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Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

Bones

Deep in the woods lately hidden under snow there are secrets that spring gives up, brings to light. Still half-covered in the buff and fawn of old leaves, ringed by the green and purple teeth of new skunk cabbage, I find the bones of a deer, long leg bones long lain here, the gentle curve of ribs beside them, soft, bright ivory against brown.

I knew they would be here, somewhere. I found the skull several years ago, a dozen yards away, just the other side of the foot bridge across a stream so small it will be mostly dry by August. It was only a matter of taking the moment’s opportunity to leave the path and look, study the ground for the telltale flash of white that’s more than just a bare branch lying on the ground.

Today I looked, and so I found them. I’ve become quite good at finding bones in the spring, but I think it’s mostly just that: I look for them. I look for them because I like to see, because the sight of them seems a clue the seasons heave up to me, about the nature of life and death, the circle that can seem cruel or sad and always remains a mystery.

That mystery was with me yesterday too, I realize now, as a woman stood before me, the poet at the writers’ conference, and said she’d had to take a nap in her car in between giving lectures because ever since she started chemo, she gets so tired. And then she turned on the overhead projector and began to talk to us about memoir. I kept thinking how vital and alive and strong she was.

Here in the woods I contemplate death as in a still life, easy, poetic; at a distance created by time and circumstance and species. I have lived and seen enough to know death does not look so picturesque, visited upon us in hospitals, on death beds, construction sites, in cars, lying on the floor.

And yet… These bones lying so long, so many seasons covered over in snow and then in green (the skull, I noted today, is now growing moss) have something powerful to tell me. Revealed in this brief time of bare earth after frost heaves and just receded snow, they show me the cycle itself is beautiful. I can see it, here where the deer left its body; the bones have now become another pattern barely distinguishable from the rest, the leaves and twigs and nut shells, the seed cases and bark peelings and old shreds of grasses, walked upon by beetles, turned over under their feet.

Somehow it comforts me to know we’re all going back here. Dust to dust—words, but here I find the picture: the bright, sharp green of the skunk cabbage blade dipped in purple, beside a scattering of rib. Literally entwined.

I wonder if I will hear the poet speak again. I think she must wonder too, how many more times it will be given her to speak, how many more poems it will be given her to write. We don’t know. The mystery is how life and death complete and make each other. Somehow the bones lying beside the creek in the first burst of spring help me accept that it’s not given to me, to understand.

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Farewell to Winter

Like most everyone I know, there are aspects of this winter that I won’t miss. The bitter cold that stung my face nearly every time, it seems, I walked outside. The ice patches on driveways and parking lots, lying in wait, requiring such vigilance that I had to watch every step. Events canceled, flights delayed, traffic snarls. Energy bills—it’s been a cold, cold winter. Even today, in early March, the temperature started out in the teens.

Yesterday was even colder. But I bundled up and went out anyway. And as I walked about (and yes, when the wind hit me, it stung my face), I realized as I usually do that I will miss winter, in some ways.

On snowshoes I crested a small hill and looked over the nine-hole golf course next to our development. Standing in the quiet, I realized I had it all to myself. Striding along a row of trees I followed in the footprints of deer, cleft hooves showing at the bottom of the wells their legs make in the drifts. The stream that drains the pond was running, and at my approach a cloud of ducks rose and honked away. I hoped they would return soon, descending again like a curtain pulled behind me.

Still there were no people. And I thought of spring: golfers, and golf carts; I will be banished from the cart paths. There is a narrow strip of woods abutting the golf course, and I left the path, winding between trees and deadfalls, walking in my snowshoes atop the drifts. I thought: Only in winter is this possible, to wander in the woods with such ease, the snowflakes lifting me above the forest floor, the undergrowth sparse, the insects gone.

There were more tracks, and mysterious tunnelings in the snow; places where squirrels had been eating something (pine cones? bark?) and left flakes of it behind. We’ve not had fresh snow for a few days now, and the wind had sprinkled the pure white with flecks of brown, fallen from the trees. As I came to the edge of the woods I saw that the gusts had shaken the rest of last year’s leaves from the old oak that stands there. They were spread around it on the snow, brown and withered, as if the last of winter, spent, can now let go.

Let go, and spring will come, and spring will be welcome. Still, as I stood in the open park and looked back, I was struck by the beauty of the sky in winter overcast, a wash of yellowish, pearly gray along the horizon, easing to darker clouds above.

Spring will be welcome. But winter too has had its moments.

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Adventure

The front’s been moving through for hours. The wind wailed and the windows shook all night long, and looking out the slider this morning I can see it’s still blowing, empty branches swinging, dark clouds scudding fast out of the west. November, and something has clicked over, moved across a line of demarcation.

Yesterday we went for a long walk, thinking it would be the last of 60-degree weather for a good long while. It was dark, under the trees, and rain kept coming in fits and starts, leaving mist in the intervals. The squirrels darting across the path and up and down the tree trunks didn’t care, neither the ducks turning slow circles in the backwater of the river. There were so many birds chirping and trilling in the brushy open under the power lines that I felt like we were in a jungle, or an aviary. Every time I hear a riot of birds I can’t help but think of the people of Guam. The songbirds there have all been eaten by tree-climbing snakes, brought to the island in the holds of ships. There are no longer any birds singing on Guam – not one. I can’t imagine, how sad that would be.

Standing on a fallen tree that lay across the path, I saw the script of beetles – emerald ash borers – cut into its bare wood. An invader of our own had brought down this huge ash tree. It led me to think of the strange and somewhat scary-looking wasp we saw on a camping trip once. It turned out to be a Giant Ichneumon wasp, which uses a long, whip-like appendage to bore through tree bark and lay its parasitic eggs on the beetle larvae inside.

“We’ve seen some crazy bugs,” I said, and then we remembered the Phantom Crane fly we saw on another hike, floating above the trail like a jellyfish in an ocean of air. At the time, we couldn’t imagine what it was, gliding along like a transparent hovercraft. It seemed a creature from another world.

We stayed out longer than usual yesterday, the air being so mild. Walking around in the dimness of the woods, we surprised a couple of deer and saw their white tails retreating. Seed pods hanging from a shrub along the path looked like tiny lanterns; when I picked one up from the ground, it rattled like a maraca. The leaves are mostly down now, but their colors were spread upon the ground and here and there mixed in with the fading and the dying there was the fresh green of garlic mustard or a tuft of grass. Fall berries – bittersweet orange, plum purple – hung over the path, adorned with crystal raindrops.

There’s always so much to see outdoors that once I get started walking, I want to keep going. I wish then that I was on a backpacking trip, or that walking tour in the British Isles that’s on my bucket list.

But then again, adventure doesn’t have to be large, written in capital letters with exclamation points. There’s plenty of adventure spread around, all over the place if you can just slow down and see it, let it find you, settle on you like a misty rain, sing out to you like a chorus of birds, rhapsodizing before winter.

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The day was ending. Making our way back, we followed the trail along a crease that led down and between the hills. The sinking sun grazed the hilltop on our left and shone between the tree trunks, throwing bars of gold on the snowy slope opposite. My snowshoes landed softly in a true sea of white: during a snow squall earlier, I could smell the Lake – Michigan – just a few miles away.

The sun’s rays shot over our heads, and up against the hillside we walked in deepening blue shadow. I could feel the temperature dropping already, in late afternoon. We were not so far from where our car waited – a half-mile, maybe – but still it was sobering how fast, how cold the night came on. Deer tracks crossed the path – something we’d seen a lot this day. Peering into their prints, I could see that their slender legs sank like poles into the powder; and yet the deer seemed to have galloped effortlessly across our trail and up and down the ridges, leaving behind a picture of grace and power.

We’d just been talking about survival – how it could have been tricky getting back, as darkness fell, if the snowfall had continued and filled our tracks. I was thinking of what it would be like to be a creature of the forest; and also about my dad, who loved the woods and has passed on now.

And then a thought opened, full-bloom, in my head: it’s not so bad, death.

It was present with me, the knowledge that this is where the wild beings of the forest die; on the wooded slopes, drifted in white, the papery leaves of birches still clinging to branches and shaken into sound like a shaman’s rattle by the passing breeze. Here where the light was both fading and becoming more dramatic: blue shadows and golden patches shaped by the spaces between trees.

It’s the norm, in our culture, to view death as painful and fearful. Most often I’ve approached it that way, fearing the pain in separation from loved ones, fearing physical pain – wondering what the rabbit must feel, when the coyote’s jaws close around its throat. Suddenly I had a different understanding. Death not as something bad; just as something that is. Part of the landscape – as was I, in that moment.

Walking downhill in snowshoes while the cold sharpened, the shadows lengthened and the sunset shot golden arrows over the hill.

