Nature Column 09.17

“These Days,” a song by Jackson Browne from back in the day, sums up my last few weeks pretty nicely. Funny how our lives have specific and often melancholy soundtracks that not only fit the moment but take us back, often way back in our minds and hearts.

Well, I’ve been out walkin’/I don’t do that much talkin’ these days/ These days

Yup, it’s true. I’ve been walking my way through the end of summer. I’ve walked all over Barnstable, Sandwich, Wellfleet and Provincetown in the last week or so, through salt marshes, woods, around ponds, along beaches and alongside dunes. I’ve booked a lot of miles and seen and heard a lot of things.

Walking, at least for me, is a solitary exercise. I like to be able to stop when I want to see something more closely or to listen a little better. I want to silently enjoy the antics of the three young kingbirds I spy on the tops of cedars full of berries and savor the early morning sounds of the wind through the marsh grass as I follow the tracks of newly hatched diamondback terrapins along a sandy marsh trail.

Talking, which any person I invite along for my walks always does, interrupts these times for me. I find myself not really listening as I’m far more interested in the snake tracks wriggling across the sand than I am in the latest book someone read, or the latest TV show they saw. I make a few exceptions because sometimes the chance to visit with an old friend who is only here for a few days outweighs my natural tendency and desire to walk alone. Even that, however, can wear thin after an hour of relentless chatter when what I really wanted was some communing time with the gathering tree swallows.

The woods are always a welcoming haven for me but especially in late summer and early fall. The changing of the season in the woods is both gradual and lovely. These days I seem to think a lot/About the things that I forgot to do/And all the times I had the chance to. There’s something deliciously melancholy about the end of summer, and I want to marinate in it while I can.

Letting go of summer is like letting go of so many other wonderful things. It has a time limit and when it’s up, it’s up, done, over, kaput. As I get older this end of summer gets to me more deeply, for it affects me on a personal level now as well. Have I passed my own summer? Am I now a leaf waiting to change color and fall to the ground where I’ll become part of the ecosystem, irrevocably changed into something, someone unrecognizable?

A red squirrel bursts into a litany of squirrelly cuss words from just above my head. It jumps from branch to branch, giving me its best evil eye but I just laugh and say, “Silly squirrel, I’m not going to hurt you. Go eat more pine seeds.” Several nuthatches are working their way around a big old pine, poking in the bark for tender morsels of buggy yumminess. A downy woodpecker hammers away at a branch, hoping for the same.

On a sunny afternoon I wander over to a pond and sit in the sun to watch the fish break the surface of the water, catching bugs foolish enough to land there. Swallows swoop low over the water as well and a few mallards float by, occasionally muttering as they pass. The poison ivy is turning red and the grasses by the side of the pond are full of seed, bending in the breeze, throwing their light and shadow across the shallow water.

Dragonflies and damselflies are in abundance, mating and laying eggs in one last summer fling. The larger dragonflies that migrate can be seen gathering in fields and meadows, some so big they almost look like birds.

As I head back through the woods a vole runs across the path. Run quick, before the red-tailed hawk spies you, I whisper. I don’t mention the fox or coyote. No need to ruin its otherwise lovely day.

These warm and sunny days keep me outdoors when I’m not teaching or making deadlines. I can’t get enough of the dunes or beaches, the ponds, or meadows. The call of the yellowlegs, the cawing of crows, the silence of the heron standing still; these are the only sounds I want to hear on my walk by the marsh.

I find myself thinking of times past for I have walked these trails, these paths for over 60 years now and I know the time behind me probably stretches far longer than the time ahead. We wake each day assuming we will lay our heads down to sleep that night, safe in our beds, but we can’t know that for sure. I can’t help but think of the things I didn’t do, the things that went wrong, the time that slipped away, the words unsaid as well as the too many words said.

As I let go of summer I look forward to fall. It is a new time. Letting go means we make room for what is to come, whatever that may be. I just hope that for me, it means more time walking and less time talking.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at

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