Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Garden of the Wild: Winter Walks

            A walk in the winter is like a slap in the face.

            Thanks, we say, we needed that.

            It's stunningly cold in central New York the week before Thanksgiving. We leave in bitter wind and driving snow to travel south and east to western Massachusetts, barely a whiff of traffic the whole way, and leave the turnpike just as the sun begins to fade behind the hills.

            Arctic winds drove frigid temperatures south to northern New York and New England. We don't know inside a heated car how far they have surged into Massachusetts. Winter caught us in New York, but we didn't walk in it. From house to car was far enough for "frigid" to make its point.

            But now the sky is clear as glass, or pure water maybe, or some sort of polished gem, in the golden hour of the fleeting day. The slanted light turns the leaf-stripped brown hills a reddish-gold. The beauty of a familiar landscape revealed in freeze-dried air makes us forget the temperature. The wind is here in force too, as if determined to shake everything from the sky but sky itself, to blow away all on earth not nailed down or rooted in the crust.

            The sky has turned deep pink when we check in to our hotel and when we emerge fifteen or twenty minutes later to walk up an appetite for dinner, twilight has deepened to a last red gash and darkness claimed nine-tenths of the sky. It's a stunning twilight, a winter night, the first one I've been out in this year. Wind has done its work, the chill makes my face, the only exposed part of me, tingle and burn. But the night's deepening burnish drives us wildly on, up one street and down another. Familiar streets, yet never encountered before on a wild early-winter night.

            By the next day I've learned my lesson. Wear a scarf, the others tell me, across your face. I'm out for a brief walkabout before breakfast and a chance to audition various approaches to wrapping a flap of scarf across the lower organs of my face while still permitting some breathing, not to mention the possibility of hearing a little something now and then.While I consider my senses, the wind unwinds it.

            Cloudless and scoured by dry frigid air, the world is brilliantly lit, sun-filled and stereo-clear. Every mere molecule of moisture has been sent some somewhere else on its way to the water cycle. The clarion light makes the world both new and silent. I stop every few feet to register where I am. Is that a body moving behind the glass walls of a shop? Nothing moves on the sidewalk.

            Returning to the hotel I report the day: shockingly cold, stunningly beautiful.

            It gets warmer, under the sun, and we drive to an Audubon Preserve we haven't visited in years. The solitude is abetted here by the big sign that says "Preserve Closed Monday." We lift the chain and step within.

            Do you have a calendar, Tworkis? I ask. No, Boris, Tworkis replies, I surely do not have a calendar. Besides, my name is Natasha.

            It must have been Monday, because no other human being crossed our path.

            It has not snowed on the wooded hills and dells here, but it has already iced. We discover the places and traces of long-ago on summers and autumns, but we have never walked this frozen, leaf-strewn earth of late November when the cold sun is probing the forest for its winter secrets. The running brook crossed by the wooden bridge is nine-tenths frozen, the ice molding the history of its flow, where it rose and overflowed, where it sped fast and narrow.

            We work our way over to the beaver pond, our name for this place when we were stunned and intrigued to find sure signs of beaver habitation long ago. The dams across a narrow arm of the pond, compounded up brush and branches and new green growth. The lodge of pyramided tree pieces, cut from the forest. The telltale pointy surface of cannibalized trees, the exposed tree flesh carved by beaver teeth.  

            We trail-trudge on, impelled by the beauty of the place. Shapes, barks, mosses, predatory twisting vines, canopies of pine and evergreen. Textures and layers. A few of those still red-berried bushes, lighting up a patch of thicket through a spare tangle. Curves beneath our feet, winding us up a hill and back down until we retrace our way back along the beaver's pond.

            Winter hurries its hours through the afternoon. By the time we have returned to our lodging, fed a little, drunk hot tea, thickened our blood with over-rich brownies,and otherwise recovered (cue the snoring), the sun is playing tricks with us, threatening to hide itself again behind the mountain. We dash out once more, this time finding the overview in a nearby nature park open even on Monday. Open to us, at least, since no one else puts in an appearance. We watch sky purple, and a continent of clouds advance slowly over our heads, behind us, surrounding us.

            The next day we our luck is even better. It snows.