To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.
January 3, 2020
Deer season is over, so Lily and I can safely return to our back woods, albeit still wearing my fluorescent orange cap and Lily in her Kevlar coyote vest, bristling with rows of plastic silver spikes and a plume of orange bristles, sufficient, at least in theory, to scare off coyotes. Fellow Kennedy Park hikers now recognize Lily by her vest. (According to coyotevest.com, the founder of this small company in Colorado lost their own dog to a coyote, which led them to design these tough and fearsome vests. Lily looks like a punk rocker, but seems quite happy bouncing about in her vest.)
But back to our woods — with a blanket of snow they look so different. Like a prodigal child returning home, I checked in on old landmarks. Beneath a nearby birch last September, I found a cascade of raw wood chips and new oblong openings. Looking up four months later, I saw that the openings had not been enlarged since I had first discovered them. In the exquisite give and take, help and be helped of the forest, inside those openings, beetles and bacteria are breaking down the internal fibers of the tree. Once they have created a softer, more hospitable interior, the woodpecker has easy work to create a comfortable nest to move into come spring.
Pushing onward, Lily runs and leaps, joyful to be back on familiar terrain. I put my hand on the hoary bark of the mother tree behind the cabin, nod to crumbling chalky remnants of a once succulent chicken of the woods, and follow the crunchy winter path to the turnoff to the hemlock grove. Uh oh. The path is blocked by a fallen tree so large in diameter that I search for a place where I can sit on it and swing my legs over. It is a casualty of our early winter storms, now entering the next phase of its being: decomposition and regeneration.
Despite the grayness of an overcast morning, the forest feels welcoming to this prodigal child. New mosses are etching their presence on trees fallen earlier in the forest’s cycles; the leaves underfoot between snow puddles are soft shades of purples, rusts and brown; the thick moss layers on glacial boulders sag like an old woman with the weight of age. I’m reminded of an article I once read about families traveling in groups to China to adopt babies. Every family thinks that theirs is the best baby. Like those lucky families that fall in love with the baby that happens to be theirs, I feel that mine is the most beautiful and bountiful forest.
When Lily and I reach the bottom of the hemlock path, rather than follow where it turns left along the brook, I decide to venture into a part of the forest I hadn’t explored before. This terrain is a bit more open, flanked by a field of tall grasses, with thickets in the distance. We go only a little way before Lily starts to yip and bark at the base of a large oak, snuffling and snorting as she circles the tree, fresh in pursuit of some small prey. I let her have her moment of excitement before continuing on, pushing deeper between the trees beside the grassy field. Then I decide to turn back. I go a little distance and look for the path. I can’t find it. I move in a different direction and still can’t find it. When I look around me, I realize that I am surrounded by thicket. The forest is impenetrable, unreadable, and I am lost.
Fortunately, I remembered my phone. I click on Google Maps and on the screen, a small blue dot blinks in a sea of green, a satellite image from another season locating me in the now: time-travel technology. On my screen beside the blinking blue dot, I can see the grassy field, on my right in the direction I am walking, but on the left if I am to move in the direction of home. With relief, I turn around and off we go, phone in hand, my eye on the blinking dot, past Lily’s tree where she barks and circles once again, and then onto the hemlock path curving along the brook leading me to Mr. Coakley’s path and home.
I feel humbled by my winter return to the forest. If I hadn’t had my phone, how would I have gotten out? I couldn’t call my husband to tell him I was lost. He couldn’t use our mutual location app to find me. There was no sun to provide a sense of direction.
There are ways to navigate in the woods, if you know what to look for, like how mosses grow on the trunks of trees. I need to learn those things, to always remember my phone, and to take seriously both the awesomeness and the dangers of the ever-changing forest.