At the back of our property, the bottom corner, I hear the trees talking. It’s a sound somewhere between contentment and complaint, a creaking of two lives rubbing against each other. The wind whips the dog’s happy breath upwards in small clouds. She and I are exploring beyond our boundaries, walking and just walking some more.
Despite long underwear and heavy coat, I will feel chilled for an hour after this walk. It’s a rare day this winter that is truly cold. Winter’s brown-grey palatte seems more vibrant in the woods than in town, or even at the farmstead. In the woods, winter seems like exactly what should be happening, instead of a bleak time of waiting for spring.
Our neighbor’s two-track carries me around the original 100+ acres that once belonged to our house and barns, but is now divided between them and us. They are good neighbors. Walking this loop, I am accepting their invitation, given a year ago. For several strides, I envy them these woods, where they touch the edge of a large wetland.
At this boundary, I stop and the dog freezes—heads high, ears alert, scanning the swamp. The otherness here holds both of us. Wetlands always make me feel this way, as if I’m touching velvet on an antler—wild texture and mystery. The not-woods, not-lake, not-field opens my imagination. My envy dissolves when I remember our neighbors’ invitation. The gift of this place has been offered to me, too.
This is early January, and it will be my last hike for a month. While I hike, my parents are watching the kids. While my boots crunch ice, Andrew sweats in a different forest—Amazon rainforest—with teeming greens and inexorable dampness. He helps to lead fourteen undergraduate students well beyond their previous experiences. When he returns, we will spend three weeks flattened by flu and respiratory infections. February will find us hatching slowly back into regular activities.
For now, following the edge of this wetland connects me to Andrew, who taught me to see this type of landscape. I can outline our relationship by connecting the dots from Onion Bottom in Indiana through bogs in the Northwoods all the way to swamps in southern Georgia. We’ve found carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants, and read stories in water-loving trees like willow or cypress, or trees that drown when the water rises. We try to understand the places that are neither terra firma nor open water.
The dog, as always, covers triple my distance as we turn away from the low, wet acres and head uphill. We emerge from the woods, skirt a pasture, then crest the hill through our large, stubbled field, which stood tall and green-gold with rye this summer. I’ll return from my hike’s solitude to the house full of our kids and my parents. Our lives will keep rubbing against each other, creaking like trees, offering texture and mystery.