Friday, September 28, 2012

Soliloquy in Gray

“I wish I could have known whatever it was that he said.”

By Patrick J. Walsh

I recently encountered a squirrel who was sitting in the middle of a paved road, posed like some garden statuary, intently gnawing on a small nut.

Known by the scientific name Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray squirrel is less formally known as the ‘common’ gray squirrel. And the little creatures are quite common indeed in this part of the world, and in the park where I walk each day.

In these suburbs, it is not at all unusual to see and hear a lot of squirrels. They dart across the paved roads, and the sounds of their bounding tracks in the dry leaves make the nearby woods seem alive with constant movement.

At their most graceful, they leap from branch to branch overhead, experiencing the brightness of the sunlight in a far more direct fashion than those of us who make our way beneath the canopy of leafy trees.

Squirrelly worries

And sometimes, apparently, they worry about things. Or at least they seem to worry, if the particular squirrel I met on the road is reasonably representative of his species.

photo © Patrick J. Walsh
I recently encountered a squirrel who was sitting in the
middle of a paved road, posed like some garden statuary...
At first glance, he made something of a comic appearance. The white of his underbelly was marked by a series of brownish spots, as though he had been messy with past meals. He seemed well concentrated on his dinner, and he made no move to flee even as I advanced fairly close to him.

His only initial reaction to my curious glance was to bleat nervously in that squeaky, odd, up and down staccato that characterizes a particular sub-genre of squirrel communication.

Have you ever heard squirrels “speak”? They make a sound like a squeak toy — those rubber playthings that dogs chase and retrieve and chew on until they grow bored with the game, or tired of the noise. For a squirrel, the squeak is an important component of a multi-faceted approach to signaling alarm or allure.

In addition to a variety of vocal calls and messages, squirrels also communicate by the way they position themselves and by the manner in which they move their tails.

Squeak and Weave

Watching the brown-spotted squirrel from a short distance, listening to his nervous, plaintive inhaled-exhaled squeaking, I wondered for an instant if he might be hurt. Distracted by my interest, he sat very still, holding the nut tight against the messy, speckled white fur of his chest. He continued to make the worried-sounding squeak the whole while.

Then, as I started past, he ducked slightly and leaned sharply to the right, away from the direction from which I had just approached. His quick weave was something akin to a child’s mimicry of a boxer maneuvering in a prize fight ring. It was difficult not to see some humor in the frantic motion, or to feel some relief at the obvious proof that the little creature was not injured.

He quickly darted off toward a nearby tree, still clutching the nut, skittering away quickly as squirrels do, in their squirrelly way.

As I moved on, I thought of his squeaky soliloquy, and I wished that I could have known whatever it was that he had said.

© Patrick J. Walsh

The Walk in the Park series:
• The Hawk

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Greeting of Flowers

“...these delicate flowers evoke that youthful fascination with 
tiny things, and the broad spectacles it inspired...”

By Patrick J. Walsh

Flowers along the edge of the pond, orange and bright and fascinating, skitter in the plush breeze of the late afternoon. With their pear-shaped petals gathered tightly at the tips of green stems, they wave an elfin greeting, beckoning me backward in time.

Careful investigation reveals tiny spots of red on the little orange flowers, and the markings, along with the coloring and other characteristics, reveal the vibrant plants to be Jewelweed.

Precious Gem
Legend has it that Jewelweed came by its name as the result of its appearance under water, where a sort of optical illusion caused by the sudden displacement of air bubbles clinging to the surface of the flower causes the bright orange Jewelweed to appear silver, like a precious gem.

photo © Patrick J. Walsh
Careful investigation reveals the 
vibrant plants to be Jewelweed.

As I stand and watch the gently waving stalks, and kneel alongside the water’s edge to better appreciate the lovely green and gold in its delicate array around a large stone, I am content to follow the feeling the flowers inspire. For this moment, it is enough to know that they are wildflowers of brilliant orange and sprightly green, and that they grow regardless of the name and class and character we assign to them.

Resplendent in their youthful green and adolescent orange, the flowers along the edge of the pond wave their shy greeting as the sun moves imperceptibly across the soft blue sky.

Today this spray of flowers at the water’s edge recalls in me the countless easy hours when I played as a youth in some small patch of sand.

Summer Days
In those long days of summer, amid a bare spot of sand and its surrounding fringe of grass, I projected a lifetime’s worth of wide-eyed adventures on the imagined occupants of tiny replica automobiles.

On this warm afternoon, these delicate flowers evoke that youthful fascination with tiny things, and the broad spectacles it inspired in the imagination of a well-loved child.

And in me, today, the splashes of winsome green and glorious orange, moved to wave slightly on the light meandering breeze of the afternoon, recall again the fascinations of youth, and the possibilities of the larger world...

© Patrick J. Walsh

[Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay, “Flowers at the Water’s Edge,” which is part of my “Walk in the Park” series.]

The Walk in the Park series:
• The Hawk

Friday, September 14, 2012

Trails in the Woods (excerpt)

“What wise use we make of all that we take, 
and mindful of whatever we leave behind...”

By Patrick J. Walsh

In the park where I walk each day, there are some 22 miles of officially recognized trails. Originally cut into what was then a far denser tract of woodland by the young workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the trail system has evolved into a complex network of interconnected paths that is populated daily by hikers and bicyclists.

