I wandered down along the little gully where the creek has cut its way down to the river. There is a stand of willows here, growing along the creek bank where it flattens out like a small bottomland. I go down there to those willows when it is hot and humid and the very air hangs so moist your breath sometimes comes in gasps. It is cool there, in the shade of the willows. Today, though, I went down to the locusts farther along the little bank, just to see what was happening there.
There are dark rocks that have grown here since before humans walked this land. They’re scattered across the little bottomland with the kind of random that invites you to consider order and pattern and purpose. I like to sit beside one of these rocks in particular. Old it is and worn smooth by rain, frost, and flood. The earth it rests on is comfortable and comforting, soft but almost never muddy. Many are the naps I have slept there, leaning on that rock like a small child sleeping on its mother’s breast. I rested there today to listen to the world’s prayer in leaves that drift down.
The woods are in full autumn. Oaks, beeches, maples, hickories staining the ridge red and brown and gold. Here and there a patch of green hangs on like an unexpected punctuation mark, a full stop in the midst of bright color.
Autumn, I think, is a time of gathering. I don’t mean the gathering of harvest. Most of the harvest is done around here before full autumn. No, it’s not a harvest gathering; it’s different. It’s a time when the world pauses and breathes deeply, and holds that full breath in for a moment and then lets it out again in a great sigh. And then breathes again. The world is gathering itself together and contemplating the year gone by, considering all that has happened, reflecting on the state of things.
The creek deepens here, deep enough for a boy to swim in. I used to come down here alone on hot summer days, take my clothes off, and wade out into the cool water. The mud oozed up between my toes most satisfactorily. When the water was deep enough, I’d launch myself out and swim around for a while to cool off and then climb back out and lie in the sun to dry off. My hands behind my head, I’d watch the clouds go by, listen to the birds in the trees, and let myself fall asleep until the late afternoon sunlight drifted down.
The summer I was about thirteen or fourteen I was awakened from my nap by the sound of high pitched giggling coming from the woods. I couldn’t see who it was, but it sure sounded like Jesse and Marie from the farm down the road. “No point in making a big deal about it,” I figured. “They seen what they seen. And that’s that.” So I stood up, put my clothes back on, and said, a little louder than I might, “Well, I reckon I’d best get on home. I got chores to do.” And left. Never did figure out who it was. Don’t care.
In the springtime the redbud and dogwood in these woods bloom about the time the leaves start coming out. It is a sweetness you can’t imagine unless you’ve seen it. It only lasts about a week, but I make point of coming down here to lose myself in it. Walking into the groves of blooming and awakening trees is like disappearing, going back into the earth we came from, and being birthed all over.
First time that disappearing happened to me, though, was in a spring thunderstorm the year I turned sixteen. And there have been others over the years. But every spring, when I come on down here, into the woods and its spring blossoms, it happens all over again, at least a little.
Last spring, as I sat at my rock, struck dumb by the beauty of it all, a momma skunk waddled by with her brood of little ones, a black and white cloud right behind her. One of the little ones seemed curious and waddled over to me. It sniffed my boots, looked up at me, and then waddled back over to Momma. She had stopped to be sure I was OK. Funny thing. You’d thing it would be a tense moment at best. But it wasn’t. It was like neighbors greeting each other. When Little One got back to Momma, the whole family waddled on back into the woods and was gone, disappearing into red and white petals drifting down.
Funny thing about winter. Lots of folks think winter’s a time of death. Cold. Snowy. Stark. Empty trees with dead leaves crunching under them. A barren time. Empty of color and sound. I never thought that. Cold and snowy, yes, but sleep is not death. It is rest, renewal, dreaming. Ever wonder what the dormant trees dream about? I do. They must dream about something.
I came down here last winter after a snowstorm. The creek had mostly frozen over, and its ice was snow covered. The wind blew tree branches against each other, the scraping a kind of drone. I stood there, in the snow, looking around. First thing I noticed were bird tracks. A couple of pheasants, I think, and maybe a songbird or two.
There’s the occasional drama you can see in the snow, if you know how to look. A set of rabbit tracks kind of wondered across the bottomland stopping here and there as if looking for something to eat. Beside it there were the tracks of a fox. I reckon the fox knew pretty much what it was looking for. Don’t know how it finally played out, but I can guess.
Last year’s weeds stood out against the snow, reds and browns and golds and even blacks. The wind had blown them around and drew circles with them in the snow. Patches of snow had blown against the tree trunks and stuck there, white against the brown bark. The rocks that have grown here so long were dressed rather formally in their whites and blacks. As I stood there taking it all in, a cardinal flew down from a tree branch and pecked around in the snow for whatever seeds it could find. It would stop occasionally, eye me, and make a kind of staccato chirp, as if letting the other birds know that it was OK. That cardinal and I are old friends. No, winter’s not a time for death. It’s not empty of color or sound. It’s just different. That’s all. Just different.
Pretty soon my little bottomland will be frozen again, and melancholy flakes of snow will drift down, gather, and cover the ice. But not today. Today it is the leaves that drift on down.