Temperatures in the mid-60s, bright sunshine, wind, bird song—and all in February! I ran out for a happy two-hour sojourn as far as I could go on the trail and into the woods to see the brilliant swatches of green here and there, the stream rushing along, birds flying crazily overhead and singing in one big chorus.
I took off my shoes and ran through the mud in my bare feet, stepping into the freezing, rushing water of the stream, climbing hills and rock faces and photographing with my camera and my mind’s eye and all my senses the exhilaration of this day, coming back with muddy feet, wild hair filled with leaves and twigs, scratches on my arms and lots of images and inspiration.
It’s a traditional respite from a frozen winter, a “spring thaw”, too early to be permanent but enough to reawaken our senses and begin stirring the life forces in all of nature.
The full moon in February is often called the “Hunger Moon”; though people have managed through the deepest extended cold of winter, their food stores put by at the previous autumn’s harvest may be near gone and a frozen landscape still surrounds with not much nourishment in sight until the first edible greens begin to sprout in March or later in far north regions. People and animals who’d made it this far would often perish if spring was too long in coming.
But beneath the snow plants have been gathering energy, seeds are swelling, roots are spreading, and above the snow the days are growing longer. Just two warm days in January or February are long enough to melt the snowcover and pour it into streams, soften the top layer of loam in the woods and everything that has life will spring to life, even if only temporarily, insects hatching, mosses blooming, ferns sending spores into the wind, living just long enough to reproduce, though the parents themselves may not survive.
These in turn provide a burst of food and fresh water for birds and animals to rejuvenate and energize and prepare for the effort of the months ahead, giving birth and raising their young.
I’ve always found the spring thaw, whenever it comes, to be a magical time, a gift from our compassionate mother in nature, perhaps, the world so full of life and energy that tired souls weary of the struggle of daily existence in a harsh frozen world will be reminded of better days to come. It is a moment outside of normal chronological time that we can find peace in a chapter of hardship, difficulty or sadness.
This day also reminded me of a similar spring thaw five years ago when I knew that my Moses was letting go. I hadn’t lost a cat in quite some time and was frightened at the prospect, though she was calm and accepting. I just happened to be in the woods for a photo assignment the day I realized Moses’ condition, and as the air was full of life around me I decided to take some time in the woods after the assignment.
It was that loving respite from my fear and worry, the life and energy around me, that filled my heart with the understanding and acceptance I needed to help Moses through her last time, and, as it turned out, four others within the next 18 months; it would not end there.
But now all my losses have become one and are no longer losses, not a big chasm of dark sadness but a bright collective of memories of all their lives mingled with mine in the same way I remember the turns of the seasons. Their losses are not separate from me and my life, but their lives are a permanent part of who I am and the cats I live with today as I remember being in the garden with Moses, the day I first saw Stanley with ice crystals collecting on his fur, the way the furniture was arranged when I moved in here and everyone collected on the table by the door when I left in the morning, watching Mimi outside and deciding she should come to live with me.
Their lives are not a part of my past, but of my present; just as the earth holds the memories of all that’s past and turns it into new life, so do I.
We are resilient; even after the harshest treatment has forced us to retreat and protect ourselves, we are ready again for the fullness of life when encouraging conditions return.
I wrote the first six verses of this poem sitting on a moss and lichen-covered rock in the woods that day I realized my life was about to change with Moses’ imminent transition, then the last verse during her last few days.
Dedicated to the most gentle, loving being I have ever encountered.
Things I Found in the Woods
Tiny rivulets of water released from thawing soil
flowing beneath last year’s debris, trickling and gurgling all around
hurrying down hillsides before the freeze returns.
A cup-shaped fungus holding a tablespoon of snowmelt
for a song sparrow to sip, practicing its vernal melody
for the time when spring arrives in earnest.
Ferns, newly-green, draped on cliffs,
fluttering like garlands in the mild, caressing breeze
gathering a little nourishment to last the rest of the winter.
Fallen trees blanketed with bright green moss,
thick and lush already in the brief January thaw
filling a span of life in but a few days.
Four young white-tailed deer, capricious as the gusts,
feeling the flush of their first spring as adults
cavorting as if winter might not return tomorrow.
An understanding that life and love are cycles,
and that the moment must be taken for what it offers
even if what it offers is not what we expect.
A fraction of your dignity,
and the desire to walk with you to the end of the path
as you transition from this beautiful world into the next.
I had never before experienced the spring thaw in such wonderment at the transience of life—still winter but everything that lived was taking advantage of the moment.
So was Moses. So should I.
So I resolved just to let her follow her course and she would let me know what to do.
I have kept this lesson in my heart with each of the older kitties I’ve loved since. I don’t care what’s coming for us. I love them right now, this moment.
Ten years ago I lived with a largely different group of nine cats, only Cookie and Kelly still with me from those days. Ten years from now the group will be similarly changed. But each of them from before this time and the years to come is forever a part of my life.