Over the past year I have lived a way of life. “Lifestyle” doesn’t really describe it. When I think of “a way of life,” I think of the Sicilian village where my husband’s family lives, a place where three generations eat dinner together every night, and lemon trees are imbued with a spiritual authority. Fresh lemons sit on every sideboard and are squeezed into every dish. They grow, most fetchingly, in every backyard plot.
We had to watch out for the lemons our cousins would, without fail, stash in our bags. We couldn’t get them to stop. When we explained customs wouldn’t allow them, they laughed. They couldn’t believe the things we spent our time worrying about. Weren’t lemons worth some little risk? Our cousins wanted us to have these piquant tokens of their village’s sun-drenched beauty, a place where octogenarians hike up and down the defunct volcano they’ve hiked up and down their whole life, carrying their lunch home from market in a string bag. When I think of their way of life, I think of the plump old woman I saw pedaling down a narrow street to church. I think of the night promenades where friends met to eat gelato and listen to street musicians, and of the families who live in olive groves behind their oil presses.
Yes, I finally got to live a way of life. When the shutdown began, Tom and I pretty quickly fell into a routine that was not sanctified by time and that contained more darkness than those coruscating Sicilian landscapes. But life took on a comforting rhythm. And even though it was at its most perfect balance for only a few months, it opened the way to a new perspective, the kind you can get only from the close and regular observation of familiar and beloved places.
We gave up our weekend warrior day hikes and replaced them with daily, never-fail walks around the lake near our house. While we generally prefer novelty, especially trails we’ve never hiked before, during those months we took the same route, in the same direction, at the same time every day, in the place where we’ve lived for 33 years.
We saw the winter melt away and the spring quicken. We tracked the minute changes affecting every patch of ground we passed. The sameness allowed us to see how much unremitting change was really going on all around us.
We knew where the families from the city were holed up. We listened for the basketball always bouncing at one house, the laughter of little children that could reliably be heard at another. We knew where we’d catch a breath of smoke from a woodstove, or from a barbecue grill. We looked forward to seeing the solitary figure who walked the roads wearing a parka over pink pajama bottoms. When we reentered our own house, we were greeted by the aroma of our dinner.
This year, I resolved to take one nature photograph a day for 365 days starting on the first day of spring. I recalled a National Geographic spread where the photographer did just that, taking one photograph every day that best reflected what was going on in nature that day. Knowing our vaccinated lives would start getting busier, I wanted to slow things down. I didn’t want to miss anything.
So on the first day of spring, we found a trail that, to our surprise, we had never hiked before. It climbs a small hill opposite the historic community of Walpack Center, one main street flanked by simple white clapboard buildings that by themselves tell the story of a way of life: schoolhouse, church, post office, general store. I took lots of photos, all the while fretting over which would best represent Spring, Day 1. It was an awesome responsibility. I photographed swans skimming a filament of ice. I photographed the picturesque purple stems of raspberry cane wrapped around an old pump. I photographed a lone fisherman waiting for a bite amid the cattails.
I worried about having to do it again the next day, and the next.
I soon abandoned the project. The world is speeding up again. All of a sudden, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Trailhead: Walpack Center, N.J., parking lot off NPS Route 615 in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (about 6 miles south of the Peters Valley School of Craft)
Loop trail: From kiosk, take the Military Road Trail for 0.25 miles to the Walpack Ridge Trail (red blazes) and turn right, continuing 1.55 miles to the Thunder Mountain parking area then 1.25 miles back to the Military Road Trail; another 0.6 miles gets you to the parking area.