March 23, 2013

North Cairn: Still wonder in winter's last gasp

Beauty triumphed over what could have been at best boredom last week -- the disheartening news of heavy snow on the first day of spring.

I was in good company, feeling that the storm was an ironic and not altogether welcome twist, because complaints had been flying like flakes even the night before -- by phone, at the gas station, in the grocery store.

But then, in the morning, I awakened to the reality I had not anticipated. I looked out the big windows in the living room of my cabin in the woods and was almost knocked off my feet by the splendor of the forest unfolding before me. The tumbledown deck looked comical covered in yet another drape of snow, with more drifting down softly, without alarm. The railings of the deck were a study in asymmetrical maintenance -- some portions of the vertical slats missing entirely, others held together by an afterthought of horizontal reinforcement, two-by-fours nailed up in a helter-skelter but functional fashion.

Besides, all the deck had to do for me was catch the falling snow and serve as a reliable gauge of accumulated inches.

The trees took over from there. The conifers were doing something spectacular and equally silent as the snow itself, opening the broad expanse of their boughs like welcoming arms, gathering up the storm as if snow were a homecoming. Even days later, the hemlocks stayed heavy with the storm, which had already turned its back on the landscape and left the snow-melt to transform into harmless avalanches from the rooftop and great boulders of half-frozen icebergs cascading down the sides of the house.

The first tracks to interrupt the pond of snow outside the door came during the night sometime, from the plow operator, who made a quick sweep through the main part of the drive to make certain I could get out if conditions demanded it. But we had already been snowbound for more than a day by then, and the frosty crystals -- though they'd been shoveled off several times -- were still falling, and things were piling up on the path to the stack of wood and the stalled car, making excursions out, even for fuel for indoors, a series of slick maneuvers.

It might have seemed troublesome except for the muted voices in the forest -- an occasional solitary songbird chiming in a pure voice to the weather out of tune. I heard a chickadee at one point and later in the day, when I opened the door to let the dog head out unattended on a plodding adventure, I heard the sweet whistle of a cardinal high up in the trees nearby.

Spring was coming closer.

I wanted to be tired of winter -- and frankly, I guess I am -- but something about the languorous, drawn-out nature of this most recent storm made me more amiable about the event than I had expected to be. Unexpected beauty, shocking you into a sense of what's important and lasting, and a grace to witness, upstages everything else: the inconvenience, the digging in and digging out, the plow bills, the buried vehicles.

I have lived in the woods for nine months now and I see it is taking its natural toll. I spend a lot of time now thinking about how to talk to trees, and though I wish I could tell you I thought it a phantasmagorical musing, it isn't. Inhabiting a dwelling in the woods -- as does the fisher, who barked and screamed for 20 minutes in the twilight of dawn one recent morning, prickling both my neck hairs and the dog's hackles as we woke to the sound -- diminishes you to the proper size in the environment. It reminds me of what life might have been like when we still thought of nature as a vast wilderness -- in which we might perish unnoticed, dust to dust -- rather than a manageable set of resources we could use and use and use up.

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