Calling Forth the Woods’ Wisdom

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I woke up last Sunday morning and felt the woods shining deep inside me. Nature is not somewhere only outside for me; it lives within, for we are a part of it and it, us. We are called to one another, creation to creation. So I knew I had to go to the place of the trillium, a favorite wildflower. I was alone and intended to find a few spots where no one else would intrude. To smell, hear, taste, touch, see, and sense mysteries, trod upon earthen trails. It had been a winter of pummeling rain, now sunshine had arrived. I could take myself right into the thick of forests again and feel once more at home.

I am not a city person out of a deep love for its cacophony of hustle and bustle. Yes, I enjoy the myriad arts events, festivals, architecture, markets and stores, the varieties of people. The ever-present source of stories found by just watching out a window or from a balcony. I was raised in a very small city but it was similar if on a quite limited scale. Yet both here and in my old hometown, I have had escapes. A saving grace in a life I didn’t and often do not well understand or even wholly appreciate as I’d prefer.

As a youngster there were times (often in warmer weather) when even the best things–the beauty of music; aromas of roast beef, potatoes and carrots or cinnamon rolls or Dutch apple pie; allure of a new novel beneath a pile of schoolwork; anticipation of dance class the next morning; a long phone conversation with my best friend, twirling the stretchy cord around my bare feet as I lay on the carpet–were not what I wanted and needed. I’d fight with school assignments, drag my mind back to its required goal. I’d race through cello and vocal compositions. If I had a chore, it’d be a slapdash job.

Those times I felt that yearning for peace and quietude inching its way into my consciousness at a velocity not to be ignored. Soon its urgency was greater than all else. I’d leave the busy common rooms of the house, go sit on my bed, close my eyes, summon the focus of my desire.

The hush of my water-blue bedroom enveloped me. Crows cawed back and forth, robins trilled monotonous calls. A rotary lawn mower whirled around a yard. Across the hallway, my mother’s sewing machine whirred and paused and whirred. My imagination’s magnetic pull took me out of my room, down winding stairs, out the front door, down Ashman Street, two blocks north, one block west and then the birches came into view, and poised maples and oaks and sketchy elms, stalwart evergreens. The poplars’ silvery leaves were tiny cymbals creating a bright, dry song in breezes. A rush of delight, a calm swept over me. Swift gusts rustled my hair, redolent of musky earth, freshest greenery. Everything in me wanted woods close about me, filling me with enchantments.

It was those decades when a youth could mostly still go alone into the world or natural places. (I’d known danger as a child abuse victim; it was within the familiar but failed security of a house and car belonging to a known person. I was not overall afraid of people or venturing out, or if I was, I ventured nonetheless.) Perhaps a somewhat wilder landscape offered a reprieve from moments of boredom or frustration but such a place had long been identified as a pocket of comfort. Happiness. I’d abandon house, work or play and head for the woods.

Soon I saw the grey and white birches thronged like valiant sentries. Sinuous pathways greeted my careful feet. Shadowy designs were thrown over skin like a delicate wrap. Above, the crowns of trees conversed with sky, while below the variety of trees were familiar friends, hearty bodies of pungent wood, bark, leaves. I could examine everything along the way without needing to master it. The multi-faceted insects, each plant unfurling itself was scrutinized. Small mammals scurried, reptiles slithered or they watched, accepting of my presence if not indifferent. I melded with gradations of light and dark, with green and brown and yellow. Stealth directed my movements; I felt compelled to slip between trees and plants, to not disturb. I felt given permission due to my deep admiration. Everything breathed with me and I, it.

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The woods were barely swaying, certainly humming. Birds were aloft with chatter and song. I whispered thanks, felt joy rise up from my center then spread, a wash of warmth. There were high-spanning, glimmering bridges of webs. Nurse logs harbored colonies of bugs, were laboratories for mosses, lichen, fungi. There were sudden flower beings peeking from undergrowth. The serpentine creek with its tinkling, gurgling dance pulled me to it. I followed along, around and through the canopy of trees. Sat at its banks, the dampness of the ground seeping into my pants. I closed my eyes to better know just where I was. I was exactly…there. And happy to be one more creature amid the others.

