Tag Archives: woods

Forest nor the Trees

Up north, the leaves have been off the trees for weeks, helped by a heaping handful of Sandy. But, down south a couple of hundred miles, the leaves were happily attached to their mother ships, showing no sign of giving up the host, until a few days ago, when, overnight – whoompf – bare limbs and the anguished cries of leaf-rakers who’d just filled bags of the stuff, thinking that they’d have some days’ respite before the next necessary round of gathering.

Back up north, where we have a new place to call home, trees surround the house and then roll on to the distance, so that, in spring and summer, there is no horizon, only the tops of massive pines and maples and ash, and all the bushy undergrowth. All of it – the tall, the short, the great variety of green, the hard and soft and prickly, the native and the invasive – creates a kind of cocoon, or a force creeping up on what humans have carved out from it, a sure but subtle approach, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; indeed, behind every tree, within every dense brush, on every leaf-shrouded limb, creatures live, many of them, yet so few that we actually see or hear. And you can’t see neighbors’ houses, either – they’re there, somewhere, but behind and beyond, and out of mind. The foliage acts like a buffer, and a sound muffler, and it is, when you first start looking to live in these parts, exactly what your urban heart gladly surrenders to: unbridled green, like a warm mitten, granting you privacy, and ease, and basic things, even a kind of security, tenuous and fragile though it may be.

So, when the sky changes, and the wind blows cold, and the leaves start swirling down like confetti at a political convention, the newbie fears that all of nature that is good is gone, and that fall and winter will be times that are not to be loved but endured. What was green is brown and grey; one feels exposed, as if he’d walked out of a shower to discover that the walls had disappeared and an audience was enjoying the view from box seats.

Yet, that’s all wrong. This is an astounding time, perhaps even more so than when the force through the green fuse drives the flower. Thinking as I was thinking was simply getting it backwards: This is not a time when one is exposed, it is the time when the world is revealed. Where once there was a clump of green, now I see the close, middle and long-range depths of the world around me. That house I was trying to avoid seeing? It’s a lovely counterpoint to the natural world that now unfolds it to me. That ravine, that hillock – both seemed like soft cushions and springs, but are now clearly places of sharpness and mystery and secrets, not monochromatic but full of shadows and dappled areas of browns and tans and orange. Suddenly, I see something red, so red that it would seem impossible to not be a constant beacon, and yet I have no idea what that could be, because in my spring and summer days in this place it has never been visible to me. A short walk informs me that it is a canoe hanging on the side of a small shed – a canoe and a shed I didn’t know even existed.

And then – on going across the road to check the mailbox, I look back at my remarkably ungreened house, so open to the eye that it seems like a landmark, and I see, where just a few short weeks ago there was nothing but tree after tree … I see the mountains, less than a mile away, that look over (hence the name of one) and guard (hence the other) our little village. The real-estate brokers call this having “seasonal views,” and tout it as a selling point, or, rather, a buying opportunity. But it is not so crass – the surprise appearance of the rolling, sinuous and nearly feline mountains is nothing less than a gift, and a comeuppance to any who believe that this time of year is only about huddling and shelter, about losses and not gains.

Discovery is everywhere, in every place, in every direction, if only one moves with nature and time and does not cling to easy beauty, or fears sleep or death. Renewal is yet to come; epiphanies are here right now, for the taking.

 

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The Deer: A Solstice Tale

Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?

Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.

One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.

The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.

Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.

We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.

Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.

We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.

 

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