On Walking the Dog

My foot slips as I step over the jagged rock wall that outlines the border of Maudslay. Duke, intrigued by all the scents left by the whitetails, the flora and fauna, pulls on his leash, nose to the ground, wet with morning dew. I follow him down a narrow, muddy footpath, the suction of the ground trying to steal the boots off my feet with each step. Grass to the left and right, Duke forges ahead like Moses through a parted sea. He leads me to the usual spots first, needing to mark his territory.

First to the lone, seemingly out of place picnic table. It sits beneath a tree in the middle of a vast meadow that marks the beginning and end of all walks through the park. He splashes it with his scent, looks back at me with a simple grin, and moves on. The rotting, splintery leg of the table steams as Duke’s hot urine-mark meets the cold morning air. I sit at the table as he ritualistically marks up the tree that hangs over my head, the same tree I climbed and jumped out of as a young boy. It looks wise, in the way that only an old tree can; it’s comforting. The tree-limbs hang over me like the arms of an old friend. Duke looks to me, done with his task. Wiping the flakes of red paint from the weathered picnic table off the seat of my pants, I move on.

The sun peeks over the top of the white pines that line the narrowing trail, but as we walk further into the wood, the sun counts for less and less. The pillars of pine stretch all the way to the riverbank, creating a confusing realm where the ticking of my watch becomes irrelevant and the sunlight can hardly infiltrate. There is no sense of day. There’s an undisturbed stillness, only found in nature. A ripple-free lake in northern Maine, the silent dancing of grassy hills in Santa Cruz as the wind blows through, the pungent air of a stagnant southern swamp — worlds apart, all these places share this stillness. As we get deeper into the woods, the fallen pine needles muffle our steps as if we’re being consumed by the woods with each stride. The ground gives as I put my weight on it.

The forest softens the senses. It is this very feeling that draws people to the park or drives them away. The park was once a family estate, owned in the early 1900‘s by the Moseleys of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Remnants of their homes remain: graveyards for pets, skeletons of barns, assorted arch bridges that seem lost and misplaced. Scattered like afterthoughts, the wilderness chews them up. Possessed by moss and leaves, animals claim these structures as dens or nests. A hundred New England winters have worn out the structures, adding to the eerie folklore surrounding the place.

Maudslay is the setting of Native American ghost stories, lanterns moving through the woods, even a gateway to Hell–a crawl space carved into a hill. I’ve explored all these legends, knocking on the “Gates of Hell” is a rite of passage among North Shore boys. I remember my heart racing as I knocked on the cold, rusted doors leading inexplicably into the earth, my hands shaking at the echo on the other side, the rough scraping of my palms on the ground as I tripped, sprinting away into the night. Dirt and pine sap crept into my cuts. These stories, the towering white pines, and the labyrinth of perpetually dark footpaths can contribute to an overwhelming feeling of “I shouldn’t be here.” These ghost stories and local myths are attempts by humans to understand the power of the place, when in reality there are no ghosts, just a preserved bubble of woodland, impervious to time, strewn with ruined attempts at mastery by human beings.

As Duke and I cross one of the stone arch bridges, he stops dead in his tracks. His nose rises to the sky, sniffing violently. Three whitetails, one buck, emerge from the woods and sprint across the trail merely twenty five feet in front of us. Leaves fall as they leap back into the woods. Heart racing with excitement, Duke drags me down the trail, bounding over the upturned roots of trees that were dug out in order to create the path. The roots form a natural staircase down the hill. I know where he’ll go, so I drop the leash. Alone, I slow down to smell the dirt, the trees, and the air.

The brisk New England breeze stings my nose as I inhale, it feels like my nose could start bleeding. I taste the dirt that Duke kicked up as he sprinted away. It lingers in my throat. A red-tailed hawk screeches and flies to the Merrimack River whose swirling current is the bane of local mothers as their children jump and swing into its swirling waters. Eagles nest here but remain elusive.

I come upon a small wooden bridge spanning the edge of a trickling waterfall. Duke lays in the murky pond on the other side. The green algae is thick; it does not break or reveal the surface of the water, even as he rustles about. Rather than rippling water, it resembles a grass-stained sheet hanging from a clothes-line, tickled by a gentle breeze. Even the sound of the water is altered: a heavy gurgle and slosh juxtaposing the light patter of the waterfall over the rocks behind me.

We make our way to the Merrimack and I look to the sky for bald eagles, scouring the treetops for their nests. In my youth I spent hours sitting on “Indian Rock” waiting to see an eagle fly by. Across the river stands the old boatbuilding barn and mill buildings. The river divides the town and the small oasis of nature within it. We sit on a rock.

Far off there’s a clearing where the foundation of the old Helen Moseley house lies. It’s all that remains after a fire that occurred decades ago. This location has always felt like the heart of the place. The whole park is filled with artifacts of prior human habitation, all either abandoned or destroyed now, slowly being reclaimed by the the forest like bits of paper succumbing a roaring fire. The stone foundation of the ruin is cracking, grass is prodding its way through. Each blade is an arrowhead piercing the flesh of faded history.

What is left of the Moseley’s shed is covered entirely by vegetation. The walls are full of holes, termites, and rot. I could destroy the whole thing with a firm push. A blue jay calls out, perched atop the structure. He is a king surveying his newly reclaimed realm. Small rock walls establish the border of what was once a backyard,  now home to garter snakes and strewn with snake-skins.

Duke leads me down a precipice and to the riverbank, and I watch my footing carefully. On the riverbank there is the corpse of a striped bass. Flies rejoice. Duke emerges from the shallows, and I can taste the brackish water as he shakes off his coat. It dries on my cheeks, the pores tighten, my skin grows sticky. The narrow river bank is strewn with large rocks, splattered with barnacles like freckles on a young man’s face. Duke barks and pulls me back up the hill toward the trail and the cover of the trees.

We retrace our steps back toward the picnic table, and I feel as I always do at the end of a Maudslay walk. The place is familiar, I know it well; yet I will never fully understand it. I’m always a visitor, never part of the place–incapable of anything beyond observing. The few man-made structures that exist there are just reminders of the fact that Maudslay is a wild place, and this wildness will always remain. It is a small reserve of untamed land within a contingent of small New England towns; a reminder of how the land was before the reign of civilization began.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. laura morgan says:

    Beautiful writing, James. I especially like the paragraph about the Moseley house ‘slowly being reclaimed by the forest’. And I thought your conclusion reminiscent of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, which I happen to be reading just now. She talks about mountains having insides as well as outsides – I think you’d like it.

    A different continent, a different dog, but I was smiling as I read this because its structure and style rather mirror my own blog post this week…

    Like

    1. James Freitas says:

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’ll definitely check out The Living Mountain and your blog post as well. Both definitely sound like things I’d enjoy reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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