Friday, November 30, 2012


“Where there once was solidity to every step, 
there is suddenly a mysterious uncertainty…”

By Patrick J. Walsh

As I wander my usual way through the paths and paved roads of the park near my home, wondering at the struggles of others, I have new appreciation for the majesty and mechanics of even the briefest walk in the park.

So much goes into the simple act of walking. There is the coordination of mind and body, the movement of muscle and bone, the transfer of weight from limb to limb, and overall the delicate play of balance on the carriage — all meshed in the movement of each step, and in one step after another, cascading into the joyous mystery of motion.

© Patrick J. Walsh

They walk with me as I choose my steps; and I am 
more attentive to the best of all that is around me...

And my walk in turn gives rise to so many mysteries whose shape and structure are discernible only in relation to the orientation of my movements.

A rough texture, for example, cool to the touch: with the crunch of brittle leaves beneath my boots, it is likely the bark of a tree; with pavement beneath me, it is more likely the ragged edge of a stone at the side of the road, or gravel; on the grass close by the pond, the rough grasp of reeds that adorn the sodden expanse of the marshland.

Lately my time in the park has been interspersed with time spent in the company of those who, as the result of injury or illness, must cope with frailties that make it difficult to walk freely and easily.

For them, the process of placing one’s steps is an often treacherous exercise in limiting the yaw of each forward motion, from hip to foot, across the entire breadth of every stride. In such a state, a stroll along the uneven paths I ply from time to time in the woods around the park would be a vestibular nightmare.

In that context, a walk in the park would be anything but that which is implied by the colloquialism to which it lends its name.

Subject to the mercurial betrayal of balance on the merest whim of the landscape, or in reaction to the unanticipated distraction of animal or bird or aqua fauna, the diminished  control over one’s movement must seem an enigma beyond easy reckoning.

Where there once was solidity to every step, there is suddenly a mysterious uncertainty; where there was previously ease of movement, there is a heavy sensation of strangeness…

As I walk in the park, I am normally unaware of the mechanics of my own locomotion. Fascinated with the environment around me or taken up with some encounter of one sort or another with the creatures or setting of the place, I move along my way without thinking of the gift of ease of motion.

Even when I trek upward along some sloping trail in the woods, I am aware more of the effect that the grade has on the experience of whatever it is that I am seeing and hearing, rather than the degree of difficulty involved in the journey.

But today, I wonder at the struggles of others. They walk with me as I choose my steps; and I am more attentive to the best of all that is around me, that I might share it all with those who cannot experience it first-hand.

Maybe, in that effort, there is some miracle of transference that might make their difficulties less burdensome, and maybe set their sights on walks in realms more mystic than mysterious.

© Patrick J. Walsh


Friday, November 23, 2012


“The park is as quiet as the bare trees, even as the 
busy suburb that surrounds it hums a frantic symphony...”

By Patrick J. Walsh

Walking in the park on Thanksgiving, there is much for which I am thankful.

I search the sky for an appropriate place to direct my gratitude. The impatient Moon is already treading its path in the fading daylight.

There are those who walk with me in this life, some who are closest to me now each day and some who have passed from the world but remain with me for every step, and I am grateful for their influence on my life.

Together they have given me all the best instincts I have for doing what is good and what is right. I am blessed with their wisdom every time I do something for the benefit of others.

© Patrick J. Walsh
The impatient Moon is already treading 
its path in the fading daylight.

I look out across the water, its pristine surface still, as though it has been freshly wrung from the clouds. On this chill November afternoon, the pond is bereft of the familiar clatter of geese, and it is quiet in the park.

There is a calm that is a gift of places like this, and it is of that calm that my gratitude for each good thing takes shape. I walk and wonder at all the small good things that people do to make life easier for others, amid all the suffering in the world.

Even several years since I first began to record my encounters with the life of the park, when I first found solace for the sufferings of others in the quiet peace of this place, there is injury and illness and mourning among those who are closest to me.

But I know for every injury and illness, and for each one who mourns, there is love. There are quiet prayers and selfless acts of friendship that make each day more bearable, and I am grateful for every little kindness.

I notice the bare branches cross-hatched black against the darkening blue of the sky. The rough bark of the trees looks cold as a closed door. Somewhere in the colorscape of fallen leaves beyond the treeline, a squirrel rushes from one cache of food to another, heedless of the crashing echo of his movements through the brittle debris of the Fall.

The seasons change. The park is as quiet as the bare trees in November, and remains so throughout the quiet winter, even as the busy suburb that surrounds it hums a frantic symphony of struggle and attainment, growth and decay, sorrow and joy.

Squirrels run around in the leaves beneath the trees, blithely disrupting the quiet of the park in the chill air of the fading afternoon. I chuckle softly at the sound, and I am grateful for the relief of laughter, as it lifts the veil of deep thoughts.

Aware of all that I have been given, and seeing the sky and the water and the trees in a new light, I hear a different sort of music in the sound of the squirrel scurrying through the woods. I am thankful, and as I near the end of my walk today, I am confident that my gratitude has found its place.

