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Column: Nature gives the best gifts of all

“But never have I been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm,” – Stevie Nicks

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MARQUETTE — With tremendous force, dumping a whole big feather pillow’s worth of snow down over the countryside, winter bared her big white teeth and snarled, scattering people and animals to soft, warm hiding places.

In some cases, the weight of heavy snows and cold rain frozen to ice worked in concert with gusting winds to snap utility lines and tree branches, leaving countless folks in the dark for days.

Highways, trails and other arteries were covered and clogged with deep snow, slowing down the pulsing heartbeat of holiday traffic over Thanksgiving.

Like the erratic traveling nature of a tornado, these winter storms tiptoed past some homes while they buried others, and uprooted trees. The great power, chance and circumstances posed by nature’s temperamental whims remains a curious fascination for me.

Once the engine of the storms started to sputter and kick, the forest animals took cover quickly. They used lulls in the bluster to appear as ghostly survivors atop the crusted, deep snows or at bird feeders outside my window – looking for food before returning to shelter.

I often wonder what that must be like to brave treacherous storms in the blackness of night or the blindness of a blizzard as a white-tailed deer, a moose or a tiny chickadee.

Like us, these animals have developed adaptations to confront the wilds of wintry weather.

And yet, it can’t be easy.

I have also been wondering about observation.

Many of us watch wildlife, studying habits, patterns and other behavior. I think about whether animals do the same thing, watching humans.

Do the blue jays and the grouse, the porcupines and the squirrels, notice a change in our behavior during the restlessness and rush of the holidays?

And if they do, I wonder if they think it’s silly or strange?

When I was a kid, these would have been the prime days of intense excitement and speculation about what I might be getting for Christmas, especially from Santa Claus.

After all, he held the power to produce anything imaginable, even things that would never fit down a chimney – even though we didn’t have a fireplace.

As far as I was concerned, he could have all the cookies and milk he wanted, just please bring me my G.I. Joe, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars.

The top corners of the pages of the Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs would certainly have been dog-eared by now, probably since September. I recall taking a lot of time working on Christmas wish lists.

Looking back, I’ll bet all the visualization, eagerness and anticipation made crafting these lists more fun and rewarding to me than I could have ever imagined – maybe even more satisfying than the actual gifts?

It’s weird how all of that has changed so drastically the older I get.

I no longer care whether I receive any material Christmas gifts at all.

Instead, I wish for more time outdoors, peace and goodwill for the world and health and happiness for my family and friends.

I worry about the intense social and economic pressures the holidays can put on all of us, pushing some of us to sacrifice, risk or spend more than we might be able to afford.

For me, the best gift is a day outside with the sights and sounds of nature, enhanced by the laughter of children or the company of someone dear to me.

I really need nothing more than this.

The types of gifts I want to give are time, love, truth, understanding and faith.

For the past few holiday seasons I’ve had a hope of stealing away to a cabin situated in the heart of a picturesque wintry woodland for Christmas, enjoying the time in the company and glory of nature and a small handful of friends and family.

It won’t happen this Christmas, but maybe next year?

As well as fellowship, finding solitude, quiet and moments for reflection are essential to me.

I need space and time to think, to recharge and to just be.

There is no place greater for me to find these things than in nature.

Walking down a snow-covered railroad track, sitting on a bluff overlooking a frozen lake or warming myself by a fire in the night are just some of the occasions that suit me fine for this.

In the wake of the winter storms, I was happy to look up and be able to see the stars again, albeit through the mists of passing clouds.

These are among the oldest of my friends, shimmering diamonds, always listening, true in their silence and presence – delighting in their fanciful arrangements that remind us of great heroes, goddesses and creatures of nature and the zodiac.

I hope to always retain a memory of stars in my consciousness, no matter where I travel.

To increase the odds of this happening, I have packed many such recollections away for the future, along with images and impressions of colorful singing birds, flashy fish, spectacular green meadows and the silence of ancient forests.

The colors of smoky quartz, lapis and cinnamon are there too, as are the soft brushes of summer winds and raindrops across my face, dancing fireflies and the florid perfume of lilacs and roses.

The more I travel outdoors, the more memories I collect.

I read recently that the first dashboard radio was embedded in a Studebaker and demonstrated in 1930.

That doesn’t really seem like such a long time ago.

Because there have always been radios in cars throughout my lifetime, it seems like that has always been the case. It’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Some of the same kinds of things can happen in nature.

Kids growing up here today might find it strange to think that there haven’t always been common occurrences of bald eagles, gray wolves, sandhill cranes, fishers or even mourning doves and wild turkeys – but that was indeed the case when I was growing up.

The air feels good tonight, warm for the wintertime. I walk outside in the early darkness, drawing in big, fresh breaths of coolness – feeling them inflating my lungs.

I can smell fresh cedar scent wafting toward me from snow-covered and downed branches broken by the storms. Like the deer and the rabbits, whose tracks I see before me in the snow, I too have re-emerged.

We are all curious, wondering, searching, walking together.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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