Beyond the marked trails, there are also uncounted byways where individual visitors have wandered, trailing a butterfly, getting a closer look at a tree or shrub, or perhaps making headway toward some new spot that seemed to hold the promise of some different sort of happening.

Democracy of the Woods
Because they are built up and kept clear largely as the unintended side effect of visitors’ desire to explore beyond the well maintained, officially sanctioned trailways, the rough trails represent a sort of democracy of the woods. Individual trails are created by the passage of individuals and left unencumbered for the free use of others, and each path continues to exist in direct proportion to the degree to which others choose to make use of it.

photo © Patrick J. Walsh
...we are the curators of the environments we encounter... 
on trails clearly marked, or barely discerned.

Encountering these trails in the woods, I am struck by the disturbance they've etched into the ground.

Leaves fallen long before, and having long rested on the woodland floor, are barely recognizable in the flaky dust left by the force of ponderous footfalls. Green shoots of weeds are bent in haphazard disarray, and the thin prickly arms of wild raspberry shoots are twisted away from the edges of the rough path cut through the undergrowth.

Here and there, a plastic bottle, a snack food wrapper, an aluminum can litters the scrub between the shaded interior of the wooded area and the point of entry that opens into the park proper.

For Good or Ill, an Impact
And I am confronted with the simple truth that we make an impact — for good or for ill, with wanton disregard or careful attention to necessity —  wherever we walk.

While the very nature of human life requires that we enter the forest, and sail the sea, and explore in the air and beyond, we are the curators of the environments we encounter. What wise use we make of all that we take, and how mindful we are of whatever we leave behind, speaks as much of ourselves as it does of the progress we make, while we wander, on trails clearly marked, or barely discerned.

© Patrick J. Walsh

[Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay, “The Democracy of Trails in the Woods,” which is part of my “Walk in the Park” series.]

The Walk in the Park series:
The Men
• The Hawk

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Walk in the Park: The Men

"...they gather careful and quiet around the open grill, 
meticulously ensuring that no flame goes unminded..."

By Patrick J. Walsh

Many families happily occupy the park during the seasons of warm weather and bright light. On weekends there are small groups gathered at picnic tables, the elder and middle aged members of the family engaged in conversation, the younger adults trailing along after the littlest ones, who prefer to play on the swings or the slide, or to toss a ball, or to simply run around.

Sometimes there are volleyball nets and loosely formed teams playing for fun; and on occasion there are goals delineated by plastic trash cans or bright orange traffic cones, and small groups of friends kicking a soccer ball.

In the late Spring and throughout the long days of summer, it is not uncommon to see a decorative tablecloth fixed to the surface of one of the wooden tables with the string end of a group of lighter-than-air balloons, together proclaiming the celebration of a birthday or similar milestone event.

photo © Patrick J. Walsh
They populate silent prayers in the chill wind...
Family Gatherings

And all around these human manifestations of family life, there are other gatherings. At about the same time each year that the first cake and presents appear in the picnic area, the first goslings totter out onto the open grass near the pond. Bedecked in the grayish yellow down that softens the first few months of their existence, the tiny geese present a comic living tableau of life in the bird world. Their dark beaks seemingly too big for their tiny heads, their webbed feet seeming only loosely attached at the end of their spindly legs, they follow along as the adult members of the family excavate the edge of the pond for food, or move into the water itself.

In the woods nearby, meanwhile, there are hollows in the earth where rabbits raise their young. The tiny ones just begun on their journey into the world, not yet grown into their cartoonish oversized ears, depend on the keen curious explorations of their parents to provide sustenance and to protect them from danger.

There are families everywhere in the park: the fox with her kits, the gray flash of squirrels scurrying across the leaves in the woods; the spawn of fish and frogs in and around the water, the inexhaustible supply of buzzing, humming, droning insects in all corners. And above, in the branches, nests are alive with the heedless haranguing of twittering baby birds, hungry to be fed.

Throughout the seasons, the family life of the park is augmented by a carnivalesque array of other individuals and groups. There are small gatherings of youngsters hanging out at the edge of the parking lot, couples strolling hand-in-hand along the road, cyclists of astounding athleticism making their way through the trails in the woods, and the occasional hiker dreamily walking along from one area to the next, seeming lost in his thoughts.

The Men

And there are the men. There are not many of them; they gather in small numbers, often huddled together as though to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. In summer they are nearly invisible, collecting in the remotest parts of the park. They are there early, and late. Sometimes there is some marker of their day’s work, in a shopping cart half-filled with cans destined for redemption for the small amount of change they will bring. Sometimes there is the smoky aroma of fish frying on one of the open grills that are a fixture throughout the wide picnic area.

The men are there, even when they are not physically in the park. They populate silent prayers in the chill wind of wintry afternoons, giving rise to thoughts of the admonition of Moses (in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy) about how ‘the poor will be always with you’:

“For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”

Silently, from afar, the men haunt the mirror images of the families who gather for the brief happy celebrations of summer. In the first warm days of Spring, they return, thinner, grayer, even more ill-defined in character and form, having been faded by the worst days and nights of winter.

And as the Fall approaches, they gather careful and quiet around the open grill, meticulously ensuring that no flame goes unminded amid the treasure of richly colored Autumn leaves, brittle and dry, that are spread randomly across the hardened ground.

© Patrick J. Walsh

The Walk in the Park series: