Posts Tagged ‘outdoors’


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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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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While I work on editing a collection of my “cottage” writing, here’s a bit from 2011:

This morning I paddled north in my kayak, traveling two coves up. After crossing the sandbar at the second point, I found deeper water, and a sudden surprise of stones – big ones, heaped up right beneath me. I paddled around the spot for a minute, looking down at what seemed to be the top of an underwater rock pile, dropped there by the glaciers. Some day when I’m feeling ambitious I may come back with a snorkel and mask and get a closer look.

The air was warm, and still. Lured by the calm weather and the easy paddling I headed out to even deeper water and watched as the color under my bow went from bottle green to a dark, inky hue. The sea floor beneath me started to lose detail until I could see only the murky outlines of plants or stones, and then even those shapes began to disappear and all that remained was the rippled pattern of sunlight, shining dimly on the bottom.

In front of me the peninsula now looked tantalizingly close – as if I could reach and touch its wooded, shadowed slopes, even though I knew it was miles away. I paddled along for a while, enjoying the illusion: the arm of Old Mission a miniature landscape, the white motorboat cruising along its shore just a toy, the distant drone of the motor something I could disregard, like a far-off insect on a lazy summer day.

I turned south and paddled on. Another sandbar appeared suddenly close under the belly of my boat, golden and etched with the sinuous patterns made by the waves. White clouds stretched across the sky and were reflected on the surface of the water in front of me. Feeling suspended between sea and sky, I stopped.

I was looking down the Bay, swinging slowly on the edge where air meets water, hearing not a sound but that distant boat – the mere thrum of an insect. Despite the houses lining the near shore from which I’d launched just a short while ago, I was alone. I could see the neighbor’s big party tent, still standing from Saturday’s event, but like the powerboat, it receded into a different reality: a toy tent, toy houses, a toy road coming down from the hill behind. What was real was being there, rocking gently on the water.

I felt like I had all of east Grand Traverse Bay to myself. And in a way, I did.

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Three Deer

“Nancy, come here!” Sally says in an urgent whisper. “Go slow…”

I creep around the corner from the back door to where she’s standing, eyes trained out the front window.

“See the deer?” she asks. Following her gaze I see a small doe, just a few feet beyond the edge of the mossy bank that is our front yard. “There are two of them,” Sally whispers, and then I see an even smaller deer, so young it still has spots, materialize behind the first. They keep dipping their heads to browse on something growing there along the bank. The larger of the two is aware of us – she faces the window, ears up, each time we speak. Even though we keep our voices low, she can hear us through the single-pane glass of the picture windows. She stamps a couple of times and flicks her tail, but she doesn’t startle, or run.

Seeking a better angle, we move to the far window, walking in slow motion so as not to spook them. (I feel like I’m back in the tai chi class I took years ago). A full-grown doe comes into view from behind the trees, and mama is so much bigger than her fawns that only then do I realize how small and delicate they are.

As we watch, they work their way across our view and down onto the beach to the water. I see the white-spotted fawn sniff at a fish carcass at the water’s edge – which makes her (or him) back up, abruptly. Dead fish is clearly not a pleasant aroma for a deer. The three of them wade a few steps into the Bay, and we watch as they dip their heads and drink. After a moment they turn and bound away, up towards the woods and out of sight.

I have never seen deer from the windows of the cottage before, although we see their tracks every year and know that they cut through our property to go down to the Bay and drink. It’s thrilling, somehow, and I have to think about why. I see deer regularly, downstate – they’re ubiquitous. I see them around here too, standing in the pasture alongside the road, or occasionally back in the woods on the logging trail.

This feels different. For one thing, the scene is exceptionally beautiful: the deer grazing with the pale morning blue of the Bay and the dark green of Old Mission peninsula as a backdrop, then the huge open space of sky and water surrounding them as they wade in and bow their graceful heads to drink. But it’s not only the beauty of the picture that feels so compelling. Watching the deer I have the sense that this beach, this panoramic view of Bay and peninsula, this real estate that we humans so covet, seek out, attempt to possess in whatever way we can –

This too belongs to the wild.

There’s a magic to being in the cottage – a small box set at the edge of the woods – looking out the window at the deer, I think, picking up my coffee and taking a sip. Good morning.



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In the office building where I work there are skylights over the central atrium and balconies that connect the two sides of the building. Four floors up, I walk out there now and then just to get some natural light. The sun is weak coming through the glass, but I can see it falling in pale bars across the bridge – unlike the room I work in, where the single window is heavily tinted and covered with a blind. Nothing much, either light or view, comes in. I forget the window’s even there.

Along the outside edge of the bridge across the atrium there’s a planter, filled with designer stones painted black and a strip of bright green grass. I’m drawn to the neon-looking grass, but on close inspection, I can see it’s not real. Totally uniform in height and color, at a certain angle the light passes right through. It’s plastic.

