Winter Woods

It’s the Fourth of January and somehow in North Alabama it’s an amazing sixty-five degrees with bright early afternoon sun and the deepest blue sky I have seen in months.  As I step out of my car after arriving at our family farmstead, I know for certain that I have to take advantage of this beautiful opportunity God has provided today.  What a great day for a walk in the woods!

Little did I know that my planned thirty-minute walk on the farm would turn into a three-hour adventure!  It was to simply be a short walk across the pasture and into the grove of pine trees that my dad had had planted several years ago.  But life has a way of altering our plans.

These were the pine trees we could see on the hillside across the pasture as we sat at the morning breakfast table looking to the east whenever I had visited my parents over the last twenty years.  Oh, the conversations we have had while looking across at those pines!  The days of row crops on the farm and cattle in the pastures were long gone.  But my dad, forever the farmer at heart, loved to see things grow.  Each year as I visited, he would point out how those trees had grown, and repeat the story of their planting in detail.

As I arrive at the house this day, no one is home as my sister and mom are at her doctor’s appointment.  I quickly go inside and pull on some old clothes suitable for the walk.  Finally, I lace and tie the pair of desert boots that I had brought back from my short tour in Iraq almost twenty years earlier.  Despite their age, they have held up well and are simply the most comfortable boots that have ever graced my feet.  More importantly, and something I will only share with you, they impart a secret power to me every time I wear them.  When I put these boots on, the world changes around me…my confidence increases and a ‘no fear’ sense of peace comes over me.  It’s a strange indescribable feeling, but a very pleasant feeling at the same time.  Lots of memories are connected to these boots.  These boots and I experienced both good and bad days together, and we are still going strong some twenty years later.

The walk over to the pines across the pasture is an easy walk, as the hay had been harvested in the late fall.  The pasture now looks as neat and groomed as our local high school football field.  I decide to save several steps by not walking down to the gate of the cross-fence, but I decide instead to climb over the ‘hogwire’ cross fence.  A word of caution to other seventy-year-olds out there, this is not the same experience as it was when we were younger.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

We had a ‘toad-strangler’ rain the night before and the ground is a bit mushy, but my ‘desert’ boots don’t seem to mind.  A sizeable stream of water flows in the small branch as I cross over it to ascend the hill toward the pines.  As a kid, this little branch had seemed so much larger.  I recall having to search for a place narrow enough for me to jump across, but today is somehow easier.  I quickly walk up the hill into the thickness of the pine trees.

This is the same hill that was open pasture land when I was a kid.  As a ten-year-old I would stand up on this hill my trusty little fiberglass bow and shoot an arrow straight upward into the sky.  I would ‘carefully’ watch that arrow and see how closely I could position myself to see how near it would land as it stuck into the ground nearby.  I suppose it was something of a ‘chicken’ game, and it sure developed my skill and ability to track those high fly balls later in my teen years on the softball field.  Then, there was that day that I lost sight of the arrow.  I suppose I was never one to think things through to possible unpleasant endings, and I found myself without a contingency plan for this specific event.  But as a ten-year-old invincible kid, I suddenly discovered that I had an incredible ‘superpower’!  I could instantly make myself ‘small’, giving the arrow a much harder target to find.  And just as an added level of security, I strategically placed my hands on the top of my head.  Needless to say, it ended well.  After all, I’m sitting here writing this today.  That would not be the last close call in my life.  But those are other stories to tell.

It’s at this point where I deviate from my original thirty-minute walk plan.  The usual thick underbrush and briars are practically non-existent.  Unlike the woods of our northern neighbors, winter woods in Alabama seldom involve snow.   But much of the undergrowth still retreats in these winter months.  My walking is so easy, I head deeper into the woods.

Moving on to the old hardwood growth on the next ridge, I first make my way across the stream that feeds the farm pond down below.  This crossing proves more difficult as the combination of beaver dams and last night’s rain unnaturally widen the stream.  I convince my desert boots to temporarily become swamp boots, and they faithfully comply with my respectful request.  I’m amazed at the beaver’s work ethic, persistence, and engineering skills and I more closely examine their work.  Definitely a nuisance, but I admire their God-given instinctual talent that they put to good use for their community.

As I walk onward to the east, the southwest sun behind me is brightly illuminating the old growth woods.  I’ve forgotten just how tall these hardwood and old growth pines are, and they tower majestically upward. The bright blue sky above provides a vivid contrasting background to their stark presence.

