Tag Archives: forest

The Magic of the Woods: A lesson in wonder

Red-Squirrel-Twins_3-e1544959850294I love to wander in the woods this time of year, when the forest yields its last fruits: the river birches and aspens going gold, the mountain maples blazing red, and the larch starting to think about their green needles turning flaxen and carpeting the forest floor. After twenty-seven Montana winters, I always get this pioneer sixth sense at the start of October. Suddenly I’m scaling the forest for dead trees for firewood, making sure they’re not bird habitat. I forage for rosehips to pull off the wild rugosas to make Vitamin C-packed jelly and marmalade. I take the arnica I’ve been steeping in almond oil since spring, drain it, and cook up my salve for aching winter backs. And I try to time it just right so that I pull the tomatoes off the vine to can, before the first hard frost. Sometimes I nail it. Sometimes I don’t. Such is the dance with October.

But my favorite of all fall forest fruit is the mushroom. This time of year, in my opinion, the best edible mushroom that grows around here is the white chanterelle and I’m obsessed. But I’m also obsessed with all mushrooms, just to see how they grow in their rings, or from hard wood, or push up through the rough detritus and moss to bloom in such blithe and ephemeral glory. Something you could kick with your boot and never notice was there, but something that if you go slowly enough, and dig around, you can stop to behold– to see if it’s edible or poisonous by its gills and stems and caps. I’ve always wondered what creatures eat mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. I wonder, and then I move on, on a hunt for my harvest.

But today…it was like the forest was playing a trick on me. A really clever trick, and yes, with mushrooms.

I went into a forest where I’ve found chanterelles this time of year. I went with dreams of sautéing them with butter and freezing them as special delicacies when winter is dark and cold and seemingly endless. Maybe I’d brown some butter and add chanterelles with the last sage from my garden for dinner tonight. I salivated as I went, looking for lodgepoles and spruce, and a good canopy and just the right forest bottom– my eye on the prize.

Processed with VSCO with au5 presetI saw boletes mostly. Every-so-often a meadow mushroom. But no chanterelles. So I stopped and looked around to see if I could spot a better way to go. And that’s when my mind went into contortions. I consider myself pretty observant, especially when it comes to walking in the woods, but this one had me flummoxed. Because…laid carefully in the boughs of larch and Doug fir and spruce, eye level and above…there were mushrooms. All the way up the trees. Perfectly placed mushrooms, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The stems and caps untouched as if a forager had sliced them from the ground with a well-sharpened knife. I found myself saying what my kids say, “What even?”

My mind whipped into the mystical, as it has since childhood, especially in the woods. Were they placed there as an invitation to some underworld where beetles and ladybugs had tea with fairies and gnomes? If I touched one of them, maybe I’d be through the portal, sitting at their tiny table like Alice! Was there some system I was missing where insects loosened them and tossed them treeward for fairies to catch and place in the trees for winter food? I’m not kidding. This is where my mind goes in the woods. Don’t judge.

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I almost touched one but then I stopped. I didn’t want to disturb this numinous design.  My practical mind thought, Are they growing there? I looked more closely. No. They were most definitely placed there. Did a hunter do it? Why would they bother– such bigger plans? Were they dropped by raptors? Birds don’t eat mushrooms. I walked further and saw more– mushrooms in conifers everywhere. Carefully placed there and camouflaged. I’ve never seen this before in all my years of wandering in the woods. What even?Processed with VSCO with au1 preset

My mind went back to my childhood storybooks. Maybe I’d come across some dark magic. Wizardry. A witch who needed these exact fungi to make her brew, posing as an old crone with a walking stick in a black robe hiding behind the tree, ready to cast a spell if I didn’t move along. I started to freak myself out. I think I actually like freaking myself out, but only in this way, in the woods. I’ve been doing it all my life, but don’t ask me to watch a scary movie or read Stephen King. (unless it’s his book about writing! Brilliant!)

