Dryad in the Woods
December blizzards had finally finished emptying their traveling bags of snow on our Colorado landscape. Suburban neighborhoods that usually cleared out after a day or two found themselves in waist high drifts long into January.
For the first time in years, children enjoyed their snow forts and tall, well-stacked snowmen sporting colorful gloves and scarves for weeks. The un-retreating winter on our doorsteps just following Thanksgiving was quite a surprise, almost as if it had been meant as an admonition to the weather forecasters who had predicted a warm, dry season.
After a day filled with turkey and pumpkin pie, I still remembered driving with visiting family and hearing assurances that there would be no snow until February. As if we were actors in a movie where the plot had suddenly just thickened, I felt an ominous sense that Mother Nature had other plans.
The snow slowed everyone down. We had no choice but to take longer to get places, and sometimes, cancel plans altogether if it meant traveling on the more impassable byways. The mountains were crusted over with ice as the temperature remained below freezing and kept the snow from melting.
Coloradoans are used to beautiful clear skies and bright sun which usually means a generous sprinkling of lovely mild days even in the midst of winter. This year, though, the sun couldn’t warm Jack Frost’s frigid breath for many weeks, and most of us settled in and enjoyed the icy beauty of our outdoors.
Cabin fever and the desire to get outdoors and experience this beautiful frozen landscape inspired me and I headed up to the Rockies for a walk around one of my favorite lakes. I brought my camera so that I could capture images even though my photography skills are somewhere less than amateur grade. I take pictures for my own pleasure. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought it was a good way to honor the beauty of our mountain scenery.
At the last minute, just as I was heading out the door, I turned around and headed back into my pantry for some bird seed. I had a strong longing gratitude towards nature. In some Native American traditions, they offer tobacco to the earth, animal and plant spirits as a way of giving thanks for the gifts received. I decided instead of an offering of tobacco, to bring a small bag of bird seed and make it a point to say thank you.
As I went further into the mountains, the day became progressively overcast. I wondered if yet another storm was heading our way. The roads were clear and I had ice tires, so I continued on already feeling a deep sense of joy. The parking area was surprisingly full and I saw the reason why as soon as I pulled in. The lake was completely frozen over and the banks sported several feet of snow. It was an excellent time for snowshoeing and a number of folks were taking advantage of that.
The snowshoe wearers had blazed several trails, one of them around a forested ridge of the lake. Pulling on my down jacket, I hung my camera around my neck and started down the path. In spite of the activity down on the lake itself, the outlying banks were hushed. I was alone on the trail but within sight of others sliding along pulling sleds, skis and shoeing on the lake. The snow muffled all noise and I reveled in the beautiful crystalline world among the pines and aspens.
Two years of shamanic training had made me a lot more sensitive to the presence of earth spirits, the fairy folk, as they were called in the Celtic isles. I looked into a small copse and felt accompanied on my journey. It was a good place to stop and say a prayer. There was so much beauty to behold, the words of thanksgiving tumbled from my lips with an ease and poetry I did not recognize as my own.
I took off my gloves and opened the small bag of bird seed I carried in my pocket. While blowing a kiss of love, I opened my hand and scattered the seed in an arc across the copse, some catching in the knots of a hollowed log half covered in snow. The sense of presence got even stronger and I pulled my gloves back on as icy chills ran down the back of my head. Someone was here, and someone was watching. Man has had thousands of years of stories that we’ve passed down to our descendants, and always amongst those tales, a story or two is told about the spirits that watch the land. I thanked them out loud for their guardianship and I asked them for wisdom and guidance on my outing today.
I walked by tall Ponderosa pines, some whose trunks were quite thick, others that had suffered blight. Several years ago, my brother had taken us all on a hike in the forest and he told us those were Butterscotch pines. He had us put our faces right up against the bark and sniff. He was right, the trees smelled thickly sweet. I loved to rub my hands along an area where the sap had run so that I could carry the delicious smell with me as I walked.
I started chuckling as I continued my hike and took a deep breath of the sweetly scented air. As I rounded a bend, I was busily snapping pictures of the trees and the lake’s dipping shoreline. Giant rocks poked out of the snow in some places looking like a giant’s grey knuckles pulling back the edges of the lake.
I turned and looked down the path ahead when to my surprise, I saw a face looking at me from a tree trunk in the distance. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Of course it was my imagination. Thinking that it was just a momentary glitch in my vision, I pulled my camera up to my face and decided to use my zoom to get a closer look. I snapped the picture out of reflex, the entire time fully expecting that what I thought was there would disappear once I tried to capture its image. But as I continued looking through the lens, the image became clearer.
I have no idea what made me say the word dryad out loud, but I did, much my own surprise. I stood there for a moment and asked myself if that was the right word. It certainly isn’t one we use in conversation often, and I wasn’t even sure it was one whose meaning I actually understood. Something instinctual and deep within me had recognized what I was seeing and called its name.
I walked towards it, not taking my eyes of it wondering if in fact my eyes deceived me or if the figure was there. I remembered my camera again and proceeded taking more pictures. Just a few feet away from it, I put the camera down. Emotion choked within my chest and I thought, I am so blessed, as I beheld the image of an earth spirit in the trunk of the tree.
I still had seed in my pocket, so with deepest respect, I sprinkled the birdseed in front of the dryad and gave thanks for protecting the forest and the beauty of this place. I sang a song to the trees, one whose words were in a language I didn’t know and to a melody I didn’t quite place. I have no idea why or how, but it just seemed like the thing to do.
I thought of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman who wrote great works about our inspiring lands and I understood perfectly what had moved them. They in turn moved many to seek and discover the same inspiration that drove them. We are as much creatures of nature, growing and flourishing as the berry brambles, pine, spruce and the aspen in these glades.
The wind suddenly kicked up and with it came what at first felt like nothing more than an occasional sprinkling of moisture. I was just past the halfway point in my loop. It was time to pick up the pace as I headed back.
I saw a giant Blue Spruce that a friend of mine had dubbed her Rocky Mountain Christmas tree. The tree's base was a full blue skirt extending maybe twenty five or thirty feet in circumference, and perfectly tapered like a classic Christmas card tree. I sprinkled the last of my seed around the tree as I passed and thanked it for giving us another year of its glory. A rabbit hiding on the edges of the tree scampered out of the snow cave it had made for itself and headed down towards the barely flowing stream.
I looked back across the lake and could see the wind and sleet coming in. The lake was almost deserted now. I clumped my boots hard as I stepped onto the wooden bridge that connected the lake path to the parking area. Snow still decorated my coat in bands of white against black. My hat was wet with moisture from the blowing snow and I quickly finished packing up my camera as I headed towards my car. I turned around and looked back while I still had a clear view of the lake and its apron of bank and it seemed as if the lesson was over. The wind and snow were ushering everyone out of the forest, off the lake and back to their homes.
School was out for today, and it was the forest’s time now.