What You Will Not Find Here

You will find no advertising, no pop-ups, no tweets. Not even photographs, let alone a slide show. Nothing here will be moving fast. It will hardly be moving at all. Visit when you want a break from frenzy.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 4 Outdoors: By the Wild Apple Trees

Sunday, January 22, 4-5 p.m.

Clear, blue sky and bright sunshine, temperatures up from recent single digits to somewhere around the freezing point. Up Novotny Road from M-22, where the road flattens out after the steep hill, and beyond the driveway into the old Sedlacek place, there is a winding two-track. Along it grow a few old wild apple trees.

A remnant fence post, bare of boards or wire, stands near the main road, casting its shadow across the snow-covered two-track. (Another fence post is almost hidden by overgrown apple trees on the other side of the track.) Tawny grass stems cluster around the fence post. Their leaves twist gracefully like ribbons. Some rise straight  from the snow with no preamble, while others have reflected enough sun to create small pockets, little shadowed craters, in the snow around them, as do trees in the woods at the end of winter, when snow is still on the ground but begins to retreat from the bases of individual warming trunks.

Everything casts a shadow today, from the largest tree to the smallest bird track. Any open stretch of snow looks like wave-contoured sand beneath the water at the edge of Lake Michigan, and so the snow casts shadows on itself along the contour lines made by the wind as, swirled into wave patterns, the frozen ridges contrasting with the expanse of crystals stretching to the next miniscule ridge.

The apple trees provide startling color in an otherwise stark landscape. Never pruned, they are a tangle of disordered limbs and branches. The oldest trunks have died. Their bark long shed, they look similar in their bare woodiness to the fence posts nearby, except that suckers have grown up around the old trunks to make new trees.

These are late season apples. In November some were yellow, some red, the best-tasting with a striped skin and white, very white but pink-tinged flesh. Now, in January, much of the fruit remains on the trees but, frozen many times already, it has changed color dramatically. Not yet shriveled, the glossy skin is somewhere between the bright color of its ripeness and the resigned brown of old oak leaves. These soft, old apples glow in the late afternoon sun. Some of them weep juicy tears that catch the sunlight. Most have given up firm roundness for soft, gently dented, still fleshy but now lumpy, almost apologetic shapes.

The track lies lower than the orchard blocks that rise above it to the north and south. It winds secretively eastward, ever downhill as it goes. Perhaps there was always a gully here, or perhaps it was carved by decades of runoff. Besides the apple trees and grasses, near the road there is red twig dogwood, and there are big thistles. In the background are dark stands of conifers.

As the winter sun nears the horizon, the light takes on a warmer and warmer color, while the air grows correspondingly colder. To the senses, it is a paradoxical effect, bone-chilling wind and glowing light increasing together.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 3 Outdoors: Edge of an Old Clearing

Monday, January 16, 1:20-2:45 p.m.

Morning’s fierce north wind calmed to a gentle breeze, and by early afternoon the air was swinging gently from north to east, a lazy pendulum of a breeze, losing momentum as the temperature rose. Almost-still air amplified traffic noise from M-22, as well as occasional snowmobiles (heard but not seen). Even with cloud cover, the snow on the ground was blinding. White of sketchbook paper looked lavender by comparison with white of snow.

Directly east from the house, beyond the meadow and past the newest orchard trees, a line of straggly trees demarcates the old 80-acre line, and behind that line, as the land climbs from a stream to the north to wooded hills farther south, there have long been two small clearings. One of the trees dominating the line from a distance is a tall, short-needled conifer. Spruce? Its lower branches have been hacked off to make room for the easier passage of orchard equipment, but the tree remains very much a sentinel. Even close up, its height is obvious. Behind and on the hill above the sentinel the small clearings are beginning to fill in.

This small bit of land is in transition, not only between orchard and woods but also as the clearings evolve from grasses to brambleberries and tree seedlings to larger saplings and shrubs, almost as if the woods to the north and south yearn to reconnect and are reaching across to close the breach.

