Sleeping in Snow

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xa3QWB1ltlh7mEDzqVL7Jf9gwvIeC7rn/view

We hiked, last week, to a valley beside Cove Creek, surrounded by tall pines, some of huge girth. The ground was blanketed in pine needles and the sun was so warm we worked in sweaters to set up camp.

A tornado had swept through the forest and rangers had cut trees off the trails so there were dry pine logs scattered all around, even some split wood someone had left. We put together enough kindling and firewood for night and morning fires, filtered some cold creek water and set off to explore.

There was a trail that ran alongside Basin Creek that had probably been a wagon road 100 years ago. We started our gentle ascent on that trail.

It felt remote— like we had left the 21st century and dropped into some other world. I lagged behind the others, photographing roots and limbs and picking up stones.

Our trail led us to the stone chimney that remained from a house long gone. You could approximate how long it had been since the house had melted away by looking at the size of the trees growing out of the foundation. The chimney’s construction was elegant, its edges still crisp and square, its lintel an enormous nearly perfect rectangle, unphased by all that had happened around it. I went to work creating a story about who had lived there, trying to imagine the people who grew up with that dancing, rushing creek as their nearest neighbor. How would your mind work if all your life you heard the low soothing sounds of that creek, so much like a mother soothing a baby…shhhhhhh.

We speculated on where their fields had been— where they had grown their corn and other sustenance crops. I wondered if the father of the family had built the chimney, or if that remote community had one man who was the favored stone mason. The artistry of the chimney made me think the latter, but perhaps, as in barn raisings, the community of men worked together, and as one body had developed their skills.

A little farther down the trail Dick pointed out a millstone half buried in creek sand. We looked for any remnants of the mill that would have powered it, but they were long ago erased.

Every place we explore has its own quirky treasures to share with anyone who will look closely. Backpacking with our own scientist always takes us deeply into a place. It seems like Dick knows the name of every plant, stone, fish or tree.

Back at camp, he picked up a stone and showed it to me— it was micaceous schist with garnets embedded in it. Like walking on gemstones. They were everywhere….iridescent from the tiny particles of mica, striated and studded with chunks of garnet.

The pine fire was hot that night and kept us all warm until late. I sleep really well when I’m beside a creek. Maybe it’s the Earth Mother whispering “shhhh” to me all night. Maybe it’s from the exercise, or maybe the bourbon. I slept in late, hoping someone else would get up in the cold and build a fire. Finally I heard Dick climb out of his tent and exclaim that he’d spooked a buck who was right beside our campsite, and that the whole world was white with snow.

Our firewood had spent the night under a tarp, so it lit quickly and the fire leapt from the fire ring while snow floated down all around it. We made oatmeal with fruit and nuts. Jim and Dick sat under the tarp enjoying the show. So it was– better than any movie–the low slush sounds of the creek, the falling of fat flakes of snow, the leaping of flame, and the occasional visitor.

December

It is the opening day of December and it feels like I’ve stepped into a distilled version of the world. Nothing is left of the trees in the pasture but their bare bones. The light melts away at the end of the day, closing me in tighter and tighter. The slanting sunlight runs up the bark of the walnut tree in long stripes just before leaving for good.

 

The distilled bony forest is the best for exploring. Hidden treasures appear, mostly in the form of lichens, peculiarly twisted limbs, earthbound leaves that look like wood carvings of themselves. Just before January breaks them down to dust, I gather them up and bring them in to lay on the branches of the Christmas tree.

I’ve brought in the fragrant greens, lit the many lights, brought out the several small blankets— one for each of the places I roost. Last night as I walked around snapping on the lamps I saw the cerulean day sky hiding behind the darkening evening clouds as if to say I’m not ready to go yet. I’m still catching the sun. And as the evening progressed, the nearly full moon moved from one side of the house, until, in the early morning hours, it appeared on the other.

This season sharpens the memory. So many snapshots cluster around this time of year— snapshots especially of my father, whom I only had for 23 of my Decembers before he departed the earth for some other place. He left a letter in his safe that said to tell his best friend Tommy he’d meet him at the Great White Oak Tree. So now, as in those 23 years, I expect he is walking over some leafy path on his way to this tree, where someday I hope he will also meet me.

In those 23 years he would take us to the woods before Christmas to look for the perfect mature, lacy cedar tree. Driving home we would pass the town water tower, with its big blue illuminated star on top. Some town officials had erected it, and couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it. So year round our little town was marked by a star that guided us home.

I read somewhere that children remember best the lessons they are taught by their fathers. I know it is the truth for me. My mother was with me for sixty years and her lessons could fill a library. My father’s instructions were few, but are carved into my bones. Fifty years after he reluctantly taught me to drive, when I run off the road I hear him clear as day telling me to stay off the road and plan my reentry instead of panicking and jerking the car back into its lane. His lessons are his barrel-chested, grumpy, powerful protections following me everywhere I go.

Mama taught us Beauty in a thousand ways. Daddy taught us Nature. They both taught us Reverence. In December we feast in the short dark days on Beauty, Nature and Reverence and I think my parents both come in close and all the Decembers become one December.