It all started with a pair of red galoshes I got for Christmas. I wanted them for backyard work, planting begonias, and feeding bluebirds and their friends. North Carolina is home to copper heads and other nasty creatures, and I didn’t want to step on any surprises and die of a fright-induced heart attack while feeding and planting.
Above the small bank that defines our little yard lies a bit of woods, just the right size to call a woods, but not big enough to get lost in. Although our subdivision lies smack in the middle of a bustling suburban area with traffic noise, it is a peaceful harbor with an arch of magnolias shading its main street.
Back in the woods, you’d think you’d landed in Sherwood Forest, and Robin Hood himself might tip his hat to you.
I have often ventured a little way back in the woods to toss a handful of weeds or empty a pot of dirt. Until the appearance of the red galoshes, I had never explored any further. But when January produced a gleaming snowfall, the woods called to me. I donned my bright boots and fuzzy hat to learn what they had to say.
I traipsed. I tromped. I tramped. It was not at all like a straightforward walk on the sidewalk. Low spots hidden by leaves and snow surprised my feet. Thorny vines grabbed my legs. Trees standing tall and straight, or small and bent, invited me to study them, to stare at the blue sky through their branches. Twining together, they made artistic arrangements.
One big tree, perhaps having been trimmed by a woodman, had a thick elbow of a trunk, a perfect forty five degree angle. Other small, brave, green shoots peeked out of the crystal snow. The white ground glowed, throwing back the sun’s light. Squirrels scurried out of my way. Fallen trees made handy benches where I sat and let the crisp beauty soak in.
Since that snowy first visit, I have returned to the woods often. I wander back and forth with no real goal in mind. I retrace my steps, stop and look at the sky, the way the sun shines through the trees. The sights are new every time. Though I may have passed a certain clump of trees before, they don’t look the same from a different angle or at a different time of day.
I still find satisfaction in clocking distance as I take more deliberate paths on neighborhood sidewalks. But now, as I grow older, I want to know the freedom of not measuring, of not knowing how many steps I walk or how much distance I cover. Letting go of these measurements is difficult. I use them as measures of my self-worth, my discipline, my productivity. And when those are the things I hunger to know, they satisfy. The account keeping is good for my body.
Walks in the woods are good for my spirit. They teach me to do a thing for the sheer pleasure of doing it, for each step, each glimpse of the sky, each time peace floods through me at the vertical pattern of trees against the horizon.
Warm weather arrives early in North Carolina, and with it, those nasties I mentioned earlier. The threat of snakes may keep me out of the woods come summer. That is something I will have to learn about myself and the woods. But I do wonder what small growth I would find there in growing season. What wildflowers? What birds making homes for their young families? Will the thorny bushes and higher undergrowth make walking too troublesome even for my red galoshes?
I won’t spoil the experience by turning it into a challenge.
Challenges strike me as “un-Zen,” though I confess to not knowing what Zen really is. In the meantime, my flowers and the backyard birds will feed my spirit, too. When I care for them, I will look out through the woods and appreciate how summer’s light dapples the trees, how the riotous undergrowth and leaf-decked trees soften the scene, and how the extravagant green makes me smile and fills me with unreasonable happiness. Come fall, I’ll pull on my galoshes, fasten their buckles, and they will take me exploring the woods’ secrets all over again.
About the Author: Bernie Brown
I live in Raleigh, NC where I write, read, and watch birds. My stories have appeared in several magazines, most recently Better After 50, Modern Creative Life, Indiana Voice Journal, and Watching Backyard Birds. I am a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center, which is the perfect spot to work on my novel-in-progress. My short story, Same Old Casserole, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.