“ ”Healing,” Papa would tell me, ”is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature.” ” – W. H. Auden
Morning in the woods. The first sounds are the sweet warblings of robins, still distant and dreamlike as they shake off the cobwebs of slumber, as if heard coming from the end of a distant tunnel. Soon cardinals join, then a song sparrow, and more robins; the chorus grows louder, the end of the tunnel much nearer; it’s an official invitation to join the celebration of dawn. I cannot resist, and willingly trade the warm comfort of my sleeping bag for the promise of first light.
I stand outside my tent in the lightening pre-dawn, my frozen breath like steam from a locomotive, but insulated from the cold by a layer of down, same as the birds. The chorus is a cacophony now, with phoebe’s phoebe-ing, grackles growling, red-winged blackbirds croaking and red-bellied woodpeckers trilling their shivered “brrrrrrrr.” There is a buzzing in the forest, an excitement; after a long cold winter, it is official – spring can no longer be denied!
A hundred paces from camp is a lake, and I sit on its rocky shore as the horizon to my right glows brighter. It has been too long since I have sat and enjoyed such a morning, my life turned upside down and inside out and then tossed into the dryer tumbler. But I feel I’m out of the dryer now, still woozy and a bit disoriented, but at least on my own two feet and on solid ground.
A kingfisher rattles by and alights on a nearby branch. She flies awkwardly, in undulating fits and starts, almost workmanlike, and certainly not gracefully; and even when perched her head seems exaggerated by her crest and her bill too bulky and long. I too have felt so awkward in so many of my new roles, getting done what needs done workmanlike and through a sheer force of will, but longing for the day when there might be a bit of grace in what I do.
And there is a sense this morning that this grace is coming. Maybe it is already here, and I’ve just been too busy to notice as it seeps up into my being through the unavoidable immersion of just doing, and lately, of acceptance. Just as water fills the molecular gaps in a sponge when simply given enough time; you can’t see it happening but eventually the sponge is heavy with water and the puddle is gone.
Suddenly the kingfisher throws herself from the branch, letting gravity accelerate her plunge. Her heavy bulky beak leads, pierces the air aerodynamically, accentuated by her crest thrown back and wings folded into the perfect diving machine, an Audubon painting come alive. Her beak pierces the water surface silently, skillfully, perfectly, the ker-plunk of her wings coming too late to warn the minnow whose tail now wiggles in her beak as she emerges from the water and flies off directly into the rising sun. A king fisher indeed! There is no awkwardness at all as she demonstrates her grace in doing what a kingfisher does best.
The sun breaks the horizon and the lake surface is painted gold, the puffy clouds pink. It is mostly overcast today except for the window where the sun is rising. I am grateful for the gift, and the warmth of gratitude is better than even my comfy sleeping bag. I reflect that I have so much to be thankful for…
My boys are sleeping comfortably in the tent, little Trevor’s mouth open and nose upturned, his head poking out of his sleeping bag, and messy-haired Jake, my budding young man, nestled deep in his bag. They are so adorable when sleeping, and bring me a reminder of the pure joy of them sleeping on my chest when they were just peanuts.
We have had a rough adjustment at times, this new family of all boys, and only through (often painful) trial and error have we arrived at this new level of comfort and respect – and yes, love! – that we have all enjoyed on this camping trip. Trevor wormed and shimmied his way into my arms in the middle of the night, spooning into the perfect position until we both enjoyed our shared warmth and comfort in the cold dark night. And Jake, my firstborn, has taken on a new role of helping me and a responsibility that I didn’t see coming, and for which I am truly appreciative; he even returned my embrace and hugs as we sang and danced around the campfire at night as Trevor lit up the woods in an explosion of light fueled by armfuls of dried leaves. Joy!!!
Last night we also enjoyed the ultimate campfire comfort food of smores, made the way they are supposed to be made, with white goo oozing out of a blacked marshmallow shell dangling from the end of a whittled stick, graham cracker and chocolate claws pinching it into the sweetest sandwich. They were brought to camp last night by angels, and my boys lit up enjoying them, as if some small void they didn’t even know they missed had been filled and they suddenly remembered how good it can be.
It’s these little things, these special treats, these little motherly touches, that have been missing most from my boys’ lives as I have struggled to piece things back together these past nine months. They are truly missing the caring, nurturing feminine touch.
But now I get timely reminders to put a “love you” note in Trevor’s lunch and a “don’t forget to thank Jake for doing something on his own” reminders. I have been trying to stretch beyond my masculine limitations, if only for the boys; they still need it. But it has been a hard adjustment that still doesn’t come naturally to me; but it is here now, and it has made a world of difference.
Ear to ear smiles and hearty laughter from the kids lighten the night woods; and these kids deserve all the smiles they can get, after the hell they have endured. It warms my heart more than the campfire. Do angels really come down from heaven? I don’t know. But I do that so many miracles have blessed my life, even now, even if they are just simply these special precious ordinary moments that I thought would never return…
The morning sun shimmers and shakes on the water and wakes me from my prayerful reminiscing and mediation. A speck on the water catches my attention, demanding a closer view through my binoculars. What, can it be? I have to adjust the lenses for a clearer look. Wow, it is a sleek, beautiful striking black and white bird that bobs on the lake, a silky black neck broken by two slashes of white and black ladders and a speckled white and black back – a common loon in fresh, just painted spring plumage!
