Most people don’t need to be told to Go Play Outside as much as they can in the height of summer. My pre-teen son, maybe, when he’s eyebrow-deep in videogames and YouTubes of other people playing videogames. But otherwise, we all know July is a playground, don’t we?
Example: When you find yourself free for half an hour while your kid is in drum lessons (in person again, thank God and Goddess), walk up the hill so steep you have to zig-zag in switchbacks to spare your ankles.
Find an intriguing path through unfamiliar woods.
Follow the path as it loops around a park, empty but for an ancient swing set, made of wood and rusty metal, replete with one broken swing.
Count four varieties of butterflies. Pause at mossy trees, like twisted skeleton hands, among the riot of green life. Get scolded by a blue jay. Startle from an animal crashing through the woods, across your path and into the bushes on the other side, so suddenly and loudly that for a moment you aren’t sure what it was. A dog, surely, as you are surrounded by neighborhood and farmland. But those woods, that whip of a tail, that speed….
It was a dog, chasing a rabbit. Must have been a dog.
Stumble across daisies. Dare to pick a few, hoping no one in the neighborhood that is not yours will notice, or mind.
Find a complicated purple flower bubbling up on fountains of green leaves. Learn by a Google Lens search that this has the romantic name of “crown vetch”.
Wonder what a vetch is, and whether it’s some sort of curse or blessing.
More daisies, glorious daisies, all the daisies you could dream of picking. No neighbor would scold you for collecting them, for no handful could be missed in this vast galaxy of white and yellow stars.
With your fist gripping your bounty, recall that summer, and wildflowers, are free.
Lately I’ve been taking walks every Sunday with a friend. It’s socially distanced, outside, and away from our houses and kids. We’ve explored neighborhoods and trails, window-shopped our quaint downtown on shoveled sidewalks and slogged through woods on snowshoes. We both look forward to it every week, not just for the chance to get a couple hours of fresh air but for the novelty of in-person conversation.
One Sunday we were walking a trail by the Yahara River that wends through the woods. In the summer time, bullfrogs belt their basso profundo blues and red-winged blackbirds trill their swampy arias. In winter it’s far from barren, just more quiet. Snow shushes everything and the wildlife, if they aren’t sleeping deep in nests and holes, at least don’t feel like singing.
The beauty of the woods in winter is sometimes blatant – white snow sticks to black trees preening to be photographed naked – and other times elusive. Leaves turn brown, flowers die, color leaches out of the natural world. Maybe it’s that hyper-awareness that’s come from being cooped up indoors, but I found myself eagerly looking for beautiful objects this winter as if on a dare.
So when we stopped on a bench a mile and a half from our cars, I didn’t just notice the big black oaks that twist so dramatically. I tuned in to a small white branch among the decaying foliage.
I got close to inspect it. Along the pale branch were curling whisps like a grapevine seeking a fence, and leaves that still had all their fibers and structure but none of their color. I’d never seen this kind of ghost leaf before, but since then I’ve realized they’re pretty common in the Midwest. Back in Montana, the leaves either dry and crumble, or rot into dirt, not stop halfway through and decide to haunt the forest floor.
I was reaching for them, lacey leaves like delicate wings, and I wanted to explain to my friend why I was so interested in dead leaves. I wish I’d thought to call my collection of dry naked sticks a “winter bouquet,” but sometimes writers aren’t eloquent on the spot. So I plucked the ghost vines and said, “I have this vase of … desiccated things in my house, and I want to add this to it.”
She laughed. “If I had to pick a phrase that described how you decorate,” she said, “it would be ‘I have this vase of desiccated things in my house.’”
It sounded more morbid than I usually think of my eclectic and colorful home, but at the same time, she’s not wrong. I collect shells and rocks, feathers and sticks with ant writing. I have a couple animal skulls (clean), a paper wasp nest (empty), and an enormous array of crystals. My husband tends more toward strange devices and mechanical things, like microscopes, pocket watches, and an antique electroshock machine with a hand crank.
It’s important to have friends who truly see you, and who can put a name to your truths.
