I entered the woods in a falling snow. The enveloping darkness of the Maudslay pine forest said “medieval,” though we had crossed the boundary into the third millennium.
The agricultural history of both man and that specific site were apparent in a line of old, no-longer-functional, fence posts. Rusty levers and latches marked the site of what was once a gate. A gate to where?
A pasture, I assumed, for I was indeed traversing the rolling knolls of a former farm. I followed a pathway, worn into the side of the slope. By what? Horse-drawn wagons? The feet of a dairy herd? More modern gas-powered equipment? Strands of broken barbed wire poked up through the snow, twisted through the brush, occasionally swung between fence posts. The function of the wire was no longer needed, though its past work was still apparent in the existence of the pathway. Old habits had lingered on beyond the factors that forced them. While no longer restricted by wire, the path still followed the old way.
Trees, both large and small, covered the hillsides, testimonials to the relentlessness of nature in reclaiming pastureland. Yet, while the forest is eternal, each tree is time-limited. Large trunks, the victims of age or storms or both, had fallen randomly onto the floor of the forest. A few hung suspended in the arms of still-living neighbors. Every now and then a heroic trunk still stood, its limbs long having succumbed to death, decay and gravity. I imagined homes for owls in the recesses of the decayed interiors, the access through the ringed openings of old limbs. Those survivors, too, would fall, but not yet, not yet.
Nature’s work was not finished, nor would it ever be. The elements would be reclaimed into the continuous cycle, fodder for the next generation of the species, as well as sustenance for the intermediate species of insect, worm and bacteria that would do the work of decomposing.
Seed cones littered the pathway in nature’s Darwinian plan – scattering the many that a few would survive. Most would fall to inhospitable futures – to be crushed by heels, carted off by squirrels, out-competed for nutrients or cast upon barren ground. Still, some would find fertile soil, would germinate and sprout. The forest would continue – until cleared by man or fire. Even then, it would relentlessly return.
The silence of the woods took me back through the ages, though the sounds of distant power nailers jarred me back to the present. Man continued to build with the products of the forest.
I crossed paths with a fellow hiker and an ancient black Labrador retriever, her muzzle white with age, yet her spirit still playful. I was reminded of my old golden, put to sleep previously due to the ravages of time. How many times had we walked these woods? How many miles? A man and his domesticated animal drawn back to nature. I felt his spirit in these woods. I missed him.
My path took me across a little wooden farm bridge. A brook meandered through the trees, following gravity on the age-old trek to the sea. It wound around gentle variations in topography, took a double hairpin turn under the bridge, then turned out of sight into the woods. The flowing water kept the surface open, even in the cold of winter, though ice crystals formed along the edges. The water tumbled over dams of fallen brush and accumulated leaves, swung around banks anchored in place by the roots of trees, undercut the earth on the far side of each turn and then re-emerged to continue on its way.
Not that day, but on others, I had surprised little herds of deer, slaking their thirsts in the cold, clear water. Their crashing exits alerted me, seconds too late, to their presence, just as my footsteps in the dry leaves had forewarned them of mine.
As I exited the woods and entered an open pasture, a mixture of gentle sleet and snow struck my face and worked its way down the collar of my coat. Out of the woods, I was again exposed. I was back in civilization and light.
Meanwhile, behind me, the snow continued to accumulate, erasing the record of my passage, though that one snowfall would not erase the history of an old farm path. Given time, the grander forces of nature could do so, but man would most likely interrupt the process.
It would take nature longer to undo man’s work, but nature has more time.
I was but a momentary passenger in the grand journey through the ages, my walk but a moment in my own life. The moment was both insignificant in time, yet vital to who I am. I was regenerated by this passage, drawing sustenance from the forest, filling a niche in space and time. I felt alive.
Why was that?
Whether into the woods or out to sea, man is called by the wild. We seek the exhilaration of facing the elements, yet, at the end of the day, we have an anticipation of heading for home.
Stuart Deane is a Newburyport resident.