The woods are never silent. Did you know that? People talk about the ‘peace and quiet of the deep woods,’ but they’re never… actually… completely… still. The slightest of breezes will move the branches of boxelder, poplar, and cottonwood, and the wood sings to itself in little sighs, creaks and gentle clatters. When the snow is falling it hisses and slides against the branches and brush. At night the mice scurry through the leaves under the snow, rustle-rustle-crackle-rustle. At dawn and dusk the deer and the rabbit are moving, searching for browse, moving to or from bedding areas or water. During the day the squirrels race along branches and trunks to the ground, digging up the nuts they buried for winter forage; chickadees call and flit from branch to branch; woodpeckers tap at the trees with the hollow hammer sound that echoes through the woods.
Does the snow muffle that natural noise? Yes. Is there a near-reverent, cathedral-like hush? Absolutely yes. But the woods are never completely still or silent.
Last Sunday morning I was sitting in a deer stand, well bundled against the winter cold, twenty gauge lying across my lap, waiting. It was still predawn; the sky was dark, and the snow had reflected only just enough light for me to see where I was placing my feet as I maneuvered around the brush on my way to the stand.
Now, I realize that I have put myself on a limb by mentioning that I’m a hunter. It seems to be one of those subjects where everyone has an opinion – it’s right, it’s wrong, it’s good, it’s evil, it’s helpful, it’s cruel. And whether or not I agree with what people think, whether or not I understand the reason why, I know that by and large they have good reason for feeling the way they do.
There’s a special kind of inner quiet that comes with sitting in the woods… in winter… in the slow and gradual growing light of dawn. You huddle inside your many layers, trying not to pull the fabric tightly to you because it’s actually the air pockets you’re creating between your body and your clothes that are keeping you warm. If you’re a hunter or a photographer, you gaze into the dark, letting eyes and mind relax. Trust me, you don’t need to actively watch; you can be staring at nothing at all for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time; let there be any kind of movement within the range of your vision and your eyes snap to it before you’re consciously aware that you’ve seen something. (What a marvelous piece of mechanism is the human body!) And you have to be still. Absolutely still. Because the creatures you’re out there to find have well coordinated senses, hyperaware and perfect for pinpointing you before you’ve seen them. So if you want to know if they’re approaching from a place you can’t see, you also have to listen.
No electronics. No radio or cell phone. No pets or spouse or kids needing attention. And if you want to see what you came to see, you have to be still. Quiet. Your senses are passive instead of being constantly bombarded…
And I thought, Everyone should experience this. Even if it’s only once in their lifetime, everyone should take ten, fifteen, thirty minutes to meditate in the snowy woods during a midwestern winter. I pulled out my pocket clock – it was still twenty-two minutes to legal shooting time.
But what I really wanted to talk about were battleships. See, I started composing this post last Sunday; the last day of the battleship sit. The USS Iowa, to be specific. The lead vessel of her class of battleship – in fact the last lead vessel of any class of battleship – she saw combat, carried the United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was decommissioned and recommissioned twice, she’s a beautiful sight and far, far more than merely the sum of her parts.
But she can be stripped down into those component parts. And d’you know, you end up in a different place depending on which component you follow. The armament – take a tour around the history of firearms. The 250 miles of electrical cable – explore the taming of the lightning and how intrepid inventors harnessed it for our use. Oh, and how about the four steam-powered turbines that propel “The Big Stick” through the water – the simple power of a whistling tea kettle scaled up a few thousand times.
Beginning and ending with human ingenuity and adaptability.
And yet… so fragile, this embodiment of an idea. Fragile, precarious, because it all rests on thousands of years of ideas, one leading to another which leads to another. Change one event in the long string of progressions from inception to completion – just one – and the battleship never happens. Because the battleship has to have all the parts in order to be more than the sum.
Whether I’m holding a weapon or a camera, how do I intersect with that creature on a cold winter morning, if I haven’t all my parts? My eyes, fastening to motion. My ears, attuned to animals moving through brush, working with my brain in order to determine the direction the sound comes from and the size and nature of the creature making it. My clothes and boots, designed for Minnesota weather. Change one component – Just. One. – the chain of events unravels, and that moment in the woods never happens.
And it’s the same – exactly the same – for a flower. I have a hibiscus plant of which I am very fond. Jerry picked it up two years ago from Menards and planted it out front here at the house. It has large and thick leaves of a rich dark green, all the more startling when contrasted with the larger pale pink flower with its startling goldenrod-yellow stamen. Hibiscus aren’t cold-hardy and Minnesota winters are harsh, so I needed to move the plant indoors to keep it. At that, I almost waited too long; last year the bulk of the winter my poor hibiscus had frost-burned, dead leaves clinging to brittle twigs, and I wondered for a couple months if the plant would actually come back.
This week’s sit is to see a seed of our favorite plant through its entire life cycle – from planting to germination, the development of roots and puller leaves to the birth of a bloom and a whole new seed. Simple. Easy.
But what if the soil isn’t right? Too acidic, too basic, too wet, too dry? Too cold? And if the seed germinates, what if it was planted too deep? Roots will reach out, right enough, but the plant will spend too much energy trying to find the sun. If the leaves can’t soak up the rays then no matter how good the root system is the plant will die. Likewise, no matter how much sun those leaves get, if the root system can’t draw up sufficient water, or if the roots drown and slough off, the plant will die.
Change one thing. Just one.
Most of us are in the MKMMA because there’s something more, something better, something greater that we could be doing. And because of that what we do, what we say, what we think from moment to moment matters. Because big things are made up of small things. And because the sum of components is fragile. Change one thing… just one.
I dare you.