The bird is anything but common, if you take the time to look closely. It’s beak is a lot like the kingfishers, designed for spearing fish, and the profile of this bird on the water is like a submarine on the surface – in fact when it senses danger its ballast chamber fills with water and its body sinks effortlessly until only its heads remains above water in pre-dive readiness, its beak pointed upward at a 60 degree angle like a skewed periscope. But even from here I can tell that the loons’ grace lies under the water, where it swims like a fish and so much more cunningly and gracefully than it flies or walks.
For this romanticized human, though, a loons’ grace comes from the visions I’ve had of spying on these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, at home on a wooded Maine lake, their primeval yodeling calls the essence of wildness. Perhaps I would be in a canoe in their company, silently cutting the early morning fog, or perhaps I would be sitting quietly on the shore, as I am now, having just emerged to greet the day from a Walden Pond cabin after a night of Thoreuavian contemplation. The difference between my dream and this reality is blurred now, though, for the loon is just as spectacular on this manmade lake on its migration route as it will be in the northern woods. Maybe the vision is more important than the details and the dream, and maybe I just need to be more open to the gifts the universe is sending right now. Again gratitude keeps me warm…
When the loon is finally forced into the depths and shadows by the growing number of fishermen, I head back to camp. A pileated woodpecker, black and white with a red crest, king of the hardwood forest, drums loudly on the hillside. And a colony of yellow-bellied sapsuckers is frolicking in the shagbark hickories that surround our camp. Woodpeckers are one of the few families of birds whose common names reference the belly, like the red-bellied woodpeckers that are working the tulip trees two camps over, as their bellies and back are prominently displayed when you live the vertical existence of a tree climber. And again the sapsuckers are mostly black and while birds, with a slight yellowish belly, certainly not nearly as striking as the scarlet red crest and throat that the males wear and the feature the birds should have been named after.
The birds are creating quite the stir, and if you close your eyes it would not be a stretch to think you are in the jungle. In fact Trevor calls out from the tent, “god, what is making all that noise, a bunch of monkeys?” The commotion rousts him from the tent, and he joins me for some breakfast of butter fried toast, oatmeal, granola bars and camp coffee.
We watch the sapsuckers in the morning light, so much more entertaining that video games or tv (my opinion only!) Trevor tells me he loves the morning sounds of others making camp, pots clanking and utensils rubbing and the low hum of conversation punctuated by occasional laughter, while in the dreamlike state of just awakening, when not fully conscious but not longer asleep. We share a conversation on whether it’s better to have the dinosaurs return to the modern world or to be fried in a nuclear explosion; it’s the kind of conversation you can only have with a nine-year old, and I know to file this away in my gratitude folder. For my part I’ll take the dinosaurs back, for to paraphrase Edward Abbey, wouldn’t it be great to see a T. Rex rearing its head above the Central Park elms with a Morgon police horse in its jaws? Peace laughter and joy, and good company and burnt bread and bad coffee and sapsucker monkeys and glorious sunshine!
Before breaking camp I walk the garbage down to the bin. A little past it is a field, next to the lake, and it draws me to it. Swirling above the field and lake are just returned from their southern wintering grounds blue-green iridescent tree swallows. Occasionally their iridescent backs catch the sun and throw back a shiny dark blue or violet green. Their acrobatics are enthralling, and I watch spellbound. I remember my youthful imagination, discussing with friends what bird I would be if I could be any bird I wanted; swallows were always on my short list, because of the sheer glee they seem to exhibit when flying and twirling and chattering. I’d still take my turn at being a swallow if given the chance, and on magical days like this, you can’t completely rule it out…
Jake is already trading in his childhood fancies for more practical matters (mostly girls!), and T will be soon too. I hope I can get them through the inevitable rough waters ahead as best I can. I hope Jake remembers chasing his brother through the woods for the sheer joy of it, because no one is around and he doesn’t have to be cool or pretend to be what he thinks the world expects him to be; he will have more than enough of these times in the near future. And I hope he remembers singing around the campfire with his dad.
I hope Trevor keeps his vision of dinosaurs romping through a park alive, in the back of his memory, sparked on a quiet camping trip of own someday. I hope it brings him warmth too, for those days when the world casts doubt into him. And I hope sapsucker monkeys will wake him from slumber someday, and the taste of smores and smell of burning leaves will bring him back to this magical day.
I hope that both my boys will continue to have angels to watch over them, both the ones with wings and the ones with boots and special treats, and I hope that they will never be too old to suggest a camping trip with their old man…
And if they are lucky enough, I hope that they find their own angel to walk beside them and share some campfire smores and a walk in the evening woods, and I hope they learn to appreciate these golden moments as much as I do now…
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” – John Muir