Feb 4, 2010
Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
The snow is knee deep as my Bernese Mountain dog, Cosmo, and I walk down Wylie Way, an old logging road we named after a coyote pup who befriended us for a time. On the ridgeline the wind is wicked, and whips the light, dry snow into mini cyclones that rise up with the suddenness of summoned ghosts and then collapse with a hiss.
A cluster of brown oak leaves—Fall’s hangers-on finally loosed by today’s gale—tumble across the white blanket at my feet. I find myself thinking of a clump of dry seaweed blown ahead of me on a summer beach. Wishful thinking indeed, since the temperature is about 10 degrees.
I duck my head and raise my shoulders, pulling the neck of my balaklava up over my nose. Cosmo bounds in circles around me, not merely oblivious to the cold, but one with it, as much at home as a sea lion in the ocean. We’re heading in a northeasterly direction from the cabin. Through the bare trees ahead of me, I can see Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, at 4,860 feet, about 900 feet higher than where I stand.
In just a few more steps, the road dips below the ridgeline. The effect is not unlike stepping through a doorway into shelter, or from a busy city street into the sacred hush of a cathedral. The mountain’s architecture, its very bone structure, blocks the wind here. Sunlight slants through the trees, and draws graphite shadows on the snow. For several moments, there’s nothing except the muted crunch of my boots, rubber sliding against billions of ice crystals with a sound that must sound like a calving iceberg to any field mouse nested nearby.
Then I hear it. Cosmo abruptly stops his frolic, clearly hearing it, too. The wind, as it moves down the valley to our right and below us. Cosmo adjusts his ears and then points his nose to the southeast. Where we stand, the air remains still, while the distant sound grows louder and heavier. I imagine a musical recording with many layering tracks. I imagine my ear pressed against a conch shell. I imagine the sound of eons of push and pull.
It seems I’ve only just begun to grasp the melody when it fades quickly and is gone, like a hymn ended by the choirmaster before the last verse.
I think of William Cowper’s hymn “Light Shining Out of Darkness,”
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Then I look to my right and there they are: deer. More of them than I can easily count, bedded beneath the hemlock and red spruce interspersed amid a grove of shagbark hickory. As soon as I process what I’m seeing, I drop to my knees and call Cosmo to me in a whisper. He hasn’t seen or sensed them yet, and neither, apparently, have they sensed us.
Aside from the occasional ear-twitch or tail-flick, I can detect no anxiety in the tree trunk-hued herd. Arrayed in the scalloped snow, they appear at first glance like so many fallen logs, branches akimbo. I watch them for several minutes, a-brim with the excitement I imagine a paparazzi experiences when he catches a celebrity at home.
So this is what deer do when nobody’s looking.
Eventually, they arise in groups of four or five and run downhill toward the valley, flashing tails every bit as white as the snow.
Out of habit, I hold Cosmo’s collar, though he makes no real effort to follow them. As the last fawn’s tail rises and dips out of sight, he barks in a far more questioning than aggressive manner and lays his chin on my thigh.
That’s when I hear the tree. One tree. I don’t know whether it’s a white oak or a sugar maple or one of the many hickories below me, but clearly there’s a single tree moving in the subtle breeze, like an un-rosined bow on an un-tuned string.
The sound is mournful and eerie. But to describe it as such is to imply that it’s otherworldly, when in fact it’s merely natural, just nothing I’m accustomed to hearing—a frozen tree in February.
It’s the ultra high-pitched squeal of an un-oiled hinge, a whining back porch screen. The garage door creaking as it scrapes across a concrete floor. An oar sliding in its lock. The moan and gasp of an attic plank stepped-on at last after decades of solitary confinement.
The sound contains all of these things and more—and then it’s gone.
I continue down the trail, Cosmo ranging in all directions around me.
Soon I’m stopped again. This time by the brittle rattle of American Beech leaves, faded ochre and crisp. Beech hold onto their leaves all winter, giving thickets of young trees a morning-after-the-party look, still festive, despite appearing somewhat worse for wear. And no party favor ever made a more enchanting sound than beech leaves in a winter breeze.
I think of jingle shells and coquina tumbling on the sand in a soft, receding surf. A whisk broom stroked across the drum of a tambourine. My mother’s fingers smoothing my hair.
A gentle tap-tapping draws my eyes upward, above the beech thicket, to the upper story of a Basswood tree. Three black-capped chickadees pluck the tree’s few lingering seeds and crack them against the bare limb beneath their feet. Intent on their meal, they work in voiceless companionship. The first birds I’ve seen today.
Cosmo makes a pig-like snuffling sound. I look down to find him with his snout stuffed into a deer track, devouring such news as I can’t begin to imagine. Reading with an obvious relish and intensity. Abruptly, he lifts his head, a snow mask around his eyes, then bounds to another track and plunges his face in again.
I follow him down the trail, wondering what he sees when he smells the news. What movie plays in his mind? Which forest dwellers are today’s headliners? Can he smell the plot?
Around me, frozen great rhododendron leaves, wrapped tight as beeswax candles, hang with the rigid formality of antebellum curtains, thick and dark as dusty velvet.
The rhododendron of summer boldly extends its leaves like the shiny folds of an umbrella, shielding everything below. In contrast, February’s rhododendron is renunciation itself—visible reminder of Winter’s demand I surrender all pretense.
I scoop up a little snow in my palm and lick it.