Seeking Solace in the Woods
October 9, 2022
This year has been a struggle with the construction of the parlor, adapting to it and being short on milking labor; which has brought me to tears countless times and made me feel lonely and taken advantage of by my in-laws. I sought solace and company in the woods today. After a side stop to the orchard for an apple, I went across the empty corn fields and lush hay field, not following the contour but trying to go straight for the woods. I munched on the apple as I walked. The trees were painted in gold, yellow, orange and green.
I began to cry half way out. Can the woods even lift my spirits, as low as they are? I should have followed Jesse’s suggestion to spend time with my family today – why didn’t I go to Mom’s? Whilst walking the cornfield, I had to be careful to step over the corn stalks.
Arriving at the edge of the field, I dropped down, literally on my belly to crawl under the fence. The ground is terrifyingly dry; these perfect autumn days are nice but I hope the drought ends soon. Gopher mounds piled along the fence. I waded across the narrow pasture strip, the grass still long and thick despite the drought. Squatting, I crawled under the barbed wire fence separating the pasture from the woods. A break in the buckthorn granted my passage. I ducked under clawing branches. The late afternoon soon filtered through the leaves and tree trunks. I paused to admire a spider web. A deer crashed through the thick underbrush somewhere below. I stood upon a huge drop off.
I turned left following a deer trail. I was frustrated by how loud my footsteps were. Praying as I walked, I sought God’s presence and comfort, and hoped to find the rock that gave me such joy last week. I ducked under branches, trying to avoid tripping on others that littered the ground. Moss covered rocks and logs lay scattered here and there. At times the trail was steep and I held on to trees. Beauty surrounded me but my heart did not soar. Rock outcroppings. Fallen trees. Squirrels making incredible noise. I stepped on something hard, I looked down and saw the ivory white of a deer antler. I knelt down and picked it up. It had been chewed on recently. I held it close as I continued to walk. Crows and bluejays chattered in the treetops. I heard the twittering of other birds too but couldn’t identify them. A chipmunk scurried here and there and then disappeared. I came upon the rocks and climbed up.
As I sit on the rock to write I am distracted by a squirrel moving about in the leaves. Bounding closer, it stops and shakes its tail. It paws through a pile of leaves, digging with its little hands. Then it quickly moves on. I am so tired my vision is blurry. The woods exude beauty and peace but yet my crushed heart isn’t rising up, it’s so beaten it won’t soar. The antler and chipmunk nearly did it, but alas, even they weren’t enough. The squirrel is making a fuss, squawking like a duck. As the sun sinks lower on the horizon, reminding me I need to head back soon, so too my heart sinks lower and lower. I am also beginning to get cold. I must pull myself out of the woods now. But I really don’t want to leave. A chipmunk disappeared into a hole under a gorgeous rock outcropping that keeps drawing my attention.
I slid my notebook and pencil back into my pack and ambled down from the rock. I returned the way I had come, taking less time to stop and observe.
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An October Walk
October 2, 2022
I set out through the backyard, down the bit of driveway and road to the pasture. Dandelions nicked by the frost had blackened tips. The pasture was full of clover and thick lush grass. Field corn is being chopped on the hill above. The hoodie was a mistake, as the sun beat down I was becoming too warm. It was just past three o’clock when I set out. The trees ahead beckoned me forward, boxelders and oaks. My ankles turned on uneven ground. I observed a honeybee, grasshoppers, and a cabbage moth. I opened a gate, walk a little to the left, downhill near a bur oak, and onward to the edge of the woods. Under the fence? No, the woods are so thick with brambles, blackberry bushes that would snare me. I skirt the fence along the left, turn a little and keep going. Climbing uphill. I take in the trees along the edge, particularly walnut, aspen and birch. I crawl under the fence where the underbrush doesn’t look so thick. I continue onward, following the contour of the bluff, sticking to deer paths. I stirred up a creature, probably a rabbit. Crows chatted. Twigs snap underfoot and branches brush past my shoulders. I step over logs and fallen branches, duck under limbs, and sometimes nearly crawl; rarely do I take an easy route, no adventure in that. I am appalled at the old tires someone long ago stashed here. Dead trees litter the woods. I enjoy the light trickling through the tree branches. A buck rubbed his antlers on a tree along the path. It is so dry. I keep close to the fence line. Sometimes going further away to the right but steer back uphill. I enjoy exploring new territory. I come to a big ravine, going down and up along a fallen tree. My knees ache. My feet slide in the leaf litter. I am so happy to not be milking – I got outside of the basement too!
The valley becomes increasingly deeper, wider, and prettier. Another ravine. A coyote! I just see its retreating back end but am amazed all the same. Exposed bedrock – my heart really stirs at this; rocks and trees. Moss covered dead trees lay here and there. More rocks. As I continue walking, it becomes more evident I am on a bluff. Sometimes I glimpse the pasture through the trees. I crawl up onto a rock – look down a little to my left, my heart elevated, and laugh. Maple trees. I haven’t spontaneously laughed for no apparent reason for ages. Then I laugh and cry, standing on the rock, a strange feeling – relief, joy, perhaps hope, on top of my world. A bird chirps. Our woods are so big it is fantastic exploring new places and this is another favorite spot for me. The woods are where I belong. Hopefully soon I will no longer have to milk eleven times a week, maybe just four and then I can be outside more and write. I am really close to the road now – I can hear traffic going by. The geography had been undergoing a subtle change the further I walked. Now there was more evidence of this being a bluff.
Though I loved the spot and probably could have lingered forever, I put my notebook away, ambled down off the rock and along the path going a little more to the top of the hill. Subtly the contour of the land turned to the left, and I with it. I must be nearing where Therese and I had walked. I took in the trees and the overall beauty of the woods, allowing the healing power of rocks and trees to wash over me. Maples seemed to dominate. A beautiful basswood. Elms too, I think. Oak. Acorns crunched underfoot. I marveled at a hickory, enjoyed the smell of its fruit, and put a couple in my pocket. I found a walking stick from the myriad lying on the ground, I was in need of the support. Despite my aching body, I enjoyed the trek. There are bits of color in the leaves. A deep red stained some of the oak leaves on a nearby specimen. I could see the road – the downside of these woods. I ambled down the steep sides of a modest ravine, checking out trees with mushrooms. Forest floor is strewn with leaves and sticks. I was stunned by the dryness of the soil – we desperately need rain. I love the smell of autumn; moisture would really draw it out. A log provided a bridge across another ravine. I climbed uphill more but not toward the fence line, headed in a westerly direction. Beautiful patch of ferns. Undergrowth is not very thick here. A few dead trees lie on the ground. A handful of white pine trees gather here. I have often wondered in the past year why I married Jesse, aside from the fact he’s amazing, but why a dairy farmer? – I joked to myself, “this is why!”
An old wire mesh fence ran along the edge of the bluff. I can’t believe they used to allow cows in here. I summit the hill and gaze at the view before me. A deep gorge with a pile of rocks falls away to my right. A ravine plunging into it. I had been expecting to find where Therese and I explored, but wait, is this the ravine where Lexie, Isabel and I stopped? I drew closer. Yes, yes, indeed it was. Now I was even more confused as to where Therese and I had been. I ambled down and up the ravine. Down to the edge, to the dropoff of the bluffside. Yes, that was the trail, those were the two white pine trees. Curious.
Well, I wasn’t sure just how long it would take to return, so I turned to head back. Up the bluff, I climbed, soon breathless and puffing, leaning heavily on my stick despite the stabbing pain in my arms. I walked in the pasture since it was faster – the fastest way would be straight over the hill, through the fields but they were harvesting corn so that would be a very foolish idea. First, I had to figure out where to go under the fence. It was so low, I took off my backpack and camera, and crawled on my hands and knees trying to avoid thistles. Backpack and camera once again on, taking up my stick, I continued along the fence line looking for the gate Therese and I had come to, at the same time admiring the trees that were changing color. Stumbling as I walked in the uneven, tall grass. Thinking to myself how I must have looked – an eccentric naturalist. (Did I mention a machete hung from my backpack?) It was a very long walk back – forty minutes with a side stop to the orchard for an apple which I sat down to enjoy in the backyard, watching the harvest of the sweet corn and corn for silage.
Mushroom Hunting with my Niece
September 22, 2022
Today, Therese and I went mushroom hunting in the woods. I hadn’t been out since last October so it was long overdue and great that Therese got me out there.
Instead of borrowing the ranger or a four wheeler to go across the fields to the woods, I had Therese drive us down the highway and pull off at where I thought the old snowmobile trail had been. We waded through tall weedy plants, ducked under tree branches and paused to plot our course. Clumps of horsetail and ferns populated the area, an emerald wood.
“Well, we could go up the trail over there or go up this ravine. Which one do you think we should do?” I asked.
