It’s taken a pandemic and its attendant isolation to make a lot of us realize that we’re social animals. I’m not suggesting that this comes as a shock. Only that most of us consider ourselves independent thinkers and actors, some of us even loners, rather than happy members of a herd.
Clearly we’re not wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti by the millions. Or a flock of geese. Or a school of fish. But maybe we resemble our fellow creatures more closely than we care to admit.
In the “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” category who knew that a friend’s laughter, a shared beer, a caring smile, even a chance encounter on the street, let alone touching and hugging were so important?
That might explain the pleasure I took in running into several neighbors in the woods last weekend. Was it last weekend? I’m pretty good about being able to summon the day of the week. But recently I was surprised to wake up on a Wednesday morning and discover it was actually Thursday. That’s never happened to me before. Apparently it’s easier than you think if you don’t have the benefit of things like appointments, meetings and dates to help delineate the days.
I wasn’t totally surprised to run into our friends. I saw their car parked alongside the road where a path leads into our woods. I use “our” woods conditionally, sparingly, self-consciously. The notion that anyone owns trees and hills and the streams that cross them seems ridiculous. What right do I have to claim possession over oaks and maples that existed a hundred years before I was born and will a hundred years after I die any more than I do the deer, bears, bobcats, owls, raccoons and chipmunks that also prowl those woods?
I prefer to think of myself as that discreet patch of nature’s caretaker for a brief moment and hope I perform my responsibilities in a way that does no harm. Of course, I’m being somewhat disingenuous. If I ran across a stranger in the woods my first reaction might be alarm. So I’m obviously more parochial and possessive than I want to admit.
But I recognized the car and knew the owners so it didn’t come as a surprise when our dog Wallie and I found our friend Sheldon sitting on a bench on a ridge bordered by a stand of hemlocks overlooking a modest vista. My son-in-law Malcolm and I had installed the heavy bench the previous week, driving it a decent distance into the woods with the assistance of his aging Land Rover. I was happy to see Sheldon taking advantage of it.
He explained that he was awaiting the return of his wife Martha and our friends Fred and Allison. They’d gone to take a look at our huge tree. There I go again using the word “our” even though I feel on fairly safe ground claiming ownership of the cedar bench where Sheldon was resting; bought and paid for from a neighbor who makes them.
The tree is a massive sycamore. Probably several hundred years old it’s sheltered by a high hill and fed by a swamp. Four adults, arms fully extended, barely manage to stretch around its circumference. And it appears absurdly healthy with several hundred more good years left to go.
The tree tourists returned extolling its virtues and we got into a spirited socially distanced conversation about birds. Turns out that both Alison and Fred are reasonably serious birders. The way you can tell is that they involuntarily interrupt whatever they’re doing to identify a passing bird.
“Phoebe,” Fred noted. He was referring to a small grayish bird easily recognized not just by its acrobatic ability to catch insects in midair but also by the way it frequently flicks its tail when perching on a branch waiting for its next meal to fly by.
It’s always fun to run into friends. Even more so in a lovely embracing setting. It almost felt as if we were figures in one of those 17th century Dutch landscape paintings where people and cows encounter each other on tree-shaded country lanes. But our meeting felt all the more precious and healing coming in the midst of a crisis where your survival may well depend on being alone or in a small circle of certifiably post-quarantine family members.
We talked for about fifteen minutes, then carved a wide circle around each other and went our separate ways. Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to shelter in nature it’s hard to find a suitable substitute for the spontaneity of simple human contact.
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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