This winter has brought walking in the woods as a balm for life cooped up inside. I doubt I would have ever ventured among trees without the presence of a friend who has an affinity for trees.
Years ago, I’d learned to sugar in northern Vermont. We’d start when the snow was deep, tapping trees and hanging buckets. Gathering sap was done the hard way, moving from tree to tree carrying heavy, sloshing pails then dumping the sap into the holding tank sitting atop the dray pulled by the tractor. When the sun’s warmth began to melt the snow on the south side of the trees it meant the lifeblood of the tree would begin flowing upward through the trunk but the freezing temperatures of the night would send the sap down back into the roots. The more miserable the weather, the longer this ebb and flow of cold to warm then cold again, the more the sap would run and then syrup could be drawn off in the sugar house. The only part of the operation I never learned was being the sugar maker, the boiler. Responsibility for staying awake throughout the night carefully monitoring the fuel supply and keeping an anticipatory eye on the large “pans” so they, and the sugar house, did not burn was a job only for experts.
Throughout the whole sugar season my joy came from being in the woods feeling the transition from winter into spring. Having started in hip deep snow, terrible to walk through, and ending up in shirt sleeves washing and stacking buckets as warmth began creeping in at the end of the season was brutal, satisfying, work. I doubt many still sugar this way as tubing, suction pumps or gravity feeds took the place of human bodies willing to swap hard labor for only the precious brown sweetness and the utter joy of collective labor that was so much a part of farming in all seasons. Now there are few hardscrabble family farms left and climate change with wild temperature swings makes maple sugaring precarious.
At that time of my life, the woods were also a playground when on skis, the cross-country propel-yourself kind. Being on wooded hillsides in February cutting our own trails there was often an unexpected warmth, the exertion of muscle under wind protected tree cover often felt like a balmy Vermont winter version of a beach day.
Now in old age as walking has become difficult, moving through the woods with the patience of a friend making it possible, I carefully place each step and I breathe. I move ever so slowly with senses open. The smell of the woods changes with the types of trees and their proximity to one another. Deeply green mosses surprise, the bright color such a contrast to the brown leaf litter underfoot. This year there has been the blessing of a snow drought causing angst for skiers and utter joy for those of us able to escape being stuck inside in this time of pandemic distancing.
The privilege of being in winter woods brings indescribable joy. The seemingly endless configurations of downed trees, the striations of bark, the signs of beaver along a pond with left behind stumps looking like they were ground by giant pencil sharpeners and the large chipped holes in dead or dying trees made by woodpeckers looking for insect protein are sources of delight. The wonderfully fresh air filling nostrils shriveled by dry heated indoor substitutions for real air brings life to tired bones, hearts, and weary minds so anxious to be clear of the sound of incessantly droned media worries.
“Come to me” sing the trees. Bring your troubles and deposit them at our base so we can carry them upward to light and air and freedom.