skunk cabbage or hint of buds on the mountain laurel or swamp azalea. It’s supposed to be very easy to find pink lady’s slippers here and trailing arbutus, but I’ll have to go back later to find those beauties when spring isn’t just in my imagination.

I came home to the stack of mid-terms happy to have had a few hours out, but disappointed that I hadn’t found more to put me in mind of the coming season. Maybe it’s just as well that I don’t catch spring fever quite so soon. There’s still six more weeks of students and papers for me to contend with.

Focusing (or not)

There are certain things I like to do each day to make me feel as if it’s been worth the effort of dragging myself out of bed. I’m not a morning person and other than that delicious cup of coffee first thing, there isn’t much to lure me from the warm covers. The workday is something to be gotten through, unfortunately, and mostly I look forward to my time in the evenings. I stay up too late trying to fit in all the things that make a day worthwhile to me. When the weather and increased daylight allow it, I’m outside for as many hours as possible. Weekends and other days off from work are filled with as many postive and fun things as I can manage. I go to bed early and contented on the weekends.

I’ve often thought that I’d be happiest in a job that allowed me spend most of the workday outdoors. This realization only really came to me after I finished two degrees, both of which confine my days to a desk or a classroom. Before deciding to start my master’s so that I could teach and have the summers off, I used to daydream about a job picking vegetables. Or delivering mail. Anything to avoid sitting at a desk all day surrounded by people and their negativity. And office politics. I taught full-time for a few years and enjoyed summers free of any responsibility but to my own joy. I then decided to teach just part-time and took courses in horticulture and volunteered with a few favorite environmental organizations. I took a second part-time job with the park system as a naturalist. I learned to play the tin whistle, although not well.

Then other stuff came along and I had to go back to full-time work because, while I was having plenty of fun, I wasn’t making enough money at any of it. Being a grown-up stinks. So now I have the full-time job and all the drudgery that entails, plus I teach part-time, and still volunteer for a few groups. I’ve had to let the tin whistle fall by the wayside. I wasn’t making very much progress with it anyway, plus it scared the bunnies. My point (I think) is that all of our lives are very full and that’s a good thing. At least, for me it is. I’m not really focused in my interests and I’m as likely to pick up something new as I am to let something go when I find that it’s not working for me. Must be the Gemini in me.

One constant in my life and something that keeps me focused is nature and a love of the outdoors. Everyday I try to find some little bit of time to spend there. I look to it for optimism and strength. I look to it for the beauty that is so often lacking in other aspects of daily life.

Five beautiful things that I’ve spotted recently are:

  • 9 deer browsing in the woods where I like to walk the dog. I’ve never seen deer there, and was happy to see 5 of them with antlers proudly raised to watch me as I passed by.
  • Snowdrops blooming in a neighbor’s hillside garden, amid ice-covered branches that fell in the recent icestorm.
  • The endless shades of brown in a field of corn stubble, weeds, and winter trees.
  • Sandy Hook Bay is mostly frozen; if I focus on the near distance instead of the houses and naval base on the far shore, I can imagine that I’m looking at glaciers in the Arctic. Some seals would add to that effect.
  • The crows who have been warily visiting my feeders this week, snatching up peanuts and stale bagels. They never seem as beautiful as they do in the stark days of winter.

A multitude of small delights constitute happiness. -Charles Baudelaire