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In August 2013 I moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts, to the foot of Deer Hill/West Mountain, on the edge of the valley of the Westfield River. The journal below is my story of getting to know my new home: the land that stretches up the side of the mountain behind my house.
December 22, 2013: Passing Through the Fog
It’s absurdly warm for the first full day of winter: just over 50 degrees before sunrise, when I step out my back door. But as I step into the hemlock forest along the stream it’s as if I’ve gone through a wall into another realm, buried in cold fog. The temperature drops 13 degrees in moments; the chill cutting through my clothes. All color is gone: the hemlock trunks and boughs close around me, the patches of bare ground, and fallen branches scattered across the forest floor all turn black. Just as black are the cold, rushing waters of the stream, flush with meltwater, flowing between banks still covered in gray-white melting snow, the only thing that’s not dark in the gloom. But the snow, the trees and everything else fade swiftly into an amorphous wall of dark gray.
The fog flows thick and cold as I cross the stream and climb up the other side of the valley. But as I come up over the edge onto the ridgetop the grasping fog releases me as quickly as it grabbed me on the other side. Suddenly I’m back in warm, clear air, walking through the hemlocks, looking far ahead while behind me everything is gray.
Soft colors start to appear as I climb higher and sunrise approaches: pale patches of lichen on a dark, gray-brown tree; bright beech leaves streaming in the wind; big patches of wet, matted leaves in many warm brown hues. It feels like I’m climbing into spring. The patches of bare ground expand, merging into whole hillsides of wet leaves with just occasional islands of melting snow. Streams flow across the forest floor in places where there likely hasn’t been flowing water since last spring’s snow melt.
The sun rises hidden beyond the clouds as a wet, warm wind pours through the treetops. Leaning back against a small tree I can feel it moving in the gusts. But when the wind eases the tree’s motion merges with my own. My back moves gently with each breath I take and I can’t fully tell what motion is my own and what is the tree’s.
Suddenly the air grows lighter; the beech leaves glow in the damp mist while the hemlock boughs shine, as green as spring leaves. Shreds of mist race by, low to the ground; sliding past the tree trunks. A great mass of ice spilling from a cliff, so recently buried snow, now stands alone, meltwater flowing down the thinning icicles. A fine rain starts to fall, growing quickly heavier. Cold mist still fills the stream valley. Stepping out of the mist on the other side, the air feels almost sauna-warm.
December 21, 2013: Melting Snow and the Stream as Painting
Water drips quietly from the trees, splashing on the wet, melting snow. Fine mist falls softly on my upturned face. Little snow is left up in the trees, but when a last clump breaks loose and falls near me I’m sprayed with big crystals; “spring” snow, so unlike the soft powder of just a couple days ago. Wet, dark trees stand black against the pale sky overhead. The sun doesn’t so much rise as resolve through the haze; bright orange, summer-like; all out of keeping with today being the Winter Solstice.
But this is just a temporary thaw before winter returns. Sunrise will soon be coming earlier and sunset later, but the cold, snow-bright nights will feel long and lonely; until spring returns and green leaves emerge from the buds, now tight and hard on the bare branches above and around me.
The stream has emerged from under the snow and ice; a ribbon of cold, black water flowing through the forest. But the streambanks are still covered in snow and snow-covered ice still reaches out from the streamsides, ending in softly rounded, white snowy edges bending down to the water. These white edges bend and flow down stream; pressing close, almost touching across the water; then spreading wide around a pool; amoeba-like, fluid, and deeply organic, but very different from the form of a stream without snow. I imagine the shape of the black water laid onto canvas as an abstract painting; recording the essence of this very particular natural form. But I think the snow might be in black, to represent its cold stillness, while the stream might be a rich, flowing mix of red and blue to represent its moving energy, but also the sharp, hard bite of its cold water. Or maybe the flowing water should be white to represent its wintery, ultimately lifeless cold.
December 19, 2013: Voices
The sun comes up deep cherry red, climbing through lines of dark clouds, and then into clear sky.
