An afternoon saunter

In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction; both its weariness and its refreshment were sweet to me. This earth was the most glorious instrument, and I was audience to its strains.

—Thoreau, Journal, July 16, 1851

The street below the mulberry tree in front of the old Mattingly house is blanketed with overripe berries. Scores have been crushed by the tires of cars and pickups, and the deep purple juice lies like spilled blood in little puddles in the tread marks. Green bottle flies traverse the crushed berries, sucking the sweet sticky nectar. I look up beyond the tree across the yard to the old house. Two empty rocking chairs sit on the front porch. Otherwise, there is no sign of activity about the place.

At the house next door a man kneels on the side deck, cutting a board with a power saw. The saw screams in his hand as it rips through the wood. Afterward, he stands up with board in hand and disappears into the house. As I pass by I hear the whack-whack of a hammer through the open doorway.

I duck beneath the chain strung between the two ancient stone pillars that mark the entrance to Laurel Hill. Behind one I discover a gnarled branch leaning up against the weathered stone. It fits comfortably in my hand and is just about the right height, so I take it along on my walk, thinking to return it to its perch on the way back home.

Under the canopy of trees I ascend the leaf-strewn trail and follow it around the bend to Mountain Road. Day lilies and margaritas line the side of the road; yellow buttercups dance in the breeze. Overhead, a vireo calls from the treetops, while off to the left a phoebe sounds in the wood.

Beyond the turnabout at the top of the rise the road narrows. Dense undergrowth encroaches on the broken macadam. I pause at the great bend and look out over the narrow valley to the stone house atop Hatchet Hill in the distance. Below my feet the river cascades down through the narrow gorge.

A short distance ahead I approach the remnants of the Red Dog Inn, at one time a boarding kennel for dogs. The sign is long gone and so, it appears, is the owner. The building stands as a testament to its various stages of construction. Each section reflects a unique floor plan of its own, which bears little resemblance to those adjacent. That was Mike McGuiness for you, I thought — Irish through and through. I once stopped to talk with him by the ancient stone chimney. He recommended the critical writings of James Joyce to me, a book I subsequently purchased and read.

Down near the bottom of the hill I pass the old clapboard farmhouse which once boasted two clay tennis courts on the side lawn. The courts are gone now, along with the elderly couple who once lived there, replaced by a freshly manicured grassy knoll. The house too has been rebuilt, with a new stone front patio and a four-bay garage in the back.

I meant to stop off at the graveyard at Old Saint Andrew’s to visit former acquaintances long since departed, but decide against it when I see that a picnic has convened beneath one of the ancient maples. Instead, I push ahead and saunter down the road that parallels a short stretch of cataract. The water is high and muddy and boils like hot coffee milk near the bottom before disappearing beneath mats of thick undergrowth. On the other side of the road the stream resurfaces and meanders through a cow pasture.

I pass a man sitting on the side porch of a yellow farmhouse reading. He looks up as I shout a greeting. “Is that knotty pine on the ceiling of your porch?” I ask him, ducking down for a better look.

“It is,” he says, “but I didn’t build it. The porch was like that when we bought the house a couple of years back.”

“It sets it off nice,” I say, and he smiles, pleased at my remark.

I turn right at the stop sign onto Duncaster Road. The 1832 Hoskins’ Tavern house still stands, guarded by sentinel holly bushes, although it’s a private residence now. Further along I walk by the contemporary white brick home with the circular turret at the one end. I always fancied that a writer must live in such a house and that if it ever came up for sale, I would buy it and move in.

The stretch of road ahead lies hot in the afternoon sun. Every now and then a breeze mounts up, offering temporary relief from the heat. I turn right again at the old stone house built and occupied by one Zelah Case in 1835. Every window is open on both floors. A rusted lamp-post stands guard among the overgrown bushes by the side driveway.

Up ahead the road runs over two culverts between an expanse of swamp on either side. The water nearly reaches the road. Thick stands of skunk cabbage grow near the shoulders. A yellowthroat warbles his witchety-witchety-witchety note from a thicket on the far side.

Around the next bend the road turns to shadow, hugging the base of the hill. Here there is little undergrowth visible among the stands of mature maples and oaks. A passing pickup truck gives me a wide berth. I lift my walking stick in thanks.

Just beyond the former Ahren’s tree farm I encounter a rickety step-ladder perched at the end of a driveway. A hand-lettered paper sign taped to one rung bears the word “Free.” A wicker pack basket with canvas straps stands on the ground below. I pick it up and turn it over. A stamp on the bottom reads “Putney, Vermont.” Several of the bottom reeds are broken out. Gently, I sit it back down by the stepladder and move on.

The picnic is still in full swing as I approach the church yard. I turn onto the wide shaded road and follow it back up the hill past the Red Dog Inn into the woods. A small commotion ensues at my feet. I squat down and discover any number of tiny brown speckled toads, each no longer than a centimeter, hopping about among the debris.

I do not tell the bicyclists I pass on the other side about the toads, nor do I mention them to the group of young children I meet at the bottom of the hill.

“That’s a neat walking stick,” the older girl in the group says. “My brother was looking for a stick like that one.”

I turn to the young boy at her side. “It looks like this one is just about your size,” I say, holding it up next to his lanky frame. “Would you like it?”

He beams a smile. “What do you say to the man?” his mother asks him.

“Thank you,” he says.

I nod in return. The stick doesn’t quite make it back to its original resting place, but I am certain it will be put to good use.