Old Walks, New Trails

photoJackson contemplates the new path through his woods.(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)My dog Jackson and I left the house at our usual time, close to sunrise, and headed for a nearby patch of woods. After we descended a hill and clomped over a wooden bridge, we crossed what seemed like a former road, wide, flat, and grassy.I know that in the works is a new path which will follow that old road, bisecting our woods. The plans call for it to be gravel at first, although later it might be paved. Before long there will be large, loud machines down there, clearing, digging, laying rocks. It will change this small, semi-hidden place, this place Jackson and I have been almost every morning for the four-plus years of his life.We humans want things to stay the same. Our neighborhoods, our jobs, our towns. We don’t want a new subdivision where the woods are, or a new big store to replace our favorite old place to buy batteries or a rake or a mailbox. We don’t want more traffic, or a larger cable bill. We don’t want our favorite TV series to end, or to finish the last book by our favorite author. We don’t want that old house to be torn down.We humans want things to change. We want a better pizza place nearby, or Thai, or sushi. We wish we could walk to a good bookstore, or an organic market. We’d like different neighbors, someone new to talk to. We scroll through the films and shows on Netflix, wishing for something new and interesting.We crave excitement.We crave the familiar.“We’ve allowed other cultures to come in and change our values,” the letter to the editor says. As if that hasn’t been happening since the dawn of recorded time. As if the same complaint wasn’t made about the letter-writer’s parents or grandparents or great-grandparents when they arrived here from…wherever.The outdoors is familiar. The path is the same one we’ve trod before. Certain trees, rocks, and streams can be recognized, remembered, noticed. The view that’s coming up — around that turn, over that ridge — we know it, we anticipate it, we stop and revel in it when we arrive there. We walk certain trails comfortably in the half-light before sunrise or after dusk, knowing each step, each rock and root.The outdoors is different. Not long ago the woods were green, humid, source of gnats in the eyes and dust in the throat, with late-summer cicadas in rhythmic chant. Now everything’s changed. Green is orange, red, and brown. Once-thick air is thin and clear. It’s difficult to talk with someone because of the noise of the inches-deep dry leaves underfoot. Dry stream beds turn noisy with fall rains. Sound, unimpeded by summer’s foliage, travels farther, extending across coves, bringing the Cowan train’s horn up onto the plateau as we walk October’s chilly fire lanes.Jackson and I emerged from our little woods, and I reattached his leash. I’m pretty sure he won’t care if there’s a new gravel path. In fact, he’ll probably be excited about all the new smells available to that big nose of his. Perhaps, when the new path happens, we’ll add it to our customary route. Who knows? There might be new things there for us both.