The winter hardwoods and lower saplings are bare of leaves that would have obstructed my view in summer. Today I am surprised at how far I can see, since only the bare tree trunks are obstructing my view.  The layers of leaves on the ground are soaked, wet, and cushiony soft.  I make very little sound as I walk, even at a brisk pace.  As I stop and focus more intently through the distance, I catch an unexpected glimpse of a youthful deer bouncing and bounding off over the top of the hill.

My senses are suddenly overloaded and I’m taken aback. I quickly find my mind wandering off into deeper thought…Maybe my life is a bit like these winter woods.  So much of the time in the vibrant summers of life, when life is busy, the leafy undergrowth of activities and distractions get in the way of me being able to clearly see the larger and more important “trees” in my life.  Without the leafy and prickly briar undergrowth, it’s so much easier to see and move among the important ‘trees’ of my life.  The cliché of ‘less is more’ pops up like a billboard in my mind. 

As I gaze at these woods removed of their clutter, my thoughts instantly zoom to six thousand miles around the globe twenty years ago to the northern Iraqi desert, where for almost four months all my possessions fit inside three simple olive drab duffel bags there.  My only real ‘need’ there was to satisfy Maslow’s lower hierarchy of food, shelter, and safety.  Once those were met, I was completely free to focus on and perform my critical mission there, the thing I desired to accomplish.  Without the complicating distractions of ‘normal’ cluttered life, I was amazed at how easily my team and I could focus and accomplish much in a very short period of time.

I am reminded too of how often my most valued spiritual growth and awakening came through the winters of ‘life or death’ situations.  When the minutia of life was suddenly stripped away, I was forced to reassess and face the few things that really mattered in my life.   In doing so, I realized what little control I can actually exert over my life as a human being.  I saw other people recognizing this during COVID.  We saw this more recently when an NFL player’s life suddenly hung in the balance for us all to see on live TV.  With little hesitation people dropped to their knees, desperately appealing to a God they had often failed to recognize at all just the week before.

Pardon me for wandering off my story, but those thoughts somehow seemed important for me to share with you.

Back to my walk in the woods…I continue to walk eastward until I come to another small branch.  I know from past experience that this stream is very often dry.  But with the rain last night, a vibrant ribbon of water is flowing through the streambanks, hurrying off toward its eventual fate.  I try to imagine where that may be.  What is the life of this stream’s water?  The walk is easy alongside the small stream, and I decide to follow it a bit.

This stream is an infant, having just been born a few hundred yards upstream as the recent rainfall now drains into the ravine.  The stream has youthful energy and moves along quickly as its mother earth pulls it along with her gentle but persistent tug of gravity.  The stream meanders along like a young colt in an open field as it gathers more strength, weaving back and forth and occasionally jumping over small obstacles.  As the ground’s slope increases, the water suddenly rushes into its wild teenage years, throwing caution to the wind.  With little advance warning, the speedy teenage stream suddenly careens over a forty-foot cliff cascading downward into thousands of beautiful drops of water and free-falling toward the rocks below.

With a violent and noisy splash, the water somehow survives its fall and quickly gathers itself together again. It flows gently into a larger pool of its expanding universe, before gliding downward to join the larger stream that we call Rock Creek.  Nature and the divine plan continue to move the water along toward its final destination.  Its journey will be slow but destined for a certain ending, one ultimately beyond its control.  Yes, much like my own life.

This small being of water now in Rock Creek will soon join the waters of Sandy Creek just before it marries the Sipsey River.  As part of the Sipsey, it will soon settle in for a long life in Smith Lake where it will support the lives of millions of fish and provide enjoyment to thousands of us as we cool and play in the lake’s deep waters.  Eventually, our little stream of water may make it through the dam, out of the lake, and join forces with the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River.  As part of the Black Warrior, our little water gets to flow through Tuscaloosa before flowing on southward to become one with the Tombigbee River.  The Tombigbee then makes a new acquaintance with the Alabama River.  It merges and becomes the Mobile River and empties itself into Mobile Bay where it is welcomed into the blended family of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  All in all, it’s quite a journey to its final eternal home.

What a kindred spirit I feel with that little stream now flowing through our winter woods!  Though much of my journey is already complete, my origins were similar to the little stream.  We were both born in this same wild area of the world.  My youth sped by, and sometimes my life felt out of control as though I was plummeting over a waterfall.  I survived the turbulent falls and entered into the still lake of humanity and vocation, spending many years treading water and serving others in my chosen profession.  With my retirement I felt as though I was finally able to escape the dam that was holding back my progress and calling. 

Today, I am once again able to freely flow toward the destination my creator has laid out before me.  I know my final destination, and I desire to flow toward it every day.  The only great mystery and question that remains to be answered is, “Who will I get to meet and join along the way?” 

What about you?   


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