Since I’ve been thinking about eagles and Ohio quite a bit recently, I thought I’d share this excerpt from one of my thesis essays, titled “I Put My Faith In Birds.” Continue reading
An excerpt from a recent paper I wrote for my creative non-fiction environmental writing class. Continue reading
In May of 2014 it will have been five years since I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University. Five. That’s a long time, and yet not. I feel like I haven’t done that much. Which is silly. I’ve done a lot. Which is why it took me so long to write my Reunion Note. I love how they gave three lines to “describe what you have been doing since your last reunion (use back side if needed).” Hahaha…. Right. I’m not even sure I could list all the places I’ve lived in the past five years on three lines, let alone what I was doing in each place.
I spend a ridiculously long time writing this reunion note, mostly because I allowed myself to get distracted by what-have-you on the internet (and by working, and by climbing things). I’m not sure if this is a good sign for grad school, that it takes me three days to write less than a page about myself. How will I manage to write actual papers on topics that aren’t me? Oh man. Guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
So I thought I would share this with everyone here, since I’m assuming that most of my audience won’t be purchasing the OWU Reunion Yearbook this year. It was also a great excuse to go through some old pictures.
Ohio Wesleyan University Alumni Weekend 2014
Reunion Note Form
Classmates can find me on Facebook:
(If you’re feeling extremely bored, just search “Lauren Smith,” and see how long it takes you. I may or may not be in the first 3,000 people that come up).
Please describe what you have been doing since your last reunion.
Since graduating from Ohio Wesleyan in 2009, Lauren has been all over the place. She has only once spent 6 months straight living in the same state, and it was a very odd experience. Working as a field biologist and an environmental educator, Lauren has lived in eight different states and one Canadian province. Most of her jobs have involved working with wild birds, though she has also been known to walk dogs and scoop ice cream (and no, she did not go to a special ice cream scooping school, she’s just that good).
When she’s not climbing trees to study red-cockaded woodpeckers, getting charged by moose, explaining bird migration to small children, or getting pooped on and/or bitten by songbirds, Lauren is usually outside.
When she’s outside and not working, she likes to climb rocks, go for long hikes, and look at birds. Sometimes she does go inside, and then she usually writes things, mostly for her blog: Tales from a Wandering Albatross (@wordpress.com)*.
Lauren tends to travel as often as she can, both domestically and internationally. She is particularly fond of road trips through the American West and of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. The other parts of Asia she visited were also pretty cool.She also really likes southern Utah.
This summer (starting May 2014) Lauren will be going back to Jackson, Wyoming, to work with the Teton Science Schools as an avian research technician, where she will be primarily banding songbirds and secondarily educating visitors about bird banding and migration.
In August of 2014 she will start graduate school at The University of Montana in the Environmental Studies program, with a focus in Environmental Writing.
*Yep, I totally just put a link to my own blog in there. Which hopefully you found, since you’re reading this on said blog… But, you know, just in case you needed help finding the home page, or wanted it opened in two tabs. You’re welcome.
What is your favorite Ohio Wesleyan memory?
I’m particularly fond of my memories of banding birds in Jed Burtt’s backyard. I have no idea why I decided to sign up for his freshman honors tutorial, The Microbiology of Birds. At the time, I wasn’t particularly interested in birds or their microbiology (and I might not have known exactly what microbiology referred to), but it sounded intriguing and I didn’t know any better, so I signed on.
I can say with absolute certainty that this particular class influenced both the rest of my time at OWU and the rest of my life. It was that class that sparked my interest in birds, a spark that has turned into at least a Medium Fire Severity burn (standing trees are blackened but not charcoal; roots are alive below 1 inch; duff is consumed—I like birds, but other things can be interesting too).
The research project I started in that class led to a number of ornithology conferences, where, in addition to learning about extremely useful things like hummingbird wing morphology and duck penises, I became much more confident in my public speaking and was exposed to the ornithological research community. That project also led to my zoology departmental honors thesis on parrot feather coloration (I’ll spare you the details), which hasn’t really led to much yet but sure looks good on my resume.
