Seasons on Matheson Brook:
A Journey to Self Through Exploring Nature
© 2022 by Magi Nams
April 8, 1997 (4℃, cloudy, 8:30 a.m.)
Ice. Puddles. Wet brown leaves.
From the top of a steep wooded slope beside Matheson Brook, I see ice jammed upstream of our old bridge, water running brown and murky below it. Beside me, dead hemlock branches are daggers aimed at my eyes. A raven’s hoarse call rips the air, and a flicker’s sharp “kee-yer” slices it. Frantic squawks break out as movement swishes through a nearby thicket of young spruce trees. The action fades in a trail of diminishing vibrations. Bird? Mammal? I have no idea.
All around me, the earth awakens. Spring has come to northern Nova Scotia, and I’m searching. Who can say where we find ourselves? In the air? In the soil? In the rush of water through jumbled ice plates jammed in ridges across Matheson Brook? Never during our previous five winters on our rural property, Ravenhill, did my family see ice jammed in the brook the way we saw it this past winter, and not only saw, but climbed over. Vilis or I led the way, testing the ice’s thickness and strength. Dainis and Jānis followed in our careful path, stepping over gaps, the water rushing fast and black below. Now the ice-laden winter eases into spring, and the air is filled with the calls and songs of blue jays, dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees, and a fox sparrow whose brilliant melody sets spring alight.
Today another brilliant melody—a melody of freedom—also sets my heart alight. For the first weekday morning since my family’s academic year began eight months ago, I have no teaching responsibilities. Moments ago, Vilis sat with our boys and their schoolbooks at the kitchen table, and I stepped outdoors to explore at my leisure our seventy-eight acres of woodland and meadows.
Now I look and listen as I follow an overgrown wood-cutting road that looks down onto Matheson Brook. The air is quiet except for a crow’s bright call and a distant chainsaw’s dull roar. On my left, tree trunks grown over rusted fence wires enclose metal barbs within bark-covered lips. On my right, a steep bank plunges to the brook. At my feet, grey, mud-stained flowers decorate wet snow. Some are eight centimetres or three inches long, and some are smaller. These are the footprints of a canid, a member of the dog family. Here coyote or fox or dog stopped to gaze out over the brook or perhaps toss a look over its shoulder. Thirteen years ago, Vilis and I cared for and released three red foxes in southwestern Manitoba. Those foxes’ steps were elegant and smooth, their prints more delicate than these. My guess is that this canid was a coyote or dog, but perhaps I’m wrong.
A male ruffed grouse drums his quickening wing beats. One spring I watched a ruffie strut his breeding display, with tail fanned and black neck ruffs erected, but I’ve never seen one drumming. This spring I’ll search again. I want to observe the initial slow wing-cups of air and to hear their measured “thump…thump…thump” increase in speed and intensity until wings and air blur sound and motion into a wild throb, as though it were the earth’s heartbeat racing up a cliff and then tumbling over the edge into silence.
Ice collapses on the brook. The chainsaw’s roar rubs the air with rawness. The ruffie’s drumming ends abruptly and, minutes later, begins again. A flock of evening grosbeaks—the males, bright yellow and black—passes overhead. I clench my bare hands against the cold, the air temperature only a few degrees above freezing. I was in such a hurry to get out into this amazing world that I forgot to put on gloves. It’s here in nature that I sense God’s power and creative genius. It’s here that I draw near to him. John Muir, who profoundly felt God’s presence in nature, wrote, “…but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”[i]
Today I seek a place in that beautiful, infinite storm. Not for my kids and me; not for my husband and me. Only for me. I came into this world as an individual and will exit it as an individual. In this present moment of freedom, I want to experience my individuality for all it’s worth.
As I walk, my rubber boots make sucking sounds in snowy slush that trickles downslope and feeds Matheson Brook’s swollen riffles. That brook is the heart of Ravenhill. Two springs ago, my family canoed it to Waugh River and then paddled the Waugh to the Northumberland Strait that separates Nova Scotia from Prince Edward Island. In summer, we walk among the brook’s riffles, holding viewers made from milk cartons and clear plastic wrap to magnify caddis fly larvae in their inch-long sand-grain houses that always face upstream. We toss pebbles into the rushing water, build low rock dams at its edge, and cross it by hopping from one gleaming wet rock to another. One autumn when largetooth aspen leaves lay like golden coins on the brook, we crossed by stepping from rock to rock and began climbing the steep bank on the far side—the bank beside me now. Our male cat, Dusty, followed our footsteps precisely, but our elegant she-cat, Blotchy, mistook the leaf-covered water for solid ground and plunged into the brook before scrambling wildly to pull herself onto a rock. We laughed as she shook water distastefully from her paws before crossing safely and following us up the slope. And in winter, as in the winter past, we walk the brook’s ice after Christmas when January brings consistently cold temperatures and ice freezes onto banks and stretches over the riffles, stones, and caddis fly larvae.
Here at Ravenhill, each season brings its own brook pleasures, its own enticements to explore and see what one can see. Nature holds so much beauty, so much complexity and diversity. Its webs of life intermingle in a vast and intricate balance that we, as humans, can only catch glimpses of through observation and the opening of our senses into keen awareness of our surroundings. It is this keen awareness that I wish to awaken in myself, lest one day I mistake leaf-covered water for solid ground and take an unwanted plunge into a chilling wet darkness.