“You know what, let’s go up the ravine, it looks challenging and therefore fun.”
“Okay,” Therese replied in full agreement and eagerness. I ambled up a pile of small boulders and fallen branches covered in moss and plants, struggling at first without being able to grab a hold of something to pull myself up and nearly losing my footing. Therese followed. I was thinking this was the really big ravine that Lexie, Isabel and I went up even though it didn’t look the same, but I reasoned it was because we hadn’t started at the bottom before and it had been April when everything looked different. We were practically rock climbing; fun and exhilarating. I paused momentarily on the ascent to observe the reptilian looking liverwort.
“Mushrooms!” Therese exclaimed, pausing to cut the small oysters off a boxelder tree, placing them into her bag. The stacked rocks were magical, moss and ferns cascading off of them, spiderwebs stretched between. A few leaves here and there. Passed by a few trees on the climb. Therese found a few more small oyster mushrooms. We carefully maneuvered around a tree and continued the steep, upward trek. Once I was up safely, Therese tossed up the bag of mushrooms. They nearly fell back down, I dove and bent backwards to grab them, almost falling over myself.
“Don’t jump over to save the mushrooms; they aren’t worth dying for.”
“Oh come on, you don’t think so? Why not?” I teased. Once Therese was up too, we looked around. “Wow, this is a really nice spot. I like it. This might be one of my new places.”
“Yes, it’s so lovely,” she agreed. We sat down on rocks to just take it in for a few moments.
I looked up into the leafy, green canopy, blue sky above, “I could sit here for hours, I think. I have a snack, water, and a journal; I am good.”
“I could too.”
We sat on the cold stones, soaking in the beauty. Chatting, unfortunately about death; it had been a rough couple of years for me. Therese was a good sport and understood I was struggling. This outing was a balm to me. I set aside these dark thoughts, focusing instead on enjoying my time in the woods with her.
After sitting for about ten minutes, Therese said, “I could stay here all day but I want to look for more mushrooms. We should keep moving.”
“Yeah, we should. And I am getting cold sitting here.” The spot sat in shadow. We stood up to continue our walk. More climbing, how delightful. The exposed bedrock we had to climb was about as tall as me, a bit taller. Moss encrusted a few plants here and there. Both sides of the narrow, shallow ravine were crowded with vegetation and trees. A small decaying log lay across the top of the ravine, from my perspective. Little trees on either side. I ambled up the rocks. Therese followed. Pausing, I observed the green, stringy moss feeding on the log.
“You know what, I don’t think this is the ravine Lexie, Isabel and I climbed.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“The big rock is missing and it isn’t wide or deep enough.”
“Hmm, I wonder where we are.”
“I am not sure. But it’s beautiful.”
“I thought the snowmobile trail was just to our left, but it can’t be if this isn’t the big ravine. Where are we?”
“I don’t know.” Over the log, we stepped up another foot or so of exposed bedrock, as the ravine continued onward up the hill. I turned around to look down the gully, the foliage making it impossible to see very far. So peaceful, minus the traffic on the road below. A peek through basswood leaves, I could see the tree cloaked bluff on the other side of the highway. A lot of young trees fill the hillside; still very green. The gully rocks seemed like they should have a stream tumbling over them.
We scrambled up a few more feet of the ravine, and paused to take in our surroundings. Where were we? The snowmobile trail should be on our left, correct?
“Which way should we go?”
“I don’t know.”
“Should we go west? I thought the snowmobile trail would be over there.”
I led the way, ducking under branches and weaving through skinny, small, young trees. We didn’t go very far before we stopped again.
“Hmm, this doesn’t look right. Maybe we should be going east instead.”
“Okay.” We turned around; Therese let me pass to take the lead. Across the stony ravine. Threading through bigger, older trees. Ferns here and there, ostrich and maiden hair. I looked up into the canopy a moment, sunlight filtering through the green, elm leaves. So peaceful. But where were we? Where is the huge ravine? Where is the snowmobile trail? How are we missing them? A small paper birch, the outer bark peeling off in curls. Several sharp-lobed hepatica (hepatica acutiloba) leaves squat on short stems at our feet. We paused to investigate a mushroom growing on a fallen log.
“It might be a sulfur shelf,” I said.
“But it’s too decayed. And bugs are eating it.”
“Yeah, we should just leave it.”
We continued walking. “Hmm, there’s a man-made trail there.”
“But I don’t think it’s the trail we’re looking for.”
“I don’t think it is either.”
“We could follow it, or we could turn around and go west instead.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe we go back west?”
“Yeah, let’s turn back around and try west. I have no idea where we are.” We traced our steps, sort of, back along a narrow, long log. Leaves were still green, clinging to the trees. We stepped over the log. I believe I observed wild ginger plants here.
“A mushroom!” Therese exclaimed.
“It looks like a lobster. It’s growing on the ground.” We bent over to look at it more closely. Not a lobster. It was too far gone to harvest anyway.
“I wish it was a lobster,” I said.
“It would have been cool.”
“There hasn’t been enough rain this year for mushrooms.”
“Yeah.” We stood under a beautiful oak tree. We turned around again, settling on east as our direction.
“It’s so beautiful,” Therese said.
“People think about the importance of bringing small children outside, into the woods to appreciate it but what about teenagers?”
“Well perhaps there’d be an interest in teenagers that appreciate the woods because they were brought into them as small children,” Therese said.
“That’s true, I have encouraged a love for the woods in you since you were young.” We returned to the trail we’d found a few minutes earlier. Therese marveled in the ferns. They have a light heartedness about them.
“Grandma said the fiddleheads of the ostrich ferns can be eaten, right? Can the others be eaten?” Therese asked.
“I am not sure, that’s more Grandma’s area then mine.” We fumbled down the slope a little to join the trail. Blue ribbon, mostly above our heads, tied to trees, angled down the slope, here and there, like giant spider webs. “What is it?” Therese asked.
“It’s for maple syrup. Kind of like a pipeline to get the syrup to collect at the bottom of the bluff. It’s kind of annoying it’s here all year round.”
“Yeah, it distracts from the beauty.”
The trail slopes uphill, gradually climbing the bluff. The undergrowth is still vibrant; I wonder, is it more dense in the spring? We stepped around a limestone rock protruding from the ground, encased in dark green moss. The tree spacing in this area lets the sunlight almost flood the floor. A few tall, older trees. The trail begins to curve around the bluff, and up. A large limestone boulder rests on the hillside above us, nestled among trees. Its sedimentary layers are evident.
“Perhaps this is the snowmobile trail and we’re close to where Jesse proposed.”
“It’s so romantic. And so beautiful in here. I would love it if my future boyfriend proposed to me in these woods.”
“Well it certainly is romantic and possible you could get engaged here.” We rounded the bend, dirt exposed on the “bank” above us. “I think we’re on the snowmobile trail and somewhere in here is where Jesse proposed.” I paused for a moment, it still doesn’t look quite right. “We’ll follow the trail to the pasture gate, then it’ll make more sense.” We continued upward, short on breath but still conversing. A naked log lay across our path, we paused to observe the patterns left behind by boring insects – cool but they’re destructive.
“There’s the fence and pasture gate!” I almost shouted. We drew up to the gate and peered through the opening in the trees. The azure sky was studded with cumulus clouds. Green pasture before us. Cornfield above it, wrapping around the contour.
“Wait this isn’t right. This isn’t the snowmobile trail, this is the wrong pasture. I have no idea where we are.”
“I think I know. Malachi and I have hunted here. Isn’t the other house right ahead of us, beyond the field?”
“I’m not sure. It could be more to the left or maybe far to the right, and our house is just to the left. I don’t know, I can’t place where we are. It doesn’t make sense. But we’re not lost, follow the pasture and eventually we’d figure it out and find the house.”
“Or go directly down the bluff to the road. I have no idea where we are, but we’re not lost.” Small, young, paper birch trees stood on our left, their white bark almost glowing where the sun hit them. We turned back, following the trail down the slope a ways. Taking in the beauty and peace of the trees. We left the trail, ambling eastward for several minutes, continuing to wonder where we were.
“Sadly, we should start heading back to the vehicle so you can get back home in time.” it was almost 11:30 am, we’d be cutting it close.
“I love going to choir but I wish I didn’t have to so we could stay in the woods.”
“Yeah, I wish I didn’t have to milk this afternoon/evening, and could just stay out here.” Reluctantly, we headed back westward. If we went west and down, we’d find the vehicle. We weren’t lost. I marveled in the maple trees of various age and size as we traversed the bluffside. So lovely. Horsetails grow in clumps in an area of bare soil. Branches and logs lay strewn here and there. The bluffside was steep; each step had to be taken with care. Our feet slid in the loose dirt and leaves. Therese had found nice paper birch limbs for us to use as walking sticks. This sort of terrain was my paradise. Therese was enjoying the adventure but nervous about the difficulty of the trek. She slipped and slid roughly a foot or two and let out a shriek. “I almost died,” she laughed.