My winter bouquet had two sticks in it. One was furred with white fungus, the other had two tiny white cups of mushroom like wee satellite dishes or heavy-lidded eyes. Longer than flowers, they cast dramatic shadows in their vase. A grey feather and empty milkweed pods added variety in texture. The ghost vines were next. I took a lot of time arranging them so they would shoot out in just the right direction, create a pleasing line along and away from the rest of the bouquet. I added long flat grass fronds and tight dark stems of headless flowers, which my cats promptly destroyed.
All in all the arrangement has an otherworldly feel that I like. When you think about it, our world becomes a bit alien in winter, as plants die, wildlife sleeps, and humans often hide themselves away. The seed pods, curling and hairy, look as if something strange and possibly tentacled had hatched out of them. The ghost leaves whisper, translucent, of the world before the seasonal apocalypse. Everything is stark, minimal, silhouetted.
I’ve picked up random gifts from Mother Nature on a regular basis (one of my many witchy habits), but I never chose to arrange them deliberately until this winter. Now as spring is booting up and it’s past time to take down the Christmas lights on the porch, I’m unsure what to do with my vase of desiccated and beautiful oddments. Should I pack it away, bundling them carefully into a box in the attic with my other seasonal décor? Or should I sprinkle them in my backyard bushes and kitchen garden, letting them return to the earth and resume their arrested decay? If I keep them, am I depriving future winters of the joy of collecting a new array of Spartan beauties?
As usual, I’m overthinking it. Of course I will pack them away. Next autumn or winter, I’ll take them out, cull the bits that have crumbled to dust or wilted beyond saving. The rest will go back in their vase, standing tall and austere in the corner of my dining room, and I’ll add more ghost leaves or cemetery weeds or whatever next winter decides to gift me. I’ll find a way to celebrate in the dark times and appreciate the loveliness in demise.
After all, it’s who I am.
All the best,
Post script: After I took my photos, I left the winter bouquet in my library instead of putting it back on the high cabinet in the dining room. A crash and skitter, spilled sand and broken sticks, and I instantly remembered how impermanent nature’s beauty can be. Thanks, Fluffy, Topaz, and Ruby, for reminding me!
Snow on the ground this morning, the first of the season.
And not a little snow – 2 or 3 inches. An impressive amount for October in
I’d gone to bed in a foul mood after an up and down day. I
got the first proof copies of my book, The Flight of The Starling, in the mail,
which was thrilling, but I also spent half the day fighting with Microsoft Word
and Adobe Acrobat over an embedded fonts problem. A stupid technical glitch
that I have to fix in order to publish this book. So close and yet so far.
Plus the kids didn’t want to get out of bed, and for some reason, my son, who’s ten, decided that snow was the worst thing that could’ve happened to him. Oh what a hassle. We’ll have to find all our snow gear. (Nevermind that I did that while they ate breakfast.) Why oh why does the school make us put on snow pants to play outside? On and on. His grumpiness infected me. By the time I was driving them to school – late out the door, plus extra minutes scraping the car – I was as pissed at the October snow as he was.
When I got back home, I realized I needed to reset. First
snows are magical, and that is my quest: to seek out the magical aspects of
life, to acknowledge that awe can be found every day if only we look. More troubleshooting
is still ahead of me today, and I didn’t want to give in to the dark clouds so
early in the day. I decided I would try my best to appreciate the first snow,
to look with new eyes and see the wonder in it, dammit.
All it took was a walk around my block. The first thing I
noticed was the sounds, a shushing and a plopping as the trees threw snowballs
with their leaves. (Yes, I got hit, once. Yes, I shrieked.)
The neighbors’ potted plant, long leaves thickened with
snow, became a tentacled monster. Halloween decorations turned cartoonish,
plastic skeletons grinning at their foolishness in the extra bright light. A
huge rope spiderweb tied to porch rails sparkled with frost.
The trees dropped spontaneous snow-showers, flash flurries
that glittered in the morning sun, silver and gold. The orange and red leaves
on the sidewalk stood out more sharply, a last flame of fall before the black
and white of winter.
It wasn’t just the snow itself that seemed beautiful – it
was the autumn snow. The October snow. And of course, bare black trees outlined
in clinging white are pretty hard to growl at. My cheeks grew pleasantly
chilled in one block, and the warmth inside my front door was welcoming and
The hardest part of finding the
magic was deciding that I could.