Letting go

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The first frost came on Friday night as we sat around drinking. At a certain point, we had to bring the beer in from the porch to keep it from freezing. While I slept the dreamless sleep of inebriation, the air was crystallizing around every leaf and blade of grass, like frozen foam from the season’s drained cup.

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I love the way a beer with good head retention leaves a record of its passing in the white, lacy rings on the side of the glass. It’s a good argument for sipping rather than chugging. But that’s the funny thing about consumption, isn’t it? The more attached you become to the act of consuming, the less you enjoy it. To get the most out of a beer – or anything, really – you have to take it one sip at a time.

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The bark of pignut hickories forms rings, too, healing over the lines of holes drilled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. They are slow-growing, long-lived trees, seemingly unaffected by the intensive tapping of their sap. Their nuts aren’t as sweet as those of shagbark hickories, but the squirrels still seem to catch most of them before they hit the ground.

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The red, black and scarlet oaks are the last trees on the mountain to turn color, long after the understorey black gums, sassafras, witch hazel and spicebush have shed their leaves. By holding onto their leaves so long, they risk damage from early snows or ice storms, but oaks are very good at sealing off wounds to prevent infection from spreading to the rest of the tree. And shedding leaves, it turns out, is about more than just letting go; new research suggests that trees attempt to poison the ground against competitors with the chemicals that form in their leaves as they turn color.

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Within the space of a few days last week, high winds stripped the ridges mostly bare, and now suddenly one can see for hundreds of yards through the woods. The rising sun hits my front porch an hour earlier, even as the dawn comes later. I don’t think of winter as a dark time, but a time of clearer light and more interesting shadows. While vistas are opening up, life is turning in upon itself, rediscovering the rewards of contemplation and of altered states.

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Who can blame shamans for trying to become bears, those champion sleepers and masters of retention? Right now, they’re living quite literally off the fat of the land, but when a bear enters hibernation, its large intestine forms what is called a fecal plug. Winter, in other words, is the one time of the year when a bear does not shit in the woods. You can walk along enjoying the dawn or sunset sky without a thought for where you put your feet.

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