Notes from Candice Ransom

Winter Walk

bird tracks

To give my writing a kick in the pants, I signed up for two online classes through Story Circle Network, concentrating on writing nonfiction for adults.  My first class, “Animals Make Us Human,” taught by Elizabeth Brennan, was a wonderful experience.

Elizabeth encouraged us students to take nature walks.  Sad fact, in the winter I don’t walk.  I can’t tolerate the cold, no matter how many layers I put on.  But I miss it.

In his essay, “Walking,” Thoreau wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Much as I’d like to spend the day outside sauntering over hills and fields, I’m reminded that Thoreau took his laundry to Mrs. Emerson.  Some of us are bound by worldly engagements, such as laundry, and are big fat weenies when it comes to the weather.

Still, I managed to saunter around my yard, expecting one thing, finding another.  Here is my nature diary essay.

February 4, 2015:
Gumballs hold down the ground.  As far back as August, I raked the hateful spiny seeds, all through the fall as they dropped by the carload, these last thrown from trees harboring a bitter grudge.  Hickory shell fragments, cast away by thoughtless squirrels, mosaic the rest of the backyard and crunch underfoot like chicken bones.

The bird feeder is empty, though still frequented by hopeful juncos.  One ladders down the gum tree trunk with nuthatch aspirations.  It is twenty-nine degrees with aspirations to hit fifty today.  I hear a white-crowned sparrow, a shy deep-woods bird passing through long enough to promise spring will arrive in slow increments and only those paying close attention will notice.

I check our two-year-old cherry blossom trees, planted with prayers after our beloved Bradford pears were pushed over by a wing of wind-shear.  Every spring, the pear trees threw a wedding.  Once, I hung a vintage child’s Easter dress on a swaying spangled branch.  That day in August, they gave up not with a crash but a sigh, like old ladies reclining on daybeds.

The cherry blossoms seem dead as a roadside cross, not a hint of the spun-sugar pink that will pop out in late April.  Yet if I scraped the gray-brown bark, I’d find secret green underneath.  I continue my lap around our property, a scant quarter acre allotment that gives the illusion of ownership, a patch of red clay held down by our house.

We planted azaleas that bloom coral instead of the salmon I wanted.  The rest of the year we glare at dull gray-green leaves.  I long to yank them out but who gets rid of azaleas?  Our landscape decisions backfired.  We’ll have Japanese maples here and English boxwoods there, we said, picturing red umbrella-shaped bushes and a primly squared hedge.  The Japanese maples withered in searing summer heat and the boxwoods grew so tall and thick, we need a machete to thrash them back every time we walk out the door.

But all is dormant now.  The sky is that hard-edged blue that might taste like nickels.  There is something about this day that catches in the back of my throat.  I stare at the daylily bed around the light pole.  I’d pulled the dead stalks last fall, a bundle of pick-up-sticks, but it’s still a mess.  And then I remember it’s my father’s birthday.

My mother made me send him a card when I was living at home.  And that’s what I got in return on my birthday, with a check for ten dollars inside, signed by his second wife.  My whole life I’ve never seen my father’s handwriting.  I did not go see Daddy when he was on his deathbed even after he asked for me.  I told my sister to tell him that my father was already dead.  He understood, since my stepfather had raised me, done for me what Daddy never wanted to do.

Everyone’s been gone a long time—my stepfather, my mother, Daddy.  I wonder if they think of me.  They must know I don’t forget them, not even Daddy.  I long to have my questions answered, but know I have to figure things out myself.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote:

. . . have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps someday far into the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

I turn my back on our winter-imprisoned yard and go inside.  Beneath the hard dirt, daylily bulbs murmur in their sleep, dreaming of the morning they’ll push bright green shoots skyward.

12 thoughts on “Winter Walk”

  1. I often struggle to take even one photograph of meaning and significance in my own backyard, and yet you managed to write an entire essay as though you traveled miles. And maybe you did. Miles through books of birds and writers; miles through family photo albums; miles through memories; miles to go. Your ending quote from Rilke will be in my thoughts for a long time to come – as I try to love the questions.

    It seems you spent your time and your money well. A class worth taking. Your writing engages my heart, my mind, and my senses. Beautiful!

    • The things we see the most, our houses, garages, yards, porches, are often the ones we tend to ignore. I think about people who have limited access to the world, shut-ins, those with disabilities, prisoners, and realize they can make so much of what is around them.

      • I learned some of that when I was waylaid by ankle surgery. When we’ve got limited access, for whatever reason, when our world gets smaller and our choices narrow, we are invited by circumstances to widen the lens and add more light to whatever it is that’s right in front of us. (So says the uber-amateur photographer who lives in a perpetual state of wonderment about your photographs & writing. Donna’s, too!)

        • Glad you are healed and out and about again! I do get restless, but for the most part, I’m pretty much a homebody, content with my little patch. And you are no slouch as a photographer! Those bird and flower pictures blow me away! I’ll never be able to take decent bird pictures because I don’t have the right lens or any birds that come to the garden, like you do.

  2. I so share your dislike of winter and we don’t have very harsh winters where I live, but we do have searing heat in summer which I love. If I’m lucky, and I was last year, the azaleas in all their glorious pinks, crimsons and white put on their show of colour on 4 separate ocassions. Now in in our final month of Summer and our hottest, the green leaves have a cooling effect as do the Agapanthus with their blue crowns against a hot summer’s day.

    • I’ll admit I’m not crazy about the searing summer heat either. If I had my way, it would be May and June all year long with a dash of October. I’m guessing you live in Australia? New Zealand?

    • Patti: I loved that book you did! It’s adorable. A few years ago you sent me the Sweetgumball Critter. I still have it, though Atticus is keenly interested in it as a new toy.

  3. What Donna said. Beautiful words here. Love how observations of your external surroundings worked their way inward to thoughts of your father (an eternal cold landscape).

    • Jama, I guess I’m used to being in a small space. I never wandered far from the woods and our property when I was growing up. I always found plenty to look at and think about (though I still longed for sidewalks and Woolworth’s).


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