© Patrick J. Walsh

Friday, November 16, 2012

Christmas in July… in November

"Scenes emerge from the graying landscape with a sudden breathtaking vividness, only to fade quickly away minutes later, as the daylight dulls and the sky continues to darken."

By Patrick J. Walsh

In the park, it gets dark early now, and the darkness brings an early end to the day.

That small part of the park that has been developed for casual recreational use, carved out of the much larger portion of the 1,538 acres that constitute the total site, is open each day only from eight in the morning to “dusk” — that amorphous shadow hour that moves like the mist through the trees after a storm, as time moves from one season to the next.

In these initial days of the early darkness, there is an unsettling disorientation that disrupts the usual narrative of a walk in the park. Scenes emerge from the graying landscape with a sudden breathtaking vividness, only to fade quickly away minutes later, as the daylight dulls and the sky continues to darken.

© Patrick J. Walsh
Stubbornly holding on to its color, it is a tree out of time...

There is an urgency to my steps. I am thinking forward, anticipating the rapidly approaching Advent season, and the Christmas holiday.

In the sky, the sun is drawing in its light and thinning the warmth of its embrace. I feel the chill of the evening as I make my way along an uneven path in the woods near the side of the road. The ground beneath me is pitted and trenched by the recent rain and snow.

There is a wrenching sadness to the sight of the day’s withdrawal across the horizon, amplified to a nearly unbearable intensity by the heartbreaking beauty of the sight.

The scene is somehow like Christmas in July — oddly askew in this time and place, and yet so familiar and so heartening as to be welcome in even the strangest circumstances.

In the pond, something is stirring in the weeds near the water’s edge. The gangly frame, two thin sticks supporting a puffy ball of feathers, is crowned with another skinny branch that suddenly moves in a half revolution to reveal a long beak and a squeamish eye straining to make out my approaching form in the gathering twilight.

It is the heron, that rare bird, a magnificent sight so seldom encountered when the park is busy with people and their celebrations, when the sunlight stretches into the evening. There is little to distract him now, in the lateness of the day.

With camera in hand, I approach as though I am merely passing by heedless of his presence. I casually begin to snap a series of photos as I wend my way ever so slightly toward him; but he is too smart for my trick. Wary and seeming modestly affronted by my interest, he draws himself up out of the water and glides off toward the opposite side of the lake.

The darkness gathers as the shorter days of winter bring the night early, and as a result of the impact of the annual ritual of setting the clock back an hour to accommodate the shift from Daylight Savings Time to standard time.

As I walk, I am thinking of the time, as the daylight fades.

Standard time first became standard in 1883, as a means of coordinating rail travel. Prior to that time, railroads in various parts of the country utilized different time standards — thus trains in New York, for example, operated on New York time, while the Pennsylvania Railroad calculated the arrival and departure of its trains according to Philadelphia time, which differed from New York time.

As rail travel expanded, the need for a uniform method of setting times for train schedules led to the evolution of standard time and the four North American time zones that are now well established.

In the park, as I walk along the paved road, I am thinking about the ways in which the time and trains of the suburbs translate into the effects of seasons and automobiles in the woods — where the trees pass the seasons like humans pass the hours, and where the plants and animals and birds fend off the effects of human activity, epitomized by the exhaust and heat and noise of the cars passing by on the nearby road.

At one point during my walk, I wander some distance into the woods. In the woodlands’ interior, as I make my way up a formidable grade, there is at the edge of the path a remarkable sight: a small tree still wearing its leaves, resplendent in multiple shades of orange.

Stubbornly holding on to its color long after its taller, tougher neighbors have gone gray, it is a tree out of time, still lingering in Autumn even after the first snow has come and gone.

I want to linger for more than a moment in the company of the colorful little tree, but there is not enough daylight left to loiter in the woods. Even as I make my way back toward the paved road, however, I am smiling at the thought of the bright display of leaves hidden just minutes away from my usual route through the park.

Minutes later, driving slowly toward the exit as I peer out into the gathering darkness over the bright beams of my car’s headlights, I am grateful for the colorful tree and the heron and the last vestige of sunlight on the far horizon — and even for the gloomy twilight whose early arrival so emphatically delineates their essence.

In the first days of the darkness come early, before there is time enough to adjust to the austere discipline of the truncated days of winter, there are still moments left for the appreciation of the transcendent elegance of nature, as she moves heedless of time, from one season to the next.

© Patrick J. Walsh

The Walk in the Park series:
• The Hawk

Friday, November 9, 2012

Another New Winter

“Winter arrives in light airy flakes billowed by the wind, or in thrilling messy clumps of wet snow, trailing out of the sky like wintry fireworks.”

By Patrick J. Walsh

“Mother Nature is weird.”

I’m pretty sure that’s the likely verdict I’d hear if I were to bring up the subject of the changing seasons with my friend who is twelve (soon to be thirteen).

