Grounds for refreshment

TO someone who leans toward country life, living in a small, suburban apartment could be a serious drawback. Happily, it hasn't worked out that way for me. My apartment complex was built by the present owners of a castle located on the same property. The castle was the creation of a wealthy 19th-century family that had the stones and materials laboriously imported from Europe. The grounds are not the manicured extension of dilettante life they once were, but several acres remain between the apartment building and the castle to explore and enjoy.

Oddly enough, few others seem to be aware of the crumbling springhouses, old stable with its rosy-tiled, turreted roof and dovecotes, the overgrown Japanese garden with sagging gateway and woods full of chattery stream, birds, flowers, and August blackberries.

Sometimes, I can steal only a 10-minute walk after work, but I always return refreshed by some delightful surprise. Once I came on two baby rabbits lying on their sides to rest in a clearing, alternating nibbling with revery. On a May evening a vine-laden oak tree was full of tiny, migrating warblers. A yellow one enjoyed such a lengthy, enthusiastic bath in the creek that it must have been the cleanest bird for miles.

Snowdrops and jonquils greet me in the early spring by the water. Wild phlox, butterfly bush, jewelweed, and black-eyed Susans come to the fields later. I've seen rabbits and squirrels play zigzagging, chasing games on a grassy hill, a red-tailed hawk being driven by angry crows, a box turtle meandering across a path, and I have inadvertently flushed out rusty-voiced pheasants.

An ``interloper'' I saw by the stable turned out to be the retired gardener of the daughter of the family who had built the castle. In a soft Scottish burr he told me how he had come over from Scotland as a young man and worked on the grounds until he became head gardener with a large work crew under him. He was a born storyteller and I listened to tales of parties, picnics, and carriages from another era. I was also shown the whereabouts of some rare trees and given a glimpse through a castle window of the ballroom with its Italian marble.

Friends have enjoyed, or pretended to enjoy, the short, enthusiastic tours I give of ``my estate.'' A favorite place to bring them is what I call the amphithe-ater. There's an old stone wall just beyond the stable that makes a good seat. Downhill, it's grassy for a few yards and the woods loom up full of huge oaks woven together by thick, persistent vines. The birds love it there, but even when they seem elsewhere, the varied layers, tones, and patterns of green are enough to hold one's attention.

In some places, the woods seem tropical with wide, banana-leafed bay trees, the heavy perfume of their blossoms, and bizarre red fruit. There's a pine zone where the path is blanketed with needles, an area of elephant-skinned beeches, and a sunnier spot where the air can be sweet with honeysuckle.

I think what I've learned from all this is to expect refreshing surprises in any natural area. They come in many set-tings. For example, a summer vacation in Florida might sound unseasonably grim. Well, it wasn't. Avoiding the midday heat, I enjoyed sunrise walks and long swims in the Gulf while watching diving pelicans and silver fish leaping out of the water.

A nearby mangrove swamp soon revealed some crocodilian activity. One alligator, having captured an oversize catfish, was seen (from a healthy distance) flipping it in the air to place it in a better position for eating when it caught it again with a rippling, snaggle-toothed smile. I watched another venerable old 'gator swim off down a swampy, primeval waterway to the open bay beyond. It looked so free swishing its scaly dragon-tail in a slow rhythm from side to side.

Once I saw a Southern raccoon, much blonder and less substantial-looking than its Northern bandit-cousin. It was so totally preoccupied with gobbling small, purple berries at the roadside that it didn't even notice the car.

A dark lizard posed handsomely on top of a post, and the immense web of an orb spider beaded with morning dew stretched clear across a narrow dirt road.

Multitudes of lovely, long-necked, long-legged, long-billed wading birds were everywhere. They had so many varied postures and walks as if to imitate half the human race in motion. The willets' cries were at once plaintive and cheerful as they lunged for sand crabs along the ocean. Farther up the beach was a tall Australian pine that served as a haven for mariner pelicans drying their wings between fishing expeditions like shelved marionettes.

On one afternoon ocean walk, every single shell on the beach seemed to reflect the sun, becoming a golden horde. Each sunset revealed a completely different display of colors and changing cloud forms. At night, the tropical storms were too dramatic and compelling to ignore, as palm fronds were whipped and lashed by wind and sheets of rain against jagged, electric-yellow lightning.

The morning of departure as I came in from my last swim, the ocean deposited at my feet a large, peach-colored cockle shell. It was like the ones my father and I used to find when I was a child and we walked on an isolated Gulf shore in Alabama. A nostalgic goodbye gift from the sea.

I'm not exactly sure why natural places possess such a capacity to refresh us, or why it's so heartwarming to watch animals having enough space to be themselves. Perhaps it's simply because it seems so right. Things fall into place in an infinitely orderly disorder or an equally disorderly order which touches us in a way contrivance can't.

But condominiums are going up fast on the Gulf shores, and there is talk of bulldozing the woods on ``my estate'' to build another apartment. Ignorance and short-term goals are hard on our enclaves of refreshment wherever they may be. I'm going to cherish the ones I find.

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