The forest animals are silent this morning save for a few bird calls off in the distance. The beech leaves are holding an endless, soft conversation in the breeze, saying things I can’t quite make out; like the hushed murmur of voices in a library; the actual words just out of reach. But even beyond than the beech leaves’ words, what I long to understand are the deeper, silent voices of the forest and the land; not to eavesdrop on others conversations but to engage directly, to hear what the land and the forest would say to me; not to know what the trees are but to know who they are.
I sit in the snow at the foot of a big aspen tree, grown too large to put my arms around; atop a small rocky knob in the midst of hemlocks. Long, wavy fissures swim up the bark, like a dense school of eels climbing up a river. Hemlock boughs almost seem to be growing from the aspen, the trees are so intertwined. The thick trunk of the aspen twists and turns through the straight stiff hemlocks, like a wild river flowing to the sky. Or is the aspen fighting up through the constricting, confining, hemlocks, seeking to break through to the light? I can almost imagine myself inside the aspen, at times feeling pinned by the hemlocks, at times embraced, and at times flowing through as a quiet river flows around rocks, easily and softly, turning gently, just enough to find a clear path. I’d like to always live the second way, but that’s not life, or at least that’s not my life.
Nearby, an old scar spirals up a birch tree, swelling outward like a thick muscle. Low down it becomes more pointed, like a steep, sharp ridge, and along the crest is a winding, fluid crack, like a meandering stream flowing up and around the tree: beauty grown from an old wound.
The stream has opened up a bit with the warmer weather. Rippling black water flows between soft, white banks. The trees above are bright in the pools but easy to miss, because to see them I must refocus my eyes on the reflection rather than the water. I must change my perspective. When I do, cold black water is replaced by hemlocks and birches and blue sky beyond, framed in white snowy riverbanks. A small cascade, still buried in snow, suddenly changes its tune, and the pool below comes alive; reverberating with ripples; scattering the reflection. Something’s broken loose under the cold blanket of snow.
December 18, 2013: Vast Realms
The full moon, bright white, shines majestically through trees, themselves cloaked in white from yet more fresh snow. A little higher, slipping through the trees, comes Jupiter’s light, bright in the blue-black sky. After yesterday’s cold, today is so warm I feel like I could take a nap, curl up in a snow bank. I’d sink gently into the soft, silent forest.
There’s a slow gentleness to the morning. The porcupine is back up high in a tree in front of my sunrise lookout; curled up on a branch; a black ball silhouetted against the morning sky. Every once in a long while he raises his head to look around, but never moves from his perch on a high, small branch. The sun is slow to climb above thick clouds off to the east, but when it does the big beech tree beside me sparkles as if covered in tiny, bright stars; speckles of frost on the soft gray bark.
White mist rises up from the valley below, tracing the winding route of the Westfield River. Its flowing waters feel like my connection to the outside world: down through the hills to the lowlands beyond, to cities and towns, fields and forests, Long Island Sound and the oceans beyond. But up here, looking out at the sunrise, I feel contained by the hills spread all around me; some near, some so far it would take me days of walking to reach the far horizon. I can imagine setting off on such a grand expedition, over the hills and along the rivers. When I was younger I saw myself setting off on great sea voyages, sailing a small boat across the vast oceans to visit distant lands. Now I find vast realms to explore in the half mile of woods between my back door and the ridge crest where I watch the sun come up every morning. I could walk here — live here — for a lifetime, and still see something new every day.
Soft showers of snow filter gently down from the hemlocks, catching the morning sun. The stars on the beech tree have broken free to float through the air, in numbers so vast it’s as if the whole Milky Way is right here in the forest with me.
December 17, 2013: Living with the Cold
With the temperature at minus 6°F, preparations for my morning walk take on a certain seriousness. I feel like I’m heading out on an expedition and need to be sure I make no mistakes. Enfolded in layer after layer of clothing, I steel myself to step out the door, but also thrill to the cold. There’s a scary, exhilarating hardness to it. If summer is a tapestry spun of cotton and soft, green leaves, this morning is a sculpture of steel and ice, sharp-edged and uncompromising. The sun even seems to rise more slowly today, as if the cold is a great hand, pushing back against it. And minutes after climbed over the horizon, thick clouds pushing up from the south envelope it; the next storm reaching out over the land.
