Echoes of the Forest
Updated: Jan 7
A light snow begins to fall in the forest. Coming to rest on the boughs and carpeting the now brown pine needles and shriveled ferns. Blanketing the landscape in white silence. In my periphery I sense movement. Slowly turning to see legs moving surreptitiously between young trees. A few more moments. I watch intently as the buck takes three cautious steps into the small opening. Rifle comes to shoulder and a single shot breaks the silence, echoing as he falls. The smell of spent gunpowder hangs momentarily. By many standards he isn't huge, but he's a trophy to me, not only for the food he will provide my family for the coming months, but also because he was taken in a place I love. In an annual gathering of people I love equally.
I've always preferred the woods. I love the mountains and the oceans. There's something magical about the open prairies. I find solace in the rivers. But for me I'm most at home, most alive, in the woods. I long for the oak ridges and pine stands. The damp musk of the cedar swamps. The brilliance of the maples and the smooth strength of the beech. The slashings of aspen and poplar and the bleached bark of the birch.
I owe the roots of these passions to my father. To the seed he planted long ago and then painstakingly watered to fruition. For as far back as I can remember, my extended family camped every summer and fall in the wooded lands of northern Michigan. And I still get nostalgic for the smell of camp in the morning – the coffee brewing and bacon cooking with a just side of wood smoke. And, because of him, I was introduced to hunting when I was 12. He helped me save my paper route money for my first bow, bought me my first camo from the Kmart "up north", and gave me my first folder. Then spent endless patient hours walking the woods and sitting in blinds with me. I, in turn, have done what I can to pass these passions and traditions on to my two boys. Many of my most-favored moments have come outdoors, in timbered groves, with my father and sons and friends. And maybe that's the reason. The forest holds memories. Holds history and meaning. Just like the stories held in the rings of every tree.
In his memoir, "Off to the Side", Jim Harrison penned an incredibly powerful chapter entitled "Hunting, Fishing (And Dogs)". It's a breathtaking work. And while obviously about hunting, fishing (and dogs), it's more so about time, how you choose to spend it, and in what environment. It's about mindfulness and being present. Like Harrison clearly did, I too find myself becoming more conscious of my time, my environments and my company. It is, I suppose, both the luxury and the curse of growing older.
"What are the peculiar landscapes of mind that fueled the decisions behind how I lived my life, and what were the largely unconscious impulses?", Harrison ponders.
"When you map your life in retrospect, there's a bit of blind cartographer at work. It's not pleasurable but you have to see the structure of the way you spend your hours as a palimpsest of time overlaying the whole brutish structure, a four-dimensional topographical map with the fourth dimension being time. Simply enough, what did I do with my time?"
"I mean the life outside the dominating forces of your work, your livelihood, the jobs that offered only in the oldest terms 'room and board'". We often, he goes on to say, "leave out of our life the learning of skills that give us pleasure, except those tied to our livelihood."
"Our true daylight comes when we take some time off and are doing something else radically different enough to get a clear view backwards." And only then, within that new lens, can we "reenter the woods and rivers with a moment-by-moment sense of the glories of creation, of the natural world as a living fabric of existence, so that I'm both young again, but also seventy thousand years old."
As an outdoorsman it’s almost second nature for me to measure time in seasons. The fresh budding of the trees each spring. The green leaves pulling in life through the warm summer days. The slow turn of color in autumn, before silently falling to the forest floor. And then the cold winds blowing through bare branches in winter. Each of these seasons, in turn, is made up of immeasurable small moments. A handful of these moments live on to become the fabric of traditions, the mementos of victories and the vestiges of failures.
At 46, I’m entering the Autumn of my life and, over the years, I’ve collected a fair smattering of these mementos in the outdoors with family and a few close friends. In this season of life, I realize that the people I am with and the places I am in have become far more important to me than the fish I catch, the game I take or the peaks I bag.
Looking down at the deer, I'm grateful for another season in these woods. Where, seasons before, my dad and I walked together, my boys tumbled behind and my dog bounded like a prisoner set free. I am grateful for the quiet that allows me to reenter life with a moment-by-moment sense of the glories of creation. I'm grateful to feel young again but also older, a little wiser, and more present.
With the buck carefully hung on the camp buck-pole, we're out in the barn gathered around the sawmill. Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the cold air. The large fallen beech is running through, inches at a time. The blade is loud, almost feral. We can't talk. Instead, like Leopold, we watch sawdust fall in fragrant chips of history, mesmerized. Inch by inch, exposing a long cross-sectioned plank that will become a table around which meals will be shared and stories will be told. We splash water over the top and then a quick wipe of the hand to expose the grain. The blemishes and flaws marking its beauty.
Only then does it strike me how much this old tree is like my own life. Oftentimes I find myself measuring moments in terms of the crosscut. I find myself counting the rings, reducing the view to a numeric value. But when the tree is cut lengthwise a much more robust picture takes shape. Like this tree, a life is not made up of linear rings, counting years, but rather the long cut, revealing both beauty and blemish over decades. The true grain of an existence.
The din of the saw now silenced, I once again hear the echo of the forest. The past and the present melding as one; the beauty and blemishes. And I am alive.