Seeking Solace – Naturally

February 14, 2009

Amid the grim economic news of slumping sales, nationwide job cuts, and local layoffs while the president and congressional leaders debate how best to prevent a “crisis” from becoming a “catastrophe,” I’m seeking a different “c” word: catharsis.

This winter of our economic discontent threatens to overwhelm human spirits. Please don’t let it break yours. Solace awaits you…outdoors.

Now may be the best time to partake of affordable therapy: take a quiet walk. Get some healthy exercise in the fresh air, outside the stale confines of cabin fever and the television news. Breathe. Contemplate. Reconnect.

Last week’s bright “owl moon” dimmed the impassive winter stars above wispy “mare’s tails” – cirrus clouds racing east. The night sky reminds me of a universe even bigger than the economic stimulus package. Ever-changing weather and seasons speak to time scales more vast than those calculated by the national debt clock. It’s comforting to connect with elements that occupied our ancestors for centuries. Trees, tracks, snow, stars, wind and weather were once front page news every day.

Now the crusty snow pack is still shin-deep, too deep to travel far off-trail without snowshoes. I venture into the woods to clear my thoughts without a specific itinerary or particular destination, intending only to allow a few hours to unfold on their own terms.

I find an elegant little bird nest tucked in the fork of a speckled alder at the edge of a red maple swamp. A twiggy platform supports its delicate woven cup of lichens, birch bark, dried moss and ferns; it is lined with downy milkweed silk and pine needles. Based upon the size of the cup, wetland habitat, and my memory of an incessant “witchity-witchity” song ringing from the locale each spring, my guess at the nest-builder is a common yellowthroat warbler. Somewhere far to our south, millions of neo-tropical warblers are already molting and feeding in preparation for their return north to breed, a reassuring certainty that restores my faith in a trademark fidelity linking the earth’s hemispheres beyond world financial markets.

Up on the mountain, whitetail deer tracks overlap John Deere tracks where I’ve been cutting and skidding wood with the tractor. Nightly, the local deer herd revisits oak, birch and maple slash scattered along my skid trails. They follow my tracks by night, and I follow theirs by day. Our lives and footprints intersect: hoof prints over boot prints each night; boot prints over hoof prints at dawn. I wonder if the deer ponder my purpose the same way I ponder theirs. We rarely, if ever, see one another.

A ribbon of red fox scent – reminiscent of skunk – rides an invisible current of cold air that pools in the shady hemlock hollow. Wet nostrils flared, I turn uphill and squint into the oaks. Message received. The fox pee smell turns my head as quickly as it was intended to draw the attention of a bushy-tailed redhead vixen. Valentine’s Day is the peak of the breeding season for wild canines. Fox tracks perforate the pasture edge, stitching together its ragged territory. Urine scent posts advertise presence and reproductive status, the “Facebook” network of the forest.

Drumming and drilling, woodpeckers announce their own territorial rites of spring. Woodpeckers drum in midwinter to proclaim territories and attract potential mates. They drill holes of various depths to reach winter dormant ants and beetles tucked beneath bark. Small round nest cavities excavated by sparrow-sized downy woodpeckers are also reused by chickadees and mice. Larger cavities excavated by robin-sized hairy woodpeckers are reused by nuthatches, titmice and flying squirrels. Huge oblong cavities are chiseled by crow-sized pileated woodpeckers to reach carpenter ant galleries. These holes are renovated and enlarged by gray squirrels, raccoons, and fishers and used by nesting saw-whet owls and barred owls.

Beneath one fresh woodpecker cavity, maple wood chips litter the snow. I find a little treasure: whitewashed pileated woodpecker scat comprised entirely of black ant antennae, legs and bodies.

Did I really wander aimlessly through winter woods to escape the woes of economic recession to revel in dissecting a woodpecker’s poop?

I did and I do. It’s therapy.

As children, we explored the world with a fierce curiosity born of innocence. We were open to experience wonder. In the face of economic gray skies and the gnawing of too much bad news, a conscious return to innocent curious wandering – if only for an hour – may well be the best repast. Stay well. Bon appetite!