Crashing Down

It snows all weekend, a warm snow that accumulates slowly but eventually piles to eight inches or more. For only the second time this winter, I plow the driveway, the wet snow rolling into huge balls as I push it with the tractor. I like plowing snow, though I liked it more when we had a plow truck and I could drink coffee and listen to music as I plowed, continually rubbing away the condensation that formed on the inside of the windshield no matter how high I ran the defroster. And I liked it even better back when the boys were small and would ride along, laughing at the sudden stops and starts, already attuned to the thrill of wielding powerful machinery. Plowing with the tractor is slower, less comfortable, and lonelier – no coffee, no music, no heat, no windshield, no sons – but it beats a shovel by a country mile.

By Monday morning, the temperature has dropped. The cold, aided by a steady breeze, has dried out the snow. It always amazes me how that happens. Again I ski along the mountain ridge, but this time I go further, time and again passing the point I’ve identified as my turn around. The snow is so good. It whispers under my skis. The trees emit cracks and pops in the cold. It’s almost a conversation.

I pass a large paper birch, half-chewed through by beaver and still standing, but otherwise see no signs of wildlife, hear no birdsong. Everyone hunkered down, I guess. Funny to think of them in their snowbound worlds, uninterrupted by the virus, unconcerned with events that I can’t seem stop reading about, even when I know what good it does me. Which is not too bloody much. Again and again I pledge to not look at the news upon waking; again and again I look at the news upon waking. Coffee on the woodstove, the splintering world caught in the computer on my lap. If only it would stay there, though sometimes it seems that if I simply refused to lend it my attention, it would. I know it’s wishful thinking.

Finally I turn back. The snow still whispering. The trees still cracking and popping. The half-chewed birch still standing, though the closer I look, the more tenuous it seems. So I hurry on, not at all wanting to be crushed when it comes crashing down.


Begun in Earnest

Early on the morning after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, I ski into the forest along the spine of small mountains that form the ridge just uphill of our home. I ski to a pond, which is little known and lesser visited, and where I’ve decided the ice is thick enough to bear my weight, though I’ll have no proof of this until after I haven’t fallen through. In the photo above, you can see my view from the edge of the pond. That’s looking due east, or maybe just a bit south of that.

It would perhaps better serve my narrative to suggest that I skied into the woods seeking solace from the chaos of the preceding day, but the truth is, I’d done the same two days before, and the day before that, and even the day before that. And so on. I grew up skiing in the woods behind my childhood home, and now I ski in the woods behind my adult home, and it’s no more a means of coping with our nation’s woes than it is the simple force of habit cultivated over more mornings than I can count. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. Often it’s not. Mostly I don’t think about it; I just go.

There are no other tracks in the snow atop the ice. I ski a long loop around the pond’s perimeter and then head deeper into the woods, climbing a steep hill I’ve climbed often enough. I like the trees up here, especially the big yellow birch and old sugar maples, which have rough trunks and crooked limbs that look like arthritic fingers stretching for something just out of reach. At the crest of the hill I stop to consider my options; it’s so quiet that I can hear my own heart, not only in my ears, as usual, but actually through the wall of my chest. That’s what it seems like, anyway.

I miss faces, hugs, handshakes. Loud, live music. Anyplace crowded. I finally got myself a real mask, with ear loops and everything, and I’m almost accustomed to it, I almost don’t think about putting it on when I go into Willey’s for a two-inch schedule 40 elbow, wire nuts, and, even though it’s winter, one of those 50-cent creamsicle pops I’ve developed a weakness for. I eat it in the truck on the way home, listening to the radio. Sedition. Coup. Incursion. Inciting. A whole new vocabulary for a whole new way of life.

Back down the hill I fly, past the big trees and their outstretched fingers, then past the pond with the ice I can now prove is thick enough to bear my weight, the wind and the noise of my skis against the snow loud in my ears. The heart sound covered up. The sky still grey but full of light. The day begun in earnest.


For All I Know

At first light I return to the same spot in the woods I’d left at last light the day before, where I’d been cutting firewood for the past few days and where the ground is covered by a carpet of sawdust. In the low morning light I can see the new tracks of a small deer who’d come during the night, perhaps drawn to the scent of newly cut wood, or having wandered here by happenstance.

It’s good firewood: Ash, beech, sugar maple. The big trees come crashing down with the whump of heavy wood against snow-covered soil. Then that certain, fleeting stillness, the forest pausing to note the passing of one of its own.

I cut and haul and split for four days straight, not particularly long days, but long enough to earn my suppers, and almost long enough to convince myself that I’ve given in relatively equal measure to what I’ve gained, though it’s probably true that I’ve become so accustomed to giving so little that my sense of what’s equal is all out-of-whack. Nonetheless, it feels good.

The calendar ticks over into the New Year. A storm comes and there is snow. I’m done cutting wood for a while. I hang my chaps back in the barn, instead of by the wood stove to dry for the next day, and I miss the wood-and-oil smell of them. I plow the driveway, and when I’m finished plowing, I ski past the spot I’d been cutting wood. The sawdust is covered, but the deer has been back. I can see where it scuffed in the snow, and where it’s tracks disappear over the top of a treed knoll, and for a moment I allow myself the possibility that it’s right there, just on the other side of that small rise, smelling and listening and judging the danger. And for all I know, it is.

For your listening pleasure (and not entirely unrelated to the above), Franklin Burroughs reading his essay Compression Wood.