I sit in my green writing chair my father gave me years ago and look past my books and paintings into the wilderness which surrounds my home. The birds could not find food in the morning’s snow so a slow spread of seed across the porch rails brought nature as close as possible without opening the windows. House wrens, warblers, robins, cardinals, downy woodpeckers and others all winged in from the apple trees to the rail, grabbed some seeds or stood and ate them there. Next to the porch is a larger than me thorn bush covered in red leaves which the birds use for hiding. They popped in and out from the bush to the porch and back to grab more of the only food around. Eventually they all work their way back to the woods by dodging from tree to tree like soldiers moving forward on a night raid. The thorn bush first, of course, followed by a quick flight to the first holly. From there the apple trees, despite their dormant branches, are fine for resting because of the snowy limbs. The last leg is a short one to more holly at the edge of the woods. Once there they seem to pause, look back as if they are wondering if they had enough, or if they forgot anything, and then they disappear into the high branches of dense forest. Later they’ll return.
I have found two ways to experience nature. First by moving through her: Sunday drives, evening strolls, afternoon hikes, morning runs, and any average commute. We take in what we can, view the variety of colors in spring and the fall foliage. But I’ve driven the route to work enough times in two decades to really not see it at all anymore. Are the trees taller? I assume they must be, but a change cannot be noticed by one who watches it grow. I cross three bridges along the way and two of them have been rebuilt since I started. Still, my mind is elsewhere when nature simply rests there sixty-five miles an hour slower than me. We can’t always be aware of nature; I understand this. But I’m not fully sure I know what it is that distracts me to begin with. There are other means to move through nature: A few years ago my son and I trained across the vast empire of eastern Russia, across the Steppes and hills of Siberia, and to the pacific coast. Along the way we saw thousands of acres of birch forests and hundreds of small, curious shacks all painted royal blue. I could never drive across Siberia, so the train would have to do, but the journey left me with more questions than answers. Who works out there? Are the dilapidated gulags we passed empty or just in ruins? What kinds of wildlife did we pass, mostly at night, just beyond the trees away from the tracks? Surely a grizzly or two stood and watched us roll along.
As if extremes exemplified my existence, the following summer we walked the medieval pilgrimage route from southern France to Santiago, Spain, on the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is five hundred miles long, and at just about three miles an hour or so means every Basque slug, meseta insect and Galacian fly could be personally experienced and known by name. We watched the colors of the sky change and stood still every few kilometers to take in the vistas, drink some coffee, and walk the rocky paths again. To drive that distance takes roughly eight hours. It took us five weeks. One sees more when moving slowly. It is simple physics. But in the end we are still moving through.
Which leads me to way number two to experience nature: Sit still.
I took pictures of birds outside my window, and then I put down the camera and watched. They tilt their heads when they eat, as if they can’t see the food unless their eyes face down. Most varieties get along well, but the chickadees are little bastards. They’ll chase away or dare anyone, squirrels included. Yellow warblers are neurotic and Cardinals look pissed off though I think they really just want to be left alone, like old writers.
I can’t remember the last time I simply stared at the bare brown branches against the gray sky. Somehow the white snow on dark green holly leaves brought the yard to life. I have lived here for twenty years but it seems I never before sat and stared at trees, at birds’ wings just inches away, at the patches of green grass surrounded by a dusting of snow. Even walking across the yard would have chased away these observations as quickly as the birds would have scattered into their hiding spots. As if my Siberian questions needed the balance of answers, I looked about the yard and witnessed more in an hour than I had for three weeks on the rails. Usually it is in Spring that we pay attention to the trees, when bare branches give way to buds, which give way to new life. Or in the autumn when we calculate our driving times on Sunday afternoons for when the leaves will be at their “peak.”
Today I sat perfectly still, doused in the narration-free documentary playing out before me, and discovered something phenomenal: Trees are always at their peak.
They stand strong like church steeples. The thick brown branches reach up, shirts off, muscles taut, every bone exposed, wrestling, bent at the elbows, visible like some skeleton x-ray against a low, gray sky, or a deep dark blue sky, or a snowy dirty white sky, and these trees don’t balk, they don’t flinch. They dare every aspect of deep winter weather. The wind moves through unnoticed, and snow catches crevices and freezes further growth for months. What wonder it is to watch their stern and steady rise, proof of decades, sometimes centuries, dug in for winter, standing guard in forests and backyards, unable for a while to block the sun, bare enough for us to listen at night to the geese. Starlings settle on naked limbs, thousands of starlings like leaves land, rest awhile, then leave, the trees once again alone waiting out winter, as if to say they’ll let winter leave when they’re damn well ready.
I used to think time went by so fast. I remember my dad sitting on the porch in our backyard watching birds outside the screened-in porch. He was a relatively quiet man but loved to watch the birds. One time he and my mom watched a pair of cardinals teach their young one to fly. They watched it fail a few times until it finally took to the air, making it to the nearest branch, not far from the porch. I never had time for that when I lived there. I wonder if my parents, maybe like the cardinals themselves, were both thrilled to see me leave the nest but sad at how fast I found my wings. Now I sit in his chair watching a robin work through the seed on the rail, and I realize it isn’t time that moves too fast—it’s me.