Things I’ve Seen in the Woods

Deer. Many more downstate than up north. In the suburbs they’re crowded, hemmed in by “development.” What developed exactly? A CVS every mile or so, an Olive Garden next to a Chili’s next to the barbecue chain and a Panera across the parking lot, between Target and the Dollar Store. Endless, ceaseless traffic, long lines of cars nearly 24/7, belching fumes. The Trump administration is busy rolling back exhaust standards. That’s development for you.

At the cottage, I once saw porcupines—two of them, back in the woods on an autumn walk. That was years ago, at least thirty. The friend who was with me then is dead now. I remember she was afraid the porcupines would throw their quills at us, like in cartoons. That made me laugh. Porcupines used to come up our driveway overnight and nibble on our cars. I think they liked the salt. They chewed the plastic on my sister’s front bumper once; another time, the fuel line under my parents’ Suburban. Come to think of it, this hasn’t happened in close to thirty years, either. Now there are more houses, more cars on our road, and last fall when I walked back in the woods not far from where we saw the porcupines someone had set up a hunting blind, overlooking the old trail.

Also up north, there are birch trees. If I follow the logging trail and cross the swamp in dryer months (in spring I would need wellingtons, which I keep thinking I should get) the land begins to rise. Past a massive maple just before the woods break to open field they open up a little and there are good-sized birch trees there, a scattered grove of them. Once when I was there the strips of snow-white bark hanging from their trunks lifted like flags in the breeze. White birches are among the most beautiful sights in northern woods. I’ve seen them in photos of Siberia. Who says we’re not all connected? The universe is one.

Flowers. Orchids: ladyslippers, and a tiny purple one, I don’t know its name. And in spring, trillium. One year we went to Jordan River Pathway to hike, and the open woods not yet leafed out, sunny and bright, were blanketed with white blooms. A landscape that so affected me that two days later when we went back downstate I was still seeing beauty everywhere I looked.

I’ve met the past in the woods. Walks from long ago, the companionship of people I won’t ever see again. Somehow in the woods it doesn’t feel so hard. I crouch in the path to study a piece of bark, I focus my camera on something (or don’t), I listen to the wind stir the treetops high above me. I don’t feel so sad, or even lonely. I know I’m not alone.

Once we saw an owl, sitting on a branch, just beyond Little Beaver Lake, in the Upper Peninsula. We were on our way back to the parking area at the conclusion of our backpacking trip. The owl took wing as we came up the trail. Sally saw it first, perched; I caught a glimpse as it flew.

In all that quiet—no other people around—we were not alone.

Early in the morning at the cottage sometimes even with the windows closed (single pane, and no insulation) I hear birds. In summer, a loon calling. Its voice floats across the water, an enigmatic sound, carrying the mystery of other lives I can’t possibly know—and yet I am touched by them.

That was the purpose of the cottage all along: to be moved by the life around you and know you are never alone. While still you breathe this air and lay your head down on this green Earth, you are not alone.

Nancy Squires April 2018


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