Now, at last, as quiet has come to the woods, I take a moment for creation.

The dog and I pad out onto the forest trails and wander amid nature’s discards — the dried and decaying leaves, the curls of birch bark, the shed cones nibbled by squirrels, the bowls of nests evident now that the leaves have been shed, their cover blown. Stripped to the basics that winter lays down as law, nature seems transparent almost, giving up secrets the way an old abandoned farmhouse might, signs of former occupants gathering dust motes and memories into slow disrepair — and finally, disappearance altogether.

Actually, it is more reflex than remembrance that animates the landscape, now that things are clearer, and stark in the cold light. At dawn, even before the human day has cranked up to a whine, silence lies like hoar frost on the blades of grass and fallen leaves, the thousand shapes of ice flakes making a nuisance of themselves on the path to the car and across the windshield. What is frozen stops us, if only for a moment, and presents — as though a gift — a chance to see.

These are the mornings and early dusks when, all around, the little world that is universe to me surrenders to the sharp clarity of a pen and ink sketch: the trees’ trunks and limbs as detailed as lines scratched out in India ink, the conifers the greens of watercolor washing into nowhere.

Snooping around outdoors, along the foundations of the house, I ferret out indistinct circles, holes the chipmunks have dug under the crawl space. I trace out in my imagination where the mice and voles have skittered in tunnels of leaves, and I take in the remains of the late moths’ wings, blown to bits like burned parchment along the outer walls and window sills.

Friends fret over my fate out here in the country, in a small wooden house set on rock, well off a back road. Already, though snow has barely made an inroad into the season, they are worrying about access and egress from the habitat that deer will negotiate daily and hawks haunt, unmoved and unmoving, in the cold hunt from their posts in the treetops. Death, I know, is a dark form that descends from above, for any creature crawling without care or caution in the litter of the earth.

Even my short forays out these days plunge me into praise and prayer. This happens over and over, like the cycles of the moon, because nature is as spiritual a thing to me as it is material in its multitudes of physical forms. The riot of life, muted for a season, restores the breath of mediation over the land, and as I walk, even the rattle of leaves underfoot fractures into a whisper of ecstasy building to bliss.

I try to keep it simple, the prayer of gratitude that rises inchoate in me, wrapping itself like a shroud around my shoulders and enveloping me like a penitent’s veil. My mind, ordinarily too busy for its own good or for the worship of all that really matters, ticks down to a slow, steady beat and something Gregorian swells in me, needing only the interior chant of thanks, thanks, for this place, this moment, this breath.

Still the twigs snap as I move, and the leaves forget themselves, churning into humus as the dog shuffles through the scrub, snuffling for the last, least signs of life in the landscape. I am so comforted by sound that holds no human voice, just the racket of a gait roiling leaf litter like a tide on the forest floor. This progress, little and brief though it is, suffices, this and the thump of a cane, carved from the elbow of a tree. I hold on to support stronger than I can count on from myself, a broken branch to mark time and keep the journey going, this foot after that one, a step at a time, destination unknown.

And no more, I understand now, the need to know.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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