In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.Margaret Atwood
The volume’s turned up at William O’Brien as I take a half-day’s walk on muddy trails, ears open to the music of early spring. Pileated woodpecker’s rat-a-tat competes with the vibra-slap trill of the redwing blackbird. Ratcheting turkeys interject mirth in between chickadees’ mournful insistence. Wind-up toy robins, two-toned honking geese, a gold finch gushing a string of ‘tweety-bird’ before alighting on a C-shaped roller coaster, riding an invisible air-track. At a flooded stream, a warbler checks me out, coming close on hopping feet before darting out of sight behind a drooping willow.
Staccato scolds, slide whistles, and single peeps follow me through the forest, a carpet of withered oak leaves, dusty hepatica thrusting violet heads up through the thick layer. Mud sucks at my shoes where ferns in fisted scrolls poke up next to last year’s remains. Frogs click maracas in a pond, fresh tracks telling the story of deer soothing their thirst at this very spot. Some kind soul stacked branches over a flooded section where trillium grows, too early yet to see their flowers dressed in first-communion white. I head deep into the woods over another’s scramble. A train sounds in the distance.
At the prairie, a blue jay looks on lazily as swallows dive bomb, like kamikaze, swooping within inches of my face. I try not to flinch, but fail completely. Scat in in the middle of the trail is wound tight with fine strands of hair. Twin mallards swim silently in a pond, their wake blurring the reflected birch in shimmery vibration. It’s cold as the sun moves behind a cloud and the wind picks up. A trio of turkey vultures tips unsteadily on massive wings, heads trained on the ground, eyes sharp. Fungus like diseased toe nails covers fallen logs. I snap them and make my own music, a kind of thumb-piano with size determining pitch.
I reach the top of the hill where a trail runner humble-brags, telling me his wife says he’s crazy running “Superior” and speaking to me as though I’d never heard of it. “Good on you!” I tell him as I walk away into the widest views yet of prairie and forest not needing to brag, thinking my husband says I’m a miracle. Evidence of last winter’s snow is harsh, flattened grasses stretch into marshland. A lone sandhill crane, all gangly wings and legs, floats silently overhead, gifting me just a mordant of his clacking call. I pass bluebird houses built by zealous state park workers. A swallow claims one as his own and trains his gaze on me, his white throat wobbling like an aging soprano, daring me closer and closer until at last he flits away. A bluebird watches from a tree.
At the Saint Croix River far below, the water is high, islands crisscrossed by canals. A swollen stream races down to unload its contents into the river, moss-covered rocks crowded by skunk cabbage and yellow marsh marigolds. The sun is at a sharper angle now and it’s time to head home.
Spring’s ritual is familiar to me after thirteen years in Minnesota. Few things surprise anymore, though I find the sameness comforting, the never-changing a balm for the changes and the unknown in my own life. Life’s renewal at spring offers me a chance to accept renewal for myself, to believe it’s on offer. Walking in the woods and prairie always heals me and perhaps in knowing that fact, I surprise myself that something so simple – so available – can reliably make things right.
I walk to my car, lighter than I’ve been over the past month, happy and whole – at least for the moment. And I wonder, where I ‘ll go tomorrow.