Sandra leads me into the forest she has known in every season since 2008, just out her door in Flagstaff. So often has she wandered through the ponderosas, Gambel’s oaks, aspen and rounded boulders on the edge of Mt. Elden that “her” forest home has become a journey of stories.
Yet, on this day as on every day, Sandra discovers the unexpected. I am fortunate to be there with her, overjoyed by this familiar (ponderosa) and unfamiliar (oaks and Abert squirrels) habitat of northern Arizona.
Sandra’s ability to encounter what’s new and wondrous is all that much keener, because she knows the acorn woodpecker colony in the pine snags, the favorite haunts of red-faced warblers, and this year’s eye-level nest hole for a western bluebird pair. There’s an art to knowing and returning and never feeling complacent. Nature teaches that well to those willing to embrace the “sense of wonder” that Rachel Carson wrote about so eloquently.
The forest floor blooms here and there with brilliance following the gift of rain. We bend low to find tiny ants scurrying across their golden round world.
Above us an acorn woodpecker lands on a branch, a thrilling sighting of this comical, ingenious bird that harvests acorns and stuffs them into holes they’ve excavated in the pines.
Sandra has spent hours watching the colony, yet on this day we spot a new bird and I am fortunate to be with her. A northern goshawk lands on a branch and surveys us with predatory eyes. This gray ghost of a powerful hunter is rarely seen, yet defines what makes this place so rich for wildlife, a forest that’s large, connected (the Kaibab National Forest goes for miles north of Flagstaff), and harboring ancient pines, dead trees, young trees, and diversity diversity diversity.
It’s a day of raptors, but who would have known without being here? Without returning again and again? I revel in Sandra’s stories of the time crows harassed a great-horned owl that roosted not in a tree but in a cave among the boulders, of the day she rescued a deer caught in a fence, and now today? We have a new story. I love seeing Sandra’s home forest through her eyes as I wander far from my “home” of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula where “my” kingfishers have now fledged and vanished on the bends of a stream.
I’m left pondering the words I heard once from a Salish elder Louis Adams who told me that “everywhere was home,” because they had come to know the mountains, forests, meadows and rivers in every season for harvest, hunting and shelter.
What is it to know “home” as I wander today away from the familiar? I feel grateful for the gifts of seeing Sandra’s world. It’s through her intimacy with this place that I saw more than I ever would have alone, and through our shared joy in nature that we both discover the new and the wonder again and again.