Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Good Walk Unspoiled

The other day, I took a walk to the pond near my home. The foliage, though past its peak, had a muted beauty. I admired the yellow and rust tones, filtered through a soft light, and breathed deeply the sweet smell of drying leaves. I walked through piles of leaves, crunching them underfoot.

A day earlier, I had taken the same route to the pond. Just before I left the house, though, I'd started listening to an NPR broadcast remembering Tom Magliozzi, the Car Talk host who recently passed away. The program consisted of clips of Tom laughing uproariously at one thing or another, mostly his own jokes. I didn't want to stop listening, so I grabbed my iPhone and earbuds and set off on my walk.

I ambled through the lovely autumn foliage but barely noticed it. My mind's eye focused on Tom and I felt surrounded by his laughter, scarcely aware of the trees, the leaves, or the car that almost hit me because I didn't hear it driving up behind me. I've never been good at multi-tasking, so my inability to simultaneously listen to a radio program and take in the beauty of autumn shouldn't have surprised me, but it did strike me how easily I distract myself from being in the moment.

I'm a news junkie and I listen to the radio while washing up, folding laundry, or cooking dinner. I read the paper during breakfast, read a book with my lunch, and talk with E. while eating dinner. Unlike me, though, E. is capable of simply eating. I've actually observed him doing this at breakfast. He simply sits at the table and eats. He doesn't read. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't engage in conversation with me. He just eats (and, I assume, thinks deep thoughts, perhaps about cereal). Amazing.

But, back to my walk, the one without earbuds. When I arrived at the pond, I saw familiar sights — mallards floating on the water, two by two; a great blue heron fishing among the cattails; an elderly couple sitting on a bench. Then I spotted something different in the middle of the pond, a crowd of small creatures, flashing white as they swam to and fro. As they approached the shore, I thought they looked like little ducks. Out of some fuzzy corner of my brain flashed the word merganser.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When I got home, I searched "merganser" on the Internet and in short order found the bird I had seen, a hooded merganser. I felt pleased to have spotted a new bird on the pond and even more pleased to have half-known its name. But the thing that made me happiest was finding photos on the web that let me know for sure what I had seen.

What is it about attaching a name to a bird that gives me such satisfaction? Possibly it's because I'm generally not very good at it, so when I make an identification it feels like a hard-won accomplishment. Certainly, naming is a very human preoccupation. The hooded merganser, after all, gets along swimmingly without ever knowing my name, or its own, for that matter.

Which brings me back to where I started — a gorgeous autumn day, when nature's beauty is on display, oblivious to whether I or anyone else takes note of it. While I'm pretty unlikely to give up all the things I do to distract myself during the course of a typical day (did I mention crossword puzzles?), I'm not planning to bring my earbuds along on future walks. And I won't check the number of steps on my Fitbit until I get home. Or look at my email. But if I'm walking with E. or with friends, all bets are off. I can't not talk.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.