Gather around the Salty Sea Siren blog campfire and listen friends , this is my story about things I learned from life in the woods....
When my son, Alex was five and my daughter, Emily was three, we moved from the Northern California valley where I had grown up, into the woods. It is a high elevation wilderness area that will live in our memories forever as the woods of childhood wonder.
Everyday in the woods my children watched the forest grow, watched as the creek flowed, listened as it told it’s story, as it sang it’s eternal, bubbling, churning song. They knew the clear creek and all it’s stones, boulders, caves and pools. The wilderness was their “living’ room. They knew the creatures as a student knows their fellow classmates. They knew the beavers liked you to pretend they were invisible when they passed you on the creek. The children would sit very still until their classmate had passed by in comfort.
The first night of our arrival to the woods, something very strange and bone chilling happened. Having barely unpacked the kitchen, I had not had the time or energy to put up curtains. The night was framed unobstructed in the shotgun cabin’s sliding glass doors. The doors led to the large porch overlooking the creek. A wild oak grew tall between the covered porch and the creek making it even darker at night than the skyline. We did not have much furniture inside yet or a TV either. So, my children almost immediately noticed the large creature that had come onto the porch. Exhausted from the move, I had fed our Border Collie “Wiley’’ in her large bowl earlier in the day on the porch. Night had fallen, and Wiley, also exhausted from child herding, had fallen sound asleep in her bed, leaving half of her bowl full. The children tiptoed over to me in the little kitchen, where I was attempting to use the old wood cook stove. I turned and crept over to the door, my eyes adjusting to the light of the darkened winter porch. I pressed my face to the glass, and cupped my hands around my eyes to adjust for the light. As the creature came into focus, it was then that I knew my serious mistake. I stood silently in shock. Finally, Emily said, “ Mommy, what is it?”. “It’s a wolverine Em. Stay quiet and back away from the door slowly”
I knew the animal was thought to no longer inhabit Northern California. However, I had grown up wild in the foot hills and had seen one as a child while riding my Appaloosa, “Little Thing”. We had nowhere to go, so we sat quietly and watch him while he ate Wiley’s nutritious little bowl nuggets and seem to occasionally be smiling with his teeth barred during his feast.
We watched his strange, extremely large claws and movements. When he was done, I was relieved, my mother's protective sensory alarms were going off. As the children were fascinated thinking of how cool his paws were, behind my veneer of calm , my mind was taking inventory of all of the items within reach that could be used as a weapon. Then, he did something I will never forget. He came to the glass door and looked in at us as we had been looking out at him. Examining, I am assuming our paws and if we would be a threat. But then, he stayed, unmoving for several minutes. As he did, he looked at each of us. His face was next to the glass, I assume for the same reason I had pressed my face to the glass. His breath was visible on the winter porch, he peered in on us. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I felt he was communicating that these were also his woods.
Storytellers know a secret, they know that the world is made of the stories we tell ourselves. In my fifties now, and having recently lost several irreplaceable people I loved to COVID-19 in 2020, I find myself thinking about the lessons I learned from living in the wilderness. In a way, during this pandemic, we have all been in a cabin in the woods. And COVID-19, as been the uninvited dangerous guest that came up on all of our porches, it’s teeth bared, ready to pounce.In the woods, I learned that leaving Wiley's bowl out was an invitation to the wild things to picnic on my porch.
Time flows differently in the woods. The creatures are wild there, even the human creatures. Many occupants of the woods are looking to be left alone, to sit on their porches and listen to the creek sing it’s song in chorus with the crickets. I had a large black rocking chair on that porch. Sometimes, when I am meditating, I imagine I am back there in my rocking chair and that I can hear my children laughing, I can hear them singing, I can hear how the woods let them be free.
There have been many reasons I have been sad and overwhelmed during this year of COVID-19. But, listening to my children retell me stories of things they remember about childhood, homeschooling and living in a cabin in the woods are not one of them. I am grateful that during this time, my children had the skills to understand we are going back into wilderness mode. In wilderness mode, you stock up on groceries because the store is an hour away. In wilderness mode, you make everything you can from scratch because it's cheaper and better. You look at wandering strangers with caution and wonder if they are lost or intend to come onto your porch. If it’s the later, you treat them with even more caution. Mountain folks are friendly, if you are a friend, if you are an outsider, you will often find, they don’t live in the wilderness by accident, they prefer the company of bears.
This year I learned like everyone else, wear a mask, social distance, and disinfect everything. Because not doing that risks excruciating death of yourself or someone you love.
Though the world is rejoicing at the news of the vaccine and hopefully the end of the pandemic, I encourage you to retain your caution, with wolverines, bears, and humans, most of all humans. Let us have learned the lessons of public health and hygiene that will stay with us. I hope our global culture has changed for the better because of COVID-19, because, I know what we lost. And I can tell you that if we only lost my lovely cousin Letty, we still would have lost to much. She was kind, funny, brilliant, she helped struggling students through college, she was a mama, grandma, wife, friend, and community hero, we have lost so much. I watched as she died an excruciatingly painful death after three months on a ventilator. I like so many am feeling the pain this pandemic has inflicted. Let us retain the wisdom this pain has taught us, because, it has cost us so much. I know COVID-19 taught me that life is so much more fragile than I like to think it is and that I am more grateful than I thought I was capable of being. I am hopeful that this year of 2021 will be merry and bright for a world that has seen so much darkness.