one single deer walked across this frozen marsh. it left its footprints behind and we could see that it was alone, at least as it crossed. we wondered where it was going, if it would be meeting other deer, if it was young or older, if it had been seeking food or a little open water. we’ve seen many deer on this stretch of trail. they are usually in the woods, gazing out at us as we pass. they stand silently and watch, making sure that we mean no harm. and, of course, we don’t. i always whisper to them how very beautiful they are and i thank them for their quiet presence.
i wonder – after we leave and our boots are printed in the snowy trail – if the deer ponder us. if they wonder where we are going, if we are meeting others, if we are young or older, if we are seeking food or open water.
one of the reasons we love being on the trail is to mutually share that space with wildlife as it surrounds us. we know that there are many creatures, many critters we will not see, though they likely see us. and while we can usually identify them and whether we are in jeopardy – if we see them – we know that identifying humans is harder. for creatures and critters do not know the intent of humans as they pass. they do not know who humans are nor if they are in danger because humans are nearby. the sun rises and sets in their neck of the woods and they must always be vigilant. few natural predators, their vigilance is mostly because of the humans.
they do not realize that it is also necessary for humans to be vigilant of humans. for not all are well-intended and some mean harm. some are singularly focused on hurtful agenda, some are dedicated to marginalizing others, some are dangerous.
i hope that our footprints – now and later – reveal goodness, cause no alarm, are no menace. there’s already enough of that in this world.
one mention of jack-in-the-pulpit and i was back at blydenburgh park in smithtown. it didn’t take much to find myself in the woods, hiking along the nissequogue river, by the pond. camera in hand, early spring, looking for the earlybirds of the season. jack-in-the-pulpit didn’t disappoint, flowering shortly after my birthday, spotted on muddy hikes on brisk days.
i remember bike-hiking there, with susan. i just googled it and the county park was only 6.6 miles from my growing-up house. we would ride bikes everywhere. our destination of choice – most of the time – was crab meadow beach, but you know that. even in the winter, when handlebar-turned-down-10-speeds were impossible, my trusty little bug would get me there, to that beach. i would walk and walk and walk. the shoreline is a good place to think, to grow, sandy step by sandy step.
last friday – as it approached the end of the workday – we looked at each other. “fridaynightdatenight,” we tossed into the kitchen. as the hour wore on, we pondered what to do – on this datenight. an iffy-weather day, we didn’t bundle up late afternoon for a hike or even a walk. we were looking forward to making a big stockpot of soup, glass of wine in hand. we have three books we are mutually reading. we are binge-watching new amsterdam. dogga was at our feet in the kitchen. it was a cozy fridaynight.
the next day we hiked. because we really do love to be outside on a trail.
and the more i hike, the more i remember hiking.
but somewhere along the way, i stopped.
i didn’t hike. i didn’t take long walks.
and i am somewhat astounded to think about that now.
but not everyone likes to be on a trail or even a sidewalk, for that matter. not everyone likes to merely take-a-walk in the company of someone they love.
i didn’t realize how much i missed blydenburgh park and crab meadow beach and millneck manor and planting fields arboretum and smith’s point park and hoyt farm nature preserve – places so very familiar to me because i walked them – again and again – until i started memorizing the des plaines river trail and the van patten woods and bristol woods and allendale sidewalks along the lakefront.
that’s when i realized how much i had missed, how much each step on trails feeds me – nearby, or in the high mountains of colorado or the smoky mountains of north carolina, along the easternmost long island beaches or in the woods of upstate ny state parks or in the red rock of utah.
the trees were submerged in the river; there had been some mild flooding. i know these trees. we’ve watched them through seasons on saturdaydatehikes or latemondaytuesdaywednesdaythursdayafternoondatenights. we’ve attached to this trail and it feels as if it remembers us as we pass along it. soon, i think i’ll look for jack-in-the-pulpit, just in case. it would likely bloom later here than in blydenburgh park. spring is later here.
