When was the last time you took a nature walk? Traded your city sandals for Tevas and stepped out for a small stroll with mama nature? Dropping 40 bucks to scale artificial rock walls at Brooklyn Boulders doesn’t count. This is not an indoors endurance test of you, ridiculous in harness and climbing shoes, chalk on your hands and face. This is a lakeside walk beside the Boathouse in Prospect Park, or a day trip to Bear Mountain, or a tour around a town reservoir in Westchester. Just so long as there’s a hint of green and an absence of Hatzolah Volunteer Ambulances. At the end of the day, the worst injury you sustain: a blister or a bug bite.
As a New Yorker you are already a walker: to the bank, the barber, the bodega, the bakery, the cobbler, the hardware store, the tailor, the pharmacy, the spice shop, the scented oil shop, the school, the subway, and Junior’s 99cents store (You gotta love Junior’s. You just can’t discount the emotional fix provided by a new palm leaf pattern plastic tablecloth). Life decisions in Kensington are determined by alternate side parking regulations. You don’t surrender your spot without damn good reason. Instead you walk. If there’s a haul involved, you take the shopping cart. Walking is purposeful, destination-driven and you always return home trawling a full net: dry cleaning, jugs of milk, and whiny first-graders.
So surely you can appreciate the treat it was for me to spend an afternoon over spring break with my sons and their cousin blazing a small section of the Appalachian trail without purpose or packages. Just three little boys and me, venturing forth through a cowfield in Vernon, New Jersey.
Volunteers improve our lives in so many ways. For one thing, they maintain miles of boardwalk over wetlands on this historic trail snaking from Maine to Georgia. The boys picked walking sticks and we were on our way. It was a mild day. A mallard couple drifted among the cattails. A bullfrog sat in the muck, under the boardwalk, unblinking, no matter how many spitballs we leaned over the planks and hurled his way. Nature’s palette in early April favors washes of greys and taupe. Soon the forsythia and mountain laurel would leaf out in gold and purple, but that afternoon only the dull evergreen of native cedars broke up the browns.
With boys threatening to outgrow me by year’s end, frequent snack stops were required. Leaning against a white birch, munching peeled eggs with crazy salt, I noticed my first flower. It was unremarkable. Pale, low-lying, easy to miss. Maybe a distant relative to an Easter lily? I bent down. No scent. Couldn’t be an Easter lily. Didn’t smell like a funeral home.
At the next snack stop, as the boys picked out what they liked from the trail mix: peanuts, sunflower seeds, chocolate covered raisins, I noticed my second flower. This one also, low to the ground, a small lavender star with a yellow stamen. A far cry from those showy staples of spring: daffodils and Dutch tulips. Then I noticed another, and another. All puny and pastel, but together they whispered: winter is over, beauty is underfoot.
Back in Brooklyn now, as my feet return to their duty-driven paths, the forest flowers bloom anew. Their delicacy and soft-spoken promise of renewal tremble in my mind’s eye as I stop at the fruit stand and inspect the underside of a carton of cut-rate strawberries. Mushy. I’ll pass. I bump into our old mailman whose route was changed. He smiles widely and asks after my senior poodle, who always gave him a hard time. It occurs to me that forest flowers may take human form.
Returning home with a crate of mangoes, a little girl clacks down the block in her big sister’s high-heeled slippers. She is so pretty in her awkwardness… her pointy elbows, pointy slippers, like the points of a star flower. As I turn into my dooryard, my neighbor, who speaks about six words of English, smiles at me and tilts her head in that special way. Later, I catch my child alone, admiring his chess trophies. The mailman, the little girl, my neighbor, my son. They cheer me. You have to look for them, the forest flowers in your day, but they are there, on your dark as well as your bright days. Every single day. Get low to the ground. Pay attention.
Before me peaceful,
Behind me peaceful,
Under me peaceful,
Over me peaceful,
All around me peaceful…
from The Family of Man, a favorite 1960s coffee table book, 503 pictures from 68 countries, created by Edward Steichen for MOMA, with a prologue by Carl Sandburg. Check it out.