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Stranger in the Snow

I love this time of day: the sunset glowing pink on the snow, light lingering in the sky while the backs of the condos across the courtyard are falling into shadow.

Yesterday comes back to me, when we walked in the overcast in the falling snow. “Look,” Sally said on the bridge, “paw prints all alone, without a person’s.” I looked down and saw them – small but spaced apart, suggesting a loping kind of gait, keeping to the edge of the bridge. They were so fresh they had not yet begun to fill up with snow.

We followed them, down off the span over the river, along the trail and then, into the field. It was harder to see the tracks there, broken and lost in tufts of grass, but we managed; saw where you investigated a jumble of dead wood, followed your meandering path this way and that. We tracked you through a grove of bushes and Sally, watching in the distance, called out “Look!” I lifted my head and saw a hunched, dark shape, moving fast among the bare trees at the bottom of the hill. “It looks almost like a cat,” Sally said. But we knew you were not a cat – even from a distance, we could see you were larger, heavier than a cat.

You disappeared from sight. Sally started to turn away, wanting to leave you be; but I argued for another glimpse. We pushed forward, crossing the field, and rejoined your prints where they circled a big hollow tree. Had you gone up inside? There was such a muddle of prints, it was hard to say. Maybe you did, we thought; or maybe you vanished into a burrow waiting for you on the hillside.

We went back to our planned route: up the hill and onto the mountain bike path, looping and twining its way along the wooded hillside. A squirrel jabbered at us from high in a tree; I spotted five deer moving in the field below and pointed to them as they raced out of sight. Later it was Sally’s turn to point out a herd of deer that faded silently into the brown and gray of winter thicket.

Along the river a small bird flew out from under the dry grass on the bank, then sailed right back in, disappearing. Ice had formed on downed logs; it spiraled out from the trunks of trees and made chutes in all the spills and falls. The river chuckled through, unconcerned, flowing under the ice where it spread in sheets and hurrying out the other side. Around the bend where the river widens and picks up speed, I could see chunks of slush racing toward us, and where a willow trailed its fingers in the water they were coated in white, bobbing in heavy suits of ice. I thought of the sugar crystals we grew on strings hanging in syrup, in elementary school. We stopped for a moment and looked down; at our feet, the water was roiling and thickening like some kind of ice soup. We could hear it slipping along the white-edged banks, whispering and shushing as it went.

The world was mysterious: the snow slowly coming to earth; the gray, muted light; the rushing water whispering with ice; the deer that kept their distance and seeing us, slipped silently into the trees. But nothing was as mysterious as you, stranger, who walked just before us across the steel and timber bridge and trotted, steps ahead, into the yellow straw of the winter field; disappearing when we spooked you, leaving only small footprints filling with snow.

 

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False Spring

Tonight there may be snow, but it was 60-something, Saturday. At the park, a yellowjacket buzzed me in the parking lot, and as we headed into the woods, Sally said she saw mosquitoes. A chickadee called from a treetop; then we crossed the stream that meanders under the path, and I saw the sharp points of skunk cabbage, starting up from the wet ground. I remarked out loud that I think its upward progress will be halted, this time. This is January, and only a false spring.

Spring it felt like, though. The air was warm, especially when the sun escaped its hazy veil of cloud, and a smell of thaw came up from the ground: moist earth, wet leaves; a smell that says things are poised to grow again. I saw thick runnels of milky white, sliding stickily down the trunks of pine trees. The sap was running. In the middle of January.

The compacted, slushy snow that remained on the trails was stamped all over with prints: squirrels, deer, and the big, three-toed feet of wild turkeys. In one place where the trail skirts an open field the white patches were intersected by dark squiggly lines – mouse tunnels under the snow, revealed when rising temps took the roofs off.

Out on the surface of the pond, enough ice remained to throw up a bright glare. A group of swans, some floating, some standing, appeared like a motionless mirage in the distance: hazy and indistinct, white on white. Up in the high meadow, we slipped and slid our way along until the snow disappeared entirely in the sun-drenched wipe–open. Where an old road crosses, edged with trees, its course looked grassy and almost green, although a little rumpled – as if the pulling back of its covering of snow had been a bit hasty, and we’d found the work of art not quite finished, the lady in her boudoir interrupted in her preparations for coming out.

