It was 7 degrees out. 7.
That’s really cold but in the morning before the sun has even considered the possibility of rising – it is even colder.
At 5:00 a.m. I was standing at the window of my lodge room looking at the fresh blanket of snow that had fallen overnight.
We had planned this nature conference for late February mistakenly thinking that we’d miss the bad weather. We were proven wrong and that Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor.
Sighing at leaving my warm bed, I drew a smiley face in the condensation on the window and thought “Of course, there is like a thousands inches of snow. Why not? I’m only leading a pre-dawn hike!”
Donning multiple layers with the names like Goretex and Thinsulate, I trudged down to the lodge’s main lobby. A whimpering fire in the enormous cut stone fireplace threatened to go out at the least provocation while a sleepy desk clerk was failing at looking awake.
I felt a little like the stay puff marshmallow man or that poor kid on Christmas Story.
I met with my clutch of rugged outdoorsy types – all there for the same reasons: being outside, experiencing nature, writing and most importantly not wanting to be the chicken that stayed back at the lodge.
“No notebooks.” I said to the group. They groaned in unison.
“Why not?” George whined. He was a retired and a regular at any program I did and he loved to be that one guy in the group you just wanted to choke.
“Because, George, the title of this adventure is, “Paying Attention” not scribbling in your notebook. No flashlights, too.”
“What?!” The group protested.
“No flashlights. There is plenty of light to see by once you get used to it. A flashlight is going to diminish the experience.”
While everyone was stuffing flashlights back into their gear pockets, I continued, “This experience is to force you to make mental notes of what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. Cold isn’t good enough. Dig deeper than that. Use all of your senses: sight, smell, taste, touching, and hearing. Make a mental movie about what you are experiencing. When we get back, there’ll be hot cocoa, coffee, and donuts AND, you’ll each get a brand new notebook and a pen.”
Nirvana to nature writers.
The day before, I had scouted the area and found an old pine stand frequented by barred owls, long eared owls, wild turkey, and deer.
After depositing each of my students at the base of a pine, I headed for a large white pine and ducked under the swooping branches. I was happy to see dry pine needles up near the trunk of the tree. Fortunately, the branches had shielded most of this area from the snow. Leaning back against the trunk, I admired the view of a small opening in the snowy woods.
A few moments of quiet later and the woods returned to the night shift. Barred owls called, “Who Cooks for You, Who Cooks for You All” to each other. I sat listening for a while and then thought of the caramel I had in my pocket and the breakfast I had yet to have.
As I was unwrapping it, a massive long eared owl flew in and landed on a snag not eight feet from me. She moved her head in and out twisting it side to side trying to correlate the sound with what she was seeing. Mesmerized by her beauty, I sat frozen in place, my fingers aching in the frigid air as I held the caramel still. The crinkling must have sounded like a mouse scampering along the bark.
We sat staring at each other for an eternity and then she turned her slender head, soundlessly fell into a swoop, and a wingbeat later was enveloped by the growing darkness.
See there is something most people have never experienced. A moment between night and morning, when it gets darker. A shift happens right before the first rays of sun breach the horizon – a moment where the world stops. Even the wind ceases and for a few brief impossible seconds, the forest holds her breath. It is still. In that moment of tranquility, you can hear your heart beating.
Then the first spindly fingers of light wiggle into the sky and the woods bursts with movement and sound.
Above me, turkeys begin to wake and shift their weight – stretching their legs and wings. A soft rain of pine needles cascades off my jacket and it smells like newly cut Christmas trees.
More rays of sun are bent and twisted in the columnar snow that is floating through the air more like dust moats than snow. The air is alive with sparkles. Gravity is no match for their elegance.
A light breeze rustles the turkeys and a single gobbler belts out a wobbly gobble which is greeted by wave after wave of gobbles that echo through the woods. The gobbling increases as does the reassuring clucks.
The gobbler shatters the woods with a robust gobble before gracefully gliding to the ground. The gobbling and clucking and clattering and wing-beating continues as the trees lose their overnight turkey foliage.
On the ground, a single hen raises her head and clucks. A murmur of soft clucks ripple through the flock. Everyone is accounted for. That is when her keen eye spots me. I’m far from invisible with a hunter orange hat on my head and a hunter orange vest on so that my clutch can easily find me.
Her eye takes me in and she pulls her head back towards her body before blasting it forward in one deafening warning cluck which sounds more like a PUCK. My ears ring and in a blink of an eye, the group of over 40 brown and tan birds vanishes into the evergreens.
The sun is up now and the chickadees are asserting their authority over the day while the tufted titmice and brown creepers methodically inspect the trees for wayward insects. Their feet scratch at the bark and it sounds like a caramel being unwrapped. Dark eyed juncos work over the top of the snow for any seeds that have fallen overnight. They look like busy little nuns in habits.
Chickadees call chick-a-dee-dee and seesaw to each other as I will myself to stand and stretch and leave this serene forest to go collect my clutch. The day shift is in charge now and it is time for us to write.