A Way Within

A few days ago our winter warmth arrived. Eight tons of beech were unloaded at the foot of the garden, having been hauled from the mountain forests behind our home. It’s now been bandsawed by the woodcutters who do the rounds of the village with a tractor-mounted blade, the rising metallic whine starting with the light each day. They worked on into the dark, sawing their way through decades of fibrous life in seconds. When Julia took a lamp to them at dusk they declined it with a shrug. Whether they were comfortable with not seeing or just crazy I couldn’t say, but come morning the wood and sawdust was ridged along the drive and glazed with frost. Now it’s awaiting our labours.

A close friend who visits most years is helping me with the work. Along with carting the split wood into the garden, we’re building a gate to replace the slumped boards that no longer swing open but grind reluctantly out of the way. Chris and I have known each other for many years, having lived, worked and travelled together at various stages over that time. The essence of a close friendship is its already established intimacy. There’s no need for a conversation to begin for it never ended; the wheel keeps turning while we’re away. We talk while we work, catching up with the lives of mutual friends and acquaintances, the journeys we’ve made during the year or those yet to begin; we discuss Chris’s deepening meditation practice and the multitude of possibilities for engaging with the natural world.

We both catch sight of the shifting light on the hills as we measure up the wood or barrow beech along the path. We turn away from our labours when a bird cleaves the blue sky, when a butterfly drifts near, finding enough of the November sun to stay afloat. Without the need to speak about it, we both hear the call of the land and the pull of the light, the twin sparks  steering us along the day’s undiscovered course.

Chris and I leave the tools in the shed one morning and step out through the broken gate, past the hill of waiting wood with barely a look at it. We meet up with François, a French environmental educationalist living in the village, and carry on down to the lowland plain where a willow-fringed river can be followed through a spread of dense reeds, where wet meadows pool with young frogs and the tilled fields hold on to their harvest stubble. It felt as if spring had suddenly risen when we arrived; on such days of layered and trembling light, when the very air itself seems within reach, I’m reminded of  a line by the American naturalist John Muir: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

We each walked at our own pace, absorbed by a particular set of connections unique to our internal worlds. We were picking up different signals from the landscape, sifting and reshaping them, allowing them in. These differing sensitivities dictated the ways that we wandered until we gathered by something of mutual interest: the sharp notes of a cetti’s warbler calling invisibly from behind a barricade of weeds, the glistening stand of fungi sprouted by autumn rains or the reed song rising and falling, finding its way on the wind. The morning resolved into mystery, something just beyond the edge of my reckoning. I have no language for that mystery, at least no words that do it justice. And I’ve learned to stop looking, simply to embrace it while it’s there.

On a walk along the same river last winter, François and I had watched a European wildcat navigate the glittering snow while hunting in daylight. The cold weather must have edged it out of its nocturnal world to seek sustenance beneath the sun. Now François turned to me as we walked beside the fields where we had seen it and said, “So far no surprises. But there will be.” The fields were furrowed and splayed with light while geese streaked above the reedbeds, their strident calls sounding like a homage to home, guiding them back down to their grounds. A raptor flushed from a gully beside us and trailed off into a poplar at the end of a field. We offered guesses to the bird’s identity, but none of us had seen it well enough to tell.

We crabbed forward through the fallow mud until the bird slowly focused with each step, wedged between two branches like it had been set in a sling. There was a silence that I wasn’t even aware of until much later; the bird’s orange breast materialised in the tree, the dark mantle of its head. When it arrowed from the tree we followed its course. Its sharp-edged wings knifed the air, a dark and hurtling form shying away from us. Its smallness was suggestive, along with its striking agility. Having summered as far north as Siberia, the bird was a wintering male merlin that will stay in Prespa until spring. The raptor curved beyond the reeds, spilling into the mystery. It was only the second time I’d seen a merlin in over a decade, and although it was gone within seconds its echo still shimmered. “There is today’s surprise,” said François, smiling his way to the end of the track. 

Chris and I are back at the wood today, stacking it to face the cold winter sun. And the gate’s nearly finished, though until we set it into place there’s an empty space where the old one had been. It’s reminding me to keep things open, to let the things of the world unfold. And though we’ve returned to our garden labours, trying to get the wood in before it rains, there’s a part of me that’s still going out. 

