“The Slow Walker” Has Time to See Nature

The truth is that few hikes offer what you could honestly call an adventure. The dangers and challenges that you overcome as you clamber up rocks or snowshoe down hillsides are ones that you and countless others have handled many times before, enlivening but hardly life changing and certainly not worth a book. Book readers want death-inviting mishaps on Mount Everest. But almost every hike has moments of special awareness when you find yourself soaking up sensory impressions as if the natural world seems twice as alive, twice as beautiful, and twice as mysterious. It may be the way an oak tree shakes violently in a breeze as if trying to free itself with a sneeze. Or the still red hatchet on the crest of a pileated woodpecker’s head as he grips the side of a tree for the war about to be declared. At those moments you know that you’d rather be nowhere else in the world. It’s amazing that the familiar can feel so fresh again. Yet the moment always slips away. You find yourself back at your car, digging your keys out of your pocket. Soon the cell phone will have messages, the radio will update the news, the demands of life will invade the clarity you tried to carry out on the trail. You think you should make a record of that special moment so as to preserve it. Perhaps write in a journal or try a poem. But you don’t. At least I never do.

Adventure-wise, not much happens in The Slow Walker. Dan North, the author, seems to like to lie down a lot, even on winter days, but he’s entitled, being in his later seventies. But his book is a treasure trove for those of us who appreciate those special moments but haven’t recorded our own. In dozens of distilled three-hundred word essays he has sought to express those ineffable feelings through the four seasons. Here’s an example from a December day near Mount Beacon.

River of Clouds

Fierce December winds have pruned the oaks leaving a scatter of dead branches littering the forest floor like shed antlers. In the treetops, fresh wounds left by the departing limbs gleam white like roosting egrets. Grainy remnants of yesterday’s light snow lie on the ground cupped in curled pockets of dead leaves. A freezing rain has passed, blown on by brisk winds from the southwest. I emerge from the woods onto an open hilltop and lie on my back on a rock ledge. The sky is a battleground of changing weather. Wispy low gray clouds whisk by. Above them, patches of white move at a more stately pace. Here and there areas of blue show through, then are overwhelmed by a stately river of clouds moving toward the northeast. The sun makes no personal appearance, but its reflection on partially illuminated white clouds resembles the dull orange on the underside of firelit smoke. The layered colors and shapes flow by at varying speeds, but all are contained to the north by the ridge of Beacon Mountain and to the south by the hilltop I’m lying on. I hear chickadees, bluejays and a far-off pileated woodpecker. I can’t see them, but I picture them swimming through the air past treetops that sway like aquatic weeds.

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I’m partial to this book because Dan North’s stomping grounds include Hudson Highlands, the terrain I got to know well on day hikes in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I lived in Hoboken and Manhattan. North, a retired newspaperman and former labor magazine editor, still lives in Jersey City, which serves as a home base for trips out to the rolling farmlands of northern New Jersey for bike rides or up to the trails in Fahnestock State Park or other Hudson Highlands locations. Now that I live in the Catskills I suspect that the intensity of my nature reactions has slackened because I no longer experience the great contrasts between city and country that I did when my day in the mountains began at Grand Central Station. We grow dulled to our everyday surroundings. North still has the eyes of a pilgrim. Here’s a second piece which describes one of the great wonders of winter, the forest after an ice storm.

A Distant Shining City

A freezing rain two nights ago coated the trees at the higher elevations with ice. It’s a still gray day, and I walk a gradually ascending wood road into a cross-hatched filigree of dull silver. Below, the bare trees are ice-free. They have the vertical feel of snowy winter woods dominated by up-thrusting black trunks. Here, the feel is more horizontal as ice-drooped twigs and branches spread laterally. At eye level the shrub and sapling branches wear frozen stalactites up to an inch long. Each represents an interrupted water flow to be resumed when sunshine rewinds moisture’s stopped clock. I sit in a forest opening listening to the “dee-dee-dee” of chickadees and the furry cluck of nuthatches. How long can these little tree gleaners go without access to their food source? In the brooding stillness, I imagine the wild tinkling if a wind were to blow up. Or the dazzle if the sun broke through. A red-bellied woodpecker taps. A cylindrical ice casing drops from an overhanging twig. Its fragments on the ground look like transparent cinnamon sticks. Suddenly, a vagrant ray of sunlight bores through the gloom and illuminates a lacy patch of trees far up the hillside. The spot of glitter in these muted woods is electrifying, like a distant shining Camelot beckoning me forward. I imagine swampy moats and snorting dragons, winged horses and omniscient dwarfs, dreamy knights besotted by ruby-naveled princesses. To poets and mystics the extraordinary is part of everyday reality, and here and now it’s not hard to agree. Then clouds return to cover the sun and my turreted, sparkling kingdom vanishes. It becomes one again with the infinite icy patterns that stretch to the gray horizon.

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This book is poetry in prose. Before The Slow Walker appeared this year, North published many of these pieces in the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society’s newsletter. The sales proceeds from the book will now go to the Society’s Marty McGuire Scholarship Fund. Several stores in Beacon and Cold Spring carry the book. To buy a copy from Dan North, send him a $10 check at 128 Sussex Street, Jersey City, NJ 07302.

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