There are popples in this transition area (the pioneer tree of the region, not found in mature woods) and also young beeches and maples and ash trees and very small firs. Overhead the smallest branches and twigs of young beech trees criss-cross and interlace in a delicate filigree, the highest twigs graced with clusters of small catkins, two to four in a cluster. Perhaps deer have eaten lower ones. 

Without yet a thick, mature forest canopy, grasses still grow thickly here, bowed over at present by snow, their heads buried, and the ground is not smooth and flat but lumpy with snow-covered vegetation and full of air pockets. It looks ideal for sheltering small rodents. Not one is stirring aboveground today, and there are no tracks in the new snow in the clearing, but many small animals may be tunneling underneath the snow. Once a dead grass stalk gave a sudden, quick, unnatural jerk, nothing like a wind-caused movement but more as if something had passed by underneath the snow and collided momentarily with the stalk.

A very old, gnarled tree, long dead, continues to stand, although it has lost the central trunk of an original three forking from the main, and all of its dead branches end in severed stumps. Bark still loosely surrounds parts of trunk and branches; other sections are bare. Its bark looks like black cherry, a forest tree in these parts, but the habit of its growth is more that of an old orchard cherry tree. Snow lies along its branches.

Not a single bird visits at this time of day, though there is an occasional one-note call from nearby, and crows (as always) caw from time to time as they fly over the orchard. Now and then a tiny fir tree releases a part of its load of accumulated snow. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 2 Outdoors: In Claudia's Woods

One old beech tree in the woods
Tuesday, January 10, 
1-2:15 p.m. 

Unseasonably warm weather returned and continues, with blue skies and near-balmy temperatures. The afternoon sun reaches into all parts of Claudia’s Woods, its low winter angle casting long shadows but also striking the leaf litter with warm light. The southeast corner of this small woods is bordered on two sides, south and east, by cherry orchard. At the south border is a wild apple tree, the ground beneath littered with windfall fruit partially eaten by wildlife. To the east, in space formerly occupied by a farm lane, is a large brush pile, surely sheltering rabbits. The woods rises uphill from the brush pile, and a just-visible logging road climbs up and wanders off through the woods.

Deep into the woods there are no birches or popples. Venerable beeches and maples (the latter somewhat smaller in circumference, perhaps because the largest have been timbered off) are the largest trees, and now, in winter, the space between trees seems strangely spacious. (In summer the space will be filled by leafy seedlings and saplings, wildflowers, vines and shrubs.) On the ground, a breeze whispers through the brittle, dessicated beech leaves. It sounds almost like small animals skittering through the leaves. Dry leaves still attached to branches tremble noiselessly, and the upper reaches of the trees move slowly, gracefully, in the wind, their degree of movement varying according to their height and size: the smaller maples’ whole trunks sway, while only the topmost crowns of the beeches are moved.

From the distance comes muffled highway noise. In the middle distance, closer but beyond the woods, crows call. A dull engine roar nearby interrupts the stillness. A tractor? No, there it is—an ATV with two riders. Along the south edge of the woods it goes before disappearing.

No birds show themselves, but once a while one is audible. The first to announce itself utters one short note, then repeats the same note and lets it fall in a glissando. Another bird has two distinct notes, the second a whole step below the first. A third’s voice is a trilling coo. (Beyond, the crows....)

The breeze falls still in the ground-covering leaf litter but continues to move at higher levels. There is a time delay between the air moving below and the treetops swaying above, different horizontal time zones.

On the edge of the woods along the former lane, canes of thimbleberry still bear dark green leaves. On the ground beneath the tall maples and beeches are bright green patches of moss, a few green ferns (splayed flat on the dry leaves), and hopeful spring beauty plants ready either to rush the season or lie low, whichever the weather may indicate in days ahead.

From the southwest comes a sudden, brief canine chorus. The yipping and howling sounds like coyotes, but the deep baying is more like a dog. When the voices fall silent, they do not start up and sing again.

