Last year, at this time, I was watching the birds. Mostly from my porch, with my partner, and the Sibley Guide. I was entranced.
“Eric, Eric! Did you know that American avocets put their wing around their mate while they walk side-by-side?”
“That’s beautiful.” he smiled.
“Oh! And blue-gray gnatcatchers build nests with spider webbing woven in. To give it elasticity. So that as the chicks grow, the nest expands.” I looked up from the book and beamed, “How cool is that?!”
He had a very satisfied look in his eyes, for they were lovingly saying, “I told you so.” Eric has been a bird nerd for years. He had been careful not to push it on me. In fact, there were times we’d hike together in Glacier National Park, where I would all but physically kick my foot into his behind to keep us moving, after the fortieth time he gets out his binoculars. My method of appreciating nature had always been moving through it.
Here we were in quarantine, not moving at all. For both of us, that had presented as a potential challenge. We are both movers, that was part of our bond. Furthermore, we were looking up, to find ourselves suddenly moved in together. Not because our partnership called for it, but because COVID had. If he lived with his roommate, in his apartment, we’d be taking exposure risks and the family I lived with would be at risk as well. So, Eric moved into the straw bale cottage I call home.
It’s an intimate space, hand-built by my dear friends who have since moved to a beautiful three-bedroom house in front of the property, also hand-built. The cottage is a loft, 311 square feet, tucked back among Douglas firs and towering larch trees with thicket in between. The kind that gets stuck in your hair and rips a run in your long skirt if you’re foolish enough to be bushwhacking around wearing one, which I am.
There’s a charming path to the steps of a large porch, which makes it dreamy to come home to. It also has no running water and a wood stove as its heat source. This, for me, is what it’s all about. Having walked over 15,000 miles in wild places, I feel a need to connect with nature this way. To have to work a bit for my comfort and see the give-and-get in a tangible way. Gathering my water helps me remember that I need it, and that it’s not a given. When I use it, I regard it as the most precious thing we’ve got, or at least, I try to, as often as I think to. Chopping firewood helps me feel prepared for cold. I welcome the nippy air for its crispness, because of the crackle I’ll hear in my wood stove, and the heaviness of the wool blanket on my lap.
At that time in our history, April 2020, we were being asked to stay put. Two nomads, who refer to this time of year as mud season. I like mud, so I think I utter that phrase a little differently than most, because the subtext reads, ‘Season-of-this-sucks’ the way that some recreational enthusiasts emphasize it. This was a gift for the two of us, and we realized that immediately. For the first time ever, I watched Spring unfold in my home. This off-season, I wouldn’t be visiting my family in the Midwest or taking an epic road trip through desert rocks or Coastal Redwoods. This time, I was watching the stalks of false Solomon’s seal pop up and stretch their limbs. Clematis flowered around us, as though it was crawling along its vines to reach its lavender arms in our direction. Chickadees were building a secret life together in the cavity of an expired birch tree. Watching them gather each little seed and twig to bring inside, was our entertainment during dinner, on the porch. There was much to notice.
The family that I live with is especially inspiring. Travis and Jami appreciate nature. It’s obvious in the things they’ve built, but even more so, in the two wild boys they’ve raised. These boys are extraordinary. They climb and run and crawl and ski and swim and paddle and do it all, with contagious joy. Wren, the 7-year-old, was giving me advice on what plants in our yard we could make into a nice tea. Ira, the 9-year-old, can skate-ski faster than me and identify sharp-shinned hawks and limestone before I can. I come to tremendous gratitude, repeatedly, for the allegiance we share, with one another, and increasingly, with the dirt we live on.
My dirt. That’s an ache I’ve voiced often. It’s an ongoing quest, “Until I find my dirt,” I say, “I will be a rolling wheel. When I find it, I will know, and I will care for it, and it will care for me. And it shall be my dirt.” I’m getting there, but I still don’t fully understand what I mean by that. I am learning dirt, from the ground up. It started between my toes, but I’m up to my fingertips now. When I plant seeds, my hands know the dirt and my lips say, “I honor and I thank you” as I pat down the ground. I mean it, too, as much as I can, when I say thank you, it comes from my heart. Gardening was alive in me that Spring. Jami and I put in hours and hours on our knees. The boys drove toy tractors through us and then got to work. Taking on challenges like Cottonwood roots, a worthy voyage for a boy with a pick axe. Our commitment to the garden was life-giving and not for the literal reason. It was something real and purposeful and un-messy in our brains; grow food equals ‘yes’. While so much of what our brains where processing with the pandemic and the political climate was ‘what is this?’
Eric and I went to numerous bird-watching hot spots. He brought me that world. The world, which I’d been walking through and not noticing. We squealed, delighted, when we saw our first American redstart. A pair of them were bouncing around a cluster of deciduous trees by the Swan River. Their big tails reminded me of the piwakawaka, or fantail, in New Zealand, which was a very special part of my walk across that beautiful country in 2018. The Redstart is a playful and inquisitive bird, who sounds like a rusty wheel, falling off a cart, and flicks its tail around to catch gnats and mosquitos. One can appreciate their activity level, like a frantic spaz who lost their car keys, which I like to laugh at myself about. We heard the unique squawk of a sora, traipsing through the swamp, and though we never laid eyes on it, the sight of the tall grass rocking, revealing its winding path, was more than enough. I nearly caused a wreck when I noticed the bright blue bill of a ruddy duck along the highway at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. We even saw an American avocet, no mate to put its arm around, but a gift of a sight, never-the-less.
One morning in May, I did the thing I pressure myself to do most mornings, which was to lace up my running shoes while I’m still waking up. That way, fifteen minutes later, I find myself coming to, in fascination, inspired by the morning light and the loud greenery around me. It worked, and after I experienced those feelings, I found myself gratefully returning to the gravel driveway. I glanced over at the orchard, which was lush with life and color. I’d come accustomed to admiring the spring green leaves and twisted gray bark with a blanket of yellow underneath, from the numerous dandelions.
‘But wait!’ I stopped in my tracks. ‘The blanket is green. Where did the dandelions go?’ They had been here yesterday afternoon, I had spent a yoga hour with them. The grass was not freshly cut. How could this be? I walked into the yard to investigate. The dandelions were still there, they had closed. One or two of them were beginning to open. I felt like a child who had just caught her mother hiding Easter eggs in the yard.
“They open and close with the sun.” Feeling amazed by my own ignorance. “How have I never noticed?” I threw my hands up and laughed.
For it’s truly extraordinary, what you can walk by without noticing.
I’m a thru-hiker. I walk by more than most and I’m heading out for a second go at the Appalachian Trail this Spring. Since my last walk, I’ve become a naturalist by trade; guiding hikes in Glacier National Park and teaching kids about ecosystems at the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center. These callings have really opened my eyes to the wonder of the world that we live in. It feels powerful to be taking that with me, on this next journey.
I look forward to noticing the healthy forests when I’m in them, and understanding what a big deal that is. I look forward to recognizing a bird call or two. The first time I hiked the Appalachian Trail was in 2011, and I was in a hurry, it was my first thru-hike and proving to myself that I could do it, was consuming. I laugh at those concepts now. So what? There is always more, there is always faster, but if you don’t notice the beauty of what’s right in front of you, you’re going to miss out.
My spirit animal is the great gray owl. I’ve known that for a long time now, but what I’m learning more and more from her, is how to be stillness that moves. It starts with noticing.