February 28, 2011

"On Winter's Margin"

On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs; 
By snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad! 
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines; 
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink that wind; -

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor. 
-- By Mary Oliver

February 26, 2011

Winter Air

Find more of Robin's lovely voice (both the musical and literary variety) here and here

February 23, 2011

Degrees of Separation

We clomp across two inches of crusty snow that only days before had been a soft twelve; turn onto a narrow path dotted with two-hooved tracks and clusters of small, coffee-bean-like pellets; dig our toes into; stick our heels down; walk under bare, elegant maple and birch boughs until we come to Hunter Lake, covered now with slick ice the color of milk.

I have always been nervous about walking over frozen waterbodies. I know too many stories. Have heard too many echoes of ice cracking in my dreams. I cannot imagine the cold of that water, or perhaps I can, or the trying to brings pain enough. In any case, when we step out of the woods and onto this strange scientific plain, I am tight in my muscles, my limbs as rigid as sticks.
But there are four tall men ice fishing 200 feet away, and unlike the times before, I have a friend at my side who is more brave, less discouraged by recent high temperatures, and less shy, more easy with a held-out hand. So I follow her, shuffling--sliding precariously across this upper-world's waxed floor--to say hello.

Phil has caught three crappies, and he uses terms like tipup and spike and Vexilar and jig as he pulls up one more.

My friend asks Phil where he's from, how long he's been out, what he's having for dinner. I peer down into the holes--long, Phil-fist-width tunnels that lead into a dark, murky realm--and am amazed again that there are such creatures that can swim and live and carry on under ice.
"This last one, he just jumped right out of that hole there," Phil says.

The sky is blue. The sun is its pale shade of winter yellow. I think, if it were me, I might vault into that color-world, too.

In the end, I am too bashful to ask to hold the pole, to admit to this northern fisherman that I am no one he'd respect. How do you tell a man with cigarettes at his feet that on ice you have always been afraid?

So I do not ice fish. Instead, I crouch down by a recently abandoned hole. A thin film of ice has crusted across the top of the water. I take off my mitten. Tap the ice and break it clean through. Then I make sure my shadow is not in the way, that the blues and yellows of that crisp February afternoon are apparent even to the fishes. And then, for a little while longer, with a little more courage, I wait.

February 13, 2011

This Bit of Earth

Yesterday morning I went for a walk, and there was ice, and I slipped--not wildly--yet enough so that my arms flailed, and I grabbed a nearby branch, and hoped for balance. But it wasn't a branch, really. More of a twig. And it snapped--a clean smooth break, like a bone, like a finger bone, like something fragile.

I held this piece of twig in my mittened hand, and I thought, How easy it is to be separated, how unlikely and unfortunate and strange. To be attached to something. To spend weeks and months and seasons and years shooting out of one particular tree, out of this earth, from some earlier seed of some other plant--to have all of that end in the palm of some clumsy woman? To have the breaking be that immediate, that no-looking-back?

The context is this: I've been thinking about death. In less than a week, I have lost two loved ones from different sides of my family (one of them young), and I keep driving down long open roads, looking at the snow, the bare trees, the gray grasses lying low in the ditches, and I know just as everyone knows that death is a part of life, that it is all cyclical, that there is no such thing as control. But. But,

If I had not been looking at that chickadee, if I had been wearing better boots, if I had not been worrying about what to say and what I should have said and why I didn't--I would have noticed the ice. I could have prevented at least that twig from breaking.

But of course I would not have. Could not have. The ice was covered over with thin powder, as it so often is--no more ill-meaning than a cloud. 

When I picked myself up off the ground, I carried the twig with me for a while. After a few paces, I thought about turning around, returning it to its original tree and leaving it there at its trunk, saying some kind of prayer. But I would have made those actions only for myself. 

To my left was an overlook onto a snowy marsh, and I walked up to the edge of land and tossed the twig in. It sunk, somewhere in all that white. And I don't think I delude myself in believing that this bit of earth, which was once alive, will find its purpose there.

February 9, 2011

Heavy With Stars

"I used to come out on winter nights, when the sky was heavy with stars. The shadowy trees, dignified and knowledgeable, seemed as much a part of the heavens as of earth, and I'd get the feeling that it wouldn't take much of anything to step into the blackness of the sky, that there wasn't any magic to becoming a part of it."

-- From A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

February 7, 2011

The Luminary Loppet

When I was a child, my favorite book was The Cross-Country Cat. No wonder: cross-country skiing held a mythic importance in my family. The snow-covered treks my parents would tell of their pre-children years were the stuff of lore to my brother and I, full of blizzards and coyotes and an unabashed love of the fresh air. We two were on skis as soon as we could run. It's because of this, surely, that I cannot remember a winter growing up without hearing the slice of my stride atop crisp, perfect snow, without recalling a deep-woods quiet so absolute it soaked into my bones and left me light.

So it was a bit of a shock to lock into my skis on Saturday night and push off not into some rural forest, but into a steady parade of thousands of people zipping across the groomed trails in their skis and snowshoes, all in celebration of the Luminary Loppet.
Quiet, it was not. Isolated, it was not (the festival took place on Minneapolis' Lake of the Isles, the city skyline shrouded by clouds in the background). But just as the woods are luminous in their solace, this night was radiant with its sense of community. People of every age, of every athletic ability, of every color scarf and hat, embraced a Minnesota February night and followed hundreds of artfully placed lanterns and lit-up ice columns around a city lake. It was wonderful, from the ice pyramids to the fire dancers to the guy dressed up as the Abominable Snowman handing out hot cocoa.

"What do you think loppet even means?" my husband asked, grinning at the costumes, the small children, my general contentment.

Later we would ask our more citified friends and find that it describes simply this: a cross-country ski race.

In that moment, though, I just grinned and dug my poles in.

"Last person to lopp across the lake is an abominable snowman!"

I'm a country girl at heart, so it would be hard to persuade me away from a snow hike that offered untouched hills and the sounds of startled deer, but this event was full of allure: warm lights, echoing laughter, good friends.

This is Minnesota in winter. Part of it, anyway. And one of the many reasons so many of us stay.

Thirty Before Thirty #14, consider yourself experienced--and on the "must repeat" honor roll!

*This essay can also be found all warm and toasty inside the Minnesota Blog Cabin at MinnPost.com.

February 4, 2011

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

-- Robert Frost

February 2, 2011

Animal Tracks in Snow

First there were the blue heron tracks:

And then others, unidentified, that I have only captured in my mind. What is that, I asked myself. Who is that? When he came by here, what did he find?

When I think about it, of course, the blue heron tracks were not the first. I started noticing these markings when I was a little girl. On deep winter dawns, I'd wake, peek out my window, and see yard, trees, and street completely covered with a pristine blanket of the night's smooth snow--smooth, that is, except for the twice-ovaled trail of some long-gone rabbit who'd hopped from bush to tree trunk to hedge. Human footprints I never liked on those mornings; I wanted the world to stay as quiet and undisturbed as a snow globe. But a rabbit's footprints seemed to me a perfect pairing to that soft, white world. Every time I named her something new--Powderpuff, Dustbunny, Mrs. Lightfoot--already finding characters in a landscape I wasn't old enough to know I loved.

You love the natural world, too?
Please join my regular wanderings at Landing on Cloudy Water.