“There is this moment when the chickadees approach in such a rush that I think of them not as a flock, but as a hustle of chickadees. A dozen or more, landing in the brush and branches all around my head and shoulders, in so close I can hear the flirrrr of their wings, the scrape of their talons on the birch bark, and the peck-peck of their beaks like specks of sand sprinkled over dry leaves.
Temperatures were on the upswing. The snow, fallen only for a few days, was melting, and all along the bottom side the branches were hung with water droplets. When the chickadees came swarming, featherweights though they were, their activity was enough to shake loose a small rain over my head and shoulders.
Each year come late Fall, I spend the better part of a week in the woods. This time outdoors serves more than one purpose, the most fundamental being venison chops. But above all it serves a necessary reset. There is a lot of thinking (and sometimes naps, but let us remain philosophical), and not all of it comfortable. I have long held that for all its soothing and restorative potential, nature’s true power lies in making us feel deeply vulnerable. Inescapably mortal. Brief.
Later in the week I sat on a ridge in the predawn dark. The wind was really only a breeze, but when I shone a light on our old mercury thermometer before leaving the yard, the crown of the meniscus had ducked just below zero, so even the lightest puff of air felt anesthetic; my cheeks were stiff and my beard and mustache were clotted with icy beads of exhaled moisture (and other, but let’s move on — it is difficult to render poetic the snotsicle). Thinking I saw movement against the far side of the valley, I strained to see, only to be faced with the freezer breeze against my corneas.
If you have tried this, you know my eyes watered up and spilled over, and everything went to a blur. Emotion doesn’t enter into it; this is simply the body responding to the forces of the nature that rule us, no matter if you do have a smartphone in your pocket.
In time the eastern horizon lightened, but did not brighten; a thick batt of clouds overlaid all visible sky. At sunrise the star itself did not show, but through some unseen, sub-horizon break a vast wash of storybook rose leaked through and ruddied up the overcast underbelly in a broad, fan-shaped wash. In a short minute, the red began to recede, thinning out and going pale and drawing back within itself, and then the sky was simply gray again, and perhaps the moral of that story was, this whole works is on the clock.
Nature provides its comforts. But I value it most for re-seeding my unease. For the way it knocks a wobble into my habits and certitudes. The click of one dead goldenrod stem against the other reminds me of my own dry bones.
I spend a handful of the short, dark, frozen days — leading up, as they do, to the season of resolutions — staring at the world through a criss-cross tangle of leafless aspen slashings or a stand of sumac stripped and shivering in nothing but dark-blooded stocking caps and find myself feeling fragile, a useful state in that it may lead me to step more carefully upon reentry.
One evening late in my November sojourn it began to snow at dusk. I sat until I could see the world in nothing but black and white. The forest was stock-still, so frozen I could hear the sound of snowflakes striking the parchment oak leaves like sprinkled sand, and now I was back to remembering the chickadees. This brought to mind the idea of circles (one of your more obvious and well-worn nature motifs, but no less relevant for it), and then from far-off I heard the wash of the interstate, all the back-and-forth hustle its own sort of circle, and I thought, Well, I’ll just stay here until it’s completely dark.”