Tracking winter for what it reveals and conceals

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I am caught up in the annual rite of observing the world remade by snow. I admire how the grass shimmers like an animal's pelt in the afternoons of late summer, and the bursts of sulfur yellow, orange, and maroon that break out among the gambrel oak and aspens for a few weeks in the fall are a pretty diversion.

But my eyes grow accustomed to the patterns of the trees and craggy rocks against their grassy backdrops. By late fall, the hills of our local horizon are toasted to a tawny hue, and the landscape settles into a familiar routine for my eyes.

Then the first covering snowfall makes the world look new. The land's familiar contours are still there, but they are rounded, the angles softened. As much as I like discovering the small intricacies in a spray of grass or a rosette of lichen, I am delighted to wake up and find my surrounding abruptly simplified. The world is edited down to plump geometrical forms. Cars, buildings, fences, walls - the rigid structures and hard emblems of modernity - are hidden.

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I feel as if I've been given the gift of clean: gardening projects that didn't get finished or the messy heap of things that don't fit in the garage are transformed into curvy humps. Dusty ground and tired weathered grass get tucked under a smooth coverlet of white.

The enfolding quiet is a summons to reflection and solitude, and as often as I've seen it happen, the newness, calm, and flowing concealment still charm me. Sitting at the window with a cup of tea is a deep pleasure, a moment when I feel the most basic needs - for warmth and sustenance - and find them met.

But I'm also delighted in what snowfall reveals, so I put on a winter coat and boots, rummage for gloves, and go outside to wander and wonder. I know many animals are there all year long, but the signs they leave are hard to read in tall grass or hard-packed dirt. On the smooth plane of snow, it's easy to see who's been out.

Behind the house, a rabbit has taken shelter in the buried end of the gutter downspout, a fact I would not know were it not for the chain of Y-shaped links dimpled into the snow: two parallel tracks for the long hind feet, the forefeet so close together that they leave a single, albeit oddly shaped, dip. Not far from the house, I come across the tracks of a coyote, a neat path of oval divots crossing the even whiteness that marks the driveway.

At the crest of the hill, I realize I'm glad I didn't get around to pulling the weeds that sprouted last summer along the margins of the road. The juncos have been busy, leaving marks with their wiry feet, painting the ground like an Impressionist's sketch or a cuneiform scribble. Fine marks scatter across the snow, then converge into rough-edged patches of brown where the birds have scratched down to dirt in search of seeds.

Down on the north-facing slope, the crowds of pine and fir look gussied up, like girls in puffy 1950s prom dresses. I cross the path of a deer: a pair of slender furrows with holes where the hooves pressed in, the trail stitched across the hillside. In the shallower snow under a tree's canopy, each step has left a heart-shaped imprint. A gang of Clark's nutcrackers flies past, yakking to one another in raucous voices. One lands on a pine, loosening a snow flurry from the branch, and the air glitters.

I turn and follow my tracks back toward the house. Compared with the dainty marks the animals have left, the path of my own feet, swollen by boots, seems awkward and oversized. The rabbit's prints, the trail of the coyote, the juncos' scuffles all seem to be guided by purpose and need, while the shuffled evidence of my passing suggests indecision or absentmindedness.

This isn't the case, of course. The meanders in my path are not the switchbacks of doubt. Instead, they mark the path of someone captured by the details of a world at once covered and disclosed, familiar yet altered, simultaneously timeless and brand spanking new.

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