Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Forest in Equipoise

With Lucky weighing in at close to sixty pounds these days and containing the spring-loaded energy of about five dogs, we’re getting out for a lot of walks in the woods and fields. Our usual off-the-leash jaunt takes us through stands of pines and along the edges of meadows, and through an ever changing tapestry of green and gold and red and brown. From the frozen cover of white the landscape emerges in spring, first just bare brown, then tinged with a faint shade of green. Then suddenly, as if God flips a switch, the meadows are covered with shiny grass that tosses like silk in the wind, and daffodils and crabapples and violets add bright splashes of color.

In a reminder that natural drama eternally surrounds us and we are just bit players in a larger dynamic picture, there is always something new to discover. The ribcage of a deer, picked clean in a meadow. Only days before it had been attached to the entire deer, which lay freshly dead next to a pasture fence. A scattering of turkey feathers and entrails. A freshly dug den—fox or woodchuck? And as the days lengthen, the sprouting of leaf buds and fresh branches and new foliage.

A few years ago, we hosted a French foreign exchange student, and I took him around the place for an introduction to the neighborhood. While I was trying to access my high school French to convey the concept of a “coyote” to Henri (pas comme un chien sauvage, mais comme un petit loup!) an explosion of noise and feathers caused our heads to snap in unison. There, across the meadow, was a red-tailed hawk in flight…being chased by a turkey hen, also airborne. The hawk wasn’t wasting any time. Like I said, there’s always something new. Try explaining THAT in French.

But for a brief spell, there is a tipping point to be found between winter and summer, and we were there just a few days ago. I’m not even going to try to throw “spring” into the mix, it just muddies the picture. Where I live, we have known blizzards on Mother’s Day, and sixty degree days on Christmas Eve. I was in a tank top three weeks ago. We’re expecting frost again tonight week. Just because the gophers are starting to come out to play and the bluebirds are hatching doesn’t mean you still don’t have to keep a watchful eye on your tomato plants. Switching from the flannel "winter" sheets to the summer ones requires a big leap of faith, and no small emotional investment.

No, this is simply between winter and summer. There is a short, perfect stretch for exploring, perhaps only a week or two, when winter’s snows have melted and the forest floor has dried up, but the trees and shrubs have barely started to bud. When the paths followed by deer and other critters are still visible, and the contours of the terrain are clear. I live in one of the areas of Wisconsin that were sculpted by the ebb and flow of great ice sheets, where the forward surge of glaciers pushing earth and rock and the following retreat of meltwater streams left formations known as kettles and kames and drumlins and eskers. A walk in the woods can be a strenuous and unpredictable adventure if you’re trying to get anywhere “as the crow flies.”

From where we stood on our usual route, however, I could see where the forest floor rose and fell away. Even better, I could see for a pretty good distance, with no scrim of leaves and brush to camouflage and disorient me like they did Hansel and Gretel. In other words, no need to think about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs! Lucky and I forged ahead noisily, dead leaves and twigs crackling underfoot.

It didn’t take long for inspiration and ambition to catch hold. It had been years since I’d walked this stretch, when the trees were a bit shorter and the brush was a little thinner, and there had been a groomed snowmobile path to follow. Now the path had disappeared from disuse, replaced with waist-high brambles. Still, the troughs and hills and slopes beckoned. After a few minutes of ambling, I could see more daylight, and remembered that a cornfield lay to the east. We picked our way down a slope to the edge of the field. A flock of turkeys scattered as we emerged from the woods. I turned north again, walking in a furrow next to the woods that fell away to a shallow ravine. There was a tremendous rustling going on in the ravine as I walked, and I wondered what forest denizens were lurking beside me. A herd of deer? Another flock of turkeys? My curiosity ran wild, but as I looked down the slope, I could see nothing with fur or feathers.

I knew that if I followed the edge of the field far enough, there was a perfect spot for sitting. At the top of the ravine, there was a rectangular black boulder about two feet high and four feet across. I pushed aside a sapling that had sprung up at the edge of the enormous rock, cutting into the spectacular view, and settled in on the warm familiar surface.

The first thing I discovered was the source of the clattering noise. Nothing so dramatic as Bambi and the Great Stag of the Forest. Nothing even as big as a fox or a woodchuck. No, the noise was the product of dozens of small birds hopping and rustling among the leaf litter on the forest floor. I had left my binoculars at home, and at this distance there was no chance of determining eye stripes or beak colors or feather patterns to narrow down just who was having all that fun. They just looked like a bunch of busy, happy sparrows, and I left it at that with a laugh. Small feet, big noise!

Lucky jumped down from the boulder and wandered around happily, following his nose down a hundred different tantalizing trails. There are times I think this dog would follow his nose into a brick wall, he sniffs with such concentration. His delicately drawn head ends in a precise, pointed nose, and when he really gets into gear, his dedication to following a scent around the front yard resembles an artist drawing a sketch without ever lifting pencil from paper. A post-modernist sketch to be sure, more Picasso than DaVinci, but you get the idea.

Without the heavy cover of summer leaves, I could see that the landscape was actually scored by parallel ridges. Not just one ravine cut the landscape, but several. I imagined an eight-point buck carefully picking his way along the top of one of the ridges. Then an idea took hold. It was a perfect day for exploring. The next time I had the time and energy, the leaves and the mosquitos and the deer flies that go hand in hand with all that splendor would surely keep me out of the woods altogether. So when we finally turned back for home, I took a detour from the cornfield and reentered the forest, looking for an entry point to the ridges that didn’t involve all fours. I found one, then another, and followed both, feeling triumphant and just a little bit like a mountain goat. The path running along the top was wider than it seemed from my spot on the boulder. Still, I thought, if any squirrel was watching me from that boulder, he would have been mighty impressed.

Curiosity slaked, I finally turned back. There were enough trees and vines between me and the cornfield that I puzzled for a while as to how to get back to where I started. Then I spied a familiar landmark—a blue and white beer can I’d passed on the way in—and got my bearings again. These were what I like to call “working woods.” Not the forest primeval, many of the trees are too young for that. Not a tended and groomed kind of place like you’d find at a British manor or in a Disney movie, either. The kind of woods where you’ll come across the occasional tree stand, and discarded shotgun shell, and a beer can or two. Sometimes all three together.

I left the beer can in place, as a marker for the next hiker.

The woods are starting to fill in by the day, the forest floor covered with violets and garlic mustard and trilliums and lush growth of all kinds. A blanket of green has fallen over the countryside, a translucent watercolor wash of chartreuse and mint green. Red maples begin to leaf, occasional maroon thumbprints on the canvas. Day by day it fills in, until the woods have achieve an impasto character of olive and emerald and huntsman greens, obscuring streambeds and stumps and drawing a curtain across the "welcome" sign. It won’t be long before I start weighing the virtues of fresh air against the smell of the bug spray needed to keep the impending mosquitoes at bay.

But I can still feel the warmth radiating off that big black rock, and imagine the noisy rustling of the birds is the ravine below.

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