as i bent way down, camera in hand, to shoot through the mulch at the river, i was transported back to that suffolk county park, camera always in hand. and it made me think about all the years i had not stepped foot on a trail, had not walked-until-blisters, had not watched the water rise and fall on rivertrees or glimpsed jack-in-the-pulpit in the underbrush.
i wonder about what those decades of trails would have looked like, what mountains i may or may not have climbed, what roiling rivers i might have entered or not entered, what out-of-breath conversations would have taken place, what problems sorted, what challenges summited, what decisions made, what disasters averted, what center might have been out there, what wisdom trails may have gifted me, what might be different.
“in every walk of nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” (john muir)
i’m glad to have found my way back.
walks of nature.
blydenburgh park is 898 miles from here. crab meadow beach is 908. smith’s point park is 924. upstate new york around 1000. the smoky mountains are 739. the high mountains of colorado are 1237. moab et al is 1511. all on the list of places to return to. places to hike, to walk.
but bristol woods is 13 miles and the des plaines river trail is 12. and either of those is a worthy handinhand fridaynightdatenight.
the light lit up the sky, a golden glow in a fog toward the heavens. it is one of the chicago botanic garden’s iconic displays, this tunnel of light, begging you to look up, be wrapped in its light, acknowledge the goose bumps. the luminous winter cathedral drawing people toward it. they stood, marveling, they strolled slowly, they posed for photographs, the millions of starry twinkling lights enveloping all.
i’m not much for cathedrals, really. i never have been; it’s nothing new. while i can appreciate their stunning beauty and the incredible feat it often took to build or install, they have never brought me closer to faith than any other place…outside, in the presence of others, at the piano, alone in wonder.
in my life – and in three and a half decades of my work life – i have found churches to not only house beauty. i have found churches to also house ugly. and so, i was relieved to read the words of john pavlovitz. it is important to distinguish the difference – the building is not God. and, sometimes, the best place to find the supreme deity you are seeking – no matter the name, no matter the denomination or affiliation, no matter the book of written word – is not in a place, not in a building.
the people – so many gathered there – under the arch of the winter cathedral seemed softer. the glow of light on their faces, they moved slower, offered to photograph others, gazed up. just as a community of people in a church often do, they seemed to come together, one of the benefits of “the building”. but, as i have found time and again – and, if we are to speak truth – those benefits sometimes run out. and people within become consumed by that which would never be considered a basic tenet of faith – the hypocrisies of power and control and discrimination and subjugation and competition, toxic things that “[don’t] feel like Love anymore”*.
as i walked under the night sky i knew that the cathedral would be close to the last installation on the guided path. i steeled myself for its overtones, even with its undeniable beauty.
we stood back and watched people enter it. in awe. it is truly glorious.
we approached and there was this tiny voice inside my head naysaying “church” to the other tiny voice exclaiming “wow”. both.
yet ethereal was there and it shone down on us as we walked through to the other side. and then we were once again under a night sky, full of stars we could see and stars we couldn’t see. just like faith.
“you are fully freed to run into the wide open spaces of this world, and to experience life and faith and beauty in ways you never thought possible…”*
there’s no telling. no way to know. really anything. any. thing.
the mystery of the new year is enormous. giant arcing things will happen, life-changing. tiny morsels of moments will happen, life-changing. we have no way to truly predict. there is no artificial intelligence that can tell us the spectrum of life that we will experience in the new year. it is hidden in holiday wrap, too much scotch tape, gift tags that have become mixed up, like luggage on southwest airlines right now.
to greet it without a hint of anticipation, without a breath of celebration, without acknowledgement of the brevity of time, is to maybe miss it.
stardust falls on our shoulders as we walk into the turn of the year under the big, big sky.
we never put the air conditioners in. all summer. it’s been windows-open. summer two.
granted, there were a few days that were a little brutal, the humidity high, the breeze slight. we all melted a little.
