My first few steps into the woods seem loud and unnatural. They shatter a strange silence that has come over the trees and animals of midafternoon. Birds have fallen silent and even the wind is still leaving me as the only bit of movement on this path. I’ve always wondered where commotion disappears during this stand still. I imagine birds hiding in the greyed crooks of trees or a chilled frog slipping under a fallen leaf worn almost transparent from time. Animals close their eyes in the afternoon and wake once again to greet the sunset. Unlike us, nature tends to listen to the call to slow down midday.
I roll a thin dead twig between my fingers feeling the texture of its smooth bark against the ridges of my own fingerprint. Without thinking, my thumb finds the middle and presses. Snap! The two remaining fragments trace across my fingertips, and I pinch them together feeling their measure and leaving two small dents in my thumbprint. Again finding the middle, the process repeats. Something about the action is therapeutic, and I smile to myself realizing this childhood habit returns even in adulthood with every walk in the woods. Only when the twigs become too short to break do I scatter them back onto the forest floor under me, only to subconsciously break another from the nearby brush to start it all again.
As I stare into the trees beyond the trail ahead, a cluster of birch stands out among the rest. Four thick trunks emerge from one point in the ground and a weathered collection of lumber and plywood create an uneven and rotting platform. Two by fours covered in lichens are nailed to one of the paper white trunks, and I step carefully as I climb the remains of an old deer stand. I shuffle across the platform and hear the creaks of rusted nails fighting to hang on to the living tree. There is a reason I retired this one.
I glance across and notice my name carved lightly into the outer layer of birch bark: “Nathan Haugen 2003 Oct.” The text is a reminder of the countless hours spent sitting in this tree watching the wild. Even then at 15 years old, I recognized my need for this place. Some have the same spot in the pew they return to every Sunday, a spot that may just as well have their name on it. I had my spot in this tree. I learned to listen carefully as the woods preached a new sermon each night – lessons taught by nature and its strengthening embrace on me through the years.
Minutes pass as I sit silently listening for any sound to break the silence. Occasionally, a thin gust of wind shakes the limp dead leaves of red oaks and ironwoods that have held strong through the harshest of seasons. These trees match evergreens in their stubbornness, unwilling to give back what they worked so hard in summer to create. The crisp and toothy tan leaves of ironwoods shudder lightly against the backdrop of their flakey bark, and the gnarled trunks of the elders stand as a reminder to straight saplings of the presence of time. The breeze operates only in spurts today, mustering its strength to disrupt the stillness momentarily only to tire itself and disappear into the calm. Wind has its own personality out here. Its language is beyond words – understandable only to those who listen with care and without expectation.
Back on solid ground, I follow the paths of deer to the south watching for any signs of the ultimate treasure they have to offer: a shed antler. Each winter, beautifully curved and polished antlers drop like the leaves of fall to become food for the rodents of spring and summer. I keep my eyes to the ground as I walk with cautious optimism knowing I could be a step behind the mice and squirrels in finding antlers this time of year. But for now, I come across only their droppings, clumps of their hollow winter hair, and the occasional tree scarred by the animal’s desire to leave its mark. A patch of sumac surrounds me with crooked elbowed branches and clumps of dull red berries. The tip of each branch is nibbled jagged from the desperate deer of winter. With every stick felt underfoot, I glance down with hope. Still no treasure.
A field of alfalfa stands between me and the next patch of deep woods, and I make way to a lone tree nicknamed a “tree of life” in its solitude. Within minutes I’m again surrounded by oaks and ironwoods, my eyes scanning the ground for any glimpse of white. Each step more hopeful, I continue along the zigs and zags of deer trails. I walk all directions from north to south, backtracking across my own footprints. Sometimes the trails seem aimless, but I feel a complete sense of trust in them. You end up exactly where you are supposed to be. It may not be where you’d expected but it’s exactly where you should be, whether you know it or not. After all, it’s their home. We’re just guests. We ought to trust them in giving us a tour.
I pause with that thought and scan the forest floor. And sure enough, there it sits. A gift from nature. This is no coincidence. She is speaking to me. And I’m listening. I come across the antler lying under a fallen tree and my heart surges with excitement. My walking stick falls to the ground, and I hold the antler – greater than gold. But I wasn’t the first to come across this gem; it appears rodents have had their feast and taken a toll. But imperfection and all, I’m gracious for the gift.
Parting gift in one hand and walking stick in the other, I take toward home guided by the V-formations of Canada geese flying north overhead. The sun is setting and a bald eagle soars just above the glowing orange in the west. I’m surrounded by nature in all its glory. And in this moment, I’m reminded this is not my land. It does not belong to my family nor to the settlers or pioneers who braved the elements to make their homes. It is beauty in its purest form and owned by no man. It is the wild of the north. And in its hands I am embraced.