“You’re fine. Even if we tumbled down, I don’t think we’d die. Just be sure to go feet first.” I kept walking, turned and added, “Just get low to the ground, maybe even scoot on your butt, then you’ll be less likely to get hurt if you slip.” I had already begun crouching low. Now this is an adventure.
“But these are my nice jeans.”
“Okay, then maybe you shouldn’t scoot on the ground. Your mom wouldn’t be too happy if you wrecked them.”
“Next time I should wear pants that can be beat up.”
“That would be a good idea.”
An intriguing rock outcropping sat ahead and above us. “Look at that rock,” I exclaimed.
I turned around to see how Therese was doing. She paused against a maple tree, leaning on her paper birch stick. “Stay right there, that will make a good photo.” I took several pictures. “Okay. Beautiful.” I also took a picture of the exposed bedrock on the hillside behind her. I just can’t believe I have these awesome woods to explore. Onward, picking our steps with care, slipping often. We paused to observe some red, firm berries, Jack-in-the-pulpit.
“They’re so pretty, but not edible,” Therese said.
I stepped down onto loose rocks near the rock outcropping. “Careful, and follow my lead,” I instructed Therese. The stones were covered in leaves and difficult to see. One shifted, tilting down, nearly knocking me off balance. “Okay, don’t step on that rock.” I gingerly stepped to the ground below. “I’ve got to check out the rock; it’s just too cool.”
“Okay, but don’t die in the process.”
“It might be worth it.” The massive monolith was coated with moss, some colonizing ferns, leaves here and there. I wanted to climb it somehow but that would be too much for Therese and she was already being dramatic about our steep route down the bluff. At least she was still having fun, though she worried our lives were in danger. She was practically crawling on the ground now as she picked her way toward the outcropping. Moss stones littered the bluff just below it. Therese spied a couple, nearly palm sized rocks that were interesting and wanted to take them with. We joked about those two rocks being worth the risk to our lives. Tree limbs and logs spilled over the outcropping. We continued to pick our way around and over the smallish boulders, careful to not go tumbling down. We passed more maple syrup lines, and a beautiful patch of maiden hair. And we were back on the bottom of the ravine we started from. Our steps were still chosen with care around rocks, boulders, branches and logs, along the ravine running parallel to the road. The vegetation was a bit thicker as we neared the spot we had started from.
“Well that was fun. Though I still wonder where we were.”
“Yeah, and despite almost dying several times.”
“We weren’t in any real danger. Also, my hands are freezing.”
“Really? Mine are hot.”
“Hmm, feel mine.”
Therese held my hand. “Wow, they are cold.” We put our rocks, walking sticks, and mushrooms into the vehicle.
“Well we didn’t find many mushrooms, but that was fun. I will dry the mushrooms, powder them and share it with you,” Therese said.
“Okay.” We pulled back onto the road. I scanned the woods as we drove trying to figure it out but was still confused.
September 25, 2021
Late morning, I swung my leg over my bicycle, and proceeded down the gravel road to the other farmstead. Before the old barn, I turned right, down the field driveway to the pasture gate below the barn. I slipped off my bicycle, laid it down, opened the gate and pushed it through and then closed the gate. Back on the bicycle, I pedaled onward through the exhausted pasture, up along and above the east side of the pond. Pedaling through the grass and over the bumps of a cow trail was difficult but I enjoyed it. I almost didn’t make it up the incline above the north end of the pond. I walked my bicycle down the slope to the boxelder tree lying prostrate over the fence, and parked it there. Warm from the effort, I slipped my hoodie off and draped it over my bicycle.
I paused to marvel in the grand oak tree standing nearby. Some leaves had changed color and fallen to the ground, but there were also some green leaves too. Most of the leaves remaining on the tree were still glowing green. Among the oak leaves, rest elm leaves. At the foot of a tree, just on the other side of the fence, daisy fleabane blossoms were almost spent, their centers beginning to turn brown. I stepped on to the concrete slab resting under the horizontal boxelder. Sitting down, thinking, I slowly laid down, gazing up at the tree limbs. I took it all in for a few moments. Nettles around the boxelder were still lush. Oyster mushrooms grew on a log.
Up again, I strolled alongside the fence, heading southward, back toward the pond, and a little downhill. By the ravine, where the electric fence is higher, I scooted under the fence on my hands and knees. I entered the woods under elm trees. Kneeling down, I admire the still vibrant undergrowth plants; the large leaf of either Virginia bluebells or large-flowered trillium; and either Virginia waterleaf, columbine or Dutchman’s Breeches. I am still learning to identify plants; in the spring when they are flowering, I would have a much easier time. I haven’t been in these woods often enough during the spring bloom to know what is growing here. Young gooseberry plants. Thistles. Sedge. There’s also white clover and several other plants I can’t identify. Ambling up the shallow ravine bank, I savor the texture and character of the elm and oak trees. A couple of the oak trees have some marvelous scars. What happened? I spy another oyster mushroom; it was too decayed to harvest.
I continued to mosey, sometimes stumbling on fallen branches and sticks, frustrated with my lack of plant knowledge – there was so much and very little of it could I identify. I brushed past older gooseberry bushes. Perhaps I will have a summer soon in which I can harvest some berries. The undergrowth was thick, carpeting the forest floor – how different it appeared than it had in mid-April when it was still nearly barren. The stone foundation peeked through the vegetation, beckoning me. Inedible mushrooms feed on a fallen log. A silver maple towers above the stone wall. I had to pay close attention to where I stepped, rocks littered this area, disguised in a green, moss garment. Another beautifully intact oyster mushroom; I cut and place it in my bag. The skeletal remains of garlic mustard grew densely in this area; an edible plant I should forage in the future. I run my fingers along the stone wall as I pass by, following a barely discernable deer trail. Duck under a horizontal boxelder, step over logs, dodge branches, brush past grasping brambles, until a cluster of oyster mushrooms stop me. I harvest these three mushrooms as well.
I am wonderstruck with how thick the woods had become with vegetation since the early spring. Life needs to be more settled, providing me with time to wander in the woods all year round. A cluster of red berries, sitting on the top of the pulpit catch me eye. Jack in the pulpits are intriguing and delightful plants. I lounge across the first ravine slicing through the hillside. Mushrooms of all sorts halt me in my tracks as they demand to be observed. What luck, more beautiful oysters! A spikey cedar grows by the rock. Kneeling down, I examine the space under the rock; the dirt looks disturbed – had something been living here?
Onward. Birch, oak, elm, basswood, cedar. Young sugar maples begin to dominate the hillside. The next ravine gives me pause. I gaze across to the exposed bedrock; it stirs my imagination. Using small trees for support, I make my way down into the ravine, scan the other bank for the best route, and climb up, again holding on to a tree to pull myself up. Brown mushrooms living on the paper birch coated in released spores. Skirting moss covered stones, stepping over branches here and there, I try to step lightly to make less noise. The upside down cow skull that greets me every time I come this way, again poses for a photo. A tree, several feet away, has a large tumor. I wish it was a chaga mushroom. A rock outcropping towards the top of the slope draws me to it. I climb up the layers of sedimentary rock to the top, and take in the woods from this higher vantage point. Moments later, I amble back down and continue my trek.
The sugar maple zone. Most of these trees are young. The understory is quite open. Aside from the myriad branches littering the ground, I can walk with ease – no ducking under or dodging grabby limbs. (Although, it is those difficulties that creates an adventure.) I touch the maples as I pass, enjoying the texture of their bark. Veering to the right, I trudge up the hill to the man-made trail. My time in the woods draws to a close; I follow the trail up the hill to the pasture gate, and climb over, walk along the fence line back to my bicycle. Back along the top edge of the pond, pause to open and close the get once on the other side, up the road to the house.
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October 9, 2021
Last week, Mom and I walked along the wood edge looking for white oak acorns to give to Larry so he could plant them. Mom named tree species we passed; American elm, American basswood, black cherry, aspen, paper birch, sugar maple. Though we passed bur oak and read oak, we didn;t find any white oaks until we reached the “back” of the pasture, well a corner really. We began picking up a few that were still fully intact. Peering into the woods we could see there were more; so we backtracked to the gate and climbed over, and followed as close to the fence as we could manage, rounding the corner to the white oak tree. Bur and red oak grew nearby, we may have picked up a few of their acorns as well. We found out later, we had found an overcup oak too, which usually grows further south. Later, Larry told Mom that it is unusual for all of these species of oak to grow so near to one another. I ventured a little down the almost vertical slope but Mom didn’t risk it. Mom picked up a husk of possibly a butternut.
