profound stillness

“Forest in the Winter” by Isaac Levitan

I love the deep silence of the midwinter woods. It is a stillness you can rest your whole weight against. Not the light silence of summer, constantly broken by the sound of leaves, bird-song, the scurry of little beasts, the hum of insects. This stillness is so profound you are sure it will hold and last.
~ Florence Page Jaques
(Snowshoe Country)

When I was a child I loved winter, still do. There were so many moments when time seemed to stand still. Outdoors playing in the swamp and in the woods behind our house. The magic of ice-skating between clumps of earth surrounded by ice in the swamp. At dusk. Sometimes there were snow flurries, too, adding a silent thrill to the spell.

Only now do I discern the concept of stillness. My life happens in a small city these days and I have been complaining to Tim about the racket the snow plows keep making in their ceaseless efforts to keep the roads and our parking spaces clear. I find myself craving to be away from the noise, to enjoy snow flurries out my window without the inevitable pandemonium.

Maybe I’m just cranky these days. A couple of days before my six-week surgery follow-up I came down with a bad cold. Tim had it for three days before I succumbed to it, so we have been very miserable together. As soon as I got the go-ahead from the surgeon to resume normal activities I was too sick to enjoy the freedom! And now that the cold is almost gone I will be going to see the radiation oncologist tomorrow to consult about the next round of treatment.

A few years ago I wrote this on one of my posts:  One early wordless memory I have is of lying on the cold winter ground in the woods and eyeing a little princess pine peeking through the snow. I was astonished at the connection I felt to the small precious life, and how thrilled I was to be aware of its presence!

One little princess pine in an endless sea of snow and trees. I thought of that moment once again when I read Florence Page Jaques’ words about “a stillness you can rest your whole weight against.” One little cancer survivor in the endless flow of here/now.

deer tidings

white-tailed yearling by Greg Thompson

Once upon a time I was as curious as the yearling above, and in possession of a keen sense of wonder. The mysteries of nature and spirit were intertwined in my young mind. One early wordless memory I have is of lying on the cold winter ground in the woods and eyeing a little princess pine peeking through the snow. I was astonished at the connection I felt to the small precious life, and how thrilled I was to be aware of its presence!

My parents and grandparents were nature lovers, but from an early age I was locking horns with my scientifically minded father over the existence of the supernatural. It distressed me to no end that he refused to believe in anything that he could not measure in physical terms.

One afternoon when I was six years old I had a dazzling moment of transcendence when I encountered a stag, although I didn’t know enough to call it that when I later tried to tell my parents about it. As I was walking alone up the heavily wooded road from the school bus stop to my house, I strongly sensed that someone was watching me. When I turned around to look I was at first startled to see a huge stag with magnificent antlers. He was standing in the road, quietly staring at me, as if he recognized me, as if he knew exactly who I was. I was struck with awe. Completely enchanted, I was not at all frightened. In fact, I decided he was my guardian angel. A fatherly figure. Something about his presence was most reassuring. I never forgot him and have often felt his presence in my life, especially when spending time with my maternal grandfather in the years to come.

white-tailed buck at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Forty-five years later, a few years after my grandfather died, I had wonderful encounter with another deer. (Some of my readers may remember me sharing this in November 2008 on my Gaia blog.) I was visiting my father at his house in the woods, where spotting deer, coyotes, wild turkeys and fishers is not at all unusual. We were starting to watch a movie when my brother-in-law glanced out the window and noticed a doe in the yard, quite close to the house. Being so enchanted with deer I jumped at the chance to see one and went over to the window to look at her.

