Perched on a ledge high above a steep forested slope I am caught in a moment from where I seem to be able to recognize the past, present, and the future. It is cold. Not the bone chilling cold of a January day out on the ice where wind, open space, and a vast supply of frozen water can pull energy out of your body like a sponge consuming a liquid. No, this is the kind of cold where temperatures in the twenties, a 20 mile per hour wind, and voluntary lack of activity can make one cold deep to the red cells in the marrow of your bone. On these cold days, waiting for something to happen, hours at a time, one has to find within the place where meditation and patience merge into determined resolution. I glance at the carabiner clip watch attached to a loop on my jacket. It is 9:32 AM.
Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute I’ve been stationary. This exercise in determination is about each moment being recognized for its worth. And for some reason this moment is so clear that it is as if I can see forever, frontwards and backwards, inwards and outwards, out to infinity and within. I am at a point in time that has no boundaries, no restrictions, my only limitation is my own willingness to accept what I can experience. It is as if through osmotic action I can draw from all around me, simultaneously, and distill it to a single point that is a volume of sensory information. It is being one with the forest.
Winter moths flutter from the detritus on the forest floor. Their amazing ability to withstand bitter cold is undoubtedly related to the natural production of alcohol that rests within their outer cells and keeps them from freezing. I watch to see if I can recognize their intent. One particular moth moves erratically upward to a place 20 feet above me within branches. I lose him for a moment and it reappears again; this time spiraling downward, randomly, seemingly loving a few precious moments of unadulterated freedom. Without any notice a black capped chickadee appears and deftly picks off the winter moth in mid flight. I am surprised by the sudden demise of the moth. His flight seemed so innocent and harmless. Now it is finished, both the flight and the moth. The chickadee lands on a nearby branch, spits out both wings and swallows the moth’s body; merely necessary sustenance from one creature to another. All within the circle of life.
A long abandoned hornets nest woven onto a very narrow yellow birch branch bob’s about in the wind about 20 yards in front of me. The papery nest, looking much like a Japanese lantern, is still in full form, although long ago abandoned, and decorates the forest as we would expect art work to bring meaning to a human landscape. The movement of the nest, it’s papyrus-like shell catching the breeze, is mesmerizing. The gray globe dances to the tune of the wind. Who would have thought that a nest made by hornets could move as beautifully as a ballerina swaying to Swan Lake?
The forest seems naked at this moment. Long gone is the green foliage replaced by distant views through thin branches that appear as edges of a mosaic tile. I shudder at the beauty in front of me. The stillness is shattered by the call of a bluejay. The sound, although not melodic and raspy, fits the scene. The trees live their lives silently but they fill the landscape with both beauty and substance. After all these years in the woods it is the substance that I am still pondering and trying to decipher.
Like many living things trees morph into a quiet state in the winter. Trees have complex chemical reactions that allow dormancy in the autumn and break dormancy in the spring. Particular proteins known as photochromes actually respond to the length of day. This protein measures the quantity, quality, and direction of red and far-red light waves. These chemicals act as the gateway to the growing season. When phytochromes are activated by light a tree may start other chemical and hormonal processes that allow growth, photosynthesis, and the uptake of water. When the length of day shortens and a tree stops producing phytochromes the pathways for growth, photosynthesis, chemical and hormonal activity are halted. Interestingly, temperature has nothing to do with the production of this protein. It is entirely controlled by light.
Sleeping forests make me feel comfortable. I sought refuge in the winter woods as a child. They were my safe haven. I have one particular memory of sitting with my back against a gargantuan white oak tree near a large kettle swamp. I was about five years old. My sister had been taken away from our family and vanquished to an orphanage-like institution. She was four years older than me and her being taken out of my life left me with nothing. She provided the only stability I knew. When I felt sad she made me laugh. When I felt alone she’d read a book to me. And when I felt afraid I think she knew why and would take me outside where I was always able to find a better point of view. At the time I had no sure way of knowing why she had been taken away. I could only imagine that someone was trying to help her escape. And I couldn’t imagine why they hadn’t taken me too. I was left alone to face abuse and I could not have felt more by myself and more exposed. It was the forest that gave me comfort. I’d spend hours and hours there just to avoid my problems. I spent so much times in the woods that I became accustomed to the day to day goings on at a very early age. In a strange way it was a totally dysfunctional family that made me the forest lover I am today. And today I still wonder how it is that something so horrible could introduce me to something so wonderful.
My memories of those days are always accomplished in very short time spans. Complex thoughts and remembrances seem to take place in only a moment. Pain is lessened by time. I learned at an early age to keep looking over my shoulder and cover my tracks while always moving forward. Any good woodsman knows the importance of this tried and true tracking technique. Knowing where you were, where you are, and where you are going is one of the secrets of life in the forest. It is also essential to survival.
Another raucous blue jay brings me back to the present. It sits on a limb of a young white pine sapling. It seems to be announcing its presence. The squawking brings in other jays that seem to want to join the party. They all sit in a caucus and appear to be discussing matters of the forest. Their voices are lively and they seem to have intent. After a few moments they all fly off together squawking as they glide out of site beyond the next bedrock knoll.
The excitement makes me aware of the present. I glance at my watch. It is 9:40 AM. In only a few moments it seems I’ve lived a lifetime and there is still much time to spend in this forest.
A moment in forest time can seem like forever. Something I learned as a child and hold on to these many years later.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in November of 2013.