In the decades of living in our suburban New York town, I’ve walked the reservoir path — a mile each way, paved — many many times, in broiling summer heat (blissfully shaded by old-growth trees) and in the dead of a snowy winter.
There’s something really special about getting to know a landscape well, to know what to look for and anticipate — from the fragrant purple lilac bush at the western end of the walk to the benches at the other end, a perfect spot to stare out across the water at sunset.
I love to watch the woods change with each season, always with my favorite smell in the world — sun-dried pine needles.
I know where the creek is, and love to hear it gurgling — now disturbingly silent and completely dry after weeks without rain. The enormous pond has also shrunk, and I can now see rocks in the reservoir that reveal its drop as well.
The pond in springtime
I love the landmarks — watermarks? — like the beaded strand of little black turtles that line up along a rubber tube on one edge of the water.
The cormorant who chooses to stand on the same rock every year to dry his wings.
The elegant swans.
The screeching red-tailed hawks.
The rustle of a chipmunk fleeing through dead leaves.
There are many trees wrapped tightly in vines — like people who so desperately cling to others.
There’s a rock split in two by a tree — reminding me how much force we can bring when needed to even the toughest problem.
There are many live trees with dead ones propped against them, where they’ve fallen — like dear friends sustaining the ill or grieving.
There’s lacy ice in winter
When I bend down and look closely, there are entire worlds in even just an inch or two beneath my feet: moss, acorns, lichen, stones, earth, leaves, bits of feather and foliage. Everything contains multitudes.
In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
I start to feel very ill at ease when I haven’t spent time in nature and in silence there; after two tedious months of physical therapy aimed at loosening and strengthening my arthritic right knee, each session consuming two hours, I was sick to death of only relating to machines and being stuck indoors.
On our trip to Montreal we continued north to Mont Tremblant and spent two days enjoying what was left of the autumn leaf colors and stunningly warm weather.
The area is full of walking and cycling trails so we took one through the woods down to the Diable River where we sat on the rocks and listened to the rushing river. The woods were largely silent except for one nearby blue jay.
I loved the lush moss, peeling birch trees, sun-dappled leaves and ancient stones.
I loved the soothing sound of the river rushing over and around rocks.
I loved watching leaves tumble into the water, only to be swept under and away like little yellow boats.
The day before, I ventured to the edge of the hotel property and found a grove of trees whose thick, twisted, intertwined roots looked like nothing I’d ever seen before anywhere, like something out of a fairy tale.
I sat on them for a while, just being still and present, watching the sun glow lower and lower through the trees. The woods were silent — no chipmunks or squirrels rustling past, no birds squawking to one one another.
It was eerie and disorienting.
But so, so good to be out, once more in nature, as always reminded that humans are just one more species.
It seems impossible, but within a few hours’ drive of crazy, congested New York City is a ferry that crosses the South Bay and lands on a quiet, dune-speckled 32-mile spit of land called Fire Island.
Created by the National Park Service in 1966, it’s a barrier island that’s home to hundreds of privately-owned low-slung homes, nestled into thickets of gnarled, twisted lichen-covered trees and tall stands of speckled grasses.
It’s the anti-Hamptons, where A-listers and millionaires fly to their enormous mansions by helicopter; here everyone crams into the ferry, in flip-flops.
Deer casually graze everywhere, unafraid, as swallows and seagulls and mourning doves flit about.
Lots of brown bunnies and monarch butterflies.
The local lending library and post office
Friends who’ve owned a house there for more than 50 years were kind enough to lend it to us for a week of silence, sun, plane-spotting, and the gentle sound of waves lapping against a fleet of boats just off-shore.
Getting there is easy, leaving from the town of Patchogue on the south shore of Long Island, about a 20-minute ride. Day-trippers can enjoy the beach and a local bar and resturant, while residents keep enormous wooden carts there with which to transport groceries and other necessities.
There’s a restaurant near the section we were in, Davis Park, and a general store and we waited eagerly on Sunday morning for the ferry to arrive with the newspapers.
The island has no roads, so no cars, so it’s really quiet.
The only motorized noise comes from motorboats, Jet-Skis and helicopters — and the low, persistent hum of the ferry.
Typical sounds include mourning doves, the rustling of tall grass, the squeaking of a playground swing, the roar of ocean surf.
As aviation nerds, and passionate travelers, Jose and I loved watching aircraft descending in their final few minutes into JFK airport — we watched them through binoculars arriving from Lisbon, Madrid, Dubai, London, Edinburgh and the Ukraine. (If you don’t know FlightRadar24, check it out!)
