I always thought I liked “nature writing,” but then at some point I stopped being interested in it, and it became annoying to me—the frilliness of the ferns, the sudden sight of the unfolding great blue heron, the intimations of danger and beauty—all of these things I saw or felt, by the way, this morning, as my dog pulled me along the Chenango Towpath Canal Trail. Like lots of other things in Central New York, and like a lot of “nature” itself, the trail is something repurposed, turned beautiful long after it stopped being useful to humans. Back in the day, people walked their mules parallel to the water here, and the mules pulled floating goods along that needed transporting.
I myself am about to move, I don’t know where, with my whittled-down belongings in tow. It’s the fourth or fifth serious move in a short span of time, and I worry that I’ve started to sit on the surfaces of things and places and people, like a mosquito, kind of, extracting and then flying away. More towing: my dog Helgi, who I got in an effort towards permanence, walks with the leash held between his teeth, so that he drags me along, and sometimes I drop the leash so we can just walk together, no resistance involved. When my editor asked me to go on a walk and write about it I got a little nervous. This is pretty much the walk I do every day; there was nothing new to see, really, and I held my phone to my mouth so that I could record whatever impressions made their way to me without much extraction on my part: the red wing blackbirds, the heron, which startled me for a second, certainly, but wasn’t, you know, transcendent. The ferns, I dutifully recorded. The telescope grass is new. Helgi is sticking his face in the holes in the ground, I’m worried he’ll get bitten by something.
What actually happens though, I said, and what do I just imagine. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a man on my walk. The first time I saw him he was standing by the edge of the woods and I could have sworn he took a picture of us. We turned around. I told someone far away about it. The next time I saw him I pretended not to look at him but I was scrutinizing hard, the corner of my eye hurting from the effort. Did he take another picture? I couldn’t tell and didn’t want to assume he had. I began to see him elsewhere, not just on the canal. Yesterday I was walking past the mechanics, who give Helgi treats (one of them calls him “Hoagie”) and I saw the man again, seated underneath a tree. He raised his hand and yelled “hi.” I muttered hi and skirted past him.
I guess what I struggle with is just that question of skimming the surface versus not. If I want deeper engagement or not. On the walk this morning I raised my phone to my mouth and said I wonder if I’ll see the man. Helgi put his face in a hole and I shuddered thinking about the bite on the snout, the visit to the vet, the cone, but before any of that, the squeals of both entangled animals, the unselfconscious writhings of their bodies locked in a deathmatch. We passed a field of tall weeds that had just been mowed. Dandelions, I learned on Twitter the other day, are waterproof. Here, they had been felled in such a great volume that, from a distance, the field looked like it was covered in big white pebbles.
And then I saw the man; he was squatting next to the house where he lives, wearing the yellow crocs I know he wears, and he was watching us, I thought, but again, I couldn’t tell.
A few minutes before I had mused into the phone something like why am I noticing that fear is, like, the animating force here?
And then how do you find suspense if you’re not scared?
But a long time ago I was moving away from somewhere and in the last few days there this guy legitimately stalked me. Why he chose those days to do it, in which everything felt temporary and bizarre, I don’t know. It was eerie, actually, that he chose that moment, which was kind of glowy and sad with that feeling of being the last time I saw that bush, the last time I went to that bar. Even the trash cans seemed to have some kind of extra light to them. The first time I noticed it happening I was walking at night to my house and I felt a rush of wind behind me and he was hurtling past in a dark van, staring at me and staring into my house, which didn’t have any furniture in it anymore. It was just unlit and empty in front of me and night and empty behind me. And then over the next few days, I saw the man circling the block in his van, and he’d slow down in front of my house and turn his head directly at me as I sat on the porch, and then he’d drive away and come back a few minutes later. And other people saw him too. A few of my friends chased him down the street, and I slept with a knife under my pillow, until a few mornings later when I drove away for good.
On the way out of town, then, I remember, I was driving down the highway in literal fog, and a murky feeling of disbelief. This had been the longest I’d lived anywhere, really, since childhood. The fog was just sitting almost casually in the corn and I was leaving. The car in front of me swerved suddenly, because the car in front of it swerved suddenly. The first car stopped on the quiet highway, and as I drove past, blinking the signal, careful suddenly, I saw movement. A deer, hit, was falling slowly to the gravel of the shoulder, in this horrible way, confused by the movements of its own body.
The distance expanded, then, and as the hours passed I ran my mind over the deer, and the man in the van with the thick glasses, the way he’d leered and looked into the blankness of my house like he knew somehow that I had built my life so I had nothing to hold onto. I didn’t know how the two things were connected, except that they made it easier to leave, obviously. I don’t feel like a scared person, someone who is constantly afraid of being hurt. I try hard, actually, not to be that way. But sometimes, on the verge of moving again, seemingly forever, in a relentless parade of temporary employment, of cobbled-together lives, of slapping the old magnets on the new fridge, I catch myself in a familiar groove of imagining the worst about people. Like a break-up—a bad end sometimes makes things easier to understand, to talk about later, to leave behind. Fear’s maybe the shortcut.
We walked towards the ball field; I didn’t look at the crocs-man, I took Helgi off-leash again and threw the dirty tennis ball and then within seconds, as he was loping along back towards me, I noticed how his ears shifted and his legs picked up and all of a sudden he was sprinting hard at something I didn’t have time to look at, and I was screaming, because it was clear that he could kill whatever he was running at, and definitely intended to. It was a squirrel in the waterproof dandelions; it wasn’t moving fast enough, and as I ran after him I was envisioning the blood and the screaming of the dying animal, and I knew I didn’t want it, didn’t even want to imagine it.
The squirrel escaped. And I put the leash on Helgi again and steered him towards home. What actually happens, I said to myself, versus what I think about.
A house with a peace flag and chalk drawings on the sidewalk had a bowl of “dog water” out, and Helgi drank, and I stared at the happy house with a weird kind of resentment I couldn’t figure out. And then further down the street, when we were nearly home, a tall man stood over a border collie and asked if we wanted to visit. I’d seen him before rescuing a lost dog. He wore an old jacket with his last name on it and had a four-year-old daughter in the house. I sat down in his driveway and we talked for like thirty minutes and the dogs cavorted. It was the strangest interaction, deep and good, with no weird layers. Then Helgi got bored and when he gets bored he starts biting at his leash and begging me to tow him away and jumping on me and going crazy for attention. The other dog was just lying there patiently. I apologized for my dog’s behavior. “It’s fine,” said the man. “They want what we all want,” he said, “it’s just less concealed.”
Lucy Schiller is a writer based in Central NY. You can find more of her work at www.lucy-schiller.work