Not Out in the Snow

Yesterday it snowed most of the day. Today there was fresh snow on the ground, flurries on and off. I work in lots of different places, with no office or standard workplace to speak of. Yesterday and today I hung out in a library, meeting students.

The place is well lit, with lots of windows. I sat next to the windows, facing into the building so students could find me. But I turned around a lot. Sometimes, when I had a moment, I would stare out there. I would watch the snow fall, look at the piles of it. I would imagine being out in it.

I wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. I was next to a parking lot. But I have a good imagination. I imagined, in a few spare moments, being in the wilderness, skiing where the wind provides the only sound aside from the shush of skis. The Wind River Range in Wyoming, the mountains of Idaho, the Green Mountain Ridge. I thought of these places I had been.

Two days ago I worked in a windowless conference room. It was snowing like crazy and I didn’t know it for hours. This morning, at least, I did get out in it. I skied several laps around the meadow. It was just light enough. I had to break new tracks in places where the wind had filled them in. A Great Horned Owl hooted in the woods. A couple of crows called back and forth. Snow Buntings trilled across the road. Then I went to the library.

I will ski again tomorrow. Maybe in the mountains, maybe right here. We’ll see what happens. I might read for a while, looking out at the snow from the warm house. But I won’t do that in the library. I’ve spent enough time there this week.

Getting Quiet

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You go out early, the sky in the east hinting at pink, the clouds that will become gray still black, you can feel winter nosing its way in. You feel the damp air kneading your shoulders, the coldness creeping into your sleeves. You can’t see much. The sun has a while before it crests the Green Mountains. Everything is shadow, but out you go anyway.

You wear a headlamp, not out of fear of the dark, and despite that there is just enough light to see the road. No, you wear the light because you are afraid you will run into what is so often already there. You are afraid you might encounter a skunk, or a porcupine, and that, you are sure, would set the day on a different path than you had hoped. And, you admit, it does help you see where you are going better. Stepping into a hole in the road and twisting your ankle would also not set the day headed in the right direction.

As you run up the hill, your feet are the loudest thing you hear. They sound too loud, as if you have disturbed the quiet of the morning. Then you become aware of the sound of your breathing and that too seems too loud. You try to relax but you are powering up the hill now and you don’t want to stop, so you keep the pace, even pick it up a little, until you reach the top.

Up there you can see the Adirondacks to the west. They have a layer of snow so the pink from the east lights them up like Easter eggs. Just above them lie the clouds, getting more gray and less black. The clouds blanket the sky but are high enough that the mountains on both sides are visible. And you head down the hill.

Once, you hear a young Song Sparrow. It is not the robust Song Sparrow song of spring but a rough song, recognizable but raspy, a bold young scamp practicing to woo the ladies post-winter. Otherwise, it is quiet. Things are louder when the light is low but on this morning there is little to hear.

You turn around at the ash tree where you often turn around. Now you are heading east and get to see the sky glowing with color. By the time you get home you can see how many more leaves the wind has pulled from the trees overnight. There is a breeze, just enough to cut through your thin jacket, and you still have not warmed up all the way, even though you have started to sweat.

You walk the last part. You stop just before the house to listen. You hear the wind, and your breathing, slower now. The Song Sparrow is far away. You shuffle some leaves on the ground to hear them rustle. Then you go inside, to brew coffee, to warm up, to get ready for your day.

About Night

Crickets call. Fireflies twinkle across the field. Children asleep. It is just about dark.

Peonies and roses still let their scents sneak out into the dark air. Fresh cut grass lingers under the dew. Pineapple plants and dirt.

A small breeze. Peepers singing in the pond and the ditch. The air cools. A few cars hush past. The solstice prepares its visit.

In winter it would have been dark for hours by now. The green world grays. Later, the moon will rise. Quiet.

Quiet.

Mountain Birdwatch 2009 Take Two

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

Looking South-ish

Looking South-ish

A couple of weeks ago I went up Ricker Peak for my annual volunteer effort to help the Mountain Birdwatch high elevation bird survey.  After I had completed that survey route I noticed that several routes were available still.  So I signed up to do another one, on Burnt Rock Mountain.  I had been up there a couple times before, the first time when hiking the Long Trail from Massachusetts.  I love that mountain, so I figured it was time to volunteer for a second route.

Last week I took a day off and did a scouting trip.  Since the survey requires observing at specific points, I wanted to make sure I found those points during the day.  The survey requires observing birds before the sun rises, so I wouldn’t be able to find them the day I hiked for the real deal.  That scouting mission was mostly successful.  I found four out of five points, although it took me a while.  The first point was “just south of the summit.”  I had a description and a photo.  The point description sheet noted “all photos looking north,” so busted out the compass to make sure I was looking the right way and tried to match the photo.  It was a fine clear day so it should have been no problem.  But I couldn’t figure it out.

I hiked all over the top of that mountain looking for point one.  I finally gave up and headed down the trail to find point two.  Couldn’t find that one either.  Point three was an obvious one, with definite landmarks–steep rocky slope, big fat root hanging over it, tall leaning dead tree–and I thought at first that the photo was backwards.  No wonder I was having trouble.  Then I realized the photo wasn’t looking north.  It was looking south.  It turns out they all were looking south.  After that I found all but point two.  That one would have to wait to be found in the wee hours of survey day.  I ran out of time that day.

I did a repeat hike this morning, but instead of heading down the trail just behind a group of a dozen women in their sixties, all with hiking poles and long pants and sleeves, I was alone.  It was dark, and it was 2:30 AM when I started hiking, so that wasn’t a big surprise or anything.  I walked slowly with my headlamp showing me the way.  No moonlight hiking on this trip.  Aside from the idea that I might meet a sleepy and therefore grumpy bear, I was afraid only of slipping and hurting myself.  It would be a long wait before someone might come to help.

And it was slippery.  It had rained more since my first hike so the streams were higher, the trail had more water on it, the rocks were wetter.  I slipped more than once, drawing blood on my hand in almost the same spot I had on the scouting hike.  I got to the top of the mountain about 4:00.  Right on time.  The survey needs to happen between 4:00 and 6:00 so I sat down, drank some water, pulled out my notebook, and waited.

I had to wait a while.  It was foggy, socked in in fact, so the birds rose later than they might have on a clear morning.  I lay back on my pack, looking into the wet dark air, feeling the drops on my face and reaching out into the morning for any sound.  It was peaceful.  I was afraid I might fall asleep.   And then hermit thrushes started to sing.  Lots of hermit thrushes.

I started my ten-minute observation at that first point at 4:30.  I was lucky.  I heard a Bicknell’s thrush, which is one of the major reasons for the survey.  No matter how many times I hear it, it fills me with joy and gives me hope that the world still is filled with wonders.  It is.  We humans are working hard, it sometimes seems, to trash the place.  But the world is resilient and powerful and beautiful and downright amazing.  I felt that deeply again this morning.

I did find point two, and the rest of them, and I completed the survey on time.  I got to spend a good chunk of time up on a mountain by myself.  That was a treat.  Back at the summit, after my notebook was stowed in my pack, I sat and looked and listened for what I might discover.  There was nothing new, and that was what I sought.  Back at the car, after a slidey hike down, I donned some dry clothes.  I stopped for gas (the low fuel light was on and I was afraid I might not make it; not only did I get gas but free coffee with a fill up) and headed up the twisting road through the gap on Route 17.  I was home by 9:00.

I did take a short nap this afternoon, but I will need to retire early this evening.  It was great experience and I hope to do it again next year.  At the moment, however, I am a bit tuckered.  That is fine with me.  I know that up high, Bicknell’s thrushes still sing.