Except for the snow-covered dead of winter, the woods are rarely silent. Leaves crunch under each step. A woodpecker knocks in search of a morning meal. Chipmunks scratch across moss-covered logs. Acorns cascade down from the canopy, pinging off branches before landing softly on the forest floor. If they’re lucky, they’ll be found by an industrious squirrel, buried beneath the ever-changing layer of life that underlies the woods, and then forgotten to someday become one of the forest elders.
It is among these elders, amid the chorus of nature, that I often hear the voice of the woods and find my clarity. Before joining in the consumer chaos of Black Friday with millions of my fellow Americans, I chose to fill myself with nature’s cold, exhilarating breath and listen to what she had to say.
I found my way down to the receding water’s edge, the path blurred by a monotonous carpet of fallen leaves. Looking back through the woods, the sinuous shadow of the ravine belay the years of water draining through the woods into the lake. The trees leaned inward, the closer to the ravine the more influenced by history’s erosive effects. I wondered how many of the people whose paths I’d later cross live a less-than-upright life through no fault of their own.
The morning sun shone from the south, filtered through thousands of trunks and the stark architecture of a million branches whose leaves now lay in a faceless mass underfoot. A few of their stalwart compatriots clung to twigs, delaying their inevitable return to the earth. The sun illuminated one curled bronze leaf, no different than the millions already fallen, yet somehow more brilliant because it was seen in a different light.
Invisible for much of the year, ferns remain the only green, revealing groundwater seeps along the ravines. I stood and stared at this fern for a while, listening to what it had to say. Once cold creeps its way through the woods, dissolving most of the summer’s lushness, the ferns show their resolve. It whispered in a humble, yet confident, voice, “Didn’t know I had it in me, did you?”
At the water’s edge, hibiscus seed heads stand exploded atop lifeless stems, five hirsute fingers of a spent star in which the seeds of its future grew. A scattering of black seeds the size of small peppercorns remained, but most already had sprung from the heart of the pods. Had they fallen to grow alongside their parent or been carried to a new home along the shoreline?
A skim of ice reached out a few feet into the cove, broken by leaves waiting for the rays of the sun to release them from their temporary stasis. One leaf seemed to levitate over the ice, as if frozen by its own reflection below. How often have I found myself looking at my own reflection, frozen by the history that reflects back, waiting for my own ray of sunshine?
I worked my way back up the ravine, and followed the trail to the edge of the woods. The tips of a scraggly old hickory glowed like candles in the sunlight, brown flecks within the leaf scars the only lasting evidence of the season past. These scars may heal over and become less distinct as time passes, but the tree will carry them forever.
Before I turned toward the house, the old hickory gave me pause.
“Don’t walk away with scars in your heart. The leaves that once grew where those scars remain produced the food that I now store for the future. Walk away with the hope that is bundled in my buds.”