THEY OPENED wide the door in greeting and shivered at the blast of icy air that came in with me. 'The temperature's gone down to 18 degrees," said the wife. "You must be freezing!"
"How can you tell?" chortled the husband. "She'd never feel a thing through all those clothes."
After I'd stripped down to two layers and found my voice, I had to admit he was right. I like to walk. I like to keep warm, Put the two together and I've got more clothes on when I walk outdoors in the country than you could believe possible. Whenever I find a spot where air can seep through, I remember to cover that spot a little more thoroughly the next trip out.
It's getting to be a test of endurance to see if I can walk at all under those layers of clothing to outwit the wind and weather.
It's OK so far bur I'd better not stumble and fall or I'll never be able to get up. I'd roll like a ball, safely insulated against bumps and bruises.
a cross-country hike leaning into the wind and closing your eyes against a stinging cold.
If you're dressed for it, it's an exhilarating experience bound to clear the cobwebs from your mind and the stale air from your lungs.
Taking a winter walk is seldom a spur-of-the-moment thing. You have to plan for it. You have to collect your warm gear through years of experimentation. Nothing is as uncomfortable as a brand-new piece of clothing that is too stiff, too thick, too bundlesome.
Winter walking clothes have to be well-worn, of a certain snugness but never too tight, and if they match in color, you're lucky. You have to have the right kind of boots--not too constricting, yet not so loose you get a blister.
And if you don't keep your mind on what you're doing when you're dressing, you can take up a Jot of time trying to figure Out which goes on first and which last so you come out even-and warm.
Long underwear is an essential. Its value increases as the temperature decreases. My favorite set is that fireman-red thermal underwear that the Atlas company sent me years ago when 1 waxed eloquent about the long underwear of my childhood. It is light and snug and warm and goes on over some nylon thingamajigs. Then the warm red sox-not too thick and not too thin but ju-u-s-st right.
At this point I always want to pull on my ankle hoots, warmly lined and big enough to take the wool socks. But wait! First the black stretch pants with the strap under the instep. THEN the boots.
Now it's time to sit down and rest a moment, having a beaker of orange juice to rev up the engine. Once you stand with the remaining layers, there's no stopping until you're on your way into the outdoors. Otherwise you get tired and hot walking around indoors.
A black nylon pullover shirt-a man's shirt because it's Cut better to fit over that long underwear. A little red scarf to tie around the neck inside the shirt. This catches stray breezes.
Then the warm and long black sweatshirt, the kind that pulls down over the hips and up around the neck. By this time you're beginning to feel like a stuffed sausage but this feeling goes away once you hit a good stride up the lane.
Now for the wool face mask, like the "mitch" my grandmothers used to knit in khaki wool during World War I for the Red Cross. It can cover the nose if the wind is very cutting. The wool neck of the mask is tucked into the neck of the sweatshirt. A little care here is worth a lot when the wind blows. On top the head, J wear-according to the temperature-either a fake-fur cap, or a suede wool-lined cap with car-tabs that pull down and buckle with a strap under the chin.
From this point on, it is necessary to finish quickly or you'll collapse under the weight of the clothing before you can get out of doors. This is no time to be looking around for things. You should have everything laid out in order while you're still running around in your longies.
Over all goes a hip-length, pile-lined corduroy coat with snug knitted wristlets inside the sleeves and a big collar that can be buttoned to stay up if necessary. One pair of long black knitted gloves to be tucked in under the wristlets and another pair of fur-lined black leather driving gloves.
Ready? No, wait. The Kleenex in the outside pocket. And a comb.
When that wool mask comes off, the hair goes into orbit. If the wind's blowing, put on the sun glasses for protection ... and consider investing in some goggles. How about an extra scarf wound about the neck inside the coat to catch errant breezes ...
Now--out the door and into the winter. Don't turn back. The die is cast. Start the feet going, one step at a time. Hit your stride. The going's level for a bit ... the wind takes a cut at your face when you go between the lakes but it doesn't last long ... up and around a slow curve ... then up the hill that gets easier each time you attempt it ... turn your back to the wind at the top, and then down, down and easy does it. There's hot coffee and something fragrant fresh from the oven if you can make it to your friends' house across the Fort Jefferson road ...
"Come in, come in," says the wife, holding the door. "You must be frozen."
"How can you tell?" says the husband. "We don't even know jf it's Marj under all that stuff. Here, you look under the cap and I'll pull at the boots. She's in there someplace ... !"
