Into the Wild

Every morning at 8 A.M. our dog Toby gets off the couch and starts bugging me to go out. He’s a creature of habit, and our habit, rain or shine, is to take a ritual morning walk.

“Into the wild,” I always joke as I head out the side door. Our walk is “off-road” on a narrow trail. I guess it’s a little less than a mile. Though not a trip into the Alaska back country or even the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River Corridor, our morning walk is often the wildest portion of a normal day. The weather is out of my control, the footing is a little uncertain, and turns in the trail are full of surprise and delight if I pay attention.

We always circle the house counterclockwise, checking the small ponds on the west side, heading down the hill, and then completing a figure-eight in the floodplain before heading back up the trail behind the house. We finally finish with a hike up the hill near the road through the woods, returning to our cul du sac.

I almost always see a box turtle in the trail when it’s warm out, a little package of wildness armored against the world, and lately a flock of wild turkeys has taken to roosting on a tree fallen down near the creek. Of course, there are always deer and songbirds, though for most people these animals have given up some of their wildness by pushing so boldly into our suburbs and cities.

Sometimes we’ll wander up on the remnants of a drama I didn’t expect, as in the morning this fall when we found little patches of gray fur and the tiny, bloody possum’s head in the trial with its tongue out like a cartoon character, all that was left of an owl or a hawk’s breakfast.

When we’re walking I always try to look around, but I also try to ponder more deeply the landscape around me-what does this eastside land want to be again given deep time? Which stretches of the terrain along the creek naturally say white oak, which others say sycamore? What’s growing in the low places where water gathers? What naturally would grow on the high ridges where water drains away if all our suburban houses weren’t there? Given enough time-hundreds and thousands of years-even this peopled place could recover its organic form. The forests could reach climax again. The soil could build. The creeks run clear.

It’s in moving water that I see most clearly this wildness I love reflected, and I always stop by the creek and look upstream and down. When I look at the piedmont’s creeks and rivers around us I see enduring beauty surviving over time. I see shoals and bedrock and slow backwater in the bends. I see the floodplains full of sycamore and river birch. It’s here where hope lives. It’s along our rivers we can strike a balance between wild and tame, between developed and undeveloped.

But we’ve got to pay more attention. The signs are few that we want wildness to flourish among us. What’s happened in the Southern piedmont shows me that a place, even a place with a deep “sense of place” as they say the South has, is always in danger of being surveyed, bought, and developed out of existence. The whole of the world cannot, should not, be thought of only as real estate. How can we best decide what we divide up into lots and parcels for development and what stays wild forever? Our souls need both to survive.

It’s not always easy. Natural wildness is not a quality that the Chamber of Commerce tries to sell. The Spartanburg suburbs pushed in around this creek’s edges in the 1960s, and it still runs red from construction run-off upstream with every rain event. It’s threatened by non-point source pollution-run-off from roads and lawns and discharge from septic fields. But I like to think Lawson’s Fork is wild at its cool, flowing core. That wildness is deep in the steady current, the migration patterns of wildlife drawn past it, and the slow meander over time across the floodplain.

On our morning walk I look into my own backyard-the floodplain of the Lawson’s Fork-to find my nearby nature, my wildness. Every morning Toby’s beagle nose leads me into a world that is bigger than I am. It’s my nearby Yosemite, and I walk it every day looking to be surprised and delighted.

How do we get at what’s still wild around us? We look for it and when we find it, we don’t let go, and we visit it often as possible. Some people find it hunting or fishing on the weekends. Some touch it watching birds out the kitchen window. Walking, canoeing, kayaking, and writing are my ways of hanging on. They are my practice, and I’ll keep at them the way the creek keeps cutting at the sandy bank on the far bend below our house.

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