Relay: A Lexicon Of Place

The groove of the seasons keeps shaping my experience of time and my memories

What is it about staying in one place or, for that matter, moving around? I moved around a fair bit in younger days and still think of myself as that kind of footloose spirit, but the truth is I’ve been living in one place, here on the East End, for upwards of three decades, and in my little house on an old field lot in Springs for more than a quarter century.

The knowledge of this place, deepened year after year as the groove of the seasons keeps shaping my experience of time and my memories, is a force so central to my life I can no longer separate it from who I am.

I love knowing the world this way: as the time of the yellow flag irises around Town Pond or the days of lacy flowering trees or cherry blossom time or the time of year when that one curve along Accabonac Harbor with a certain mix of trees pops with color and tells me it’s fall, or when the overhanging bower along Old Stone Highway is a doorway into a magical snowy world. 

There’s the evening of the first spring peepers in the wetland behind my house — disconcertingly early, on Feb. 28 this year — the night of the first fireflies that send me to a quiet evening session in the hammock outside, the return of the osprey, whose piercing calls, flying over my yard, make me look up, the annual dragonfly swarm. The freezing nights of coal black that make the stars pop. 

I’m uncertain this is a thing I should admit, but if you asked me to outline my life’s highlights, they would be many of these things: another time sitting in the kitchen doorway listening to a thunderstorm roll in, another cozy day in the house both lulled and enlivened by the motion through my windows of the falling snow outside, a summer dusk sitting out in the garden dirt weeding, a glass of rosé at hand, when the year’s first screech owl starts its eerie song. The always startling discovery of the long-lived garter snake that comes out of the stone basement wall to sun itself on my doorstep each year.

The things that happen again and again, and the special ones: turning back home after leaving only a moment ago, to find a tall egret stalking up my walk (as if it was waiting for my departure to call for a party at the house, I always said); the night I sat in the yard with a little dog on my lap and realized two screech owls were overlooking us in the tree, and then watched another two, and another two, fly in. The moment, waking after a sweet nap in the hammock, me and a deer only a foot or so away locked eyes and, in unison, both let out a shriek of surprise. 

And there was the surprise of finally knowing about the massive tree in the woods out back — a giant Ent-spirit, I’m certain — only after it was felled in a storm, its root system upended, its massive structure calling my attention to that impressive thing I’d been living near, unknowingly, all this time. Somehow I’m proud of that, and all these things. I feel, despite other myriad, abiding questions about life, that I’ve landed in the right place — or one right place. 

I love the things that endure: knowing the treetop shapes that surround my little world, feeling the arc of the year through the changes and benchmarks of nature. 

Recognizing the different cheeps of the woodpecker hatchlings either fussing for attention or excited by a parent returning with food. Seeing what changes and what lasts — will the barn swallows be back this year, the orioles? Will the phlox on the old cottage site come back, the tiger lilies, the iris patch? Where will the tall comfrey stalks pop up, or the milkweed?

I’m blessed to have neighbors who also care about these things, who mark time this way, who share their observations. It bonds us in this little enclave as we swap those moments, helping each other define our place in the year, in this world. 

We know our trees — my stalwart linden, catalpa, and centurion cedar, the massive pines and maples across the street. We trade tidbits like currency, sharing the little gifts and gratitude for our lives on this patch of land.

Once upon a time I walked into this empty house a young woman who’d just, astonishingly, signed mortgage papers, who’d just signed on to I knew not what. I poured champagne into a paper cup and sat down on a milk crate in a cold and empty shell that lacked heat and had most recently housed a squirrel or two. And embarked.

I believed a home base, a home place, would not bind me, but set me free. So many things have turned out differently than expected — for just about everyone, I’d guess. 

There’s so much to be said for a deep knowledge of a place, for decades of sunsets over the same view. It gets deep, not old. Sometimes, though, you only know the shape of those deep roots when the wind exposes them and shakes things up a bit. 

So what is it about moving around and learning a new lexicon of place? That’s the other half of the balance, maybe the thing that keeps things grounded — and a subject for an essay all its own. 

Joanne Pilgrim is an associate editor at The Star.