Any thoughts regarding the identity of the mushrooms would be much appreciated. We’d at first thought they were Field Blewits, but are now having doubts. Thanks…

13 thoughts on “A Way Within

    1. Thanks for reading, Paul! And I’m glad you liked it – this time of year is often regarded as quiet on the wildlife front but there always seems to be something going on. We do sometimes pick wild mushrooms to eat, though I confess to not being a big fan of their taste. Just one of those odd things really. But I love finding them on the forest floor or across the autumn meadows. A real delight; there’s a mood and character around fungi and the places they grow that I find entrancing.

      Apologies for not having yet replied to your thoughtful comment the other day. Along with the wood work we’ve been gettting some last mountain walks in before the snow and I just haven’t had the time to reply with the care the comment requires. I’ll get back to you soon though. Thanks again.

      Cheers,
      Julian

  1. I am totally convinced now that you are incapable of writing anything bad Julian! This was a feast for the imagination. I will have to ask, though, that you stay in good humor when I ask what is winter warmth? I am afraid I have been tropical all my life and the nuances of the changes of the seasons in the temperate zone are beyond my range of experience.

    I noticed you ask about the mushrooms. I do not know what they are but they look delicious!

    BTW, our own version of the cold season has arrived; but I was in Manila today for a football match, the boys played at 1pm and the temperatures at ground level, I am sure were in the lower 30s. And this is supposed to be the cold season already… :(

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

    1. Thanks so much, Rex; for the kind words and support. Much appreciated, as always. I had a nice laugh when I read your description of the Manila cold season! I’ve often wondered in what ways climate shapes world cultures and the personalities of their people. I love the four distinct seasons of my experience, but that might be because it’s all I’ve ever known. One of these years I’d like to live in a temperate zone in order to explore how I feel about it, and what changes I notice about myself as well as discovering the natural wonders that only temperate places can provide. I’ll let you know how it goes!

      As to our winter warmth – the beech wood is our only heat. Though nowhere near as cold as growing up in Canada, the winters here can have plenty of snow and temperatures down to about -10 or -15 Celsius. In some years the small lake freezes and the children living on a island in the middle of it used to walk across the ice to get to school. Now there’s a footbridge, though, so there’s only the romance of old photographs to show us what used to happen! But just as often the sun comes out and we pass through weeks of warm winter weather when the lizards sneak back into the garden, coming out of the holes between the stones of the house and garden walls where they pass the cold days. But like many people here, we’ve just closed down the top floor of the house until April or May and have moved downstairs where we live and sleep by the woodstove, which makes a wonderful backdrop sound to the snow falling outside!
      Cheers,
      Julian

      1. Thanks Julian! Even your reply is a pleasure to read. I do not actually live in Manila, so 30+ Celsius is stifling to me. Where I live, about an hour and half south, is about a thousand feet above sea level and so much more pleasant.

        I shudder just thinking of the -15 you mentioned. The coldest we get here is 12-14 Celsius; and when these days come out come the warm clothes!!! I visited the Bay Area in CA once and to this day, they still talk to me as the one who was always cold :)

        BTW, an officemate is currently in Vancouver having attended a relative’s wedding. The pictures he has shared look lovely with the snow and all; but he proclaims he will not feel sorry to see the last of it and that he appreciates our sunny islands all the more because of the wintry cold!

        Warm regards.

        Rex Raymond

  2. Hi Julian: There’s nothing like knowing you have all your winter’s warmth stowed away, it must feel great. When I was reading about how you no longer need to look, I realized that this has happened for me, too. I have spent the past year practicing mindfulness, and for some time I was very purposeful in paying attention to everything around me when I was walking and being in the moment, and now I realize it is no longer something I even need to think about when I’m in nature (but it can still be a challenge elsewhere). Thanks for that!

    I also really liked this: “The essence of a close friendship is its already established intimacy. There’s no need for a conversation to begin for it never ended; the wheel keeps turning while we’re away.” I just love the idea of the conversation having never ended. I think I will send this to an old friend of mine. Beautiful post.

    1. Precisely, Cait! That stack of wood is a great joy. A few years ago, when the autumn was torrential with rain, the cutters couldn’t get the logs off the mountain. We watched our dry supply from the previous year dwindle with each day. And then it began to snow. Heavily. We found someone in a town about 50 kilometres over the mountains that had some wood for sale and we drove our old pick-up over to buy their last ton. I was sure we wouldn’t make it over the pass, but it did, and that single ton was a blessed relief. A couple of weeks later the weather dried and our usual wood made it down. So these days I’m double pleased when the wood pile gets built before the snow!

      I love the way you put it: practicing mindfulness. That notion of paying attention is so valuable, so enriching. And yet like so many things – the playing of an instrument, handling tools, cooking – it requires practice and care. And I can certainly see the tangible results of your mindfulness in your exquisite images, their patient attention to detail. Perhaps like yourself, I feel something happen when I’m out on the land, like the fragments of a pattern suddenly slide easily together.

