Posted in Just a Woods in the Neighborhood

Dawn Hike

Time: 5:30 am
Temperature: 27 degrees Fahrenheit
Forecast: mid-forties by noon

I am determined to go snowshoeing as soon as it is light.  It may well be my last chance at powder for quite some time.

I work at my computer, glancing every minute or so at the window, waiting for the dark to slip away.  As soon as there is the slightest hint of sun, I slip into my winter gear and head for the park.

The first ten minutes are cold cold cold as usual. The wind-swept field between the road and the woods is uneven; deep drifts of fluffy snow  alternate with a crusty ice surface.  Lolli is confused: we did this loop the other way two days ago.

Lolli Hears Something

I am entranced by petite leaves on a petite oak at the edge of the woods.  Once inside where the hickories tower above me, I begin to notice the birds who seem to know the temperature is rising and associate it with spring.  Chickadee, Titmouse, Crow, and Woodpecker all exercise their voices.  Cardinal is particularly pleased to practice several of his songs.

I trudge along in the gray light following some other snowshoer’s days-old path.  He (she?) takes me on a different route than my usual and I thank him (her?) silently for showing me another way around the fallen tree that blocked the trail a few years ago.

Over the creek, around another fallen tree, up a small rise, and wham! The sky brightens suddenly and fluffy white clouds slip quickly across a powdery blue.

Fast-moving Clouds

My whole body smiles. I see colors I never noticed before and finally understand the purples, blues, and greens used by the watercolorist when painting snow.

The Sun Breaks Through Snowshoe Trail

It has been a long time since I hiked regularly in these woods. I realize how much I have missed it. Simple pleasures are the best.

Posted in Just a Woods in the Neighborhood

Not Quite Spring

One TreeThe top layer of leaf litter is thawed enough to offer a soft cushion under my feet… but I can tell the ground below is still frozen. The air is warm… relatively speaking.  It’s misty.

I am in no hurry.  It’s not really a hike, or even a walk.  I’m not out for exercise, except for the dog.  I just need to reconnect with the woods.  I’m meandering.

The birds are very vocal.  Crows.  Blue Jays.  Chickadees.  Nuthatches.  Cardinals.  The air is just still enough that traffic noises are amplified, which annoys me… but I try to ignore it.

As I walk into the woods and down the hill to the creek, I scan the forest floor for any hint of green.  I see Foam Flower leaves and Christmas Fern.  The leaves of the Partridge Berry are complimented well by the bright red fruit.  All of this was covered one week ago by several inches of snow.

Turkey Tail FungusAt the halfway point, I embrace a small but sturdy Oak Tree.  I close my eyes and let the the sensations of a forest in transition fill my senses… and every cell of my body delights in it.

I sit on a log and watch the birds and listen to their songs and calls.  I recognize many, but there are new ones, too.  This is cavity-nesters haven!  Chickadees.  Titmice.  Downy Woodpeckers.  Nuthatches.  They flit from one hole to another, engage in skirmishes, and scold each other.  I try to find the source of a new song, but I am not successful.  That’s OK.  I’ll try again in a day or two.

Posted in Just a Woods in the Neighborhood

The Seasons Change…

It is the last day of Autumn, although it has been looking like winter for quite some time.  Today the sun shines, despite the efforts of a few, small, fluffy clouds.

Fallen Maple Branch

I dress in layers – polyester to wick, wool for warmth, nylon to keep out the wind.  Mother Earth’s skin is layered, too.  A soft, wet, packing snow is covered by a layer of crusty ice and topped with sparkling powder.

Tree Shadows on Sparkling Snow

I am heavy enough that every step breaks through the icy layer making crunching sounds.  I can tell from the prints that the deer went through, too. The fox is light enough that all her footprints are in the powder… Lolli is at that frustrating weight:  the crust holds her up most of the time, but every once in a while she breaks through with no warning…  I know that feeling!  When the crust is thicker, it happens to me…


There are plenty of signs of the passing season.  Each one of them reminds me of another passing.  A young man.  Twenty-two.  Car accident on Autumn’s ice.  Slid into oncoming traffic.  Prounounced dead at the scene.  Later today I will attend his memorial service.  There will be a chance to speak about his life.  I won’t be able to because of the way my tears choke my throat closed making my words unintelligible.

Multiflora Rose

A wild tangle of multiflora rose, tenacious against the wintery weather, still sports leaves and berries.  In my effort to get my camera into the shrub for the perfect composition, I puncture a finger.  As my blood drips onto the pure white snow I am reminded of Ryan’s tenacious desire to know and understand everything about the natural world… particularly the herps… and the image of Ryan’s hands holding a water snake fills my mind, blood dripping from his puncture wounds.

There is an anticoagulant in the saliva of water snakes, so when they bite, you bleed for a while… and they almost always bite.  This never deterred Ryan.  Through his fearlessness, he taught me to be less afraid of picking up little critters to learn about them.  I still won’t pick up water snakes… but I will pick up frogs, salamanders, garter snakes, turtles, snails, slugs, centipedes, millipedes, and many more…  Thank you, Ryan.

Maple Leaves in Snow

If the seasons of the year are a metaphor for the seasons of a lifetime, Ryan should have been leaving spring to enter the summer of his life…  Summer.  A time of productivity, action…  He was completing his masters at Duke, ready to take on the world…

As I think about this metaphor I remember how Ryan tried to rush his spring – to be grown up quicker than other children.  He started coming to Audubon Home School programs when he was young and I noticed what a good big brother he was to his siblings.  And when he “met” Liberty, the bald eagle, he became determined to assist with her care.  Our policy says you have to be 18.  Undeterred, Ryan asked for other volunteer jobs.  We gave him the tedious and unpleasant:  inventory, data entry, dust the mounts, clean the fish tanks.

No matter what jobs we gave him, he did them without complaint and with a maturity we rarely find even in college kids.  The Eaglekeepers gave in.  Ryan became our youngest caregiver.  He left a big hole when he went off to college…  And when we started our internship program, he was one of the first college interns we hired.

Sculpture 3

There’s a spot along the trail with an odd assortment of plants.  I wonder once again about the history of this spot of ground.  Dogwood.  Pokeweed.  Goldenrod.  Brambles.  In spring there will be daffodils.  Intertwined with all of it… Wild Grapes.

This, too, feels like a metaphor…  for Ryan’s life, for my life, for each of our lives.  We take our twists and turns, sometimes interacting with others, sometimes out on our own…  Sometimes it feels random…  but there is a greater purpose, even if we can’t see it all the time.

Ryan touched all our lives at Audubon and leaves behind many memories.  My mind wanders through the building and sees projects Ryan built.  The very fact we have so many herps on display is in part due to him.  Out on the trail is a nest box he and his Day Camp kids put up.  And each time we do a Home School program or hire a college intern, I will think of him.

Witch Hazel Blossom

Of all the wildflowers, Witch Hazel blooms last… still blooming on this December day.  It will take a whole year for the seed pods to set… even longer before the seeds are ejected… even longer for new trees to sprout.

Witch Hazel Seed Pods

I suspect it will take a long time for me to understand the meaning of a life cut so short, taken so early…

Frozen Tears

Even Mother Nature seems to have wept over Ryan’s departure from her.

Colors in the Snow

Now, we enter a season without Ryan.  While we will miss him, our lives are so much richer for having known him.  Thank you, Ryan, for the many ways you touched our lives and for the ways you will continue to influence us as we go through our days.