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In August 2013 I moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts, to the foot of Deer Hill/West Mountain, on the edge of the valley of the Westfield River. The journal below is my story of getting to know my new home: the land that stretches up the side of the mountain behind my house.
January 31, 2014: Nature and Art
Twenty minutes of lying down, looking up at the hemlocks above me, seems a short time. I can only start to sense this one small piece of the boundless landscape, of which I am but a tiny part. Hemlocks surround me; their lower branches, dead and bare, radiate out from the trunks as dark lines gently curving and forking to their ends. The upper boughs, fine and light, float in a haze of green needles. Each branch has its own particular shape, worthy of study. And that’s only what my eyes see. There are also the sounds and textures and smells, and the feeling of my body in the forest: an endless flood of sensations. And If I moved but a few feet I’d encounter a new realm.
This is one reason why so many of us love being in nature. And it’s also what makes the forest so unlike the mass-produced goods surrounding us in our homes and offices, cities and towns. In nature our eyes, mind and heart are drawn in by the endlessly varied forms and textures, sounds and feels. And we also touch the earth’s vastness relative to the human race and all we’ve created; we’re reminded of how much on this earth it’s beyond human ability to create. The infinite variety of nature is also in our bodies, which are creatures of nature just as much as the trees and rocks. Inexorably we are a part of the vast variety of nature.
And yet as a subject for art it’s only in the last 200 years that Western artists have regularly paid much attention to most of nature, other than animals. Trees and hills were just a background for the real point of the painting: people. 40,000 years ago our ancestors were painting animals on the walls of caves, but just 400 years ago in Europe it seems few thought it worth making paintings where the main subject was mountains and trees, rocks and streams. And for many centuries in medieval Europe even animals were rare in art except as figures in Biblical stories.
In the Far East the story is quite different. Chinese artists have been painting landscapes for over 2,000 years. And these Chinese artists challenge one seemingly obvious explanation for why (non-animal) nature was not a subject of art in the West until recently. It’s easy to say that nature took on a new meaning when our ancestors moved into cities, took jobs in factories and started using more machine-made objects. There’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s not the full story since the Chinese were painting landscapes long before the advent of factories and mass-production. Clearly it also had to do with different and changing understandings of nature and beauty.
When the land appeared in American art, in the works of Hudson River School painters, it was often in the context of man arriving to “finish” the job of making nature beautiful, or suitable for human habitation, the two being essentially synonymous. Nature was there for man to use. It took another leap to see nature alone is beautiful and worthy. This led to the exultation of wilderness, where man’s works were ugly while nature was beautiful. But this allowed us to believe that as long as the wondrous places were protected the rest was available for us to use as we wished. Many still hold that belief.
Through art we can see how our ancestors related to nature, and we can also see the origins of our society’s current relationship to nature. I hope art can also guide us new ways of understandings this relationship.
January 26, 2014: Walking to Church
Instead of my usual walk, today my friend Nigel Ader and I set out to find a route up and over Deer Hill, the big hill I usually just walk partway up each morning. Our goal was to find a good route for a trail to the West Cummington Congregational Church, and we also hoped to reach the church in time for the Sunday service. Our friend Christos Galanis had put us up to this, as a step in his plan to re-establish a trail connecting Earthdance to the Church, a route once walked regularly by Penny Schultz and other early members of the Earthdance community.
Map of our route
We set out from my house as the sun was rising. The treetops glowed in the first light; the wind was easing, but still strong; and the air was cold. Ours were the first footsteps in yesterday’s soft, light snow as we headed down across the stream and then on up the hill. Today’s walk felt different to me than my usual morning walks, even though I’m starting out walking through the same forest. I had much further to go today but also new places to explore on the way. I tried to walk with yesterday’s awareness, at least some of the time, but found I couldn’t walk that way all the time as it took to much energy and focus. Still, when it felt like my movements were becoming too plodding, I lightened my steps and danced just a little as I walked, and it brought freshness to my sense of the space around me.
