the old cottonwood speaks


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.

Out of the background and into view

0037_Out of the background and into view

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.

The still point at the center of my life

0032_The still point at the center of my life

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.