Nature, the muddy footprint of God. Each tree a stomped down seed, each squirrel a splash—random flings in ages past by some Great Force along the bounds of a sphere that spins spins spins.
Inside the pristine valley below me, coyotes drag newborn lambs snatched from adjoining farmsteads, and cattle sink knee-deep in stream-drenched muck. In the woods, next to the bluebells, crawl ropes of poison ivy thick as my wrist. Yesterday, a red fox lay dead on a trail, two large bite marks on its side. Paradise exists in the mind of the simple, yet there’s something to be said for a canopy of maples embracing at their tips, leaves rocking to the sighs of an afternoon breeze.
During the Midwest winter we’re shut up too long, prisoners of our own wooden igloos. We fade in color, lose muscle tone and outlook, grow crabby by degrees. Seed catalogs become our bibles and every so often we look at the snow through smudged windows and wonder how long before spring, wonder if the apocalypse is happening and someone forgot to tell us.
When the world is white with cloud—thick with cloud—and backlit by the sun, an effect like snow blindness can occur.
Here, faith is a tangible commodity, alongside our corn rows and soybean fields. We work the soil on bended knee, clap hands ‘round rake or trowel. Birds sing hallelujah and tall grasses sway to the rhythm of some amazing grace. Sunday morning sacred hours.
For me, new hiking trails are new books—leaf upon page of discovery. There are eight miles of trails around a nearby lake. I’ve trekked maybe three of those miles, back, forth, around. What this means is that I should have enough to keep me happy for several more seasons. Many of these paths run alongside plowed land, a testament to the amiability of Midwestern farm folk: Let them use the perimeter of our spaces; it’s a healthy outlet.
Today’s trail was a surprise, a wrong-turn enigma. I didn’t recall the bushes and trees so near the path, thought it was savannah all the way. Then the woods appeared and I smiled; I had entered a savage phase of the eight miles: mud puddles, cornfield waterways, dense woods. Spent lilac blossoms were carried on a stiff breeze and showered my mise en scene with scent, a long stretch of lavender glory amid the roughhewn wilderness.
Iowans were out by the vanloads, scrounging morels in the morning sun that followed two days of rain. I may have been the lone hiker around the lake, and I met no one else, which is rare. The edge of a cornfield cropped up and I could see what appeared to be metal bridge beams, but they were in a hollow, only the bronzy tops visible. The bridge’s four-foot-high sides and wooden floor laths with small spaces between—much like the ones I remember from my childhood visits to family in Missouri—were unexpected here at the edge of two plats of land but necessary as a stream ran beneath them. The stream was small and pretty, rocks glistening beneath the riffles. Deer had crossed recently and left their hoof prints in the silty loam. I rested my walking stick against the side rail and luxuriated; this was the stuff of fantasies, a shire, perhaps, or another greening place with trees and a creek twisting off to who-knows-where beyond the bend.
Further on, violets dotted the ground, and a bower that had been cut through the woods opened up before me. It was muddy again, this time because of the shade, though more than enough sunlight streamed through to make for a sylvan view. The violets increased and a startling coverlet of purple spread across the forest floor conjuring up visions of a promised land.
A good stint in, a several-foot-long serpent lay across the path, head raised. Would I bruise it with my heel? A mere bull snake, I said to myself and turned back. The realization hit me then that I’d not been practicing wide-angle vision, that intense awareness of one’s surroundings first introduced, it’s believed, by my American Indian forebears; instead, I’d been in an ethereal place, far away. Reminder to self: pack anti-bug remedy before next trip.
We have snakes here, some poisonous, but there are not nearly as many as in southern Missouri where we used to live. The copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlers were prolific there. “Don’t swim in the creeks,” one local told us, “or if you do, keep your eyes open.” Mild warnings, given the six foot long king snake wrapped around the roosting pole in the duck house one morning or the copperheads on the neighbor’s front lawn.
On the return trek, a pair of gold-colored high-heeled shoes lay beside the trail, a broken strap dangling on the size nine-and-a-half ladies’ footwear. I hoped she had a horse. Lilac was still in the air, the sun strove strong, and with every rustle of grass, I was reminded that this macrocosm we inhabit inspires great care, if not homage.
I’m a child of the forest and field, a tree climber of old, a lover of sand and shell, a dirt digger and sun-craver, ever lost to blue skies and rolling hills. A sucker, after all.
We breathe in sky, eat of the earth, all the while in transit back to ground, to a dust sprung from ground.
People pass into our life and back out again, shadows captured in photographs and fading memories. We recall the love or laughter, the pain or joy we felt in their presence. We trick ourselves with imagined dialog. We make them better than they were. And eventually, we forgive the dead in death—and in living too. Nature teaches us to forgive. A 2008 flood is followed by seasons and years of relative moderation. That dark and stormy night precedes shimmering grass and daylilies with only one thing in mind—to bloom.
Panthers have migrated to Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources reports, and so have black bears. Bobcats are here. Nature is stealthy, slips in when we let up with our controlling ways.
Clumps of white fur and gray feathers skitter in the wind at the edge of a trail, and further on, two more piles of the same. The front leg of an animal, a brown fox or small coyote, with sharp claws and a dew claw, lies nearby while tractors roar in the distance. The trail opens and straightens, a feast of soft spring visuals. A sense of the divine is here, weeds and sprawling vines notwithstanding, rooted in my life.
I coax my senses to the sky, to the land, and in doing so shut out the rest. This is not taciturnity; I am not a disassociated hermit. I am a craftsman who watches her fingers so they don’t get lopped off in the spinning of the lathe or the twirling of the pen. I watch my words and word order, for too thin a spindle will undoubtedly buckle under the weight of a weighty metaphor.
But animal kind is surely taciturn, not in itself, but in the face of bother; note how birds quieten and squirrels hide at our approach. Rarely do I see a deer in the woods, and when I do, when it finally sees me, it turns and runs. See what we do? We interfere; we disrupt.
The larger sphere of nature, however, is bold and unflustered by our approach: we move downstream from the rapids because we don’t want a fight on our hands. We seek shelter at the first sign of angry weather because we’ve seen what tornados do and what derechos can do. I have yet to discover a toxic plant that cringes when I muss up against it, and the fecundity of nearly every living thing attests to how boldly nature communicates its intent.
The purity of nature is a great unifying theme; there is little opinion here, only brutal facts: a flood or drought, rain or a beating down sun, breezy skies with clouds adrift. As our world people-thickens, nature is slowly, or radically, impinged upon. It staggers back a step, crackles underfoot. The very thing that saves us from imploding into ourselves—nature—becomes an ant at the mercy of an oppressive shoe, and we are the shoe salesmen.
Today, the sky is a dirty whiteboard, the trees webbed in mist. Rain is forecast all week, and fields and hiking trails will again be muddy by week’s end. The driveway too. But there’ll be a rainbow stuck in there among it all, ends shot down through a million past lives of body-dust. I’ve learned to live in harmony with the mud as long as my world is awash with color.
On the Jeep ride home, two turkey vultures feed on a few strips of remaining road kill. Their heads are pinkish red and the skin lays in folds. Upwards, clouds gray and billow like smoke from endlessly-stoked furnaces; the sun is constant, draped now, but later, it will be a blaring, gaudy thing.
Is life really this simple—birds and trees and a deep sense of comfort in sunlight and starshine? I want to doubt it, but when I’m in the midst of it, I believe.