Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18: Snowstorm, Beech Hill

My friend Brian got new snowshoes last weekend, so we decided to give them a test run on Beech Hill in today's snowstorm. We were the first ones on the trail, and the soft fresh powder had filled in all older tracks. Snow was still falling heavily, so our own oval tracks filled in behind us, slowly erasing signs of our passing. All around us bare trees stood silently, graceful lines of trunks and curving branches exposed in the stark winter woods. We marked the paths of a few squirrels and one rabbit. A barred owl has been seen on the hill by several people in the past few weeks, and a snowy owl would have fit right in on the snow-swept barrens. But all we encountered on our outing was a handful of much smaller and less dramatic birds: two brown creepers spiraling up trunks just off-trail and two chickadees energetically flitting across our path.

Breaking a (mostly uphill) trail is rigorous work, but it felt so good to be out in the woods in the snow, dressed warmly, in good company, that I didn't even mind falling several times in the drifts. It was about embracing winter and the transformation it brings to the landscape. And how we have to adapt to those changes to fully appreciate them. There's nothing like being out in the elements when you're well prepared for it. A snowstorm creates a certain intimacy with the landscape, shutting out the rest of the world. As I was lying back in the snow after one of my spills ("imbalances" might be a better word), looking up at lacing tree tops against the white sky, infinite snowflakes swirling down on me in a weird 3-D effect, the shift in perspective was a thrilling one. I almost wanted to remain there in my snow bed, enjoying the show.

Photo by Brian Willson.

Elsewhere, a pattern of snow on a branch looked just like a turkey track. Stands of staghorn sumac held up their velvety red clusters in offering to the sky. We found an acorn that had been tucked into the hollow of a small tree by some well-intentioned squirrel long ago. Along the trail we could hear wind rushing in the spruce grove at the summit, the distant Owls Head foghorn, the patter of snowflakes falling on branches and dead leaves. But we couldn't see the ocean from any point, only scarves of snow sweeping over the trees and soft contours of the near landscape. A place very familiar to us both was revealing a new face.

At one point on the way down, the sun tried to break through the clouds. But even the sun was too weak to overcome the storm. The solar disk hung there like a strange planetary apparition for a moment and then was gone. Such light casts no shadows. Dark, dead stalks against white fields offered a sense of contrast, but no softness, or color--except in the strange, wind-carved crevices in a some drifts that shone with the eerie blue light of glacial ice.

Snow drops a curtain,
transforms the path through trees, fields.
In beauty we walk.

Poetic Note: The last line of today's poem is meant to echo a traditional Navajo prayer chant, parts of which I've included below:

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.

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