I had no idea then that I would go on to spend the next few years after graduation studying birds all over the country. Every time I set up a mist net or hold a Black-capped Chickadee in my hands, I am reminded of Jed and all that he’s done for me. Thanks Jed. You’re awesome.
Jed also makes superb spice cake, which may or may not have been the main reason I agreed to come back and mentor the freshman tutorial as an upper classman. I’m not ashamed to admit that I can be motivated to do a great deal for food. Especially Jed’s spice cake.
Please include a current photo with your reunion note.
Let’s go OWU!
My sister Megan is the Queen of Goodwill. That’s a fact.
Abba even did a song about her:
*The song was written a few years ago, she’s not 17 anymore. ** These might not be exactly the lyrics to the song. But they should be.
Ooooo she’s a Thrifting Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen*,
Thrifting Queen, feel the beat from the tambourine (oh yeaaaaahhhh)
You can shop, you can buy, having the time of your life, (oooooo ooooo oooo)
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Thrifting Queen.” **
And now hopefully you have that extremely catchy tune stuck in your head. You’re welcome.
She took part in the Something to be Found blog’s March Reader Thrift Challenge. Check out her entry, and then vote for your favorite! (Which is #4, Megan. Obviously.)
Here are a couple pictures of her entry:
And here is the link:
Vote for Megan!
Cause she’s awesome and finds cool junk at Goodwill and makes it look pretty!
Which does indeed take some skill, let me tell you.
Meg, you rock!
Recently, a friend of mine asked me what I say when people ask where I’m from.
Ohio, I promptly replied. That’s easy.
It’s where I was born and raised, and where my car is licensed, and where my family lives. I still consider it home base, even though I haven’t lived there in a few years. That keeps the answer simple, since I’ve been moving around so much and have lived in something like eight different states and a Canadian province in the past five years. The longest I’ve ever stayed in one place since finishing my undergraduate degree was six months.
Which makes the upcoming prospect of grad school, and being stuck in the same place for two years, somewhat daunting. I try not to think about it that much.
I’m also trying to work on my vocabulary, and to use works like “have the privilege of living in ___ place” instead of “stuck.”
It’s all about the vocab.
And speaking of vocab…
For the past few weeks I’ve been reading my way through Siberia, via Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. It’s a great read, the only reason it’s been taking me so long to finish is that I keep getting distracted by other things, like Christmas (just one more page Mom, then I’ll come down and open presents!), New Years, family, driving back to Colorado from Ohio, starting a new job at an ice cream store here in Boulder… I know, I know, excuses, excuses. (But if you’re in Boulder you should come visit me at Glacier Ice Cream, I work at the Baseline store).
I’d read some of Frazier’s other writing in various magazines (most recently in Outside Magazine’s 25th anniversary book, which came out in 2002- since I get my books at used bookstores and Goodwill, they’re not usually recent releases. But good writing is timeless, so who cares?), and so when I saw this book at Goodwill, I snatched it up.
And yes, the guy on the front cover is in fact missing a few clothing items from the waist down. Which I imagine would be a bit chilly, given that he’s hiking in snow-covered mountains. Good thing he has boots on. And no, I didn’t pick the book based on the cover photo. I didn’t even notice until I got home, actually.
Now, you’d think a book called Travels in Siberia wouldn’t mention Ohio all that often (or maybe never), but you’d be wrong. Frazier grew up in Ohio, and mentions it a number of times throughout the book, including comparing the smell of Russia to that of Akron, Ohio in the 50’s. He also mentions Hinckley, which was part of my school district, and Buzzard Day:
Then one day I remembered a notable fact about the small rural town of Hinckley, Ohio. Every year in March, on or near the same day, flocks of buzzards [turkey vultures, for those who need to be scientifically accurate] arrive in Hinckley. Tourists gather annually to watch this event, and over the years it has given the town some small fame. People in Hinckley say that this convocation of buzzards began back in the nineteenth century, when Hinckley was a frontier town. The local farmers, wanting to tame the still-wild neighborhood, staged a big encirclement and drove all the predators to the center, where they killed them in heaps. Soon news of this bonanza reached buzzards all over, and they came to Hinckley and feasted. They’ve been coming back in March ever since, just in case.”
Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia
Frazier also remarks on the frequency of Ohioans who ended up in Siberia and wrote books about it:
In these early railroad years, when the Trans-Siberian was being built and just after, a lot of people from the American Midwest traveled in and wrote books about Siberia. As a Midwesterner myself, I pause to take note of this phenomenon. Adventurous sorts from Illinois and Indiana made trips by land, river, and rail, mostly for business but some for pleasure. The number of travelers from the state of Ohio alone is statistically off the charts… [lists Ohioans who have traveled to Siberia and written books about it, which I’m not going to bother typing out as it’s about half a page]…
That’s five people from Ohio visiting and writing about Siberia in the space of fifteen years, or an average of one Ohioan every three years. How can this oddity be explained?…
…perhaps something unknown in the flat, open landscape of the middle of America produces in a few of its citizens a strange affinity for the vastness of Russia.”
Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia
Or, perhaps there’s another explanation.
Remember the picture going around the internet about the number of astronauts from Ohio?
Before the moon was an option, there was Siberia…
Now I love Ohio, I really do, but I am writing this from Colorado. It’s not Siberia, or the moon, but it’s not exactly next door, either.
Don’t be offended Ohio, but you don’t have any real mountains, so I can’t stay. Sorry.The mountains are calling, and I must go. Or stay, rather, as I’m already here and can see the Flatirons out the kitchen window from where I sit here at the counter.
And to leave you with a song that always makes me think of home:
Ohio, by Over the Rhine
Hello Ohio, the backroads,
I know Ohio, like the back of my hand
Alone Ohio, where the river bends
And it’s strange to see your story end
My Jasper kitty died on Easter. My dad called me two days later to tell me. I was in a coffee shop, working. I could tell as soon as I picked up that something was wrong, so I went outside. I thought maybe it was one of my grandparents, but it was my kitty. My Jasper kitty, who got hit by a car sometime on Sunday. They found him after they came home from my grandparent’s house for Easter dinner.
The grief was immediate, and I had to focus hard to keep from curling in a ball on the sidewalk and bursting into tears. I succeed, and we discuss other things, distractions, my job this summer, tax rebates. I’m good at keeping things sealed away, keeping my emotions hidden deep inside, pretending I’m not breaking, that my heart isn’t sobbing. There’s nowhere to go to let it safely out, nowhere to be alone to comfort myself. I need to run away, but I can’t. I wait until I’m in the shower that night, so no one else can hear me.
I hate these phone calls. You know they’ll come, eventually, but you like to pretend that they won’t. I’ve had two others, both about kitties. My mom called me about Furball during my internship in North Carolina, while I was grocery shopping. I didn’t get phone service up in the mountains where the bunkhouse was, and she wouldn’t tell me over the phone, just that something bad had happened and she wrote me an email (by the way Mom, not a fan of this method). So I had to finish my shopping, then drive the half-hour up the mountain to the bunkhouse, desperately trying not to worry but concocting all sorts of scenarios. I forced myself to put everything away before I checked, because I knew I wouldn’t want to after.
Furball was my first kitty, the one from the litter I had named (I was maybe 4 or 5, and Furball was the best I could do at the time). He was a sleek black panther of a kitty, with a semi-regal air. He liked to lick your hand while you petted him, and had a great purr. He was 19 years old, an old man, and I distinctly remember that just a few days earlier I was thinking about how much I was looking forward to curling up with him on the couch in front of the wood stove when I got home next month. The neighbors across the street found him in their backyard, and the conclusion was that something had gotten him and dragged him over there.
I grabbed my coat and ran out the door as far as I could get away from the bunkhouse, which wasn’t all that far but just far enough, and sat on the ground in the woods, in the dark, and cried. I remember looking up at the stars, which were brilliant up there in the mountains, so far from the lights of town. It took awhile, but eventually it was okay.