but we survived. and, as i sit here, knowing that there are whirring central systems all around us, i can feel the breeze coming in from the east, the sun is gracing the comforter, the chippies are out back trying to dissuade the squirrels from eating at the birdfeeder and it is mostly quiet. our old house breathes and the outdoors comes in.
i guess i know people who spend scarcely any time outside. i personally can’t imagine it. we spend as much time outside as possible. even deck time counts. moments that we get to be up-north are exceptional and this time was no different. it doesn’t matter the weather, though sparklingly sunny days are truly impossible miracles of beauty. but even the rain, falling on the woods and lulling us all, doesn’t deter us and we sneak out in-between to take a walk and find wildflowers on the side of the road.
there is a chipmunk – and i am assuming, with no real basis for it, that it is always the same one – that comes to the fence across the driveway outside my window almost every day. it sits atop the fencepost and chirps loudly, stopping only when i call out the window to him, “hi little guy! hi chippie!” and make conversational chippie noises back at him. satisfied he said good morning (again, an assumption) he scampers off the fence and on to his next task-at-hand. were the window to be closed, i would miss it.
there are trips we want to take – to gorgeous high mountains and red rock canyons, to the atlantic coast, to smoky mountains, to cool canadian provinces, to faraway places overseas. we’ll spend as much time outside in those places as we can, drinking it in.
that window is big and wide open. and there is wild and sensational beauty out there.
but it’s even in our own backyard. and i don’t want to miss it.
and even as we sat on the deck, the chippie ran to dogdog’s bowl. tiny paws on the top edge, he pulled himself up and ducked his head down into the metal dogbowl, getting a quick drink of water. moments later he scampered away, back toward the potting bench and access to the birdfeeder. it was a really sweet moment and pivoted our conversation to wondering and worrying about the wildlife in the searing temperatures.
i went inside and pulled out two shallow vessels, filling them both with cool water. placing one on the ground and the other on the potting stand, i announced to chipmunks et al that i would keep them filled and they didn’t have to risk life or limb drinking out of dogga’s bowl. we often see squirrels and birds taking tiny sips of the pond, but i’m all for offering them a cleaner water option.
in another pure bambi-movie moment, driving down a local more-forested road, a doe stood on the right-of-way. proudly she nursed a beautiful spotted fawn. i can hear the fawn, “but i’m hungry nowwwww” as she encouraged it to go just a few steps further so as to be out of sight, in the wood. but a mom does what a mom’s gotta do and she unabashedly stood fast, allowing us a gorgeous, heart-stirring view of nature doing nature. we were both moved. a profound moment in time, reminding us it’s not just us.
i reached out to touch the grasses by the old brick front wall and he was suddenly there. holding on to the brick, his tiny face looking at me, direct eye-to-eye contact. i whispered i would do nothing to hurt him, tiny chipmunk, and he zipped off, satisfied he was in no danger.
a few years ago, when we were way up north in ely on the boundary waters, there was this chipmunk we named “humpy” who, well, kind of obviously, had a hump on his back. each day he came right up to me, climbed in my lap and waited for peanuts. he’d stuff his little cheeks and run off to hide his stash and then he’d return to sit and climb on me until i relented and gave him more. each year since i’ve asked 20 if humpy was there again, but he hasn’t seen him. years have passed. these tiny creatures typically only live a couple years, which is probably why they live so zealously.
i suppose we would do well to mimic the sweetly-dedicated-nurturing-zealous-living of critters. never a moment to take for granted. always present in this ballet of life, doing the best they can with what they have. recognizing that simple interconnectivity matters, trusting that others will be compassionate and will have their best interests at heart.
there is this thing about being on a mountain in the woods. you don’t realize you are there – on the mountain. oh, you know you are going uphill and downhill and some of it is extreme, but being ON it is different than looking AT it. you are immersed in the scents and sounds and each step you take on the trail, over tree roots and slippery fallen leaves, is a really glorious celebration of being outside.
