A Short Walk in the Woods

Our house abuts acres of conservation land.  Even though we’ve lived here for a few years, I had not ventured into the woods behind our house until earlier this year when I made my first foray into the woods after a snowstorm.  It was a magical experience and it merits a separate post.  I ventured forth again last Sunday, after several months. Its fall now and leaves are changing colors, yellow and red are the dominant colors.  There is no path as such behind my house and I have to walk through some fairly thick growth before I come to a broad trail.  As I enter the trail, I’m greeted by a wooden bench that sits quietly watching the passage of time.

The trail slopes upwards as I walk and on either side of me are tall trees.  I am following an old abandoned ski trail and my lack of fitness shows as my breath quickens when I walk up the slope.  The slope has not been used for decades and now, it forms the bed for transient streams that flow down after a heavy downpour or when the snow melts in spring.  I come to a palatial house where the ski lodge used to be but I move in the other direction.  The trail is not clear here but I walk along, weaving my way through the trees and soon come to a low stone wall.  These stone walls mark the boundaries of old farms. Behind one of the walls, lies a fallen giant, he must have made a resounding crash as he fell.  I wonder if anybody mourned his passing.  I would have been inclined to think not, but apparently, research has shown that trees communicate with each other and diseased trees actually pass on resources to new trees. I’m sure his loss is felt by his companions.   I walk along the wall lost in my thoughts.  I’m looking down trying to make sure that I don’t trip on the roots.  When I stop and look to my right, the ground slopes away, I am standing on a ridge.  The trees grow close to each other here.  I continue walking along the wall and the path now moves downwards.  The trail is marked by small blocks of painted wood that are nailed to the trees.

 
I wish I could say that it is quiet here, but there is a flying club nearby and I can hear the drone of aircraft as they take off and land.  Today is a beautiful sunny day and planes take off and land at regular intervals.  It is much quieter in winter.  However, if I pay attention as I walk, I can hear the varying sounds my footsteps make.  There is a low crunching sound when I walk on gravel.  Grass and pine needles muffle my footsteps, walking on leaves is the nosiest.  As I take each step, there is the initial sound of the leaves being dispersed and then a crunch as I step on the leaves.  I am suddenly startled by the sound of what seems to be an animal in flight.  It is a cyclist on his mountain bike, coming down the trail.  He wishes me good morning, remarks what a wonderful day it is and he carries on, his bicycle bouncing off the roots and fallen branches that criss-cross the trail.
 

My thoughts flit from one topic to another.  I think back to the books that I’ve read that involve the woods.  There is Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the woods”, a narration of his trek on the Appalachian Trail. Enid Blyton’s “Children of the Cherry Tree Farm”,  where a group of city-dwelling children visits their relatives who own a farm.  While there, they befriend a hermit who lives in the woods.  The hermit’s name is Tammylan if I remember correctly and he makes wood carvings of animals and introduces the children to the wildlife in the woods.  I was in 3rd grade when I read the book and it made quite an impression on me.  However, the authors that I really enjoy reading are Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson and Gerald Durrell.

Corbett paints a vivid picture of Garhwal in his books.  The calls of the animals, watering holes where the animals gather during the hot summer days, mango and jackfruit trees and the fragrance of flowers in the air.  Gerald Durrell’s trilogy on Corfu is brilliant. While he does not really talk of dense woods, his escapades involve olive groves.  Kenneth Anderson’s stories were closer to home for me, they involve regions of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.  I am reminded that I’m in the midst of civilization by the drone of aircraft and my cell phone’s signal is pretty strong.  I look beyond into the dense undergrowth and I marvel at Jim Corbett’s courage.  Staying up on a machan (platform) at night in the thick of the jungle, armed with a rifle and a flashlight lying in wait for a man-eating tiger or leopard that terrorized the hamlets over a large swathe of land.  Usually, he would sit upon a kill, the dismembered half-eaten remains of a poor hapless villager who was the victim of a man-eater waiting for the animal to return to the kill at night.  The Halloween ghouls on display in my neighborhood can’t hold a candle to that scene.   I’ve never ventured into the woods after dark, but sitting in my backyard the tall trees look ominous and foreboding at night.

The trees ahead catch the rays of the sun and for a brief moment, the leaves look as if they are on fire.  I press on and reach the end of the trail.  I can see the backyards of houses and a few cars on the street beyond them.   I turn back and retrace my steps.  The floor is a colorful sun-dappled mosaic of leaves.  As I come around the bend, I’m startled to see a lady riding a horse.  We chat for a few minutes.  She has lived in the area for a long time and laments the slow, inexorable march of urbanization.  Her horse is very friendly and I gently run my hand along her mane.  Now if I was one of the children of the Cherry Tree farm, I would have offered the horse carrots or sugar cubes.  But I have neither on me.  I take leave and I carry on.  I come up to a junction where three trails meet.  I could take the longer route and add another couple of miles to my walk, but I decide against it.

I spy a rock at the side of the trail and I sit down.  There are no planes overhead, I can hear the steady drumbeat of a woodpecker searching for insects in a tree.  Birds call out from the canopy above.  I can hear the gentle whisper of the wind amongst the trees and it shakes and teases the pale leaves off the branches.  I watch as the leaves lazily float down, carried hither and thither by the breeze and as they land gently I can actually hear them make contact with the ground.  Nat King Cole’s “Autumn Leaves” comes to mind.   A twig cracks and as I look yonder, a chipmunk scurries away.  The sunlight glints off an acorn.  It is pretty tranquil here. If I was blessed with the acute observational powers of Corbett or Anderson, I would have picked several clues from where I’m sitting and seen a world that is in plain sight, yet hidden to my untrained eye.  I’ve rested enough and I resume my walk up the trail again.

I met a couple of people today, there have been times when I’ve walked these woods for a couple of hours without meeting anybody.  There are deer in these woods, coyotes too and a host of other animals but I never see them.  They probably hear me long before they see me.  I see deer, racoons and foxes in our yard when they wander over in search of food.  I am heading down the ski slope and am back on the wide trail.  I come across the bench.  I’ve passed it a few times in the past but never sat on it.  It was probably somebody’s Eagle Scout project and to honor the effort that went into it, I sit down on the bench for some time. The trail was once a carriage road in the 18th century, it must have seen its share of horse-drawn carriages.  Today though, it is lost to only but a few skiers, hikers and the occasional horse rider.   It’s time for me to return home though and I resume my walk.  Once home, I lean on the treadmill as I take my shoes off in my garage and shake off some pine needles that are stuck to my shirt.  The treadmill is my friend when it rains, the woods are fine any other time.

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