WALKING IN THE SNOW is exhilarating ... when you're dressed for it. Would you believe it-all those layers of nylon and wool and cotton that I pile on, including boots and goggles, weigh only eight and a half pounds.
To stand around in such an outfit is wearying. To wear any of it for very long indoors is to produce your own steam bath.
But when you're swinging down the lane at a moderate clip--and for me that's two miles an hour!-with the wind curling tufts of snow ahead
of you, then those layers keep you comfy-cozy. You can't get any warmer than that!
Last Sunday when I rolled out the back door, the temperature was about 20 degrees. Zsa Zsa, that turncoat cat, glared disapprovingly from the top of the woodpile. Food and a fireplace nap was that cat's goal which, if I were hiking, was not to be realized. When I went up the road, she was still scowling from her perch on a snow-covered stump.
This was a walking day when people stayed in and all the little animals were out. As usual, the hound who barks at me kept up his staccato warning as long as I was near his property. Then, as usual, the big dog with the shiny black fur, got in stride with me when I got to the bend and accompanied me until something else interested him in another direction.
I always look for cats round Lew Shipman's house. No matter what the weather there's always one of them outside and, in summer, I sit on his top step and pet a couple for a few minutes before walking on. Sunday, the big fluffy orange cat hopped through the snow to greet me. The cat suddenly halted, stared, then turned and ran at top speed away from me.
Now I know my cold weather get-up is enough to make humans stare but I thought cats had more sense. Maybe it was the goggles ... no, the reason was plain an instant later. Another black dog was giving chase, shooting past me with such speed that his feet kicked up the snow behind him.
"Run, cat, run," I yelled-and the cat ran up a tree trunk and perched precariously on a small swaying branch about 20 feet in the air. The dog lost interest and ran on. That beautiful fluffy orange cat, swaying like a bird on a skimpy tree limb high in the air, made a provocative picture. A stranger, coming upon that tableau, would have opened his eyes in great surprise.
On the lane that crosses between two frozen lakes, a peppy little Pekingese interrupted a romp on the ice with his human family to make a lot of stern barks at me to let everybody know he was protecting his loved ones from this goggle-eyed creature.
The ponies in the field at the bottom of the hill-the one with the big white house on top--stood perfectly still and watched me walk by on the other side of the little railroad tracks. With their thick furry coats and sweet faces, they made an outdoor still-life picture. Only their heads kept turning in my direction until I was out of sight.
There was blueberry coffeecake hot from the oven at the end of my walk ... and, shortly after when I continued on to my parents' house, there were giggles from my mother from the minute she laid eyes on me until I left again. All my father said was, "Are you sure you could get up by yourself if you fell down?"
NOW the regular walks through the windy March days take on another coloring ...
For one thing, you have to get rid of the long underwear. Temperatures inching upwards from 40 degrees make winter's comforting close-fitting longies decidedly unnecessary. It won't be long before the winter-weight stretch pants will have to go, too. And who would ever think I'd want to discard that good solid corduroy coat with the quilted lining and the inner cuffs? I would, that's who!
If you are the kind to stick your nose out the door and declare it is too cold to walk, you've never worked up a moist glow swinging down the lane on a crisp Sunday a few days before official spring. I'm glad I decided to wear the lighter-weight boots, the one with the ridged rubber soles to make even walking on gravel comfortable, instead of pulling on the winter boots.
I made my wardrobe decisions based on sticking my nose out the back door, too, but a glance at the thermometer after I'd done my constitutional corroborated my theories about what's too heavy and what's too skimpy for spring walks.
The cap with the ear-tabs is put away already-now it's the Abercrombie golf hat. Two layers of sweaters? No-it's a long-sleeved cotton shirt. Gloves, of course. I can pick up all sorts of things with gloves on -with my bare hands you've never heard a more squeamish character!
Since my walks are in an area northwest of Dayton, I'm still kicking aside wet leaves to look for spring beauties and fingering thin lilac branches with immature green buds-while those of you who live south of Dayton report pussywillows are big gray bursts already and the forsythia looks ready to spray bloom any minute ...
The coming of spring, in this part of the area, is more to be seen in the tractors clearing brush and heard in the intensified talk about new farm machinery. The birds seem to multiply overnight and their songs add a new dimension to the early mornings.
The trees have a hazy outline now-and the new leaves will be showing soon, a week or so after they leaf out south of Dayton.