I shook it out of me. There must be some obvious answer. I just had to stop. And pay attention.  As is the requirement of the wild if you really want to understand its lessons.

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So I found a stump and sat, and I watched. Nothing but a light wind in the trees. And as I watched, I wondered: Why don’t I do this more often, sit on a stump? Why am I always walking in the woods instead of sitting in the woods? What happened to the girl who sat in the woods for hours trying to get one bird to come to me and let me touch it. It happened. A few times. When is the last time I tried to charm a bird? Or what about that girl who lay in her treehouse all day in summer, reading and writing and watching spiders spin webs? I had such a deep sense of wonder and connection then. And even more, I believed that I was not totally apart of this world, but a stranger to another that would surely welcome me with love and belonging. If only I could find that last filament of belief…I could enter a portal and be in another world. I was sure it existed. I knew that all it took was just one more Peter Pan “I believe,” and I’d be in. I always bemoaned my flaw. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t muster that one magic “I believe?”

Along the way, I stopped asking. But I never stopped believing and today was proof of it. I mean—mushrooms in trees? My mind so quick to go to magic, light or dark?

My head started to tingle and I began to lose feeling in my feet. That out-of-body feeling hasn’t happened in a while, and I took a deep breath and wiggled my toes. “Right here. Right now,” I said. That feeling scares me. Maybe it’s why I’ve never danced with beetles and gnomes… Maybe I’m too afraid for true wonder. So I sat there in shame, watching, letting my questions go and just noticing. Noticing is something I ask myself to do when I don’t know the questions to ask, and especially when I’m fairly certain I’m not going to find answers. I just allowed myself to be suspended in wonder. And that required stopping, sitting, watching, being.

Processed with VSCO with au5 presetMy dogs didn’t seem to care one way or another. They were more interested in the squirrels running up the trees, chasing after them, causing them to chatter back from high in the boughs.

Squirrels.

As the dogs bounded into the woods, I watched closer. And I saw a stirring in the snowberry bushes. Sure enough, it was a squirrel digging up a mushroom. And I watched as it picked it up, ran it up a tree, and left it there perfectly whole on a bough, I suspected, to dry and store for winter. How fascinating. How magical. And…how not unlike…me…in the woods, with mushrooms on my mind. My stomach fluttered with wonder, only on the “this world” side of it.

Maybe we don’t need tea parties with fairies if we have this, I thought. Maybe this IS tea parties with fairies. And a surge of joy, like I felt when I was a little girl, started in my chest and spread out to my fingertips and toes. I held it there, afraid it would go, but it didn’t. It stayed. For a good long time, watching this little busy, dexterous, squirrel. As if the stump was the conduit, the keeper, and as long as I sat there, I would feel this elation and connection with the woodland kingdom. So I sat and I sat, and I watched and I watched. Until the dogs came back and chased the squirrel and the spell was suspended if not broken.

I stood, a little sad, but I smiled at the stump, memorizing it, promising to return. But then I remembered that stumps are everywhere in the woods, and where I live, the woods are everywhere. In that moment, I was moved to take a vow:  All I have to do is walk into them and that magic will be there. But I won’t find it if I don’t look up, look down, go slowly, and from time to time stop altogether and find a good stump to sit on. If I find a chanterelle, that’s just a bonus. I’m looking for something much deeper than a mushroom. I’m looking for my wonder. I vow to look mostly for my wonder.Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

I didn’t find my beloved chanterelles. But I walked home and I went to my window seat where I keep my children’s books going back four generations. Hundreds of years of adults opening children’s already open minds to dancing with fairies in the woods. Maybe those books are really for the parents. And I pulled out a few about fairies and gnomes and witches and insects and mushrooms and the woods…and opened them and read them with tears in my eyes and a stirring in my belly. I’m really no different than that girl whose eyes gazed into these exact images with loving words spoken by my elders, while I lay in bed.