Perhaps those voices agitated a pair of grey squirrels at the eastern edge of the woods, suddenly active and noisy. They climb, race, scold, chase. After the grey squirrels disappear, one small red squirrel begins to chatter and scold, nervously, anxiously, angrily. Up one tree, out on a branch, back to the other side of the tree (not realizing that his shadow still gives him away), down to the ground and up another tree he races, and so on and so on. Constant motion. Never still for two consecutive moments, the squirrel’s body is always a graceful curve, the tail a second curve. Two curves: that is a squirrel.

Shadows shift in the course of an hour. Overhead branches criss-cross in black lines against the blue of the sky, the effect a kind of visual cacaphony with no ordered pattern, but shadows of tree trunks do fall into a pattern, each parallel to the next, all stretching to the north and slightly east.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Between Times: In Sleep, in Dreams, and Waking

As I observed only yesterday morning to David over our morning coffee, my outdoor stillness project, although only a one-hour-a-week commitment and with only one outdoor sitting-still hour yet accomplished, has already changed my mental landscape in a wondrous way. Instead of waking to sleepy thoughts of bills that need paying, I find my sleep-to-waking transition is often now a dreamy slideshow of outdoor scenes close to home. (And the bills still get paid, without polluting my morning mind.) Still snug in bed and half asleep, in my mind I am already outdoors, taking up one position after another, moving with the speed of thought from “my” wild apple tree on Novotny Road to a wooded hillside high above the no-name creek to a sheltered nook in the treeline between sections of orchard, picturing every spot from various points of view, settling into being there—until the next moment, when I am in some other precious nearby neighborhood spot. Perhaps this is the key to my new year’s cheerfulness, my days beginning in this exciting but peaceful manner. 

This morning, however, was different, as I woke from a nightmare: It was summer, and the vegetable garden was lush, the lindens and maples and black walnut tree providing welcome shade--and then I looked to the east and could not understand what I was seeing. The edge of the woods beyond the cherry orchard looked like the ragged edge of a cliff, with nothing behind it. I stared and stared, trying to get my mind to interpret what my eyes were reporting. Then I realized that the woods had been completely bulldozed away! It was unbelievable horror, the kind a war survivor would feel to see her city bombed to rubble.

Needless to say, there was no temptation to luxuriate this morning in that usually-delicious zone between sleeping and waking! Much better today to be fully awake, my little world not transformed but still its simple, modest, familiar, wonderful self.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 1 Outdoors

Tuesday, January 3, 8:15-9:15 a.m.

It was daybreak without sunrise, overcast. The fierce, brutal winds that blasted through the first two days of the year had largely abated, but the air was very cold. At the tree line, on the edge of the field above the stream, only a gentle breeze moved. Most of the time it seemed to come from the north, but at times it would pulse gently, as if the atmosphere were breathing, and then it would shift and gust.

The snowflakes fell lazily, sometimes sparsely, sometimes more thickly, until a breezy gust blew them horizontal. Then they looked more like asteroids streaming through space than water crystals. Overhead, against a light grey sky, they looked dark, like bits of airborne litter or ash. Once for a few minutes the clouds parted to let a bit of blue sky through, but then they closed again. Shifts in wind and changes in light were all small, undramatic, scarcely noticeable. 

Except for the slow, slight swaying of the tallest popple trees, the only living things stirring were black-capped chickadees. At first there were half a dozen of them, flitting and chipping, up in the highest branches, searching for food. After a while, there were none, and no other birds took their place.

Once in a while a heavy load of snow on a slender branch exploded in a tiny, noiseless puff and tumbled to the ground.

Leaves of grasses curled against the white ground like Arabic writing. Each dried umbel of Queen-Anne’s-lace held a small mound of snow within its curved ribs, and no two of these intricate snow-catchers were the same.

Our little nameless stream was hidden beneath the snow. No sound of the stream’s trickling challenged the wind, but the low, deep, rumbling roar of Lake Michigan, its waters still tossing from two days of wind, never ceased.

Later, at 10 o’clock, the temperature for Northport was recorded at 14 degrees Fahrenheit.