But standing in the cold, snow-filled forest, what I feel most is warmth. The trees stand thick around me, leafless but redolent with energy; grown into forms that only a living organism can produce. The coldest winter tree is warmer at heart than a hot, dead asphalt parking lot on a summer day.
As gray clouds spread across the sky, the forest takes on an eerie stillness. The beech leaves vibrate softly but everything else is still; waiting in nervous anticipation. Are we ready for what comes next? But it’s us, the forest and I, and the other creatures that share this cold, snowy mountain; holding onto our warmth together and defying winter; like the birds calling softly in the treetops, proclaiming that we are alive despite the cold. And meeting the weather on its own terms I feel like it relents just a little, giving me cold, dry snow to play in without fear of getting wet; ready to receive me softly when I fall.
December 16, 2013: Walls and Tracks and Winter Branches
Snow is piled high on top of all but the smallest logs and branches, forming soft, white walls. As the Great Wall of China echoes the form of the mountain ridges it snakes along, the snow undulates and turns, following exactly the wood below. But unlike that immovable rampart of stone in China, the snow walls often curl over, defying gravity to form ever more liquid forms; revealing the watery nature of the snow.
The horizon this morning is a low, dense bank of clouds, piled up along the far ridge crest like a long white wall. A glowing red line forms along the top edge, then a beam of orange light rises up to the puffy clouds above. Moments later the sun slips over the edge and flies up into the cloud-speckled, blue sky.
The sunlight on the leafless branches overhead has a warm, summery feel, but it would be a strange, sad summer with no leaves. Fortunately, instead, it’s a sunny winter morning. The thin, bare twigs seem to float through the air, delicate and weightless without their green, summer clothes. Spare in their naked winter form, but far from simple.
A porcupine’s track winds through the trees; small footprints set wide apart; well-positioned to support a rotund body. In-between, the snow is feathered with lines like brush strokes, waving back and forth, the trace of the porcupine’s quills and especially his prickly tail. I can almost see him waddling across the snow, tail swaying with each step. I follow his tracks to where they end at a low, deep crack under a projecting ledge. Looking in, I can see a smooth, round depression but he’s not there now. Following the tracks the other way they split and then come back together, ending at the foot of a hemlock tree. I don’t see him up in the tree either. He’s got to be somewhere here. I expect he knows just where I am. But I’ll leave him in peace rather than prying more deeply.
Plunging down the hill, I send small bits of snow rolling away in front of me, over the bumps and hollows, like a grand, free-form rollercoaster. The trails arc down the hill: thin tracks crossing over each other, some continuous, others dashed as the rolling snow went flying through the air, landed and bounce up again. At last they slow down; some grow unstable like tops, veering off to one side or the other. They stop, scattered across the snow below me, like marbles in the sand. Setting off these meteor showers of rolling snow and then watching them, I feel like a young child, endlessly amused with seemingly the simplest of things, discovering the miraculous nature of the world directly, by watching, feeling and playing. It’s a fleeting feeling, but one I treasure.
December 15, 2013: New Snow
Thirty feet from the stream I have to stop and listen carefully to hear any sounds of water. There’s just a snow-filled valley running through the woods now, with a few small, scattered holes down to the black, flowing stream below. The muffled chortle of liquid water filters up through the ice and snow, as if from far away. Each step feels more like wading than walking; lifting my feet high and then sinking in deep. I’m puffing and sweating as I push myself up through the new snow. Mine are the only tracks I see as I climb the hill. All the other animals have tucked themselves away to ride out the storm, save for a porcupine balled up on branch, 70 feet above the ground, apparently untroubled by the falling snow turning to freezing rain.