The possibility of butternut brought me back today. I sit on the edge of the woods, in the pasture. The sunshine is warm and feels wonderful but the air and wind are chilly; I should have brought a long sleeve. I laid down on a chunk of old concrete, wishing it was a boulder instead; under an old, kingly bur oak, my eyes roving over the texture of its furrowed bark. A leaf or two drifts down every once in a while. I look intently at a small, white, fuzzy mushroom thriving on the crown of a dead boxelder. (Perhaps a split gill, schizophyllum commune mushroom.) Sadly the boxelder, my portal into the woods had to be cut in order to fix the fence. I am frustrated by the number of buckthorn in this part of the woods, I would like to remove them. A flush stand of nettles dots the understory. I love the collection of trees. My supplies for the woods include two journals, mushroom guide, tree guide, camera and sketchbook. Birds chirp but I can’t see them, at least two species, perhaps sparrows. Crows in the distance. A woodpecker taps somewhere above. I love the low angle of the October sun. At first I felt guilty, taking a day for myself and the woods but was reassured it’s a necessary and a good thing for me to do. Time to start walking!
I tramp along the fenceline, going south and a little downhill. A chickadee chatters, and something else too but I can’t identify it. Oak and elm gather by the fence. Further down, the head of the huge ravine, below the pond, and on the corner, a tree leans out over the fence and reaches down trying to touch it – its overall appearance has me thinking it is a willow of some sort. I draw near. Walk stooping under dead branches, wondering if I can climb up it and cross over the fence instead of scooting under the fence. Upon inspection of its leaves from the live part of the tree, I confirmed it as a willow – consulting the field guide, it is a black willow. There’s another tree growing under it or perhaps it pushed this tree over. I grab a leaf, and hold it with my mouth. I attempt to climb up, but the small branch gives way under me, so I move down to my right (up the crown). These dead branches nearly touch the ground. I try here; it’s a little unstable, but I walk up the narrow branch, holding onto others, snapping dead branches off, unintentionally in the process. Either the tree or I, or both of us, wobble; perhaps this wasn’t safe, after all I am many feet off the ground. Camera swaying. Possessing a sense of adventure and love of climbing trees, under the fence would have been faster but not as much fun. I step over branches. Some live twigs mingled with dead ones. Tree trunk widens. Some scat sprouting hairs – raccoon? Half tempted to sit and revel in the willow but desire to keep moving. I step off the trunk at the base of the tree. (Wind through the trees and dropping leaves sound like rain.)
Ah, home. Finally, I start to relax and shed feelings of guilt. Why am I happiest in the woods? I desire to share it with someone but also enjoy going alone for solitude and moving at my own pace. I am enraptured by the trees, elm, boxelder, cottonwood, even the dead tree laying on the bank above the ravine. I step down into the ravine, breathe deeply – taking so many photos. A bright colored mushroom, golden brown like a bun, sprouts from a log. I walk a few feet down the ravine, until it curves. Distracted by the trees and then a mushroom, which is everywhere! I admire the ravine – rock strewn, trees growing out of the banks. More mushrooms. Glorious oak tree. So many mushrooms; I wish it were edible. The morning is warming as I walk. I climb out of the ravine, following mushrooms on the ground and trees. (Mindful of how I walk – heels down first. I scared up a grouse or something.) Dense undergrowth. Onward, I press, heading towards the stone foundation, so overgrown from March – very different from my visit with the girls in April. (That story is still waiting to be edited.) Torn between passing by the foundation or walking the ravine. I chose the foundation, somewhat following our path. Passing by the stones, I duck under the near horizontal boxelder. The undergrowth is so much thicker, too dense. Mosquito buzzing. Out from under the boxelder, I look back, momentarily considering climbing it. I would love the connection with the tree and it would be so easy, but I want to keep moving. I am getting hot. The undergrowth nearly obstructed my view of the small ravine ahead. Drawing up to it, legs fully extended, I step over it. Pushing past, ducking under, and dodging branches, I continue onward, arriving at the bigger ravine. I can hardly see the rock formation on the other side, toward the top of the slope. I amble down and back up out of the ravine, holding on to trees. Mushrooms like striped moths adhere to a tree.
A few steps away, I almost stumbled over the cow skull – covered in leaves, teeth revealed. Bright mushrooms lampshade shaped on stalks, glow below the rocks. I pondered climbing the rocks, but decided not to this time. My soul lifts again – maples gorgeous, not much for undergrowth. Brown shelf mushrooms decorate trees. I am overcome with the desire to walk barefoot. Probably not a good idea – oh what the heck. I pause to take off my shoes and socks, tread on a carpet of maple, elm, and oak leaves. Enjoying being barefoot, I can really feel the woods. The sky is becoming overcast. And I am more in the breeze again. I sit down on the soft hillside overlooking the wide ravine, admiring the trees. A maple leaf dangles from a spider’s web, dancing in the breeze. A murder of crows cackle. (One calls another responds – are they talking about me?) I think this is my spot more than by the foundation; I love the openness. I hate the highway noise though. Wish I knew the names of all the plants, running my fingers along the tree bark. I looked through field guides. I had a snack, took notes, and sat for over an hour. Leaves falling on me. Getting cold after sitting awhile, I should keep moving and look for a butternut tree.
About to put my shoes on, nah, I keep going barefoot. (Like the difference between walking in nature and driving through it – more connected.) Crows caw. Sadly, my foot falls aren’t any quieter barefoot. Up the slope to the trail, I walk across the dead tree. This is amazing. Half tempted to ditch my shoes, will be back this way; but what if I need them. I check out the trees and rocks. I round the bluff. A sugar maple had fallen across the trail. I consider climbing it, but duck under and around the branches to keep going instead. A buck scat, careful not to step in it. Searching for a butternut tree, I focus down the slope and find what I think is it. I ditched my pack and shoes, and picked my way down the slope, maneuvering between trees for support. The terrain is steep and hazardous. I paused to take photos and then climbed back up the slope.
Further down the trail, I found more. I stopped at a deep ravine, and sat for a while at the edge. Backtracked to pack and shoes. Climbed up the hill to the base of the fallen sugar maple, trying to identify oak trees. Up on to the maple tree, I walked along toward the crown – didn’t feel great on my bare feet but fun anyway. At the base, I put my shoes on and continued up the slope to a big oak by a rock outcropping. Reaching oak, I wrapped my arms around a thick branch, pulled myself up and wrapped my legs around it with some difficulty, trying to swing up but not strong enough, bark digging into my arms. I used to be able to do this as a kid. I drop down, and keep going. Back to the trail. Up to the gate and over it. Along the pasture to my bike. Ducks drift on the pond. I was in the woods for five hours; where’d the time go?
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Woodland Trek in Mud Season (Part II)
I walked down the hillside toward the huge ravine. My footsteps in the snow are way too loud. Photographing and touching trees as I mosey past. Despite the trees and plants still being dormant, it is so beautiful. The ravine widens. I head towards a snowless area just above the ravine. Blue jay cackles, such a wild sound. A tall, stately eastern white pine tree beckons to me like a lighthouse – as a moth to a flame, I go to it, like the prodigal son going home. I approach. It’s a bittersweet thing – I am transported back, perhaps twenty years or so, to a place and time lost to me (when I had a dad and paternal grandparents). I pick up the familiar pine cone that is my childhood, softened by winter. Its scales are shaped like those of fish. I want to cry, tears of joy and sadness, it reminds me of my thinking tree, an eastern white pine. (You can read this story at https://bethanybenike.com/2014/04/11/eastern-white-pine/). I can smell it, feel the summer air. Picture the yard around me. I touch the bark, run my fingers across it, a blast from the past, like being able to touch a ghost, someone who is long gone from my life. (A feeling, a sense of something, overcomes me – something that is out of reach, no longer attainable – as if for a moment I am back there, I am home; I can’t explain it very well, but it’s like a part of me was left behind, back there on that other farm long ago and I didn’t know or maybe I did, but that I’ve been trying to get back. So much hurt, pain, trauma. The source of all my insecurities, my anxiety, fear, self doubt, feeling inadequate, like I can never be a functional adult (Why Jesse and I fight, and why I can get so crushed); I am stuck at this age, somewhere between four and thirteen – when I was sexually abused frequently by my brother and then dad, when dad would say I am beautiful but could never know if it was a healthy compliment or sick perversion, so I’ve never known I am beautiful. – Wow, I hadn’t been thinking about writing that.) I want to sit against the tree like I used to do with the one in the yard but it is wet. I sit on its foot, roots, feels like sitting on Grandpa’s lap – I can’t believe he’s gone. How can a tree bring up so much feeling? I miss back then, somewhat – minus the abuse, challenges of school and growing up. I have been pushed too much this winter; Thelma said I have experienced a lot of trauma these past six months – hadn’t thought of that. (A bird that sounds like a frog croaking, like a squeaky handle, interrupts my thoughts. More woodpecker drilling. My feet are falling asleep.) I stroke the soft pine needles, smell the sweet scent. How do I heal? How do I write what I want to about my childhood and do so quickly? – remembering the good stuff and how it made me feel and then keep moving forward. Will I ever be free of guilt and shame, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and fear (induced by interacting with people)? Here in the woods I felt free (until these musings popped up), safe, like I was myself. Perhaps it is time to pray and ask God some big and challenging questions. (My current perch isn’t working for me though.) No answers, my own inner voice was being too loud.
