Published: 08/10/2022 19:50:27
Modified: 08/10/2022 19:50:17
I think you need to know a place like this, a meaningful place somewhere in the physical world that you encounter almost every day. To others it may seem mundane, but to you it’s True North, a personal touchstone. It need not be sacred as the Black Hills are to the Lakota, but quietly it serves as an emblem of continuity in a turbulent and changing world.
My place is a small ledge outcrop, part of a larger mass that underlies the grassy hilltop where my house and garden sit. Boulders cut through the ground almost everywhere in Vermont, but this particular formation appears a few hundred yards from my house on a driveway that winds for almost a mile. Every evening after dark I walk my dog on this road and when we reach this place we stop for a minute before heading home. My dog doesn’t know anything about symbols, but he surely senses the importance of this moment as I stand there, lost in thought and making no measurable progress. She’s never lost and there’s no mystery she can’t solve with her black, wet nose. She waits patiently while I stare at this small phenomenon of immutable beauty.
I know, I know, I said mundane, so I have to clarify that a little subtle beauty is needed for a place like this to work its magic. And the time. From a car it’s only a flash in my peripheral vision so I have to approach on foot like I did fifty years ago when my wife and I first walked the field that we would eventually buy. The “touchstone” aspect started just eight years ago when we adopted a puppy, and the responsibility for his night walk fell to me. In those eight years there have been so many changes – two Russian invasions of Ukraine, three American presidents and so many people I have known who are now deceased – but the simple and stunning beauty of this place remains the same. In winter, the snow tries to hide it and never quite succeeds. In June, columbine decorates it with a floral hat, and sometimes a fern fancifully grows from a crack. At night I can see these details with the light of a headlamp, but with a full moon, especially in winter, I prefer the naked eye. On a peaceful moonless October night, I’ll put out my lamp and listen to the falling leaves.
I must admit I’m a little careful around this touchstone, pulling up the encroaching autumn olive tree before it takes deep root and cutting back the saplings every couple of years to block their downward march. If successful, they would occupy the thin ground at the top of the ledge and send jagged roots down your face. My work is not exclusive; I’m not even sure this place falls on my side of a border that I share with a neighbor. A surveyor could figure out who owns the cornice, but I like the ambiguity. A thousand years ago, long before the notion of property made its westward journey from Europe, the Abenaki ancestors may have stopped here, as I do today, and recognized it as grander than hunting game.
Do Change is a human concept. In eight years, my dog Lucy has unconsciously progressed from puppyhood to middle age, and I expect she will live the second half of her life with the same graceful serenity. About 20 years ago, when in a single year our family lost two dogs to old age, grief made me swear not to get another until I was sure he would. would survive. Luckily my wife is not stoic and a decade later when she saw a friend’s pup she wanted to take a look at the rest of the litter. My reluctance melted the minute we saw Lucy, only six weeks old. Of course, nothing is certain, but it’s a safe bet that despite her robust health today, she will die before me.
Without the need for an evening walk, I wonder if I will visit my touchstone. Not in the same way, perhaps, but I will always welcome perspective on unanswered questions and on my uneven moods. No matter what happens to me, this ledge will remain, oblivious to time and certain as a compass to me and anyone who walks this road when I’m gone.