Poetry accompanies a walk in early autumn

Every day is a good day for walking. On sunny mornings, I feel weightless between the sunny trees. There is music in the branches: birdsong, crickets chirping or just the laughter of my walking companions approaching and disappearing in every direction. Even if I am alone today, I feel like I belong to a community of travellers. And, of course, there are the poets and writers that I take with me wherever I go!

Tom O’Malley teaches in the English department at Canisius College.

In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau called his walking habit “déambulation”, etymologically linked to pilgrims approaching the Terre Sainte (holy land). For him, every step out the door was a pilgrimage – a physical escape from the rigors of 19th century New England. As I wander around today, I feel like Thoreau as I escape the rigors of the 21st century. Nothing seems more important than moving my feet along hilly trails. The morning birds push me forward, and I feel absolute freedom moving with their music. Later in his essay on “Walking”, Thoreau points out that “we cannot afford not to live in the present”. Walking with my poets keeps me grounded.

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Sometimes there are walks in the rain. The poet Robert Frost accompanies me when he describes his autumn journeys as “hushed”. Frost is prone to silent meditation. The days are short at this time of year and so the poet celebrates the shorter days and brighter suns in his beloved New England woods. Here in Western New York, I often think of Frost as I walk through these Southern Tier forests. Now there are trails that wind through the hills and down into the ravines where the streams continue to thread their way. Soon the colors will be richer as the leaves take on the stunning palettes that brighten the landscapes of my heart. These adorn the “path not taken” that the poet describes so richly.

Often I encounter windy days that rake the color from the trees. Even now, I notice the leaves preparing us for the technicolor show that will appear in the next few weeks. Today there is a cooling breeze blowing through the waving trees. Poet Percy Shelly called these wild winds ‘destructive and conservative’ as he stood on a hill watching the Mediterranean, its choppy waters crashing against the shore. Shelley recognized the wind as a creative force reinventing new seasons to come. Later, he calls on the wind to “make me your lyre” by recording the draft of an eternal poem. Now I know how he must have felt when he was inspired by these powerful forces as he put it all into words. I feel it too, as I find myself searching for the right words to give permanence to my experiences.

When winter finally comes, I will think of Emily Dickinson. She had no aversion to bad weather as she piloted her way through the morning snow in Amherst, Mass. She wrote how the snow “… sifts through sieves of lead and powders all the woods.” Such is winter: an infinitely creative force. Like a busy architect, he sculpts and recreates landscapes in an endless effort to redraw the perspectives to come. The snow falls and erases what was to reimagine what will be. For me, a walk in the fresh snow with Emily becomes an exercise in creativity that offers new landscapes to my imagination.

As the years pass, I rely on my poetic calendar to keep me company as I walk through the seasons. I am never alone as I journey with these sympathetic poets who turn every step into a heart-warming work of art that traces the boundaries of my human experience.

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