A silent sojourn through winter

We are having a classic winter here in Vermont. The fluffy snow that arrived in early December is still here, refreshed now and then by flurries. So I treated myself to some new snow-shoes: much shorter, and lighter than my old ones, and red like my bicycle. Almost every day my corgi, Al, and I take off into the meadow and forest just beyond my front door. Al is warmly dressed in his double-thick fur, and I in three layers, plus oversized mittens. I have a compass in my pocket.

I wave an arm to Al to tell him the direction we will go, and we are off - Al leading, happy. If we are breaking a new trail, he bounds up and down, his low-slung body making a half-tunnel-shaped route. When the going is too deep, he follows behind me about three feet back.

What is it like out there?

You are in a wholly different world from that of other seasons. Most of my landmarks have vanished. Certain boulders look like huge birthday cakes with lots of whipped cream on top. Brooks are invisible and can only be recognized by their barely audible burbles under snow-covered ice. It is easy to get lost even with the sun out.

One sunny day, I walk through a white field filled with thousands of flashing diamonds, interspersed with a few tattered remains of goldenrod stalks, a treasure to stow away against hard times. As I go farther into the forest, I hear the silence and soak my senses in its intangible peace. That first fluffy snow of winter absorbs the sound of my footsteps. I walk on feathers.

Trees bow down with snow. I come to my favorite hemlock that lives on a small cliff overlooking a swampy place. Its branches touch the ground; snow has turned the tree into a huge Indian tepee. I go inside and look up.

The forest is resting quietly, patiently after its busy summer (with all those birds flitting around) and the extravagances of the autumn festival. Only an occasional crow or chickadee punctures the silence.

Snow-shoeing is easy, relaxing; all the hazards that may make you stumble are covered with eight or more inches of fluff. If you fall, you land on a clean white pillow. After the snow has been around for a while it compacts so my steps make a friendly, crunchy sound. It is peaceful out there.

You are walking in a storybook that tells you what all the creatures of the forest have been doing when you weren't looking. Each animal has a special track. You can read where a squirrel bounded over to a tree and climbed up, where a fox ran fast in a straight line, where a possum shuffled and dragged its long tail behind it, where a deer made a huge leap over a deep gorge.

The meadow path reveals a nocturnal rabbit traffic jam. Al, a carnivore, is happy. His nose gets covered with snow from all his sniffing.

As my dog and I developed regular trails, I was pleased to see that deer made use of them. I wonder if the deer are pleased when I follow their trails? They make good routes through the forest, finding the gentle, less-dangerous slopes. I try to do the same. Deer and I have something in common, and I relish the association.

On gray days, the scene is mostly black and white, a pen-and-ink sketch with only subtle shadows. But oh, when the sun shines! That is when you see the blue shadows. In late afternoon my 25-foot-long shadow goes snow- shoeing with me, looking like the giant puppets that tour Vermont's parks and playgrounds in summer.

The trees, with all the complexity of their branches, create an intricate blue-and-white carpet fit for the palace of a fairy king.

Late one afternoon, I looked out through the trees and saw a huge blue lake. After almost 15 years of prowling this forest, I was certain that it didn't include a lake. How nice it would be to have a lake! Its waters seemed to splash at the base of Nate Smith's red barn. Truly it looked like a beautiful blue lake. But it was tilted, and lakes don't do that. It was Nate Smith's hayfield reflecting the sky.

As the earth continued its journey and the sun pretended to drop down that day, slowly and silently the blue lake faded away, and slowly and silently the snow turned pink.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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