All through the natural year there are reasons to love being outdoors. There are all the living things, animals and plants, that fill our senses with color and light as well as scents both wild and wonderful. There are the textures of the seasons, from soft and lush to brittle and stark. There is the ever-changing night sky and the ongoing symphonies that fill our heads and hearts with an amazing variety of sounds.
This time, however, early winter after the excruciating hubbub of the holiday commercialism has died down to a dull roar I can easily ignore, is my favorite. The air is crisp and sharp, letting my senses reboot and restart. Colors are muted, sounds are less strident, and the crowds of birds, mammals, insects, turtles and frogs have shrunk until they seem almost a whisper of memory.
Not all have disappeared of course. Put out fresh seed and suet in the bird feeders, and you will soon have a regular parade of visitors. Blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, mourning doves and an assortment of sparrows and woodpeckers will arrive and help themselves. Squirrels will also avail themselves of your generosity, and if you peer through dark windows at night you may also see mice, possums, flying squirrels, raccoons and skunks poking about. Deer, foxes, coyotes and fishers are still here, many hungry enough to show themselves in daylight hours. Suburban living has made some animals pretty lazy in their nocturnal habits. They no longer have to hunt only by night, and it is no reason for alarm if you see a normal looking coyote or fox walking or running through your yard or down your street. Rabies can always be a concern, though not a common one in our area, so do beware oddly acting or aggressive animals. Looking at your dog is not aggression, by the way. It is most likely curiosity.
This is a wonderful time to walk in the woods, take a meander around a pond or a long hike down a beach. Leave the earbuds at home and just enjoy the sounds and sights nature has prepared for us. There is a banquet of delight awaiting us if we only take a deep breath and quietly enter our chosen walking spot with attention and respect.
I prefer to walk alone in nature. It allows me to give my full self to the experience. I can stop and listen to the trees, enjoy the crackle of old leaves beneath my feet. I can breathe in the deep green smells of moss and pine and the clean scents of gray and golden lichens.
This is when I see where the Cooper’s hawk nested and where the white-faced hornets had an enormous hive. Later in the winter the nest will have suffered wind damage and birds such as titmice will have torn the hive apart looking for larvae as well as soft paper to line their own roosts and nests.
I may happen upon the cocoons of insects, the seeds of next summer’s wildflowers and the tracks and scat of animals that have walked these same paths earlier in the day.
At the beach I can slow my breathing to match the breath of the waves. I can watch the sand roll in and out and in and out in a never-ending rhythm as old as time. I can stare back at a gull staring at me and listen to the murmur of ducks and geese as they feed nearby.
The winter sea can be dark and mysterious, and I contemplate the depths where the fish and crabs have retreated. There are shells and feathers and egg cases to pick up and examine, perhaps a carcass or two of a bird that didn’t make it through the last storm. Confronting death on the beach or in the forest is a natural thing but it always gives me pause. Ever since I was a little child I’ve wondered about death and animals, whether they know it is coming, whether they fear it like humans do or whether they are unaware until it just happens. I’ll never know the answer to those questions, but I suspect that the instinct to flee from danger is an age-old response to avoiding death. Even a worm wriggles away from that which will hurt it. Humans think they have this life and death awareness and appreciation all to themselves, but imagine if that isn’t true. Imagine if a nasty kid deliberately smashing polliwogs on the ground should have to suffer the same fate as if they had smashed human babies? It would be a whole different world, wouldn’t it?
These are only a few thoughts I have as I make my way walking alone, meditating in and on nature on a bright winter day. Perhaps we should all do this a little more often. Perhaps the keys to true compassion and empathy are to be found in simple meditative walks. It’s worth a try.