Bare Winter

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I took a walk in the town forest yesterday. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark. Snow was falling. It was a light snow, the flakes floating slowly to the frozen ground in the light wind. It felt like winter wanted to be there–cold, barren.

I walked quickly. I went to the forest because I hoped to find a Red-Breasted Nuthatch, a bird I have found there before, hopping along the trunks of the tall white pines. There was not a lot of bird activity so I was not lingering. It felt good just to move through the woods. I also went there to walk. I took time to stop, to look, to listen; but I also just wanted to feel my breath and warm myself with motion.

The ground was bare. Those gentle snowflakes were beautiful but they did not gather themselves. They broke apart, tucked under leaves, melted when they hit the slightly warmer ground. James Wright’s “Late November in a Field” begins: “Today I am walking alone in a bare place/And winter is here.” It felt like that, only it is February. It felt like winter was about to arrive, but it should be here by now.

We have gotten little snow. In a typical year I would not have gone to the town forest as I did yesterday. I would not have gotten to the parking area and I would not have tried to park, afraid of getting my car stuck. But the dirt road was like pavement. I did not need snowshoes or skis on the trails. I did not have to worry about ice. The temperature popped above freezing by the time I returned to my car. Late November weather.

I heard almost no birds. A few chickadees called their quiet peeps. I heard my nuthatch honking away, plus one or two others. At one point I stood below the pines and thought “it is so quiet today.” But it was not quiet. The wind blew the bare trees. They swayed just enough, and they were cold enough, to creak and pop. Squirrels chattered. Pines whispered. The forest was having a winter conversation with itself. Once I stopped listening with such focus and allowed myself to hear everything around me I found a world of sound. It was not quiet at all.

Winter has a couple months yet to go. Perhaps we will have a solid snowstorm during those couple months. Or perhaps November will blend into spring come April. Outside my window, the tips of crocuses show themselves below the bird feeder. I do not wish them harm but I would like them to be hidden under a deep layer of snow. I would like this bare winter to wear its snowy cloak, at least for a little while. I would like a little more winter before spring arrives.

Afternoon, Stick Season

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The river runs not high but not low. A sand bank toward the far side pushes the water away, causing the current to run faster. Across the river the banks drop steeply. In spring, Bank Swallows nest here, burrowing into the sand, flying low over the water to catch flies. Today it is not spring. Fall’s glory has passed. The brilliance of turning leaves is over. Those leaves lie in wilted piles among the bare shrubs.

But it is not yet winter. The current flows smoothly over rocks and sand and mud. A few moths still flit among the maples. There is no ice under which the water must crawl, no ice to scrape at the log lodged in the river’s bend. Snow does not yet fall. Today there are no clouds and the air is warm enough for scattered green leaves in the under-story to spread to catch the sun. But the sun is low, and will not last much longer today.

Upstream, at the mouth of the stream that melts into the river, a beaver just stirs in its lodge. It has been waiting for the light to dim, for shadows to grow long. It dips into the water, swims, waits again. Soon it will climb the bank to work at the silver maple it plans to fell. Already it has cleared smaller trees. It will chew away the bark, working steadily, wary of predators. Perhaps this tree will fall before winter sets in. Perhaps spring winds will send it tumbling. Perhaps it may prove more stubborn, standing for years before its top branches dip into the water. The beaver, however, does not concern itself with such possibilities. It simply works.

Two Blue Jays call across the bare trunks. A woodpecker knocks. A second calls to it and sends the first flapping away. A small breeze taps branches together, but mostly it is quiet. Crickets, cicadas, birds do not sing. Squirrels stay still. The woods here rest, exposed, not waiting exactly, not sure or unsure, just knitting the past into the present so the future can be only an imagined thing that does not matter to this day.

Soon the sun will drop below the hills. The day’s heat will drift off, like milkweed seeds across a field. In the dark, the river will seem louder. No bats will dot the skies but owls will call. Already owls are planning for spring, finding mates, starting nests. They plan for the future, like the beaver, doing today what must be done for tomorrow. Mice will crawl under dry leaves, finding seeds that won’t become flowers, feeding the owls, thinking only of right now, this November day next to the river that will not stop flowing, even when the ice comes.