Nature's Advice


Darrel G. Smith

© Copyright 2011 by  Darrel G. Smith


Photo of blackbirds in autumn trees.

This is the true story of a man who retreats into the wilderness in the hope of  finding answers.

The morning sun had not yet cut the forest into shadow and light, and the gray mist of the coming day blanketed the autumn dawning, muting the reds and yellows of the not too distant trees. Still the fog was not so thick that one could not appreciate the fallen leaves that cascaded like a mosaic down the hillside to the forest floor

Last night’s fire still glowed in places where bright embers peaked out from beneath the blacks and grays of the ashes. The flames however, were gone due to lack of attendance; I remedied that by adding a few small sticks to the embers and then blowing gently on the coals until the flame popped through licking and snapping at its new host twigs. Without leaving my warm sleeping bag, I continued the process, adding more twigs, then a branch or two, and eventually a couple of small logs. Soon the fire was hot and cozy, but my main objective for getting the fire going again was not for my own warmth, though admittedly it was a pleasant by product. I pushed my carefully prepared coffee pot into a nest of coals, sure to keep the handle pointing away from the hot fire. My morning ritual was not fire building, it was coffee, and I saw no reason to break the tradition just because I was lying on a forest floor instead of my home in the suburbs.

A small flock of birds had landed in the trees across the lake and the fluttering black wings slapped and echoed. The chaotic chirping added to the mêlée as the flock hop scotched around in a pattern whose logic and reason is only known to black birds. The occasional red tip shoulder broke through the black blotchy pattern that the birds made on the leafless branches.

The birds seemed welcomed by the stark morning, and so did I. There was a sense of oneness to the forest. The feeling of the morning permeated deeply into my psyche as I realized I, like the birds, contributed to that oneness. My presence here felt as natural as the birds chirping around me. On this day in this world, in this moment, my presence was rooted, and I felt a deep belonging.

It wasn’t that I disliked the city. It’s just I had grown up in the forest, it spoke to me, memories that had lain dorment and just beneath the surface were awakened here. Answers came to me here. Currently my circumstances seemed to be echoed not only by the birds, but by the great oaks behind me and the young willows before me. I felt that the black birds migration south had brought with it a great stirring within me. I could identify with that migration. This coming and going, leaving and returning, the losses and gains of my own life mimicked the seasons in a profound way. The coffee had begun to boil and the smell stirred anticipation.

The first taste of morning coffee ‘cooked,’ not brewed, over an open flame is unique, and one that would not be welcomed at most coffee houses. It’s a taste that belongs to the woods, pored boiling hot into a tin cup that must be shifted from hand to hand so as not to burn the fingers. Its bitter flavor is savored as bits of coffee grind are filtered through the teeth and spat upon the ground. This is trail coffee, strong, black, and full just like the forest that surrounds it. The first sip tells you where you are.  It is basic, uncomplicated, and definitely not a latté.

The black birds were on the move again. They had jumped a few trees closer as if they were determined to get the morning moving. I had run to the forest for comfort, it was, in a way, my own migration. The movement of the city and its obligations weighing on me as if I were the leading character in some Greek tragedy, the type with all its lessons and morals of great example for others, but of no great comfort for the character who was losing everything in the story. I needed a respite.  The forest then and now had always been my refuge.  It was the place for my own shedding of leaves, and, more importantly, for  my own migration away from the sensory overload of my daily life.  I needed it to stay sane.

I was here because I had lost the game, not because I had won it. I was here to heal and find a way to begin again. I was here because I was in my fall and winter was coming and I needed to prepare. The bitter coffee was soothing, the black birds were almost right on top of me now and like them I was going to have to make another move to get where I needed to be. If winter caught me now I would not recover. I needed my retreat into the forest to be followed by my own hop-scotching of activity.  I would need to return to my home and make noises that would bring back my family’s confidence in me.  I would need to find the path to better grounds where winter was not so harsh and the life cycle could continue. After three heart attacks before the age of forty one I had closed my business and my life had become uncertain. I had moved from place to place, and job to job without success. I had aged, and the years had passed with great struggle and few rewards.

And yet. . . the scars on the great oaks spoke of hard winters and great storms that had come and gone, yet they endured. The young willows bent gently to the wind and promised healing for those who could learn to adapt, and the black birds talked of movement in accordance to the season. 

The wind was mild but persistent and the sun, in keeping with the colors of the day, rose orange-red against the bluing horizon. The grey mist that had given a moist start to the morning was now giving way to a bright cloudless sky. The black birds continued to migrate southward now, passing my little campsite as I pulled myself from my sleeping bag.

I was a part of this menagerie of events. I would endure, adapt, rise and fall again and again, and my children would do the same. This was the pattern of a man’s life, a man’s migration. 

I threw out the last bit of coffee in the cup.  It had cooled and trail coffee needs to be extremely hot for me to drink it. 

I was ready for winter; my decision made. There was a job waiting further south.  We would migrate.  After all, it was the season.

I was born in 1960. I am an unremarkable man who tries to tell remarkable stories.

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