Stealth seems rather impossible in a burr oak forest no matter how gingerly you may step. Moving as covertly as possible and hearing the first acorn pop caused me to jump as if a firecracker had exploded next to my foot. A split second later, just a few steps further on, that same pop caused a deer to burst through the sumac thicket to dash off into the woods offering me a salutation of hind hooves and white flag of a tail.
This was the second time within a week I had been surprised by spooked deer and once again I couldn’t raise my camera quickly enough to capture an image. Still, I wasn’t there for the deer. I had come for some moments of peace. An inner peace that might soothe the soul.
As naturalist John Muir wrote, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
So, yes, it was quite quiet, and since I’ve been dealing with some unhappy circumstances I wasn’t expecting, this called for some quiet time in nature. Alone. Enveloped in a different kind of quiet. Quiet so silent the rustle of leaves in a prairie breeze, or the burble of a spring creek meandering through a hilly ravine, might be audible. When squawks of singular gulls traversing the lake shore might seem like screams in a horror film. Crunching acorns with an audible pop to frighten a deer hadn’t entered my thoughts.
Finding a quiet refuge was why I sought such a place nearby complete with a couple of conveniently placed picnic tables within a few meters of the waters edge of Big Stone Lake called the Bonanza Scientific and Natural Area. Bonanza includes 80 acres of native oak savanna and glacial till prairie habitat, 50 acres of which includes an oak and basswood forest, and even spring-fed ephemeral trickling streams that meander through rills and ravines. This time of year the timber is graced with bright red sumac pods and leaves that offer colorful twin accents along with the bright yellow basswood poking through the stately limbs of burr oak.
Once seated on the picnic table my vision first settled on the lake itself. Some 26 miles long, it seems somewhat uncommon when the wind isn’t whipping waves that makes canoeing and kayaking perhaps life threatening. On this afternoon the lake was nearly mirror like. In the hour or so I sat there one boat … one … actually chugged up the lake, sputtering so insistently I wondered about the driver and common sense. In seemingly a fraction of a moment a wind can erupt and turn this aqua mirror into a roiling whitecap madness. On this day, though, the body was calm, littered with whitened leaves of autumn floating upon the grayish reflection of cloudy gray sky.
Sometimes you will meet people. Most times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll encounter a piliated woodpecker. Most times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll encounter whitetail deer. Most times you won’t. While I sat a friendly couple from St. Peter happened by, aided by walking poles that seemed out of place without cross country skis and a snowy path. After a brief conversation the couple wandered on toward the Bonanza Education Center and the loop path just beyond it. Once they were gone, I edged off the table to saunter in the opposite direction into the acorn strewn path, popping acorns and seemingly frightening fauna with every step.
Often times I’ll venture off the path to sit against a burr oak. If you sit in the woods long enough, meaning long enough for the creatures of the woodland to no longer consider the invader a necessary evil, the woods will gradually come alive. Or so it seems. Squirrels will begin bouncing on the limbs or scurrying down the bark of a tree, and warblers and other woods-loving birds will slowly allow themselves to be seen. Nervously flitting from limb to limb with eyes constantly searching for imminent danger. Sitting with your back against an oak in the hilly Bonanza timber communing with an awakening woods is what those who teach courses in meditation strive for, and what their students seek.
This time my meditation was included in the saunter over the wooded hills toward a spring fed meandering creek. There is something about that combination … sauntering and meditation, especially if you use the word “with” instead of “and.” I began noticing the intricacies of the landscape, of the woods. Of how the heavenly high leaves of a cottonwood shimmered in a slight, treetop breeze. Of leaf patterns, especially in the sumac, contrasting with the natural herringbone clusters of the staghorn stems. Heavy, timber-defining limbs of oaks stretching outward, sometimes even angling toward the ground nearby. Of leaves floating on the lake surface, itself a muted reflection of the cloudy sky. All things that brought my camera to the eye, though little of artistic greatness. None of which will ever likely be a print, yet provide a collective of meditative imagery.
As I ease along the path … past the sumac, dogwood and oaks, within this tall sanctuary of peacefulness … alongside a presently calm and peaceful lake, I can only hope to capture this essence internally, to hold onto to this peace that calms my soul. I realize the impossibility of holding onto something so rare and dear; that the maddening reality of life will interfere, and that I’ll likely do and say things I will later wish I hadn’t. For in that moment the only interference to my inner peace was the popping of those acorns underfoot.
Stealth is nearly impossible in a burr oak forest.