This is what I’ve been waiting for – a thick blanket of snow to cover these trails and woods and for me to be the first one out on it. I’ve gotten my wish, taken the day off, and amongst other things, I’m reflecting on how weak this modern life has made us. Maybe that’s a gross assertion, but I’m in not terrible shape, and making my way through a foot of fresh snow is wearing me out.
Tougher than I thought it’d be, but I fall into a rhythm – here. now. here. – with my breath, my steps, and later my mind. I stop every few minutes, my heart bouncing in my chest, sweating beneath the layers of cotton, wool, and polyester. I stop and look around, try to take it in. Earlier, crossing a small field and parking lot obscured by an unbroken covering of snow, the landscape completely altered, I got my first real impression of how snow blindness could occur and a glimpse of what that would be like. Even with overcast skies, the amount of reflected light and featureless white is disorienting.
I try to be realistic about these things, and it’s not like I’m on some arctic expedition, blazing a trail like some wannabe pioneer or woodsman, but today is one of those days when the realization sets in clearly that nature, though beautiful, will kill you. No apologies, no regrets – you either make the cut, or you die. Of course, I’m not fighting for my survival out here by any stretch of the imagination; more than anything, I’m just aware that every step is taking me farther from my car, which is one step needed to return. And that every step is wearing me out.
Today’s lesson is that of naiveté. Principally, how naive for me to think that I could take only a year, one year to reacquaint myself with the natural spaces in my community, and that afterwards, I’d have something substantial to report. As I make my way along the trail, I reflect in time with my breath upon all that I’ve seen and learned over the past 9 months. The list is substantial. The only thing I can report, with confidence, is my ignorance. That my lack of knowledge with require a lifetime to overcome.
When I finally arrive at my destination, I sit..and the cold seeps in.
One of my goals, in addition to expanding my own knowledge, awareness, and connection with the natural spaces around me, is to find ways to help kids and families build similar connections themselves.
Fortunately, I have a strong and willing community of parents that understand the value of getting out there and spending some time in the natural spaces and who are also willing to humor me as I play nature guide while attempting to explain prairies, invasive species, and glaciation in Spanish. This was our first venture out – a spur of the moment jaunt to take advantage of one of the few significant snowfalls this winter. Everyone had a great time, cold toes and all, and we’re looking forward to our second excursion sometime soon.
Thank you to the parents for providing me with these pictures and permission to use them on this site.
All stories are interpretations, and history is no different. Every step I’ve taken in my coming and going within this plane of existence rests upon my own interpretations of experience and the collective interpretations that we call reality. It’s all part of some grand narrative, where we make it up as we go along. We look at what we have done, and what has been done to us, either by the rain, or the trembling Earth, or time, and we arrive, continually, each and every one of us, right here on this stone. Collectively, we’ve all journeyed the same path; individually, we’ve wandered aimlessly and often alone.
The Kingfisher sits in a tree on the other side of Salt Creek from where I am standing, and he is not happy with my presence. I know he’s a he because of the dark blue and v-shaped belt across his chest, and I assume his displeasure from the stern look on his..face, his incessant cackles, and the quickness with which he abandons his perch on my side of the creek the moment I arrive.
It’s early January. 28 degrees with sparse flurries that are almost more sleet than snow. The ground is hard and frozen beneath my feet, and I wonder what the lack of snow cover this winter means for the rodents and insects that make their winter homes in the relative warmth of the subnivean spaces that I would otherwise be trampling underfoot.
I have decided to visit and sit at McCormick Woods, which is right off of 1st avenue, with the 31st bridge crossing over Salt Creek, and this place bears the burden and demonstrates the impact of its lack of seclusion – candy wrappers, unmarked bits of anonymous plastic, bottles, beer cans, and the ubiquitous fifth of Seagrams sitting empty and silent as the cars roll past overhead. I think about taking pictures of trash…but that seems like a redundant drag.
If not for the Kingfisher, I would not like this place and would likely choose not to return. But the presence of this single, stout and resilient, solitary bird changes all that.
The story of the Kingfisher and his kind stretches back much farther than my own to a time before us human people had learned to walk and talk, to manipulate stone, or build bridges. Fossil evidence indicates that they’ve been around in some form or another for the past 30-40 million years, and the Kingfisher has demonstrated a resilience and ability to adapt to our most refined and pervasive art – disruption. On this day, the Kingfisher and I have joined our narratives to face one another from across time and over dirty rivers. One of us is more pleased with this union than the other.
