It’s been cold, the past few days, and very quiet. The four-lane highway just over the ridge to the west has been virtually inaudible, even at dawn. Every day the sun inches a little higher in the sky; the long low light of winter is coming to an end. The evergreen leaves of the mountain laurel, shot through with sunlight, burn with the fire of an eternal spring — especially when we don’t have a deep snowpack leaching sulfuric and nitric acid into the soil from the coal-burning power plants of the Ohio Valley. In past years, I’ve watched up to half the leaves on some laurel bushes acquire lurid splotches and die within a week of melt-off.
I climb to the top of what we call Laurel Ridge — the one my front porch looks out on — but there’s no snow anywhere. The fields to the east are a muted yellow, and the hillsides look as brown as November, with no sign of a blush from swollen buds. I watch a train wind past the village of Ironville a mile away, and except for the fact that it’s not black and white, I might as well be watching a silent movie. A pickup truck moves slowly down the village’s single street. It occurs to me that the only actual human beings I’ve seen from this ridgetop are the Amish farmers, on occasion — tiny figures from here, especially by contrast with their enormous barn.
I go back down into the hollow, zig-zigging through the laurel, careful not to slip on the leaf litter which the snows we did get earlier on have pressed into a flat slick surface, like the pelt of a well-groomed pet. Though it’s only mid-afternoon, the other side of the hollow is already in shadow. Among the hemlocks at the bottom of the gorge, shining in the sun, is a bluish-white snake: Plummer’s Hollow Run gurgles and whispers under scales of ice, all that’s left of winter.
I suddenly realize how hungry I am. I look down and spy a pair of pink teaberries a few inches from my right boot. They are dry and half-frozen, but twice as sweet as they would’ve been last fall when they were fresh. One doesn’t often think of winter as a time for ripening, but of course it is. Some things need a cold season to bring out their full character; the rosehips in my front garden are also at their peak of flavor now. I follow the ribbon of ice upstream toward home, my mouth filled with the pleasant fragrance of methyl salicylate — wintergreen.