Phoebe was moseying her way back to school at the end of recess. "I like to listen to the ground," she said. "The ground tells you stories." This struck me, as principal of the school, as an unusual excuse for a first-grader to use to eke out a few more minutes on the playground. But I knew what she meant. The ground in winter does give us something to listen to when we least expect it. Perhaps it's the stark clarity of sound, or its absence, in zero-degree weather like what we've been having. Perhaps it's the austerity of the season - fewer things to observe with our hearing - that focuses us on particular sounds and stories.
Furthermore, since we're accustomed to winter's range of sound emanating from up high - wind in branches, sleet on the window pane, the occasional crack of frost - listening down low, with an ear to the ground like Phoebe, we can detect more.
Forty years ago I spent my winter free time on Mr. Hurley's pond. It was the neighborhood frog pond by summer and the skating rink by winter. But when the hockey game petered out due to cold or calls to "come to dinner," and we tired of just skating in circles to practice turning, we would slump to the ice and crawl around. We'd inspect its air bubbles, fissures, trapped sticks, and plants - even the occasional minnow. And then we would just lie there and listen.
Wallace Stevens explored this kind of listening in his poem "The Snow Man." "One must have a mind of winter," he wrote, to behold "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
I remember putting my ear down to the frozen water and lying still. At first, I heard only my own breathing and heartbeat. As I relaxed in the cold, the pond began to speak. The ice telegraphed from rim to rim even minute skate-stomps or the rarer popping of tension released.
Eventually, I swear, I could hear the sound of frogs sleeping. Or the story of a childhood pond, and not caring how wet my mittens or how cold my toes might have been. It was worth it to be that still and to hear something so noiseless.
Put your ear to the ice. It has a story for you. There's a little winter left - have a listen.