“Stalking is a game played in the actual present.” —Annie Dillard
I often go for walks during my lunch breaks, and when I do, I’m usually reading. I learned this method of multi-tasking as an English major with more books to read in one semester than I could stuff in my backpack. Now that I’ve graduated and gotten a “grown-up job,” I have to fit reading in whenever I can. “Read-walking,” as I call it, allows me to get some fresh air, exercise, and a daily dose of good storytelling.
The last book I read was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a memoir by Annie Dillard. It’s a stunning book, but it’s also lonely. Seldom does it mention interactions between Dillard and other human beings. It focuses instead, Thoreau-like, on Dillard’s interactions with nature. She “stalks” nature, as one chapter explains, sneaking around with the hope of seeing a muskrat, a snake, a bird, or some unforeseen natural miracle.
A few weeks ago, I left the office for my lunch break and, as usual, began reading. I took my typical route along a strip of earth between the road and the railroad track. For reasons I’ll never know, I looked up from the page at the perfect moment, and my eyes immediately zoomed in on a single leaf lying on the ground in front of me.
I realized I was having an Annie Dillard moment. This was exactly the kind of thing that would happen to her. I was riveted . . . by a leaf.
But such an interesting leaf!
It must have fallen last autumn and endured the winter buried in snow. Most of its surface had rotted away, leaving only a shriveled stem fastened to an intricate network of tiny veins. Among all the dried, crumpled, rotted leaves that covered the path, I found a gem. I carefully placed its stem in my pocket, letting it poke out like a tiny, tattered flag, and took it back to the office.
When you read-walk, a small part of your attention must be kept on where you’re going, so you have to look up from time to time, but even then you miss most of the beauty around you. And when I’m absorbed in a good book, I could walk past a protective mother moose and never know what hit me. That’s why I was so lucky to find this leaf.
A few days later, walking about a quarter of a mile from the office, I read the final pages of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. That day I found a small gray stone ringed with perfect bands, as tidy as if skilled hands had molded and fired it in a kiln. This stone also found a home in my pocket.
Why do leaves and stones fascinate me? Why do they fascinate Annie Dillard? It’s human nature to hear without hearing and to see without seeing. Sound literally goes in one ear and out the other, and visions fade before they hit the backs of our eyeballs. But when we put aside our distractions and take a closer look, nature becomes intricate artwork, and life becomes a stroll through an art gallery.
And yet I still read as I walk. It’s a way to fit a few pages into my busy schedule, and it’s a way to learn. But it’s also a way to keep myself company, to keep away the stillness of the moment. The present can be lonely. Entertainment, distraction—these are more enticing. Still, I try to remind myself occasionally to close the book and look up.