Time is fading, it’s after 2:00 pm – I should be heading back. Should I text Jesse and ask if he wants me to milk? Or just go back? – I do both. But which way to go? Follow my footprints or up the man made trail and through the pasture? I begin following my tracks. The snow has become slick in the past hour, heading back up the hill is extremely difficult, feet sliding. Change in plans, I go more directly up to the man made trail, and over the top of the gate. I am really hungry but even so not ready to go back. There’s lots of snow in the shadow of the trees, I follow the fence line, still photographing. Suddenly, I heard rushing water, not trickling – curious, I want to go back to the big ravine, but don’t, I have to keep moving. Not seeking out the running water is killing me. I pass a small pond, water flowing through a pipe into the small ravine. I keep going. Beef cows are on this side now, watching. I come to the large washout, water rushing down it – tear myself away after several photos. Step over, up the dike, around the pond – I don’t have to milk tonight. Turn back, sloshing through the snow. Pretend the washout is a massive river filled gorge, taking me back to childhood again when I played in gushing torrents of waterways in the spring. I scamper down the washout, leap over it (impact too jarring), slither under the fence, and make a pit stop on a dead tree for a snack. Then down the slippery slope of the ravine, I didn’t go down too far, stepping on rocks and logs, having a blast with each well thought out step. I love flowing water. I balanced on a couple of logs. Found a bone- strange. Past the stone foundation. Should I keep going? It’s getting late and it could be at least a twenty to twenty five minute trek back up the ravine if I keep going and I want to do some more writing.
Up the hill I go, past the stone foundation. Keep going or stop again? I pause and sit down on a log – wait this is where I began. Still in the warmth of the sun. Wispy spiderwebs criss-cross between the skeletal remains of wild mustard, and tree branches, catching the late afternoon sunshine, shimmering. The seat on the log is starting to get very uncomfortable and my neck is starting to ache, but I can’t bring myself to head back to the house yet (despite gnawing hunger too) – I am under a spell and am not ready for it to be broken. But the breeze is getting cold – I am so indecisive right now. When will I be back? Next week or next month? But I am so hungry – I must head back. Maybe there is somewhere else I can go, closer to the house.
I walked on the east side of the hill to be in the sunshine, observing turkey tracks. So much mud. Maple trees are blooming. I was out there for about six hours.
Woodland Trek in Mud Season (Part I)
March 6, 2021
At 11:13 am, I sat down in the sun on a fallen tree to enjoy the woods and write. An eagle flew over my head, so low I could hear its wings. I heard squeaking and looked up, a nuthatch in the tree walked around a branch. There was another high pitched bird. And perhaps blue jays. I heard a small flock of Canada geese, maybe just two. Too much vehicle noise seeped into the woods. Water trickles somewhere nearby. I should check it out. I grow cold sitting here, the sun has moved past me. I should move too. How long will I stay? No idea. (My butt was getting numb.) I hear a tractor – someone feeding the beef cows perhaps.
I bicycled to the other farmstead around 10:45 am, just before the barn, by the driveway curving down below to the beef cow pasture; too muddy to go further. Sunny, no clouds in sight, not even a wisp, forty two degrees Fahrenheit when I left and a southwest or west wind. Uphill starting out, it was challenging and I was out of breath quickly. It was easy going once I got up the hill. I had packed water, two snack bars, a sketchbook, three journals, pencil pastels, and my camera. I sauntered down the curving field/pasture driveway, opened the gate, walked through, shut gate, wading through mud; luckily, I had worn boots. I love the spring smell of earth, mud and old, composting manure. I warmed up while strolling further down into a shallow valley. Beef cows on the hill above watched with mild curiosity. More snow covers the ground further down into the depression, my feet slipped in thawing mud and noisily crunched through grainy, melting snow.
I reached the actual pasture, and opened and shut the gate. I halt, photographing ice from meltwater flowing down the valley and then also the frozen pond it’s headed to. A crow on the opposite slope cawed. My heart sang, wishing I was more musical to put words to it. With every step my heart lightens, enthralled by the pond. I shuffle along its west side. Step one foot on the ice to see how solid it is – cracks a bit but doesn’t break, maybe still frozen enough but I wasn’t going to take a risk. Beef cows are still watching. I snap photos of them, the pond, and crow tracks in the snow. The dike looks to be messy, very sticky clay, a combination of deep red orange and saffron yellow in color, across the top, I mosey along the north side taking photos. Becoming myself. I squat down for better angles. I can’t resist photographing a shallow washout. A crow cawed. Quiet, peaceful. I am myself again. A wise woman, my surrogate grandma, told me I should always be myself – but too often I am afraid of being hurt, and therefore am withdrawn.
I pause to study the rocks in the washout and photograph the wood’s edge, deciding where to go in – across the boxelder tree leaning over the fence, resting its crown on the pasture ground. The light is perfect. Grass and leaves, smell of autumn decay mingled with spring earth. I observe oak, elm and maple leaves. A woodpecker is at work; I can somewhat see it but not enough to identify it. Photographing trees for identification – I want to work on that this summer, being able to identify trees and other plants I am seeing, and birds by sound.
Is the water flowing in the ravine? Should I look? I slid off the log and resumed walking at 11:55 am, touching trees as I passed. I ran my fingers along the cool, textured, stone foundation and photographed it. A little bit of water flows down the ravine. I follow a deer trail, lots of droppings along it, and dip under a boxelder. A red tail hawk screeches. I tilt my head, crane my neck to see it but catch only a glimpse. No way to sneak up on a hawk. I keep rambling along the deer trail, pushing past brambles with thorns that grab at me. Admire and photograph trees – touch the ones I pass. A buck used the trail, bigger droppings, will I find a shed? Piece of a hollow tree stump sits on the side of the trail; I peek inside. Limestone outcroppings – good storybook inspiration. I cross a narrow ravine with flowing water, admiring trees. Snow crunched loudly underfoot. Two trees entwined and grew together. A nuthatch cheeped somewhere. A cow skull nearly buried in snow. I halt at a deeper ravine, considering how to traverse it. Squatting down, I pull out my journal and jot down a few notes, my backpack on a fallen tree trunk. I caught a glimpse of a woodpecker while writing – why didn’t I bring a longer lens? Downy or hairy? (I heard the sound of a large bird, particularly its wings as I wrote, wish I could identify it. Woodpecker drumming. Other birds sang in a high pitch. A squirrel stirred in the leaves somewhere.)
Time to cross the muddy, steep ravine. Carefully, I proceed down the side of the ravine, my feet slipping and sliding in the muddy earth, clinging to trees for support, to keep from tumbling. Intrigued by the curled bark of a paper birch log, I pause at the bottom to take photos and ponder where to amble up the other side – it’s perhaps seven feet deep, and steep, muddy with sticky clay. I shuffled a few feet to my right, grabbed hold of a tree and pulled myself up; it felt so good holding on to the tree, like holding a friend’s hand and not wanting to let go, I needed this comfort. The trees are like beings, consoling, loving and withholding judgment, with no expectations of me.
Snow blanketed the ground. I pressed onward, up to the rock outcropping. Individual strata clearly visible. Limestone covered in moss and lichen, a geological phenomena in progress, the breaking down of rock to form soil. I amble up the rocks, grabbing hold of the course limestone, using trees here and there, wondering about snakes. (I love to amble up rock outcroppings.) The stones are cold to the touch. Water drips from melting snow. I needed this too. I feel like a child again, I feel safe. After a few moments, I climb down, nearly losing footing on a patch of ice, holding on to trees to get down.
Walking with A Niece (Part II)
Onward, we hiked, somewhat following a deer trail; I led. Having Therese along with kept me from taking too many photos, but I did pause to take a couple, here and there – I just can’t help it. There are so many interesting patterns, textures, trees and rocks, I want to capture it all. Ducking under a boxelder tree, its upper trunk is more horizontal than vertical. Pushing past clawing buckthorn. Trying to avoid my hat being stolen by grabby, low lying branches. Sometimes taking a few or several steps to either right or left to find the least challenging path. Being mindful of not getting poked in the eye and yet also marveling in the beauty around us. We chatted as we walked. We crossed a washout, walking to our right, further up the slope before doing so, to cross where it was narrowest.
