Toby and I had just reached the gate that begins freedom for both of us. He gets released from his leash, and as long as I can see or hear him, is allowed to follow his nose wherever it leads. Safe in the knowledge that he'll come when I call, I let my feet travel the familiar overgrown path and my mind wander wherever it needs.
Although midwinter, the day was gold and green and blue. It could have been a spring sky, with cloud lambs gamboling in wind-tossed fields. It could have been a spring day with bright sunlight coaxing buds to unfurl into air that held promise of warm nurturing. The bright moss and sword fern babies adorning old cottonwood trees pretended to be the spring green of leaves that are weeks away from being born.
As I was unclipping the leash from Toby's collar I heard the telltale pocking of a woodpecker. I searched a nearby tree for the origin of the sound and found him easily. A Hairy Woodpecker working on an ash tree less than six feet away. He seemed unaware of us, intent on forcing food from the bark in front of him. I watched him for a while, always fascinated at how he blends in. If not for the sound, I would never have known to look for him. Even the small slash of red on the back of his head is not enough to visually blow his cover.
The trail and Toby and my own restlessness pulled me away while the woodpecker was still busy on the ash. Toby tracked the scent of deer as though his life depended on it. When we reached the river, he dove for rocks as though his life depended on it. For the entire walk my mind searched high and low for answers, peace, and certainty as though my life depended on it.
The only thing found was the rock Toby pulled from the bottom of the river and carried proudly up the trail toward home. No deer. No answers.
On the return loop, back at the gate, my mind already home onto the next problem to solve, Toby at my side allowing the end of freedom for the day, a new sound caught my attention. A series of snaps, like a dish towel on a clothesline in a late spring breeze. I looked up in time to see my woodpecker friend fly just past my head into a nearby tree. He flew and landed, flew and landed several times before resting on the trunk of the same tree we'd seen him in just an hour before.
This time as I watched him and listened to the primal percussion of his wing beats, I became aware of an enveloping silence. As though time took a break, the earth stopped its spin, and the sunlight illuminated the invisible. Toby was perfectly still, my wise and willing companion in this gift of grace.
Once the woodpecker settled against the side of the tree, the only sound left was the rush of the unseen river to the north and east of me. No birds squabbling or singing. No squirrels chattering or scolding. Not one single car sound from the highway not that far away. Just perfect stillness.
I don't know how long the time out of time lasted, or how long it might have lasted if the woodpecker hadn't flown away, following some internal direction known only to him. Twenty-four hours later, as I sit with a mind overflowing with what-ifs and doubts, I can still feel that powerful, otherworldly stillness. And I try to find my way back into it.
photo from Flickr