Thoreau’s Woods

Those of you who know me well are used to my obsession with nature. My husband and I live at the wild edge of Wyoming, right on the border where the winds blow hard and life is a struggle for even the toughest critters. We love it here, and enjoy our walks in the woods.

An old tree in our woods, at the magic hour when everything turns to gold.

We’re surrounded by rocks and trees, and our Ponderosa forest is inhabited by animals ranging from mountain lions to rare black squirrels.

An Abert’s squirrel. I call these “Narnia Squirrels,” because they look like the kind of critters you’d find beyond the wardrobe.

I love walking in our woods. It’s a privilege to know one place so well. But it’s also fun to explore other natural spaces, and in most other parts of the country, I marvel at the way things grow. When I first moved to the West from the green glory of Pennsylvania, an elderly neighbor who loved to garden used to lean forward in her lawn chair, eyes sparkling, and say, “Tell me again about how you didn’t have to water the lawn!” Water is a constant worry here.

My family, mid-hike.

Our recent trip to New England to see our son and his wife gave us lots of time to explore the Massachusetts woods—Thoreau’s woods. While we weren’t actually at Walden, this area hosts many of the plants and trees he referenced in his journals.

Oak leaves. Believe it or not, it had been a while since I saw oak leaves! The only deciduous trees we have in our mountain hideaway are cottonwoods.

As usual, I was most excited about the moss. I’ve been fascinated by moss all my life; a patch always seems like a tiny forest in another world, a place where microscopic beasties go about their business, unaware of the giants up above.

My husband loves to take pictures like this, so I know how silly I look. But I’m quite proud of this hat!

I’d forgotten how amazing moss can be in a place where water is abundant. Even in January, pushing aside a few dead leaves revealed a tiny world still vibrant and alive despite the cold.

I haven’t been able to identify this one. Moss experts, feel free to chime in!

So I took pictures. Lots of pictures! When I was editing them, it struck me how much my moss pictures remind me of food photography. Setting them up is a similar exercise in composition—brush aside the leaves and angle them just so, staging the moss or lichen to show the forms and colors to best advantage. Don’t they look delicious?

(Note: All identifications are tentative and quite possibly wrong, since these are the common names I used for these mosses as a child.)

Starry-Cap Moss
Pincushion Moss

What does this have to do with cowboy romance? Nothing! But I’m always told my books have a rich sense of place, and I think they owe that to my obsession with the details of the natural world. And while the West is the landscape I love most, I love to immerse myself in other worlds, too.

But if you came here for cowboys, I’d hate to disappoint you, so…

This is Shane, from “How to Wrangle a Cowboy.” You’re welcome.

Anyway, do look closely next time you go hiking in the woods. What’s underfoot is every bit as interesting as what’s right in front of you. There’s a whole world down there under the leaves!