“ These washouts and ravines can be treacherous when it’s wet, especially in the spring. In May, I was across the highway, exploring the woods over there. I had crossed and climbed up a deep ravine. On the way back, I almost slipped and fell and could have gotten hurt. And I doubt I had cell phone reception, no one knew exactly where I was, just the general area. And yet, I found it a bit thrilling.” I paused to take in the brilliantly white clump of paper birch and a chunk of limestone just hanging out in the open. I love these exposed rock formations. Therese shared with me that there’s a spot in my Mom’s woods (her grandma) that she really loves. I agreed that was a pretty neat spot but that Mom’s woods just don’t have the scale of ours nor the exposed rock formations. We looked across the large ravine below, to the other hillside. We stopped our progress again, I couldn’t resist photographing a woodpecker’s hole in a tree.
Therese said, “Oh, I guess this is where the dead cows are brought.” We had stumbled upon the old cow graveyard.
“Yeah, but not anymore. Now Jesse composts them by the manure pit.” I dropped to my knees to photograph a skull. “Grandma [mom] says what makes my photography so great is I see things as beautiful and interesting and therefore photograph them when most people wouldn’t.”
“I’m sure most people would think the cow skulls creepy and gross but I find them fascinating.”
The sunlight illuminated this skull perfectly, I had to take advantage of it. I stood up and shifted position to get a different angle and closer shot. Bones sprinkled the area. I walked a few steps to my right and knelt down to photograph a long bone, probably part of a leg. “I like to photograph things with a different perspective so it’s hard to tell what it actually is,” as I spoke, I took an up close shot of the bone, so the photo could be of a stone, with the ridges and grooves. Next, I approached an upside down skull, teeth facing up to the sky.
Therese commented, “Their teeth are so different from ours, but they have to be because of what they eat.” Large and flat, for grinding instead of tearing.
“I always thought cow teeth were fascinating. When I was a kid, I would keep a few that I found in a box, along with feathers, rocks, a block of wood, and snake skin.” We’d continued walking.
“Like a treasure box?” Therese asked.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t always the same box.” A few feet ahead, we arrived at another washout, deeper and wider. This one wasn’t as simple as stepping across. It was a challenge to cross without slipping and sliding. I picked up a long sturdy stick to help stabilize my footing in the soft, crumbly dirt as I took a few steps down into it, a step in the middle and then a leap of sorts up the other side. (Perhaps only four feet or so wide.) Therese followed behind. I kept the stick as a walking stick, enjoying the way it felt in my hand, and providing a task for my hand, also momentum. We paused to take in another rock formation – the layers clearly visible, the pages of an ancient history book. We pointed out unique trees, individuals with character. We would halt and linger, just to soak it in, feel it course through us. – Peace and refreshment. I really need to figure out ways to spend more time in the woods even around a crazy, insane farm schedule, I always feel better, safer, at peace in the woods. And it would be good for Therese to come on more frequent walks with me. If only we didn’t have to rush back to milk cows. (It seems like over the past month my life has become just a countdown to the next milking, but we will get through this difficult time.) Rocks, uneven ridges stick up out of the ground, like spikes on the back of a sleeping dragon, completely covered in green moss. The trees in here are younger, tall and skinny. I believe this area had been logged – we’re not far from the man-made trail.
“It doesn’t seem like this is a huge bluff until you go down into the ravine in this area and then climb back up. It is much bigger than you’d think. The problem with going downhill is you have to come up again and that’s a workout,” I said.
“We could go down and explore the ravine but then we’d have to walk back up the hill.”
Neither one of us were too excited about walking back up the bluff. Our somewhat meandering walk took us downhill a little but not very far. We were getting close to the highway, our silence dissipating as we came nearer to it. I pointed out the man-made trail to Therese, and the gate at its head. But we weren’t heading that direction just yet. Down the slope many feet from it, two rock platforms rested. We each sat upon one, halting to take in the woods. I thought we just might pull out our journals or sketchbooks, but we didn’t. We talked, at least half of which was strictly between confidants, family stuff, some processing. I still had the stick in my hand and dug in the dirt a little with it. Then I picked up an acorn and rolled it around in my other hand, torn between just sitting and chatting or either writing or sketching. Just sitting felt too good for me to feel motivated enough to slip my backpack off my shoulders and open it, let alone to write or sketch – plus Therese and I don’t very often have much time to chat.
I commented, “I feel like I should be writing or sketching, but I’m not feeling inspired enough – I mean, just sitting here feels too good.”
“Yeah, and I’m not sure how to describe this to capture it,” she replied.
Yes indeed, that is the challenge. Oak leaves and acorns littered the ground around our limestone seats. We were close to the highway now, so every few moments a car would go by, intruding on our silence – the only drawback to this part of the woods. Trees of various species march down the hill in no discernable formation. Funny thing, I would have been equally content there by myself as with Therese, I thrive on alone time with my tree friends. Of which, I haven’t had enough of this year. I need a whole day of no obligations, more than once a month (at least) to spend as much time in the woods as I want; field guides, journal, sketchbook, and camera to make the most of the opportunity and to learn. I am famished for learning as much about the natural world I live in as possible and then sharing that knowledge with anyone willing to listen. I desire to know everything there is to know about the inner workings of the forest on this bluffside, down to the tiniest microorganism and its relationship to the fungi, and the trees. How was it formed? How old is it? What sort of relationships are occurring unseen around me to form this ecosystem that has us awestruck? How do I go about learning these things? Where do I begin? I suppose a good beginning would be by reading every textbook on my shelf: biology, geology, and chemistry, and then narrow it down: ecology and botany and then a little more again. Now how do I set aside time to do so, around working on two farms, trying to keep up with writing and exercising, photography, family and friend time, household chores, and some down time? With deliberateness, I suppose.
With the deadline of milking cows and needing to eat before that, we reluctantly got up and resumed our walk. We climbed back up the slope a few yards to the man-made trail. “I find this dead tree fascinating; I have photographed it many times,” I commented as we bypassed the fallen tree in the middle of the path. Before the trail began to wind around the hill curving to the east, we departed it, going west and downhill.
“You have to see just how big that ravine becomes.” Minus the traffic noise from passing vehicles, I love this spot. Among young maple trees is a random stately eastern white pine tree. There’s a rocky outcropping below us, with a grand view of the ravine, we head for it. Standing on the overlook, my heart soars, I feel like I should be bursting into song, dramatic, profound, uplifting song. Therese was impressed, wonderstruck by the depth of the ravine and the height of the bluffs.
“We could actually just amble up the ravine, it would be a slightly more gradual climb back to the top of the hill. But not today,” I said. It would be adventurous, requiring some ambling over rocks.
We lingered there for a few moments. Then we tramped back up the slope; I was out of breath – I needed to get into shape I think. I didn’t notice if Therese was winded or not. My walking stick was quite helpful in the ascent.
We gained the trail and followed it around the end of the bluff, and walked into a maple forest, with a few oaks here and there. “The leaves are so thick in here, I’ve contemplated going barefoot.”
“Okay,” Therese said doubtfully.
She delighted in this tiny lane through the maples and was awed by the steep bluffside below us, nearly vertical. Another ravine, long ago, tore through the path making a good stopping and turning around point. Although we had no desire to leave the woods, it was time to start making our way back.
The trail took us to a gate. I left my walking stick in the woods and climbed over the gate. Therese, doubtful of the integrity of the gate, crawled under a high spot in the fence. We’d come into the pasture. With less distractions and easier footing, and no obstacles, we made better time traveling the pasture. However, unwilling to head back in just yet, we paused and sat down on a log and chatted some more. But we were rapidly running out of time to eat lunch before heading to the barn, so after several minutes on the log, we continued our trek. Climbing up the hill to the four wheeler. Situating ourselves on it. Turned around and headed back through the pasture. Stopping long enough for Therese to dismount to open and close gates. The cows were a little less interested in us. Then we took the gravel road back to the house, sadly ending the day’s woodland adventure.