We followed my usual morning route up over the hemlock ridge to where we could join the main Earthdance trail and from there we continued on up nearly to the trail’s end. Where the last stream comes in from the south and starts following the trail we turned off to the southwest, towards the summit of Deer Hill, 3/10 of a mile away through the woods, but with no trail to guide us. It felt glorious to explore new ground: always looking around to pick the best route and keep track of where we are in the landscape; never knowing what we might find around the next turn in the land. I love this sort of walking. Our route took us gently downhill to a tiny stream and to the boundary between Earthdance and Deer Hill State Reservation. From there we climbed up towards the summit, gently at first and them more steeply until the ground leveled out at the top and the expected lean-to appeared, tucked into a stand of hemlocks. We’d been walking for an hour and were ready for a rest.
It’s not the prettiest of lean-tos, being built mostly of sheet-metal, but for a trail to a church maybe it’s appropriate to stop in a structure that would not feel all that out of place in an encampment of homeless people or a poor slum in any one of many cities around the world. And just as it would be in such a place, its shelter was welcome on this cold morning on the top of Deer Hill. We sat on the rough bench across the back of the lean-to, ate a few snacks, and left notes in the log book before continuing on our way.
From the lean-to a broad, steep trail, wide as a road in many places, leads down to the southwest. We slipped and skidded down it through the woods — a glorious romp â€“ at least until we came to sharp bend to the left and an even steeper pitch. It didn’t look too bad until we discovered, too late, that the snow hid a thick layer of ice. Both Nigel and I fell hard but fortunately neither of us was seriously hurt. Still, it seemed appropriate to call this the “ice fall.” At the bottom Nigel noticed a possible bypass around the fall, so we climbed back up and saw that it was indeed a most welcome route around the ice. After clearing away some downed branches that had hidden this safer route from us at the top, we turned back downhill and continued on our way.
In about 500 feet we noticed a trail heading steeply down to the left, towards where we thought the church should be, and decided to follow it since the woods road we were on looked likely to take us up well to the north of the church. A little ways down the trail we started finding blue blazes and the rest of the trail turned out to be a steep but well-marked path, down across a small stream and then across and down the hill. The village started to appear through the trees below us, seeming like a hidden mountain hamlet; covered in new snow, smoke drifting up from the chimneys. The trail brought us down to a small road and looking to the right we saw the church a couple hundred feet away. It was a few minutes to nine and after sitting on the stone steps for a little while, resting and enjoying the view, the minister came and unlocked the door so we could go inside.
After the service, Nigel decided to go back with someone who had come by car so I set out alone back through the woods, leaving at 11:30AM. Heading up the blue-blazed trail, it felt like I was plunging uphill through the snow. When I’d come nearly to where we’d picked up the blue trail on the way to church, I noticed the blazes continuing through the woods to the right so I followed them up, tracking new ground. It’s a pretty trail, running up along a stream, but also icy because of the stream. Still, I walked carefully and managed to avoid falling, and it’s a less steep route than the way we’d come.
I re-joined our route to the church just below the ice fall, and then veered left to follow the bypass, but before I got to the top of the fall I turned off again, heading east up into the woods, finding my own route to the pass the cuts between Deer Hill and the hills and mountains to the north. The going was a bit steep, enough so that a really good trail here might want switchbacks, but not steep enough to make it all that hard to walk. It was lovely to be back off-trail finding my own way.
What I’m calling a pass is really just a flat stretch on top of the ridge, but it has grand views through the bare trees to the far horizon both east and west, and the snow was sculpted by the last night’s wind; so it felt like a proper pass through the hills.
I walked north along the ridge a little ways before turning east down a gentle slope that seemed to welcome me back onto home ground. I picked up a trace of an old woods road heading northeast and then lost it again not long before I came to near the top of the Earthdance trail, just where it starts into what I think of as “the notch.” Small, steep, rocky slopes on either side of the trail make it feel like it’s cutting up through the ridge-crest, although it’s really some distance yet before the trail reaches its high point, about where it finally and fully comes to an end. Looking the other way down the trail I could see where we’d turned off the Earthdance trail a few hours earlier on our way to the church. I was truly back in my home forest, on my home land.
