For most of us, life has become a heads-down social sprint toward a sequence of deadlines. Sure, our modern digital world has its plusses. In conjunction with outdoor recreation, we can do business in a boat, send emails from a duck swamp, Instagram from a deer stand, and Facetime from a ground blind. If we’re honest about it, the conveniences might sometimes outweigh the negatives—i.e., putting the Ipad and Paw Patrol in front of a four-year-old in hopes of reducing the chatter long enough that a turkey might wander by.
Recently I walked a sandy Carolina river bluff under wild magnolia, fresh hickory and scrub oak, smelling the southwest breeze off the tannin-stained chop. I kicked at the well-traveled yellow dirt with the toe of my boot, and I suddenly had a more articulate sense of what centered me there in a place like that. In a few minutes after leaving a busy highway, I had entered a time wrinkle in which my senses (smell=brackish water and myrtle spice, sound=pine whistle white noise, sight=printed shapes of deer and turkey tracks, and feel=shift and settle of loamy soil) were firing on completely different neurons. In a snap, I had transitioned from ear-buds and a square screen in my hand to a timeless ecosystem.
But this time, there was more than the obvious get-away-and-unplug factor. The idea of being on the land and being part of the dirt had moved into a layer beyond blood-pressure reduction. I recognized, for the first time since I was kid lying on my back in a barrier island tidal pool, that time had momentarily stopped. Or, perhaps, that it had just quit mattering so much. Or maybe even that time had, for a moment, ceased to exist altogether. Pretty deep, huh?
Even with the smartphone put aside and the rat race left behind, when was the last time any of us truly felt like there was no deadline? It’s hard to think of a morning, evening, week or day, even in the outdoors, when the accomplishment and clock don’t play major roles. Dinnertime for the kids, the next day’s meeting, the tournament weigh-in, the ideal tide, the last bit of shooting light, taking advantage of the perfect duck weather or gobbling dawn. We dole out our workdays and play days in these increments and boxes. Phones, maps, GPS, and drones are just tools to help us manage the clock.
Back to that tidal pool on the East beach of Bald Head Island, North Carolina, sometime in the 1980s, heartbeat thumping in my water-covered ears, water the temperature of the August air. I was a little kid then, in love with everything the marsh and beach offered and unaware of the fact I was achieving a meditative feat while the laughing gulls wheeled overhead. Now I’m over the proverbial hill, well aware of the importance of natural places and the medication that they provide. And now, even more, I realize that timelessness may be the apex of that quest.
Before this gets too weird, I’ll get to the point. The other day on that river bluff listing appointment, I realized that having, creating, being on, and being part of a place is, in a sense, one of the best ways to cheat time. And a place can (and should) mean a lot of things. If you’ve never read Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, you should. Relative to this topic, and in the most general sense, it explores how humans’ sense of place and time has changed dramatically in a relatively short period—i.e., from the American Indians living in the land to settlers parceling and deeding it. His epic about the Cherokee and the loss and reconfiguration of their homeland is fascinating, heartbreaking, and I think teaches some really important lessons about how to “own” land.
In a nutshell, I took away two things: one, that the land more or less ends up “owning” us, and two, that the way animals and trees live within the landscape teaches us some valuable lessons about our concept of time.
Humans are instinctually drawn to becoming part of and moving through their landscapes—and this doesn’t always apply to the “country”. Cities all over the globe, from Manhattan to Bejing pulse with their own rhythms, and their inhabitants become part and particle of that beat. Every flat, every small lot, every parcel and property and tract, small to vast has its own signature and offers its owner an opportunity to find that sense of place.
Yesterday, I rode through twisting, pitted back roads between walls of finished corn with a physician on a quest to help him find a hundred-acre spot. He talked to me at length about his recent trip to Africa, and his daily rides to a past job that took him, windows down, through similar countryside and grain fields. He spoke similarly of both.
“It’s because I was just so into it—just so into the moment and the place,” he said, of the rides to and from the hospital. And then segueing to Africa, “Getting up with the sun, hunting, napping at midday, eating at dusk, sleeping at dark. No lights, anywhere. It’s like time had just, taken a different form.”
I drove the hour home thinking about what he said, and his was the perfect example in my rambling train of thought. This man, like so many other men and women, was balancing his operating room chaos with the blur of fields and trees whipping by his car window. His lifetime of drives through and immersions in rural space had sent him to visit even wilder places, and was moving him further still to find a microcosm to call his own.
Objectively speaking, that aforementioned immersion in the smells and sounds of a cityscape like lower Manhattan is just as important and place-powerful as the same baptism in a natural space. But clearly, I’m biased toward the latter, because it’s my passion and vocation, and because I think it can create a medicine more timeless than anything in the world. I believe the opportunity to take title to our own natural spaces provides an even cleaner canvas—a complete removal of modern distraction that is almost impossible to achieve otherwise.
Owning wildland presents a lot of opportunities to exist in a different context with exponentially older variables, if only for a few minutes or hours. And those moments we’ve spent with the wind across our ears walking some lost grassland swale in the Dakotas, a smoldering longleaf forest in the Deep South, a prairie wetland below the Wasatch, a juniper gulch in the Sangre De Christos, the sweet decaying sawgrass and mangrove maze in the Florida Everglades, or that sandy Cape Fear River bluff—those are the hypnotic moments in which a piece of time seems to stop. In those moments, we might make connections between the sandhill crane and redwing blackbird; the pine, oak, dirt, water, and grass that bind places 2,000 miles apart. Those are the moments that remind us of a less developed world and adventures that once required more patience and thought. And perhaps, in those moments, we earn back a little bit of life.
That childhood memory from the beach reminds me of another series of flashbacks, this time on red clay fields in the foothills of Western North Carolina. In my mind, the days all blur together, and it’s always winter, the cold dirt disked over in big clods through which dad and I walked and walked for stone points and pottery, boots heavy with the gathering soil. When we were there, in the fields, we were just there. And later, when we got home, we were home. It never felt like we needed to be somewhere else or with anyone else until we did. We would walk without saying much, occasionally whistling to one another when we found something good. We would walk with our heads down and the wind in our ears. With our eyes on the land.