Looking out over the valley, the hills are buried in white too: a haze of sleet and freezing rain hides all but nearest hills. Amidst the snow there’s a certain energy in the forest: the trees rise up, hard and strong, rich with texture, above a forest floor buried deep under snow like the smooth, rolling swells of a calm day on the ocean. My usual reference points gone or transformed beyond recognition. I have to look carefully to see where I am.
But now I can explore anew, feeling out the snowy land with my body. I run down through the forest; slithering and wallowing in the snow. My feet go unexpectedly deep on one step and come up short the next. It’s a game played with the land and the snow; arms out and ready, I’m always a bit off balance, uncertain what will happen next. Crouching low, I slide smoothly down a steep place but then loose my balance and go face first; tricked by the snow but also caught gently in its welcoming soft embrace.
Running back from the quarry pond after taking my morning dip carries more risk, but it’s beautiful to feel the snow spraying up from my boots, flying through the air around me; a cold spray that tickles my skin, like running on the beach, in the ocean’s edge, cold salt water spraying up from my feet. A white, cold ocean of snow has come to the forest.
December 14, 2013: The Elusive Sound of Silence
A gray, silent sky seems to stretch off to infinity above the brown winter hills rolling off into the blue-gray distance. The ever-present, distant rumble of the Westfield River is gone, leaving a vast stillness. The water flows on, but under a muffling, enveloping, thickening shield of ice. The beech leaves vibrate in a slight breeze — a tense, nervous sound — but then the wind goes, leaving the forest on the edge of utter silence. A dog barks, half a mile away down in the valley; a single bird calls, far away though the trees; a lone leaf taps against a branch. The distant rumble of cars and airplanes intrudes all too often, leaving me to wait them out while their noise buries the soft, living sounds around me. But in time the intruding noises fade and I can return to the forest.
It’s a morning for long pauses, listening, but also a morning for climbing higher and deeper, in search of the elusive sound of the silent forest, and the heartbeat of the land.
Rustling, industrious, living sounds rise up from beyond a low rise: a flock of turkeys turning up the leaves. Doing my best to walk softly, I slip closer, hoping to see the turkeys at work after coming on so many signs of their labors on my walks. A head bobs up beyond the rise; the sound continues; but as I’m getting close nervous clucks lead to sudden movement and then a tumultuous clattering away through the trees. They’re as elusive as the forest’s silence.
I find myself waiting, motionless, for 20 minutes and more; listening. I hear the silence, for brief moments: a soft hiss as much within me as without me. A single chickadee, hundreds of feet away, sounds loud. A twig cracks and falls. Then a sudden flock of geese flies over the ridge, wrapping all in lively, geesey conversation; slowly, slowly fading off into the distance as they fly out over the valley.
Down by the stream, tucked into the woods, away from the infinity of high places, a flock of chickadees surrounds me with bright chittering. The stream gurgles gently nearby, almost, but not quite yet fully hidden in ice. These warm welcoming homey sounds feel better in the end than the elusive, infinite silence where I listened for the heartbeat of the land, maybe finding it. But I feel it now, beating strongly, here by the stream.
December 13, 2013: Shared Paths, New Routes
Walking through the woods, I find my footsteps following the fox’s and the deer’s, and often my own from previous walks. Even in open woods, away from any human-made trails, the land shapes our paths: we follow the same gentle curve around a rocky knob, the same lilting line over bumpy ground, and the same angled route up a steep hillside. Without our footsteps in the snow, I’d rarely see the places where my route follows the deer’s or even where I’m retracing my own route from a day or two before. Without conscious thought, my body finds the easy route over bumpy ground and my feet find the footholds to take me up a steep place. In the snow, the overlaid footprints reveal the precision in these choices; it’s not the least bit random.
Similar in size and weight, the deer and I often follow the same route for long stretches. I’m less likely to share paths with the fox for very far, except where brushy undergrowth directs us both the same way for a time. I’ll never follow the path of the hawk, flying off through the trees; but watching him I feel certain that he has his own paths in the air, shaped by the trees and the land, and also the wind, which in turn has its own regular paths through the hills and valleys. You could say we are all creatures of habit, and there’s certainly some truth in that, but what I find beautiful is our subtle attunement to the land, in ways we rarely realize.
