Sunday, late morning, and I’m moving slowly along the side of the ridge through the laurel. The sun is a fuzzy yellow spot behind a thin screen of cloud. At the edge of a small group of pitch pines, a screech owl takes off from the lowermost branch of a small beech less than ten feet away. Had I been more alert I might’ve seen it before it flew. Instead I get nothing but a momentary impression of squat head, gray plumage, absolutely silent wings. Was this the same bird whose trills and quavers I drank in with my morning coffee at 6:00 a.m.?
A little farther along, I find a log with a line of tracks in its thin coating of snow: gray fox. A crow caws from the other side of the hollow where the owl flew.
Crows are never out of earshot of other crows, it seems, because within five minutes fifteen to twenty more have flown in, by the sound of it. The snow, too, has suddenly grown more serious. I hunker down, pull up my hood. The snowflakes falling through the laurel make a soft, rustling hush – not that the crows are listening. As visibility diminishes, their mobbing rises in pitch. I picture the stolid owl looking out from a thicket of grape vines, the crows whetting their fury against its stony gaze. As the squall eases, the cawing too diminishes. In a short while the sun is weakly shining once again on a mostly quiet hollow.
I descend the slope to the stream and scramble up to the road on the other side. Most of what I do, on this walk as on every walk on the woods, is look at trees. I look at trees the way other people look at people. Today, for example, my attention is drawn to a tall white ash below the road with a large patch of smooth bark about 20 feet up. As I stare at the patch, I find myself looking at a big-headed, white bird with long tail feathers and wings bent back, fighting against both gravity and its prison of wood like a tree’s dream of a soul.
A quarter mile farther, I pause beside the huge black birch tree on the road bank across from Margaret’s derelict house and notice something truly strange: an array of rusty nails of varying sizes poking out of the bark from about chest height to head height, mostly facing down-driveway. What’s strange is that I have passed this tree countless times in the last thirty-three years without ever noticing these nails. I count twenty-five of them, the remnants, I decide, of some ancient sign that probably read “No Trespassing,” or “No Hunting Beyond This Point.”
In the woods across from my front porch, a nuthatch is calling vociferously from the dead half of a lightning-struck oak. Around on the still-living side, I notice a limb scar: bark gathered like a noose around a brown, pinched face. The face of something like a weasel, displaying a ferocity all out of proportion to its size.
How could I have forgotten – so close
to where I sit morning & evening
with a mug of something dark & bitter,
marking how the darkness thins
or thickens among the trees –
these eyes of wood?