Cynthia Wood: Stillness and quiet

Published 10:29 am Sunday, January 28, 2024

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For my family, the period from Halloween until the end of the year can be a wild, crazy, mad time of celebrations, food, decorations, and reunions with friends. Did I mention food? Every family member has a different seasonal favorite that must be honored. And then there is cookie madness. We usually bake 30 to 40 dozen for distribution to friends and neighbors.

This past year was especially meaningful and difficult. Our son has cancer; his condition is terminal. Nevertheless, he still came for Thanksgiving dinner. He was clearly very ill, but insisted on visiting because he knew quite well that there might not be another chance. The next day, he checked into the hospital with pneumonia.

By the time the new year arrived, we were all desperate for solitude and quiet, the sort of stillness needed to recalibrate and establish inner peace. As usual, we went to our favorite park and set out on a much-loved trail. We didn’t all walk together or even talk to each other. We just ambled along single file, lost in thought. 

I’ve walked this trail so many times that I can almost hike it with my eyes closed. First, there’s the tree with the huge hollow that sometimes shelters an enormous black snake. Then there’s a bridge over a fast-moving creek; to the left is the area that I call the skunk cabbage incubator because, even in early January, there can be scores of them popping up through the muck. After rounding a bend in the trail, there are Christmas ferns with their fronds flat on the ground, endless amounts of running cedar, and tiny bits of hepatica nestled in the leaf mold. The hepatica plants have bronzed leaves and very fuzzy stems.

As the trail continues, much of it looks barren, but it’s not. Growing on the rocks along the stream are mosses, lichens, and liverworts, those primitive nonvascular plants thought to be similar to the earliest plants to become established on land. There are small colonies of heuchera nestled in protected areas among tree roots. They look bedraggled now, but will recover nicely when warmer days return. 

The trail eventually leaves the low area along the creek and begins to climb. The soil becomes drier, and the vegetation changes. On one side of the trail, there’re big mats of partridgeberry peeking from beneath the leaves; on the other, there are masses of heartleaf. If I keep going for another mile, the trail continues to climb and gets even rockier and more barren. One side drops off sharply to the lake below. The hillside is covered with wild pink azaleas. The other side of the trail hugs a steep cliff where there are a few trailing arbutus plants. Their leathery leaves have been damaged by the cold, but in early spring, the plants will be adorned with waxy, pale pink flowers. 

Sometimes when I do my New Year’s hike on this trail, I’m not sure whether I’ve actually seen each plant or just mentally noted them because I expect them to be in their usual places. No matter. The walk is a quiet meditation that recenters my soul and reminds me that there is hope in the new year.

Go for a walk. Leave your daily cares behind and just pay attention to that still, quiet voice within. You’ll be glad that you did, Happy New Year, everyone.

Dr. Cynthia Wood is a master gardener. Her email address is