Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday I took a walk through the woods.  In January, there should be snow.  There wasn't, but I encountered plenty of things that were reminiscent of the winter hikes I took with my father when I was young.

As a child, I played a game called Princess of the Wilderness.  Yes, this was an entirely made up game that was mine alone. Essentially, the forest was my kingdom.  I'd seek out trees with low-hanging heavy boughs and I'd climb under, watching the sunlight stream through my secret enclave. I'd notice a tree that had fallen, top first, folding in on itself almost, and envision curtains and sheets draped around it, providing shelter.  I found stones embedded in the rich soil, covered in moss, that made for a chair. A vibrant patch of bluebells made for a bed.  I've always been at peace in the woods.  In everything there was a story.  I don't remember being taught this, I just absorbed it.  Each season told a different tale.

There should be snow on the ground.  When I was little the snow was up to my thighs from November through February.  Things are remembered differently in a child's memory.  But it's the middle of January and we don't have snow.  As I wandered through the woods yesterday, I was reminded that there is a different kind of beauty to every season.  When the investitures of spring, summer, and fall are shed, the trees reveal themselves in their intricate grace.  Bare of leaves, their contours are made visible.  Despite the absence of snow, my January hike called to memory a hike I took with my father when I was about 10.

For many, I think winter is a season of hunkering down.  But I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a town full of Norwegians, so winter simply meant that the landscape changed, not the activities. As a result, a snow hike wasn't out of the norm. The memory that stands out most prominently involved a childhood friend and her dad -- one of my dad's Hoser Boy friends, a gang of friends from college with a bit of a wild streak, as far as I can tell, whose friendships have stayed the test of time.  We hiked at Malanaphy Springs just outside my hometown. That hike offered many lessons, none of them planned.

In the spring, summer, and fall, there was a wall of hand-stacked rock.  It never faltered; it was always visible and I clambered along it.  In the winter, I was reminded it was still there.  I had to search a bit -- it took on a different appearance -- but it was there, nonetheless.

My dad made a fire and Hannah and I scampered through the snow to collect kindling.  It sounds stupid now, but I remember being surprised.  I didn't know that a fire could be built in the snow.

When we came to the spring itself, a tall wall of limestone shaped by the hand of the glaciers centuries earlier, we felt compelled to shout a hello.  Our voices echoed and reverberated.  That was the most prominent difference for me.  While the snow may disguise the landscape, the landscape never alters.  But the sound of the woods do.  There is a silence, a muffling, a weight that happens in winter.  It's easy to believe it's because of dormancy, but the earth is never truly dormant.  There is always growth, turning, and life.  We just can't see it.  The snow offers a silence that allows us to hear our own voices in a way that we never do otherwise.  We sound strong and powerful.  We are a force in the silence of snow.

Each season offers a different window through which to understand ourselves.  For me, winter offers a very unique window.  Winter gives me voice and allows me to hear my own echo.  With each footfall that crunches in the snow and each footprint left behind, I'm reminded that I exist.  I create a path.  I have the capacity to make noise, a footstep or a howl.

For me, winter isn't a time of dormancy.  It's a reminder.  I can look back and see I forge a path.  My footprints are evidence.  My echo reassures me of the power of my voice.  These are things I need to carry with me when the days are short and the darkness comes early.

It is a tremendous gift that my father took me to the woods when I was young, that I can return to them years later and be reminded of the same lessons, and that I can pass those eternal lessons to my children.  And to pull another from the archives of my childhood memory, from the Byrds: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose."  I'm grateful I was taught the lesson early.


  1. Ah! My favorite passage: "Winter gives me voice and allows me to hear my own echo. With each footfall that crunches in the snow and each footprint left behind, I'm reminded that I exist. I create a path. I have the capacity to make noise, a footstep or a howl."