A swan at the Norris Reservation in Norwell.

Birds are singing. Bees are buzzing. Buds are bursting. It’s spring again, and everyone is in love . . . or so it seems to me, a single woman among what appears to be an entire world of couples.

About two years ago, I broke up with the first love of my adult life. Among the more serious factors which led to the relationship’s demise was what might seem to someone who does not know me an insignificant detail: my boyfriend refused to accompany me on walks and canoe trips. However, in the end, this turned out to be a good thing.

The break-up spanned an entire summer. By the time I knew that I had to leave, our lives had become so intertwined that they could not be untangled in a matter of days. While we were each finding our way out of the rubble of a relationship complicated by living and working together, while we were sorting through household items, job titles, and — in our minds at least — friends, it was a comfort to know that there were a few things that had always been, and always would be, mine. Not material possessions, but things closer to my heart, things that would ultimately serve as my escape: the river, the ocean, and my walks in the woods.

Sometimes I feel that I could relive the events of the entire summer just by returning to the places I sought my escape: Rexhame Beach, a certain stretch of the South River, the Norris Reservation, Nelson Forest. Over the course of the break-up, I walked in the woods almost every morning before work. At the end of the day, I’d take long contemplative walks on the beach, and on my days off I’d kayak the South River. I sought out these places for what they offered in terms of space. At the beach, in the forest, or on the river there was plenty of room to breathe and to feel my newly-established freedom, to experience both the exhilaration of independence and the discontent that comes with being lonely. Inevitably when I return to those places now, the memories are so strong that the seemingly contradictory feelings of emancipation and dread come right back to me.

In the novel Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “You can’t know somebody until you’ve followed them home.” When I think about meeting someone new and introducing him to my world, what immediately springs to mind are these special places –the river, the ocean, the woods — which say just as much about me as would the experience of visiting my house or meeting my family. A voice in my head says that I will know a person is right for me by his reaction to the places I call home. His eyes will shine with joy as we paddle upriver in June, witnessing the greening of the marsh; he’ll sigh with delight as we watch the sun set through the trees of Nelson Forest; like me, he’ll be content to walk for hours along the Atlantic shore.

If only it were that simple. These are typical “places of beauty” and I’m not the only one who enjoys them. The fact is, I’ve seen that joyful look shine on the face of someone who was perfect for me only in theory, I’ve shared Nelson Forest sunsets with someone with whom I had so much in common that we only exasperated each other, I’ve left a long trail of footprints on the beach with someone who holds a huge place in my heart but can be neither my lover nor my friend. All of them could appreciate the beauty I wanted to share, but none were right for me.

I’ve been dating on and off since I was twelve, and I’ve got plenty of experience both with companionship and with loneliness. I think that to actively search for someone to love is a sure way to prevent myself from finding him. But knowing that doesn’t make the down times any easier.

“I should appreciate this time alone,” I tell myself. “I should take this time to learn more about myself.” And I do. Truth be told, at this point in my life, I doubt I could devote the time and energy necessary to make a relationship succeed — I’m too wrapped up in my work. Still, unlimited privacy can be stifling.

As the weather grows warmer, I find myself returning once again to my old haunts. The loneliness seems inevitable, so this year, instead of fighting it, I have resolved to pay attention to where it comes from. Is it a genuine desire for companionship or a reluctance to accept myself for who I am? Exactly what am I searching for anyway? Is it partnership or just a certain way of life? My objective this season will be to answer some of those questions.

Just the other day, I spent some time with a friend who, throughout the two years I have know her, has been struggling to make her own relationship work. On the way home, I stopped by Norwell’s Norris Reservation, planning to take a short walk and let some of the things we’d talked about sink in.

It was late afternoon and still quite warm; on my way down the path I passed one happy couple after another, leaving the Reservation after their own afternoon walks. Even after all my friend and I had discussed, even after remembering through my friend’s words the difficulties that partnership often brings, I found myself gritting my teeth against that familiar lonely feeling I knew was about to set in.

Suddenly I didn’t feel very much like walking. I detoured from the main path and sat down on a rock at the edge of the small mill pond on the property, determined at least to get some fresh air. In the distance I could hear people emerging from the woods, or catching fish, or exploring Second Herring Brook, but I focused my attention instead on the swan gliding along the far edge of the pond.

For as far back as I can remember, this swan has been in residence at the Norris Reservation, always serene, always alone. I’ve heard that swans mate for life, but I don’t know enough about the species to determine whether this is a male or a female, whether it is the surviving member of a partnership or one who hasn’t yet found his or her mate. As I sat there, I compared the swan’s situation to my own.

As if reading my thoughts, the swan turned around and swam right over to me . . . so close that, taking a few steps back, I wondered if I had disturbed it. It stopped just a few feet away, looked right at me, and snorted. I returned the look quizzically and it snorted again, pausing as if waiting for a response from me. I said nothing, and it snorted one more time, then abruptly turned and swam away.

I watched the swan a while as it went about its business, gracefully dunking its head and neck, over and over, searching underwater for food. I had no way of knowing what the swan said to me, but somehow, I felt better.

by Kezia Bacon, Special To The Mariner
April 1998

Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.