The sirens wail as I sit by the black window in my little square of habitat after visiting the woods. I stopped there on the bus like I do every free evening now that it’s still light out. It’s easy to walk the whole trail thinking about whatever worries me that day.
But every tiny moment of noticing the craggy bark of the trees and the deepening shadows along the creek while a song sparrow dives across the trail like a shadow itself or a robin chuckles above is reason enough to keep coming.
The world is such a big and lonely place when I don’t listen to the wind through the trees or hear how the gravel along the road home is starting to sound like summer.
The siren fades as the fire engine makes its way through the dark neighborhood to save some other soul.
It’s been a long time since I hiked past Mulkey Ridge to Fitton Green so I am determined to make it today despite not having slept well. For once it wasn’t stress that kept me up, but the moon. The silver light thought the open window turned my skin to silk while the rain wrapped my body in the warmth of its steady cadence. That solitude can overflow with such tenderness is a wonder I won’t sleep through so I watched the round moon through the window as the oak in the distance stood still in the same light and the curtains held the space in just the right grey.
On the way back I come to a low, split-log bench with no back and lay down, grateful to rest and admire the sky through the rugged winter branches. A little later I wake to the papery rattle of ferns right next to me. Above me the pendulous moss hanging in the evergreen bobs in the same breeze and its strangeness brings me into the magnitude of life in space. What a fortune to be on this one little bubble of air, water and minerals with a molten core and a tilted spin that holds us all fast on a pile of rocks, each one the just the right grey.
There are flowers opening in the woods this morning
My favorite creek-rock is bare where it used to hold old leaves and the path sports new sprigs of grass along its edge.
It is prickly-cold still but the one pink Salmon Berry blossom in the brambles lets me shed grandiosity like an old, ratty cloak.
Love was never something to earn anyway.
It is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet hopping about in the branches by the trail while birdsong fills the wood to its edge.
It is walking in the company of trees through the exquisite winter chill, each step blooming with the richness of being exactly like this.
The trees are back-lit, flaring green-gold around their mossy edges in the morning sun while the silvery fog mutes the dark pines and turns the brown leaves crimson.
The Pacific Wrens are singing again. One perches on the blunt end of a stick by the trail in his brown and ocher body just pumping air from his lungs into sound like it’s a contest to win. He jumps onto the ground and becomes smaller than mice.
My mind has it’s own song, mulling over small conflicts in variations no matter how much I lose interest in them. But then the sound of black wings fills my head as a Pileated Woodpecker sails past to land on a tree and drum.
A raven croaks across the way and suddenly I notice the sound of water dripping out of the spongy moss into the mud all around me.
Down the trail a ways an old man passes wearing a faded raincoat he must have bought 40 years ago and I wonder what he has learned about love during its life. I don’t ask. Instead I stop and admire the marsh and its broad strokes of color in the middle of the green forest.
Above in the branches a robin sits so still I almost don’t notice.
The oaks seem extra lumpy after the rain, their mossy coats catching the cloud light and shimmering green-gold. I climb the ridge stopping here and there to look at the scenery. I’ve been wanting to do this hike for months. Now that I’m finally here I’m so engrossed in mentally rearranging my priorities I’m barely noticing the surrounds.
I’ve been replacing my quest for spiritual truth with the thing I love most—communing with nature. Perhaps today would be a good time to reckon with the fact that not every walk in the woods is going to be a deep experience. That it’s OK to sometimes be distracted while the shadows crisscross the pale bark of the pines and black-tailed deer slip up the slope carrying the silver light back to the top of the ridge on their shiny coats.
To miss the acorn woodpeckers chasing a flicker from the dead oak, full of acorn-size holes that keeps their stash. Or the Bewick’s Wren who lands in a bush off the trail and buzzes. To not notice that two Spotted Towhees scattered from the same place on the trail on my way out and back.
Eventually there will be the moment when I come to—when the sun breaks slowly through the gray and the forest light turns nostalgic and orange, gleaming crimson off the carpet of purple and brown leaves.
I sit on a log to watch and consider what it even means to commune with nature. Empty and wound-tight, I wonder, what do I offer in return?
On the way back three wild turkeys plod down hill through the ferns and sticks, their wattles a striking cadmium against the greens and browns. Another group of black-tailed deer bound downhill and out of sight.
It is such a privilege to be among them, privy to their beauty, wondering over their inner workings.
What can I give back? A chance to scatter? A great emptiness in which to store wonder?
I arrive at the forest on my bike out-of-breath and apprehensive because I didn’t come here just to admire nature today. I came here to find wisdom.
Several months ago I sat here on a log by the creek after a break-up. The water trickled over rusty colored rocks while I followed my hurt feelings to their deepest roots so I could heal my attraction to the sorts of unavailable men I’d been dating.
There in the company of Song Sparrows, robins, Western Wood Pewees and squirrels I sank down into an unusual heart-break from my twenties. I had no idea how to make my own decisions then, and fell into the company of a spiritual guru who was happy to make them for me.
It was comforting at the time to imagine that I had found an infallible truth to live from and that all my failings were actually the signs of a highly evolved person being called to give up passions and worldly endeavors for a state of pure egoless bliss.
In hindsight, I gave up on myself for an entire decade just because I had an unsightly ego.
Grief makes no sense, It’s something to wade into with nothing but Kleenex, a journal maybe, and faith. It touches the raw corners of an empty space that feels like it can’t be filled. It shows us the ways we failed to love someone enough and sometimes how we failed to love ourselves at all.
Who would I be if I felt like it was OK to fail or be unevolved? How would I live? These are the questions I amble through the gold of old maple leaves stuck in brambles along the creek with.
I stop and sketch an odd growth of mossy branches on the forest floor then several tangled and brushy scenes. It starts sprinkling rain so I walk south and notice how much more of the neighborhood is visible from the trail now that the leaves are down. I take a new route that brings me onto the road so I can loop around to the trail on the other side of the creek. Ideas come to me about new bodies of art-work. I try to flush out all the details and notice I’m getting really uptight. I let it go and listen for wisdom as I came here to do.
It’s ok to have goals, but you are always in such a hurry to meet them you often neglect your other needs. Think of goals as paddles instead of a compass.
It’s good advice. It occurs to me death is the one place we will end up for sure regardless of what beliefs or goals we live with; it’s our most reliable compass point. It feels eerie to align to death as a North Star but strangely comforting. She is like a mythic empress who gives me permission to arrive at her dark question mark having worn out every nook and cranny of life guided only by a desire to love every inch of the way there.
I head back to my bike with sketches and painting ideas, less weight on my shoulders and a sense of how to begin.