December 23, 2012

North Cairn: As a storm gives way to sunrise

All through the days and days of storms of one sort or another, the winds murmured and the trees uttered their various languages and fleeting moods.

The clamor -- if silence can be said to have something audible to say -- started with the barely distinguishable sound of snowfall, a sound like the surf under the softest wind of midsummer on the beach. It was a steady whisper, and it came to me as I stood on the back stoop, listening to the woods, craning my head to hear the dog rustling in the yard carrying out her last duties of the night.

But she had probably paused while making her three-quarter circle of patrol around the cabin, leaving off the deck (which belongs to the field mice mostly), and was likely sniffing out clues with great deliberation and interest, as is her habit when the last moments of the evening are ebbing and soon nightfall will cover her in the deep, deep sleep only a dog seems capable of achieving. These final excursions of the day, leading her to the edge of the woods but not within, are her closing chance to do her work -- protection and keeping an eye and ear on things that might be, but seldom are, approaching.

I was listening, too, but from a different place -- inside and out. I wasn't feeling alert to trouble, and I couldn't have seen it coming anyway, what with the giant flakes floating down, drawing a curtain of white over the land. There was nothing to see but monotonous natural confetti drifting in the night, and instead of stoking worry, I was embracing some slight, glad wonder at the quiet celebration of the season working out its unexpected beauty.

And then the trees began to murmur and moan.

There must have been some wind wending its way across the fields not far off, because out back of the cabin where the forest rises and seems to promise forever and infinity ahead, the trees were hoisting their burden of snow, holding it aloft but with a certain complaint. I knew some of the cry was simply the abrasion of bark against bark, branch against branch, as a trunk heaved itself aside in the wind, staying ahead of the storm. But it still was groaning and shrieking, rising from the ground, and for just a moment -- until the dog emerged from the dark and stood in the circle of light thrown by the porch lamp -- everything in the dark seemed alien and eerie.

By the next morning the language of the landscape had drawn closer to total silence, the conifers covered with a thick shroud of white, no sign of anything human approaching, only the little tracks of whichever mammals had braved the storm for food, foregoing safety to gather fuel to keep their own internal engines humming.

But the conversation outside kept drifting in, despite the fact of no visitors and my own self kept busy with work that focused my interest inside the wooden rooms of a wooden house. The sky was still showering frozen rain that tapped vaguely at the windows like needles shot against glass, and that gave the day a sense of punctuation, of motion, of time passing.

All morning and through the afternoon, till early dusk, the trees and the roof seemed taken up in conversation -- a thud of melt falling from the eaves or thundering down the slope of the roof, a huff of glazed and weighty snow shrugging off the arms of the hemlocks or tumbling like wet cloth out of the birches.

(Continued on page 2)

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