My love of nature may have begun with early lessons from a mother who adored geography, geology and etymology, and a father whose passions included science and mathematics as well as music and education. Family trips were as much running commentary on land formations, vegetation and creatures as anything else. My parents taught me about weather patterns, rock and soil types, the habits of bugs in different places, the important diversity of plants and how all worked together for the good of all. My father pointed out constellations from our back yard or elsewhere; I was mesmerized  by God’s heavens. But no one had to persuade me to love the natural world or embrace its wisdom. I’d early experienced those in Barstow Woods as noted above and the plant and tree nursery thriving behind our house (which had a lovely, tree-lined back yard). The many Michigan forests, lakes and rivers afforded me good amounts of time and activity each summer.

From a young age, I enjoyed a somewhat unusual experience. I attended summer sessions at various music camps, one being the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwest lower Michigan. Founded in 1928  and situated on 1,200 acres, it was named simply National Music Camp for decades, a place where capable student musicians gathered to study and perform. It quickly gained a fine reputation and before long all performing and fine arts were studied by students arriving from around the world. It has grown immensely since then. It offers, among other programs, a premiere private high school arts education. But back in the fifties and sixties my father taught strings and orchestra during summer camps, and my siblings and I were music and other arts students.

I have not had a repeat of such extraordinary experiences, where creative expression and the natural world fit together into one perfect design. We lived in cabins with other like-minded youth in the woods, eating at a mess hall, studying in tandem. We attended music or other classes daily, rehearsed and performed on covered outdoor stages, other sunny, wind-swept spaces, and under star-pearled skies. The dance building was set on a lake shore, and as I danced and rested I could smell fragrant water and earth, see the undulating expanse of green-blue with white sailed boats bobbing or flying along. The campus buildings were mostly stone and wood structures, lodge-like, cozy even when large. Recreation included table tennis, sailing and swimming, volleyball and more. Tiny practice rooms were also of field stone and timber with small rectangular windows. Once one was opened, I practiced my cello or vocal pieces, with warm air wafting in and it carried a delicious fragrance of dried or greener pine needles. Everywhere could be heard musicians, other students laboring over the thing they loved doing, honing whatever talent had brought them. The natural symphonies and unfolding stories of earth’s bounties accompanied my thoughts and endeavors.

All my life the wedding of creative energy with the natural realm has seemed a most sacred thing. A vibrant chorus of voices or resonance of a string quartet, rich notes of a French horn or the mellow beauty of an English oboe–these experienced within the lustrous beauty of a summered landscape are potent magic. Making visual art, dancing, writing, acting–all this replete with the constant inspiration of rhythms and cycles of natural events is an unparalleled way to explore and live. Nature’s formations and complications, the vagaries and wholeness so well shake loose ideas and influence impulses. There were mystery and sweat, dreaming and victories and failures–a mammoth arc of learning as I opened to more teaching. The context of such activity can give rise to a lot of human industriousness. Tranquility.

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Oh, but the woods I have known and loved as a child, a youth, an adult. If I am patient and willing to search, I may more fully discover an immutable sense of the organic, microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. The great synergistic cohesion works. It teaches me there is a purpose to each small piece, part of a span of connections started eons ago and still operating miraculously well if we respect it. I am shown frailty and obdurate strength. Order and ultimate symmetry. Upheaval and rejuvenation. Transformative powers reveal that saving changes do exist. It boosts my most human hope. For we are part of this process, the mighty cause and effect. If I recognize the common thread in the schemata, I will be at peace, at one with it.

Not so many years ago I squatted in the middle of a stream in another forested place and looked about me and listened. The birds and water sang. Rocks glistened. Plant life rippled and rested. The sky was blue as sapphire and trees were arced above me, leaning toward the rippling stream. Golden afternoon shafts of light struck lively water and it sparked with brilliant energy. It came to me in a sweep of awe, the clarity of the primordial and the divine so strong amid wounded fragmentations of our world. Overwhelmed by an ecstasy and bone-aching grief all at once, tears flowed. I looked up and trees were weeping, too, and the sky was all radiance from which love flowed everywhere. And I held my self open to that eternal Presence of God.

It was not the first time, nor the last. But in nature this power is very accessible, it seems to me. So, the woods do call me but I, too, call the woods. Solace, balance and wisdom I often need and find, and such refilling of the well of my soul I always am given. Step gently but boldly into the beauty. Let your soul call and be called, too.

