Why are there trees I never walk under,
but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
~Walt Whitman, (1819 – 1892)
Why are there trees I never walk under,
but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
~Walt Whitman, (1819 – 1892)
The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees-
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.
On a brisk afternoon last November, I drove to the post office to mail a package. Walking back to my car, I spied a sycamore leaf on the sidewalk. Scooping it up, I examined its interesting form and delicate coloration. The leaf was something most passersby would likely overlook. To me, it was a botanical specimen, its unique shape rendered all the more interesting in juxtaposition to the angular stretch of sidewalk on which it rested. I ferried my little treasure home, traced its outline on paper, cut out the shape, and added it to my growing collection of leaf templates.
I began collecting leaf samples in the autumn of 2014, reasoning that someday I would enjoy having the outlines of real leaves to use in some future sewing or art project. My interest in leaf shapes over the past few years has made me develop a true reverence for them. The more closely I study the intricacies of nature, the more I’m enthralled. I think this has always been true of me. Nature whispers my name and bids me draw close, and closer still…
Because I wanted to preserve late autumn loveliness, I decided to design hand-beaded leaf ornaments as Christmas gifts for our children. Happy with the concept, I wandered around our property, plucking leaf-jewels from the grass, considering which kind of leaf would make the most fitting gift for each child.
A stalwart symbol of fortitude, a white oak leaf was my immediate choice for our youngest daughter, who moved far from home last August. The white oak is not only the state tree of Illinois, it’s also a reminder of our home, which nestles on a hillside heavily populated with oaks of various kind.
A red serviceberry leaf was my choice for our son and his wife. Like the white oak, the serviceberry is native to Illinois. When our future daughter-in-law first visited us in April of 2011, she and our son posed for a photo beneath the white-blossomed boughs of our serviceberry, an airy tree that forms a lacy canopy over our garden arbor bench.
I selected a yellow river birch leaf for our oldest daughter. While the river birch isn’t native to Illinois, it’s certainly a familiar icon of home. When our family moved to this house, we planted a river birch that has become the focal point of our front yard. Also, although many miles and state lines divide us, we and our oldest daughter both live beside the Mississippi. Because a deep flowing river connects her to us, a river birch leaf seemed just the right choice.
These hand-beaded leaves, traced from actual leaves gathered from around our property, were my favorite Christmas offerings to our far-flung children. I hope these small tokens of love will remind them of our strong family roots and encourage them to be attentive to nature’s loveliness…
My family and I redesigned our Christmas tree this year. We left in boxes the baubles of previous decades and invented a new, woodland tree. At the top, we hung a simple star of braided straw, and a graceful papier-mâché bird with outstretched wing. We tucked among the branches a fox, a deer, a raccoon, a pair of winter-white wrens, a glistening acorn. There was a delicate sprinkling of wooden stars, and a quiet cascade of wooden snowflakes. Gone, the bright-beaded garland of yesteryear. In its place, the soft glow of undulating gold ribbon, gleaming like late summer sun on the Mississippi…
Before Christmas dinner, my loved ones clasped hands beside the sparkling tree. All heads bowed to hear once again the familiar words of my mother’s lovely Christmas benediction. I read the words aloud for the first time without tears… Ours was a sweet, simple, natural, joyful, meaningful Christmas. I’ll cherish its memory always.
All too quickly, the holidays have come and gone. Our beloved children are back once again in their respective cities. As I write, freezing rain taps at the window. Glancing up, I notice our metal peace dove. She hangs from a prominent bough in our Japanese maple. With a coating of ice on her wings, the dove teeters precariously, just as peace seems to teeter in this uncertain world.
Braving the icy onslaught, our peace dove maintains a resolute southward gaze, as if focusing her vision on warmth, kindness, light, growth, renewal. In her beak she holds something precious: a leaf! It makes me smile… Her wings are spread wide, inviting me to rise with her above the heaviness of the fabricated world and soar free in the true one.
My true world is the real world: the world of nature –a place of repose and inexhaustible beauty where all are welcomed home.
Postscript: For those of you who enjoy reading my occasional musings, I apologize for posting them so infrequently. Since 2015, I’ve been studying embroidery, which has equipped me with a fascinating new means of expressing myself. I’m happy as can be with my needle in hand, but embroidering more has meant that I’m writing here less. I still have things to say, however, so stay tuned! If you’d care to connect with me on Instagram, I maintain a regular presence there. My account carries the same name as this blog: mypathwithstarsbestrewn .