Walking in this kind of new-washed world is a revelation. March winds tidy up the open places, throwing dead branches down in the road where man has to see them and cart them away. When a dark cloud pushed along by a heavy wind looses a few sprinkles of rain, you know April can't be far behind.
The ducks are happy in the lakes now that the ice has melted. And if you know where to look, you can see bluegills fanning shallow nests in quiet water.
When I walked in cold winter weather, the dogs that live in the park barked at me as I passed their domains. Once, a dog kept pace with me for a shaft time and then darted off on his own pursuits.
Now that it is spring, the dogs have thrown off their winter lethargy.
They not only watch me as I walk, some of them join me. Last Sunday, a big black Labrador ranged alongside me soon after I set alit and, though he wandered here and there sniffing and investigating at his own pace, he stayed pretty close to me. When we met other dogs, they kept their distance.
The collie that chases cars bounced out to join the Labrador and me.
The two dogs circled and circled, always keeping me in the center of the circle and I kept going so the dogs had to widen their circles. We were joined by a small black curly clown of a dog named Missy who sashayed along in high spirits. For a minute or two, I felt like a Pied Piper and wondered if I'd ever shake my little group when I reached my destination. Lady, the white Samoyed, joined in our walk on her side of her fence and while the dogs were chasing low-flying birds, I got through the gate without being followed.
There are many things to see on a spring walk before the flowers and trees start to bloom. Discarded litter is one of the eyesores that even spring cannot camouflage.
I have no accurate figures but it seemed to me that Burger was the most popular empty bottle to be thrown out along the roads.
March 22, 1966
A MAN telephoned a business office and asked to speak to the boss. The boss' secretary was out of the office at that moment, using the copying machine. The girl answering the boss' phone in the absence of the secretary told the caller that the boss was out of town.
"Then may I speak to his secretary?" said the caller.
"Oh, she can't come to the phone now," said the girl. "She's busy reproducing."
WALKING in the country early on a June morning is a lot different from the same walk at the same time in the winter months. People make the difference.
The birds, the little animals, even the trees seem to react differently.
When no one is about, there's a freedom of movement in the air and on the ground that I can feel even if I can't always see it. Once there are humans in the same general area, there's a kind of cautious feeling all around, and I know that I miss many things because I have not yet trained myself to see and hear all there is to enjoy in the natural world.
The park area where I live is filling up now with the summer people, the vacationers, the folks with long weekends ... and with power mowers and parties and tree sawing and home repair noises ... and with youngsters out of school and their motor bikes and their teenage activities which always seem to involve noise of one kind or another.
Where, in winter, I can walk without seeing or hearing a human being, now there are crack-of-dawn fishermen, women in shorts tidying the cottages early before guests arrive, kids and dogs tumbling on the grass out of sheer exuberance, more cars on the narrow lanes, folks homing in on the swimming lake and a general air of carefree activity. Barbecues are rolled outside under the trees ... the lawn furniture is in place ... folks take their breakfast on the screened porches ... snatches of music and canned talk come from nearly every occupied dwelling ...
In winter, a wave from behind a window may be all the human movement I encounter. Last Sunday morning, I had two "Howdys," three "Mornings" and one "Hi, there" before I had gone a quarter of a mile.
The sun was comfortingly warm on my back, and the constant breeze through the trees along the "back stretch" made one think of the sound of a small waterfall. There were snowball bushes in bloom and the air was filled now and then with those floating wisps from the cottonwoods.
It was a good walk, as walks go, but I could have had the same experiences in the suburbs or on some city streets.
The real feel of the country came only after I'd returned home where, even with bustling activity beyond the fences, there is a peacefulness, a tranquility that I absorb down through my very bones.
On my small corner of the lake, unnoticed, were two brand-new baby mallard ducks, their downy backs fluffy-soft as they floated and paddled close to their mother's protection. She kept them between her and the shore as they fed on the algae and insects. It was so quiet that the bluegills feeding beneath the floating algae made loud smacking noises.
I sat very still on the back steps and watched and listened to the pair of wrens who have taken over the birdhouse with the flower-boxes and the "Third and Main" sign on its chimney. They are getting accustomed to the opening and closing of my back door, and stay on top the woodpile when a car goes around the driveway. The four young squirrels scampered in single file through the grass and ran lickety-split up the tree trunk. They were having a high old time.
When a gentle rain began to fall, I could hear it rather than see it.
The birds continued their comings and goings, and I stayed on the back steps. The rain falling through the flowering crab apple tree gently loosened some of the blossoms that drifted down ever so slowly. It was a moment to remember.
