The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

“Not all those who wander are lost”

Stairway to unknown placesThe title quote comes from a poem by J.R.R. Tolkein, but it is something I knew without knowing I knew long before reading the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Many of us who enjoy “nature” go hiking. Down Under, I’m told, Australians go on a walkabout. I always have preferred to aimlessly wander even on seemingly well-defined pathways, with little or no clear destination in mind.

Often, I can be found wandering in my backyard, sometimes without leaving the deck-table, nearly motionless among the floating dandelion seeds and the distinctive cooing of doves. A second family of House Sparrows is nursing over the hot tub. Catbirds come and go in the cherry tree, and Grey Squirrels feast on raspberries in the bed near the woods.

I highly recommend wandering for its exceptional accommodation of seeing things without actually looking for them – or at them. The secret, in fact, is to not look for or at specific things, lest while you are focused here, something is happening there.

The human brain is an amazing device. We can be in a room with dozens of conversations, and hear only the one being whispered over in the corner. We are able to filter static from a radio broadcast and hear all the words. Our cerebral computer allows us to drive a car without thinking about turning the steering wheel, and see deer grazing at the far side of a roadside pasture while we keep the vehicle between the solid white lines.

For instance, the day I was on a trail near Blue Ridge Summit and spied a spider web. I did not actually see it, in the sense that I knew exactly where it was. In fact, finding it required another five minutes or so of searching. I knew about where it was, just off the right side of the trail, but darned if I could locate it. Then, suddenly, there it was, across an opening in the trees.

Spiders are interesting critters, only slightly less so when you walk through a web and can’t brush it away from your face. I see one now about four feet from me, visible only when a breeze causes a tiny piece of trapped dandelion seed to oscillate against the green background.

The one beside the trail was similarly invisible. I knew I’d seen it, but where.

The tiny arachnid moves slightly. Gotcha! She sits near the center of a 18-inch diameter orb hung across the clearing like a net across an Alaskan stream when the salmon are running.

As I examine her elongated pale yellow abdomen, a small bullfrog surfaces in a shallow backwater of the stream. I turn my head to see what attracted my attention, and have to search carefully to discover his nose poking just above the surface, a small dark blunted triangle that wasn’t there a moment ago.

I move to continue my way up the trail and a Jack-in-Pulpit calls out, about an arm’s length perpendicular to the course my left foot has set, demanding attention from walk-in and resident congregants alike.

This cathedral through which I pass defies too focused an inspection, lest some critter escape – a Whitetail fawn, its position barely announced by the twitch of an ear. Somewhere nearby, its mother watches; I know she is there, but I have not yet found her. She will appear while I am looking elsewhere.

I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my time on this planet – much of it when I was not actually looking.

As the fellow said in the Alka Seltzer commercial, “Try it. You’ll like it.”


  1. Thanks John—a well-observed and written piece. Hope you are well, sir

    • John

      August 3, 2014 at 20:38

      Thank you. I am having a wonderful time not looking at anything in particular.

  2. Beautiful, John. Sounds like a day I could enjoy. Haven’t done that for a long time.

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