Walking with A Niece (Part I)
December 12, 2020
Last Friday night, Therese came over to spend the night, staying until after evening milking on Saturday. She had come to help milk; her presence casting a warm glow on a gloomy situation. Between milkings on Saturday though, we went to walk in the woods. To provide more time in the woods, we decided to drive the four wheeler as far as the woodland edge. Thus our adventure began with the four wheeler. I remarked, “I hope it has enough gas.” We climbed aboard. I turned the key while holding the break, it fired to life. “Well, the gas is low, just one square left but I think we have enough. At least I have my phone with me in case we need rescuing.” I spun the four wheeler around and followed the gravel drive between the end of the barn and shed, and round the corner of the shed. I looked again at the gas gauge, all of a sudden even the last square was empty. I informed Therese.“We better turn back and put gas in, better not to risk it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Now we have to figure out how to put gas in it. I haven’t used that gas barrel before.” I spun the four wheeler around again, retracing our progress and then a bit further beyond, to the gas barrel. The four wheeler jerked a few times as we approached, as if it were struggling to move forward. I think we’d totally run out of gas just as we pulled up to the barrel – good thing we hadn’t tried to go further. We disembarked from the four-wheeler and began searching for the gas tank, an embarrassingly dumb moment. After practically circling it, Therese exclaimed, oh it’s right here, pointing to the front of it, just above where I’d been seated, below the steering. We laughed at ourselves wondering why it took so long to notice it. We felt dumb but grateful no one had been watching us.
Laughing still, I said, “now I have to figure out how to pump the gas. Jesse showed me once but I forgot. Well first I’ll pull this out,” I grabbed the hose. “I think it was something to do with this lever.” I flipped the lever up and a motor whirred on, that was easy. Unscrew the gas cap, insert the nozzle, squeeze the trigger and there. We continued laughing at ourselves.
“It’s a good thing no one was watching us,” Therese said.
“Yeah, Karin’s the only one in the house, nobody else is around.”
“She could have looked out the window and seen.”
“Yes, but it’s unlikely. She’s probably resting on the couch in the living room.” I screwed the cap on, held the lever down and placed the nozzle back where it had been. “Alright, now we are ready to go.” I climbed back on, throwing one leg over the other side but remained standing to give Therese more room to get on and swing her leg over the other side as well. “Ready?” With her affirmative, we continued ahead, leaving by the other driveway, past the house. I paused at our dead end gravel road, “which way would you like to go? Down the road or through the field?”
“I don’t care, either way is fine with me.”
“Okay, let’s go across the field then, give you a chance to see more of the farm.” At first, I began following the contour but then I realized I didn’t need to and we could get there faster if we didn’t. We saw a large bird sitting in a tree in the woods along the pasture edge. I pointed it out and she asked, “What do you think it is? A crow perhaps?”
“I think it is a crow.”
We remarked on the difference between my driving and Jesse and Malachi’s driving; I was much slower, still not very comfortable with driving ATVs. Well actually, I am not comfortable with driving anything really. As we followed the hill around, I pointed out the trees along the pasture fence line, telling Therese what we owned, or rather in some areas that the property line was in there somewhere but it’s a bit wonky. I also explained how all our pastures wrap around the farm and connect, even though there are four separate systems.
Partially cloudy, with the temperature hanging between cool and warm, made the four-wheeler ride cold. But the clouds began to clear on our drive. We reached the corner of the fence and began turning back the other direction, just following the contour of the hill.
“Oh, I just remembered there isn’t a gate over here and we can’t really scoot under the fence. I guess we’ll have to keep going.” Now we were headed south, back in the direction we had started out from. I was going to take us to a corner gate, somewhat in the middle of the pasture but was stopped by the temporary, winter fence for the beef cows. “The beef cows are let out onto the fields for winter so that they don’t wreck the pastures,” I explained. “I forgot it was here. I guess you’ll see even more of the farm. We probably should have taken the other direction.” I followed along the single strand wire fence feeling a bit foolish.
“I don’t mind,” replied Therese.
“There’s no gate in the temporary fence, so we will have to keep going around.”
Therese exclaimed, “The beef cows are so cute”.
“I always found them a bit scary; they look scary and are more wild than the dairy cows. They’re quite interested in us because people on ATVs or tractors usually mean something is happening, like more food. I am glad the bulls were sold a couple of weeks ago.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We turned again, downhill toward the gate, almost there. Then I turned the four-wheeler to our right and finally we arrived at the gate, once again facing north. I stopped and I asked, “Can you hop off and open the gate while I drive through? And then shut it again.” I stood up to give Therese more space to pull her foot up over the seat.
“Okay.” She slowly got off the four-wheeler and opened the gate. I drove through and stopped to wait for her to shut it again and climb aboard. Some of the cows moved closer to us, thankfully though, they didn’t mob us. Once Therese was settled in place and holding on, I drove forward, parting a black sea of cows; they moved at the last possible moment, comically darting out of the way. A few moments later, we stopped at another gate. Again, Therese slid off to open and close it after I drove through. Now we were finally in the pasture, which separated the fields we had been driving in from the woods. I drove along the slope, a bit nervously, skirting the large pond. I explained, “If it were up to Jesse and I, we would sell half the beef cows, get the herd to about 40 animals and then construct, perhaps temporary/moveable fences in each pasture to divide them up into several paddocks so that the cows no longer overgraze, destroying the pastures each year. The grass runs out by August. By having lush, healthy pastures, we’d be able to graze well into October, maybe even November and cut down on feed costs and labor to feed the beef cows.” The pasture in its current state looked sad, barren of any grass in too many places, with lots of signs of erosion – it’s actually a bit embarrassing, but one project at a time. (Get the new barn and parlor built for the dairy cows and then we’ll talk to Lars about cutting down the beef herd and intensively managing those pastures for better health and erosion control.) We began climbing up the hill, above the pond and soon past it.
“Now, I need to decide where I am going to leave the four-wheeler,” I said, just as much to myself as Therese. A little further up the hill and northward, by the fence on the upper side of the pasture, along the field edge, “This is good.” I stopped the four-wheeler and cut the engine. We disembarked. Each of us had a backpack filled with a journal, sketch pad (just in case we were inspired), and a bottle of water. We both had cameras. “So how would you like to enter the woods? We have two options. Either we can walk down that way [pointing southward to the pond] into the washout and go under the fence or we can walk over on that boxelder tree?” I pointed to a tree laying across the fence – the route I most often choose.
“Well, it’d be challenging for me to crawl under the fence, and I don’t feel like crawling under.”
“Over the tree it is!” I exclaimed, leading the way. More sunlight began to filter through, the clouds scattering for the time being, so the woods glowed warm with the low hanging December sun. I stepped onto a branch resting on the ground, starting at the top of the nearly horizontal boxelder, walking down the trunk to the base. “This is one of my favorite ways to enter the woods. I found oysters on this tree.”
“I’d like to find oysters. So far the only mushrooms I’ve found were Dryad’s saddles.”
“Those are easier to find.” I struggle to pass over the myriad small water spout branches that nearly cover the trunk. “Let me through,” I managed to break off a couple of dead ones. “The problem with boxelder is all these water spouts, but the nice thing about it being a boxelder is that I can prune them off…”
“Without damaging the tree,” Therese added.
“Precisely. And more will just come back.” The trunk gradually widens as it goes down to its base, or rather tapers off to the top. I stepped around a much larger limb. A few more steps and I am at the bottom and hop off, Therese is close behind. “A lot of farmers don’t like boxelders because they grow along fence lines and grow rapidly, often falling on their fences. But I like them. They are native and are pretty cool looking. They serve a purpose.”
Now that we were in the woods, we paused to soak it in. So quiet. It was a rare day of no wind, not even a whisper of a breeze. The trees were motionless and silent. No birds sang, which made me sad – hopefully it was just because it was in the middle of the day and December, not because there weren’t any. Even the squirrels were absent. Despite the seeming absence of wildlife, I reveled in the quiet, in the silence, it was a soothing balm to my weary, at breaking point soul. I had desperately needed this and had planned to spend time in the woods each day over Thanksgiving weekend before my world came crashing down Thanksgiving morning. (Read https://bethanybenike.com/2022/04/03/the-life-of-this-dairy-farmer/) – I had been looking forward to this writing and wood walking filled weekend since the first Saturday in May kicking off summer farmers market season, being the first weekend without a market since. Sometimes it is still a challenge to not be upset with these turn of events, especially since December is supposed to be a time of getting caught up on sleep and writing. These days I have to push through heavy eyelids that just want to close, force myself to write a bit or edit stories for my book, between milkings and on days I don’t go to help on my Mom’s farm, and then hope what I have managed to write is decent and worth reading. But, I don’t want to just complain, vent, rant, whatever nor dwell in misery. Everyday is a struggle to keep going, combating extreme exhaustion and depression, beating it back and trying to keep it from taking hold – especially with no light at the end of the tunnel as far as when Karin will be able to resume her former role of main milker. And yet I try to grasp ahold of joy and hope, letting them lift me up, and acceptance; this is my life right now and I just have to live it with a positive attitude and make the best of it. Such as my weekly pay more than doubled the last few weeks; even though it’s working hours, I spend more time with my husband right now (and we’re getting through together). Also, I am not sure Therese would have been able to spend the night and then the whole day here if it wasn’t for our desperate need for help milking cows. And if she hadn’t been here to spend the day with me, I wouldn’t have gone to the woods despite longing to do so, rather I would have lounged on the couch between milkings. So yes, the hush of the woods quieted and soothed my heart. And sharing my beloved treasure, my spot, with Therese was a bonus healing salve for my soul, especially since I know she’d cherish and love the woods too.