I stand in the open space and the timid sunlight, listening to the fountain splashing from the lobby below and it seems kind of sad and a little spooky, what the designer did with this office building. The decorator astroturf,  the black stones that must have been trucked here wrapped in plastic, the sun filtered to an inoffensive level through the skylight – it all seems part of a lie in which I participate. These touches of “nature” are all meant to reassure me that locked in a box for eight hours or more, I’m still in contact with the natural world from which I come, of which I am a part. But in reality my separation is complete. The time it takes to get from my chair down to the door and back up again is long for my hourly stretch. I can’t spend too many minutes away from my workstation, but even so I will haul down the stairs a couple of times and poke my head out the door – just to feel fresh air on my face. (And yes – I did this even during the recent heat wave, because even sultry, muggy air feels like freedom when I’m closed up in a dark and refrigerated room for the day.)

There’s a premise here I’ve always been uneasy about: that this total immersion in exchange for a livelihood is a worthwhile bargain, week after week, year after year. Like plastic grass, the idea may shine from a distance but it doesn’t bear close examination. I heard the biologist E. O. Wilson on the radio recently, talking about how best to prepare young people for a career in science. The interviewer asked if kids need a lot of unstructured time, if they should have their summers off. The venerable man of letters said that given a choice between two months of college-prep summer camp or “cutting them loose in the woods or a very interesting natural environment,” parents should do the latter, “for heaven’s sake.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the adult equivalent of academic summer camp – like now, standing on the parapet high above the artificial fountain. There’s more to it than economic pressure. When I’m honest with myself, I know that at times I’ve “bought in.” And as a result I find myself stealing a few minutes to stand in the filtered sunlight beside the plastic grass.

Keeping me going: the thought that better days are coming. Unlike a school kid, I don’t have my summer off. But I am getting ready, packing my bags (both physical and mental), biding my time. At first opportunity, I will head for the woods – or the water, or the hills – again.

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Sitting on the porch in the mild, fresh air, I hear a cricket chirping rhythmically from the grass on the beach. Out on the water a seagull cries – a plaintive sound, but I know better than to think of it as mournful or lonely. Seagulls are perpetually crying. I think it is their nature.

A crow hops across the yard and from the branches overhead comes the quick, bright call of a chickadee. The air smells moist and clean: sandy, like the Bay. The sun falls in bars between the tree trunks, warming the pine needles blanketing the ground and sending up their scent, too. A squirrel runs headfirst down the trunk of an oak and scurries over to climb another tree. I can’t see his color, in silhouette against the light of the water, faintly blue in the morning sun. Then he appears suddenly on the pine tree at the corner of the porch, peering in at me. He’s golden-brown.

There’s just enough breeze to set the ferns on the front of the bluff dancing, and I see the water moving north, the troughs of waves appearing as tiny, sand-colored lines. No jet skis are out yet, and I can’t even see the neighbor’s boats from here. The seemingly endless fireworks of the 4th and last night’s leftovers, a few stutters of booms and flashes, are a thing of the past. It’s quiet, but for a small plane that comes into hearing and drones into the distance.

This is what I live for: morning coffee on the porch at the cottage. Nothing is happening. Everything is happening.

Last night we had guests at our campfire, friends from up the beach. One of them had never been to our place before. At the end of the evening in the light of the flashlight we walked up the stairs to the cottage and our guest looked around the yard, mostly in darkness, at the trees, the hard-packed sand and the moss, the dirt driveway. She said something about it being so unlike her parents’ place, up the beach – no landscaping. This is nice, she said. Rustic.

I said yeah, it’s rustic. She probably couldn’t see the smile on my face, in the dark. What she called “rustic” is what draws me here to sit under the trees, watching the squirrels and the chipmunks run around the pine-needled ground, seeing the ferns and the chokecherry dance in the wind along the bluff, watching as the bands of morning light slip slowly down the tree trunks and the shadows shorten, heading for noon. Hearing the birds call, wondering if I’ll see the mergansers pull up down in front, zipping along the surface of the water, fishing.

Rustic is a word that conjures for me an effect, something to be achieved, purposefully shaped if not contrived. Perhaps that’s only when applied to interior decorating. There’s purpose to the way things are here – but the purpose feels larger than me. I’ve shaped nothing much here; neither did my parents before me. The small things they did to the landscape, the rough stairs my dad built, himself, to get down the bank, the screen porch they added on years after they built their tiny cottage, trees growing mere inches from its screens – these only serve to make the presence of the outdoors even larger.

I don’t think of myself as religious, and I don’t believe in a god with a human-like personality, a king-like “deity.” I never did, despite all the years of church I attended. Something did stay with me from all that time, though. Words from a hymn I’ve always loved:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies

For the love which from our birth over and around us lies

Rustic. Whose purpose? What purpose? I’m not sure I can define it. But I can feel it, lying “over and around” me – and within me – here.

For the Beauty of the Earth, lyric by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917.

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