Brown beech leaves, haggard and a little worse for the wear, linger on pale stems that grasp stout frozen branches on this icy landscape. The tree canopy is porous and allows the modest sun light to bleed through the naked branches casting thin shadows on the ground that is barely veiled with a shallow layer of crusty snow. The woods are quiet, save a couple of jays, that call out across the empty landscape. Old animal tracks in the snow, left behind from days ago, echo a memory of past use. A reminder of just how stark winter can be; cold, naked, nearly empty.
I am alone on this day. A rare wandering in these forests without my hounds. I am here to find something that I have missed for quite some time. I left it out here somewhere although I have absolutely no idea where I might find it in these vast woods that hold more than twenty thousand acres of pure wild.
I first noticed that it was missing sometime last summer. I could not remember the last time I had it. Perhaps last winter, on a long winter hike. Lost in my thoughts perhaps I was not paying attention. In fact, I could not even remember exactly what it was that I lost. It’s not unlike me these days. Losing something is part of my everyday existence. Sometimes I lose a word in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes I misplace a key that opens a door. Sometimes I find myself searching for a thought that I only had a moment ago. It’s now part of my every day experience. I am still adjusting to this new me.
I look ahead. Before me is a steep hill covered with tall trees, both conifers and deciduous. The contrast of gray and green looks like some sort of stacked, vertical checker board. I can see spaces between the trunks that look like a maze. In the thousands of times that I’ve climbed this hill I doubt I have ever taken the same route twice. The frozen snow makes a loud crunch with each step. I pause every few steps and let the noise settle. There is nothing so peaceful as quiet in the deep woods. My wanderings up this hill are slow. I stop to notice the chaga on an old yellow birch. I think that I should remember where this is located so that I can harvest it at some other time. I laugh out loud when it occurs to me that this memory will fade like so many others. About a third of the way up the hill I stumble into a large wind-throw, an old hemlock tree toppled by the great ice storm of 2008. The root ball sticks up into the air to height of about ten feet. There is a sizable gouge in the ground where the root ball once stood. The hole is partially filled with ice and snow. The long shank of the tree trunk lays on the ground. Only a few years ago it was supported, elevated off the ground, by broken branches that stabbed into the earth. This once giant tree remains only as a skeleton of its once green self. A testimony to a once great life. A monument to this forest’s history.
I weave my way through the trees on this steep hillside. My boots occasionally slip backwards on the icy surface. I like to think of slipping as stepping into the past. It helps me with the concept of a slow journey uphill. Getting from point A to point B is not always as direct as one imagines.
In a dense area of hemlocks I find a bloody deer carcass. A doe that met her match to the ways of the wild. She was slaughtered by eastern coyotes, large wolf hybrid coyotes that now hold great power in these forested ecosystems. I know she was killed by these particular fierce predators because of the evidence they have left behind. They entered the perished deer from the rear, between the legs, in an effort to consume their prey; a sure sign of an eastern coyote kill. The only viable meat is now located on the front shoulders. They will likely return for that within the next 24 hours. The crimson blood splattered all over the snow is quite a contrast to the white snow and green bows that overhang the area. It is a murder scene no doubt. A justifiable homicide. The transference of energy from one animal to another. The chilling scenario is both sad and beautiful simultaneously. Such is nature.
Just before exiting the hemlock grove I hear the howls of eastern coyotes. They start with barking and yipping, then what sounds like crazy laughter, soon sliding into long drawn out high pitched and mournful howling. This could be the same band that slaughtered the deer the night before. They now are on an adjacent mountain across a forested valley. And even though their crying comes from almost a half a mile away it sounds like it is almost right in front of me. I feel as if I have first row seats at a concert. The sounds send shivers down my spine. I can feel an elevated pulse. I am not scared. I am excited. I am excited to be alive.
As I approach the top of the hill I notice that it is now twilight. The gold, pink, and purple sunset on the western mountains fills the almost dark night air with a glorious hue of wonder. Yes, this is what the color of wonder looks like. The valley below me still shimmers with what little light is left. The sky is fading from dark blue to black. The view of the fading sun on the western hills is nothing less than awesome. And then while the coyotes begin to sing again, filling the air with the shrill voice of reality, it hits me. This is what I have lost. This is my chapel. The coyotes sing my hymn. The valley below shows me the depth of our world and the sun setting behind the mountains to the west is my alter. The voice inside my head, loving every moment of this, is my sermon.
I have found my place on this planet. I have found what I thought I had lost. I feel somehow reborn, renewed, reinvigorated.
Lost and found.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in December of 2014. Merry Christmas everyone and a joyous, wonderful New Year to each and every one of you!