She was so beautiful with her large soft eyes and large ears lined in dark brown. Our eyes met and she stood there transfixed for a very long time. I could not take my eyes off of her. After a while she lay down and continued to stare at me, occasionally looking about to see what a noise might be, but then fixing her gaze back onto me. She seemed so peaceful and I wondered what, if anything, it all meant. It was as if I had lost my child’s sense of inner-knowing for a moment. Then I started to worry that my looking at her so intently might be threatening her in some way. But she was tranquil and serene. At one point a buck appeared and walked right past her and started helping himself to my father’s rhododendron. My brother-in-law was going to go shoo him away but I begged him not to. After the buck had enough to eat he slowly retraced his steps and passed by the doe again, glancing at her but unconcerned with her behavior. She ignored him completely, and kept looking at me.

white-tailed doe by Steve Hillebrand

After another long while she stood up and started nibbling at the ground, looking at me once in a while. She slowly made her way downhill around the corner of the house, so I changed my vantage point to another window on that side of the house. She was now one story below me. But she looked up to the window and saw me again and started looking at me again with the same intensity as before. Her look felt so reassuring in some way and yet I felt the thrill of butterflies in my stomach. It’s hard to put words to it. She definitely seemed to know me. It was getting darker and darker until I could barely see her, and just at the point where I felt I could see her no longer she suddenly darted away. More than an hour had passed. What an amazing gift! Even my father had to acknowledge this was an extraordinary experience.

I did finally understand the doe’s message with some help from my Reiki practitioner a few months later. I’m keeping it safe in my heart for now. I will never forget this special doe and had so often felt her guidance while caring for my father in his declining years, as well as my mother’s presence, very strongly, in my life. And it was after the doe visited the house that my father, the skeptical scientist, started reporting that he had been seeing my mother. Sometimes he would ask where she was because he was certain she had just left the room.

white-tailed doe by Greg Thompson

Fifty years after my first encounter with a deer, when I was fifty-six, my father died in his sleep in the early morning hours of September 19, 2013, under a full harvest moon. My sister called me to let me know he was gone so Tim and I left to drive up to Papa’s house to be with our family. As we reached the end of the hour-long drive, we turned onto the same road where I saw my first deer fifty years ago. In about the same spot on the road, standing quietly on the side, in the moonlight, was a lovely doe. Tim slowed the car down and she looked right into our car, into my eyes. My mother was letting me know that she had my father now. What a feeling of relief and release came over me.

Beverly and I have often noted in the months since Papa died that neither of us have felt the presence of either of our parents. But Larisa has felt her grandpa’s presence down in North Carolina. And we all see in her new baby daughter, Katie, a remarkable resemblance to him, especially in her facial expressions and the way she moves her long arms.

As I continue to mourn the loss of my father I feel like I’ve grown to a place where I can embrace being in the elder generation now, a contented crone with my fair share of hard-won wisdom to gently share with my children and grandchildren. It’s a feeling of strength, stepping into the place where my parents and my grandparents once stood.

junco-dec06
junco ~ image credit: mike at luminosity.allthepages.org

A couple of weeks I put out a couple of bird feeders and have enjoyed watching the birds who come to eat. My parents and grandparents were avid bird-watchers but I thought identifying birds was a tedious endeavor when I was a child. However, these past few days I’ve been amazed to discover that some of what they taught me got stored in my memory files. It seems like every time a new bird shows up a name pops into my head, so I look it up and find it to be correct! I’ve always loved and could identify chickadees, but when an unfamiliar bird showed up the other day and “junco” popped out of my mouth, well, I’ve fallen in love with another little one.

I almost posted the first parts of my deer story several times since I started this blog, but something kept holding me back. After I saw the doe the night my father died it became clear that the tale had not been finished. Yet something still kept making it seem like it wasn’t the time to share it. After spending three weeks with my darling new granddaughter, though, it feels like the whole picture has now been revealed.

White-Tailed Deer

Gallows Lane

Map & Compass flag and treasure box

Earlier today Beverly and I went hiking in the woods near Gallows Lane in New London. She was setting out flags and prizes hidden in the woods for the thirty children who will be coming to her Map & Compass activity on Saturday. The children have to use a map of the woods and a compass to locate eight places marked by the flags. Each location has a plastic box filled with a little treasures. They bring back one treasure from each box to prove they found each of the flags. (They get to keep the treasures…) I think the first kid back from the expedition gets another prize, too. It took us a couple of hours to set it all up, so they’ll be having a long walk and an adventure, too, if they manage to find them all!

