Beneath the Winter

There is a time, in February or March, when the winds turn warm and the sun dispels the gray. The snow recedes. A glimmer of hope, a hesitant smile. Is it finally over? Put the boots and heavy coats away. Throw open the windows. But the gray gates slam shut again and the wind howls with laughter. Soggy snowflakes bury the earth. There is always snow on the Day of Fools. The Spring of Deception, this phenomenon is called. I fall for it every time. Maybe I’m a fool, but at least my heart is still capable of hope. 

But this year is different. It doesn’t matter that it won’t last. The obligatory snow of April Fool’s is a mere dusting. The warmth persists. I fill my lungs with the rich aroma of thawing earth. We deserve this.

A lot goes on in these woods, but I keep most of it to myself. The ravens, especially, always lead me into deeper territory. Springtime’s blossoms and birdsong overshadow the death that also abounds this time of year. That which reawakens is disoriented. So easy to stagger into the path of disaster. And the new life, the babies. So sweet and fragile. One mistake and the life that could have been is finished.

Then there are the bones that resurface, a reminder that it takes a very long time for some things to disintegrate into dust.

What lies beneath my winter? I do not avert my eyes, no matter how uncomfortable the revelation. The intricacies of self-sabotage are revealed. It feels as though I’m standing on the precipice of happiness. But there has been so much disappointment, so much deception. When we ask/hope/wish, are we not relying on an external force to deliver? Maybe the person in the mirror is the one who holds the key. I’m tired of punishing myself for some long-buried, unfairly-assumed childhood shame. But maybe I don’t really want some of the things that continue to elude me. Perhaps, somewhere underneath, I know it’s for my own good. There is no time left to squander. As if there ever was. Be very, very clear on what you want and give yourself permission to have it. I peer into this blurry reflection in the snow-swollen current. Who we are is ever-changing. Momentary glimpses are swept away. 

In northern Michigan, true spring hesitates, in love with its own slumber. A gradual awakening, excruciating languor. Patience, patience. That which takes the most time to come into being is the most profound. Cherish the sweet unfolding. 

Each day brings a new surprise – another songbird’s voice, new buds emerge, and, finally, wildflowers. Marsh marigolds first, then violets. The drowsy flight of butterflies and bumblebees. Awaken, sleepyheads. The bewildered emergence of the little furry ones. They stare at me with curiosity, and then skitter away, remembering that my kind is to be feared.

The early petals wither while new blooms unfurl. Each one more flamboyant than the last. 

And, finally, the White Queens return and the woods become Wonderland. Soon it will be summer.

The freshest green of leaves about to burst from their buds is the most delightful color of all. A warm rain, a new morning. And everything that brought you to this stage of becoming is already a memory.

It was two years ago, I believe. During morel time. I had fled to my favorite place on the river. A place I savor every spring. By June the stinging nettle and thistle form an impenetrable barrier, barring my access until winter. Across the meadow and through the forest. Along the low bluffs. I startled a fawn that had been sleeping in a patch of tall grass. It scampered into the woods, bawling. I looked down at the ground, a wrench in my heart. A pair of ravens called back and forth to each other from the treetops, one on each side of the river.

And then I saw them, just under my feet. Out in the open, on the river bank, poking up through cedar needles and moss. There are strategies for hunting these culinary treasures. Look around fruit trees after the first warm rain, they say. And so on. But, in reality, morels grow wherever they please. They spilled out of my sweatshirt as I gathered them up. The turmoil of earlier that day lost all of its power. The ravens’ voices became more urgent. I paused and peered into the trees. The tone was unfamiliar, so full of despair. Something was happening. Were they angry with me? More gathered in the skies, circling and calling. I cradled the morels in my arms and headed towards home. I passed through a copse of poplars, scaring up about a dozen ravens that had been sitting in silence in the canopy. Waiting. I froze as the shadows flew over my head. 

When I crossed the meadow, I understood. On the far side, a raven swooped and fell to the earth. Another called down to it. It mustered the strength to lift off. Two smaller birds flew at it in attack. It dipped and nearly fell again. Two ravens ran the other birds off. They coaxed their injured one into the woods. Dozens of others followed. A grim procession.

I paused in the middle of the meadow and bowed my head in respect. When a raven is dying, its family gathers around it, keeping it company until it passes through the doorway to Home. It will not leave this Earth alone. I could have lingered or tried to capture it on film, but I’d always respected their wishes to not be photographed. As if I could if I tried. I headed up the trail, haunted and humbled. The requiem receded. My ears hummed in its absence. The world of humans loomed ahead. I took a deep breath. Yes, I often falter, but I somehow manage to take flight.

β€œIt was good to finally know that the spirit is everywhere rather than a separate thing. I’ve been lucky to spend a life pretty close to the earth up here in the north. I learned in those three days that the earth is so much more than I ever thought it was. It was a gift indeed to see all sides of everything at once. This makes it real hard to say good-bye. My family will be with me just like that old raven falling slowly down through the tree.”

– Jim Harrison, Returning to Earth