Then at dusk another sight to see: four new baby owls taking to the air, following two adult owls from tree to tree, following the calls and the urgings of the older ones. The baby owls are so solemn, so wide-eyed, so fluffy-feathered.
Two of them perched on the sign marked "Third" just above the "Main" sign in my yard. I walked slowly around the signpost and their heads turned and turned and turned. Finally when I thought their heads would make a complete circle, they obeyed a stern screech from mama and flew higher in the nearby tree.
June 7, 1966
WHEN the Dayton Council of Garden clubs held its annual daffodil show, a very natural recording of chirping birds was played continuously in the background over the public address system. One gentle visitor observed to her husband, "Aren't the bird sounds lovely?"
Her husband said, "Huh?"
"I said," she repeated, "aren't the songs of the birds delightful?" "Speak up, Harriet," he replied, "I can't hear a word you're saying on account of those damn birds!"
Autumn, At Last
THEY KEPT telling me, "You ought to write something about autumn. Here it is, the annual changing of the seasons and your typewriter is mute ... "
They kept nudging me, "When are you going to say something about the coloring of the leaves? The mornings are cooler ... "
They nagged, "Haven't you noticed the way the lake looks? Haven't you watched the flocks of birds overhead, on their way south? Hasn't the changing landscape caught your eye? Why are you silent, why do you delay? .. "
I could only shake my head.
They needled: "What's the matter? Losing your touch? .. "
I know it's autumn! I see the leaves turning brown! I hear them falling like brittle rain upon my roof! I smell fall in the air! I touch a finger to a red-haw on the branch hanging low near my back door and it comes away in my hand ...
"Then why do you write about pretzels, tongue-twisting, and meringue in the soapsuds when you should be filling your soul with autumn and your column with thoughts that sing! ... "
I told you I KNOW it's autumn, I see it, I hear it, I smell it and I touch it! It's autumn! I go along with you on that!
"Then, why ... ?"
Because I don't FEEL it yet. There are some things I have to feel deep down inside before I can put them into words, and then they write themselves. I merely listen to the refrain. So far this year, autumn has
been two-dimensional for me maybe three-dimensional... but I haven't heard its song in my heart yet ...
That's the way things stood between autumn and me ... until last Sunday ... and then its song began ... first, faintly, as if it were something remembered ... then a pulsing in the throat as the melody strengthened ... then a gladsome feeling that burst everywhere at once ...
When I was, at once, sad and happy, melancholy and full of joy -but, mostly, contented, I knew I'd found autumn and autumn had found me.
I can't tell you exactly when it began ...
Perhaps it was that moment when it was too early to be morning and too late to be night-when the stars brightened now and then through the clouds and there was a touch to the air akin to a cool hand on a fevered brow.
It might have been in the late afternoon when I fled the indoor life and walked in a quiet peaceful lane far from the sounds of humans. Across the far meadow and beyond the pasture a red barn on a hill looked like a painting framed in gray clouds. Geese honked in a hidden barnyard and the sound drifted on the air currents.
Maybe it happened when I held the bright blue flower of the wild chicory in my hand ... and bit into a tiny wild cherry which was all seed beneath the skin ...
Or when I rounded a curve in the lane and came upon a small drained pond with one long-legged, long-billed gray-blue heron standing in a moist spot in the pond bottom now criss-crossed with muskrat trails ... and watched, spellbound, when it slowly rose into the air, gradually folding and drawing up its long thin legs like a jet plane pulling in its landing gear ...
Or when three tiny killdeer ran across the pock-marked bottom of the empty pond and then flew high into the trees with their shrill cries ...
Perhaps the moment of autumn occurred when I held an acorn in the palm of my hand and saw again the tiny detailed markings of the little hat it wore ... how exquisitely and minutely scalloped without a flaw, such workmanship and skill in its design and beauty ...
But I think it really must have happened when I saw the miracle of the milkweed pod with all the little brown seeds tucked so neatly inside, their silk parachutes folded beautifully, meticulously ... all of this accomplished without a government subsidy or a planning committee ...
Autumn had meaning for me then. Not only did I see it in the wild heron ... and hear it in the call of the geese and the killdeer ... smell it in the smoky crisp air ... touch it in the mighty oak that lay within the acorn ... but, at last, autumn appeared in the miracle of the milkweed pod and then I felt it in my heart ...
Sept. 30, 1964
DA VID MILLER, 6, started first grade this year at Brantwood school.
