Beyond the vegetable and animal foods we purchase shrink-wrapped from the grocery store, many of us no longer can call our fellow creatures by name. The naming of things is essential to our understanding of them and to our belonging among them, and there are costs to our ignorance. … Maybe it is significant that God set man the task of naming the creatures early on in Genesis as the first and necessary part of assuming our responsibility as stewards. What we have names for, we are more likely to notice and appreciate, less likely to ignore, abuse or consider of no consequence. We know our friends by name, and attend to them better than we do to rank strangers. I wonder if we couldn’t be better caretakers of the planet if we were on a first name basis with more of its inhabitants, and knew more about their families and their kin.
-Fred First, Slow Road Home
I used to know the names of my neighbors. I’m a lot less familiar with them now, even though I own a home on their doorstep.
I mean the wild neighbors like Fred First is talking about in the passage above. In my early twenties especially, I consumed whatever books I could about the natural world around me, always as a prelude to doing my own boots-on-the-ground and hands-on explorations. I hiked on and off trails for miles around the Blue Ridge Mountains. I drew what I found, or sometimes saved samples, particularly leaves and bark to look up later and teach myself what I was looking at. I memorized the different varieties of trees, and even researched their medical uses. I would follow animal tracks, figuring out what animal it was first, then what they were up to when they left the tracks—including, once, a mama bobcat with two cubs who stayed side by side nearby while she chased and took down a deer. I took note of claw marks on trees and stones. A few years later, had I been more confident in myself, I likely could have gotten a job as a park ranger when one was offered to me.
I’ve let myself get distracted since then.
Most of what I learned about my wild neighbors I’ve forgotten. I can tell you if something is an oak or a maple tree, but not specifically what kind anymore, and only by the leaf, almost never by the bark. I can tell you what many birds are on sight, but no longer by their songs. I look at those drawings I made twenty-odd years ago as if they were done by someone else. But I don’t like that at all. I want to learn about my neighbors again, especially since I’m now living on the edge of hundreds of acres of a mountain forest.
That’s the odd thing. I’ve lived on this mountainside for ten years come August, but all but the last two were in a rented house, so it never really felt like my own. I went hiking in the woods many times, exploring all over my side of the mountain, but I never took such care to relearn what I was looking at as I had in younger years. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I still felt a sense of impermanence, heightened in 2010 and ’11 by a months-long scare that I was going to have to move.
Worse still: I realized at the beginning of February, as I was hiking Tucker through the woods behind the house, that I hadn’t done any real hiking or exploring since moving into the house. That forest was a big part of the reason I moved here, and a big part of the reason I bought the house I did, and yet once I had the house, I let other things get in the way of going back into it. Writing, work, the house itself, all seemed to take priority until the morning Tucker and I dove into the forest because the road salt left before a winter storm meant that I couldn’t take him out onto the street. I actually felt ashamed of myself for not making my way back into what felt like a second home for so long.
Every piece of land has an admirer at least once somewhere in its history, and I’m an admirer of the forest I live beside, so let me introduce you. It starts a few dozen feet behind the house where flat yard drops sharply down the mountainside, a steep boundary between tame and wild. It stretches for hundreds of acres, but the forest on the southern half of the mountain is young as forests go, only a few decades old.
While the northern half of the mountain’s spread of trees remained intact—if you look at the mountain from a short distance you can see that side is much thicker—the southern half was almost completely devoid of trees as recently as eighty years ago, because it was farmed. A few hundred feet behind my house and across a creek are the remains of a late 19th century or early 20th century log cabin, whose foundation stones and chimney’s bottom half still exist, along with occasional tiny shards of ceramic ware. If you squint a little you can see a narrow thinning in the trees behind it where a road—a dirt road or track—ran to the cabin. A few hundred feet to the north are a series of stone walls ascending the hill where the land was terraced. An old dirt road, now blocked off from the paved neighborhood stretch, makes a loop over the mountaintop. Near the road are two long depressions running side by side along the side of the mountain which are probably old collapsed shafts made by miners looking for iron, a plentiful substance here that gives this area its red soil, and gave the town and college campus the name Ferrum.
There are some enormous oaks here left from the days before that side of the mountain was stripped, probably as shade trees. Sadly one fell recently, leaving a giant hole both in the ground and open to the sky. There are some big maples and others, including birch, since not many timber companies were interested in birch. But otherwise this forest is only a few decades old—though in that time it has reclaimed the mountainside for its own and spread everywhere where it wasn’t held back by houses and back yards.
We have deer most nights. Turkeys occasionally cross a road a little farther up the mountain. I haven’t seen a raccoon in years but their hand-shaped paw prints still mark their regular passages. We’ve had coyotes, bobcats, and at least one brown bear—seen looking miserable as it fled across my front yard to the woods in the middle of a downpour. The woods immediately behind my house are part of the territory of a red-tailed hawk—who is much hated by crows staking the same claim—and there are at least two Great Horned Owls you can occasionally hear calling and marking out their spaces at night.
All of this probably makes it sound like I know my neighbors, but I really don’t. Offhand I can’t even tell you what type of oak rises straight up in the center of my front yard, or the two maples that flank it. I remember finding young chestnut trees in the woods some years back, ones that hadn’t yet been strangled by the blight, but I can’t remember now where they’re located. I don’t even know if they’re still alive. I can’t tell you when our owls will sound off, or when the hawk will be overhead. If you showed me one of my own old drawings of a leaf or bark without the caption, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is.
Like Fred First in the passage above, I think my learning the names of my neighbors will only be a good thing, help me appreciate them more, and maybe even care for them better as much as I’m able. I bought the house here, I’m in it for the long haul, and those neighbors were a big part of the reason why. It’s way past time for me to go exploring and reintroducing myself, and relearning just who I share my ground with. I’m tired of not knowing.
I admire this land and I always will, now. I’m on a slow circle road taking me back to the starting point of learning about it, one leaf and one bird song at a time, and being in love with the knowing of everything around me. The more I learn the more I love it. If you ever visit me I’ll take you through the woods, as deep in as we can go if you want. Sooner or later you’ll find something to take home with you.