My introduction to nature was at my childhood home a top a mountain in West Virginia with thirty-five acres of woods to call my playground. Exploring those woods brought countless hours of delight as my siblings and I discovered flora and fungi native to Appalachia. Morel mushrooms grew wild in the forest, along with trillium, pink lady’s slipper, and the ginseng that my uncle harvested to sell to the local drugstore. I remember swinging from wild grapevines under thick canopies of trees, splashing in the nearby creek and playing with lizards and crawdads. These are my best memories, and my love of local woods has continued into my adult life. I’m most at peace surrounded by groves of trees in the forest.
Currently, I live in North Carolina, in a much a less rural landscape than the one I grew up in, but the magic of the wild is still out there. I simply have to be a bit more patient and look harder for it. Every morning I try to visit a municipal or state park nearby, staying close to home so I can spend more time on foot rather than in my car.
Dawn is the best time for me to encounter wildlife, as the light is wonderful then and I find it both meditative and magical. The moment I enter the woods, I feel the rest of the world slip away. I focus on what’s immediately in front of me and concentrate on being completely present in the moment. I always carry a camera, though, to capture the elusive animals I come across and all number of magical things. Surely, I must record my witness to this magic with photography—otherwise I might feel I’ve dreamed it.
I’ve had some memorable hikes—sometimes it’s the animals I encounter, like the beautiful barred owl you see on these pages or a small black bear crossing the road. Other times the journey is about the color of an autumn sunset against bare trees. I try to follow the “observe, don’t disturb” rule and am mindful that I’ve entered the animals’ home. Deer are my absolute favorite wild animals because there’s something so magical about their large watchful eyes and graceful presence. It feels like they’ve stepped in from another dimension and allowed me a brief glimpse into it. Or perhaps it’s the other way around?
Beside my house is a large oak tree with a hollow about twenty feet up, a hidden hideaway first discovered by my dear friend Jen during a visit a decade ago. I closely monitored that hollow afterward, and much to my delight, I once saw a tiny squirrel face peeping out at me. Then I saw two, and finally three! I dubbed it the Wee Three Tree, and a new hobby was born—watching them watching me as I visited the mailbox. Since then, I’ve had quite a few squirrel families born in that snug home. This experience reminded me to be vigilant and ever watchful of my own outdoor space and the seasonal magic it holds. If not for Jen, I could have missed them altogether, right in my own yard!
There are still a few spirit animals on my bucket list to witness—one is the elusive white deer sometimes spotted in this area; the other is a great horned owl that I’ve heard but never seen on my property. Hopefully nature will grant me these wishes someday, but if not, I’ll remain content with the multitude of blessings sheltered beneath mighty oak and towering pine.
In addition to what I see, nature appeals to all my other senses as well, offering scents (who doesn’t love the smell of a forest after a rainstorm?), sounds, texture, and colors that are always changing with the seasons and light. In this way, setting foot in nature is always unpredictable. You never know what treasures you may find. Will it be a fawn curled in sleep waiting for mom to return, a rare mushroom pushing through the rich earth, an owl calling for a mate in the distance, the delicate scent of violets crushed underfoot? This sense of unexpected beauty is certainly part of nature’s allure for me. Perhaps that’s also why so many fairy tales begin with a deep forest, equal parts welcoming and foreboding but always holding the promise of grand adventure.
How can one sustain a sense of enchantment when returning home to the everyday world you may ask? I generally don’t take anything from the woods (in most places it’s illegal to do so), preferring to leave those gifts within the sanctuary of the forest for the inhabitants there to enjoy. But on my own property, I collect seasonal bits I find while gardening. Acorns, lichen, lush clumps of moss, interesting bark (which I sometimes fashion into gauntlets, like on page 16), and bird nests, which I tenderly gather and preserve in a Wardian case in my kitchen, are regular finds. I’ve also created a series of photographs (like the one at right) of mirrors. I position large, often decorative ones in the wild (I love to collect these treasures at flea markets) to reflect the landscape. To me they look like portals to another place. The view represents the mutable quality of nature to me and how things aren’t always as they appear on the surface.
So dear readers, given all the treasures nature holds, I challenge you to wander near or far. Perhaps venture out one morning, and on another day go as the light fades into
the evening and note the changes. And please share your photographic observations and enchantments with us. We’d love to partake in them.