My dog doesn’t understand the idea of taking a walk. I take him out on the leash and he pauses every few feet to sniff something on the ground or stops to poop. All before we’ve even make it to the end of the cul-du-sac. I dutifully bag his pile(s) in plastic to last forever in a landfill somewhere and because we’re still close to home, I opt not to carry them around for the entire walk and deposit them in the poop bin. As we reach the end of the cul-du-sac again I pass a neighbor raking leaves. She removes an earbud attached to a music player to say ‘Hello’ before she jokes about my slow progress. Smiling, I reply briefly in kind, but since I’m supposed to be taking a walk I don’t remove my own earbuds or linger beside her yard to visit. She smiles and with a quick wave replaces her own earbud and continues raking.
I take a few more steps and spot my next-door-neighbor in her car driving towards me. She stops and rolls down her window to ask if I have a new dog. I smile politely and tell her he’s the same old poodle she’s met before. She says his cut must have made him look different. I nod, but don’t pursue further conversation. I’m supposed to be taking a walk. She waves a friendly goodbye and drives on.
With my attention back on my walk it occurs to me that if I walk farther away from the edge of the road my dog won’t be so distracted by all the interesting smells. I lead him nearer to the middle of the road. Success. Now that we finally start making good time I realize with the last two neighbor encounters I’ve lost the thread of my audio book. I stop walking and fiddle with my music player to try and backup the story. My dog stops too and looks up at me as if to say, “Aren’t we supposed to be taking a walk?”
I decide not to back it up hoping instead I’ll simply catch on if I just keep listening. I don’t. But after passing a few more houses I realize I’m too distracted wondering what I’ve missed already to pay attention to what’s happening now. I give up. I take out my earbuds push the player deep into my coat pocket, deciding instead to listen to the sounds around me. I hear the usual; rustling leaves, barking dogs, the distant hum of a neighbor’s lawnmower. Typical taking-a-walk type sounds.
Something moves beside me and I glance over. It’s a squirrel – one of the countless numbers living in my neighborhood. When it sees me it stops moving and remains perfectly still. For some reason squirrels seem to think if they stop moving I can’t see them. This may work for other predators in nature who want to eat them, but I ironically, they’re safe around me even though I can see them. I’m not interested in squirrels. I’m supposed to be taking a walk.
Then, without really intending to, I glance further up the tree. I see a squirrel’s nest made of fallen leaves tucked carefully into the crook of several bare branches. In fact, there are dozens of similar nests in the trees all around me. Squirrel nests, not bird nests. That’s when it suddenly occurs to me the birds are all gone. They’ve flown south for the winter as they do every year. I know this happens, of course. Who doesn’t? But somehow I failed to notice it as it was happening. I wonder when was the last time I actually did notice.
I make an effort to notice now.
Looking more closely at the tree in front of me I realize I don’t know what kind of tree it is. In fact, the skyline all around me is nothing but the naked branches of unknown trees. I tell myself with their leaves I might recognize them. Some of them anyway. Honestly, I don’t think it would matter. The knowledge is lost to me. Or perhaps I never had it. While I’m certain there are people who could recognize a tree by its bark, I suspect there are not very many. And fewer every year besides. My late grandfather, a Virginia farmer, likely would have known this tree. He died earlier this year and with him all this sort of knowledge. I wonder if this is the sort of thing he would have taught his son, my father, but he’s gone too. My father died eight years ago. We never talked about trees.
I start moving again, trying to clear my thoughts. After all, I’m not supposed to be reminiscing. I’m supposed to be taking a walk. Only now, I can’t stop noticing things. I notice how some yards are greener than others and even how the grasses change from yard to yard. It occurs to me there are different kinds of grasses. I can only name four. I spot a tree filled with golden-colored berries. I don’t ever remember seeing a tree with golden berries before. I think of the story of King Midas and wonder, aside from wishing magic, what sort of Nature-magic could turn berries the color of gold. I pass a house with a rick of wood standing outside, it’s top layers covered with a blue tarp that flaps gently in the breeze. I wonder how many fires that rick will make when it realize I’ve never used my own fireplace. Would I even know how without looking it up? Really?
House after house I notice things I’ve never taken time to notice before. After a while I’m not sure how I feel about it any of it. Finally, my dog and I make it around the block and back to the cul-de-sac. My yard-raking neighbor is still out working, but she doesn’t stop to take notice of me this time. I glance down the cul-du-sac to my next-door-neighbor’s house. Her car is parked in the garage and the door is down. I know won’t see her again today either. I understand now I missed an opportunity to connect with each of them while I was out on my walk, just like I’ve missed chances to connect with so many others over the years while I’ve been out doing so many things.
We reach the front door and I look down at my old poodle. He’s panting and seems to be glad we’re home. I squat beside him to remove his leash and I stay there petting him for a minute or so. He looks innocently back at me, his chin wet with dog perspiration, seemingly content with this simple moment of my undivided attention. He’s happy simply to be noticed. I thank him for being patient with me even though I wasn’t entirely patient with him. He appears completely unburdened by this as I open the door and follow him inside. Like I said, he doesn’t really understand the idea of taking a walk.