It’s an unseasonably cool fall day but the sun makes it feel warm. After a lot of rain and even some snow flurries yesterday, the blue sky is a welcome sight. As the sun started to dip low in the sky, I went out for a late hike in a local forest preserve. The preserve is a beautiful, mixed hardwood forest on a hill that rolls down to the Fox River.
I arrived to the vibrant fall colors of oaks, maples and hickories. The trail leaving the parking lot was covered in fallen leaves and acorns. This is one of my favorite things about fall – the colors, patterns, and textures of the variety of leaves as they carpet and hide the well-worn paths through the forest.
I step carefully, quietly down the trail. A migrating kinglet is singing and flitting about the canopy to my left. To my right, a blue jay is calling emphatically. The forest floor is so thick with fallen leaves that the busy squirrels make a ruckus as they move about preparing for winter. I kept thinking I’d see a deer when I turned toward the loud rustling, but it was always just a busy squirrel.
The old trees here have stories to tell and that is why I returned here today – to photograph their faces. In a place like this, it’s easy to see how the creation of totem poles took shape. Atala Toy, who first brought me here and introduced me to the tree spirits, told me that people see what’s in their own heart. It’s not surprising then that I overwhelmingly see animals.
The first tree-face is on a rugged shagbark hickory. A gnome is welcoming me to the woods. A few steps further and a frowning face appears in the shadow on this snag. Is the old tree sad to see the sun going away yet again?
As I descend the trail I cross a footbridge over a deep ravine. Fallen trees span the bottom and a chipmunk scurries across one from one side to the other. A rabbit guides me along my way.
I stopped to photograph this old tree, a victim of a long-ago lightning strike. Now it’s a window to the woods.
Further down the trail, approaching the river bottom, Bugs Bunny’s sheepdog, Sam, is keeping watch over the forest’s creatures.
An owl figure seeks refuge in a tree cavity and an orangutan with its wide cheeks sagely watches me pass by.
I become more in tune with the forest, the further I walk. A raccoon face marks the fork in the trail that heads down to the river’s edge. A signpost.
A few more steps and at the river’s shore I see tangible evidence of the raccoon that the tree told me about – an empty shell from a previous meal and distinct prints in the mud. With all of the rain, the river had been in flood. Now that the water has receded, it leaves stories on its banks.
I stopped to watch a warbler and a couple of thrushes darting about eating bugs and berries. The warbler and thrushes came so closely, respecting me as part of the environment, landing on branches just a few feet away. I feel privileged to be a part of this environment. Another turn in the path brings another signpost in a tree. I saw a large raptors bill and then the downward wings of a bird in flight coming at me.
A few more yards down the trail and I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a large bird flying low over the water. At first, I thought it was a Great Blue Heron. They’re common here. Then I saw a flash of white on the tail as the bird turned. A bald eagle! Just as the tree foretold. I hurried to the river’s edge and a break in the trees. Two eagles sat in a tree down-river, an immature one (with a brown head) and the adult (parent) that I saw fly by. What a sight!
Daylight is fading and the temperature is falling fast. All is quiet except for the occasional rustle of the squirrels through the leaves. I pass an elephant and a tiered shelf mushroom as I turn to head back uphill. Luckily, I did not encounter an elephant around the next bend!
I passed a make-shift, rustic, lean-to shelter. I could stay the night! Oh, the things I’d see then! Instead, I kept following the trail as it rejoined the path I’d taken in from the parking lot. I crossed back over the bridge and passed a bison.
As I neared the parking lot, this heart thanked me for my visit. Then the last thing I passed before leaving the woods was the bushy tail of a fox tucked into its den, suggesting it was time for me to head to the warmth of my own home.
I enjoyed my exploration of these fall woods, guided by my imagination and the spirits of nature. Venture out and try it yourself. It soothes the soul. And it’s fun to discover the stories in the trees.