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When By the Sea

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When Elle pulled up to the restaurant she had already decided she was going to eat fast and head right back to her rented cottage. The weather was rough. Rain had pummeled her car so hard it was miraculous she could follow the white stripes on the winding road.

It slackened, turned into a metered rainfall as soon as she parked. Due to fickle coastal skies, her getaway had been shaped by many languid hours by a fire in the old brick fireplace, books and wine glass, a notebook and pen. The beach had been nearly deserted early that morning so she had walked without distraction, sifting through sea detritus the storms had left behind. It was like paradise, as always. Her thriving counseling practice had kept this beach escape too long delayed. 

She gave her name to the hostess, then waited by the door with a small group of women. They circled up, intimate conversation kept low. She looked out the windowed wall below the waiting area and was lulled by the Pacific Ocean. She wondered what kind of fortune it would take to buy a beach house. Peter, her husband of sixteen years, wouldn’t even consider it; he was citified start to finish. He would rather buy a large photograph of the sea and admire the idea of being there. He enjoyed his own vacation in Seattle or Vancouver, BC twice a year. She had her coveted beach spots.

The door opened and Elle’s eye caught two wing-tipped shoes, large and scuffed. An accompanying pair were stylish flats, black patent leather with a narrow crisscross of fabric at the instep. Mr. Wing Tips strode to the desk, long black wool coat shedding raindrops. He had a hat in hand and smoothed down neat white waves. The woman beside him turned and looked into the parking lot as though longing to escape. Her iridescent teal coat warmed a complexion that reminded Elle of old ivory. The woman’s eyes, blue and slightly tilted at the outer corners, were like still pools. Her shoulders seemed weighted, as if she found being there a chore.

Mr. Wing Tips bent toward her. ‘”Is fifteen minutes a wait alright?” His voice was solicitous.

She nodded, then sat on the bench with head held up, but her arms were pulled close as if she felt crowded. The man sharpened his hat’s crease. Even sitting at ease he was self-possessed. And tall. He half-smiled down at the woman but she was looking at her shiny shoes.

Elle told herself to not pay any attention, it was rude to stare, but then admired the woman’s hair, its silvery swath picking up light that sneaked in. It was wrapped into a chignon. Not a hair had strayed. Had they been to a church function? Perhaps going to a birthday gathering later? Maybe they had visited someone in the hospital and the prognosis was poor. Elle looked away when the woman shifted and her eyes moved upwards. The hostess came back and led Elle to a table close to a perfect view of the rain-swept ocean. She ordered what she usually ate there, grilled mahi mahi and thick garlic french fires.

She thought of Peter and his concerns about her visit. It had been stormy for most of three days and nights. He’d cautioned her to not go, citing landslides, high winds and the cottage being too far, over the Coast Mountains, stated as though it was all the way to Japan. Peter worried about many things; Elle journaled about things, then forgot them. But by now he had dived into his research on Chaucer, not giving any thought to Elle and her “wilderness streak” as he insisted on calling it, every room awash in Bach concertos. If only he could appreciate what it meant to nourish one’s self with nature’s unique array of offerings. With solitude. Without garish sensory bombardment of city life. The flash and dazzle of intellectual brouhaha.

A poem that had awakened with her at dawn came from a place she had neglected a very long while. She recalled it as she sipped her water.

If by the sea winds carry love,
my arms will be translucent sails, 

take my soul to the edge of the world so
we dance with anemones, sleep with stars.

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She had no idea where that came from but her next thought was: where had the romance gone? Not the brief, fun firecracker times she and Peter experienced in college and their first years together. She could manage–had done–without the surfeit of lust. And now they respected each other’s separateness, gave each other room. But what about the deeper romance that should hold them in tandem like the natural things on earth, easy but vital like flower and earth, water and river bank? She felt a lick of sorrow creep up. She backed away from it, returned to the current moment.

The man and woman from the lobby took a table across from her. The best one by the picture window above the cliff. He helped his companion take off her shimmery coat, pulled out a chair for her, then removed his elegant coat. Cashmere, Elle thought.

“Renee, I’m to the washroom. ”

Renee nodded at him, then put chin in hand and stared out over the cliff to uproarious waves and wind-tailored trees. Her eyes closed, then widened, as  though to re-focus on a distant place without and without. Her profile was classic, like an older Grace Kelly’s: no feature too pronounced, symmetrical, with barely lined, silken fair skin. Her lips were perfect even while pursed.