From there it was an easy walk down over familiar ground to my house, via the stream and then the lower quarry for my morning dip, postponed today until 12:30 in the afternoon. It had taken an hour to walk home from the church, about what the old-timers from Earthdance said it took. It was good to walk again a route once well-traveled.
January 25, 2014: Dance
Today is a chance to experiment further with the two ways of moving revealed to me yesterday. I can plod along, my mind focused, if it’s focused at all, on the task of getting where I’m going; or I can view each step as a chance to attend to my movements and to the space through which I’m moving. Is a dip in the land just an obstacle to navigate or is it a chance to play with momentum: accelerating down one side and coasting up the other? Is a steep spot just a place to struggle and slip, or is it a place to slide my back against a tree then roll off, propelling myself uphill in a new way? Could each of the latter be called dancing? I think so. It certainly uses my body and energy in a way more akin to how I move on the dance floor than how I usually move when walking down the street. More importantly, it involves the same sort of attention, intention and awareness of the space and life around me that I bring to dance.
It is important here to define “dance” a bit more because ways of moving commonly called dance can be undertaken as mindlessly as walking down the street. But at its best dance involves a deep shift in our awareness: of our body moving through space, the space through which we move, and the dancers moving around us; all engaged in a dialog through movement.
Dancing goes beyond simply being present, because “present” can just mean my mind is busily at work, seeing and recording. No, it’s about letting go of my mind and its linear processing. Even sitting still I can engage this way of being. The first step is stopping my mind from taking over and carrying me far away. But even when I’ve kept myself here I still have a choice: I can observe the beech leaves fluttering in the wind or I can feel the movement and hear the sound deep inside me, vibrating some part of my body. It’s the latter that I call dance.
Moving this way is full of joy, but it’s not easy to stay in this space. My plodding mind wants to take over, ushering me back into a sadder, darker space it seems to prefer for reasons I don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s partly just that it’s a lot of work to dance, even when I’m dancing sitting still.
But when I do dance it brings me closer to the land; more in tune with it. And it brings another level of newness to places I thought I knew well. Standing just ten feet from a path I’ve followed many times I feel like I’m someplace new and then I catch sight of a familiar landmark and realize how close I am to what I thought were familiar places. And my hearing is more attentive too. I notice a subtle shift in the sound of the stream flowing under ice and discover another small hidden story. The water flowing below an opening in the ice is rising and falling two inches over a period of 50 seconds, with a wonderful range of burbling, watery sounds as accompaniment. It rises slowly and then something changes and the water level quickly drops back down, only to start rising again. I think some sort of an air-lock is forming and releasing to create the rise and fall, rather like the air-lock that creates geysers, and with the same predictable timing. Even this sort of “scientific” observation does not need to take me away from my dance; I take joy in watching the stream rise and fall rather than just observing it.
I’m alert in a way that feels more animal than human, but really I’ve just discovered in myself the alertness we all have as human animals.
January 24, 2014: Two Ways of Walking
Today I conducted an unexpected experiment based on my thoughts from yesterday. The results thrill me. I overslept and was late leaving the house, so I walked as fast as I could and took the most direct route, in order to reach my lookout in time for sunrise. My attention was directed to immediate questions like choosing the most efficient route up a steep, slippery slope. Hurrying through the woods certainly involved movement and to move quickly I had to pay attention to where I was stepping and how I was moving, so I was aware of the land and the forest, but my movements were all focused on reaching the destination in time. I caught the sun rise but felt distant and disconnected as I watched it. The first conclusion from my experiment is that movement, even focused movement, does not bring me to a deeper connection with the land.
After watching the sun rise I closed my eyes, listened to the wind, and felt the small tree next to me moving in the gusts. That felt better. I was tuning myself to the space, without moving or seeing.
