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John Skoyles

On a trail in Truro

By John Skoyles
January 11, 2010

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IN 1992, when I bought a house in Truro, Cape Cod’s smallest town, there were three others on the street. Today we are nearing build-out, with controversies about “trophy homes,’’ including an oceanfront mansion built where the American artist, Edward Hopper, lived and painted.

In spite of that anomaly, Truro retains its character, with pristine beaches on the bay and ocean, and without chain restaurants or stoplights.

Two years after moving here, I took a job in Boston, but decided to commute the 107 miles.

Why did I remain “out on that clam strip,’’ as a colleague put it? Because my son was in our excellent public school; I still had friends from living here in the 1970s, and I can step out the door to the National Seashore.

When Yankee pitcher Bob Lemon was asked whether he brought his job home with him, he said, “No, I leave it at some bar along the way.’’ That’s how I feel about getting back and walking the narrow trail that’s traveled by coyotes, foxes, and the occasional deer.

In the center of the path today is a doodle of coyote scat. Rather than choose the surrounding acres of lichen, bayberry, and bearberry, the author decided to sign here, a frank opinion of his neighboring home owner.

On Sylvan Lane, a dog is tied in her yard. She refuses a milkbone. She gets better things from the trash cans that lie just beyond her reach, and sometimes within her reach, where both wild and domestic animals feast. One day a happy Labrador passed me carrying half a ham in his mouth.

Sylvan Lane meets the trail to the seashore that rises above a large kettle hole, an expansive dip of brush and trees. Moss known as old man’s beard curls on the branches. With the leaves down, you can see beyond them. William Blake wrote that we see “through the eye, and not with it,’’ and at this time of year, sight seems to penetrate even the opaque, as if you can stare into the infinite.

I was not always a walker and hardly claim to know the natural world. Thirty-five years ago, when I first arrived here in autumn, I was asked by friends to escort a nature writer through Provincetown’s Beech Forest, which she wanted to see. Where I grew up in Queens, N.Y., our few fallen leaves disappeared by wind or broom. I identified with the city dweller quoted by A. J. Liebling: “I like the country. It is a nice spot.’’

As we kicked through the ankle-deep foliage, I said, “These leaves are still here.’’

“I guess no one swept them,’’ she said.

Another autumn, poet Stanley Kunitz and I walked the same trail. A renowned gardener, Stanley named the bushes and shrubs, all mysteries to me. After a half-hour, to keep up my end of the conversation, I asked Stanley to identify a stunning crimson tree.

He drew out his two-syllable answer as if it was the saddest, most pathetic word that ever crossed his lips.

“Maple,’’ he said.

As I approach the “Four Corners’’ crossroads, wind cascades through the pines and oaks with a sound I still mistake for an oncoming truck. A soft branch breaks as I twist it aside, and it falls among the pine needles and trodden leaves. Everything is decay over sand.

I often meet the same woman jogger here and we nod in passing. But during last fall’s hunting season, she stopped, upset, to talk. She had come upon a group of turkeys and, as they scattered across the road, her only thought was that they were in danger, and she worried for them as she jogged away.

I was sure her story would end with a bloody description of wounded or fallen birds, but she said, obviously grieved, that soon after seeing the turkeys, she met two hunters, and something - she didn’t know what - prompted her to shout as she ran by, “There’s turkeys back there!’’

We guessed at the reason: a bond with man rather than the wild? A secret sympathy she didn’t know she shared? Creatures among creatures, we stood on the path and wondered.

John Skoyles, a guest columnist, teaches at Emerson College and is author of a memoir, “Secret Frequencies: A New York Education.’’

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