The canid tracks I’m following veer to the west amid birch and spruce trees and then rejoin me as a wobbly line. I tuck my hands into my coat pockets, my fingertips stinging. Tall white spruces edge the trail on my right, and on my left, young eastern hemlocks and mature aspens reach for the sky. Needles, twigs, and lichens litter snow under the trees; this natural debris is part of an unending cycle of forest rejuvenation. Unlike human-sourced litter—such as beer cans, potato chip bags, and coffee cups strewn along roadsides—the needles, twigs, and lichens naturally return to the soil and feed a new generation of trees. As novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “…the forest eats itself and lives forever.”[ii] And as the forest eats itself and grows anew, it feeds countless organisms and soothes the souls of humans.
The canid tracks veer into an aspen grove and disappear on ice. Farther on, I encounter a jumble of canid and snowshoe hare tracks, the latter showing imprints of large hind feet landing ahead of front feet. Was the canid hunting the hare (“rabbit” here in northern Nova Scotia), or did the two animals simply pass this way through different windows in time? I’m not skilled enough to read the story, only to identify the characters. I know that a hare’s hopping motion places its hind feet ahead of where its forefeet land, but I don’t know why this particular hare was in this particular place. My life isn’t lived at ground level, nose to earth, with my survival dependent on the keenness of my senses. Instead, I’m an outsider, a human who claims ownership of land and water, when in truth land and water are not mine to own. They belong to the creatures of the wild who know no property boundaries, whose movements are ruled instead by an instinctive need for food, shelter, and safety. Really, I’m more caretaker than owner. This earth I walk is a gift entrusted to me. I have the privilege of spending my days on land I share with a multiplicity of wild things, including enigmatic snowshoe hares and unknown canids who leave tracks like roses imprinted in the snow.
At the base of the steep bank on my right, ice spreads a greenish mantle around the feet of apple, spruce, and hemlock trees. Farther along the trail, the ice disappears within the curved wall of what my family calls the Amphitheatre, where thick grey trunks of sugar maples, their bark scored with long narrow fissures, rise from brown leaves on the brook’s flood plain.
Last summer, beavers constructed a fifty-metre dam spanning Matheson Brook, downstream from the Amphitheatre. Built of countless chewed-off aspen branches packed together with mud and rocks, the dam flooded low-lying land adjacent to the brook, potentially imperilling our maples. Where are those beavers now? And who made this wood road that winds downhill from what were once grain fields or pastures, down to the Amphitheatre and up the hill again? Our property was once a farm cleared by Scottish settlers. On misty evenings, it’s easy to imagine a piper standing atop a rise, his kilt swaying as his bagpipes wail into the darkening air.
I leave the Amphitheatre and follow the wood road uphill, with patches of moss like tiny green islands in rumpled slush beneath my boots. Water glistens in a silent stream two inches wide that splits into a miniature delta near my toe. A “trickle-stream,” Jānis would call this rivulet, and I delight again in his unfettered imagination one winter-spring day when he and I walked our access road and he discovered trickle-streams.
Playwright Eden Phillpotts wrote, “The universe is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”[iii] Today this forest is filled with such things: the pounding courtship song of a ruffed grouse, tall trees creaking whispered stories, meandering footprints that weave an enigma onto the trail I follow. When exploring our land with my sons, I instruct Dainis and Jānis to “look small,” to see not only the long view but also what’s at their fingertips or under their feet—like trickle-streams. Intriguing discoveries come in many shapes and sizes, and the more we attune our senses to the world around us at different scales of observation, the more marvels we’ll see. Wonder is perhaps the single most powerful emotion to spur within us the need to preserve our natural surroundings—and also to share our findings with others so that they, too, can experience this emotion that’s as fresh as a child’s delighted smile in a jaded world.
A grackle creaks out its song, and a crow’s wing-feathers whip the air. Deer tracks cross the wood road, their melted edges forming small, split bowls. I creep carefully up an icy bend around which my family cross-country skis in winter with excitement, trepidation, or a blend of both. Little Jānis crouches until he’s almost sitting on his skis. More confident, Dainis executes a controlled snow plow, braking as he navigates the bend. I do the same, each time wondering if I’ll conquer the curve without taking a tumble into the snow. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. Vilis never wonders. He skis the bend full throttle, with snow flying and white wind-suit flapping. A glimpse into the character of any individual could be obtained simply by supplying them with cross-country skis and watching them ski this sharp curve in our old wood road.
At the top of the hill, I enter what prairie dwellers describe as parkland—trees interspersed with meadows. Our parkland is the legacy of thirty years of white spruce trees and white pine trees tossing seeds onto an old field’s fertile soil, and of white-tailed deer dispersing apple seeds. More canid prints, smaller and neater than the others, mark the snow. This time I’m sure they’re fox tracks following a newer trail, one hewn by my family. Winter’s dregs still surround me—patches of thin snow are tongues of vanilla icing, and last year’s grasses mound in pointed tussocks around stubborn goldenrod stems or curve into partly frozen dunes, creating rough, sticking-up hair on the scalp of our land.
I rush the last fifty metres to our yard, my hands and feet aching from the cold. Our rooster, Samson, crows from beneath a spruce windbreak west of the house, where his hen harem scratches and pecks at soil. Blue jays, juncos, and chickadees wing to a wooden feeder on a post in a flowerbed. I’m home.
Shivering, I sit at my desk, feeling newly alive, as though part of me long asleep is finally awake, spurred into action and vivid thought by birds, trees, and tracks in the snow. Driven to write, I begin a journal, words arising from the heart like a love song.
[i] John Muir. Travels in Alaska. 1915. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, p. 5.
[ii] Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible. 1998. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., New York, p. 5.
[iii] Eden Phillpotts. A Shadow Passes. 1918. Cecil Palmer & Hayward, London, p. 19.