I had planned to sit down tonight and write about all the great things you see when you walk, as opposed to taking a car or even a bike. Then I followed a link from The Happiness Project to The Adventures of ALS Boy blog and was reminded of the very best thing about walking.
It feels so good.
About 10 or 15 minutes into a walk, something clicks and instead of feeling various aches or fighting the thought that what I'd really rather be doing is reading on my back porch, I feel like a well oiled machine. I'm a well oiled machine, convinced I could walk forever without tiring (a feeling I have often regretted when it has worn off and I'm miles from home). At that moment I feel strong, capable and amazed at how well all the parts of my body work together to make this action possible. Is it flow? Endorphins? I don't know, but it's invigorating and keeps me coming back for more.
Thank you Jason Picetti (a.k.a. ALS Boy) for reminding me how much I have to be grateful for. His entertaining and beautiful post can be found here.
Driving away from Whipple Hill a massive pterodactyl-like form flew out of the trees and disappeared into the woods on the other side of the road. In the suburban northeast, you don't encounter many large, wild animals, which makes the sight of a heron in flight all the more special. When I'm lucky enough to see one, I typically stop and stare with the sort of grin that ought to be reserved for seeing reindeer fly.
I had a feeling I might know where that heron was coming from, so I decided to make a little detour before heading home.
McClennen Park on Summer St. in Arlington, MA is a great example of government listening to the needs of a community while still retaining natural spaces. A couple years ago it underwent a major face-lift and since then, it has been a selling tool for developers in the area.
I have to admit that up until this summer, I only knew the park for what can be seen from the road: a fenced baseball diamond, a skate park (really) and a colorful, jungle gym structure guaranteed to make little ones desperate to get at it. But a few weeks ago a friend invited me to go walking with her there, and I got to see a whole different side.
At the center of the park is a massive, grassy hill. It rises up from the surrounding field at an improbable angle. It has the same look as those hills that are built on top of landfills. Considering it's located in the middle of a residential area, I'm sure that's not the case, but that is what it looks like. That hill is the reason that McClennen Park feels like two separate parks. A paved walkway starts near the parking lot by the jungle gym, goes around the base of the mystery hill and disappears into a shady lane lined by milkweed, queen anne's lace, and raspberry bushes.
As a kid I can remember using the brown, end of season milkweed pods in countless Sunday School projects. A couple remain intact after all this time, tiny winter diaramas that leave a trail of glitter as they travel from a storage box to the Christmas tree each year. Milkweed pods also played a major role in elementary school earth science. Our school was near a marsh, so in the fall our teachers would bring us out for a walk and let us pluck the downy insides and toss them (seeds in tow) into the wind. For the rest of the day we'd pick bits of feathery white from each others' sweaters and hair.
But this year, is the first time I've seen milkweed before it takes on its papery brown autumn skin. The pods remind me of fuzzy spring lambs. The underside of the leaves have a similar fuzzy texture, on a much smaller scale.
Getting back to the trail. It's a simple loop, with the occasional offshoot connecting to a residential street. It's a park designed to be used by the people around it, just as parks should be. The back side of the hill is a sea of wildflowers, a haven for butterflies that completely blocks your view of the man made portions of the park. There are trees filled with robins and even the occasional oriole. Benches are placed along the path, so you can sit and watch the creatures who are drawn to the pond nestled in this side of the park. It's all a wonderful surprise, a hidden gem you'd never expect based on what you can see from the road.
In the late afternoon walkers abound, but at daybreak, I had it all to myself. Well, aside from the heron fishing for breakfast, the reclusive duck family and the chorus of frog that is. I captured the sounds of the morning in a short video.
I know the quality on the video is pretty poor; it was shot with my digital camera, but it does capture the music of the morning well. Here's a better shot of the heron.
As I watched, the heron stealthfully stretched out its neck, pointed its need-like beak toward the water and rested in that strained position for an impossibly long time. I tried not to blink out of fear I'd miss the heron's strike. Fortunately it was morning and the bird was hungry, so I had the chance to watch him repeat the performance over and over. Step forward, stretch, point, hold, hold, hold, strike! Come up with a tiny fish wriggling in its beak. A shake of the head and a visible swallow and the fish was gone. After each fish, the heron decorously took a sip of water - to wash it down I suppose.
The heron appeared utterly uninterested in my presence, even when I jumped to avoid stepping in dog poo. I suppose the heron is used to having an audience in such a central watering hole. It's not at all like the elusive White Heron in Sarah Orne Jewett's short story of the same name. In the story a shy young girl befriends an ornithologist and then has to decide whether or not to show him the heron he seeks to add to his collection. My description doesn't do the story justice. You can read the story online or listen to it through the Craftlit podcast. Sarah Orne Jewett lived just over the border in Maine, and I always consider her short story collection The Country of the Pointed Firs, the epitome of what summer in New England is about, even if the stories are set over 100 years ago.
As I finished the loop around the park, I saw a couple juvenile red-winged blackbirds teetering on the top of cattails and answering the calls of a nearby adult. These are some of my favorite birds. I know a lot of people associate robins with spring, but plenty of robins decide to stay put and weather the winter. The cry of the red-winged blackbird however, is a sure sign of spring. A Canadian friend told me that in Nova Scotia the red-winged blackbird is a bit like that forecasting groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. When these birds arrive locals know there's just one more snowfall before spring.