And given the sequence of weather events in this area in recent days, with a frightful hurricane followed by an unexpectedly strong snowstorm, I am inclined to agree.

Like most really smart young people, my friend has a way of reducing very large problems to a series of simple declarative statements.

It’s an ability that I think may well become the basis for a whole new approach to dealing with the interdependent destinies of human beings and the natural world, as the next generation gradually takes the place of those of us who currently ponder those kinds of questions.

© Patrick J. Walsh
I scan the patches of white on the dull gray grass where, 
just a few weeks ago, summer green seemed to be still growing...

 As I took my first look at the trees and fields of the park today, in the wake of yesterday’s first snow of the winter season, I could not help but recall the way the change of seasons felt when I was a child. 

Back then, I took note of every sign of the coming winter: the chill in the evening, the falling leaves, the bare branches, the cold rain, and, finally, the arrival of the first precipitation of the winter — in light airy flakes billowed by the wind, or, like yesterday’s storm, in thrilling messy clumps of wet snow, trailing out of the sky like wintry fireworks.

For most of the years in which I have been around to experience it, the change from Autumn to winter has been remarkably consistent. While it is sometimes punctuated by some horror show of a hurricane, the actual transition from season to season is usually marked by all of the familiar signs.

Which of course makes it all the more fascinating to think about how so many of those who live in this part of the country simply ignore the markers along the way, until nature delivers a deliberate flourish like yesterday’s snowstorm, that we have no choice but to acknowledge.

So I scan the patches of white on the dull gray grass where, just a few weeks ago, summer green seemed to be still growing; and I cast a mournful glance toward the brown leaves that just days ago thrilled the soul with their bright colors. I feel tired, and cold.

In this frame of mind, it is not difficult to imagine the smudges of melting snow, spread across the fields and threaded between the trees, as some careless trail of broken egg shell, loosed upon a landscape not quite ready for the change, in some weird masquerade of birth in reverse.

I shiver, and inwardly complain about the cold and the prospect of long slogs on snowy afternoons and walks cut short by early sunsets, forgetting for the moment the long months of subtle signs that have, as always, brought me to this moment of first encounter with another new winter.

Trudging along the paved road, feeling strangely distant from the knoll just yards away, I am momentarily heedless of the majesty of nature, as it keeps its promise from season to season.

It is only hours later that I finally reconcile myself to the arrival of this new winter. And with that, I cannot help but chuckle at the thought that perhaps Mother Nature isn’t the only one who’s weird, after all.

© Patrick J. Walsh

The Walk in the Park series:
• The Hawk

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Calm After

"...the calm serves as both herald and lamentation, 
from serenity to storm, from tempest to tranquility."

By Patrick J. Walsh

The hurricane has passed. Today, in these suburbs north of New York City, thick layers of clouds hover overhead; but the sporadic bursts of heavy rain are now gone, and the fierce winds that marked the worst behavior of the storm have now been replaced by an uneasy chill.

There are many streetlights not working today in the area where I live. Beyond the entrance road to the park, there is no need for streetlights.

Many homes and many businesses — from delicatessens to doctors’ offices, food stores to pharmacies — are without electricity. It is difficult for people to shop, or conduct business, or do many of the activities that they normally do.

In the park, there is calm — from the bony fingers of branches in the nearby woods to the heavy wooden tables in the picnic area, the content murmur of the stream to the skittering of squirrels through the downed leaves in the grass. The park is at ease, its accustomed dignity intact.

© Patrick J. Walsh
In the park, there is calm...
People are sitting in their dark homes and in their dark stores and offices, using the fading hours of daylight to try to figure out what to do — where to go, or whether or not to try to go anywhere — before the night comes again.

The surface of the pond in the park is smooth and silken, and where there are leaves left on branches, the swatch of color hangs steady, unmoved by the sudden arrival of the cold, still air.

The subways of New York City are clogged with water; the shoreline of coastal New Jersey has been altered, at least temporarily, by the force of the storm. Most of the trains that transport people to and from the city and its surrounding suburbs have not yet returned to normal operation.

In the suburbs, downed trees block roads, downed electric wires threaten pedestrians, and every light breeze brings a shudder, as people try to move past the inconvenience and stress and hazard of the hurricane that is now gone from this area.

In the park, there are trees that are split and trees that are twisted and trees that are missing branches; but these are all from other storms. The park has weathered other storms, and has largely avoided the worst effects of this one.

Set aside as an intersecting point between the natural world that was here long before and the suburbs that are even now swaddled in the ribbons of their truculent infancy, the park absorbs the thrashings of the weather with the same serenity it employs to cope with the daily exploits of its human visitors.

It is cool in the park today. I feel cold as I walk. But it is a freshening feeling, sober in the reflection it inspires about the devastation of which nature is capable in its darker moods, and yet hopeful for what it implies about the resiliency of the calm that serves as both herald and lamentation, from serenity to storm, from tempest to tranquility.