The cliff where Sarah Bramble was hung from the gallows…

One might wonder how a road would come to be designated with such a morbid name. Gallows Lane. Well, it was a terrible thing that happened there. A servant woman named Sarah Bramble was executed by hanging off the cliff here in 1753. She had been convicted of murdering her illegitimate newborn daughter. So far I haven’t found out too much about her, but what I have found out makes me more curious than ever about her life.

November 21st, 1753, Sarah Bramble was executed in a cross highway that leads out of the main road to Norwich, about two miles north of the town plot. This path has ever since been known as Gallows Lane. It is a rugged, wild and dreary road, even at the present day. The fearful machine was erected in the highest part of the road, and all the hills and ledges around must have been covered with the spectators. It was computed that 10,000 assembled on this occasion; some of them probably came twenty or thirty miles to witness this repulsive exhibition. The gloom of the weather added another dismal feature to the scene, a drizzly rain continuing most of the day.

This is the only public execution of any white person that ever took place in New London. The crime of the unhappy woman was the murder of her infant illegitimate child, on the day of its birth. It was committed in April, 1752, and she was tried by the superior court the next September. But the jury disagreeing in their verdict, she was kept imprisoned another year, and sentenced October 3d, 1753. She declined hearing the sermon intended for her benefit, which was preached by Rev. Mr. Jewett, before the execution.

Frances Manwaring Caulkins, History of New London, Connecticut: From the First Survey of the Coast in 1612, to 1852, (Hartford, Connecticut: Press of Case, Tiffany & Company, 1852), 468

Sunlight through the trees and spilling over the wall…

[September 28, 1753] “at the meeting house to hear the Tryal of Sarah Bramble for murdr of her Bastard Child in March 1752.  Court Sat by Candle light.”
[October 1, 1753] “the Jury brot in their verdict & found Sarah Bramble Guilty of Murdering her Bastard Child a female in march 1752.”
[October 3, 1753] “Sarah Bramble Received Sentance of Death ys Day”
[October 24, 1753] “went to Lectureto hear Mr Jewit who pr to Sarah Bramble &c.”
[November 7, 1753] “in the aftern att Lecture. Mr Jewit preacht. the Sermon Composed to be pr to Sarah Bramble, but she declined Coming to hear itt, a Large Congregation.”
[November 21, 1753] “Misty & Rain moderately. S: Bramble. I was at home foren. in the aftern I Rid up to the Cross Highway abve Jno Bolles to See Sarah Bramble Executed for the Murdering her Bastard Child in march last was a year Since. She was hanged at 3 Clock. a Crowd of Spectators of all sexes & nations yt are among us from the neighbouring Towns as well as this. Judged to be Ten Thousand. it Rained moderately most of the day.”

Joshua Hempstead, Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut (New London, Connecticut: New London County Historical Society, 1901), 616-619

Stone walls in the woods…

It strikes me how matter-of-fact and unemotional Hempstead is about this woman’s trial and execution. He doesn’t say one way or the other what he thinks about the matter. Why did the jury disagree on a verdict? Who was the father of Sarah Bramble’s child? Didn’t he have some responsibility for what happened? Was the father possibly her employer? I can’t help feeling she was probably abandoned and forced to bear the blame for the “fornication.” And why did she murder her baby, if she did? Did she want to spare it the pain of a lifetime of being referred to and excluded as a Bastard? Did she feel cornered, like there was no other way out? Honestly, I could see myself reasoning that way if I had found myself in that situation in that time period. Maybe she was suicidal…

There’s a lot of history in these woods, which are still claiming back the land the early settlers turned into farms and then abandoned when they moved westward. Today we found a pen made of stones for ewes and their lambs. The rocks were low enough for the mother sheep to leave to find food and return, but high enough to keep the lambs safe inside. Amazing how shepherds knew to build such an enclosure and how the sheep made use of it, instinctively knowing it was just what they needed for a perfect nursery!

We also found a pretty little princess pine forest…

Enchanting princess pine forest…