Elle’s meal arrived. She ate slowly, enjoying surreptitious glimpses of the captivating couple. The man had returned and was gesturing out the window. He sat, then caught Renee’s fingers in his. She didn’t pull away.

“You see out there past the spit? Yes, there, perhaps a harbor seal?”

Renee considered the seascape, then extricated her fingers and tasted her salad with a shrug. He ate with relish, fettuccine noodles slipping between his lips. Renee’s brows bunched a little as she noted a slurp from him, then she looked to the sea’s sterling waves. Her expression enlivened.

“Putnam, wait, see that? You are so right about such things. Or a sea lion…? Is that possible as well?”

Elle stared at Renee, then her companion. The man’s name was unusual–she liked it, thought it might be a family name–but it was her voice that surprised with its throatiness. There was a frayed edge to the words, like that of a two pack a day smoker, and it was louder than his. Elle had expected it to be refined, sweet to match Putnam’s gentlemanly manner, his careful way of enunciating. They had seemed like minor royalty at the start.

“Sure, and those cormorants there? They’re so hearty. Adaptable in all weather, yes? As one must be to thrive here.”

“As we all must be to just live, my dear. Most certainly to live well.”

And with that Renee gave up tension, worry or sadness, whichever she had brought into the place, and she transformed, her eyes a vibrant blue, her smile dimpling soft cheeks. She barely laughed–a chirp, really–but Putnam tilted his head and winked. Then each gave full attention to their meals.

Elle tried to not stare further. She scolded herself for being so hyper-observant and letting her thoughts become meddlesome. It was a bad habit. She just loved to study people, wanted to know what made them yearn and hope and care. What motivated their effort to really live their lives. Or not. Was Putnam a retired small-town doctor who married this younger woman of good standing, both stylish and attentive, a few years after a first wife had died? Or was she someone who had long been independent and given in to his persistence only after he visited her numerous times at a classy lounge where she sang jazz standards with a sultry alto? Perhaps they had fallen on hard times lately and this good meal was a blessing.

Renee reached across the table. Touched the edge of his white shirt sleeve. Putnam raised his eyes. They said something indiscernible due to the shepherding of more diners to their corner. But Elle could see they had almost imperceptibly mended things, passed a hard turn and were moving on. Renee had given in to his warmth and consideration. Their conversations flowed to and fro and so, Elle suspected, did their silences. She wished the new diners would quiet down so she could hear the couple but knew she should stop. It was not her business, after all.

Her own dinner was finished. She signaled for coffee and a dessert menu. Why not tiramisu? She had never tasted the extravagant coffee-flavored, cheese and chocolate-filled cake. But tonight there was no Peter to caution her against sugar or calories. And no Peter to tempt.

The rain had stopped. Renee and Putnam and Elle all looked to the sea. Sunlight burnished mighty waves, sea spray like fine lace. Clouds fell apart, leaking cerulean sky though slate grey. The sunset would be noteworthy.

Elle turned her head slowly toward Renee, and the older woman looked her way. Their eyes rested on each other. Renee nodded once, perhaps to acknowledge her awareness of Elle’s scrutiny, then returned her attention to Putnam and the sea’s beguiling performance.

The next few moments were full of chocolate that lit up Elle with pleasure. She wondered if Pete would take a bite off her fork, just one, and admit its virtues. She looked at her cell phone, then dialed.

“Hello? Elle?” he said, alarmed. Bach was blaring.

“I was thinking. Could we take a vacation together this year? By the sea part of the time, by city another part. So we can hang out, share it all. For a change.”

Pete said nothing as Bach changed to Mozart. She licked the last of the tiramisu from her fork.

“Just when are you coming back?” he asked. “I’ve missed you. Yes, we surely can find a place we both want to be. I think…but how about home for starters?”

“Be there tomorrow night, early. Maybe Victoria?”

“Hmm.” He sounded pleased.

Elle paid her bill and left without a backward glance. The wind whipped and sang out, brought scents of sea creatures and sand and gnarled trees. Tulips, brave and bold, wore rain like jewels. She did wonder what Renee and Putnam were going to do but she longed more to leave them. She needed to make her way back home and just hold Peter.

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