When he came home after the first day, this was his report:
"I had the best day of my life today-and I ate in the presbyreria."
THE DAWN of Palm Sunday pushed its way through lowering clouds, taking longer than usual to lighten the outlines of trees and buildings dark against the horizon. Though there was a subtle stirring all around, a sham darkness huddled in the shadows made by the big trees and the woodpile. The small lake had no reflections from the sky-and when a bird glided on an air current above its surface there was no mirroring echo.
One moment I was deep in sleep. The next moment so wide-awake there were no remnants of the past cluttering my thought. No future plan leapt into my mind, either.
The only time was now and, suddenly, I had to be living it, actively.
That is how I came to shut the house door quietly and slip out into the outdoors while all about was still wrapped in the sleep of night.
A prudent walker knows his limitations and estimates the far point of his roamings before leaving his doorstep. He knows that however lovely the going, there is always the tired returning. Yet on this Palm Sunday dawning I set no human limits. Though I took new turnings and wandered far from the usual paths, I knew this day held no weariness. I knew without question I would return refreshed.
In the distance, trucks rumbled in and out of hearing. No other human sound penetrated the serenity of early morning. But it was far from still. Everywhere the sounds of the birds, a talkative lot given to loud gossip and advice, dispatching directions, offering suggestions and attending to a bit of courting all the while limbering the wings and fluffing the feathers.
It was barely first light and the birds were well into their busy day. The sound of my going along the back lane was accepted without question by the creatures of the woodland. I heard scurrying but when I looked there was nothing to see but the waving grass or a dry leaf showing a damp underside.
An attentive watch-dog, a large German shepherd having the care of a human family as his responsibility, set up a guarded bark as I came down the hill and walked a short distance within his sight.
"Who are you?" His bark was plain and the varying depth and length of his message easy to read. "Keep your distance! Don't come too near' Well, aren't you even going to come close enough to make it worth my while to do all this barking? Well, okay, then, but I'm warning you anyway-do you hear me? Hey-you ... "
A woodpecker set up a furious rat-a-tat-tat and though I searched the trees to see him, kept out of sight but not sound. His noisy hammering cut across the sounds of all the other birds, like the dominant theme in a woodsy melody.
As I rounded another rise in the road, five white ducks floated out on another quiet lake in perfect formation. They left the shore in a symmetrical pattern reminding me of white polka dots on a dark background. They skimmed along in response to commands I couldn't see or hear.
It was like watching a ballet. The ducks dipped their heads in unison, tails sticking up in the air, shook their feathers and kept right on floating in formation across the water now reflecting the brightening morning sky. I stood still, watching, for long moments.
Then, out from another shore, one by one came a few brown wild ducks as if to join the other group. The white duck leader broke away from his four who kept right on without turning a head. The white leader paddled unswervingly toward the wild duck, chasing it across the water top. The wild duck suddenly turned, flapped his wings, flew a short distance partly in and partly out of the water and then in a long sweep flew higher and higher getting smaller and smaller as he flew out of sight. The white ducks and I resumed our morning ramble.
The day was getting lighter now but still no human stirred. As I neared the intersection of two lanes, I saw a small, long-haired brown and white dog with a harness walking with purpose. Our paths crossed. He wagged his tail. I spoke to him. He circled me once, tail still wagging, and then without breaking his stride, he continued on, obviously a dog bent on getting home for breakfast after a night out.
I left the roadway then, arching over a wide hilly meadow sometimes knee-high with dry winter grass. For a long while I stood at the top of it, looking in all directions, hearing and smelling, seeing and thinking, aware of many things. The chatter of birds had a different tone to it now, the sun was higher behind the April clouds that still masked its full glow, the air was several degrees warmer than the 35 degrees my backdoor thermometer had registered when I set out.
I strolled easily along the lane, past the little old private cemetery with the unpretentious grave stones, past the fields, and came once again full circle to my own. I walked slowly around my yard, noting the tiny buds on the trees and the lilac bush ... the old stump is rotting out by itself ... three sturdy young trees are shooting up from the place where the other old stump had been ...
I pulled some dead tendrils from a wild grape vine off the fence and trailed them behind me as I walked. Suddenly, a flurry of movement in the grass at my feet-leaping high and wide went a big rabbit, its white tail as fluffy as a bath-powder puff. Had I disturbed the Easter Bunny? This one was big and pretty enough to be a close relative. He disappeared like a magician's prop.
And now I was home, refreshed in mind and body and spirit. This is the day the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.
Return to "The Third Marj" Home Page