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Familiar Change, creative nonfiction by Sarah Powley

Familiar Change

They’re right on time!

I had been thinking the winter aconite would spring up late this year. We had low temperatures and significant snow just a few days ago. It was a fierce storm, but the melt came as quickly and as steadily as the snow itself, so the ground warmed and these welcome yellow promises of spring appeared on schedule. 

Winter aconite are the first wildflowers in my garden, and they seem as eager as I for fresh air and sunshine. Members of the buttercup family, these cheery 6-petaled surprises grow low to the ground, protected by deep-lobed bracts that surround the flowers themselves. The whole plant—stem, bract, and flower—grows only three inches high. They don’t risk elevation for fear of freezing, I suppose. It’s still cold at night in February and March.

I have emerged from my underground existence, too, and I went looking for spring on an unusually warm day last week. There’s a small bog in our town—it’s part of a city park—and the trails along the edge of the water and through the woods beckoned me. I’ve been walking here many times a week since March of 2020. Since the quarantine. The woods were a safe space then —not everyone is predisposed to the outdoors, and I was able to remove my mask most days, be unworried about human interaction, undisturbed by conversation.

The sounds of spring come first, before most of the wildflowers, and the excursion on this day was just at the beginning of the annual bird migration. The first arrivals are the male red-winged blackbirds, clacking and clicking and screeching: “Mine, all mine!” They stake claim to brush or a tree along the water’s edge; their mates join them in another month. Blue jays and robins, cardinals and the tufted titmouse, owls broadcasting from their cavities: these birds overwinter, so I still hear them as well, but overhead on that day I went looking for spring, three flocks of sandhill cranes flew high, headed north, their racket so loud that even if I couldn’t have seen them, I would have known they were there. 

I open myself to the sounds, let the blackbird calls release me from work-related stress and world worries. “Forest bathing” the Japanese call it.  My hours in the woods and along the water have become essential—and as refreshing—as a morning shower. Sight, sound, smell, touch and even taste—all my senses engaged in just being: the caress of the breeze off the water, the scent of the pines on that outcrop at the back of the meadow, the sudden fly-by of a red-shouldered hawk intent on his pursuit of something far in the distance. Whoosh. Gone.

Familiarity is the advantage to walking in a small place such as this. I know the landscape well, recognize specific markers on the trail: a tangle of raspberry bushes; the tree with elbows; the spot where I stood in the fall to watch muskrats building a mound; that old black oak, a Medusa against the sky. A year ago, I was even acquainted for a while with a specific squirrel. I saw him scramble into his hole in a fallen log, observed him doing sentry duty on top of that log, admired his athletic leaps on a tangle of limbs in a nearby, broken-down tree. The “jungle gym,” I called it. The squirrel has gone on now, but I still note the jungle gym every time I pass by and then remember that specific squirrel. 

“Don’t you get bored,” people ask, “seeing the same thing day after day?” I grant them the predictability of my excursions, but knowing where to look and what to look for is reassuring. I revel in the return of the heron in spring, am heartened by turtles sunning on a log as soon as the days turn warm, feel astonishment and delight when I glimpse a fawn, spot an egret, or see the meadow grasses rise right before my eyes. In summer, my heart lifts with the lilt of the goldfinch. In the fall, I know to expect sudden rains of hickory nuts, find pleasure in the bursting milkweed pods. I know where the juncos feed in winter, where the deer bed down, and where I’m sure to see the nuthatch. I’m never disappointed on these walks because the familiar is never static. I notice small changes, spot the unusual, know when something is out of place. I have become intimate with this place. 

I’ve held up my end, in my human way. I’m careful where I walk, keep a respectful distance from nesting waterfowl, try not to frighten the deer, give the turtles a wide berth in June when they venture onto the paths in search of the right place to lay their eggs. I don’t pick the wildflowers or the beautiful grasses that would look so lovely in a vase. I frequently stand still and listen. Watch. Admire and respect. The natural world does not revolve around me, and I am grateful that it has let me in. 

The trees are still bare now, everything in my line of vision today is some shade of brown, but in a few weeks, a green tinge will dominate the land, buds will swell on branches, the red-winged blackbirds will welcome their companions, and the spring peepers will emerge from the muck and provide a choral backdrop to it all. Other summer migrants will arrive—all, like me, eager for new life, new growth, new wonders to behold.

Winter aconite also grows here, too, in one little area of the park that few people see. Its burst of yellow joy, so welcome now, will die back in a few weeks. I will miss it, but its loss invites other wildflowers to flourish for a while. My heart is open to them as well. To spring beauty, to Mayapples, to wild geranium. To the next familiar change. 

Sarah Powley is a retired high school English teacher, an amateur photographer, and an outdoor enthusiast. Powley’s work has most recently appeared in Of Rust and Glass and in an independently published book about public education, Connections: The Magic in Learning. She lives in West Lafayette.