By Phil Hough
I am thankful to have wild places to wander in and find the time. The natural time. In wilderness, time flows from very natural and regular rhythms. Since spring, the COVID-19 crisis has warped our sense of time. All at once, time both stalled and sped up. People struggle to recall if something happened three days or three weeks or three months ago.
Many of our cultural time markers are gone. May graduation ceremonies canceled. June weddings scaled back or delayed. Summer fairs and festivals put on hold. Major sports schedules canceled, delayed and shifted seasons. From the Boston Marathon to Bloomsday, running events were held virtually.
On hikes this summer and fall, I have found that the rhythms of nature bring focus to the passage of time. Wild nature has not changed; and, it’s reassuring to find that our own place in it has stayed the same. Comfort comes from connecting to natural landscapes and their motions. Floating clouds, wind in the trees and the flowing of the creeks are all familiar. We can walk in tune to the natural rhythm of time. We can regain our own regular pace. Yet, the awe and mystery of nature’s secrets are still endless. They draw us into the unknown.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”
In September, around the equinox, my wife Deb and I took a hike to a favorite lake. The air was newly cool and crisp. We wore multiple layers as we hiked. An early frost turned brush-covered slopes golden yellow and red. Huckleberries remained, but many were squishy and fell from the slightest touch. Near camp a plump black bear bounded up the mountain slope.
Elsewhere, bright red kokanee were spawning. As we moved into October, mountainsides came alive with golden birch, aspen and larch. Rocky Mountain maple provided red accents. Not long ago, a friend’s son bagged his first elk. A rite of passage. In wilderness, this is all a part of autumn’s passing.
Lengthening shadows and early snow foretell winter’s pending arrival. Layers of fresh tracks tell us who passes where and how long ago. It’s time now to get out the snowshoes and wax the cross country skis. I’m looking forward to the first full-moon night hike.
Natural time moves on, most vividly displayed alone in the wilderness. The sun rises and sets. The moon waxes and wanes, from full to empty and back again. In early winter Orion, the Hunter, returns to the night sky. Each day is a little bit shorter until the solstice. Then the sun will gradually start its return, bringing with it the promise of spring.
Time will march on. Snow will melt. Streams will thaw. The osprey will return. It will be spring before we know it, then we will start again.
Whatever the season, get outside. Give thanks for the wild places we have nearby. Find the natural rhythms that bring comfort to all our lives.
Phil Hough is executive director of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Learn more about the organization at scotchmanpeaks.org.
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