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Column: Appreciation for the outdoors

“I look out my window and what do I see, I see a bird way up in a tree,” – Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller

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MARQUETTE — In the relative light of the darkness, I stood with my arms stretched above my head, fingers spread open like the snow-covered branches of the trees, reaching for the heavens.

The night was alive in an electrical buzz of almost complete silence. The energy in the air was so thick you could lie across it.

Standing here, just out in the backyard getting some more wood for the fire, I felt like if I closed my eyes and let go from inside, I wouldn’t fall.

Like the trees, I would remain standing tall, moving sympathetically with the energy flow and any new wind that might jump up out of the cold north sky somewhere and decide to roll our way.

I had spent the past few days laid up in the house on what thankfully turned out to be a confluence of relatively minor health concerns. This was the first time I had returned to the trees and the snow in the yard.

My heart was consumed with gratitude. My senses were overwhelmed to again be working on gathering all the powerful stimuli flowing in like life’s blood from the world around me – this wondrous world outside.

I was enthralled seeing the tracks of animals across the snow, being reminded that these brave, small creatures were out here with me now somewhere, likely not very far away at all.

Perhaps they were sleeping, tucked into some warm nest they’d made from autumn’s dead leaves and soft grasses. Maybe they were dreaming of summer days or the springtime when they were born.

They might also be enjoying a snack from the cache they’d created before the seasons changed and the winds and snow put a lot of the best, the most delectable, morsels out of reach.

Out here, under the trees and the blanket of an overcast sky, I was warm and vibrantly alert, while the depths of my soul were roiling with thankfulness.

Over the past few days, it wasn’t necessarily the nature of my health issue – which again turned out to be minor – that had scared, depressed and threatened me.

It was the contemplation, as things unfolded throughout those days of eating and sleeping little and worrying a lot, of perhaps not being able to return to the outdoors in the same way I had always done so in the past.

Maybe not at all.

What if the doctors got this wrong? Was I about to be done in by some salivating specter lurking in the shadows of my family medical history?

I remembered my dad and how some serious, life-changing problems started for him with a very similar trip to an emergency room. What about the bloodwork? They did it, but they didn’t tell me about what it told them.

Outwardly, I was quiet and tried my best to do what I was asked to do. Inside, my mind was racing, catastrophizing my circumstances. All this distressful thinking seems silly now, but it wasn’t funny at the time.

I realized over those few days that I am a busy person, running in many different directions at once. To be unable to do that for even a couple of days was tremendously debilitating to my sense of being and contributing.

I could see how my being off the roster added to the tasks of others and I didn’t like it.

My heart was breaking thinking of folks who are forced to endure the ravages of serious health problems that keep them indefinitely behind the thick, silent walls of houses, in rooms populated by the sounds of droning daytime televisions advertising medical devices, drugs and savings on life insurance.

Thank goodness for warm blankets and soft pillows and the ticking of decent timepieces that, like a metronome, keep time moving forward toward hopefully better days.

The idea of having to put aside for good trips to the woods or yard for walks, fishing, working, gardening, hiking, biking and camping is numbing to me. I think the heartache would be almost unbearable.

These folks will be in my heart and my mind as I set out anywhere now.

While I was at home, I contemplated how friends, and even family, can sometimes seem somehow unaffordable when you happen to get knocked down with an illness.

Beyond your vanity of not wanting them to see you looking bleached out, blah and seemingly as poor as you might feel, it’s their occasional looks of guilt that they are not sick and you are, or of apprehension that perhaps they might catch something while they talk with you about what it is you’ve got, that make it preferable for me to stay in bed, a chair or a bath tub with the door shut.

We can still feel each other’s love from the opposite sides of that wooden door, while it’s seemingly easier, at least in some ways, for both of us.

It’s also so much quieter there. Things, even tiny sounds, seem so crushingly loud when I’m not feeling well.

On more than one occasion, I laid out in a hot bath with the small window open to vent the steam and let in some gentle breaths of sweet, clean air from outside. I closed my eyes and could occasionally hear the tapping of woodpeckers or the chickadees chattering out in the yard.

One day, I could hear a scratching sound at the window of my study. For some reason, a couple of chickadees had become interested in something along the edge of the windowsill and they were landing, lifting and pecking. Through the glass, I could hear the short bursts of flutter from their wings.

When I was sitting in an emergency room, I was informed that a group of 11 deer had wandered to the edge of the woods at the backyard, some gathering under the apple trees – the highest number all winter long.

I later wondered if they had somehow sensed where I was at that moment and had come to pay their respects. While this notion touched me, I realized how foolishly self-centered it was.

I love the feelings I get when I get outside after being having been ill or otherwise incapacitated. The sky looks brighter and bluer, if that was somehow possible. The wind smells sweeter. I notice the height of the snow piled across the yard has grown.

The deer have continued to browse the cedar branches along the driveway. There are more bare limbs now. Days on the calendar have come and gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye.

When sleep finally did reach me during those days, it came in frightening fury, knocking me out for hours and hours and hours. It wasn’t long after one of these sleeping sessions that I awoke refreshed and decided to go out to the yard to get some wood for the fire.

The snow was deep as I walked to the shed. I laid my right arm out flat and was starting to load it up with split pieces of maple that had been sitting out there for months, waiting for this moment.

It was then that I happened to glance up at the night sky to see the snow, stretched gloriously like bunting across the boughs of the trees above me.

It was then that I stopped to say thanks, to rejoice in my ability to stand here and reach my fingers toward the sky. I deeply breathed in the stunning silence of the night around me.

t was then, in my stopping and reflection, my reconciliation, recognition and respect, that I was once again made whole.

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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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