Aliens in the Woods

On my way down the path this morning, I thought about that conversation I had at the Mexican restaurant not long ago with friends, a neighbor family. Dave said he had decided to wage war against the invasives in our woodland neighborhood.

I’m with him. I’ve worked hard to rid my property of ailanthus and honeysuckle and autumn olive and poison ivy and grapevines gone wild. I’ve yanked, chopped, and yes, poisoned these invasives and have achieved a reasonable amount of success on my little half acre.

Japanese stiltgrass still plagues my property, though. And while I enjoy wine berries on my granola freshly picked in season, these briary bushes are, nonetheless, trying to take over my lawn and gardens. And just beyond that human demarcation of ownership, poison ivy is threatening, reminding me that this imagined truce we have—you stay in the woods and out of my yard, I’ve told these threatening leaves, and I won’t whack at you—is tenuous.

Dave has done this on his several acres at the top of the hill too, but he wants to do more. He wants to extend this war beyond his borders. He wants to eradicate these species, get rid of them from the entire neighborhood.

So here we are, this bunch of Quakers, sitting around eating burritos and quesadillas, talking about annihilating aliens. Going to war. It’s ironic.

Now sitting next to the stream, deer have appeared. They snort behind me, trying, I imagine, to rid my scent from their nostrils in this, their native habitat. These are creatures I would also like to get rid of, I suggested to Dave, railing against these Disney-cute critters for chewing away all the flowers on my azalea bushes and hating them for eating that one, most exquisite, most hopeful showy orchid I stumbled upon in these woods last week.

Dave tells me he has considered getting a bow. He says it’s not illegal to hunt on your own property. Not with a bow. And who would know?

But this song is going through my head: Gonna lay down my sword and shield…study war no more. And I wonder how far this Quaker peace testimony extends. Are we obliged to make peace with plants and animals too? Is there a way to negotiate with these species, talk to them like I did with the poison ivy? Is there some other way to come closer to balance with olive and kudzu and bittersweet and white-tailed deer, these forms of life that are changing our native landscape into a place that feels destroyed by foreigners?

Which leads, I now see, to the quagmire of immigration.

Oh, Lord! I do so love the song of the wood thrush in the woods in the morning!


Showy Orchids in the Woods

Showy orchid - cropI have started to come to the woods in the morning again. It’s been a long time since I wandered down that worn path to the stream where I sit and soak in the sounds, the smells, the sensations of the woods. It feels good to be back in the out-of-doors in the spring. The air is finally warm, and so sweet I can taste it. A wood thrush sings from a branch nearby. The sound of the stream is like music too. This is my happy place.

Spring has been a long time in coming this year. It snowed in mid-April—eight inches!—and the temperature hasn’t gotten much above 50 degrees. As I cleared the winter detritus from the path on my way down to the stream, I scanned the ground for signs of spring wildflowers, though I didn’t expect any; it feels too early, too cold, not quite spring enough for spring wildflowers.

So I was shocked when I rounded the bend in the trail and, right there next to the path, there was a clump of oval basal leaves and a stalk with lavender and white flowers. A showy orchid!! It’s the thing I long to see every spring, this rare, beautiful vision. It made me ridiculously happy!

This flower is endangered, which makes me feel very lucky that there are at least a few specimens in my woods. In an environment that is threatened by climate change and invasive species and other destructive human interference, even this one, lone plant—the only flowering orchid I could find—gives me hope.

So imagine my horror when, three days later, I returned to the woods and found that this thing that brought such joy, this one remaining orchid in my woods, was gone, eaten by a deer! That herd of white tails that roam this housing development, eating away all of the azalea blooms in my garden, the English ivy and hostas and daylilies and impatiens and coleus and even the mint in a pot on my back patio last summer, these voracious herbivores are my nemesis. And now they have taken that one ecstatic blossom, that one hopeful sign that Mother Nature is still holding on. I was devastated beyond words.

Smelling a Skunk in the Woods

I smelled a skunk today.

skunkI was sitting there in the woods staring at the water sluicing over a little rock slide in the stream, bubbles forming in the eddy at the bottom, swirling in circles, joining together, then—pop!—disappearing. I was musing about the Jack-in-the-pulpit that grew next to the path, how I’d seen its brilliant red berries there amid the detritus of the forest floor long into the fall until they were finally buried in leaves and I decided not to keep excavating them. Perhaps the poor plant did need to go to sleep.

Then I became aware of that particular piquant scent.

I looked around, but saw nothing. Which doesn’t mean there was nothing there, of course; the forest has a way of hiding things, I know. There’s an opening among the roots of the fallen tulip poplar next to where I sit. It’s possible, I suppose, that someone was hiding out in there for the winter.

More likely the critter came by in the night and left its calling card, I thought. Maybe that was who left those wet prints on the Bridge to Terabithia that I noticed as I crossed that plank over the marshy spring this morning. Maybe it was just passing through, long gone by now. The scent wasn’t so strong really, was it?

