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.
Into the woods with the family. Willow Springs Woods in South Cook County. First time here, and I’m learning that it’s important to go and scope these places out ahead of time, or else you find yourself wandering aimlessly trying to decide on a place to sit.
Which was what happened my first morning at Salt Creek Woods. I had parked the car at Bemis Woods, pulled the bike off the rack, and after riding about 7 minutes West on the paved trail, pulled off onto an unpaved path that I had seen a few days earlier. On that morning, I rode a short ways farther before tethering my bike to a tree and continuing on foot. All told, I probably spent a good hour tripping over hidden branches and pushing through briars, sitting here and there, before finally walking out in a field and coming across the small cluster of oak trees where I have spent several mornings since.
So, this initial reconnaissance tends to increase the “demands” of the project somewhat, in that there are now pre-excursions before the actual “sitting”. This sounds absurd, and whether sitting, standing, or hiking, there shouldn’t be anything complicated about spending some time in the woods. And, when it comes down to it, this is just another great reason to get the wife and kids out there with me to see something new.
Finding where the trail actually begins at these places can be a challenge. Willow Springs is no exception; and, once underway, I have to admit that I was initially underwhelmed. The path was lined with buckthorn, which I really wish I didn’t know anything about, as it invades everywhere, chokes out the understory, and it’s about all you can see once you know what you’re looking at.
But you can’t be discouraged on the few first steps, and we ended up making some great discoveries.
After about fifteen minutes, the narrow trail from the parking area through the woods opened up to a wider, gravel path. Walking along we come to a small, L-shaped, marshy lake. With grasses and reeds lining the muddy banks, the first bird we encountered was a Greater Egret, standing white and poised, filching fish from the shallows. Hiding behind some brush, we passed the binoculars and saw the silver flash and spasm of a minnow in the egret’s beak just before disappearing down into his gullet. It took flight once we appeared and flew croaking to another visible section of the lake and landed a short ways from a Great Blue Heron.
We continued to pass the binoculars, watching the two birds wade slowly along when suddenly the shoreline erupted in a multitude of small explosions as frogs fled the bank into deeper water. At least we think it was frogs..could’ve been minnows, but pretty sure it was frogs. Regardless, it was impressive, watching these small creatures flee the banks, and something none of us had ever seen before. We hung around long enough to see another wading bird, what may have been a Green Heron, make his way up the opposite side of the bank and take up position equidistant from the other two. We never got a close enough look at this one to tell for sure, but it was pretty cool nonetheless watching them stand spaced along the edge of the water.
As we departed I heard the call of a what may have been a Red Shouldered Hawk somewhere over the water. As we moved away from the water and back into the woods, I heard her again somewhere in the trees, hidden deep and invisible.
Later, we took a small trail off the main path through the woods and into a field filled with grasses, wildflowers, and a smattering of trees placed in small clusters here and there throughout.
A closer examination of the black specks in an Ironweed’s fuchsia blooms revealed an abundance of shiny beetles. The lighter purple florets of a Rough Blazing Star served as a frilled suite for two yellow soldier beetles as they mingled their genes to form yet another generation in an ancient lineage.
We looked up and noticed how, when we’d stop moving for a moment, the one dragonfly hovering above would suddenly be joined by a host of others, materializing out of the blue sky.
“It is in the wilder spaces, of scrub and deadfall, where you’d rather not tread. In these places you find wonders.”
– We must balance our need for order with the natural order’s need to be wild.
“…skimming the leaves atop the understory…(birds)”
Small flocks of five to seven chickadees chatter and fuss and pursue one another across the trail ahead of me: at eye level, into a small clearing, they skim the tops of saplings and underbrush, turn abruptly in mid-air and zip back across the trail and back again. I’m reminded of the Speeder Bikes and that great chase on the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Maybe a ridiculous correlation, but this can’t be helped.
Afterwards, I find that these images have become imprinted in my mind. Not images of Speeder Bikes, but images like this small flock of birds in flight. Their speed, their capacity to swoop and dip, turn on a dime and return again.
I can’t help but feel frustrated by my incapacity to provide a truly adequate description, but this line from Leopold’s “Marshland Elegy” makes me feel better: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
I have this image from a place and of a place that I can return to, and though I can not expect to see the same thing, or have the image repeat itself, the place itself is not lost to me, which is a great comfort. This is one of the joys I am discovering as part of this project. This is not a place I’ve visited on vacation. This is a place within my community. I don’t have to wait until next year to return – I can return tomorrow.
Still, I wonder if I’ve somehow been conditioned, or conditioned myself, to consider my engagement with the land as something transitory? Because, when I’m there, I feel this sense of anxiety almost where I need to take it all in, or else I’m going to miss something. And then this subtle sadness and reluctance to leave. As if I’ll never return, and there’s no way that I can preserve what I’ve seen with words, or a photograph.
Where does this feeling come from, I wonder? It’s as if we mourn the loss of the wilder spaces, even as we turn away from them. Subordinate ourselves to the promise of our own manufactured dreams, though we carry this nostalgia for something simpler, more pristine. Or, is it that we understand, more deeply than we’d like to admit, that even these small spaces, which hold wonders, are disappearing. Or simply being forgotten.
As of yet, I don’t have the language for it. I hope only that I may find it along the way.