On my way down the hill I decided to move more attentively, shaping my movements with intention. This didn’t always mean moving slowly; far from it. Just as water tumbles down over a cascade I slid and ran when the land called me to, but then slowed down, like a quiet pool in a stream. Going down hill I lay down to slide on the snow under a branch down a small slope. But then I stopped to squeeze myself between two trees and stayed there for a while feeling the shape of the space. And then I nestled myself into the midst of a multi-trunked tree to sense how my body fit there. I squirmed into a pocket in the rocks as if I was an animal looking for a sheltered place to rest; feeling the rocks around me. I’m startled by the sense of new discovery I found in places I’d been by many times before, and by my new and deeper feeling of connection to both the land and myself.
So movement can lead to a deeper connection with the land, but the intention I bring to my movement is essential to the results!
January 23, 2014: Letting go of my Mind
The forest is cold, still and silent again, in deep contrast with the noisy cascade of thoughts tumbling through my head. What I might see as my greatest asset — my mind — is also my downfall, as I seek to know and immerse myself in this land ever more deeply. Trees do not think; a fox does not contemplate; they simply are; here; right now; whole and unbroken. My ability to think, indeed my compulsion, is what sets me apart from trees and foxes and birds and the rest of the “natural” world, though of course I am myself of the very nature I now feel separated from. Thinking has taken me part of the way on this journey. Maybe non-thinking will take me further now, back towards wholeness with the land.
But I worry too that in seeking to know the land more deeply there may be echoes of a desire to claim it, to own it, which is not at all what I want. I’d rather it own me. “Know” means knowledge, means seeing with my mind, and I must try to leave that behind, at least some of the time.
And my daily journey continues. The sun climbs higher, hazy beyond the clouds. A slight breeze shakes the beech leaves. The cold pulls at my energy. It feels good to run through the forest, feeling the land with my body rather than seeing it with my mind; sliding through the snow, skidding down slopes, weaving through the trees. Icy stream water bubbles up through a hole in the ice like water boiling up from a hot spring; warming my heart.
Is this then a partial answer: through movement I can find a release from my mind into a deeper connection with the land? By seeing the land with my heart rather than my mind, can I let it claim a bit more of me? And what other paths have I yet to discover?
After a conversation with my friend Christos, and after a message from my friend Mark, I’m realizing I got the part about thinking and how it separates humans from nature wrong. Trees and certainly foxes do think, each in their own way. It is not thinking that sets us apart from nature, it is how we think. By thinking of ourselves as separate we isolate ourselves. And we who are steeped in Western ways of thinking compound this by making linear time so central to our ways of seeing and interacting with the world. Even the idea of being “present in the moment” contains an awareness of a past and future; other times when we might have been or could be present in that moment. Only by letting go of that past and future are we fully and completely here now. And that means releasing the hold death has on us as the definer of what life means, for without past and future death means something very different too.
January 20, 2014: A Log of My Walk
Today, to try a different approach, I made a simple log of what I noticed, did, and experienced on my walk:
Dark trees; white snow
Black stream water
Standing by the stream
Long, arcing, fallen tree topped with snow
Black tree branches high overhead; gray sky beyond
Sound of the stream in the distance
Three big ash trees close together, snaking up towards the sky
Narrow band of red light all along the eastern horizon, under the clouds
Running through the hemlocks and then on up the hill
Panting, heart racing
Brilliant orange sun
Sun vanishes behind the clouds
Dry beech leaves vibrating in a passing breeze, then stopping
Fading orange band of light along the eastern horizon
Occasional turkey â€œclucksâ€ off in the distance
Woodpecker hammering on a tree
Blue jay calling
Turned my head up to look at the tall, tall trees
Tangled roots exposed beside the path
Thin “tseep” of a nuthatch
Big, dead beech tree, so rotted I can see right through the trunk
Blue jay making a strange, horse, honking sort of call and flying from tree to tree, heading west
Rough rocks, smooth beech bark
Blue jays calling back and forth
Water running down the stream high up beyond where I usually walk
Bark falling from dead beeches, scattered on the snow (by the wind?)
