1. When I was 12 years old, my family moved to England,
the fourth major move in my short life. My father’s government job demanded that he go overseas every few years, so I was used to wrenching myself away from friends.
2. We rented an 18th-century farmhouse in Berkshire.
Nearby were ancient castles and churches. Loving
nature, however, I was most delighted by the endless patchwork of farms and woodland that surrounded our house. In the deep woods that verged against our back fence, a network of paths led almost everywhere, and pheasants rocketed off into the dense laurels ahead as you walked.
3. I spent most of my time roaming the woods and fields
alone, playing Robin Hood, daydreaming, collecting bugs and bird-watching. It was heaven for a boy —but
a lonely heaven. Keeping to myself was my way of not
forming attachments that I would only have to abandon
the next time we moved. But one day I became attached through no design of my own.
4. We had been in England about six months when old farmer
Crawford gave me permission to roam about his immense property. I started hiking there every weekend, up a long, sloping hill to an almost impenetrable stand of trees called Bear Wood. It was my secret fortress, almost a holy place, I thought. Slipping through a barbed-wire fence, I’d leave the bright sun and the twitter and rustle of insects and animals outside and creep into another world — a vaulted cathedral, with tree trunks for pillars and years’ accumulation of long brown needles for a softly carpeted floor. My own breathing rang in my ears, and the slightest stirring of any woodland creature echoed through this private paradise.
5. One spring afternoon I wandered near where I thought
I’d glimpsed a pond the week before. I proceeded
quietly, careful not to alarm a bird that might loudly warn other creatures to hide.
6. Perhaps this is why the frail old lady I nearly ran into
was as startled as I was. She caught her breath,
instinctively touching her throat with her hand. Then, recovering quickly, she gave a welcoming smile that instantly put me at ease. A pair of powerful-looking binoculars dangled from her neck. “Hello, young
man,” she said. “Are you American or Canadian?”7. American, I explained in a rush, and I lived over the
hill, and I was just seeing if there was a pond, and farmer Crawford had said it was okay, and anyhow, I was on my way home, so good-bye.
8. As I started to turn, the woman smiled and asked, “Did
you see the little owl from the wood over there today?”
She pointed toward the edge of the wood.
9. She knew about the owls? I was amazed.
10. “No,”I replied, “but I’ve seen them before. Never
close though. They always see me first.”
11. The woman laughed. “Yes, they’re wary,”she said.
“But then, gamekeepers have been shooting them ever since they got here. They’re introduced, you know, not native.”
12. “They’re not?” I asked, fascinated. Anybody who
knew this sort of stuff was definitely cool —even if she was trespassing in my special place.
13. “Oh, no!” she answered, laughing again. “At home
I have books on birds that explain all about them. In
fact,”she said suddenly, “I was about to go back for tea and jam tart. Would you care to join me?”
14. I had been warned against going off with strangers,
but somehow I sensed the old woman was harmless.
“Sure,” I said.
15. “I’m Mrs. Robertson-Glasgow,” she introduced
herself, extending her fine hand.
16. “Michael,” I said, taking it clumsily in my own.
17. We set off. And as we walked, she told me how she and
her husband had moved to Berkshire after he’d retired as a college professor about ten years earlier. “He passed away last year,” she said, looking suddenly wistful. “So now I’m alone, and I have all this time to walk the fields.”
18. Soon I saw a small brick cottage that glowed pinkly
in the westering sun. Mrs. Robertson-Glasgow opened the door and invited me in. I gazed about in silent admiration at the bookshelves, glass-fronted cases containing figures of ivory and carved stone, cabinets full of fossils, trays of pinned butterflies and, best of all, a dozen or so stuffed birds — including a glass-eyed eagle owl.
19. “Wow!” was all I could say.
20. “Does your mother expect you home at a particular
time?” she asked as she ran the water for tea.
21. “No,”I lied. Then, glancing at the clock, I added,
“Well, maybe by five.” That gave me almost an hour, not nearly enough time to ask about every single object in the room. But between mouthfuls of tea and jam tart
I learned all sorts of things from Mrs.
22. The hour went by much too swiftly. Mrs.
Robertson-Glasgow had to practically push me out the door. But she sent me home with two large tomes, one full of beautiful illustrations of birds, and one of butterflies and other insects. I promised to return them the nex t weekend if she didn’t mind my coming by.
She smiled and said she’d look forward to that.
23. I had made the best friend in the world.
24. When I returned the books, she lent me more. Soon I
began to see her almost every weekend, and my well of knowledge about natural history began to brim over. At school, I earned the nickname “Prof”and some respect from my fellow students. Even the school bully brought
me a dead bird he had found, or probably shot, to identify.
25. During the summer I spent blissfully long days with
my friend. I discovered she made the finest shortbread in the world. We would explore Bear Wood, munching happily and discussing the books she had lent me. In the afternoons we would return to the cottage, and she would talk about her husband — what a fine man he’d been. Once or twice she seemed about to cry and left the room quickly to make more tea. But she always came back smiling.
26. As time passed, I did not notice that she was growing
frailer and less inclined to laugh. Familiarity
sometimes makes people physically invisible, for you find yourself talking to the heart — to the essence, as it were, rather than to the face. I suspected, of course, that she was lonely; I did not know she was ill.
27. Back at school, I began to grow quickly. I played
soccer and made a good friend. But I still stopped by the cottage on weekends, and there was always fresh shortbread.
28. One morning when I went downstairs to the kitchen,
there was a familiar-looking biscuit tin on the table.
I eyed it as I went to the refrigerator.
29. My mother was regarding me with a strange gentleness.
“Son,”she began, painfully. And from the tone of her voice I knew everything instantly.
30. She rested her hand on the biscuit tin. “Mr. Crawford
brought these this morning.” She paused, and I could tell she was having difficulty. “Mrs.
Robertson-Glasgow left them for you.”
31. I stared out the window, tears stinging my eyes.
32. “I’m sorry, Michael, but she died yesterday,”she
went on. “She was very old and very ill, and it was time.”
33. My mother put her arm about my shoulder. “You made
her very happy, because she was lonely,” she said.
“You were lucky to be such a good friend for her.”
34. Wordlessly, I took the tin to my room and set it on
my bed. Then, hurrying downstairs, I burst through the front door and ran to the woods.
35. I wandered for a long time, until my eyes had dried
and I could see clearly again. It was spring —almost exactly a year since I’d met the old woman in Bear Wood.
I looked around me and realized how much I now knew.
About birds, insects, plants and trees, thanks to her help. And then I remembered that back in my bedroom I had a tin of the best shortbread in the world, and I should go and eat it like I always did on weekends at Mrs. Robertson-Glasgow’s cottage.
36. In time, that old round tin filled up with dried leaves,
fossils and bits of colorful stone, and countless other odds and ends. I still have it.
37. But I have much more, the legacy of that long-ago
encounter in Bear Wood. It is a wisdom tutored by nature itself, about the seen and the unseen, about things that change and things that are changeless, and about the fact that no matter how seemingly different two souls may be, they possess the potential for that most precious, rare thing — an enduring and rewarding friendship.