And isn’t that also true of how we navigate the human world and our relationships with other people: following the same paths over and over again, often without knowing it; sometimes to our own harm, but I hope also to friendship, community, and love?
More conscious now of how the land and habits have shaped my path, I take off in new directions, exploring and playing. Stopping suddenly at the brink of a small cliff I turn again to find a new route and another hillside to romp down.
December 8, 2013: Winter Morning
The forest’s so still this morning it feels startling to walk; crunching loudly through the snow rather than stopping and becoming part of the stillness. Yet I can’t stop for too long or the cold strikes right through my many layers of clothing. It’s as wintry a morning as we’ve had yet: cold; the ground white; snow still on many of the trees and boughs; no longer fresh and “perfect” like yesterday but a bit weathered, with a here-to-stay look.
Up in a high hollow, beyond the distant rumble of the Westfield River, it’s so silent I can hear the faint hum of my own body. A red squirrel running through the trees sounds loud. His feet scratch on the bark and twigs or cones fall to the snow below him. Aside from a bird much lower down, he’s the only living creature I’ve seen. But my boot prints intermingle with the tracks of squirrels and turkeys, rabbits, foxes and deer, and my own tracks from yesterday, so densely overlaid in places they all jumble together.
A smooth, almost polished-looking beech tree stands before a rough, broken rock face. The turkeys have turned up tumultuous landscapes of leaves. Patches of snow still hold onto the rough hemlock bark. The black water of the stream flows between white banks.
December 7, 2013: Alone in a Crowd
Rain early in the evening changed to wet snow, over and inch and half falling before it tapered off around midnight. Hemlock boughs I can usually walk under easily are bowed down to below my waist. Gray clouds blanket the sky but a few gaps start to open up around sunrise, including one long crack off to the east slowly turning warm yellow-white. Twenty minutes after sunrise a momentary spark of direct sunlight shines through and nearby thin patches turn so bright it feels like there’s fire on the other side, slowly burning through. Other holes reveal small patches of blue sky and feel like portals to another world far beyond my reach; like I’m trapped at the bottom of a deep hole, looking up towards an escape I can only dream about.
The forest feels lonely, still and empty. But the many tracks, just seven or eight hours after the snow stopped falling, make it clear how busy a place this really was during the dark hours of the night and the dusky early dawn. But isn’t life like that? It’s easy to feel alone in a crowd, especially when the crowd seems distant and withdrawn from you.
A small fox trotted down the path just behind my house, after leaving a den I’d looked at previously and suspected was in active use by some animal. Deer tracks are everywhere, walking and occasionally running, kicking leaf litter up onto the snow. Gray squirrel tracks run up snow covered logs and lead from tree to tree. Two red foxes roamed about in the woods higher up, sometimes trotting along, sometimes leaping over four feet, at times turning in place and heading off in a new direction. I’m not completely certain the tracks are fox rather than dog, but in two places they go under logs only a foot off the ground, so clearly it was a relatively low creature and since the tracks seem dog-like, fox is the most likely candidate.
The hemlocks are ethereal: the bright light from the snow brings out the reddish tone in the bark, set against the green, snow-decked boughs and the white ground. Speckles of snow even run up the trunks. But earthier events have taken place here. Deer, fox or dog, and possibly other tracks intersect. Drops of red blood splatter across the snow for many feet. I can’t tell what happened. There are signs of a struggle nearby but nothing as large as a deer fell down, and I certainly can’t imagine a fox would attack a deer. Certainly, some animal was not helped by the company of another. The forest is full of mysteries, some that I can’t solve. At times I feel the same way about people.
December 6, 2013: Many Senses
It’s 40 degrees but the water-filled air feels much colder. Before sunrise, under the hemlocks, visual details are lost in the gloom, so sound fills the space. Water falls from the trees in a complex a cappella chorus — sounds alone without visual accompaniment — based as much on movement through space as on changes in tone: sometimes near, sometimes far, in one direction and then another; always moving. The sound varies from a single drop heard 100 feet away to a crescendo of falling water sweeping through a group of trees. The sound range is tightly constrained, but the possible songs still seem infinite. And there’s a sense that it might never end, that this wet chorus will play for me eternally if I don’t escape.