Slippery snow; ouch!
Pushing through a dense stand of young beeches
Touching the rough bark of a maturing black birch
Beech leaves shaking in the wind
Cracked beech bark
Smooth beech bark
Skidding downhill on the snow
Chickadees and nuthatches high up in the treetops; stopped to listen
Light snow starting to fall
Huge red oak tree, branching into two trunks that curve up towards the sky; so tall
Touch trunk of oak; see hole at base, about the right size for a gray squirrel; leading right in under the tree; fresh looking dirt in entrance but no tracks in snow
Trot down the trail
Double-trunked tree splitting in two; split extends down 10 or 12 feet, almost to the ground; trunks held up by hemlocks
Stream getting louder
Leap across stream
Follow fox tracks through the hemlocks near the stream
Find where the fox cross the stream by walking on a snow-covered log
Follow my own footsteps from earlier today
Check stream level: 14.3 centimeters on my stream gauge
And stream temperature: 2°C
Snow still falling
Scramble up hill to quarry; slipping on snow
Use ax to re-open hole in the ice
9/16” of ice had formed since yesterday; it comes out almost all in one piece; one big disc
Check pond height gauge: 71.6 centimeters
Water temperature: 3°C
Strip to waist
Skin tingles as falling snow lands on my back
Measure ice thickness: 10 inches
Ease myself into the water
Duck under three times
Hurry home through the snow
January 17, 2014: Light Snow and What it Reveals
The forest feels winter-like again after days of rain and bare ground. Three-quarters of an inch of snow fell yesterday; just enough to bring out the forms of the forest rather than hide them, as heavy snow would have. The ground is white again, but mottled with dark leaf-edges. Fine twigs float above the snow under the hemlocks: an intricate web of thin, dark lines. Small clumps of snow cling to rough bark on the trees, in clusters that highlight the tree’s curves. The tops of branches and logs and fallen trees are traced in white again too. Snow on the hemlock boughs gives form to the dark mass of trees. And snow on the rocks becomes like the shading of an artist’s pencil, revealing form through the contrast of light and dark. I feel exhilarated to be in the forest this morning. Once I start truly seeing, I find myself walking slower and slower to take in all that’s around me.
A crow flies high across the blue sky, cawing as he goes. A big pileated woodpecker whips by too, low over the treetops; silent save for sound of his wings, loud in the still air; so fast he’s gone into the distance almost as soon as I see him.
And the fresh snow brings immediacy to the animal tracks too. I know the creatures that made them where right here, treading the same paths as me, just a few hours ago; their tracks might almost still be warm. A coyote or maybe a dog walked along the crest of my sunrise lookout and then south down the hill. Following his tracks I can sense the confidence in his movements: leaping down rocky drops that I have to work my way carefully around. A gray squirrel’s track from one tree to another carries the squirrel’s bounding energy. Dark, snowless ovals mark where two deer slept last night before walking up into the hemlocks. And a fox trotted up the path almost to my back door.
A red squirrel, here right now, runs along a snow covered branch, sending up a puff of snow that catches the sunlight.
January 16, 2014: Sinking into the Land
The forest feels unusually quiet this morning. I walk softly so as not to intrude on the stillness; wondering what might be revealed to me if I’m quiet, and still enough inside. The leaves on the forest floor are thawed and soft again, so my footsteps make little noise if I walk carefully. The sounds of running water are quieter than yesterday and the tiny, ephemeral stream is just barely flowing. I can’t hear it until I’m almost upon it. The sudden gobbling of a turkey off through the trees startles me, but he only calls once.
Light snow starts falling just before sunrise. I hear the small, hard flakes tapping on the dead leaves before I see or feel them. Turning my face up to the gray clouds above, I can just barely feel the flakes landing on my skin. As the snow comes down a little harder the tapping sound of each flake landing merges into a hissing sound, surprisingly loud for something as small and light as falling snow.