I remember when I got the phone call about Tiger, Furball’s mom, who had adopted us when she was pregnant. I was a sophomore in college, standing in front of my desk, in the middle of working on a lab report (not sure why I was standing, I didn’t normally work standing up, but I remember I was standing and gripping the back of my desk chair). She was old and tired and sweet, and went gently in her sleep. It didn’t hurt as much, knowing this. But still, it was hard to focus that day.
Molly, the yellow lab we had while I was growing up, died when I was in middle school (this was back in the day before we had cell phones, and before I left home). We grew up together, she and I, and I spent a great deal of my childhood running around in the woods with her. She had cancer, a large tumor in her stomach. It was awful, but I remember very clearly thinking that if Molly wasn’t in Heaven, I didn’t want to go either. If we don’t see the ones we love, all the ones we love, then why go? I like to think she’s up there running around and playing with my cousin, but she wasn’t especially affectionate in this life so I’m not sure why she would be in the next. She’s probably pigging out to her heart’s content on steaks and chocolate cake and hickory nuts (she never got sick, which was fairly impressive for someone who would eats napkins, cupcake wrappers, or anything that smelled vaguely like food. She also would stand in the yard and crack hickory nuts with her teeth and eat them, shell and all).
It’s all the little things that bring it back, like knowing that Jasper’s hairs are probably still all over the comforter on my bed at home, and that once they’re gone there won’t be anymore to replace them. I haven’t been home in two months, and now I desperately miss having his blond hair all over my clothes.
He won’t wake me up early in the morning with his meowing outside my second-story bedroom window to be let inside, which means I have to take out the screen so he can come in. He won’t be there to sleep on my feet, or cuddle on my stomach as I fall asleep, won’t be there to snuggle in my twin-sized bed with our yellow lab Bogie, the two of them curled up back-to-back, or side-by-side, Jasper with one paw reaching out and touching Bogie’s back. He won’t be there to look up at me with that slightly annoyed look when I squeeze myself in at bedtime, nudging him out of the way so I can stretch out my legs.
No more Jasper on the couch in the evening, watching television, or curled up on the window seat, napping. No more Jasper trying to get up on the counter, even though he knows better. No more Jasper going on walks in the woods, going off to investigate something and then bounding along the path to catch up, not wanting to be left behind, but then loping just past, pretending that he was running to smell that tree, not to be with you.
I want to always remember the way he smelled, like no other cat I’ve ever had rub their butt in my face. Like a combination of loam and cat, if I’m remembering the smell of loam correctly. He smelled like nature, like the joy of being outside, a slightly unusual smell, but one that always made me happy.
Jasper kitty, I love you, and while we didn’t have nearly enough time together I’m so so glad you came into our lives and we into yours. Thank you.
Because we just had more than a foot of snow dump on us here in Boulder (and I think there’s more coming), I thought I’d share this piece. It was written more than a few years ago while I was in college, while sitting in a coffee shop at a Kroger grocery store, watching the snow fall outside and my friend take a nap.
The snow falls outside. A sleeping face. Gentle twitching in the grey light. Ruffled red feathers on the branch. The feeder sees good business on these days. Chickadees move from branch to branch to feeder. Still only long enough to select the perfect seed. Everything is covered in a white powder, white, lightly frozen air. White cold. White nothing.
The face turns. Eyes flicker, remain closed. Warm socks, hot tea. All still, save the feathers, the snow. Heat inside, cold out. Soothing breath, calm, peaceful. Dark lashes, like feathers, on a lighter face. Deep footprints, shallower, filling imperceptibly. Cold magic. Large hands folded, resting. The snow piles higher. Red, blue, brown jostle for space. Chickadees are polite, waiting their turn. Cardinals come and go as they please, leaving the others to their mess. The snow falls sideways. It sticks to the side of buildings.
Brown eyes open to the grey, the white, the cold. They close, a more comfortable position. The foot moves, subdued by eventual rest. Footprints are gone, colors are gone, only grey, only white. On the lee side of the feeder, feathers huddle, warm air trapped tight to bodies. Steady warm breath thaws the heart, the soul. The snow falls. Birds feed. Sleeping gently as the snow whispers its way down.
