The damp in the air on a walk after work. The long light evening. The warmth layered with waves of cold coming off the melting snowbanks that the sun hasn’t yet reached.
The woods looked a little wrecked: trees limbed and space cleared between the plantation rows, but the smell was alive and piney, and what can you do but wish them well if you’re not going to chain yourself to heavy machinery? (Plant more trees, build your house, use both sides of the paper.)
I came across a water beetle as long and twice as broad as my thumb. I saw slick strips of birch bark. I walked on red-brown dirt that ought to be muddier this time of year, under a sky sinking with deep blue clouds– spring-storm clouds, not gray-blue snow clouds.
And now the sky flashes purple and white. Rain lashes the windows. No matter how many cold days there are, we keep moving forward, turning the wheel, churning the lake with wind, coming up green again, improvising, playing it by memory, by heart, just like every time– everyone– before.
I took a walk in the woods by myself today. The river ran below me, loud at the cliff and muted in the trees. Gullies gurgled with the scant melt of this unusually dry spring. The painted lady butterflies were out in thick clusters– or, at least they looked decadent to me after their absence all winter.
I like that painted ladies come out so early. And I like that whenever I see a pack of them I know that these elegant, beautiful, ephemeral harbingers of spring… are eating shit.
They were– probably (hopefully!) a dog duece that had rolled down the bank of a run-off stream. I crouched down to watch, waiting for them to return. (Whenever I see butterflies or moths flying, spiraling, I think of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer:” the most sensuous book I’ve ever read, including the part about moth flight.)
I like that these first bright bursts of color– orange and black and brown– aren’t sipping nectar from fresh spring flowers. The flowers aren’t here yet, though I might have helped will them into being just by the visceral force of last year’s memory: hepatica as far as the eye could see, a gentle, hopeful, sweet fragrance everywhere you went.
No, these beauties feast on the filth, the leftovers, the waste that is left behind. That’s the magic of the wild, of nature, of the truth: old shit makes good soil. The thing that makes you wrinkle your nose is the very thing that makes every delight possible.
I watched the painted ladies for a while, then hiked on, lighter– or perhaps just reminded, tromping in the mud and last treacherous ice, I was in good company.
Alchemy al fresco: three pans simmering in three shades of shimmering bronze over an iron stove fed with inch-and-a-half thick kindling, sliced with an axe whose head is just a bit loose.
I stood in the steam. In the sweet vapor of trees. It smelled like caramel and vanilla and dries grass– and, ever so faintly, almost like popcorn.
The kids fished chunks of ice out of the big blue barrel (tall enough to hide me and a friend, if we wanted to); they sucked the sugar out of it and tossed the remnants on the ground, that was itself littered, pasted as in a scrapbook, with last year’s solar panels: translucent, bleached, ghostly leaves that none the less have held their shape and intention all winter long.
I moved kindling. Petted the dog, who stayed closer than usual because of all the bits of cracker and drops of roasted brats she was able to glean. Ennis and his friends played hide and seek.
The sap might run all night. It might just keep rising up from the good earth itself, through the roots and woody cells until it bleeds out, weeps at the channel that has been carved for it.
Look at the beauty that comes with opening up, letting go. Look at the sweetness to come.
She told me:
This is a combination of Dakota and Aanishinabe beadwork designs.
See this part? These are two stars, and when they line up like this you can harvest red willow. When they are horizontal in the sky that means that the storms and thunder and spring are coming. The winter spirits are going to sleep. Spring is here and you can’t harvest red willow anymore.
I walked on a forest road today. I had to turn around and search for it– I had expected to see a wet-but-bare dirt road, forgetting that sleds pack the snow down all winter, and the sun has to work a little harder to melt those layers.
It was sturdy enough that my optimistic footwear was fine, and I tromped down one road while remembering another: summer and gravel and all the birds and good company (myself, the dog, a friend).
The first puddle was under the first big white pine. For a long stretch I walked alongside moose tracks nearly as big as my size eights. I glimpsed a little weedy green under the old and faded grasses. I saw snowmold stretched thin like melted spiderwebs.
Every time there was bare earth exposed, I walked on that. The edge of the ice shelf gave way under my feet: a muffled, hollow whump. I followed the trickle of water until it disappeared under the snow pack again. I kept thinking of the past and the imaginary future (both good and bad possibilities), and then bringing myself back to the present: trees, road, snow, hope, and a radiant happiness to be here, now.
“The daffodils are coming up in my side yard,” she said. “I keep piling more leaves on top of them– it’s too soon!”
We’re all daffodils, so much latent life bundled up in a papery-skinned bulbs under the dark earth. The mind doesn’t believe spring will ever come again, but the body knows. The roots stretch down into the humus, toward the warmth that is its own kind of sun at the core of our earth.
We stood outside, coffees in hand, sparkling beside the lake. “I got sunburned the other day!” she told me. That is the antithesis of the smudge of ashes on my forehead, that is the proof of resurrection on par with a rolled away stone.
I wish Jesus would pop in and set some things straight: of course we should worship the sun, because what we’re really worshipping is hope, and what heaven is there to wish for but that?: The delight of what’s possible, the warmth after the cold, and the deeper knowing of ourselves because of the dark time, the root time, the rest.
I don’t have a garden bed to watch with any ownership right now, but I know I will, just as surely as the heat and melt and secret green are real, even when they’re out of sight.
I’m pretty sure, in theory, ships can ride the wind almost completely keeled over. I imagine an experienced sailor can make a dance of it, a lithe circus performer leaning at a wild angle as her horse gallops around the ring. And maybe I do that, too, in a way that seems so easy to me that I don’t notice.
But I like the calm seas. The hours and hours of nothing pressing that allow for a slow start, a day spent primarily in pajamas where thoughts slide into naps and the sun slides across the sky: plenty of time left yet for doing something, if you really must.
It settles the system to unplug all the wires. To sit and listen to the lake and notice how it sounds different now, how spring is announcing itself far in advance.
It’s like the sigh of shuffling cards, letting each rib slide back into place, letting the busy days finally pull back, a sucking tide that reveals glittering stones and beach glass and things not yet worn smooth.
And the sun shone and shone on all of it, and the world turned without me at the wheel, and the course, she charted herself.