Word from the Woods: Gratitude

On this first day of March, it’s still definitely winter in the Maine Woods. I noted a low of minus 7 on my porch thermometer shortly after sunrise. Yet spring is approaching. We’ve gained nearly two and a half hours of daylight since the Winter Solstice.

Last night about 8:30, I went out for a stargazing stroll. The new moon is tomorrow. This is the time in the lunar cycle when the stars are brightest, with no moonlight to outshine their glow. I walked down to my shore. First Roach Pond was a frozen desert, gleaming faintly white with reflected starlight, ringed by dark forest and mountains.

I looked up into the clear sky. To the north, the Big Dipper was a bright question mark above my cabin. My eyes followed the line marked by the outer edge of the Dipper’s “cup” to Polaris, the North Star, from which the Little Dipper hung. The Milky Way arched over my head. Where it descended toward the northwestern horizon, I looked for the constellation known as Cassiopeia – because of its “W” shape, I think of it as my initial in the heavens. Orion, the hunter, strode boldly above the mountains to the south, with Sirius, the brilliant Dog Star, near his side.

The Big Dipper above my cabin. Photo taken by Eddie O’Leary on January 22.

These recognizable features were, literally, just the highlights. There were so many stars. Brighter stars, dimmer stars, stars in clusters and clouds, far more than I could count. My land lies at the edge of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Woods International Dark Sky Park. I live in a region remarkably free from the glare of human lights.

I was warmly dressed; only the stinging of the tip of my nose reminded me how cold it was. A light wind sighed through the trees and against the cap that covered my ears. I heard muffled booming from the ice and sharp cracks from freezing trees. Occasionally, the sound of a passing jet intruded, then dissolved back into the stillness.

The warm fire in my woodstove eventually lured me back inside. But around midnight, I returned briefly to my shore. As the night moves onward, the starscape wheels around Polaris; I wanted to check on its progress. By then, clouds partially veiled the sky, but many stars remained visible. The Big Dipper had climbed high overhead. Orion was sinking below the western horizon, Sirius in tow. The Maine Woods were turning toward a new morning.

The winter days have been beautiful too. February 26 was truly exceptional. The day before, light, fluffy flakes fell, forming a fresh, clean coat over twigs and needles that had accumulated atop older layers. After the storm ended, the sky cleared. The morning of the twenty-sixth dawned sunny, at minus 14 Fahrenheit. By 10 AM, the temperature had warmed to 12 degrees. I set out on snowshoes into a shining world of deep blue sky and glistening white snow. I climbed to the summit of Shaw Mountain, about four miles distant and 1,400 feet above my cabin. I paused near the top, as I looked northeast toward Katahdin, to record my impressions on video:

My joy in these exquisite days and nights is all the more poignant because I understand how precious they are. I don’t take a moment for granted. I’m profoundly grateful for the peace of my winter, for the ever-changing beauty offered by each hour, and for the health that allows me to meet the challenges of my backwoods home.

My cabin is a refuge from the turmoil raging across our planet, near and far. I think of all the suffering Covid has inflicted. A family belonging to my church in Greenville recently lost a beloved relative, a man in his mid-forties who left behind a wife and two young children. I think of the people of Ukraine, undergoing the horrors of invasion. I can’t forget the image I saw last evening of a little girl, killed in the course of what should have been an ordinary trip to the supermarket with her parents.

There have been times in my own life when I thought I would never again know the blessings of good health or inner peace. In my twenties and thirties, my health was poor. I endured years of debilitating symptoms, with no clear cause. Finally, an ultrasound identified an ovarian tumor. Its removal gave me the opportunity to live my dreams of outdoor adventure, a second chance at the youth I thought I had forever lost.

And though I have never been in a war zone, I have experienced deadly violence, with all the emotional complications that follow. My bipolar father turned my childhood home into a chaotic and dangerous place; his threats to my life, and to my mother’s, ended with his suicide. Struggling through the aftermath, peace seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

But I received loving help from many people. And I found the healing that nature offers when we open our hearts and minds and senses to receive her gifts: an inexhaustible source of wellness that continues to sustain me.

I have been blessed with second chances many people never get, and I am deeply thankful.

[For anyone who would like to read a short essay I wrote about my path toward healing in nature, you will find it at https://www.coveyclub.com/blog_posts/found-self-healing-wholeness-nature/.]

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