Winter Solstice 2019

snowy woodsThe winter solstice occurs on Sat. Dec. 21, 2019 at 18:19 p.m. Daylight in North America will last about 9 1/2 hours, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. After that the light will grow day by day until the longest day around June 21st.

The poem that follows was written in Venice Beach, California in 1993, a long way from Hereford Hill in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where the woods has grown ever deeper.

Winter Solstice

Such deep dark
so long sustained
should smell of balsam,
cedar, pine,
should have a canopy of icy stars,
of Northern lights,
shifting panes of white or green.

-A child under a buffalo robe
watching a sleigh runner
cut through blue
moon-shadowed snow
sees a rabbit track running off
into deep woods.-

Waking in the depth
of this longest night,
thirsty for sleep,I hear
the pounding surf,
an angry wordless shout
one floor below
and the reverberating slam
of a dumpster lid.
The sky at least is quiet:
a star hangs
above the flight path.

In my long sleep,
I have been following
that track back
into the woods
breathing spruce pitch
and resined pine,
lashed by boughs of evergreen,
until I have arrived at this
secret place
which only wild things know,
a place to shelter
while things end,
time unwinds,
the circle turns.

When we awaken,
shouting, homeless,
single and bereft,
we will go forth
into the growing light,
a light
we creatures of the dark
must yet endure.

This is the place,
now is the time
for the birth of the Child
in the cave of the heart.

The Urban Woods in Early November

Nov woods hillsideThis week I stuck to the bike path for brisk walks rather than rambling up into the woods.

Nov woods near wallI passed the culvert where the path into the woods begins.

Nov woods maplesI continued on down the paved trail covered with yellow and brown leaves that sent up the acrid smell of fall.

NOv oaksEventually the oaks came into view. This small wooded parkland contains the remanents of an oak savannah.

The sky above them was dramatic.

Nov oaks and clouds(Click on pictures to enlarge.)

The Urban Woods in Mid September

woods sunny mid SEptThe woods is very still this morning. We come down the sunny sloping path, the little caramel coloured sheba inu and I, and find a noisy smell. It takes some encouragement to get her through the domain of this angry skunk and I decide we will stick to the path just in case. Once we are through it, I hear an unseen cardinal whistle three times on the steep hillside to the left and then a chickadee call, farther off. Even the leaves of the poplars are still. The black oak leaves and the silver maple are etched against the blue sky.

blue sky above woodsI keep the walk going at a good pace in the interests of our primary mission, but once that is fulfilled and collected in the requisite stoop and scoop bag, I let the dog saunter. As we turn back three Canada Geese honk their way across the sky. They sound as if they are getting ready to migrate, but, probably, like most of their ilk, they don’t bother travelling anymore.

Now the little dog begins to show her zen-like nature, true to her Japanese genetic code perhaps. She stops beside a sunlit glade and turns her head to gaze back down the path.

sunny gladeWhat entrances her, I can not tell. Something I can not hear perhaps, for there is no nose work going on. It’s not an olfactory story she is reading. It is warm here and so quiet that I begin to relax as I wait. There are yellow flowers in front of me and a bee that hauls its whole upper body into the hanging “gondola” of the touch-me-not Jewelweed. It drinks deeply from one, tries another, finds it not to its liking and moves on.

This photo is obviously not of the yellow flower, but is the same shape.

This photo is obviously not of the yellow flower, but is the same shape.

Goldenrod made change.

Goldenrod made change.

And there are other small delights.

snail on yellow daisyA slight breeze, a true zephyr,  lifts the leaves just above our heads momentarily. Still the little dog stands gazing down the path.

Peace descends. The cares that have driven me at a fast clip along my path drop away. None of the urgent problems – economic, social and health, besetting my loved ones and me- have been resolved. They have just melted. They have been set free. I am happy. Glad of this blue-sky day in mid September. Nothing to do but breathe, at home in my urban woods.

Secrets of the Urban Woods

sunny gladeA few minutes into the woods, I come upon a sunny glade where one robin is singing from a hidden perch. I go down the sloping path to the little stream bed, almost dry now but still muddy from last Monday’s torrential downpour. I come out of the woods onto mown grass and stop, confounded. I should be able to cross this open area and begin the climb up the path to the ridge, but the opening is completely surrounded by impenetrable bushes. I go back. No, this is definitely the way. I stand and consider.

Gradually, it dawns on me that the storm has brought down a young oak and what looks like a bush is the tree’s crown. Looking closer, I see that there is a barely discernible path around it. I brush through the foliage and come out onto the trail again. A few feet farther on, another small tree’s top forces me on another bushy detour.

I come around its bend and find myself staring into the face of a young stag. He is standing in the middle of the grassy trail and gazing at me. His antlers are about 5 inches long, he is very lean and completely unafraid. He seems to be trying to figure out what kind of creature I am. We stand gazing at each other. I don’t move.

But of course, I can’t maintain that stillness. I reach into my pocket to take out my phone and as I look down to put it on camera, he moves soundlessly away and vanishes into the woods.

stag on ridge trailCan you see him? Click on the picture to expand.

Everything is changed. The rhubarb has bolted. The choke cherries have ripened.

ripe choke cherriesAnd a new species of flowering weed has attracted a host of tiny ants.

white flowerThe path along the wire fence above the settling ponds is so overgrown I can hardly find it and there are more fallen obstacles.

When I come down onto what should be the meadow, the plants are as high as my shoulder and I feel completely disoriented again.

milkweedNearer the river the milkweed flowers are about to open, to the delight, no doubt, of the monarch butterflies.

