Ancient Paths

Alone in the woods. Already I have turned my back on the freeway, the thoroughfares, the interstates, the bypasses and overpasses and intersections and side roads, the back roads, dirt roads, logging roads. All these ways through the world where you spend your time rushing from place to place, always one step beyond where you are, moving toward a future at lightening speed and leaving things behind you never even saw or got to know. Instead I am here in the woods, off trail, making my way through the undergrowth and over the rock outcroppings, pausing to stand still and listen for the direction of the wind, for the wing beats overhead that precede the shadow of outstretched wings crossing the ground in front of me. The crackle of leaves pulls me in another direction. Curiosity guides my feet instead of a worn track or path. A cloud covers the sun and the bright warm meadow darkens and chills, the mood shifts and my feet slow to a stop. Uncertainty replaces curiosity and I wait.

To move ahead in what direction? Toward the sound of movement in the brittle grasses or away from that unknown and back the way I came? Or maybe to head for a familiar place, a tree whose spreading branches create a ladder to the sky. There to look down on the field below and get a sense of where I am in the bigger picture, to see all the possible directions I might proceed and know where I might end up.

The cloud passes and staring down at my feet I see a splatter of tiny blue drops of sky. Kneeling down I find the minuscule flowers of the Blue Eyed Marys, all across the grass. I had walked over them to get here, never noticing them. The place where I am is where I need to go.


       Walking into the backwoods last week to check the heron’s nests, I was suddenly aware of what an intrusive force I was in the forest.  The herons have ignored me on my visits to the rookery–in spite of the thick layer of leaves that telegraphs my every footfall.  Maybe they are too busy with their courtship rituals and nest building, or too high up in the cottonwoods to be worried about me below.  I don’t know.  But last week as I neared the pond, a red tailed hawk circled over my head–again and again–clearly annoyed by my presence and staying well clear of his nest.  Then a rawkus squawking of two geese on the pond who swam away from me–craning their necks over their shoulders to scream their unrelenting annoyance.  A pair of mallard ducks fluttered out of the water and scurried behind a tangle of bushes as I came in sight.  A chipmunk scolded from  a tree and a raven joined in the cacophony.  I was clearly unwelcome here in the midst of all this spring mating and nesting.

We are usually the ones who feel intruded upon by wildlife: the racoons in the garbage, the chicken stealing weasels and coyotes, the flower nibbling deer, the tunneling ground squirrels and gophers.  Even the hole pecking flickers who make swiss cheese of the siding and interrupt our sleep with their drilling on stove pipes.

But this time I was the intrusive, unwanted wildlife disrupting the ravens, chipmunks, geese, ducks and hawks.  And it made me acutely aware of the ripples I send out into the wild world as I pass through it.  I think of these as “my backwoods.”  But they aren’t really mine at all.