into the woods

This is the time of year for goodbyes. The final remains of summer’s warmth yields to jackets and hands stuffed in pockets by late afternoon. The leaves fall quickly now, gold and burnt orange, imprinting their spines on damp pavement. Soon the trees will be stripped bare, their branches needle-like against steel grey skies.

I set out Sunday afternoon to walk the land that I know so well. The woods and fields where our farmhouse used to stand. The land calls me back this time of year, and I respond from the heart, from the gut, from need. I walked for hours, alone and alert to my longing. Each time I visit I unwrap memories and turn each one over, holding it gently and with longing, knowing that I will have to let it go. And each time I walk those familiar paths through the woods, the memories stir and form pictures against the landscape.

I see myself cresting the top of a hill. Walking slowly, pausing to fill my body with breath straight from the belly. Hands on knees, then hands on trees as labour contractions surge through me, sweep over me. I see our three dogs trotting single file down a narrow path in the tall grass, breaking free in the open meadow, bounding to the forest beyond. I see my children in the farmhouse kitchen, the dogs at their feet, a baby being nursed by the wood stove. I see us awakening the gardens in spring, planning and sketching the summer’s bounty, giddy when seed packages arrive in the mail. I see us putting those same gardens to bed, insulating and bracing windows against November winds, chopping and piling wood. I see a husband who is no longer alive, as he was then—filled with the peacefulness that this land infused him with. I see him painting in the studio, a baby rocking in a seat by his side. I smell the meals we cooked, the bread baked, the herbs that were hung near the wood stove to dry. I see the grain of the wood in the harvest table and feel the coolness of the painted kitchen floor beneath it.

I remember love that was made and love that was torn from me. I remember laughter and I taste the tears born of confusion, pain and surrender. I remember never having been so happy. I remember the day I said goodbye to a marriage and drove away, leaving him alone atop the hill. I remember losing my compass. I remember profound regrets. I remember the dull, clinging ache of loss. I remember that life nudges us forward even when we’ve fallen to our knees and the weight of our sorrows has us bound.

I walked for hours, pulling on mittens and buttoning my coat, the wind cold against my neck. The sky became broody, telling me it was time to head home. Standing at the site of the old farmhouse, boots covered in leaves, I pictured it one last time surrounded by ancient trees, gardens and those who loved it. I whispered my goodbyes out loud and walked down the steep lane, pushing tangled brush aside with every step. I reached the bottom and in the marsh at the road’s edge, came face-to-face with a Great Blue Heron, each of us startling the other. It spread its wings and majestically rose above.

My memories are rooted in this land. They stand strong, they endure, like the tallest of trees. They will always call me back. And we will say goodbye again.