Written while waiting for a friend at Ohio Wesleyan University, Spring 2009.
There are two pine trees, stuck between two buildings, two cement squares of sidewalk. The pines are thin, an arm-span around, or so it seems. No one has hugged them to find out. They are tall, straighter than the warped, old buildings, rising up to bring nature to this between-land, reminders that there is more to the world than brick and stone. At the top, they lean towards each other, branches intertangled in the light.
A girl sits below with a notebook, waiting. Her bench is black, shiny, dark against the pale stone building. She writes, but looks up when a crow rattles in one of the trees. She hears the sound but sees not its maker, the bird sooty with an iridescent powder that makes its feathers gleam in the light. Black is not one color but all colors mixed together, a blended rainbow sitting in the tree, hiding among the green needles.
The girl smiles. She looks up, looking for the crow she knows is there, but sees nothing, just the wind and the sun on the branches and stonework of the buildings. She smiles at the confused look of a passerby, startled by the odd sound.
The girl and the crow, both alone, both waiting, for what? What is there to wait for in this life? Another crow, a partner in sound? A moment? The fleeting pleasure of laughter, the rattle of a crow in the tree tops?
She sits and waits and writes and stares at nothing, at everything, waiting.
Written for my MatadorU course a few weeks ago. The assignment was to write a piece that included dialogue. There were a few other requirements as well, but I don’t remember what they were (other than the 500 word limit) and may have disregarded some of them anyway, so there’s no point in trying to figure out what they were.
I lead the way to the cashier.
“Ok Eric, you go first. Get your wallet out.” It’s already in his hand from the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt. Brown leather, embossed Ohio State logo on the front, bulging with old receipts. He’s the only male I’ve ever met who keeps coins in his billfold.
The cashier rings up his book: Jasotron: 2012. This is how he refers to it, for it’s important to recite the whole title each time the book is mentioned, which will happen hundreds of times in the next few days.
“That’s $17.49.” She is a young college student, in black-rimmed glasses and a cardigan, watching us quietly.
He looks at me over his glasses, one of his usual intense looks, staring into my eyes, waiting for me to re-direct.
“Ok, how are you going to pay?” I ask. “With your debit card or cash?”
“I think I have enough cash.” He thumbs through the bills; ones, a few fives, and two twenties.
“Then get out the right amount,” I say.
He pulls out a $20 bill, stares at it a beat longer than seems necessary, and hands it to the cashier. He won’t, or can’t, look at her. She efficiently completes the transaction.
“Here’s you change.”
He holds out a large hand, chapped and red because he won’t wear gloves or use lotion, and she carefully places the bills and coins into his palm. She puts the receipt between the pages of his book and slides it to him.
“Have a good evening,” she says. He won’t look up or acknowledge her, too busy putting bills and coins in their proper place, tucking his wallet safely away. He stands close behind me while I pay for my book, his nose buried in his purchase.
“Have a good evening,” she says again.
“Thanks, you too,” I reply.
He’s in the autism spectrum, I want to explain. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. He’s 21 and he’s only once gone into a store alone and bought something by himself. He can’t make eye contact with strangers, and only with intense nudging will he speak to them. It used to be worse; now he’ll order for himself in restaurants.
He’s my little brother, and I can’t imagine life without him. He’s frustrating at times, but my life is infinitely richer because of him. He’s funny, he tells jokes. He’s genuine; he never tries to be something or someone he isn’t. He doesn’t know how to be malicious. He can do so much, if only you know how to prompt him along. Just because he appears to be unresponsive doesn’t mean he’s stupid. He can’t communicate. But we’re working on it.
Thanks, I want to say again. Thank you for treating him as you would any other customer. Thanks for trying to look him in the eye and understand.
I want to say this, but I don’t, and we walk out to the car.