But I run away into the oak-beech forest, bright after the hemlocks, even under a heavy, gray sky. I can’t see the sun but at least I can see the far hills. Silvery drops of water hang like strings of lights from the smallest branches. But the sounds of water falling are quieter than under the hemlocks. The fresh rushing stream in the valley below me is now the dominant voice.
Occasional slight breezes drift through the forest, setting the beech leaves in motion. Damp and silent, they play a visual rather than auditory song; finding endless ways to move within their own tight score. A stronger breeze elicits a slight, soft sound and a dramatic climax of motion. I prefer the softer tunes when each part of the tree finds its own way of moving; a gentle but complex chord; followed by near stillness with just the subtlest fluttering of selected leaves. In these moments of stillness the composition takes on a more spatial quality, like the sound under the hemlocks; each part of the scene playing its own visual notes: the bright, soft beech leaves playing one part while the gray, wet tree trunks and the dark hills beyond play others. I’m reluctant to leave this visual madrigal but it will truly sing on forever.
Walking down through the forest, the noise of my footsteps on the wet leaves largely conceals the sound chorus, but adds a complicating richness to the visual symphony: setting everything into motion around me. And with my own body’s movement I can play the land’s score: sensing and exploring with my whole body; feeling the humps and hollows, the rocks and logs and trees. Movement — dance — should be counted amongst our many senses; our ways of perceiving and understanding. Who came up with the idea that we only have five?
By the time I get down the hill I’m nearing sensory overload. But to expand the inputs further I taste the drops of water on the tips of the hemlock boughs: clear and pure. Then I strip down to feel the wet leaves and needles with my bare feet as I walk to the stream and the quarry. Immersing myself in their cold waters; I seek to sense with my entire body and mind.
December 5, 2013: Fog, Fallen Trees, a Ribbon of Ice
Running late, I’m rushing up through the fog-drenched forest to catch a sunrise I know I won’t be able to see. Heavily overdressed for such exertion I strip off my clothes to cool down when I get to my sunrise lookout. I can feel the cold flowing fog: tiny drops of water sliding into me from the southeast. The nearest trees are black, but everything further away quickly fades to gray and then to lost in the fog. The cold, murky forest feels alive with the steady thrum of water falling on wet leaves; condensation dripping from tree branches so heavily it almost seems like it’s begun to rain. The big drops knock on my head and run down my arms, legs and back.
I’m not sure why it feels important to be up at my lookout in time for sunrise when I know the sun will be lost in the clouds. There are shades of Calvinist New England discipline to this, and no small amount of superstition, but also an element of ritual; a way to start my day focused and awake to the world. But the forest feels dark and hidden today; and my mind is similarly foggy and lost-feeling.
Down by the stream I come on one and then nearby on a pair of hemlocks just recently blown down; needles still bright green on branches turned wrong-side up; trunks sprawling through the forest. Another nearby hemlock started to go but got caught before falling far. All were ripped up by the roots rather than breaking off above the ground. The soft, wet soil was a poor anchor for the roots. The pair that fell together brought down half a dozen smaller trees as they fell and ripped up a section of forest floor as large as a small room. Looking under the ripped up roots and soil feels like peering into a dark, mysterious world meant to remain hidden. Fine roots hang from above like bedraggled hair. Long hidden bedrock lies exposed. Water pools and flows in a realm where everything is shades of gray and black. Nothing grows here now. Even dead brown leaves fallen into this space look bright in the gloom.
