The Turning in the Path
Recently, I took a walk on my neighbor’s land. It was a quintessential early April day, the sun and wind vying for dominance. In the shelter of the tree line, the sun convinced me to lower my hood. I raised it shortly after when a bend in the path put me squarely in the teeth of the wind. I’ve taken this walk hundreds of times over the past 16 years, but this time everything felt both comfortably familiar and disquietingly strange.
The first time I ventured through the Allen’s field and into this lovely wooded area, it was late summer. The foliage was lush; the underbrush a tangle of faded greens turning to gold. The air was rich with the smell of the sun-warmed pine boughs piled here and there along the path. The woods were beautiful, but not wild. These acres were well tended, the low branches of the conifers cut off to allow light to reach the young maples growing in their shelter. The paths were mowed and there was evidence of trees having been culled and cut up.
Not only was I trespassing in this beautiful place, but I had lost track of my young dog who was busy investigating these new surroundings without benefit of a leash. I called the dog and soon heard movement through the trees. He bounded out followed closely by a good-looking fellow in a plaid shirt. He introduced himself and told me the dog found him in the raspberry canes where he was picking a quart to take to his mother in St. J. He held out a green paper box filled to overflowing with ripe red berries.
I apologized for trespassing and for my unleashed dog. I said we’d moved here in early spring and I was exploring and happened upon the path that led me to this lovely place. Bob Wright, for that was his name, was welcoming and showed no annoyance that I was making free with his private property. This meeting was to be one of many chance encounters during the years that followed.
Often on our walks, I’d happen upon Mr. Wright wielding his chain saw or driving his tractor, engaged in pruning or cutting up blow downs or hauling logs to the shed that housed his wood-burning furnace. He’d shut down his machine, push his cap further up his forehead, and settle in for a neighborly chat. I learned he drove truck for Cabot, had lived in Alaska for several years, and had built the large white house on the far side of his acreage. Unlike many Vermonters, Bob liked winter and worked outside all season long. The frozen ground gave him access to land that was too wet the rest of the year. A barn jacket, hat, and gloves provided ample protection against the elements, and the cold kept the ticks at bay. To Bob’s way of thinking, anything above 70 degrees was a heat wave.
Bob possessed a courtly manner. He was friendly, but not familiar, interested but not nosy. We talked about the weather, the land, the work he was engaged in at the time. He sympathized with me the day we put our old dog down. Perhaps it was our shared New England reserve, but in all the conversations we had over the years, Bob and I never called one another by our given names. As he was my senior and the landowner, I was most comfortable calling him Mr. Wright and, though he knew my name, I don’t remember his ever using it to address me.
On this walk in early April, there was no sound of tractor or chain saw. Only the wind and the innocent song of the chickadees. And though I could feel his presence, there was no sign of my neighbor’s brown jacket and boyish smile. Mr. Wright was gone. In early February he’d been crushed by a tree he was felling in the lower property. He’d cut down countless trees in his life — felled them with care and precision — but when this particular tree went down it took Bob Wright with it.
I didn’t know Bob socially. We’d never dined together or shared a dance at the Canadian Club or American Legion, never visited one another’s homes. But I know his land intimately. I’ve studied the tiny blooms of the moss in spring, the way the fern carpet the woods where the deer shelter, the special pine tree that I claimed as my own; the one with the J curve in its trunk. Bob Wright will always inhabit these acres he husbanded so carefully. Always be just around the next turning in the path.