Heading back to the parking lot I saw a dog park of sorts. Three or four people stood companionably around home plate as their dogs ran free inside the fenced baseball area. I like the idea of dogs much more than the reality and I become really annoyed by people who ignore leash laws, but the sight of a golden running at full tilt to catch the ball its owner had thrown, was beautiful. As I watched the dogs romp, an older woman shuffled up the path with two miniature dogs pulling her along. Once inside the fence, the tiniest of the dogs ran right up to a huge furry beast with hair over its eyes and started a conversation. In seconds the two were playfully chasing each other. I heard their happy barks all the way back to my car. I smiled at the thought of this little scene being played out day after day, before most people are even up. McClennen Park is well used, and I mean that in every sense.
Today I crossed an item off the list, one that I've been thinking about for ages, and as is so often the case, it was so easy I don't know why I didn't do it earlier.
Sunday is typically the one day each week that I don't wake to the sound of my alarm, but today I was actually awake before it went off at 4:45 a.m. The world was much lighter than I'd expected. Had the sun already risen? I'd gone to sleep the night before imagining making my way up the trail to Lexington's highest point by flashlight, and shivering in the darkness until the first rays reached out over the horizon. The dusty blue reality of predawn light and temps in the high 70s did not fit my expectations at all.
With one eye on the sky and the other taking in the phenomenon of Main Street without a single car in sight, I hurried over to Whipple Hill Conservation Area. Along the way I had one of those "if a tree falls in the forest" moments and wondered if traffic laws still applied when you're the only person on the streets. Feeling a little foolish, I dutifully stopped at the red light and waited for it to turn.
The trails of Whipple Hill are popular with dog walkers, so as I made my way up the short ascent, I half expected an off-leash dog to come bounding out of the semi darkness and knock me over. Happily, the only sounds I heard were the wind in the leaves and a few drowsy birds.
When I got to the highest point, just 374 feet above sea level, expectations were trumped by reality again. The last time I'd been to Whipple Hill was in the spring. Back then, it had been possible to make out the sky scrapers of Boston. Now the height of summer, the trees had filled in and blocked a lot of the view from the
Fortunately, by retracing my steps a little way, I was able to find a
view out to the horizon.
At 5:28 a.m. a faint glimmer of something bright flickered on the horizon. It was so thin that I thought my eyes might be fooling me; a picture provided a second opinion.
That tiny glimmer was the actual sun. As I watched it grow on the horizon I had for probably the first time in my life, a sense of the Earth as a moving object. That moment brought life to countless diagrams in musty science text books. Instead of knowing in a cerebral way that it was true, I felt it! From that moment, I was tempted to keep my finger on the shutter button so I wouldn't miss a thing. Even the birds stopped to take notice of the rising sun. For a short while, the birds and I were the only living things in creation, and this show was just for us.
How is it possible I sleep through this every day? Even as the thought formed in my mind, I knew that my alarm would be back to its regular time the next day, but for now I would soak in every bit of it.
I sat down to watch the sun's glow stretch over the landscape and enjoy some breakfast. I'd brought cold water and Zucchini Carrot bread, my variation on a recipe I found through the Simply Recipes blog. It's an incredibly easy recipe, it freezes well, and unlike many fruit breads, a slice holds its shape well enough that it can easily be eaten on the go. I like to walk first thing in the morning, so I'm always on the lookout for healthy breakfast options I can take with me. In my version I add three or four grated carrots and decrease the butter
to 1/2 a cup (the recipe makes two loaves).
As the sun rose, the number of birds singing did too. I heard a Mourning Dove low and far away, the baby-like chirps of a Nuthatch and everywhere the animated chatter of Chickadees (checkout the links to hear examples of their calls). Soon all the trees around my little clearing were filled with Chickadees, bobbing from branch to branch, landing for just a moment then on the move again.
Standing on my parents' dresser to see the Chickadees at the backyard feeder is one of my earliest memories. My brother has always sworn that he trained Chickadees to eat from his hand when he was around 11. Being the younger sibling, and never having seen the trick, I'm highly doubtful. Still, I often wonder when I see a Chickadee sitting just out of reach, if he might be telling the truth.
Today, the tables were turned and the Chickadees' antics lead me to an early crop of wild blueberries. I'm not a fruit fan, but I love wild berries. The ones in stores are always too plump and too mushy (otherwise known by fruit lovers as "juicy"). Wild berries on the other hand are small with one sweet splash of juice snuggled inside their sun-warmed flesh. Of course, the thrill of finding edible food in the woods and snacking on it like a frontiersman, is one of the best garnishes there is.
Just be sure the berries are high enough or far enough back from the trail that they are unlikely to have been "watered" by passing dogs.
With a hand full of berry perfection, and plenty of sun shine to light my way, I started down the path to the tiny parking lot. I'll be back to see the sun rise again, in the autumn when the leaves have fallen. Of course a winter visit has the advantage of happening much later in the morning. I think I see a new tradition starting.