“A Walk in the Woods with John Haines” has been published in print by Edge Magazine and is available here for your reading pleasure.
This story is about a walk in the woods I took a few years ago in northern Minnesota. As John Haines is a great influence on my own writing, both poetry and essays, he is in spirit often with me, especially when experiencing nature. On this particular walk through the rainy silence, he was there observing and guiding me through what was in the end a journey of discovery and learning a deeper part of myself and my place in this world.
As John Haines lived outside of Fairbanks, Alaska in Richardson for many years, this story touches on what this blog is all about.
“We speak of nature, of the natural world, as if that were something distinct from ourselves and the social world we appear to have made, seldom noticing that we are in NATURE and never out of it…” – John Haines, “Fables and Distances”
(1) – Introduction
It is early October with the sun just above the eastern hills. Shadows from tall aspen, elm and oak lie diagonally across the smooth dirt trail, cut years ago by workers building a mill near the river.
I walk alone today. A carved oak branch provides some guidance over small pockets of ice dotting the trail and meandering creeks.
My thoughts are lost into the tree canopy holding onto the changing leaves. The crunch of creatures running through the forest echoes and I feel alive.
Through the baring branches and extended limbs, the morning sky, infused with pink and purple, is cold and still. A preview of winter as water pools into ice puddles and captures leaves of varying colors. Summer fern has turned brown, and wilted into itself. The forests underbrush is taking leave and revealing the floor that is rarely seen. Tufts of earth and downed limbs with hidden stashes of acorns fill the landscape between tree trunks, bushes, ferns, and buckthorn.
I feel alone with my thoughts and my spirit, but I know that is not completely true. On the darkest of days, when the sun does not leave its nest, when the clouds strangle the last light, there is something else deep within the forest. The basic constructs that form the human spirit and soul are restless and waiting for a return to their roots.
Yes, there is some other presence or spirit here. The space is still and yet the space moves. The branches and tall grass bend, yet they stand straight. The sun snakes through the trees, yet the light is muted and hazy.
A shadow moves carefully with no sound as the wind masks its presence. There is a sadness weighing upon the forest that I feel or project from my own assumptions and reasons for being here, the state of the world that I see.
What part of nature’s orchestra do we play? For even in silence, between each gust of wind, and the first moments after the sunrise, there is music. Within the energy, there is something, some connection or thread. Each tree sings a sweet song that if you silence your mouth and your thoughts, will be heard and will take you within its wings.
These thoughts I take and hold to as I wander the dirt path dividing the forest. I stop. I breathe and I listen. The sap within some trees slows and begins to crystallize. Small branches snap from the wind and make their way to the ground. Scattered snowflakes land upon moss and peat. I open my mouth, look toward the thinning sky with eyes closed and taste the nature that surrounds me, that allows me to be here, that welcomes me here.
And the snow turns to a light rain.
Within the sleeping forest, absent of any outside noise and distraction, there is something else here: watching, or following. The more I walk within the silence and curtain of nature, the more I realize the need for change. I know everything is here. Everything I desire and need, the things and substance that matter, can be found right here scattered on the ground and high into the trees. What we are made of, is no different than what I am walking upon, what I am breathing, what I exist within.
I will live within this forest. I want to know each tree, and not being able to have a name for each, know the subtle difference in the touch of the bark, each leaf’s pattern, the roots depth, and the angle and direction of one or more trunks reaching for the sky.
The rain intensifies, becoming steady and washes away what snow had reached the ground. The forest changes to a different palette of colors before my eyes. The collective sounds from each corner merge into one orchestra.
I walk a bit more and find a stump beneath the few remaining leaves catching moisture and occasionally releasing a drop. The taller trees sway slightly in the wind, their top branches reaching across the path, an embrace or a canopy to provide shelter. I rest my head on a poplar, hands in the rain jacket pocket, and look up. I close my eyes and listen for the myriad of sounds the forest conceals when intruded upon. When an uninvited guest emerges under the trees gateway, squirrels scurry up the tree trunks, deer turn to statues with alert eyes, daddy longlegs run from the littered trail to the nearest downed branch, and woodpeckers suspend their quest for food. After some time and the lull passes, heads, beaks and legs re-emerge. The scurry over leaves and crashing through brush resumes along with the other activities in preparation for the coming winter.
The rain continues hours of persistent and relentless cleansing bliss, breaking down the snow and remaining ice into its source and simple elements. One cycle merging into another and this begins to make sense as I watch this beautiful part of nature play out before me.
The longer I am here with the relenting rain, the more non-essential information and thoughts disappear, and over time I hear music playing. It begins somewhere in the background, behind the scattered creatures and the tree limbs rubbing and clanking. The vibrations are slight and require some concentration to discover and discern from nature’s physical presence. Eventually, it seeps into each element that surrounds me and the sky becomes more blue, the ground cover more, green, and the sun, streaming through pine and poplar, more bright. I see a violin played by a faceless musician. The movement of hand and bow are blurred as each stroked appears in the past and the future is not set, the sound not determined, and I hear what I want to hear, or only what I am ready to hear.
At times there is a halo. Some kind of light and haziness that radiates forth around each object I behold. I’m not sure if it is my eyes playing tricks, but the halo does not waver and the branches sway with shadows that cast across my eyes.
My breath is slow as many hours pass. The forest appears to take me in as the activity continues around me under the thinning sky. Finally, the sun is behind the western hills and a chill creeps into the air, reaching for my fingers. It is time to leave this place, for today at least. What I came here for, I found. What I needed was given to me.
I rise from the stump and look up at the treetop I was sitting beneath. Searching through the limbs, there is something solid and dark. It does not move even when my jacket crinkles and my boots crunch the half wet, half dried leaves. Perhaps a raven or squirrel, perhaps an eagle watching, or another presence has followed me into the forest. Regardless, my place here within the landscape is that of an outsider and observer, looking for some peace, or at the very least, a place to walk and sit.
I instinctively become aware of nature’s ability and power to put back in order the landscape and its constituent pieces, the way nature is supposed to be without my intervention. And in that moment, as in each day, each layer is peeled away. The excess material concerns, the silent and invisible bonds that have penetrated the psyche, the shackles around each leg, and the ingrained fear, that has created so much distance in myself from my roots and purpose is discarded. I am reminded of the symmetry that exists if you listen.