Further downstream, at the pool where I take my morning dip, I come upon a very different sight: the sparkling remnants of a formerly big mass of ice that once encased a birch branch lying in the stream. What’s left is a clear, shinny ribbon of ice twisting through space as if blowing in the wind, suspended above the stream, bright even in the dim, foggy light. The ribbon ends half an inch above the water in a wafer of ice bigger than a silver dollar, connected to the rest by a neck thinner than a pencil. The top of the ribbon hooks loosely over the birch branch, as if caught at the very moment of slipping off the branch like the end of a ribbon sliding from an open hand. Frozen still, it looks as fluid as the stream water below.
December 4, 2013: Thresholds and What’s Beyond
A small tree grows up from the ground nearly vertical, kinks a bit to the left, and then bends in a great arc to the right until the farthest branches nearly touch the ground. Walking under it feels like stepping across a threshold into a world beyond, where I may know something of what lies ahead, but thankfully can never know everything. The forest is full of such thresholds if I look for them.
A sliver of sun, deep burning red, bursts forth above the horizon, under a sky strewn with pink clouds turning orange. The bare tree branches before me are silvery gray, and beyond and below the valley is filled with white mist. Frost glitters on the fallen leaves. As the sun rises and this beautiful scene develops, part of me is roaming down the path of seeing this as another threshold, but one always in motion as the sunrise sweeps endlessly around the world.
A dead birch tree, its bark falling away to reveal swirling patterns in the rotting wood, speaks to me of the final threshold that all living things come to eventually. But the fungi growing on the tree, the holes made by woodpeckers, and the wood riddled with insect holes all speak of new life springing from the tree’s death.
I’m getting wrapped up in spinning out analogies and philosophies. It all seems so beautiful and deep, but in the end it’s all in my head.
Off through the trees I see a silvery patch in the forest that seems worth investigating. It’s a great crescent of ice 50 feet across, once the top of a rain pool. But the water underneath has largely drained away, and the ice now bends and flows smoothly over the undulating forest floor below. Leaves frozen in, all through the ice, form a complex tapestry. Some are brown but most are bright white in the dark gray ice. I strive to fully absorb the glorious scene, knowing this is my only chance: it will never look quite the same again. Bending closer, I see that the leaves look white because the sun has melted out a small air cavity over each dark leaf, and the ice above is fractured into tiny crystals like tiles on a miniature mosaic floor. I walk all around the pool, taking it in from every angle, and then I see a fallen log nearby, black with rot, white frost highlighting the fluid lines of the wood grain etched out by decay.
The leaf-filled ice crescent and the black log white with frost have pulled me out of my philosophizing and into a forest filled with beauty and stories. Even a pile of bear scat seems thrilling; shiny and fresh but frozen hard; the bear was likely here sometime during the night.
And the forest is also a grand playground for my body, with hillsides to run down, ditches to leap, and rocks to jump to as I cross the stream. In this moment the beauty and stories and play all matter much more to me than any ideas about what they might represent.
December 3, 2013: Gray
A gray stillness envelopes the land. High clouds hide the rising sun, but not the far hills. A pale mist fills the valleys, further muting the already gray hillsides. The frozen leaves crunch underfoot; harsh, cold, and gray-feeling, but with sparks of red in the loud breaking of the brittle leaves, a sound that feels out of place; an intrusion on the stillness of the forest. Seen up close, each leaf is covered in a haze of white frost, picking out the veins and the edges. But seen together, spreading over the forest floor, the frost veils the brown leaves in gray. There’s not the least hint of wind, or the sound and energy it would bring. Even the birds are muted this morning, joining in on or subdued by the gray stillness. But there’s one indefatigable rooster down in the valley, crowing without pause; seeming to believe that through his efforts alone this day can be transformed.
Fifteen minutes after rising, the sun starts to break through the clouds. The mist in the valleys rises up and turns bright gray-white as the sunlight shines through it. The silhouetted tree branches turn dark and silvery. The colors are all still shades of gray, but lit up by the sun, the forest is as bright and alive as the rooster and the patches of blue sky opening up overhead. The far hills no longer look so gray and muted. Their dark crests seem to float on the white mist hiding the lower slopes. They feel so alive I expect them to start rising and falling like ocean waves, rolling towards me, growing taller before they break on the shore in a crashing tumult of energy.