Day 1: the Kingfisher and I just sit and stare at one another. I sit quietly. He makes a racket. Every now and then he alights from his perch and swoops out over the water, under or above the bridge, and then back to his branch where he sits again and looks cranky. I let him be after 45 minutes or so and return a few days later.
Day 2: To my surprise, I find him instantly, and he takes off again from my side of the Salt Creek and heads back over to where he can chatter at me with impunity and continue to look annoyed.
Before I arrive I had already decided I was going to wait him out, thinking that he’d eventually need to come back to the other side of the creek and then maybe I’d be able to get a decent picture. So I sit. It’s not as cold, about 35 degrees. I watch the creek flow by and notice a Zippo lighter fluid container sitting atop a tangle of logs and branches at the base of the bridge almost as if someone had sat it there. Another narrative. A journey through time, and in the case of the Zippo container, maybe it too will add itself to the garbage now sequestered beneath the earth, to be resurrected 150 million years from now in some other form. Maybe in time the liquified remains of plastic corpses will be sucked from their hidden catacombs. And the Kingfisher will inherit the earth.
I sit on a limb beside the creek and the geese that had been standing on the ice move away. They remain motionless and silent on the water until I hear a slight disturbance down the way. Some sporadic honking that I don’t think much of until I hear something behind me and look over my shoulder at the coyote trotting past. We look at each other, momentarily surprised (well, at least I’m surprised..thinking, “humph, that’s a damn big German Shepherd, oh…”) and he carries on, I assume, into a drainage culvert at the base of the hill beside the road. He disappears as quickly as he appeared and under any other circumstances I’d have no idea that there are Kingfishers by the bridge and coyotes in the sewers.
Every 15 minutes or so, the Kingfisher flies out over the creek with his rattling call and then again takes up his branch. On these flights, he comes over close to where I’m sitting, but then banks quickly and keeps his distance back on the other side. Suddenly, with a subdued but startled squawk he flies deeper into the trees. I look up and a red-tailed hawk lands at the top of a naked maple. Hawk takes flight again and circles. I watch through the branches and can see as she’s lifted by an updraft, her wings tilting slightly to the left and then stabilizing, before she moves on, circling into the distance.
Poor Kingfisher dude, his day is being disrupted from the ground and the air. I move up the bank aways to see if he’ll come over. Indeed he does…
Day 3: The ice along the shore is gone, the creek has risen, is flowing rapidly, the branches are sheathed in ice, and the Kingfisher is nowhere to be seen. I walk down the shore aways and back again, but there is little to be seen. A couple Downy Woodpeckers clinging to the side of a gnarly oak, but that’s about it. …some geese fly by overhead, a couple mallards across the way.
This area has reverted back to a thin stretch of woods corralled by streets, bridges, and neighborhoods. Not a lot to see, not a lot to report but the human people and their cars, passing along, caught up in destinations, most likely bored to tears, though nearly entertained to death.
This day, with the bird nowhere to be seen, I feel as if I’m missing a friend, or a neighbor once played with as a child, a presence expected as part of the landscape, now gone. Not gone in a final sense, but simply moved on, disappeared. Like when the party has ended, and you stand in the house, drunk, stoned, and alone. And in the absence there is this silence, a space felt more than seen that lingers for a short while before what once was is lost within the landscape of what has now become.
- Stalking another Belted Kingfisher (michaelqpowell.wordpress.com)
The birds may sing their presence,
the squirrels may chatter,
and my breath may blow steadily
across this landscape,
but all of these songs
bespeak a profound silence,
a deep collecting of all time
where the songs,
and the breath
cupped gently in the hands of God.
This is not some superstition,
to conceptualize the process
and mechanisms of being,
but a rejection of the mechanism
as nothing more than the characteristics
of these beings as we are able to perceive them,
as in the notes of the song,
the timbre of the words,
and dissipation of the breath
into this landscape.
This is knowledge
that the true nature of the world,
a world which we have conjured
through a process of mind
is more the light
of a rising sun,
for which we wait,
with infinite patience
through the trees.
Last Saturday was the first substantial snowfall that we’ve had all season. To herald the occasion, I was out of bed by 5AM, shoveling the sidewalk by 5:20 or so, and on the road by 6:30. I would have left much earlier, but you can’t get into the preserves earlier than dawn, and the sun wasn’t due until 7:03, so I took my time.
As things worked out, I should have dawdled a great deal longer.
