“Insects are more complex than stars.” –Marilynne Robinson
Today while hiking at Al Sabo I thought about why we go to the woods. Why do we retreat into the forest and what specifically keeps us coming back? I don’t mean the high school and college students. We know why they keep coming back. You know the ones that are up to no good because when you pass them on the trail they don’t look you in the eye and say hello.
For those of us who go in to appreciate the nature itself, our escapes into nature call us back because there are surprises everywhere. Nature, because it is alive and for the most part left alone, always reshapes what we think we know of it, dissolving our expectations every time. We think about a winter walk in the woods as being about bare trees, snow, leftover brown leaves, maybe a few red berries. We don’t remember that anything is changing or growing at all. Buds are forming, lichens growing, moss still a vibrant green peaking out of the snow.
We get surprised in the woods by known things that come unexpectedly. We also get surprised by things we’ve never seen, things we never could dream up ourselves. We come to the forest to find new things, things beautiful and strange that fill us with wonder. A year or so ago I was listening to some NPR program and a classical musician was being interviewed about an album of hers that was titled something combining the words “beautiful” and “strange”. She said in order for something to be perceived as truly beautiful it has to have an element of the strange. I think that’s right on. The woods’ beauty is all wrapped up in its wild unfamiliarity to us. We wonder at its other-ness, at the force of life at work in what’s inhuman. We take comfort in seeing what life does outfitted in flora and fauna. It helps us make sense of the life in our own flesh and blood.
Today along the path I saw a tree that about half way up was covered in resin. I thought it might be diseased but it was hard to tell without leaves. As I passed, the angle of the afternoon sun was catching that deep amber color of resin and it glowed a fiery orange, like lava. It was an incredible sight right there on that potentially-sickly tree.
I was also struck by the viney weeds and how now in their leafless state we see their creepy deeds, their quiet work to strangle. The twisted tangle of branches is interesting and even beautiful. It tells a story of dominance and struggle hidden from view in the growing months. This is not what comes to mind when we think of winter woods–dormant kudzu vines ready to pick up where they left off come spring’s first breath, beige braids of smooth bark, invasive but attractive, and the punchy green fur of lively low-lying moss. This too is winter. Seeing it makes us and keep us humbly in our places as students of the forest.