Life in the Forest
Before sunrise the sky above me is a deep slate blue while orange light spreads along the eastern horizon. The treetops catch some of the orange on their upper branches; the first hints of sun-warmth after a night I’d call cold even in January. I’m in awe of the many creatures that can survive at these temperatures, even tiny mice and chickadees, with no more protection than fur or feathers provide, while I feel the cold even under layers and layers of clothing.
In the beech grove up beyond the hemlock ridge, light pours down through the spare branches above me. With white snow on the ground, it’s so bright I feel like I’m out in the open, not in the middle of the forest. Dark hemlocks enclose the beeches on three sides and the hill is behind me on the fourth. In my mind, I’m standing in a field carved out of the woods; a remote old farmstead, hidden high up in the hills. But this is no field, as the beeches all around me make clear; and the bumpy, irregular ground tells that it never was either. Sheep likely grazed here two hundred years ago, but no plow has ever cut into this land.
At the edge of the beech grove, a large irregular patch of leaves, devoid of snow, looks at first like the work of the sun shining down through the trees onto this south facing slope. But the leaves have all been churned up; bare patches of ground lie exposed and torn, as if with a metal rake wielded by someone with a heavy hand. I suspect a flock of turkeys was at work here, and continuing up the hill I find their tracks leading out of the leaves and across the snow. I can almost see them moving through the trees as a group, their tracks weaving across each other, leading to another big patch of turned up leaves.
Further up, I come on the waddling tracks of a porcupine, all around the base of a hemlock tree and then leading off across the snow. Following them with my eyes, I see a dark, bushy form tucked into a hollow at the base of a leaning hemlock, about 8 feet away. He’s almost invisible save for the white tipped quills. I think I’m being watched so I leave him in peace and continue on up the hill to see the sun rise.
Chickadees twitter softly in the treetops, a woodpecker hammers on a distant tree, and the sound of footsteps, likely a deer, drift up from the woods below me. The forest is full of life this morning, despite the cold. And the snow tells stories that would otherwise get lost amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor.
After the sunrise, I follow my own steps back down to see if the porcupine is still there; he is. My boot-prints in the snow remind me that at least for a while I’m no different from the other creatures here; living in the forest; each of us telling stories through our tracks.
I come upon the path of a gray fox, on the small side, maybe a female, tracing a straight line through the forest. I can almost see her as she hops up on and over a fallen tree, both front and back paws leaving imprints in the snow on top.
Down amongst the hemlocks, deer tracks lead me back to another patch of turned up leaves, and two flat oval patches where they bedded down. Maybe the same deer whose footsteps I heard earlier.
The stream weaves its own story, telling of the cold. The water’s still flowing between snow-covered banks, but big ice crystals have spread across the quiet pools and knobby castles of clear, sparkling ice grow thick around the small cascades.
At the quarry pond an inch and a half of ice has formed since yesterday.
This is a selection from Bruce Hooke’s “Land Journal,” a journal of his daily walks in the forest behind his house.