Therese was awestruck and enchanted by their beauty. Awed, she remarked, “it is so beautiful in here.”
I turned to her and then back to the trees around us gesturing to them, “This is my special spot,” sharing a secret, unbarring part of my soul to her. (Funny, I am her aunt and yet I often feel like we are peers and best friends despite huge differences in personality, worldviews and religion. Despite being seventeen years older than her, I often feel as if I am younger than her, aware of how much more advanced she is than me – I am thirty one going on not fifteen but a lot of times ten or so and Therese is fifteen going on thirty. Much of that is probably due to my traumatic childhood and a personality that’s terrified of everything.) In addition to the silence that brought me peace, I marveled in the sunlight streaking through the naked tree branches, highlighting the woods. I remarked, “One thing that’s great about the shorter day lengths in December is the directional light of the early afternoon sun, perfect for photography. In the middle of the day in July it would be too bright.” I lead the way to our left, heading southwest, sharing, “These dead trees are my bridges; I have crossed the ravine by walking on that one.” One of my favorite things, I’ve always enjoyed walking across fallen trees.
”I am too scared to try. I worry it wouldn’t be able to support my weight,” Therese replied.
“That makes sense.”
She was interested in exploring the ravine but we got distracted. We’d walked closer to it as I talked about crossing over, however, we then turned back to look at the slope we’d come down. “I love that oak tree over there. It has so much character.”
“Yeah, it’s lovely.”
We walked back up the slope part way and turned northward. “It seems like this would be a good place to find edible mushrooms, especially morels with all the dead trees, but I haven’t found any in here.” Then I said, “Wild garlic mustard covered this area in the spring”.
Therese touched one of the dead plants that remained standing, “There must have been a lot of it.”
I explained, “Larry said that there’s too much here to try and eradicate but in a couple of years it won’t be as prolific.” Garlic mustard is a nonnative invasive plant. We continued walking, avoiding tripping over fallen branches and such.
“Is that the ruins you were talking about?” Therese asked, pointing ahead.
“Yes it is. Cool, huh?” leaves crunched under our feet. Walking around dead trees and moss covered rocks, we approached the old stone walls. “This is my spot.”
“This is so neat. I can’t believe this is on your farm,” Therese sighed.
“I know, it’s so awesome. Jesse often says we should go to Whitewater to hike, but I tell him we don’t need to, we have our own woods. Although Whitewater is really great too; but here we have the woods to ourselves.”
We both couldn’t resist taking pictures of the stone walls. As always we speculated whether it was a house or barn.
Therese commented on the large window. “It looks like there had been more on the other side.”
I took her around to have a look, “see that looks like it had been a wall.” She agreed and was fascinated. The woods seemed to stir Therese’s heart like they did mine.
“Isabel said trees without their leaves are ugly. I disagree. Without their leaves, their shapes and forms can be seen – it’s a different kind of beauty.” Branches become more scraggly at the top. The sky above is so blue. Still a few green plants alive and well. Dried leaves carpet the ground. There isn’t much color left and yet there is beauty in the nearly dormant woods.
Canoeing with Damselflies
August 2, 2018
After our evening walk in July, Larry and I decided on another evening outing. This time we were going canoeing. We put in at Pritchard’s Landing (Goose Lake) around 6:30 pm. It was mostly sunny with only a few light, cumulus clouds. As always, we brought Hank, the black lab, with us. Larry was doubtful we’d see much – I guess it was just an excuse to spend some time together out on the water at pre-dusk rather than ‘researching’ for my book. It was great to get back in a canoe again after a three month absence, due to the very busy summer. Instantly, I felt my body relax even before we left the dock. Larry had a tiny cooler with some beer in it. “Want a beer?” he always asks even though I’ve never accepted – I prefer wine and cider over beer. My camera was around my neck and at the ready. Since there really wasn’t much to see, too early in the season yet for migrating waterfowl, too far out in open water for aquatic mammals, it was more relaxing than usual – I didn’t have to photograph something quickly before it disappeared. This was a good way to finish out a day. Larry paddled, with no breeze, and nothing to maneuver around, he didn’t need my help. My task was to photograph.
Every outing has something new to offer me – something that seems to be the draw of the trip. This evening it was damselflies. These miniature dragonflies, a relative of those fascinating hoverers, were everywhere and thick! I’ve never experienced anything like it before! It was incredible. They clung to our backs, hats, arms, legs. The vast lake stretched far out beyond us, its sheer size is quite humbling – reminding us humans just how small we are. Greenish yellow scum floated on the surface here and there, most likely a type of algae. If I looked just right, the water mirrored the sky. Far out across the water was a line of green vegetation, some of it lotus plants, the rest were most likely sedges – some quite tall. Far away, on either side of the ‘lake’ were bluffs cradling the valley. With the easy canoeing, the large field of aquatic plants drew near and near at a rapid pace.
Less than ten minutes out we were in the midst of a lotus patch with the wall of grass-like plants before us, they still filled me with awe. Their leaves are large and have a waxy coating. The lateness in the sun’s trek across the horizon added to the beauty and wonder of the plants, bathing them in a gentle glow. Only a handful were still in bloom – I had missed their big production this year. I enjoyed the very few blooms that were still intact. We passed by a swath of cattails, talking about our summer. Each time I spoke, I had to turn my head so Larry could hear me. Neither one of us felt the need to talk continuously so we enjoyed a lot of quiet – both lost in our thoughts, savoring being in a canoe. I continued to marvel at the damselflies, intrigued by their quantity and seemingly lack of fear. They tickled my arm while crawling up it. I accidentally squished one walking on my back, just reflex. I felt terrible when I brought my hand back, holding a severely injured damselfly. Their compound eyes are comically large. Their abdomen is incredibly long, perhaps five times longer than the rest of their body. Their translucent, silky wings extend out over their abdomen while they’re resting but fall short of the end of it. They perch on six legs, three on each side. They were all over the canoe. We went through another lotus patch. Then another area covered in algae growth. Past some lily pads to open, unobstructed water. Another large patch of lotuses at first seemed far away but we approached quite quickly. A lot of these were about done for the season beginning to brown and decay. Coontail grow thick beneath the water’s surface – some stretching just above it. Lots more green film on top of the water. Another isolated patch of cattails. We’d been heading southward, maybe a little to the southwest, Larry had turned the canoe eastward, toward the Wisconsin bluffs. I pulled off my hat to look at the half dozen damselflies hitching a ride on it. One spread out its wings, ready to take off, but then changed its mind. We continued east, past cattails and lotus plants, joined by who knows how many damselflies. Reveling in every moment of it, totally relaxed – well, I guess that’s not true, we’d been in the canoe for almost forty minutes now so my legs were starting to get cramped and uncomfortable. I stretched them out the best I could in the bow and pushed the discomfort from my mind, just thankful to be canoeing again. The sun had subtly begun to set, the golden hour was past by 7:20 pm, although it was still far from dark. It added to the peacefulness of the outing, renewing my spirit. The land east and north of us was completely filled with trees. Somewhere beyond those trees snaked the main channel of the Mississippi river. We went along a narrow path cut between the vegetation. I couldn’t identify all the plants, probably sedges and rushes, and cattails and arrowhead plants. Arrows pointed to the sky. I had missed their blooms too. We continued along the narrow passageway, greeted by blackbird song. There were lotus plants mingling with the others. Here, there were a few more flowers blooming. A section of pickerelweed displayed their purple flowers.
Just over an hour of canoeing and we were drawing near to the landing. I marveled at the green carpet, stretched across the water – did Larry say it was pollen? I watched the landing, drawing closer and closer. Sadly, our time on the water was drawing to an end. How quickly Larry spurred the canoe to cover the distance. We pulled up alongside the dock at about 7:45 pm. I put my camera away. Larry stepped up on to the dock and went to start the pickup and back it down to the landing. Hank hopped out, trotted across the dock and explored the shoreline. I lifted myself up and sat on the dock, feet in the canoe holding it in place and carefully brushing damselflies off of me and my camera bag. Once the truck was in place, we loaded the canoe, checked each other for tag-along damselflies, not wanting to take them with us, removing them too far away from water. Despite our best efforts, we did have a couple stow away in the truck. We tried to get them to leave out the window as we drove, but at least one stayed with us. Again, I was sad to leave – not knowing when I’d be able to get away from the farm again for another visit.