Because Winter is Inevitable

aspen
Once, long  ago, before babies and moves to houses in new communities, I picked up the beginning of an understanding of the seasons—their rhythms, their tasks, their hard realities. Learning to be a mom to three babies while finding my way in three different towns left room for little else in my brain. I traded a loose grip on the concept of seasons for the clutching fist of survival.

It was not a good trade.

I forgot that seasons really do change. That whether delightful or dry, balmy or bitter, fertile or fruitless, they don’t last forever. That there is a time for every single thing.

SmokeysI still thought about seasons here and there. I even wrote about them. What I didn’t do was believe the truth of them, a truth that drifted around, unanchored, just beyond my grasp.

At least, that’s how it was until I woke up on the hard ground one morning in a tent in South Dakota to a bombardment of missiles launched by a pinecone-gathering squirrel. The squirrel didn’t forget. Because he is a creature of instinct and the outdoors, he knew. Yellowstone 2011 It was September and he was doing the work of the season—gathering pinecones and flinging them down from the tree in rapid succession. They landed on the ground, the picnic table, the tent, and the camper next door. Autumn, the season of harvest, of preparation, of gathering and storing what he needed for the winter, weighed on him. He went to work with the sunrise.

Cocooned between my husband and our littlest one, who’d woken up cold in the night and sought out somewhere warmer to sleep, I listened to the frenzied activities of the squirrel in the tree above as he prepared for the unavoidable days of winter. From the warmth of our double sleeping bag, I considered the cycle of the seasons and acknowledged my own.

Deep winter. There was no other name for it.

Above the Basin

Our babies had grown into big kids, but even years beyond what we hoped would be the last move, the bleak chill of displacement claimed my soul in the same way the afternoon cold settles into my bones and makes them ache. And this frozen season of the heart held on too long, so long that my emotional storehouses—reserves against times drought and famine—depleted to dangerously low levels. With little left to fight off an engulfing depression, I longed for spring, a spring so slow in coming I thought it might never arrive.

But it did.

It came quietly, meandering in soon after waking up to that squirrel. It came on the heels of a long breakfast with an old friend, several perspective-challenging days in the mountains with my dad, and a couple of space-making weeks in South Dakota with my family. It came slowly, spring, with its powers of restoration, and its light, balmy air that took the chill off my soul.

The squirrel gathered because his fields were ripe. He gathered because it was time to harvest. The physical world is tidy that way. The seasons come in turn. Winter, then spring, then summer, then fall. And then it begins again.

101_0915It isn’t so simple in the world of people. Our seasons don’t follow a predictable pattern. They don’t always come in turn. And because of the rich complexities of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves facing deep winter in one place and high summer in another.

What the squirrel didn’t know on that sunny September morning was that within the month his home in the Black Hills would be blanketed by two feet of out-of-season, blizzard-driven snow. Like him, I’ll never know when autumn’s abundance will end. But what I’m learning is that winter is inevitable, that it’s best to gather whenever and wherever the fields are ripe.

For everything there is a season

Linking with Kelly’s Small Wonder and Lyli’s Thought Provoking Thursday.

This post was originally shared at circlingthestory.com.

A Great Deal Of Good


Sun and clouds

Two Septembers ago my family spent a few weeks in South Dakota. It wasn’t a vacation; it was a working trip. My husband tucked us away in the hills and commuted every morning into Rapid City. The kids and I did schoolwork and read and whiled away the remains of the day until he came back home. What we did not do was spend much time outdoors. At least, we did not spend much time outdoors without him, thanks to the overzealously detailed Beware of the Mountain Lion literature prominently displayed in the home we rented.

Two pages of tiny-typed description featured six photographs of poses a mountain lion might assume, the meaning of each one, and the appropriate human response. Loosely paraphrased, it spiraled down this way:

  • Number 1:  Look! The feral kitty is curious about you. 
  • Number 3: That cat is interested in you, maybe too interested. Reign in your children and keep ahold of them.
  • Number 5: (And please note that this is a direct quote.) “If you have a lethal weapon at your disposal, take careful aim, and use it now.”
  • Number 6. The lion has decided that you will be lunch. 

