- Matt Breton
The Pace of Place
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
I took a walk yesterday, on snowshoes, across the road from my house. Ground I've covered before, but on a day when the truck wasn't going anywhere, it was nice. March seems to settle me, like the snow after being exposed to the strengthening sun. The lengthening days and warming temperatures mean sugaring season is almost here. If the weather had been warmer, I would've tapped my trees, but the eight inches of snow with a high of 19*F meant that could wait. I was happy to putter around with nothing too grand to do. So I took a March walk.
Most of my walks are for a purpose - hunting, scouting, breaking trail, exercising, getting somewhere. This walk was just to be outside and enjoy some fresh air. The pace was easy, the terrain pretty gentle. I went through places I've been before, but with a fresh canvas of unmarked white snow, I had a different view. This place that I call home is really quite large- sometimes it expands across the entirety of northern New England. When I get a view of a large piece of it my breath is taken away. Other days things are so socked in that all I know is what is right beside me. Today was a middle day - I could see the far ridgeline, but not the mountains beyond. Sizeable, but not massive. Something I could grasp, enough to care about and still impact. Enough to make me feel small, but not quite insignificant.
A really big tree!
On the walk, there was a tree that I know I've seen before, but hadn't ever really noticed. A slow pace lets me notice more, and I often suspect that a tree notices the most of all. Rooted as it is, a tree doesn't cover much ground, but does cover some. It knows exactly where it is for most of its life. This tree, a massive maple tucked into what used to be a field 30 years ago, on the edge of some steep country that probably formed the field edge in a bygone era, has probably been noticing things for 200 years. Based on the size, I'd guess even 300, though that seems on the edge of possibility. I took a lap around the tree to size it up and then slowly moved on. In a short distance, I crested a hill in a maintained field and was able to hold that middle view of my home ground.
I was struck by the idea that the big old maple had been assessing this view, near and far, for over two centuries. If anyone knew a place, it had to be that tree. I wish I could ask it's opinion on a few things. What changes were good? And bad? Of course this maple and a nearby spruce might disagree on any number of those answers. Maybe I'd just like to hear what had changed. The weather, critters, other trees, the wind and rain. The human element would come up - when was the field first put in? What has traffic been like? Do people come through this space like they used to? Does a tree notice culture or race? It might be possible to dial it in deeply - ask about the soil, the vibrations of machinery it feels from a distance - ice augers on the lake, snow machines, snowshoes, farm equipment. The foot steps in close must be easy to discern- Native hunters, dairy cows, a farmer (do five generations of farmers walk the same?), modern hunters, deer, hare and coyotes. I wonder if the tree has noticed a change in who walks by, and when.
The middle distance
Change is a constant, whatever the pace of it. I'm sure the tree has seen waves of change, forests grown and cut, fields hacked out of the rough ground and then eventually left to go fallow, slowly returning to something. When I think about our human impact on a place, it seems so quick, often short sighted, without consideration for the ripple effects a century or two down the line. But like ripples from a stone thrown on the lake, I suspect the further out we go, the less impactful things seem, and that when a ripple reaches out a couple centuries, the far shore hardly notices that it happens. Just one wave among many. There is comfort in our impermanence.
So it is with a sense of selfishness that I consider the influence I try to have on this landscape, the protectionist mindset with which I resist change that seems too rapid or too far reaching. While my roots aren't the same as the trees, my sense of this place extends both backward in time with my own roots and outward, like the branches, trying to touch the far ridges. I think that often the human rush to do something needs to be tempered by the idea that a slower, measured change is probably better. That pace allows us to consider all the relevant details. Of late, the rush for change seems to try to favor economic development, growth for the sake of growth, which is not a strategy that the old maple utilized.
As rural areas experience pressure to develop both their land and culture, I think we need to remain watchful, like the old maple. Slow and thoughtful, with our mind on the long game. Change, when it comes, will have ripple effects. Thankfully those ripples aren't forever. This woodsy, mountainous, watery place, a tucked away corner, feels like a bastion of slow pace in a crazy-fast world. Let's not lose sight of that. There is a maple growing somewhere nearby, hopefully, that will be watching for the next few centuries.
I hope it remembers it's time near the old maple.
My selfish wish is that it will recognize what is going on when it gets a good view across the lake.