Winter Woods

Mild temperatures following a fresh deposit of snow provided all the inspiration needed for a hill walk. Grabbing my walking stick, I left the house and climbed slowly through the woods. I paused at an old abandoned car and noted the attempts of nature to reclaim the broken elements.


I listened to the four-hoots of a great horned owl, a wild but muted sound. A red-tailed hawk screeched. I caught my breath at the calling, peered high at the bark scrapes on a maple tree. There, porcupine– the sleeper, its quill-back pushing through the doorway of a den.

Porky, at den…

And bear– day-old tracks of a reawakened bruin. I followed claw prints into the hemlock gulley, thought again of how the thin veneer of winter overlies an infinite vitality. Life goes on no matter how scarce, how quiet it becomes. Science and poetic imagination can embrace and dance at a time like this.

bear track, left of glove…

I thought of one of the earliest poems I’ve ever written, composed from a walk like this one 45 years ago… “Wind Dance” :  The wind dance of the pines/ surges the muscled spirit/ On green-winged outlaw feet/ As grimed city zephyr bodies/ brighten through wild swinging gates/ And arch-bellied squirrels, robed in artist reds,/ Nimbly paint a sun on the sky/ with russet resined brushes… It isn’t Whitman, but I still like the place from which it came.

Just west of the hemlocks and on to the summit, the woods have been cut recently because of the ash tree borer. The great white ash trees have been sawn and hauled away, and many of the smaller, less valuable trees have been dropped to lie scattered on the forest floor. My feet sank into snowcapped muck inside the bulldozer’s path. It’s sad: these native species dwindling due to invasive killers– white ash, hemlock, beech, and pine– perhaps destined to join the ghostly ranks of elm and chestnut…

In the solitude of the hour, I climbed at a porcupine’s pace, my still hunt for whatever small surprise that nature might unveil. Those trees… Did they scream like villagers in a fire-fight when chainsaws bit through their roughened skins? Did they suffer in ways known only to the trees? Was their energy released to forest evolution, or allowed to dissipate like old farms dying of penury and hardship?

Bear tracks again… This time in the aging summit fields. The bear must have shuffled through here prior to its downhill turn. I paused from my bushwhacking efforts, from the freedom of a hilltop ramble, finding traces of the past, and passage of society…

bear tracks, leading downhill…

A stone foundation. Farmhouse. Nothing left but cellar walls, barren lilacs, and a skeletal yard tree. Beyond them, a rusted milk can, scattered pieces of forgotten machinery. Gone– a family’s view of the distant valley. There was history, though, for those who seek it. There was emptiness embracing the moment from all directions. Yet, within that emptiness– miles of land and water, intricate forms, discoveries, each one with a story to be told.

stone remnants, farmhouse on the summit…

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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19 Responses to Winter Woods

  1. Brilliant photographs. You seem very calm about the bear tracks … the closest we’ve come to that walking the forests in England are wild boar.

    • Thank you, Tiny… In this area, black bear are reluctant to encounter humans and usually try to keep some distance. I consider it fortunate to get close enough to see one. Wild boar, such as you might discover, are found mostly in the South & Southwestern U.S.

  2. tiostib says:

    So many stories surround us, thank you for paying attention, listening, and sharing the wonders of your local world.

  3. plaidcamper says:

    I enjoyed your not so solitary walk, the shadows and ghosts as present as the wildlife. Winter isn’t a dead season, more of a pause, and a time to ponder – and wander!
    Thanks, Walt, for the photographs and those early lines. Not Whitman, but Franklin, and that’s pretty good!

  4. loydtruss says:

    A scenic post, with the milk, can being my favorite. Should the bear be hibernating in the dead of winter?? Thanks for sharing

    • Thanks Bill. Yes, you’d think the bear would be hibernating now, especially in New York in a time of snow, but a few mild days must have been enough to waken a bear or two interested in obtaining a snack.

  5. Brent says:

    Beautiful prose and repurposed poetic lines to accompany a not-unpleasantly melancholic journey through the woods. The car and house foundation are unfamiliar to me, though. What direction from the house?

  6. Lester Kish says:

    But the real question is, did the bear see his shadow?

  7. Les, Barely sez eye (given the cloud condition)!

  8. Bob Stanton says:

    A nice winter reverie, Mr. Franklin. Few things depress me these days as much as the sight of a stand of dead or dying ash trees and I can’t help but wonder other’s felt the same distress when the chestnuts went away.

    • Thanks, Mr. Stanton, I’ve wondered the same. Ash trees, hemlocks… going the way of chestnut trees? There must have been some folks despondent back then, even without the hindsight we now have. But cheerless, for sure.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Rebirth and rejuvenation is right around the corner Walt! Hang in there!
    I’m never sure how my comment will be ‘signed’.
    So, thusly…

  10. Thanks Tiny Potager. Bear sightings are especially rewarding because these animals are utterly wild and still have some traits that seem almost human-like.

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