They had me at number 5.

Occasionally I sprung the family from the indoors by dropping my husband off at work and driving the rest of us to places we could look around without fear of being eaten. The Geology Museum. Tourist towns in the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore. The Badlands.

Along the road which wound through the Badlands I saw a sign I’d never seen before: Viewpoint Ahead. It was an announcement and an invitation. Attention! There’s something to see here. All you have to do is stop, get out of your car, walk over, and look.

IMG_0204Such a sign seems unnecessary in such a place, a place preserved for its beauty, a beauty at once unique and harsh and lonely. At least, it’s unique until it becomes the passing landscape for a few miles. Until we get used to it. Until it all begins to look the same and we get a little bored. Before long we stop paying attention to what we see.

It’s a little like the landscape of our lives.

Our todays resemble our yesterdays and our tomorrows. We get used to it, a little bored even. It doesn’t take long for us to stop paying attention. The sights and sounds, the people and problems that create the texture of life cease to be something to see.

In his commentary on Matthew 6, Matthew Henry wrote There is a great deal of good to be learned from what we see every day, if we would but consider it. 

Lilies. Birds. Heavens. The whole of creation. The good is there, in the little things and the big ones. We just have to watch for it.

There is great good that comes from paying attention. It’s how we see. It’s how we consider. It’s how we learn. Or learn again.

Oh, that we would open our eyes.

There Is A Great Deal of Good to Be LearnedSharing this week at Small Wonders.

Sometimes the Road is Dark

Harney Peak, Custer State Park, South Dakota
Harney Peak, Custer State Park, South Dakota

We don’t always get it right out on the trail.

We knew it would be close. Still, we hopped out at the picnic area, grabbed a late lunch, and prepared to hit the trail to Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills.

My husband filled our camel paks while I reached into our well-stocked supply of nutritious and frivolous trail food. And then, at 3:00 in the afternoon, after an evening and part of a long day in the vehicle, we set out for Harney Peak. It was a six-mile loop, estimated to take four to five hours.  Sunset was four and a half-hours away.  We needed to hurry.

It was like we had never stepped off of a sidewalk.

Stops for snacks out on the trail were a big deal to all three kids. And from our stockpile of trail food what had I grabbed? Not trail mix. Not granola bars. Not fruit. No, I had chosen one tiny candy bar per person. One.

Our youngest was neither a hiker nor a hurrier. My husband and I were road-weary and stiff.

We were in trouble from the moment we set foot on the trail.

Yellowstone 2011 008In spite of our poor planning, it was a fabulous hike that took us over a sun-dappled path and along breathtaking drop-offs. We climbed the stone fire tower and explored the peak before we remembered that we needed to hurry and forced ourselves back to the trail. When we arrived at the fork in the trail, we decided not to return the way we had come, but to take the other section of the loop.

Down the trail, we stood for too long to watch a mule deer pair graze in the drying grass amidst the trees. While we lingered,  the sky took on the melancholy look it gets when it will soon give up the sun. Now we hurried.

At least, we hurried as much as tired, hungry, somewhat dehydrated hikers with youngsters can hurry.

The sky darkened and our pace slowed. My steps became small and timid as my eyes searched the barely visible, unfamiliar trail before me. Roots and gravel, rocks and holes, enemies to my stability under the best circumstances, transformed a pleasant day hike into a perilous evening journey.

While the eerie light of the closing darkness concealed whatever lurked ahead, behind, or beside of the trail, it revealed my place in the world and in its food chain. I began to envision us perched on a rock, shivering away the hours of the long night as we waited for dawn to light our way to the trailhead.

It was in this moment of desperation that my intrepid husband broke out a flashlight and two headlamps that he had stashed in his pack.

It wasn’t a lot of light, but it changed everything.

Where there had been darkness, now there was light—and right where I needed it—on the trail directly in front of my feet. Now, rather than taking one tiny, timid step after another, I hiked like I meant it. My pace matched our urgency to get out of those rocky hills where the mountain lion dwells. I strode with confidence, all because of a tiny pool of light on the path.

While I never relish distressing circumstances, I do appreciate the unmistakable intersection between the truth of scripture and the circumstances of my life. This night was one of those.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105

This is what I want those words to mean: That light will light up my path and the landscape on every side like a football field on a Friday night. One dark night on the trail is all it took to show me that this isn’t how it works.  A light like this cuts through just enough darkness to make the journey possible, one step at a time.

It isn’t a lot of light, but it can change everything.

Just as we don’t always get it right on the trail, I don’t always get it right in my life. I have forgotten the lesson of our hike in the dark. I’ve struggled against darkness on the path in a vain attempt to see the trail ahead. I’ve even ignored the light because it wasn’t where I wanted to walk.

I don’t want to ignore. Or struggle. Or forget.

I want to remember.  I’ll be in the dark again and I want to get it right, to recognize that I don’t have to know how far is the journey, what route the trail will take, or how deep it will take me into the darkness. I want to trust that there will be just enough light for each of my steps.

Our hike in the dark was a long series of steps. What is this life but a series of steps taken by faith?

And you? What guides you when the road ahead is dark?

Linking this week with Emily’s #imperfectprose.


 

This post is a revised version of one of my earliest posts, revised because bullet points are not my style and reposted because it’s one of my favorites. 

For This Fall: What the Squirrel Doesn’t Know

A thud near my head stirred me from sleep. The stirring wasn’t difficult. I was on the ground. We were camping, tucked away in a tent that hadn’t been warmed by the sun since we last slept in it in the back yard seven summers before. We weren’t in the back yard that morning. Back yards have more grass. We were in South Dakota, in a Custer State Park campground, on packed earth. Packed earth does not forgive, not an aging body, and not whatever was landing on it that morning.

The thuds were frequent but irregular, like the early moments of an approaching rain. This wasn’t rain and it wasn’t hail. It was, however, advancing on our tent. Leaves stirred in the branches above before we took one direct hit and then another.

We were under attack, mortared by a pinecone wielding squirrel.

IMG_0424

The red squirrel is not a hibernator. He is an endurer of long, cold winters. That late-summer morning hung thick with fall’s chill. The sun would burn it off, but it would return by nightfall. Autumn’s mark was strong. The squirrel understood this and attacked his job of gathering pinecones with fervor, pelting us out of needed sleep.

Pinecones are ready for picking during a four to six week window. If the squirrel takes them early, the seed, which is what he is after, will not be developed. If he takes them late, they will have dropped from the cone. During that month, the red squirrel scurries around gathering and stockpiling pinecones, cutting them from the trees with his teeth and letting them fall to the ground.

Or bombarding innocent campers below. It all depends on perspective. The red squirrel is one of the forest’s most territorial animals and his viewpoint might be different from mine.

The squirrel is not only an endurer, he’s a teacher. If I watch him, I might gain a better understanding of how to move through life’s seasons, living well today while noticing what’s down the road. The squirrel does what he needs to do at the right time. He prepares, gathering and caching pinecones during times of bounty so that he can survive in times of want. Like the squirrel, I can attend to the changing of the seasons and learn to look up, to think about what’s coming, and to gather.

The dance between earth and sun make the shifting seasons obvious to the squirrel. The changing seasons of life are less clear. Less predictable. Less rhythmic. They overlap. Sometimes they morph into something unexpected and unrecognizable overnight.

This happens even to the squirrel. He doesn’t know when exactly the seasons will change or what extremes they will hold. He knows only that one season will eventually give way to another.

We met our South Dakota squirrel last month, on September 2. What the squirrel didn’t know and I didn’t imagine was that one month later, whether his gathering was complete, regardless of the state of his cache, the season would turn abruptly and bury his forest home under thirty-six inches of wind-whipped snow.

We are not squirrels. Our needs are more complex. Pinecones will never do, but we can prepare; gathering what we need, whether it’s rest or healthy habits, the Word or good conversation, in times of bounty so that in times of want our cache will sustain.

It’s hard to know how to prepare. Paying attention to the state of the cache, both its contents and its ability to contain, is one place to start. Attending to my body’s need for rest would strengthen mine, and help me make better use of what I’ve gathered.

How about you–what’s the state of your cache?