I am standing still more these days when I visit the woods. I am standing still in these woods which I have visited a hundred times and moved through with the purpose of knowing them, of naming their trees and wildflowers, of hoping to spot their elusive wildlife. I feel I have mapped them well enough now, and I stand inside their tenuous embrace and wait, and wait.
For a year and a half I never saw a snake out here. I saw two today. The first was a speckled king snake, creeping slowly out along the blackberry canes, fat in its midsection with some luckless rodent. It made one feint at threatening me to keep my distance, but mostly it was helpless and lucky that I meant no harm. The second I saw towards dusk as I stood on the verge of the woods in front of the house, a big rat snake, black as spent motor oil, sinuously curled over a high branch above a bird house.
Two days ago I was in the woods just past the back pasture and I saw a turkey scuttle off into the brush. Though the turkeys turn out to dance in the pastures whenever it rains, this was the first time I’d seen one in the woods. I have also seen two coyotes lately, creeping through tall grass, noses to the ground and tracking things I can’t see.
For a year and a half I have trod these woods and fields, looking about, plucking leaves off trees to take back and identify, noting colorful birds to look up and identify and write down on a running list. I know in rough outline where the best paths run, where the steep declines into valleys are easiest to navigate, where the dry creek is likeliest to collect a stream after rain, where the persimmons ripen first, the hickory nuts fall, the skeletons of deer lie. I have mapped the territory and put names to things all around me.
But these encounters with the local wildlife are something new. They come because I am standing still when I visit the woods these days. I am quieter, both literally and figuratively. A snake, a coyote, a turkey. The vultures swimming the blue sky in circles above my head. I know the rat snake and the king snake are nonvenemous; I know that coyotes, though predators, will never threaten me. But there is a thrill of the wild in their nearness.
For a year and a half I trod these woods and fields with purpose, mapping and identifying them. Now I am standing still more, and entering this new phase. The woods are mapping me.