and then, in-between the branches devoid of leaves and over the tops of pine, you catch a glimpse. it takes your breath away, as do things that you love, things that are beautiful, things that remind you to “be here, now”.
the days were warm and the sun was amazing. it burned off a bit of fog early as it rose over the mountains and drew us outside. to drive down the road a bit meant getting to the national forest in a matter of minutes. hundreds of waterfalls and innumerable trails awaited. with only a couple days, we wondered where to start.
the orange trail blazes were on the trees as we hiked. it was supposed to be a relatively short trail, so we decided to turn off and take the faintly-traveled blue up the side of a steep ridge a good ways as well. we need new hiking boots it seems; the hundreds and hundreds of miles we have hiked in these over the last years have worn down their tread and traction on the leaves was a challenge. i found a stick on the side of the trail and that helped. trekking poles are also on the list. we saw no one on the blue. it was quiet and immense and the babbling stream below us was serene. the mountains around us peeked through branches on our way, more so the higher we got. we watched the sun as it got a little lower in the sky and turned around.
joining back up with the orange we started to hike back toward the lot. or so we thought. it seemed far, much farther than we had thought. the trail app wasn’t cooperating and we began to wonder if we were heading the wrong way. that made us the tiniest bit cranky, though we tried to laugh it off, even as the sun was slipping.
we passed a few people, also confused by a couple signs propped up by rocks that didn’t seem to correlate with the blazes. i took stock of our rations: a mini kind bar, a bottle of water, two halos, one sweater poncho and a thermal shirt tied around d’s waist. though i didn’t actually doubt that we would find our way out, i could imagine what it would be like to truly get lost and be unsure of the way out of the forest. “before we do the pct some day in the futuring-future, get a trail gps,” i made a mental note.
since orange was a large looped trail – and a smaller interior loop choice too – we knew we’d eventually get somewhere, though it did extend to two different parking lots, separated by a whole lot of what-would-end-up road walk. we kept hiking. at one point david thought we should turn around and go the opposite direction. happily we didn’t follow that naggy doubt he had in moments of what-the-heck. littlebabyscion was patiently waiting in the lot at the end and we loaded my stick in the back, checked our mileage – about 8 – and drove down the national park road in the last of waning light.
we hiked up another ridge the next day. we got a later start after a wonderful morning wandering in town. we didn’t make it to the peak. we were told the view was spectacular. but the hike was quiet and the brook babbling, birdcalls plenty and that smell of deep-in-the-woods like the best candle you’ve found.
and i stood in the stream with incandescent bubbles parting around the boulder i was on, watching the miracle of light and sun and dimension and water and rock. every color in the spectrum was represented; none got top billing. mostly, it was gorgeous and inspired happy. i cannot think of a mountain stream that doesn’t.
saturday night, because there was no mountain stream nearby, we stared into the bonfire, listened to the pond gurgle and clinked glasses as the night fell. we lit the tiki lanterns and our treasured small gas firepit and stoked the fire with dry wood we had gathered from our yard and limbs that had fallen in recent months. it was chilly but the fire was warm and we decided to eat outside right next to it, setting up our pop-up-dinner table and stools for some homemade chicken soup lit by candles. some things are magical even in simplicity.
dogdog ran around until he conked out on the patio next to us and the dark settled in, interrupted by tealights and fire and bulbs strung over the pond. there may not have been any mountain stream to sit and tarry by, no bubbles to reflect the light of day, but the fire licked the darkness and its dance…just as gorgeous and inspiring happy.
i am a scavenger. i readily admit it. it’s not like you don’t know. you have read posts about my pieces of wood or sticks or rocks or feathers; i have even posted photographs of how these things decorate our home. but i am always looking…keeping an eye out for something else i can bring home. something that is natural. something that will remind me of time spent. something i really treasure. and every now and then, i will find a heart – that nature, in its infinite wisdom, has left behind. a gentle reminder that love is everywhere.