Snow sky

It’s 7:00 a.m., and something is coughing under my house. It’s a racking, consumptive cough – and no wonder, really, considering how dry and deep the dust is down there where no rain has fallen in 150 years. Perhaps it’s the porcupine that I saw last night in the top branches of the pear tree out back. I was taking a leak off the side of the porch around 9:30 when I heard the chewing, looked over and saw a slowly moving blob silhouetted against the sky. Puffed out against the cold, it was as round as a photographic negative of the almost full moon, itself hidden by a thick blanket of clouds. The storm was almost over; only a few snowflakes were still coming down.

Earlier I had gone for a walk, right at dusk. It’s easy going through the nine inches or so of light powder, and I’m well up into the woods before I stop my mental chatter long enough to notice the immense silence. I mean, it’s quiet. Surely the snow plows and cinder trucks must be out making their rounds in the valleys below? But the snow acts as a muffler, and I guess the low temperature – 11 degrees – prevents sounds from travelling very far. I love it when that happens. Suddenly I regret that I left my supper heating on the electric range. If I didn’t have to worry about the chile sticking and burning, I could walk all night.

Although this snow is exceptionally dry, the air’s been still enough all afternoon to allow some accumulation on the mountain laurel, which forms a dense understory throughout the oak woods on Laurel Ridge. The fresh tracks of a white-tailed deer wander back and forth across the trail. I’m reminded of something that happened many years ago on this very trail, less than a hundred yards away. When you have as many deer as we do, you wouldn’t expect that seeing one more under any circumstances could ever be too big a thrill. But this stuck with me. As I later wrote,

A doe stepped into the trail
in front of me one morning
after a heavy snowfall.
She was so close, I could count
the puffs of breath rising
from her nostrils: five.
She turned her head to look
beyond me, & slow as thought
turned it back. And when
again the thick laurel closed
around her, if she had dislodged
a single twigful of snow,
I would’ve seen it.

Of course, that wasn’t an evening walk but an early morning one. Mornings, I do see things differently, and perhaps a deer would, too.

This morning it’s drifting hard, so no more snow piled up on leaves and branches. But perhaps the sky will make up for that: the high winds promise fast-moving patches of blue and white and gray. I think of my friend Tom Montag out there in Wisconsin, taking note of the sky every day for five years in his Morning Drive Journal. It makes sense that skies would be like snowflakes, with no two exactly alike. In either case, it’s nothing more or less than water waxing poetic.


The sky after snow
speaks volumes denied to
the ground. You can walk
for miles without looking
once at your feet, like
this doe to whom I am nothing
but a tree among trees.
Like me: to myself
a single letter i. Or even
less: a diacritical mark,
say, an open quote.
Some minor detail
in whatever poem remains
when the world’s messy prose
gets edited out.


So whence this urge now to keep the prose intact? There’s so much more I could say about all this, and I have yet to mention the spider that I found out walking on top of the snow last week. Back in the middle of December I wrote about spotting a spider spinning a web. But that was at a relatively balmy 40 degrees; now it was 20.

This one wasn’t moving quickly, but she was moving, stepping with great seeming deliberation like someone walking on thin ice. A needle-thin abdomen rode high on delicate legs. Her small size and gracile build undoubtedly promoted the supercooling of body tissues that would otherwise be torn apart by the formation of ice crystals. I thought of the wood frogs that let themselves freeze solid wherever they happen to be when the cold strikes, their hearts suddenly working like fury to flood their tissues with glucose – a 200-fold increase in a matter of hours – even as the body freezes. In less than 24 hours the heart stops beating, all breathing ceases, and 65 percent of the frog has turned to ice.

With no more than a thin skim of fallen leaves over them, wood frogs depend on a good snow pack to survive sub-zero temperatures. I think of them down there, neither dead nor alive, with the snow for a sheltering sky. Perhaps if I had more time, I could write about the notion many American Indians have of a shaman as someone who can grow crystals in his chest and live. But I’d better get going if I don’t want to miss the morning.

If you’re going out, be careful
where you step. The wind
has been everywhere, erasing
its own tracks. Who knows
what the snow might hide.

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