Moving at the Speed of Life

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

Earlier this year, I was on one of my longer walks, following a series of back roads that included Teawaddle Hill Road in Leverett. Most of the trek to the top of Teawaddle is wooded on both sides of the road, but at the top the view opens to a farm’s fields and the Leverett-Shutesbury hills beyond—one of the nicest views anywhere.

As I passed the farm and its russet-brown Highland cattle, I noticed a stirring to my right. A moment later they stepped out onto the road: guinea fowl, first a few, then more, until about 20 of them were proceeding down the road ahead of me. The birds didn’t seem to mind that I was there any more than did the cows looking impassively at me as I walked by. They probably belonged to the same farm—taking “free range” to a new level!

When I began to close the distance between us, however, the birds quickened their pace and herded together. Then they moved to the side and some reversed course, keeping as far from me as they could. Finally, a few took flight to get away. It all happened in a few minutes—they went their way and I went mine.

The experience served as a reminder to me of why I walk. If I had encountered those birds while driving, the whole episode would have lasted a minute. Intimidated by the size and noise of my car, they would have scattered quickly and I would have been a mile away two or three minutes later. On foot the experience unfolded in real time, the way life usually happens. As I walked along with the birds I could admire their silky plumage and notice differences among individuals; I could be with them, not just passing them by. I was in the landscape, not just moving through it.

When I’m walking, I’m moving at the pace that life around me is moving, rather than the speed a car allows me to travel. My view isn’t framed by a car window, and the landscape isn’t a blur speeding by at 50 or 60 miles per hour.

When I walk I’m in constant contact with the ground. I feel the flatness of the paved road, the give of the dirt road’s surface. With every step in woods or field my feet adjust to the micro-changes in the land’s contours. Climbing a hill, I feel the pull of gravity slowing my upward rate; coming down, my knees take the impact of the descent.

Sounds and sights come and go gradually, like my visit with the guinea fowl. When a tree or boulder comes into view, it stays there, becoming an increasingly larger part of my field of vision as I approach. I’m able to hear specific birdsongs rather than the whole chorus and, if I choose, I can locate their source or at least take a moment to savor their sweetness.

Further on in that same walk I was drawn to watch Cushman Brook wind its sinuous way through the woods. What would have been a moment’s appreciation in the car was an extended experience of pleasure in water’s motion.

My natural gait is about three miles an hour. This is just about right for a human being, and it fits pretty well with the pace of life around me. I’m glad for the opportunity to meet the world on its own terms.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and a member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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