And I made myself say out loud: “I believe. I believe.” I wonder what the squirrels know.

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Dreaming Big.

A few years ago, there was a major threat to the open space around our town. It inspired me to get involved in a way I hadn’t before. People realized that the wandering rights we’d all enjoyed for so long– a vital part of why we live where we live, were not to be taken lightly. We had to get creative and we had to do it fast. I learned about a group which had a crazy little idea to build a forty mile trail connecting private and public land in our valley. They needed people to apply for positions on a steering committee and I decided to give it a whirl. I wrote the below piece as part of my application and was honored to serve on that board in the project’s genesis. People said it would never happen. Well it has. I am proud of all the people who have come together to be stewards of our wandering rights. Introducing The Whitefish Trail. May you dream big wherever you live.

Wandering Rights. October, 2005

I rode my horse along the highway the other day to see what it might be like if the 13,000 acres of State Land gets sold off to developers and our open lands become gated communities. I have lived in Whitefish, Montana for twelve years and I finally know my State Lands—where I ride my horse, my mountain bike, take walks, introduce the difference between pine trees and fir trees to my children. It’s in the State Lands that I run into friends walking their dogs and stop for a chat under the fall dapple of aspen shadows on the forest floor. This is our green belt. Our link to who has come before us and considered it sacred. This is where we wander. Get lost. Let a trail lead us to an unexpected way home.

I rode my horse on the side of the highway for six miles just to see what it would be like to let the cement and flung beer bottles, road kill and hidden culverts be my guides. Our valley is wide. The shoulder was small. Logging trucks careened down on us and sent frayed pieces of bark in our faces. My horse was brave; I only felt him shudder. But that’s because I have been training him for this, setting down crushed Coke cans and plastic bags in his paddock and leading him over them for months now, to get him ready, just in case.

My father used to come to Whitefish in the 40’s before it was a ski town. He was in the railroad business and he’d come to sell bolsters and brake beams to the then Great Northern. He’d take customers out for a beer at the Hanging Tree Saloon and listen to locals complain about the threat of a ski resort. Scarring the mountain with ski runs, building chair lifts and attracting “city folk.” He was city folk, but he recognized the love of place. When I moved to Whitefish he said, “Be careful. That town doesn’t know what it wants to be.” It sounded good to me since I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to be either.

The rural West has been kind to its denizens. Whitefish, specifically, has had some years to figure out the answer to that question. And I think I know what it is: It wants to be home for wanderers of all sorts. It wants to be the sort of place where people run into each other on a trail, or at a bar or at a school parking lot and look around and say, “God, it’s beautiful today.”

So when I was at the local farmer’s market and my friend, a State representative, told me that there is a plan in place to link forty-miles of State Land to private land—mostly in conservation easements—a trail system to last forever—for multi-non-motorized use—I took pause. “What can I do to help? Sign me up.”

A stakeholders group is being formed and I have submitted my application. We need a place to wander—all of us—even the people in the inevitable gated communities. We need links, not gates. And there are people brave enough to understand that it has to be us/us if we are to ever know what it is to be a co-denizen of the rural West.

Still, I walked the highway, just to see. I tried to keep my horse focused on the tall grass straight ahead. We must have crushed fifteen beer bottles, got tangled up in wire twice, tripped over two culverts, and at one point where the barrel ended, I had to get off and lead him down fifty yards of highway up against the guard rail, a three foot margin for error. We just missed a head-on between a Hummer and a fawn. The fawn lost.

People say we’ll be riding on the highway soon if the State Lands sell out. They say we have a twenty-four month window of opportunity to work with the State and private sectors before that happens to secure this forty-mile long trail. I hope Whitefish knows at least this much about what it is. A place for wanderers. If not, I won’t be riding on the road again. I’ll be the one trespassing in the night. Like the deer. And if I am jailed or shot at, I’ll say: I just wanted to wander in the woods. Don’t you?

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