      I’m honoured that you’d like to send the post to an old friend. If you haven’t already, there’s an email button at the bottom of the post that might be useful for you. Thanks so much for reading, Cait. It’s always a delight to hear your thoughts.

      1. No wonder you appreciate the dry wood so much! What a journey you had to undertake to get it. You’ll surely have a cozy winter this year.

        Thanks for what you said about my images, Julian, how very thoughtful of you. It’s interesting to think about how being in the moment might affect the photographs or other work we do. Looking forward to your next post!

  3. You are fortunate to have a friend like Chris, I like the idea that your conversation never ends… just picks right up again. All the sights and sounds and smells of the season you describe are so appealing, and I love the John Muir quote, too. Nature always offers us something spiritual each time we take a walk, and we never quite know what it will be, but it always seems to be something tailored to delight us. Those are interesting looking mushrooms, and the frog is cute. Wonder what he’s thinking… I know I’ve said it before, but you are blessed to be living in such a beautiful, natural setting. Even getting to work outdoors sounds so refreshing to me!

    1. A pleasure to hear from you, Barbara! And I’m so glad you liked the post. As you rightly say, I’m blessed to be living in a place where the “sights and sounds and smells of the season” reveal themselves so abundantly. And I’m extremely fortunate in my friendships.

      The Muir quote has stayed with me for some years now since first reading it. It appeals to me on that very spiritual level which you mention, when the inner and the outer coincide. When a moment can unfold into something extraordinary. I reckon the frog was utterly perplexed by the strange creature leaning over a pool of water with a camera to the point of almost falling in! Hope you’re well and enjoying your own journeys, either going out or going in! Thanks for stopping by…
      Best wishes,
      Julian

  4. I am very late to visit here but reading through all the eloquent comments and your thoughtful and interesting replies, I can’t say I’m sorry. Not that the post does not stand alone, but I’ve very much enjoyed the flow of conversation that has resulted from it.

    “…going in” – That’s just how I feel in the middle of a work day, when I leave the hubbub of the school for the quiet of the forest. I fairly run out the door and once within the towering conifers, I feel I am home. I can breathe and I could swear that my blood flows more smoothly.

    Your wordsmithing (…smithery? :) ) as always is an absolute pleasure – “…a bird cleaves the blue sky”, “The raptor…spilling into the mystery”. I could go on but you must know how artful you are with language. I so do enjoy it, your linguistic music.

    The story itself says so much about your necessary and chosen close connection to your natural and human world. The significance of the chain of labour required to acquire ‘winter’s warmth’ do not fall lightly here and is something we should all think more about here where are homes are heated so apparently effortlessly.

    1. Never too late to hear from you, Cindy! It’s always a delight, but I agree that the comments find a flow of their own and open up the conversation so that others can offer their own thoughts and perspectives which adds a wonderful depth to the original idea. As much as we discussed recently the notion that any individual art form doesn’t stand alone, neither do the ideas that influence the work itself. It’s great having this back and forth swaying of words and shared memories from the various places that people are reading these posts from. I’m truly grateful for that coming together, and it furthers my own thoughts immensely.

      Landing here in a pretty remote part of Greece, we quickly got a sense of that “chain of labour” in bringing warmth to homes. The loggers that cut for our village still use donkeys to pull the wood from the forests. Watching them one winter while the animals skittered down shelves of mud and ice while loaded with hundreds of kilos of logs strapped to their flanks was a harrowing and enlightening experience. The loggers were a family – mother, father and grown children – and they worked so closely with every aspect of our winter’s fire supply that I began to see how immemorial that equation has been. Much of that skill and intimacy has been lost, of course, replaced by clear-felling even here in other parts of the lake basin, but that knowledge and proximity also revealed something else to me that Chris and I talked about while working: the untold energies that has gone into the firewood, from the fungi and rains and leafmold of the forest floor nourishing the trees to the men and women and oil drawn from deep beneath the earth for their saws; from the donkeys fed on hay to the swirling blades of the bandsaw and the muscles of the workers who heaved the logs into place here in the village. Stacking it is such a small part of that chain that you talk about. But what is fascinating is how it’s all energy, existing in different forms, but being shifted and transformed from medium to medium. The crackle and hum of the wood while I write this is deeply comforting; it reminds me of the places and faces that brought it here.
      Thanks, as always, for the interesting thoughts…
      Julian

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