On the deck, just outside the sliding-glass door, there are red specks in the snow, either cayenne pepper flakes or blood my younger brother Eric says. Mom puts pepper in the bird seed to keep away the squirrels, and it works. Our cat Jasper caught a dark-eyed junco from the feeders yesterday, played with it on the deck just outside the door. I wish I was strong enough to have gone out and ended its misery. But I’m not.
In my ski jacket, knit hat, scarf, mittens, wool socks and boots, I’m sufficiently bundled to take this walk. It’s 26°F outside. Cold, with a subtly biting breeze. I wish it was snowing. The sky is a bright muted gray, a shade brighter than depressing. I’ve left the dog, an elderly yellow Labrador retriever named Bogie, sleeping on my bed upstairs. I head out alone.
When I first step out of the garage, I hear birds. Close by, I hear the chirrup cheeping of house finches in the brambles, the tapping of a downy woodpecker on a hickory tree, a white-breasted nuthatch deeper in the woods, calling. In the distance there is a crow, brittle cawing muffled by the snowy trees. I hear black-capped chickadees, a cheery dee-dee-dee-dee in the higher branches, maybe 12 feet off the ground. A tufted titmouse flies from the birdfeeder on the deck to a nearby tree, watching me. I see three blue jays, higher up than the chickadees, in the bare branches of an oak. There are woodpeckers, I don’t know what species but probably downys, tapping on trees in three different directions around me. My legs are getting cold, so I keep walking. Haven’t made it past the driveway yet. The snow makes a crisp muffled sound underfoot. I walk towards our barn, which is just in front of the woods behind the house.
In the big pine tree just in front of the barn, maybe 200 feet from the house, I find a family of black-capped chickadees, four birds hopping from branch to branch, just off the ground and then up, higher, midway up the tree, 20 feet up, and then back down, down to where I could reach, five feet off the ground. I walk in the tracks Mom, Eric, and I made with our cross-country skis three days ago. The track edges are soft from the most recent snowfall, just yesterday.
As I walk pass the barn, I look through the tree line to the Medzuich’s yard. They have a horse now, wearing a blanket coat, grazing in a small paddock in their front yard, which is in line with our backyard. Between their yard and the road is a stand of tall pines, easily 70 feet tall. Barred owls regularly show up in these pines, sometimes waking us in the night asking ‘whoo-cooks-for-you, whoo-cooks-for-you-all?’ In high school, I was late for my evening dance class more than once because I was mesmerized by a staring barred owl, sitting midway up a pine on the edge of the stand. I remember when their property was a field, where corn and wheat grew. I remember before there was a horse, a house, a driveway. Eight years ago? Nine? It doesn’t matter.
Behind our barn, colored the classic red of all barns, there are stacks of logs covered in snow, waiting to be split into firewood for next year. The summer after my senior year of high school, when I couldn’t find a job, my dad paid me to paint the barn. It was miserably hot, and the paint would dry on the brush and in the tray before I could get it on the walls. Dad and Eric will use the home-made Frankenstein-looking log splitter, which they bought from the former neighbor across the street, Mr. Barth, to turn the huge log rounds into kindling and pieces suitable for the furnace and wood stove. There are holes in the siding of the barn, where a northern flicker tried to make a cavity or look for insects in the treated wood. Dad wasn’t happy about that. Below the holes, the siding on the back corner of the barn is cracked from where Eric ran into it with the tractor. Dad wasn’t happy about that, either.
I hear a noise and look up to see tundra swans, flying overhead in a check-shape formation; one leg of the V is longer than the other. I count 28. Before this year, I’d never seen flyover tundra swans, not here in the backyard. They spend the summer in the Arctic, and these overhead are heading to the East Coast for the winter. The pond behind our house isn’t big enough to tempt them to land. I wonder if they can even see it, surrounded by the tall hickories, oaks, ash, tulip poplars, and maples that make up the woods.
I take a few more steps and leave the yard, striding onto the path that goes through the woods behind the barn to our small pond. There are sprays of dirt here and there, where squirrels have been digging for buried caches of hickory nuts. In the woods are shorter oaks with pale, shriveled leaves that shiver in the wind.
