How well do we really know our neighbors? Or anyone outside the bounds of our own families, for that matter?
I’ve been mulling the question on the occasion of the death of Bill Aitken, an institution in my particular neighborhood. He was such an icon around here that county roads, river points, and whole landscapes are named after his family. I knew Bill a little, mainly because I bought some of his family’s land. This is the nature of rural neighbors everywhere: we all know one another. A little.
But that’s also the point of my inquiry: the various ways that we know – or don’t know – the people who live in our midst.
From my personal experience, Bill was a kindly old gent. We had him over for dinner occasionally, sat with him at high school basketball games, and exchanged hearty waves as we passed on his namesake road. He was funny, curious, and eager to talk about family history and favorite horses.
But that’s a one-dimensional perspective. Bill’s obituary described a tenacious bronc buster, a grateful man who had been given – and earned – second chances in life. A star basketball player, delivery-truck driver, a grocery-store clerk, and ringman at the sale barn. At his funeral, mourners described him as a recovering alcoholic, a mentor, a cheerful giant, patient with children and deferential to women, a gracious host, and a loving husband.
Little by little, those different perspectives start to resolve into a complete image. This was quite a man, a true pillar of his community. But my own understanding of Bill is based on one additional bit of information.
Soon after we bought his family’s land, I set out a number of remote cameras in order to assess the deer population. It was fun, checking the cameras periodically with my kids and seeing footage of bucks, raccoons, hawks, and coyotes. But one camera caught a different sort of activity. A couple times a week, it photographed Bill, sitting in his pickup alone, window down, gazing at the land he no longer owned. Eating a sandwich and simply watching the land that gave him so much strength, identity, and sustenance.
To me, that’s the essence of Bill Aitken: grounded, peaceful, and observant, even when no one was watching.
Andrew McKean lives in rural Glasgow and is editor of Outdoor Life Magazine.