Pulling my hat down over my face to keep the snow off, I lie down, close my eyes and listen. My body seems to sink into the soil, merging with the forest. When I stand up 20 minutes or so later my curled form is imprinted on the land; dark earth and warm brown leaves surrounded white. As I make my way slowly back down the hill the only sounds are the distant murmur of the rivers and the hiss of the falling snow.
But I’m stopped suddenly by the tattered remains of a once large birch tree: a rotting log lying on the forest floor and the still standing remnants of the trunk from which it fell. The log is dark, almost black, and deeply grooved. Snow filled groves and the black ridges between flow down the log in lines so fluid it’s almost as if they’re in motion. And the trunk I can see right through; I’m amazed it’s still standing. Most of the bark is long gone and the wood is filled with swirling patterns and rough, delicate forms, all made by the mold and decay.
This birch started growing maybe 60 or 70 years ago, when the forest was young. And it’s probably been dead and rotting away for at least five years more. The lifespan of many trees is not so different from the lifespan of human beings, which may be part of why we connect with them so strongly.
Energized by the visual feast of rotting wood I walk more quickly and less quietly back down the hill towards home, through the falling snow.
January 15, 2014: After the Rain
The rain kept falling yesterday, from sunrise to long after sunset. With the ground frozen there were few places for the water to go. Some formed pools, filling hollows in the forest floor. This morning they’re covered in ice. But most of the water flowed swiftly down into the streams and rivers.
All the rain still didn’t melt the hard, icy snow patches, deep in the shade of the valley. But the valley is filled with the sound of the stream’s clear, bright water: liquid as the snow is hard. It stays with me as I climb up onto the hemlock ridge beyond, there to give way to the distant, murmuring roar of the Westfield River. As I climb higher, a tiny, ephemeral stream runs past me, down through the forest. Its headwaters, a fancy name for a few patches of wet leaves, are just a few hundred feet up hill, but already this insistent little stream runs clear and steady through the leaves, dropping over small cascades and gathering in pools, before continuing on down the hill.
From my sunrise lookout flowing water surrounds me; trickles and streams; Bartlett Brook and the Westfield River; all carrying water down from the hills and filling the air with trembling sound.
Another sort of water fills the valleys too: great silent rivers of fog, seeming to run down into a vast fog lake off to the east. A hill stands up: a dark island in the white sea. The rising sun glows through the misty haze and an orange, winding river forms above it, leading up to the clear, blue sky above. Bird calls spread through the forest after sunrise.
Last night I could have predicted the rivers would be running fast and loud today, but as I arose this morning in the dim, early light, I did not know whether to expect clouds or sun on my walk, bird calls or silence. Of such small surprises is my daily walk composed; insignificant maybe but so is much of daily life. The significance it has for me grows from the attention I give it in my life.
Yesterday’s cold rain drove me down off the ridge after 20 minutes. Today I linger in the warm sun for almost an hour, looking out through the trees; a tangled web of winter branches, black against the sunlit mist beyond. Frozen drops of water hang from the smallest branches, glittering and melting in the sun. My passage down the hill is slow too, as I wander amongst the trees, stop to study their bark, look up the massive trunk of a ancient oak tree, touch the rough bark of a hemlock, and feel the soaring heights of three tall pines.
After making this walk around 90 times, I still never know quite what to expect when I step out the door in the morning, and I never will.
January 14, 2014: Rain
Rain is forecast but it’s not yet begun when I step out the door, 40 minutes before sunrise. But the air is wet and still; the clouds heavy and gray. It could start at any time.
On days like this I sometimes wonder why I push myself to be up at my lookout in time for sunrise. Thick clouds will hide the rising sun and I could instead be sitting by the stream, or even in bed, planning to walk later in the day. But gray, damp mornings like this are as much, or more, a part of this place as bright sun or dramatic storms. And the commitment and effort to be present for the sunrise, even on days like this, feels vital to truly knowing this place and becoming part of the land.
