Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Change of pace

Here's something different. This is another of my essays from the "Going Home" collection.

It’s dark yet, though the sky is gray, not black, out east. Orion marches across the sky, but he’s fading. Snow is dry and powdery, thank goodness. Deer will move like ghosts in this stuff. Little bit of fog coming up. That will get worse before it gets better, I think.

Edge of the woods, though the trail is wide through here. Harold used to bring his tractor through here in the winter cutting wood, I think, and it packed the dirt so thorns and underbrush don’t take over so much on this pathway. Something did, anyway -- this trail has been wide and open as long as I remember. It follows right along the edge where the poplars give way to oak, just on the edge of the rise.

When I was a child this patch of woods was off limits. Harold didn’t like trespassers, family or no. We stayed out, mostly. So these woods remained a mystery for many years. Imagination could run wild, looking across where we used to pasture the heifers to the dark treeline where the oaks took over, one strand of electrified wire hung to keep the heifers from wandering into “here-there-be-dragons” forever.

Harold’s been gone thirty years now, I guess. Fence came down and that pasture was cut up to be a wheat field. Soybeans now, more money. Deer love the stubble sticking up through the snow, a few pods here and there in the dry wind.

Dark enough under the trees I have to use a headlamp. I could wait ten minutes -- light is coming fast now -- but I don’t want to be walking after daybreak. So I do my best to slide through the trees like the deer do, like ghosts in a fog, like submarines easing along the bottom of some white ocean full of giant, woody seaweed. No way a human can move that quiet. But I try. I’m headed for the stand along the little round grassy swamp, a stand about at the heart of these trees. The deer will be coming back to bed there in an hour, making their slow, cautious way through the brightening woods, eager to take refuge from the daylight. I’ll be waiting.

I’ve been walking just a hair faster, downhill. Just as the land begins to rise under my boots, I see the four trees together, planks pegged into them, seat cobbled onto one side of the platform. Careful now -- hoarfrost on the steps. Slow and quiet, for all the good it does. Fourteen feet up in the trees I settle on the platform and it goes off like a rifle shot in the still dark. Lumber squeaks like a strangled squirrel at this temperature, and I try to lower my weight without alerting the whole county. Within seconds the stand has adjusted to my presence and I vow I won’t even take a deep breath for fear of this stand making those awful noises again.

So I sit quiet. Lots to think about as the daylight creeps over the world. Fog is spreading like I figured. Something about woods in fog -- easy to get lost; all the edges go soft and navigation is tough. But there’s a gentleness to the woods when the clouds rest on the ground, too. Absolutely quiet. Nothing flying, nothing talking yet. In a few minutes the red squirrels off to the southwest will be awake and moving and making plenty of noise, but for now silence holds this wood like a vise. Twenty degrees warmer, or thirty, maybe, and the fog would be dripping off the branches. But as it is the only sound is crystals of frost forming on the upper branches, too faint for me to hear. I bet if I could hear that it would sound like angels singing. In an hour, maybe, it will be worth taking a picture of this woods from out by the road. All these trees will look like a fairyland. Right now you’d just see fog in the gray pre-dawn.

Little by little, so slowly you don’t notice, while you’re thinking about other things, it gets light. You look around and realize there’s nothing you can’t see now. It’s so different from nightfall. At night you sit and wait and hope and every minute that goes past makes it more and more likely that the deer will show up, right at dark, and your adrenaline courses just to think about it, until finally there comes that moment when you face reality, you admit that you can no longer tell the colors of your sight pins, you can no longer pick them out against the dark trunks of the oaks, and it’s time to leave. In the mornings, though, everything happens much slower. The light comes when you don’t expect it, and you never know if the deer are coming or not, and if they do one moment is as good as the next. Adrenaline is hard to come by, and it’s cold.

The fog helps. It feels colder -- there’s no way on earth, no parka can shut out the frigid humidity of a winter fog. But the fog helps because it gives your mind something to do other than worry about the cold. You try to pick out shapes, try to see movement. It’s not just looking around at the trees, it’s peering, it’s trying to pierce the fog with your eyes, trying to light a fire with your eyes that will burn away this gray softness that rests on the world so that you feel like someone trying to breathe under the covers in a too-big bed. You squint at the shapes in the fog and you convince yourself that this one, then that one, is moving. Then, out of the corner of your eye you do see the line of a back, then ahead of it an ear, and you realize that seventy, eighty yards away there is a deer walking through the woods but it is gone now and you have to tell yourself it’s okay to exhale, but slow, so that you don’t whistle, because it might come back this way. If one is moving, the others are probably coming as well. After a few minutes your eyes ache from trying to see the others but there are no others, it’s a solitary animal, which sends you into another dizzy spiral of thought -- was it a buck?

There’s been nothing for twenty minutes now. I don’t think I ever saw that deer, I imagined it. I was starting to doze off. Fog’s starting to burn off now. Edges are starting to firm up, the trees are getting hard again, everything is becoming crisp except the little branches that have become a wonderland of Jack Frost artistry -- wondrous sculptures in tiny ice crystals that will feel miserable down the back of your neck on the walk out.

The red squirrels have had their say now and moved back to their trees until the sun gets higher. Chickadees came through for a few minutes too, but they need to keep moving. One perched for a second right there, right on that branch just ten inches from the tip of my nose, checking me out, I guess. Thought he might try the brim of my hat, but he didn’t.

Something about morning in winter in the woods. Like you’re Adam in the garden, only God forgot to turn off the ice age. If it wasn’t such a cliche, I’d say it felt holy. Or maybe whole. Life in all its glorious wonder, there in the body of that one little chickadee -- the only wildlife you’ve seen for sure all morning. How can that body no bigger than a marshmallow live in this deep freeze? Where do they go when it gets really cold? Those tiny, vulnerable, exposed feet, and what can you eat in these woods that will keep you going, little bird? The surfaces of things in the winter seem sterile, like you could do surgery on them. Nothing lives here. But the little birds do, and their confident mumbling doesn’t sound desperate or fearful at all. They talk like they’re grocery shopping.

Climbing down is hard, since my joints have stiffened up. I think if I fall I’ll shatter. I can feel the cold like a leech wrapped around my ribs and my neck, sucking the heat out of me. Finally I’m down, and safe in the snow again I start to pick my way back up my footprints. Not fifty yards up the trail I cross a set of deer tracks, fresh, over my own prints. Well. Stopped there and looked at me, I just bet. I had no idea. Just kept on going on his way.

I feel like the woods, deep down below consciousness, is watching. Waiting for me to leave. Eager for my disturbance to be over, eager to go back to the cold hard patience that is winter. So I keep moving, hoping if I do my hands will thaw, looking forward to a cup of coffee in a warm kitchen.

I wouldn’t trade this morning for anything.

1 comment:

  1. Great story Jeff, put me right back in southern Minnesota when I was growing up and those forbidden farm woods. I've hunted a quite a few of those woods as an adult and always remember the old former who "protected" them when I was young. Are these essays in publication? Sounds like a Sig Olson/Sam Cook collection.

    Tim S