Before this March the longest uninterrupted stretch of time I spent at our home in Columbia County – dating back to childhood when my grandparents owned the place – was a week or two at a time.
Since the pandemic’s arrival I’ve been here full time. There are things I miss about the city, of course, at least the city as I knew it in February and for the previous decades of my life. The sheer variety of humanity. The visual stimulus of stores selling stuff you didn’t need or couldn’t afford but that made pedestrian life more interesting. The almost infinite choice of restaurants, even if you only patronized a few. An excellent bakery or two. Or three.
What’s replaced it is nature. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in something that full-timers might take for granted: watching the seasons change. Traveling back and forth between the city and country doesn’t mean you’re blind to nature’s progress. Since spring there is several weeks ahead of upstate – three by my unscientific calculation – I got to enjoy it twice.
When the magnolias and cherries were blossoming in Central Park the trees and bushes upstate had barely started to bud. But once they did you got to witness the season all over again.
How is being here for months at a stretch different in terms of one’s perception of nature? It’s subtle. Things certainly feel as if they’ve slowed down. Of course, that may be because many of us have been sheltering in place, working from home, for the last few months. And because the pace of the planet has slowed as counties and countries try to get an edge on the pandemic. One also can’t disregard the subliminal effect on one’s consciousness of not having planes flying overhead at all hours, rushing to far flung destinations, their roar and contrails serving as a metaphor for connectivity, sparking curiosity and longing for what lies over the horizon.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about birdwatching --- I’m not making a comparison between avian and human flight -- is that it doubles as a form of meditation. It gives those of us who feel guilty if we’re not accomplishing something an excuse to simply be. If you go looking for birds chances are you won’t find anything, except for a robin or two, for the first few minutes. That’s because your mind and body need to silence itself and get in synch with nature. It requires that you still your senses. Once you do you start seeing stuff.
Nature’s jealous, demanding our undivided attention before it agrees to reveal its secrets. The longer you’re here the more fully and easily you adopt it cadances. On the other hand, I may just be trying to rationalize a dearth of human contact.
You know you’ve been here a while when turkey crossing your lawn is an event. The most exciting thing that’s happened lately is when a deer, a doe, chased our dog; isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? I thought I was imaging it the first time the two of them ran past me. But the exact same thing happened the next day. I assume the deer was protecting a fawn secreted somewhere close by in the woods. But I don’t know.
She also seemed able to distinguish between me and the dog. When she saw me the first day she pulled up, startled, turned around and walked back into the woods after she’d dispatched the dog. The next day she ignored my presence completely, chasing Wallie halfway back to the house before returning to the forest.
I also like to think our fish and turtles know me. When I’d go swimming in our pond in the past they’d flee in terror. Now they ignore me. A few days ago a snapping turtle, in my experience among the most skittish of creatures in water, swam along beside me.
I’m not suggesting that I’m some Hudson Valley Dr. Doolittle that can talk to the animals. But as someone said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been privileged to witness that doe scaring the daylights out of our dog. Or the turkeys crossing the lawn. Or the abundance of interesting warblers my daughter and I spotted during migratory season. Or the tomatoes growing a little larger each day.
By the way, I understand that snapping turtles are harmless in water as long as you leave them alone.
The most important thing at the moment is to stay safe, healthy and to behave responsiblty to protect the health of others. While nature seems to have served as our foe the last few months, she also feels as if ahe holds the keys to our recovery.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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