Climbing up out of the still air near the stream, I find a steady wind flowing down towards me. It’s not strong or dramatic; just cold, raw and unceasing. I reach my sunrise lookout a few minutes after seven and at 7:10 the rain begins. First I hear it hitting the leaves and then I feel it on my head. I take off my clothes to feel it more fully but then curl up: legs tucked in against my chest, arms close by my sides, to hold onto my warmth. Looking east towards the sunrise, my back is to the wind and I can feel each raindrop landing on my skin; a cold, steady beat, not heavy and hard but also not fine and light.
After 20 minutes with my back to the rain and my face to the hidden sun, I’m growing cold. The sun has risen, hidden in the clouds, but I can only tell by checking the time. The light hasn’t changed, except maybe to grow grayer and hazier as rain spreads east across the valleys and hills. I pick up my clothes and boots and start making my way down the hill, feeling the rain and wind now on even more. The leaves are cold underfoot but no longer frozen. Months after they fell, the leaves are still beautiful: wet and shining just a little; infinite shades of brown.
The rain grows lighter for a while as I walk, but never stops. Down amongst the hemlocks my feet grow cold and I put on my boots, but continue to carry the rest of my clothes. As the chill sinks deeper into my muscles, my movements are less steady and my mind feels a bit fuzzy. Longing for home and warmth, I hurry more by the stream, past patches of snow slowly melting in the rain.
My last stop before home is at the quarry for my morning dip through a hole in the ice; another essential part of my daily routine. I emerge more alive. The air and rain feel almost warm after the cold water. But a few minutes later a hot shower also feels very good.
January 13, 2014: Dead Birches
Some days the land speaks to me as soon as I step out the door. Most days I have to walk for a while before I hear very much. Yesterday was the former sort of day; today is the latter. There’s no drama confronting me today; just a cold, November-feeling forest. No exuberant mountains of fresh snow or cold, sharp air challenge me; just patchy old snow turning to ice, down near the stream; and higher up, hard, frozen ground covered in what remains of last year’s leaves.
But it’s a clear day and sunrise brings a warm light to the forest. A woodpecker hammers loudly above me, getting on with his work.
A yellow birch, once tall and strong, lies sprawled across the forest floor. Sunlight slides over the dead bark, bringing out the texture: curled peeling layers and papery strips hanging down. Thick, knobby shelf fungi push out through the bark, speaking of wood riddled with mold and decay. But when I lie down on the fallen tree it still feels strong and solid under me; what took years to grow also takes years to return to the earth.
Down near the stream, the remains of another big yellow birch still stand in the shade under a canopy of hemlocks. Only the main trunk and the beginnings of two large side branches are left; still tall but far from strong; the bark peeling away to reveal rotted wood below. The trunk angles up through the air, bending and branching: a form that still speaks of life and growth despite being filled with death and decay. I’m reminded of those ancient Greek sculptures dug up from out of the ground; arms, legs and head gone but the torso still a beautiful form. Giving my attention to these dead but still worthy trees brings a little more life to me, on a morning when I felt cold and gray.
January 12, 2014: The Power of Wind and Rain
While I wish we had thick, soft snow piling up and the prospect of cross-country skiing soon, there’s a thrilling energy to an inch of rain falling in one day, stripping the hillsides bare of snow and sending water racing down the stream. And this morning, after the rain, wind gusts rip and roar through the trees, adding tension and energy to both the forest and me. Even in the pauses between gusts the air is filled with a pervasive roar as the wind plunges through other parts of the forest. Then the next gust heads my way and I tense up in preparation and excitement.
Curling up at the base of a big oak tree that I hope I can trust not to drop a branch on me, I listen to the wind racing through the trees and to water trickling down the path next to me. With the solid, strong tree at my side the sounds of the wind and water are almost comforting and I doze a little. But the cold from the ground seeps deep into my muscles. After 20 minutes or so I feel both pushed to move and warm up and held onto as my cold muscles resist stirring into action. Looking up, I watch the treetops swaying and sweeping across the sky. The power of the big gusts to bend the thick tree trunks, and the strength in the trees to resist that power, are magnificent but also frightening. I feel small and vulnerable.
