There is a special time in early spring (or late winter, as it so happens) when this year’s young sprouts meet last year’s faded ghosts. The dry, burst seed pods of dogbane and the gray-headed husks of brittle goldenrod intermingle with the round, new buds of a dogwood. The delicate leaves and blue blossoms of bird’s eye speedwell break through a thick, crusty layer of leaves that last year crowned the branches of nearby hickories, oaks, and maples. Yesterday: meet today. Or is it the other way around? To me, it is a reminder that time is not a straight line, that there are few clean endings or beginnings, and that what is behind us is never really left behind.
The warmer weather that has been hounding us most of the winter surpassed itself over the long weekend, bursting into a series of summery days that resulted in a) lots of human activity and b) lots of human trash. My elbows are still recovering from the weight of the garbage bags that I had to carry home, and I have far more recyclables than my 2 bins and bi-weekly collection schedule can manage. While I usually take a sort of housekeeperly pleasure in cleaning around the river, weekends like these are overwhelming. It’s frustrating to have to leave things behind (such as a stash of cans squirrelled beneath a log) simply because I don’t have enough bags to hold it. That’s when I remember that this is a job that is never finished. Like laundry. (Actually, I found some of that, too).
Two days of collecting were particularly intensive. On the first of these, the boys and I encountered a fire circle with one log still so smoking hot that it took little more than a dry leaf to reset it aflame.
After we hauled the log farther into the water, I set about gathering a case’s worth of beer cans, a six-pack of bottles, and other such picnicky miscellany. I couldn’t help but see the irony in having to clean up yet more Budweiser “America” beer cans, which have splashed across them the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, a song that highlights the natural beauties of the United States. (For the song’s history, see the concise NPR story http://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land). Yes, indeed, this land is for you and me. I wish that we could all remember that. And behave that way.
On the second day, I found an entire campsite’s worth of garbage. Literally. A tent had fallen down an eroded bank into the water below, along with a slew of cans and food wrappers, mostly submerged in mud and impossible to extricate. As I filled up all three of the bags I had brought and two more bags that I found, I was grateful for the broken, soft-sided cooler, which served as an excellent trash receptacle after I dumped the muck that had accumulated inside of it. To reach the makeshift site, I had to ford the river twice, which, since my five-foot frame was so weighed down, required that I carry everything back in shifts.
All of this activity managed to startle a fox, who zipped past me in all of his sly regalness. He wasn’t twenty feet away, but my hands were too full to grab my camera. Perhaps it was the campsite that had attracted him in the first place. It’s hard to tell. But he didn’t appear drunk, and there was very little but alcohol left to consume. I, unfortunately, stank with beer that dribbled from the cans as I collected them, and I’m pretty sure that the odor, combined with my bag-lady appearance, is what earned me a few nervous stares from families with small children on my way home.
Especially when it’s windy, as it has been the last few days, the woods can feel alive. I think I hear a door creak, only to turn and realize that it’s two trees rubbing against each other. Or a rustling in the leaves beside me suggests footsteps, but it’s only a fallen branch. Occasionally, of course, there really are deer watching me or squirrels racing through the brush, but usually I’m alone, surrounded by the tall, silent sentinels of the forest. Perhaps that’s why it’s eerie when they do seem to come alive. I suppose, to some, faces on trees are whimsical (hence those kits that can be bought in gardening catalogs), but in fiction they are just as likely to be foreboding. So what am I to think of this?
To me, that tree looks a little angry. Perhaps I would be, too, if a woodpecker — likely the prehistoric-looking pileated, no less — had been pounding on me. In another part of the woods, I found some sort of mythical beast, too nondescript for a hydra, but fantastic all the same. It’s not hard to remember being five when I encounter such things.
But, as when I was small, I have only to step into the light and remind myself of who I am. It’s like a variation on a favorite rhyme: “I see the tree, and the tree sees me.”
Despite a day or two of cold and a recent dusting, this has been a decidedly warm and un-white winter. And spring is coming quickly; already I’ve heard the territorial whirr of a red-winged blackbird, and violets and celandines are sprouting beneath last year’s crispy leaves. It’s likely, then, that this winter will remain the winter that really wasn’t. I could mourn this (and, honestly, I do), but I can also make do with what the river and woods will give me: a rainbow done in shades of brown.
Recently, in the heart of the “island,” I made what has become one of my favorite discoveries: a fallen tree, debarked, drilled upon, and worn away by weather, animals, and fungus. It is like a massive canvas, revealing masterpieces frame by frame.
They are mostly Impressionist pieces, I think, or perhaps Expressionist. I can see Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” to name two more famous works. Another fallen trunk I found assumed an altogether different color and texture, slightly more Cubist, perhaps, a tree trunk reassembled:
Then, we can move on to something equally textured and also, thanks to the mud left by recent rains, brown. Also decidedly Modern. Our trash:
So, I think that my younger dog, Rosie, might be planning her escape.
As I was getting prepared for our walk a few days ago – gathering trash bags, putting on my coat, jangling leashes – instead of presenting herself at my feet, as she usually does, she rushed upstairs. A little puzzled, I snapped the harness onto my older dog, Poppy, and waited. A few moments later, Rosie reappeared, but with an old, dried up, edible “chewie” in her mouth. I said to her (because I regularly talk to my dogs, cat, and any other living thing that happens to be in my vicinity, including myself), “We’re going on a long walk, don’t you want to leave that here?” But, as I reached to take it from her, she respectfully turned her head away. “Suit yourself,” I shrugged. As my older dog loves to carry things in her mouth, the situation didn’t seem too strange, and I figured I would just put the “chewie” in my pocket when she got bored.
About a half mile later, however, at a divergence in the path to the river, Rosie turned onto the less-traveled dirt trail, found a stone, and began digging a shallow hole just beside it. When she reached her preferred depth, she dropped the “chewie” into it, snuffled, and proceeded to nose dirt, leaves and other dried plant matter over it until the hole was filled. Now, I should note the Rosie has lots of these little stashes in our back yard. Occasionally she unearths them and returns them to the house in their slightly soggy, rotten state (another good reason never to buy rawhide). This is the first time, however, that she has ever stored something off of our property.
So, yes, I’m a little suspicious. She’s a nervous dog who’s been acting just a little too nervous lately. And I know she’s done with me holding her back from all those wild animals out there, so tantalizingly close, taunting her with their heady scents. Like those white-tailed deer we came upon on the island yesterday: a whole herd of them, and I wouldn’t let go of the leash, even to take this poor video:
That’s Rosie’s bark at the beginning, when it looks as if I’m going to fall over.
I can’t blame her, really, when the deer are so clearly out of control. I found a hoofprint just inside of the boys’ shelter (which Rosie, therefore, considers hers), so who knows what they’re getting up to when we’re not around?
Although I am guessing that, even though there was evidence that they were eating and sleeping nearby, this was not their empty pint of gelato: