Outdoors North

Nature grants pardon, peace if one allows

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“You’ll find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom.” — Bob Dylan

Gusting winds picked up down south somewhere were doing their part to make sure any last leaves clinging to their branches were shot skyward or tumbling — tip over tail — to the ground below.

At the same time, some of the leaves that had dropped days ago were picked back up from the ground again and spun into a whirl. I watched as the brown oak leaves chased each other around inside of this swirling vortex, like the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character.

The wind had breath and bite enough to keep me from any plans to cast a fishing line.

Small groups of dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees and American goldfinches were hip to the fact a snowstorm was coming. The wind made it tough on their flights and hops across the ground to find food before the snow arrived.

When the storm showed up howling, it brought with it some wintertime visitors from the far north, including dozens of snow buntings and a lone American tree sparrow. They walked and bobbed over the short-grass areas together, apparently used to each other’s company, looking for seeds of the bygone season.

Snow buntings are often seen in flocks along roadsides where they all seem to fly up at once, their striking black and white coloration flashing vibrantly.

The tree sparrows are much more solitary birds that resemble chipping sparrows with their rusty caps and stripes through the eye, but they have a black stick-pin mark on their breasts that the chipping variety do not.

They are sometimes called the winter sparrow.

The winds were cold and showy, huffing and hissing, but didn’t bring large amounts of snow. When they finally settled down, the woods came alive.

I watched a weasel, slink around the edges of a couple of boulders. Its fur coat matched the season, part brown and part white – it would soon turn all white.

t dashed out of sight momentarily. When it returned, a small grayish-black mouse or vole was in its mouth. The weasel rambled back up over the rocks, moving faster now than it had on its inbound journey.

It disappeared under the low-hanging, scented branches of a balsam fir. This was an area of mixed forests, home to maples and birches as well as the oaks that had been unceremoniously stripped of their leaves, hours earlier.

Blue jays were active. One was digging for something in the snow. I figured it was either making a hiding place for something it had found or was looking for something to eat. Perhaps an acorn?

Either way, I watched as it swung its black bill back and forth through the snow like a scythe, tossing snow in both directions with each turn of its head.

Another blue jay, whose deep colors were beautiful to see against the white snowy backdrop, stood on the ground where water was dripping from some melting snow above.

The sound of the spattering of the water hitting a mound of ice is what I think attracted the jay. It came for a drink of water and perhaps a splash. However, when it saw me it jumped up into the air and glided to a tree branch in the distance.

The squirrels were active after the storm too, as well as a chipmunk that seemed late to be out of its hole for the season. The chipmunk was particularly fat, but it apparently wasn’t finished eating.

It made short jumping motions as it moved forward, scavenging for seeds or other collectibles to bring back to its underground lair.

A pair of gray squirrels chased each other, each nipping at the other’s tail. Meanwhile, not too far away, an inter-species activity was taking place.

I first saw a red squirrel run up the trunk of a maple tree to its top. Then as soon as it got there, it turned around and came quickly all the way back down again, as though it just wanted to see if it could climb that high.

As it then ran up onto the trunk of another maple nearby, a gray squirrel spotted it and chased after it. The red squirrel jumped to another maple and then shot down to the ground and up into a spruce tree.

The gray squirrel was in close pursuit. In another nearby tree, from a branch a good distance up off the ground, another red squirrel sat watching the whole scene.

I had a feeling the gray squirrel was chasing the red squirrel away from a food cache of acorns and mushrooms and who knows what else.

The first red squirrel ran down the spruce and ducked into a brush pile. It then continued beyond the other side where it ran up another maple tree. The gray squirrel soon followed, tracing the exact route of the red squirrel, like a bloodhound.

While the gray squirrel climbed the maple, the red squirrel ran down the other side and shot across an open area of bare ground to another shock of trees not too far away. The gray squirrel stopped following. It stood on a branch scolding with a shaking tail.

At this point, the red squirrel that had been watching the chase began its own hunting adventure. It jumped to a neighboring maple that over the years had been ravaged by woodpeckers.

The squirrel climbed up the side to where an old nest hole was yawning, exposing only darkness within. The squirrel reached the hole and climbed in headfirst. Its head then soon popped out from another hole on the opposite side of the tree.

Pulling the rest of its body out with it, the red squirrel then climbed to the top of the tree, which had been broken off jagged.

I realized the top of the tree was hollow when the squirrel climbed into it. As before, it soon popped out from yet another woodpecker hole that was situated farther down the side of the tree trunk.

This squirrel also seemed to be looking for food items that might have been stashed or left behind in these former woodpecker nest homes.

It’s always interesting to me to see how nature builds one little world on top of another, inside of another, all interconnected in often unexpected ways. It’s kind of like a set of those Russian babushka nesting dolls.

Watching these types of scenes often leaves me with deep and valuable perspective, if, that is, I have the patience to sit long enough to look, listen, smell, touch and hear, to allow the experience to take ahold and wash over me.

I typically discover the troubles on my heart and mind don’t reach farther than me. There are entire worlds of life happening simultaneously out there that just go on and on.

Realizing this and acknowledging it often brings me feelings of significant peace and comfort. A warmth wells up inside as my heart smiles.

I am happiest when I make these silent realizations of connections to the natural world that demonstrate my little world to be astonishingly small in the overall scheme of things. This storm too shall pass.

It is in these times that I feel a sense of purpose and place, though largely undefined, its meaning is left obscured somewhere out here among the trees and the squirrels and the birds and the water.

I find my best days are often when nature has taught me something. Sometimes it’s something that I have never experienced before. Other times, I am instead reminded of things I had once learned and then forgotten.

The times that haunt me most are those when I have let this human world overwhelm my thoughts and senses to the point that truly experiencing nature on this elemental and instructive level is almost impossible.

These are times when I am more a bullhead or a bear with an open sore, than a free spirit, a wise traveler or an open vessel. I come to nature ready to kick a rock, rather than to pick one up to marvel at the wonders of its igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic creation.

I seek continuously to remain open and receptive to nature.

I am always accepted, despite my inattention or my inevitable human flaws.

And so, I return, again and again.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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