My best wishes to all for a beautiful, nature-filled 2018! xo
We did not come to remain whole.
We came to lose our leaves like the trees,
The trees that are broken
And start again, drawing up on great
roots . . .
I have not stood upon earth half as long as this aged tree. Has it any wisdom, then, to lend me? As questions find form, I suspend them unuttered in the hush of twilight.
Sensing my need, the old cottonwood speaks:
Child, you are built to withstand the storm, whether flood or drought, hail or heat, tempest or lightning strike, blizzard or blight.
Youth fades, illusions wither and fall away. But what is essential remains.
When at last you stand in simplicity, in stillness, empty arms upraised, you, too, can embrace the infinite.
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.
This slumbering hillside forms the backdrop of my childhood. This frozen pond, these winter trees are part of the small wilderness I consider home. I grew up here.
In the spring of 1959, when I was just nine months old, my parents sold their small bungalow across town and moved to their new home: a two-story colonial nestled among the trees on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Apart from the time I spent away at college, this house, where my dear father still resides, is where I lived until I married and moved to a home of my own.
From the dawning of my awareness, these woods have welcomed me. When I was small, I’d stand at my bedroom window, rest my chin on the white wooden sill, and gaze up at the budding oaks, whose unfurling leaves waved to me with hundreds of tiny, pink hands. When the cool breath of evening wafted in through my open window and billowed my white curtains, I’d drift to sleep to the soul-filling sound of tree frogs trilling beside the pond.
I spent my childhood wandering these woods, and I still know them by heart. I can find the places where spring beauties and wood violets grow. In summer, I can walk the winding gravel road that curves around to the pond and spot the turtles that sun themselves on half-submerged logs. Chickadees still sound an alarm if I venture too close, and the turtles still splash their hasty escape. In autumn, when the wind brings rumors of the coming chill, showers of leaves spiral down to form a lush tapestry for my feet on this woodland floor. The sun slants in through bare branches in winter, spilling pools of golden light across the snow-covered pond, painting long shadows on the blue-washed hills where I used to sled with my friends.
Like woodland creatures that retreat to nests, thickets, and burrows, I have always sought refuge in quiet places where I can let the busy world pass by. My favorite childhood hideaway was under the low canopy of bridal wreath bushes that bordered our property. Invisible to passersby beneath slender branches that swept the grass, I’d make myself as small as possible and hide there during neighborhood games of hide-and-go-seek. I loved to sit under the bending branches in June and shake their clustered blossoms, causing a storm of white confetti petals to rain all around me. In this out-of-the-way place under the bridal wreath, I’d listen to robins and cardinals sing in the oaks overhead, feel the wind cup my face, watch a ladybug explore a leafy world. Perhaps it’s just my temperament, or perhaps it’s because I grew up so close to nature’s heart; whatever the reason, I’ve always had a need to be quiet, safe, and alone in a place where I can give myself over to uninterrupted thought.
Once, when I was three, Momma lost me. She had sent me upstairs for my afternoon nap, but later, when she came to wake me, I was nowhere to be found. She looked for me upstairs, then downstairs. She went outside and called. I didn’t answer. She made a second search of the house, then ran to the woods, terrified I might have wandered down to the pond alone. She asked our next door neighbor to please help look for me. They called my name across the woods, walked down to the pond, came back to the house, growing more and more frantic. I don’t know how long they searched, but I was discovered at last, sound asleep on the cool floor under my bed. I was safe, and I wasn’t scolded. I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I had simply isolated myself in a quiet place.
All these years later, I’m still this way. During the growing season, you’ll find me outdoors, tending my flowers, listening to the crickets, watching a hawk circle overheard. If I can’t be outside, you’ll find me somewhere indoors in a quiet spot. As the years have gone by, I have come to understand how deeply impressionable and sensitive I am. Life has such an impact on me that I require hours of stillness to restore my senses and process my thoughts.
This is why I love these woods: they were my first sanctuary, the still point at the center of my life. They’ll always be part of my heart’s terrain, and I’ll forever be a child of this place, as rooted as the trees that have grown up around me.