As an aside, let me say that I can’t help but feel that so much of our lives these days are colored by these various shades of irony, though without the comedic relief. I’m sure I’m not the only one. For example, I write a blog about experiences in nature, deep thoughts while sitting around and all that good stuff…yet I have to drive 8 to 10 miles to actually get out to these woods. I sit in my car so I can go sit in the woods. swell. And then there’s the fact that the forest preserve “closes” at dusk, and “opens” at dawn? I understand the reasoning behind this, and it makes sense; but is there not an irony in the fact that I have to observe visiting hours in order to spend time in the natural spaces that I seek?
Anyways, I hurried out the door and was on the road, unplowed, which felt all adventurous, and I was dead set on being the first one out at Bemis Woods. You know, to beat out the throngs of naturegoers lining up to go wander around at 7AM on a Saturday morning. Well, I get to the place, and right as I’m pulling up I see the snowplow man closing the ‘closed’ chain behind him and heading up the way. I was a little early, so I felt okay about things at this point and figured I’d just drive around for a bit until he got things tidied up.
An hour later, after driving up and down through dark and slowly waking neighborhoods, peering in the windows of unwary Americans – the man sitting alone at his dining room table, the woman at her desk in an office with floor to ceiling bookshelves that I now covet, a couple people here and there shoveling the walk – the snowplow dude is STILL not finished. Another irony, I guess – to get up early in the morning so as to enjoy the sun slowly filling the spaces and lines of a snowy woods, only to spend my morning driving around looking in people’s windows.
And to top it all off, I had to stop and get gas.
Around 8:00 o’clock I phoned home and the family was roused and willing to come out with me. So, I returned from whence I came, was nearly killed by another snowplow that threw a blinding sheet of slush and salt onto my windshield as I was passing, had an Eggo, a cup of coffee, and piled everyone in the car to go back and check out the scenery.
Snowplow dude was just leaving when we arrived.
All in all, when it was all said and done, it was a good time and time well spent. I got some pretty good pictures, and the kids had a lot of fun before their toes started to freeze. I also had the chance to see where a vole or some other rodent had been tunneling under the snow, which was pretty cool being that I’ve been reading up and getting all lerned on winter ecology this past season.
So there you go.
Sticking with the program, I have been out on a number of excursions into the cold, cold winter woods. There has been no snow, which is a drag, because I was really hoping to get some idyllic snowy shots this winter…but alas, it’s either not cold enough to snow..so it rains, or it’s bone dry and bone cracking frigid outside. Well, it hasn’t been that bad, but a lil’ hyperbole now and again is good for affect.
It has been pretty chilly, though, and the winter photography and note taking is made more difficult by this fact. It’s basically a matter of frozen fingers. I can’t write with gloves, nor can I manipulate all those dials and buttons on the camera without hitting something I didn’t intend. So, I remove the gloves, or try fingerless gloves and my fingers freeze. I guess this is part of the challenge, and I’m not complaining so much as trying to create some context.
I went out today in another futile search for a Belted Kingfisher I discovered by a bridge a few weeks back. He was still nowhere to be found, but Salt Creek had iced up along the shore again and there were some pretty interesting shapes and icy things to look at. The creek was flowing quite rapidly about 3 or 4 yards from the shore on either side and wide sheets of ice were sliding by and some of them would pile up in the middle and make that ubiquitous sound that ice flows make when they’re crunching up against one another, just on a smaller scale. I sat and listened and watched as air bubbles moved along caught up below the ice along the shore.
It was about 12 degrees or so I believe, with a windchill of -10 today when I was taking these pictures. It’s pretty fascinating the different shapes and formations that are created as ice forms, and I think these pictures are somewhat indicative of that. The sun was coming out in spurts and I had to hunker down next to the shore at kinda odd angles, and with the frozen fingers, I’m not 100% pleased with some of the results in terms of focus, depth of field, and all that jazz. I guess if I had more wherewithall I would’ve just lain down flat on my belly and gotten the shots that way. But this isn’t National Geographic, this is just some dude’s blog about hanging out in the woods and freezin’ his tookis off.
“The things that we love tell us what we are.”
– Thomas Merton –
What is it then that you love?
What is it that compels you?
And does it compel you to goodness, to the bringing of some light into this world? Or to the taking away, the hoarding and sequester of what could be made right and good in a cold cellar of self-righteousness and despair?
What is it that you love, and how does it compel you?
I just really like these pictures, and if I were a more astute naturalist, I’d be able to tell you what plant this is – but I’m not, and I can’t..though maybe Black Eyed Susan, or some version of Sunflower. That’s the best I can do. I’ll wax philosophic, or poetic…or something on all of this later, I’m sure.