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JEFF ELL: The Makeup-Free Forest

Jeff Ell

Like “Maggie’s face in the morning sun,” the leafless world of early spring is when we find out what our favorite wild places really look like.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the forest is really kind of ugly this time of year.

The scarlet and golden glamour of autumn has faded, fallen, and been forgotten. Tourists aren’t filling nearby motels and restaurant to ogle her. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a social media selfie of anyone standing on the dirty brown carpet of the forest floor.

To make matters worse, the spring rains have washed away the Mary Kay of frost and snow that hid her blemishes all winter. It’s that season of life when no one gives her a second look. Dark bark and dripping tangles of vines hang from limp and naked limbs. The hint of red in the maple buds are like the eyes of a tired soul that drinks too much and sleeps too little. It’s the plain face of the wilderness in the bright light.

But it’s all good. Fact is, I’m in love with the old girl’s wrinkles.

Any day now the hills and valleys will go on a shopping spree and deck themselves out in the new spring collection. The eye-popping white and pink pastels of bud and bloom, scents and colors that make even an old man’s thoughts turn to love. But until that warm day, lovers of wild places can see things that are overlooked the rest of the year.

Game trails look like furrows. Just the other day I was walking a familiar piece of property and found a deer trail that I’d never seen before. It passed through a hay field and down into a patch of cedars where I’m thinking the deer bed down in the morning. I made a mental note, the land had given me a tip that I would have otherwise never gotten.

It’s also the best time of year to find things. The skulls of the weak who didn’t have the strength to survive the privations of another winter are easy to pick up. The femurs and gnawed rib-cages of animals are scattered about, dragged here and there by bears and coyotes. Rotting carcasses in deep places are the exhibits on the lawyer’s bench that indict the lazy and unskilled hunters of last years season. Evidence of their lack of practice and preparation or over-sized guts that keep them from tracking the wounded.

Also, if you’re into history or metal detecting, you already know that it’s also the best time of year to discover where previous generations scraped out an existence on their tiny homesteads. Shards of china poke out of the soft black humus and the broken blue glass of snake oil cures sparkle when the sun peaks out from behind the clouds.

But perhaps the best part of being in wild places this time of year is that you don’t have to compete for her affections.

During turkey season a man can get shot for just walking around his neighborhood. Then as the weather warms, pole toting dandies in all their expensive store-bought fineries are tangling their nymphs and streamers in her every rill and pool. As summer heats up those skinny-jean-skinny-dipping-crunchy types with their micro stoves and micro brews are sure to be wandering all over the place. Seems like everyone wants to spend time in woods when she is all gussied up and warm to the touch.

So before the weather starts to warm up, put on your rubber boots and take walk. She might not be too pretty this time of year, but you’ll probably have her all to yourself.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.

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