PRELUDE I moved into the corner room of a small brick and stone dorm in the middle of the school year. I left at the end of December and returned to the icy campus as a resident of a small building with a stone rampart and two pointed dormers. As I took one of the first walks from my Andover Cottage on the snow-dusted path, I put on Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture on my iPod. As I traced the same walk with the new eyes of a May afternoon, the heroic symphony layered itself above the familiar journey.
Directly in front of Andover Cottage stretches a near perfect line of bushy oaks. Beneath the vivacious canopy, I walked through the blissful cool of its shadow on the path splashed with afternoon light. The high-pitched wheeze of weed-whackers and construction work reverberated across the patches of grass. If bees and the chirping of the birds mark the beginning of nature’s spring, the thud of dump trucks and the roar of tractor lawnmowers tell that the suburban world has awakened. As distant landscapers hold a trill between the revving of two engines, a cocktail of gasoline and fresh-cut grass wafts to my nose. Shadow plays among the indulgent stretches of grass, interrupted by tennis courts and sharp brick rectangles on the horizon. As I pass the next giant oak, planted beside the path like lampposts, I finally near one of the landscapers. From a distance I assumed he must be at least thirty or forty. Up close, I realize he might be the same age as me, no older than eighteen. As I pass him, I notice too that his shirt billows with the breeze in the same searing orange as the small notebook I hold in my hand.
This corridor demands forward movement. Lines of oaks run parallel to duplicates that straddle a side street. They too burst with a vibrancy I once thought reserved to a box of Crayola crayons. On their closest side, the bouquet of their leaves and branches drip luxuriantly from their trunk. On the roadside, the town has shaved them and clipped their canopy away from the border of a nearby power line.
One giant paved streak dissects the suburban campus: Main Street. Nearing the asphalt stream, cars pass with a gentle gust. Most do not leave the sound of engines or of tires but the sound of air. Certain Pontiacs and Volvos lurch into divots and their struts form the percussion. Two white barricades block my familiar crosswalk, and my daily route takes a detour.
The flow of cars obscures the adagio movement of springtime bird-calls. Waiting at the curb, a forest green van stops directly in front of me. Other than the landscaper, this is the first human face I have seen. A black-haired man taps the steering wheel to a Motown hit. The cabin of the van is a tunnel, and beyond his creased face, through the open driver’s window, shines the stone of the opposite sidewalk. The light turns and the synthetic chirping signal lasts exactly five steps of my right foot.
The various paved arteries of campus intersect across from Main Street. This is the sweet, triumphant violin crescendo of campus. An expanse of perfectly manicured lawn meets under new lines of parallel oaks. The lawn is an extraterrestrial shade of green, too perfect. Staring to the right, it appears like an optical illusion. It folds before the path in unadulterated flatness. Only the yellowed grid of lawnmower marks interrupt its smooth texture. In a world of budding greens, the swarms of students released from class act as its flowers. Clad in pastel pinks, in burning oranges and booming reds they dot the landscape. Like the matching columns, cupolas, friezes of various academic buildings, the distant students throw cream-colored skin into the late afternoon.
Near the end of my odyssey I stare towards the neo-classical façade of The Addison Gallery of American Art. Skidding into the target of my eyes, a bike suddenly careens to the ground in slow motion. The movement comes to a screeching halt. Its rider, wearing a swirled blue helmet, is, “okay.” I am left again to the façade. Five seals dot its limestone face. Four stamped on gutters. The most prominent, right below its classical roof, stands a tree with twisting branches.
Turning around, the road stretches along the horizon along with an abandoned ladder and several construction trucks. At an intersection with another path, two young students hold hands. They wear LL Bean backpacks with initials inscribed on forest green fabric. They enter seamlessly into my observation, a pleasant reminder that in this grandiose landscape pockets of simple human gestures survive. The two girls stroll in front of me, still tenderly holding pale on tan skin as one pushes the crosswalk signal to transverse the threshold once more.