A large pool of water, left by last week’s storm, lies frozen and still in a hollow under the hemlocks. Swirling lines flow across the ice, dark gray on pale gray; but alive as dancers leaping and spinning through the forest.
December 2, 2013: A Place Apart
The land rises up beyond the stream in irregular, rock-edged steps, with gently rising slopes or even flat plateaus between. Climbing the rocks of the second step sends me into a forest gray with fog. I’ve crossed a line; entered into the clouds. Above the next step the fog grows denser, enveloping the forest and me together. At the top of the third and highest step is my sunrise lookout, but this morning the light in the forest remains unchanged when the sun rises somewhere beyond the fog. I’m in a gray room; its soft walls closed to my eyes but opened wide to other senses. The stream sounds loud; alive and lively in the still woods. Usually it’s not this loud until I’m close enough to see the water, if even then. The recent rain has strengthened its voice but even so it seems magnified by the gray stillness.
The fog feels timeless: it could be an April morning, misty with melting snow, or a February thaw, but not an August morning — the fog’s too cold and thick to be a summer mist. With no sun marking the passage of time, the fog releases me from the flow of hours, if I let it. Whether it’s 8AM or noon makes no difference; only the coming of night would be marked. The forest floor is more revealing; covered in frozen leaves, packed down, but largely bare of snow save for scattered tiny patches, few larger than my hand and most much smaller. In places they’re clustered together, turning the forest floor almost white, but these are no melting banks of snow — the dense remains of last of the winter’s drifts tucked down into shady hollows — they’re what’s left of newly fallen snow, with more to come soon.
Looking out through the trees, the solid forest floor dissolves into the gray fog, grayer trees, brown leaves and white snow; a depthless assemblage of forms and textures, with no clear bottom and only black branches reaching into gray fog for a top. It feels like I could step off the hillside and walk out through the treetops, merging into the composition and then fading into the fog; wandering paths not visible to my eyes nor even fully knowable to my conscious mind.
On the way up the hill I thought I saw the porcupine, tucked into his same hollow below a tilted hemlock, at the top of the second step in the land. But on the way down I passed the same place and saw a white stick and dark log beyond that I might have mistaken for his dark body and white-tipped quills. There are fresh droppings in the hollow, so he’s been here recently, but at the moment he’s dissolved back into the forest.
A hollow rotted out of the base of another tree looks just large enough for me to slip into, filling the void in the trunk; replacing the lost wood with my flesh. I imagine myself merging into the trunk, weathering around the edges, growing a coating of moss and lichen like the tree; my mind released into timelessness, or into a very different scale of time. But fitting into this space would demand of me that I release some of my physical form, letting go of flesh and bones to fit into a space only big enough for me to squeeze my shoulder and hip into this morning.
From one side a projecting bit of ledge seems to float out into space. Its top is covered in a layer of snow so thin that the green moss underneath shows through, as if the rock is slowly dissolving into some lighter form of material, until it can float off through the forest, not like some weird special effect from a movie, but like a cloud floating quite naturally through the trees.
As it is, gravity acting on my still solid physical form, and time acting on my mind, carry me down through the forest, back out of the fog and into the time-bound, material world beyond. I pause and give my thoughts to the dead blue jay I left, sky-buried, on a boulder in a glade of hemlocks behind the house. Bright blue no more, his feathers are tattered and worn, matted down over his collapsing, decaying body. Has his spirit been released to wander the forested hills, free of his body, as I have only imagined doing myself this morning: is death a re-birth to a higher plane of existence? Or has death extinguished his spirit forever, leaving only a body to decay into the leaves? I do not know. I cannot know.
The stream flows on, its pools once again free of ice while the rocks and logs near the waterfall lie buried under frozen pillows of ice. But the quarry pond is covered in three inches of cold hard ice, gray-white where it’s oldest, darker and clearer where it’s new, over areas that were previously above the water but are now below. The recent rain lifted up the old ice and flooded new areas around the edges. Even something so hard and unbending can move and change.
Go to November 2013