Walking in the Woods
The first day of spring. The sun smiled down on the earth, warming it with a sweet embrace. The wind whispered secrets softly to the trees, and in response they shuddered with delight and laughter. The sparrows, robins, and juncos joined in the play, lifting their voices in song, chanting their delight, hopping from branch to branch, chasing each other caught in the energy of excitement. The enchanting day demanded to be enjoyed.
My sister, Aleesha, her son, Malachi and I decided to look for antler sheds in the woods and surrounding brush on the back corner of my mother’s farm. We crawled in the truck. Drove up the driveway and turned along the barbed wire fence to the field driveway. We went slowly, hugging the fence on the left side, careful not to wander too much to the right so not to drive on the hay field. We stopped the truck at a pasture gate. We hopped out and walked through the open gate. Our dog, Spencer, had followed us. We wandered through the narrow pasture looking for the perfect spot to crawl under the fence into the wooded, grassy area beyond it. Malachi walked ahead of us, Aleesha was following him until I pointed out a better spot than where Malachi was headed. The fence was a little higher here, the brown, dry brush wasn’t quite as tall or as thick either. Malachi crawled under the fence, Aleesha and I stooped down to do the same. (Spencer had scooted under the fence before we did; he hadn’t been as particular about where to go under as we were). Once on the other side, we chose to walk north and down the hill. Clumps of red cedars and tall grass dominated but some oak trees stood sporadically on the hillside. We looked ever so closely for pieces of shed antlers. I searched half-heartedly, more interested in other things around us. We followed well worn deer paths, sometimes covered in tracks. One path led us to a circle of red cedars. These shrubby trees formed a bedroom providing adequate shelter from wind and rain. The grasses in this small enclosure laid flat against the hillside, suggesting some deer had bedded here. The boughs of the cedars provided ceilings and walls and freshened the chamber with a delicious sent, sweet and tangy. Aleesha and I mentioned it being a bedroom, and I added that if I was a deer, I would sleep here. We saw a fresh den gaping at the base of a cedar further to the north. Judging by its size, we decided it probably was the home of a fox or badger; we thought it too small for a coyote. Sand and clay cascaded in a mound around the hole. After observing it and making our speculations we continued northward and downhill.
We meandered along, heading a little more into the wooded area where ash, oak, elm and other deciduous trees take over. Suddenly I stood still and asked Aleesha and Malachi if they heard it. They asked what I had heard. Off in the distance somewhere a woodpecker hammered away at a tree trunk, drilling a hole, with the hope and anticipation of finding its next meal. After stopping to take some time to listen, we moved on. Green carpet, very thick in some places, began to cover the wood’s floor; I noted at least three species of moss, getting ready to release spores in the spring rains in hopes of another generation to carpet the area. There were a couple of trees serving as homes to shelves of white, brown circular mushrooms growing towards the bottom of the trunk. One tree had a different species of mushroom that were yellow and had flatter heads than those living on the other trees. Some trees acted as hosts to the marriage of fungus and algae forming lichen. Aleesha told me the names of the trees and brush plants (she has a degree in horticulture and landscape design), but I have now forgotten many of them. There was a tree she couldn’t identify. It wasn’t very big or tall compared to most of the other trees. Naked it stood, its clothing of bark strewn about recklessly and quickly thrown off resting about its feet, like the clothes of lovers hastily and carelessly removed and cast aside. I stood observing it for a while longer than Aleesha.
While I was distracted, Malachi and Aleesha walked up ahead of me. Malachi said he found another den, in actuality, Spencer found it first. I was the last to come to the yawning hole. This too appeared rather fresh, but it was slightly larger than the first one we observed. Yellow sand somewhat compacted in areas lay in a heap around it. There had been tracks in the sand but now they were blurred with Spencer’s paw prints. We were all curious to know whose home it was. We discussed sticking our head in, or at least if we had a flashlight to shine it in the hole. But deciding it better to not disturb the resident or be disrespectful we decided against it. We changed directions and headed south, walking along the bottom of the hill.