I caught up on my reading: Transit by Rachel Cusk (meh); Appointment in Samarra, from 1934 by John O’Hara, (which I enjoyed), On Turpentine Lane (given to me by the publisher, a light read) and How Music Works by Talking Heads’ David Byrne — which was amazing and I only got through half of it so am ordering it in order to read the rest.
(Highlight of the week — chanting the lyrics to Psycho Killer with our French friend, 70, who’s also a huge Talking Heads fan.)
I spent my days reading, napping, taking photos, kayaking, walking the beach, chatting with my husband and, later in the week, two friends who came out to join us. And, (sigh), a bit of work as well.
It rained for two days, which we used to read, nap, play lots of gin rummy and read social media and two daily newspapers.
Some homes on the island are for sale — the least expensive one I saw offered on a public bulletin board was $475,000, and weekly rentals from $1,900 to $4,200 — one dropping to $900 a week in the fall.
We left with sand in our shoes, sunburned, well-rested — and looking forward to returning next summer.
We need beauty as much as we need food, water and air, whether it’s visual or auditory. Ignoring that fundamental need parches us.
In a time when so many people spend their lives staring at a screen, encountering beauty in real life — a flower, a bird, a sky filled with stars, a painting or piece of music — can be transformative.
We’re lucky to live in a small town — pop. 10,000 — 25 miles north of Manhattan, named one of the nation’s 10 prettiest by Forbes magazine. If you’ve seen the films Mona Lisa Smile, The Preacher’s Wife or The Good Shepherd, (one of my favorites), you’ve glimpsed our handsome main street in each of these, filled with Victorian-era shops and homes.
Our apartment has great views of the Hudson River, tree-tops, acres of sky and clouds. We savor spectacular sunsets and birdsong, butterflies and fireflies in the cool, green dusk.
In New York city, we have access to museums and art galleries and parks, grateful for every bit of it.
Here are some of the things I find beautiful, that nurture and calm me…
Beautiful architecture — this is Union Station in D.C.
Color, design, elegant neo-classical murals — part of the Library of Congress, in D.C.
Every patch of earth, if you kneel down and really look closely, is a tapestry of color, texture, growth and decay
More neo-classical fabulousness — this, a corner of Bryant Park, midtown Manhattan
I’m crazy about textiles — the purple floral is now curtains in our sitting room
Pattern is everywhere! This is in Soho, Manhattan — glass inserts to allow light into a basement of an early building there
Nothing unusual — lawn furniture in autumn — but I love the symmetry of it from above; this at Hovey Manor, Quebec
I love this painted tin wall, one of the shops on our main street in Tarrytown, NY
I love this view — Bucks County, Pennsylvania — out the window of a 1905 farmhouse a friend used to rent
Every year I wait with bated breath for this lilac tree near us to bloom. Swoon!
Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti — but its wooden houses are amazingly colored and cared for
Where in your daily life does beauty manifest itself?
Are you — fellow Northern Hemisphere folk — feeling as cabin feverish as I am?
In mid-winter, it’s either gray or rainy or windy or bitterly cold or the streets are too icy.
Today was a blessed 57 unseasonally warm degrees and out I went to enjoy the walk along the reservoir.
One of the things I love most about living somewhere for a long time is getting to know a landscape intimately, like the face of a dear friend or the hands of your sweetie.
I’ve walked the reservoir path, a paved mile in each direction, shaded the whole way by tall trees, for the past 27 years now, in all four seasons, alone and with my husband and, a long time ago, with my lovely little terrier, Petra, who died in June 1996.
Here’s some of what I saw, heard, smelled and savored today:
The stream is starting to rush again as the snow and ice melt
Trees are showing the tiniest bit of bud
Winter-weathered leaves rustle gently in the breeze, the soft creamy beige of a very good camel hair overcoat
The white flash of a swan’s bum as it digs into the lakebed
The tang of woodsmoke from someone’s chimney
Soft emerald moss, tossed like a velvet duvet
Strengthening sun gilding the edges of the forest
Vines clinging to weathered granite
The soothing lapping sound of water on rock at the lake’s edge
Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.
Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.
Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:
I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.
If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.
Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:
Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.
Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.
I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.
I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.
What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?
To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions
To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.
To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.
To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.
To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.
To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.
I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.
I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.
I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.
What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?