Back home and warmed up a bit I strip down and run, as much as I can run on the slippery, still ice-covered path, up to the quarry pond for my morning dip. I’m thrilled by the sound of the wind and the air sliding over my skin, but feel even more exhilarated as I emerge from my hole in the ice. Cold and dripping with water, I’m completely alive; so excited I head down to the stream for another dip in a pool between melting ice shelves along each stream-bank, below a cascade tumbling under a covering shield of ice. Underwater I can see the white, air-filled water churning below the cascade, and deeper down the clear, cold water at the bottom of the pool.
January 8, 2014: Rivers of Leaves, Feathers and Mountains of Ice
As I step out the door 45 minutes before sunrise it’s -3° Fahrenheit; even colder than it was yesterday. But my mood has changed, the wind is gone, and I’m more used to the cold, so I don’t feel it pushing back at me today. Instead the forest feels quietly beautiful. Perception and the reality I perceive weave together in complex ways, each influencing the other as I immerse myself ever more deeply into this land. The methods of science — counting and cataloging and impartial observation — can greatly reduce the influence of perception on â€œreality,â€ and such tools are invaluable for understanding our world; but they can’t take me where I want to go, at least not all the way. To take the final steps I think I must move through, must collapse, the distance science maintains between observer and observed. But I’m still looking for that path.
The beech leaves rustle softly in a gentle passing breeze and then fall silent. Bird calls float through the cold, still air. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Half an hour before sunrise a star sparkles, high in the south, shining down on this wintry land. But at the same moment this very star is also shining down on some exuberant tropical forest far to the south, and on many lands in-between.
A river of leaves runs through the forest. Where water flowed a few days ago as rain fell and snow melted, there’s now a stream-shaped water-path, tiled in leaves pressed flat to the ground and frozen hard; a complex mosaic in many shades of warm brown, flowing between snowy white banks. Nearby, leaf-lakes have opened up in the snow, some with intricate, leafy coves and snowy islands too.
Lower down, near the stream, there’s a place where water seeps out of the ground at the foot of the hill. Even in this cold, water still trickles over a flat plain of wet leaves here. But scattered across it are rocks, twigs and moss, rising up just enough to grow a thick, white fur of ice crystals, many up to half an inch long. Each crystal is a delicate feather, hard and brittle, but looking as soft as the downy inner feathers of a bird.
Ice is spreading across the stream again too, covering it from bank to bank in many places. The cascades are thick with intricate mountains and caverns of ice. The pools are covered with smooth, flat ice, but often with openings to the flowing water below. In some places the water level has dropped four or five inches since the ice formed and openings in the ice reveal bumpy icicles from the flat ice roof down to the flowing water below. Each bump in the icicles records a place where the water level stayed a bit longer, allowing more ice to build up. The patterns formed by frozen water seem nearly endless in their variety.
January 7, 2014: The Cold
Yesterday the forest was sad and gray; today it’s cold and lonely; pushing harder against me than I’ve ever felt it push. The temperature’s near zero Fahrenheit and the hard, brittle snow cracks coldly underfoot. The icy, relentless wind tests each tree for any weakness and tests me as well, seeking to draw off my warmth. Every living thing now digs down deep, seeming to close out the world, seeking the inner resources to survive the cold.
But with the warm glow of sunrise comes a sense that we’re all in this together too. Even bare of leaves the trees give me some shelter from the wind, and they also shelter each other, even as some crack in the cold. Chickadees, tiny but full of life, bring an air of outright defiance: let the cold and wind do their worst; we are alive and irrepressible.
Tiny tracks dart amongst the trees; a mouse perhaps, running across the snow from one hiding place to another. Lower down, a tunnel made by a mouse hiding and living under the snow is revealed, exposed by the recent warm weather. Fox tracks lead purposefully up the path, but then detour into two dense circles of tracks. Perhaps the fox was listening for a mouse under the snow.
The stream flows on, moving and alive but in its endlessness a reminder of life’s transience.
Go to December 2013