Spring fills the air with 40 something and sun, and I begin a walk down a winding mowed path with a pasture of oaks to my left and dense brush to my right – the woods. I’m walking the line – the tamed and well-groomed trail between the caged and the wild. So often we tread that line, afraid of the depth and density of the wild, yet unwilling to fully submit to being fenced in.
But me, I have options. I still walk the comfortable path between the two, peering through the nakedness of springtime at the aspens and birch as they stand quietly without leaves to speak. Spring breathes new life into it all. Birds talk a little more. A little faster and louder. Trees stand with a certain air about them as if to say, Just you wait and see what I will do. Water is on the move once again after months of feeling frozen in time, and mud returns to fulfill her role as secretary – the record keeper and storyteller of the wild.
I arrive at a perfectly fenced corner post and decide to venture into pasture before the woods. I have all day; the woods can wait. But there is beauty in even the caged and tamed wild of this pastured land. After all, I know the woods are not far away. Walking becomes easier on open land, and I climb my way to a brush-covered knoll.
A quick flutter of wind stops my heart and a high winnowing sound cuts the stillness of the air. I look carefully as a bird rises then twists and dives its way across the backdrop of blue sky. Its beak looks nearly as long as its body, and I immediately recall studying old bird books as a child. A snipe. One of the long-beaked birds I had always hoped to see on my walks across this land I grew up on. It’s a first for me, not an avid birder but a quiet appreciator of the avian.
She emerged from the brush just ahead of me, a collection of thin trees that surrounds the remains of one of the largest birches on these 80 acres. It stood solitary on this hill for as long as I can remember, its trunk thick and sturdy and its limbs reaching in all directions across the sky. I can remember when the tree died and slowly began losing its branches until finally one day the giant laid to rest at the top of the hill, just a pile of bark left to signal its long life. For some reason, I don’t know why, the hill had also become a collector of bones. We’d left the remains of deer and other animals at the top of this hill for years, and now the bleached bones stand out against matted dead grasses and glisten in the sun. It seems only fitting the snipe would reveal herself for the first time out of the ashes of these animals, out of the remains of winter – a testament to the birth of new life in what is dead. “The Phoenix of the North” or so I’ll call her.
A deer trail carries down the hill to the east and winds its way north along a pond. I add my tracks to the mud and follow it as it leads into dense brush. Pushing small saplings and prickly ash aside, I notice another death at winter’s hands. The skull of a raccoon lies upside down on top of a bed of oak leaves, a sign that it had seen autumn but not much more. I pick it up and run my fingers across its still sharp canines and admire the crests and ridges of this puzzle of fused bones, a true masterpiece. How intricate we are and how simple we can be.
A deep rumble echoes over the hills and I pause cautiously in my tracks. An underground explosion, or so it sounds. Holding my breath, I wait for it to return but nothing. The lake ice comes alive this time of year. It twists and turns and stretches; its joints stiff after the bitter cold of winter. But now it plays its part in this outdoor orchestra. Alongside the call of chickadees – “fee-bee,” first high then dropping low – and the rustle of crisped red oak leaves still hanging on, too strong to fall at the hands of winter. The indescribable sound of sandhill cranes flying hundreds of feet overhead. This orchestra is full, and I’m the only one in the audience.
I walk along the pond stuck in this symphony of sound, and once again wings flutter just ahead. The snipe! She flies only 20 feet before gliding into short brush. She matches my steps as I approach, almost mocking me. She walks when I walk. She stops when I stop. The bird appears to sense no major threat in me and stops still in the brush. I make the first move. She mirrors me. I’m allowed to look but only at a distance, a clear reminder this is not my home. It’s hers. My steps become hurried and she vanishes into thick brush.
I turn back and walk away from the pasture and toward the woods with new perspective. Nature is alive and well here. Each day this masterpiece unfolds. It doesn’t wait for me to show up. It plays regardless of its audience. The leaves rustle. The ice shifts. The birds call for the season’s change. Welcome, Spring. I’m here to listen.