I went for a walk today, and found myself surrounded by zombies.
One of the places where I wander around to read nature’s news also happens to be a spot that, on any given sunny weekend, is choked with walkers, runners and bikers. On those rare weekends when I venture out into this, I feel oddly out of place, like those people who stand still in Times Square while being photographed in time lapse: a rock in a raging torrent of humanity.
This is not to say that I sit motionless on a bench like some octogenarian feeding pigeons. I actually do end up walking five miles or so on a given day, but it can often take me several hours because, well, to read the signs of the natural world you must slow yourself down.
Slowing down: A concept so alien to most modern Americans that they view it as a sign of weakness. But an overly regimented life is one empty of wonder. And wonder is no weakness.
I have no real way of gauging the inner lives of those earnest exercisers around me, but their exterior isn’t pretty. At best their eyes appear vacant, their minds focused on whatever it is they are listening to on their headphones. At worst they look like the damned in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
As I walk through this bustle, noting the comings and goings of flowers and fruits and leaves, checking to see what schedule life seems to be taking this year, I am almost never noticed, even though I might be picking up pine nuts off the ground or collecting seeds or elderberries or mustard greens in full view of the good people of the path.
I used to think everyone just thought I was a crazy homeless person and were consciously avoiding eye contact. That does still happen, but I’ve learned to recognize the difference between that and those who truly don’t register my existence.
This obliviousness fascinates me. Why, if you are so intent on whatever it is blaring itself into your skull, are you out in nature at all? Wouldn’t a treadmill suffice?
Of course it won’t.
I was once a runner. A competitive one, even. So fast there was no possible way I could truly appreciate my surroundings. But I did, or at least I told myself I did.
Nature exerts a sort of osmotic pressure on us all, seeping into those who lack nature within themselves even if ignored, much the way a salt brine works in meat. Even something as simple as sun on your head and a breeze in your face makes a world of difference.
Yet to me, a forager, they all still seem zombies. The difference is one of degree, I suppose, a sliding scale ending with the wild animals who live along this path. As intimate as I am with nature, my life does not depend on it the way a squirrel or goose or scrub jay’s does.
For those of us who slow down and take the time to really look at their surroundings, we at least get to borrow that sight a wild thing possesses permanently — a sight the cyclist or runner can never attain (at least on the days they’re hurtling through nature rather than looking at it).
So what, exactly, did I see?
I saw a world hurriedly getting its business done before the Great Drying comes in earnest. We are in our fourth year of drought here in northern California, and everything is at least a few weeks early — some, like the shad in the American and Sacramento rivers, are a full month ahead of schedule. Coyote mint is thinking about flowering, and black locust already is.
Yet not everything is accelerated. Today I collected pollen from our giant bull pines (shaking pine catkins into a plastic bag is a sure way to look like a crazy person), about the same time as I did last year, and the year before. Trees operate on a slower timescale than the rest of us.
The blue dicks are all gone, but their seed heads wave in the grasses, if you know what to look for. Taking their place is a new blue wave, this one of Ithuriel’s spear, another lovely azure flower with a delicious bulb that tastes a bit like a potato when boiled. When the spear blunts and dies back, our final flowers will bloom: the harvest brodiaea and the clarkias, both, incidentally, edible. Clarkia seeds are, more or less, like poppy seeds and can be eaten in the same way. When they’re gone, all is brown. Asleep. Waiting for rain.
Along the trails, underneath the bull pines, are fallen pine nuts. These pine nuts taste better than the more common piñon pine nut, but are protected by a mighty shell that will threaten to crack your molar and make you understand why it is a bad thing to be bitten by a squirrel.
Just by walking around, I can collect pocketfuls of pine nuts, although I have to dodge the ever-present bikers and runners while I collect them. No one seems to notice me, although this is the situation where most of them are consciously avoiding the gaze of the insane, bearded man in the ratty jeans and UW Badgers t-shirt. Every so often, however, someone does notice.
I was crouched down picking up nuts when a young mother with her little boy came around the bend. She did an admirable job at gaze avoidance, but little boys aren’t interested in such skills. “What are you doing?” He asked.
Picking up yummy pine nuts, I said, relishing the look of alarm in the young mother’s eyes when I said that. “Where?”
Why, they’re all around us, I explained, addressing the little boy (and feeling the prick of the daggers thrown at me from his mother’s eyes). You see, the squirrels and jays love eating pine nuts in the trees. But they are messy eaters, kinda like me, so they drop a great many perfectly good pine nuts on the ground. Mice will get most of them, but I get my share, too. I handed him a few. See? They’re free.
This was too much for mom, who thanked me through pained eyes and hurried her child away from the crazy bearded man.
I continued to collect pine nuts, listening to them as they walked off. She was admonishing him about something — probably about talking to weird strangers — and I saw her make the little boy drop the nuts I’d given him. A few moments later, as they continued their walk, I watched the little boy dart back down the trail, scoop up the nuts and dash back to his mother’s side, with her none the wiser.
He looked back at me and grinned. I held my finger to my eye, then pointed down at another nut. I picked it up. See what you can find when you can see?