I can’t get to my usual river view because the willow is knee deep in water.willow kneee deepI can still make out the swan billing up reeds to mend her nest on the other side of the river, but only just. (Expand the picture and you will see her white dot below the apartment building.)

flooded riverAs I walk back up the paved path in the sunlight, a doe silently flies across in front of me and disappears into the copse on the other side.

Around the bend, I come upon a fallen silver maple, 50 feet long.

FALLEN MAPLEWhy are the deer awake in mid-day? The answer shivers in the air. A few miles away, people are racing million dollar cars, very noisily around a closed circuit.

I don’t regret that anymore than I regret the fallen trees. The woods is an organism, a whole thing, that thrives and dies, decays and germinates. So is the city. The race fans and the deer and this Sunday walker, taking sylvan therapy, are all parts of that larger organism.

Deadwood: a walk in the woods

I mean ‘deadwood’ in the nicest possible way.

oak crownMy local woods is part of an oak savannah that borders the river and once stood much closer to the shore of Lake Ontario. The trees are rooted in undulating sand hills, which are themselves the remnants of a prehistoric lake. Perhaps it is their loose footing that brings so many trees down. Once down, they lie where they fell. Even if they block a well-used path, the parks department let them be. Their decay is imperceptible but sure. The deadwood is host to insects and seedlings and whatever else thrives on it. Today is ideal decaying weather – very hot and humid. This is what I saw on my walk.

fallen tree #1fallen tree 2fallen tree 3 edtrickle treeThe tree above was undermined by a tiny trickle of a brook. The same trickle took down the next tree, a tall one. Its crown fell across the usual path and it took me several months to discover the detour around it.

fallen tree 5 edSomeone has ill-advisedly fashioned a rail of dead branches, certainly not a parks person.

railThere are, thank goodness, no “Use at Your Own Risk” signs nor should there be walking aids. Wood-walkers are made of hardier stuff.

fallen tree 7 hollow tree edSome oaks hang on valiantly in spite of past trauma.

new tree edMeanwhile new trees just planted near the river are loving this extremely wet June.

Lost Gardens

rosesHalf a century ago, it was still possible to amble across a hayfield on the hill where I was born and come upon the stone-walled cellar hole of a house that had been burned down or had been abandoned and had fallen in. Always you found these simple roses growing there. The cellar holes are still there but the woods has taken over the fields now, and roses do not grow in shade.

But I have found other lost gardens.

path thro woodsI go through the woods in the park half a block from my home and wend my way up to what I call the ridge trail.

sunny old roadIt must be an abandoned road that the parks people mow. I know that at one point before the place became a municipal park, it was a golf course. I have literally stumbled over the water pipes that watered the greens, But this road seems to go even further back than that. In the early spring, I would pass lilac bushes in bloom at intervals, which suggest that once there were houses dotted along it. One late spirea is still hanging on.


There hardly seems to be enough room at the edge of the road for substantial buildings. The land falls steeply off on both sides. I wonder if these were summer cottages. They would have been near the mouth of the river and in walking distance of Lake Ontario. Then I note that people have planted rhubarb.

rhubarbAnd there are honey locusts that were covered in white flowers last week.

locustsThey are young trees, so they are puzzling. Locusts are not native to these parts, but we planted one in the yard of that house under the hill I talked about in my post on Gatsby. ( And I see very tall ones on Davenport Rd, maybe 70 ft. high. Perhaps they are evidence of the golf course, but it has been gone for 50 years, in which case they would be taller. They must have self-seeded as most of the woods did once it was let to grow.

old roadwith pinesEventually, the trail leads to a small stand of pine trees and just past them a monument to the early European explorers, including Etienne Brulé, who was the first of them to sight the big lake. Then it is down a steep hill to the river, a story for another day.

river w. rushes

The Secret Life of City Deer: a walk in the woods

Thanks to Hurricane Hazel in 1958, there are no longer houses in the valleys of the three rivers that flow southward to Lake Ontario through our city. The flood plains have become parkland. I live near the western-most river where farmland that had become a golf course when Hazel hit is now a woods crisscrossed by hidden paths.

On Sunday, a friend and I set out with his shiba inu for a walk there. The park entrance is more or less across the road from where I live and is a paved bicycle/pedestrian path. We left the path almost immediately and took a dirt path into the woods. The dog decided to explore an open glade where the trilliums bloomed last May while we searched for the over-grown path we had taken a month before. My friend called her to come and she came, walking along fallen tree trunks when possible. She is a city dog and doesn’t like to get her feet dirty.

Suddenly, I found our way blocked by a huge fallen tree, 35 ft. long with 3 trunks, uprooted from the opposite side of the marshy streambed we were following. The leaves were brown and dead, so it had probably fallen in August.

Let’s try up here,” my friend said, and I started up the steep slope through the bushes.

There they were standing under a big old apple tree, staring at me. I stopped and held up my hand to caution the others. The deer ambled off. We stood very still. We could just glimpse them as they  moved, not far, maybe 50 ft. Then they stopped. I could see one of them clearly, a young buck with horns about 7 inches long. The others were not a visible, but they were equally fearless. The buck stretched his head up and pulled down an apple.

The shiba inu sat beside us wondering what had got into us now.

The ground beneath the tree we were standing under had been worn down to earth as if the deer habitually lay there.

We left them there and quietly climbed up to the ridge trail we had been making for, before we stumbled on a miracle.

We knew the deer were there because we had seen a hind a few weeks ago, running down the hill toward the river, tail flying. This woods is no bigger than a large city block but it is very hilly and its paths are tricky leading you into unexpected places. The deer can easily stay hidden and it was only the fallen tree that led us to them.