Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Enchanted Forest

“How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and colors are their last days.” ~ John Burroughs

The sky is heavy and it’s gray. The temperature is dropping. So are leaves. They drift almost leisurely toward the ground, twisting in a slow, swirling dance. Almost as an afterthought, a few sparse snowflakes make their appearance. A cold wind whistles through the forest and heralds what’s to come. All New England the seasons well. But here in the mountains it seems we are even closer to those seasons and we get to know the months as well. They not only have their own names, each also has a distinct feel to them. And each month sends along a calling card to let us know what is just around the corner. So it is that November occasionally makes an October appearance. So it is on this day, in the cold, nearly naked woods. There’s still sunshine and warmth to come – but not for long. Today is a November day – raw, bare and basic to the senses.

On sunny days Atticus and I seek out hikes and walks where there are views. But on days like this when the clouds descend upon the landscape and swallow the mountains whole we look for something different. Into the woods we go. In mythic terms it’s like descending into some forbidden land. Or perhaps a journey deep into our own souls where the journey does not emulate that vision of your eyes as they look up towards a glorious, sun-splashed summit, but rather inside to the heart of the dark forest and inside to our own selves.

Those of us who love the mountains tend to seek the peaks and we often forget the simple glorious sensation that comes with a walk in the woods. What I noticed today was the smell of the forest floor. The earth, damp and cool, and littered with seeds the trees have shed, offered up a scent that reminds me that life begets life. The forest feeds itself. It sheds its dying existence and after a winter’s sleep it will come to life again. What was old gives us what is new. The fragrance is nostalgic…almost tangible. It smells of childhood when innocence was all we knew and the simplest walk in a forest was a supernatural trip to a place where magic pulsed in the darkness, and seemed unseen eyes were watching us and the strangest creatures and spirits were everywhere – but always just out of sight.

Atticus and I have been climbing local Iron Mountain lately. We’ve been up there a few times this past week. It offered us a beautiful view north to Mount Washington and the multilayered rolling colored blanket that spread out at her feet and flowed forever on. It gave us that rare moment we cherish where our eyes drink in the snow on Washington under a blue sky in contrast to the colorful leaves of October. But cold winds and old age have forced the trees to drop their colors and now the hills seem almost dusty. A week makes a huge difference this time of year. Nevertheless, it’s still beautiful. But so is the forest, trending towards green and brown and that wonderful aroma that permeates all woods this time of year. I appreciate the smell more these days because soon it will be gone. Our wild world will be covered in snow and ice and be frozen and sterile. It will offer up a different but starker beauty but there will be no scent wafting through the air other than the occasional hint of Christmas given off by an occasional evergreen.

I love this time of the year. The forest is quieter. Leaf peepers have come and gone and we are alone again. Many hikers even retreat this time of year with visions of next spring dancing in their heads and winter enthusiasts are still six weeks away. For now the forest is bare, thrilling, and all ours. It welcomes us home, I truly believe, because we appreciate it as much as we do no matter what the season.

Today we ambled happily along. When we came to a muddy path we followed it to the edge of a pond and the song of Canadian geese. They were making a racket for no reason whatsoever and Atticus sat and watched them. They could care less that we were close by and went about their old lady squawking and talked of the flight to come. In the mud we saw bear prints. They were a good size and my childlike imagination wondered if he was watching us without us knowing it. The forest makes you feel that way. Some are frightened by it, others renewed.

The snow continued to fall. Small flakes. But they were coming faster and Atticus looked like he had powdered sugar on his back. He gave a full body shake, the kind where one of his legs leaves the ground and his ears take flight, and all the snow went flying off of him. He would shake again a few minutes later and then bound down the trail. Unlike the bear, who was somewhere nearby, we weren’t getting sleepy and readying for hibernation. Instead we were filled with the gifts of late October and a forest that will go mostly unnoticed until the real snow falls. Until then we’ll have it to ourselves and return again and again before we have to find a new private place. Or maybe with the snow on the ground we’ll take to night hiking again.

Leaves and snow fall all around us and we are reminded that no matter how long we live, life is fleeting. It will never be enough. When the forest “dies” and gets ready for its long sleep it saves the best for last – first with its amazing leaves, then with the scent of her carpet. It inspires me to want just such an end to my own life when the time comes.

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