I’ve been thinking it’s hard to enjoy warm weather when it’s so odd, so unseasonal. With all the questions that are surfacing about our environment and what’s happening to it, crazy-warm days like the last few fill me with uneasiness. Even so, Saturday I had to surrender. Even a false spring feels exuberant, has something of hope and resilience in it. Life is not so dormant as we think, in winter; I’m reminded of it when the blanket’s unexpectedly pulled back, though we’re only halfway through the long sleep. A thaw in any season reminds me that even in the deepest sleep, within me something beats, ready to be called.

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The Lost World

We drive by it all the time, the place where the river flows past the cider mill, on our way to somewhere else. When we drive past I usually catch a glimpse of fishermen casting into the swift waters where the river rushes under the road, and during apple cider season, the crowds roaming around the mill. Even now, as we walk along this path across the river and hidden from the road, I smell the deep-fried aroma of cooking donuts.

But despite the donut fragrance and the endless whoosh of traffic, this hidden path feels removed. Right away we stumble (almost literally) on crumbling old concrete walls beside the water – cracked, graffiti-covered, overgrown with trees and shrubs. They have the effect of all ruins encountered in the wild: a jolting reminder of how fragile and tentative human history appears beside the patient, inexorable progress of nature. The concrete footings are the remains of an aqueduct that was intended to carry the Clinton/Kalamazoo Canal over the river; a project that was abandoned in 1843.

The dam too is a secret, invisible on our drives by. I can smell the tumbling water as we draw near: a cool, green, mossy smell that accompanies the soft roar of the water over the brink. It was built to divert some of the river’s flow into the mill race. An entire tree is caught on the dam – upended, its now-gray roots point at the sky, twisting into thin air. Behind it, the river fills a small pool, screened from the road by a tree-covered slope. As we’re standing riverside Sally spots an animal, slender and dark, slipping into the water from the steep bank opposite. Is it an otter? Maybe a muskrat? We’re not sure.

The sound of traffic fades as we head into the woods. The trail runs alongside what’s left of the canal – 170 years later it’s just a shallow trough, but still pooling in places with water, thick with old leaves. The path is wide, here at the bottom of the valley, with a steep hillside on one side, and the trench for the canal on the other. We see signs that beaver have been here: trees gnawed ’round their trunks, some felled, some still standing although whittled to a point like a giant pencil. Soon afterward square, weathered posts appear here and there, still supporting a wilting lattice of wire – remnants of an old fence. In one place I see iron poking up from the ground like a tree root, just visible in the dirt of the path. We don’t know what it is, exactly – other than another relic of people and endeavors long past. We approach someone walking a dog, and I hold up a palm in greeting as we pass – but I still have the feeling of having walked out of one world – that of rushing cars, traffic lights, deep-fried donuts – and into another. The lost world.

When we arrive at a major trail junction, a looping backwater from the river comes right up to the path. No one is around and despite the tangle of trails coming together, I feel more than ever like a traveler in a secret land. We take a narrow footpath along the slow eddy, heavily screened with grasses and brush. We surprise six mallard ducks, floating quietly, and come out to the main branch of the river where we halt momentarily on a gravel beach, looking around. There is a well-traveled bike path on the bank just ahead, and above it in the distance Sally points out the offices of a local architectural firm, giving us some clue of where we are. The glass and steel of the modern building are well screened by tree branches and high grasses, and I feel as though the office building is unreal – something like a painted backdrop for a play. Certainly not as real as the tree roots I’m stepping around as we make our way back the way we came. As we walk back along the eddy we see a slick, smooth head dip quietly below the still, turbid water as we pass. This time we are close enough that we can see the brown tint of the animal’s fur – undoubtedly a muskrat.

At the junction we choose a trail that climbs for a few minutes, taking us up into the woods. It takes us along the bottom of a local sledding hill – we peek out from the trees for a moment, and see the grassy slope – then back into the woods. I look up to see a deer watching us from a distance through the bare trees, its ears standing at attention when I speak. I begin to feel how it must have been here a century or more ago – before the traffic, and the condos on the hill, and the crowds hungry for donuts. In this little pocket, this slender valley, the ruins keep crumbling and collapsing, pulled by gravity and the strength of growing things; and a random brick or a plastic water bottle washed up on a gravel bar are signs left by mere visitors – not inhabitants.

When we get back to our starting point, we come out of the foliage and have to walk a few yards along the road to where we parked. A school bus is idling at the light; as I walk past it I breathe in a heavy dose of its exhaust. I feel even more wistful for the time I’ve never seen or known, when the quiet world of the river valley spread far and wide, with only the farmers’ fields and an occasional house on a dirt road to hem it in.

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