A dead squirrel is on the path. There are bits of fur in piles, scattered in a foot radius around the body. The tail has been ripped off and the body is twisted into a ball. At first inspection, I though the head was gone, but it’s just curled into the stomach, as if the dead squirrel was trying to sleep. The cold wind blows, making the oak leaves rustle. Crows, two or three, call from the direction of the pond, further off in the gray trees. There is urgent woodpecker tapping behind me, Morse code I don’t understand. The body is frozen hard; I nudged it with my boot. It is a large squirrel, with brown and gray fur, probably a fox squirrel. Any tracks around the body are hidden in the trampled snow of the path, so I have no idea what did this squirrel in. Hawk? Or mammal? And why was it left, not finished off? A squirrel tail can’t be filling. In the cold, you need all the food you can get. It can’t be easy to be a predator in the winter. I get cold again, and move on down the path, further in the woods towards the pond.
My footprints from yesterday contain fresh deer tracks. There are deer tracks everywhere, in paths leading off into the trees, straight lines winding on unknown business. Yesterday I saw two deer bounding away, deeper into the woods behind the pond. Eventually, if you keep going in that direction, you reach the highway. Miles away from our property, but not as endless as I once thought.
I stop and place my bare hand on an oak tree. The bark is soft and corky, and not as cold as I thought it would be. If I push hard enough, in just the right way, I feel I could press my hand inside. Is it warm in the center of a tree? A blue jay calls, once, twice, three, four times. Where are the others? If a tree had a mind, what would it think about?
Even though I am in the woods behind our house, yard, and barn, I can still hear cars as they pass on the road in front of the house, which is only about 3/4ths of a mile away. No matter how hard they try, the birds can’t drown out the sounds of the traffic. I keep walking along the snowy path in the woods, past a deer stand nailed up in a tree. It belongs to the Reininger’s, the neighbors that live behind us, back in the woods. There are inches of snow on top, and it hasn’t been used in years. The deer don’t even try to pretend to be frightened too much anymore.
I continue along, following the path through the trees. There are squirrel tracks in the snow, bounding from tree to tree. The snow is shallower in the woods than it was in the yard, here only a few inches deep, ankle deep. I stare out at the trees, and I hear birds calling. White-breasted nuthatches, crows, black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos. Without meaning too, I note the species, direction, distance. My bones are getting cold. My mind is spread flat on the ground, surrounding the trees like snow cover. Each inhale makes the rims of my nostrils ache. My cheeks feel rosy, red, and raw.
I cross over a trickle of water, a streamlet draining from the lower ground behind the pond to the ravine deeper in the woods, and there are grains of hoarfrost in frozen footprints. The path takes a slight incline up to the pond from here, a mountain if you’re Eric on cross-country skis, five steps to the top. For anyone else, the elevation change of roughly three feet is barely noticeable. Looking up, a black-capped chickadee does aerobatics in the tiny thin bare branches of a nearby ash tree. Three of its friends and family are nearby, watching. I can hear the scrape of the snowplow on bare pavement as it drives by on the road.
The pond is finally frozen solid, with an opaque under-layer to the ice, hoar-crystals on top, looking white and deceptively stable. Once, when we were little, at least a couple feet shorter than we are now, Eric and I fell through the ice by the dock. The ice was solid, but not strong enough to hold our combined weight when we stood next to each other. I pulled him out. I might have been in elementary school, and he’s four years younger. I remember it being cold. The water was dark, black, I couldn’t see my feet hit the bottom.
Leaving the pond behind, I take the path back through the woods, towards the barn, yard, and house, towards the warmth. I’ve never counted how many steps it takes, but I’ve been this way thousands of times. My body knows how long it feels to walk from the pond to the yard, to the house. I measure the distance in body-time, in heartbeats and breaths. Now there are blue jays in the big pine in front of the barn, which fly away once I see them. The feeders on the deck are empty but swaying, something scared the birds off. Me? They’ll return soon enough to eat their cayenne pepper-laced seed. In the garage, I stomp the snow from my boots and head inside.