We had to duck several times to avoid being grabbed by the wispy fingerlike branches reaching out to grasp us, hitting our heads on the branches, and twigs scratching our faces. Not that the trees were trying to harm us or prevent our passing but they grew so close with branches stooping low. Perhaps they were trying to greet us or gently touch us with fingertips in a friendly gesture but, like a hug of a friendly giant, isn’t quite gentle on delicate sensitive human flesh. But the sharp thorns of the prickly ash had no such friendly thoughts in mind, it poked us, tore at our clothes, and tried to bar our way. So we avoided these unpleasant islands as much as possible. On our southerly progress, Malachi pointed out a robin, at first Aleesha and I didn’t see it, so we were a little doubtful that he actually saw one. Then there it was. Plump, fat from meals of earthworms, orange belly in full view, black head turned to observe us, sitting on a high branch. We only watched it for a moment before the next thing caught our attention.
Another thick, dark green, carpet of moss called our notice. It had feathery, star-like patterns of lighter green then the surrounding area of moss (the cracks between the stars). Fascinated we knelt down to touch it, ever so gently as to not harm the moss too much. Having never seen moss quite like it before, Malachi and I asked Aleesha to take a picture of it. We moved on, still searching for sheds. We found several rubs, where bucks had rubbed their antlers against trees, leaving exposed flesh, stripped of bark that had drifted to the ground to rest in tiny piles.
We crossed an open area. Vines, prairie grasses, and berry bushes tangled, brown, and flattened by several feet of snow now gone, were snares for our feet, sometimes attempting to trip us. We walked past a dike to our right (west), holding water in a small pond behind it like a beaver dam. At this point we were in a valley cradled between two hills. After we walked across the large space of prairie (well, what is supposed to be a prairie but is in much need of a burn), we began to climb up again into a more heavily wooded area than what we had previously been in.
Aspen and paper birch mingled. In other places oak dominated. The aspen painted green, silver, and white seemed to shimmer in the sunlight peeking through the bare branches. The white bark of birch peeling away, heaps of shed limbs piled underneath some of the birch. At the base of some of these light colored trees, soft green moss wrapped around the trunk like a grass skirt, the trees seemed like they were preparing to perform some traditional dance. Instead of continuing up hill, we went west toward the pond, dodging bushes and limbs, avoiding tripping on sticks.
As we drew near to the glossy water we heard them playing their instruments. An orchestra of frogs performed, the males calling to attract females. The sound was comforting and soothing, a sure sign of spring. Wanting to see the singing amphibians we moved closer. Shy, and unwilling to perform for such an audience, the band ceased playing as we drew near, all was quiet, not a single member behind the others. We stood very still, and stopped talking hoping the orchestra would start up again so we could find some of its small musicians. But we were to be disappointed. Spencer coming up behind us, dived into the water and somewhat laid in it, making it impossible to find the frogs. So we decided to continue our search for antler sheds taking up the westward course again.
A small stream trickled into the pond. We decided to follow this. Somewhere along the way we found some brilliant blue feathers of a blue jay. Aleesha picked up a couple and gave them to Malachi and he then gave one to me. We followed the clear, spring fed stream a bit further. Dried, several shades of brown, dead leaves littered the ground that was often carpeted in green moss. Rocks encumbered the flow of the stream occasionally making a quiet roar of fairy-sized rapids.
We crossed the stream in three steps careful to use the stones as a bridge to avoid soaking our feet. We started to make our way north back to the truck searching the brush covered hillside as we hiked up the hill. Malachi and Aleesha crawled under the fence; I actually rolled more than crawled under. Not finding any antlers left behind by bucks, we got in the truck and headed back the way we came.
Although we didn’t find what we were hoping to we had a great experience. We found lots of other interesting things along the way. We got up close and personal to nature. And we were able to enjoy nature together and share in experience and knowledge, something far more valuable than just finding antler sheds.
– Experience of Nature, 2010