Our late-winter woods
This is the last day of what will surely go down in weather history as the Great Winter of 2014 – the longest, coldest, snowiest, fiercest winter in decades. Thank goodness, we’ve survived to tell the tale, and tomorrow, March 20th, marks the vernal equinox, the blessed, long-anticipated first day of spring. I join the winter-weary throng in my anxiousness to welcome spring’s return.
In our part of Illinois, the mercury has registered enough above freezing for the past week to melt away most of the snow, and on the northern slope of our woods, only a few stubborn patches remain. Since the historic snows of 2014 have all but vanished, our woods have again become a study in sepia tones. From the faded cloak of oak and maple leaves that cover the hills’ soft shoulders to the weather-grey bone structure of bark and bare branches, the woods are now largely monochromatic.
Throughout the day, I spend a good deal of time staring out my window, thinking. I’ll turn from my keyboard, glance up from a book, or set aside my sewing to gaze out over this hillside. I continually marvel at the way the wild inhabitants of our woods blend in with their surroundings. Squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, deer, raccoons, hawks, owls, and host of other local fauna are clothed in tones that precisely replicate fallen leaves and tree bark, and when these creatures aren’t moving, they’re almost invisible. Once, lost in thought, I stood at the window and stared out to the grey-brown woods, not focusing on anything in particular. All at once, the surface of the far hill began to shift and distort, like some kind of surreal animation. I blinked and peered more closely. It was a deer. Other fragments of the woodland jigsaw began to take shape. Two deer became visible, then three. Four. No, wait — five! I was astounded. Only moments before, five enormous animals had been hiding from me in plain sight.
Although I call the woods my home, I’m not an exclusively woodland dweller. I can be found out and about – at the market, volunteering at school, in a restaurant, at a show. I’ll wave hello, stop to visit. But even though I’m visible, I might be hiding in plain sight. When I’m wrestling with grief or brooding about something, it often suits me to blend in, keep a low profile, slip in and out, go undetected. It’s easier, sometimes, not to be noticed and to hide – even from myself. But there are times when it’s quite the opposite: I yearn to be seen, noticed, heard, understood.
Which leads me back to these monochromatic woods, the seasonal backdrop to my musings. Late last winter, on the cusp of spring, I was sitting in the well-worn rocking recliner we’ve owned since James was a baby. The day was wind-tossed, and dark clouds scudded across the sky. Rays of occasional sunlight popped in and out of the fast-moving clouds like a child at play with a dimmer switch. I was studying the brown boughs of the trees as they swayed in the wind. A flock of newly returned robins were feasting on bittersweet berries hidden among the tall vines that dangle from the highest branches of our oaks. When the robins’ backs were turned to me, they were indistinguishable from the tangled vines. But each time a bird shifted to face me, I could spot it instantly. Like a snapshot that turns up from time to time, this fleeting moment on a windy day has remained with me, and I’ve thought about it over and over again — the red breasts of robins, visible among drab branches.
There are times it serves us to conceal our hearts, to come and go, to fade into our surroundings, to protect ourselves. But if what we yearn for is to stand up and be noticed — for ourselves alone, for the emotions we’re compelled to reveal, for the ideas we long to share — there’s a risk involved. It takes courage to step out of the background and into view. Like robins in the late winter woods, we must be willing to turn and expose our hearts.