Matt Dickerson: Taking to the woods; reflections on the morning after
Last weekend I took to the woods.
Ever since I was a child, the woods have been my retreat. If I had a bad day at school, I’d get off the bus, trudge the quarter mile up our quiet road, drop my books in the house, and head out the back door over the hill to a quiet ledge beneath the trees. There I would let the solitude — the majesty of a grove of old oak trees, the playfulness of the squirrels, the carefree singing of chickadees and nuthatches, and maybe just the life of the soil beneath my back — seep into me and refresh my spirit.
Interestingly enough, my response to good days was fairly similar. Drop my books off. Scavenge in the kitchen for an afternoon snack. (There were almost always cookies to be found at my house.) And tromp off in one direction or another to explore, or play, or just sit quietly.
I had plenty of choices for direction. I grew in the middle of a thousand acres of undeveloped woods in a quiet New England town. If it wasn’t the ledge overlooking the pond, it might be the overgrown orchard across the street. I still have a vivid memory of sitting on the stonewall one day and having a mink pop its head up right below my feet, stick out its long neck and gaze at me curiously.
Sometimes I’d see deer in the meadow just past the stonewall. There were not many in my rural town in the 1970s, and I never saw turkeys. In the years since I’ve left, the town has grown up some — become less rural and more suburban. And with more people have come more deer. The turkeys have rebounded too. But in those days, the sight of a deer was a rare treat and well worth the wait. I’d sit for hours hoping to see one. Or a fox. I saw more foxes than deer. Even rabbits brought delight.
There were also two marshy frog ponds where springs bubbled up from the ground. I could start at either one and follow the brook from its source downstream for hours before coming to a house. I’d build dams or bridges, float boats, or catch frogs. Whatever I did, when I went home for supper after a couple hours in the woods I felt better. If I had started in a good mood, the good mood was amplified. When I was feeling bad, the woods seemed to cleanse away some of that badness.
I was feeling the need for the quiet and refreshment of the woods last weekend. I sat in a stand in the trees beside a meadow and watched and listened. The day was chilly, but clear and dry. Although I enjoyed the solitude, and a certain sort of quiet, the woods were actually far from silent. At the first hint of dawn, I heard turkeys coming down from the trees just up the slope. Some rattling of branches. Then a few soft clucks as they located one another in the faint light of pre-dawn.
Then it was quiet for an hour or so. I thought they must have sensed my presence and headed off in another direction. But eventually I heard their scratching. It grew louder. One by one, 11 big bearded birds came waddling down the slope straight toward me, rooting along the ground as they came, searching for nuts or insects or whatever else they could find.
Because the forest floor was littered with crisp, freshly fallen, crackling leaves, the turkeys made plenty of noise as they scavenged. They circled around me for 40 minutes, until I finally moved. Then they scampered off over the ridge on the far side from where they had appeared, almost as noisily as they had first appeared.
Indeed, for all the quiet I felt in my soul, nothing moved along the ground without making a sound. I listened to squirrels scampering about. You could hear a squirrel in those woods a hundred yards away. And there were plenty to hear.
When a doe came bolting over the hill at full speed, the thunder of her hooves landing in the dry leaves got my attention fast. I had a pretty good idea why she was running. Romeo followed not far behind. He was pretty determined to catch her. And she was just as determined not to be caught. Down from one ridge, across my valley, and up the next. They were gone within seconds. All part of the loud quiet.
When the quiet is deepest, even individual leaves tumbling down through the branches are audible. Woodpeckers hammered out rhythms, sometimes in stereo. Overhead, crows squawked as they passed. I half expected to hear geese higher overhead, belatedly flying south. On rare occasions I have seen bear, coyote, and fishers pass beneath me, adding to the quiet.
No bear, coyote, fishers, foxes, or geese this Saturday. But that was okay. For a little while, the clock was turned back 40 years. I was a 13-year old after an unpleasant week at school escaping in the solemn stillness.
Yes, it is true that when I took to the forest on Saturday, I had my 30.06 deer rifle with me. I was wearing safety orange. And among the sounds I heard were a few muffled rifle shoots echoing off the hills around me. But the reality is, the vast majority of times I walk in the woods with my rifle, I never squeeze the trigger. Certainly I always hope to get a chance to harvest some free-range hormone-free antibiotic-free wild venison. But whether or not that hope pans out — and odds are against it — I will still have a few priceless hours to soak in the peace and solitude.
So last weekend I took to the woods. I carried some weight out there with me. I left a little of it behind. But tomorrow morning I think I’ll take another load out there. Maybe I can bring some of the quiet back instead.