The metaphor of smelling a skunk stuck with me, though. As I watched those bubbles dancing in the eddy, that odor made me think about intuition, how too often I don’t pay attention to those nagging feelings that prickle in the back of my mind, thoughts that something is not quite right here, not what it seems, not what I want. I thought about how too often I have ignored that voice inside, found ways to explain away the unwanted notions. And I thought about how often hindsight has reminded me that perhaps I should have paid more attention.

And then, there in the woods, that scent wafted by again.

I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t identify the source, couldn’t rationalize this experience with some observable fact. But I knew I needed to leave, needed to get out of this place that might suddenly turn ugly, knew it in that deep, intuitive part of me.

As I climbed back up the path, across those planks I call the Bridge to Terabithia, past that place where the Jack-in-the-pulpit will grow again come spring, I was grateful for that smelly critter, for that tangible reminder to listen when my gut says pay attention.


Woo Woo in the Woods

Written on Friday, May 6, 2016

Woo wooShe was walking down the path into the woods, as she did every morning—okay, most every morning—when she heard someone call her name. Perhaps it was a dog’s awkward yelp, but she could swear the sound said LINDA! There was an urgency about it, someone trying to catch her attention. Was there danger? Was it delight?

She stopped, turned, searched the underbrush, half expecting—almost wanting—a body to crash through the overgrown autumn olive, someone to join her. She listened for the sound to repeat. How often, on the second hearing, had she identified the true source of a sound: a wren, the squealing of brakes, that crazy cardinal crashing into its reflection in the window? But pausing there next to two Jack-in-the-pulpit plants she’d just recognized next to the path, she heard nothing more than the distant trickle of the stream, the raucous call of a pair of pileated woodpeckers off in the treetops.

It was a gloomy morning. Clouds and rain had hung in the air for more than a week now. The air was dull and heavy, no scent of honeysuckle or spring. She tried to push that premonition from her mind as she sat next to the stream. But she kept remembering that misty apparition she’d seen ahead of her on the path one dark winter morning a few months ago, how she thought it was a presence, a sign, some spirit being come to lead her on. It was probably just the flick of a deer’s tail, she reasoned now. Still.

As she closed her eyes, tried to settle into herself, allow Spirit to speak, a crow flew into the clearing, alighted on a dead branch, called out, then flew off to the north. Surely that was a sign, she thought. But a sign of what?

Finding Magic in the Woods

I wasn’t going to go all the way down to the creek this morning. The last several times I was here in Pittsburgh, staying with my sister, visiting my ailing mom, I was half-hearted in my morning nature practice. I’d taken to sitting just over the edge of the hill that slopes off into the drainage basin behind the house. I didn’t go into the woods beyond, the woods where, when I was here in the winter, men wandered with guns hunting deer. Then it was safer to stay up there looking down. At least that was the excuse.

drainage basin - Pgh - editToday I thought I’d do the same, go through the motions then carry on with my day. So I perched on my little foam mat among the vetch and the grass and the desiccated stalks of last summer’s weeds, listening to the calls of red-winged blackbirds and chickadees, gazing down the hill at the empty expanse that slopes to the edge of the woods. But sitting there, something urged me to get up and go down there, that voice in the back of my mind that too often I ignore. Today I decided to give into it. So I gathered myself up and followed the deer path into the woods.

I’d just tipped over the edge of mounded shale, the far bank of the drainage basin, the place where civilization stopped and the wildness began, and I was astonished to see the bank covered in tiny blue wildflowers: bluettes, also called Quaker ladies. As I tramped through the underbrush to the creek, I kept seeing other spring wildflowers—skunk cabbage, some sort of white bell flower, leaves that might be trout lilies, plants that don’t grow in my woods. I wished for my field guides, so I could figure out what these wild things were.

green leafy something - Pgh - editThis was exciting. This was interesting. This was exactly the sort of magic I’d hoped to find when I decided to spend this time in the woods every day. And it is, I think, exactly like what happens with writing.

Like deciding to go into the woods, there’s always some resistance to deciding to go into the writing. You tell yourself you have nothing to say. You tell yourself it’s the same old blah blah blah. You worry that there is no inspiration anymore. Then you dip over the edge, push yourself into the wild places, head right into the thick of it where you are astonished by what you find: this new stuff, beautiful stuff, stuff you never realized was there, stuff you want to spend time with, stuff you want to know more about.

And even though you’ve been here before, perched pen in hand on the metaphorical hillside looking down at what looks like emptiness, thinking there’s nothing there, thinking it’s easier to just sit here and listen to the birds, thinking you’ll just do your time then go back inside and carry on with your day—even though you’ve done this all before, you still have to be goaded, still have to feel that blind urge and heed it, still have to push yourself, let the pen plunge into that wild place so you can get to that unexpected gift, that unexpected thing you always hope to find, that unexpected thing that is so magical.

Down there in the thick of it, sitting on a fallen tree hanging out over a shoal in the creek, I was thankful that I’d Trout Lilies - Pgh - editheeded that voice in the back of my mind. Because a hawk—surely a good omen—flew right over my head, followed by a squawking great blue heron. The trickle and splash of the water sounded like music. The air felt cool, smelled sweet. And, looking over at the bank at the edge of the creek, I spotted three of those trout lilies in full bloom. This was definitely worth the journey, I thought, a magical way to start the day.