Four laps around our acreage is one mile. We’ve measured it. Our land lies on a gentle slope near a small town in Oklahoma. To the east are the Ozark Mountains, their foothills spilling into our terrain. Going west toward Tulsa, they flatten out and turn into prairie, Osage country.
In August we walk late, after supper. The sun sets around 8 p.m. Already it has dropped behind Stick-Ross Mountain. We go out the back door and our two Chows jump up and rush ahead of us. They’ve been waiting, looking through the glass door at us while we eat, cocking their great heads, listening to see if we’re getting our walking shoes out of the closet. Ebony rushes ahead, nose down, trailing. She’s in her protective stance, clearing the way for us. Robins, crickets, and an occasional rabbit or squirrel scatter before us. Amber, the red Chow, is younger, just a puppy, but she tries to copy everything the older dog does.
We talk as we walk. “One of these days, I say, “we won’t be hurrying home from work to walk. We’ll already be here.” At the second corner of the fence, we turn north. The lower end of the property is cooler and windier. We didn’t realize this when we planted most of our apple and peach trees on the lower slope, exposing them to colder temperatures in the spring. That’s why our crop is sometimes spare.
The path is worn faintly in the heavy Bermuda grass. We are under the apple trees now, and my husband always claps his hands to scare the birds away from the apples waiting to be picked. The woodpecker—we think it’s the one that roosts in our clerestory window each night—squawks a protest but flies off momentarily. We pause to pile up windfall apples under one of the trees, promising to come back for them. I need to make applesauce. But the McIntosh apples always ripen at the beginning of the fall term, so that while I’m reading papers from my writing classes, I’m mentally looking for baskets and buckets to hold the fruit.
Amber comes to heel. Sometimes she wants to walk between us, touching us with her nose, her tail. When we pause to rest, she sits on our feet, her warm little body still for a moment.
Now we are walking east, uphill. This is the part that gets our heart rates going. We don’t talk much on this stretch. Passing the winter’s store of wood stacked against the catalpa tree, I think about its composition, a good watercolor study. I’ve been wanting to catch my husband on a ladder as he picks apples and make a sketch to turn into a painting. But my paintings are usually landscapes; people are incidental, included almost grudgingly. I want to see this slope as it was before it was settled, before some couple built a log house (no sod houses—too many rocks) and scattered outbuildings throughout the trees.
My thoughts jump ahead to retirement. I could write several hours a day, looking out over the pasture below our house or seeing the immediate, the roots of the oak trees and the moss at their feet, and then I could spend an hour or two actually painting. “Good painting is just good seeing,” my art prof told us periodically in the sixties. Will I ever reach that time and space in which nothing is demanded of me other than I just see, hear, smell, touch, taste?
We are walking south again, having made one complete lap. Ebony has retired to the carport and will meet us at the gate on the last lap. How does she know, we wonder. Does she count? Amber remains faithful, pacing ahead of us, checking on our progress, chasing dry leaves blowing in the slight breeze. The security light blips on as we pass my husband’s wood shop. Dusk has settled in. I watch for our resident king snake. Sometimes he lies under the trees, his body posture mimicking the tree roots. He seems friendly enough, and the dogs ignore him. Moles don’t fare so well. Once I saw Ebony reach down, unearth one, break its neck and fling it away, all with hardly a pause in her stride.
“I’m cleaning out files in my office,” I tell my husband. “This is the last time I’ll teach fiction and drama.” I know I’ll miss my students; their youthful exuberance has saved many of my days. I’ll miss laughing with them when the squirrels in Seminary Hall peer down through damaged ceiling tiles and watch us as we read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House or Albee’s The Sandbox. Already I’m thinking about my husband and me at home with each other all day. I’ve laid ground rules. Don’t ask me to look for anything in the morning until after I’ve had my coffee. Don’t ask me to locate anything while I’m writing or painting. He hasn’t made any rules, yet he’s the practical one, the logical one. Don’t borrow trouble, he says.
On the trail ahead, Amber stands puffing and panting, waiting for us to continue, jockeying her position in order to walk next to us, checking over her shoulder to see where Ebony has gone. The black dog meets us at the gate on the last round, and all four of us sprint to the house. Out of breath, my husband and I go inside and close the door, signaling to the dogs that it’s time to rest.
I don’t turn the lights on for a while. Watching the dark claim the landscape is a habit, and I know almost exactly to the moment when the fireflies will start to bead the blackness. Traffic sounds on the highway are muted. Night birds send timorous songs from the woods at the edge of the pasture. Twilight, a word derived from twix-light, between light and dark.
The dogs woof outside as a car light sweeps down our country road. I wonder if they stand guard long after we’re settled down to read or talk. I wonder if they watch the door, just in case we decide to come back out. Surely they don’t sit there all night. Surely they tend to their own business, living, no, reveling in their own senses as they see, smell, hear, feel, and taste the night, not looking ahead, not planning for the future, but living in the eternal blessedness of Now.