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.

Midwinter in the Woods

It’s still dark at 7am these days. The sun doesn’t get past the horizon until after I get back to the house from my sitting time in the woods. Temperatures are in the 30s. This finally feels like winter. Still, I’m glad to be out here, to see, on this overcast morning, that radiant fuchsia on the southeastern horizon, to inhale the cool, spicy December air, to hear the chitter of chickadees in the trees.

Flowing water - editTonight is the longest night of the year. I’ve anticipated this time like a child looks forward to Christmas. It’s not because I expect to get a pile of presents though. On this Winter Solstice, I’m filled with the richness of this dark, inward time of the year, this time for prayer, for dreaming, for nurturing the Spirit within.

I always look forward to this quiet, inward time, because I love feeling that stirring of inspiration, that voice of knowing that rises up from some dark place inside me. This year, however, I’m mostly hoping to just suspend myself in some therapeutic nothingness for even a few minutes.

Because it’s been a really challenging year. I’ve been hit with so many losses in the past several months that I’m surprised I’m not running down the street screaming like a madwoman. But even in the midst of all this loss, my life has bloomed with so much unexpected joy and love, it’s hard for the tragedies to gain any purchase. In this deep midwinter, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all the gifts with which I’ve been blessed throughout this year.

It’s the people in my life who embody these gifts. I’m so grateful for my kids and my new granddaughter and all my friends—especially my sisters—who have no idea how important they’ve been to me this year, how they’ve pulled me through just by being in my life, how they’ve made such a difference by simply sharing a cup of coffee or a glass (or bottle!) of wine or a meal or a hike or my writing or a hug and have listened to me as I try to figure out what’s happening to me and why.

As I sit here in the woods, watching the water flow endlessly by, I notice that this creek is clotted with leaves and piles of silt that have settled in around the rocks in the stream bed. Still, the water makes its way through, slower perhaps, but relentless. A part of me thinks this is something like what I’m feeling now: shallow, slower, clogged. Still, I know this too shall pass. As my friend Lori reminds me, in the spring, the rains will come, and they will flush all the leaves and silt away. The stream will flow free again, wild and joyous and alive.

Shiny Things in the Woods

Clouds streak out from the east this morning, promising a beautiful sunrise. It’s still dark, though, and I’m thrilled to see Venus and Jupiter still visible in the morning sky as I head over the hill with my headlamp into the woods.

The frost is heavy, and as I make my way, I’mPA woods - edit struck by how beautiful the dry, dead grasses and weeds are, sparkling under the hoary sheen like stars. It’s one of those things that we would never notice unless we happen to be out at, say, 6:30 on a frosty morning and looking.

I’m not at home now. I’ve been visiting my family in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, so I’ve been exploring other woodsy places in the past few days. I like the adventure. Mostly.

Because here I am again, lost in the dark in some other woods. I’ve been following deer paths through this wooded area out behind my sister’s house, finding my way randomly to a creek where there’s a fallen tree that makes for a very nice sitting place. But I’m out earlier this morning, and I keep running into dead ends in the heavy undergrowth, can’t find that particular spot along the creek. My hiker’s headlamp isn’t up to the task here either.

Then I see other little lights bouncing along in the woods, and I freeze. I’m no longer noticing the twinkling of frost on dead stuff or looking for deer trails through the woods. No, I’m talking to myself, silently, in my head, telling myself to breathe, telling myself it’s okay, telling myself not to worry: this blaze orange vest will protect me.

Because today is Monday after Thanksgiving. It’s a state holiday here in Pennsylvania, or might as well be. Kids don’t have school today. Lots of men don’t show up for work either. Because today is the first day of deer hunting season. I’ve already heard gunfire off in the distance, and I don’t want those pictures in my head—the ones where I’m sitting here in the woods trying to pray and someone sees movement and thinks I’m prey—to show up on the evening news.

I watch as the three bobbing lights pass on the dirt road that I just crossed to get to the creek. I see their bright orange jackets, and maybe I see rifles shouldered as they march past. Maybe they look my way, glance into the trees, see my light, my orange, but they keep going.

I never make it to that fallen tree near the creek. I’ve had enough adventure, seen enough shiny things in the woods for one day. For at least a day. Maybe more.