News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

March 2, 2014

MIKE LUNSFORD: The long goodbye to winter

I have no idea what the weather is to bring to us on the morning this story runs, but on the day I write most of it, the sun is shining, and we have just come off a weekend of pleasant warmth and cloudless skies. Earlier in the week, a cold rain fell before yielding to an inch or two of snow, but it, and the foot or so under it, was finally washed away amid rain and wind and thunder.

The forecast now calls for a cold week, one where an icy finger of Canadian air waves itself under our noses again. These past few days are proof that when it comes to winter leaving us, it is almost always one step forward and two back. But that dance will change this month, and I am ready for it.

I have griped more about this winter’s cold and snow than most, but as happy as I am that February is gone and that March has now arrived kite windy, I wish to sing the praises of winter just a bit as we usher in this wet and temperamental new month. We have much to look forward to in the weeks ahead — the sounds of frogs and the sight of budding trees, being two — but I have to admit that I will miss the cold stars of clear cobalt-blue nights and the soft blankets of snow that time and time again this winter re-shaped the landscape in new and curious ways, and did so on silent feet.

One morning a few days back, I woke before the sun to put a pot of coffee to brewing and to fill my bird feeders. It was no surprise that I found it to be -5 degrees, but for some reason it came to me right then that it could very well be the last morning of the season that I was to shiver in such fearsome cold, and that the snow that I had shoveled from the paths to my barn and cabin the night before could be the last I would see accumulating for a while. When she emerged from a toasty bed a while later, I told Joanie that I planned to take a walk into the woods, despite the conditions, for spring would surely be here soon and I wanted to catch the steam coming off the creek and test the ice that coated our modest little pond.

By the time I left the house later in the morning, my feet in dry, warm wool and my head covered with an ear-flapped cap that would make Holden Caulfield proud, I trudged through the back door of the barn and down into the woods behind it. I had a camera around my neck, a stout walking stick in one hand, and a pocket filled with extra batteries and spare gloves. The sun was strong and the sky was blue, and I could hear the crows cawing in tree tops a quarter-mile away.

Within minutes my face was red and my nose ran, and I was reminded of the mornings I got out of bed before dawn to go with my grandfather to run his muskrat traps on Spring Creek. Almost always I stayed overnight, waking to the intense heat of their coal furnace as it wafted through the registers, my grandfather banging doors and shoveling coal in the basement below me. I’d pull on cotton long-johns and buckled boots, and a coat two sizes too big, and off we’d go before my grandmother was up to make breakfast, before the sun was up to make light …

It was hard work at first to clomp and slide down our hillsides, but I soon found a rhythm in my walking and breathing, despite dealing with snow that reached my knees in some places and hid limbs and vines and holes that tripped me in others. As it often happens when I am alone with my thoughts, I began to think of things I’ve read, and despite it being some 50 degrees warmer than in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” a tale of the frigid and deadly Yukon, I pictured myself as the story’s protagonist, “The Man.” Despite being warned about walking the wilderness trails alone, his best-laid plans and early good fortune go for naught when he steps into a spring that silently runs beneath the snow. He fails to build a fire to warm himself, knowing as he drifts off into a frozen sleep that he should have heeded the advice of the “old-timers.”

Since I planned to walk no more than a few miles north of my house, and was never more than half that distance to a well-traveled road, I didn’t fear that my carcass would be left to the coyotes after my own misstep. My hillsides are dotted with similar springs that run year-round, mostly toward the Big Raccoon, but gurgle in places into sluggish brown pools. Knowing I could end up with wet feet and an uncomfortable walk home, I put my faith in the boots I had mail-ordered from L.L. Bean, spat into the air, and kept on walking.

My woods are a shallow lot; they empty onto an old railroad grade that lost its creosoted ties and iron rails like rotted teeth years ago. I walked that now rail-less trail north, realizing that I had started too late in the morning to see the vapor rising off the wetlands, for it was now a notch or two above zero. I came to the banks of our shallow mud hole of a pond, no more than three or four feet deep in most places, and gingerly stepped out onto it through a curtain of frozen horsetails, testing the ice as I went and recalling the winters I played with my sister and cousins in a similar place so many years ago. The deer had already taken liberties with the ice, and their trails dotted the frozen surface like meandering country roads.

Not far up the grade I found other tracks in such an oft-used and wandering trail that I couldn’t figure out what had made them. They led me to a burrow under the reeds and into what may have been the remnants of an abandoned beaver lodge in the wetlands to the east. The marsh, normally alive with a chorus of geese and herons, ducks and mouthy blackbirds, was remarkably silent, the peeping of frogs and the buzzing of dragonfly wings weeks away, its water hidden beneath a coat of white frosting.

Playing the role of both explorer and snoop, I inspected cattails and grasses, the paper-thin and translucent leaves of beech trees, and the soaring branches of a massive sycamore, all before I came to a stream that pours out of the wetlands. I could see the water running freely under a coat of thin, clear ice, too thin to step onto. Out of curiosity I hammered the surface a time or two with my stick, setting off tremors of fracturing ice that ran both up and down-stream in surprisingly loud pops and cracks, and the water bubbled through small fissures that I was certain would soon be re-frozen. It is an odd feeling to play a role in such a direct way, to disturb the natural order of things, but my mere presence in the quiet of the place had done that already.

In the distance, a woodpecker’s pneumatic drill of a beak broke my reverie, so off I went again, this time toward the Big Raccoon at a pace fast enough to raise a sweat under my cap, and I wondered if a pair of cross-country skis would be a worthy investment next winter. Knowing from summertime experience that I could not cross the marshland to the creek without getting wet to the knees, I headed due north up the trail to catch the creek as it turns from the east, then makes a northwesterly run for the Wabash some two covered bridges and 10 miles later.

I was surprised to see that the creek ran clear, that not a single berg of ice floated along in its steady current. Shelves of ice along the banks and clinging to the roots of cottonwoods were thin reminders of higher water and even colder temperatures, and I stood on a bit of a bluff above the water and listened to the water slide by beneath me.

I knew I needed to head home, but like a boy who has been told to come in from the yard to wash up for supper, I dragged my feet in doing so. Knowing that Joanie would soon begin to wonder if I had been swallowed up by a sink hole or snow drift, I hiked across the road and climbed nearly straight up for a few hundred yards to find the old Coxville Cemetery blanketed in silence and snow. The graveyard is dotted with more stones than most would believe could be found in such a small place, but virtually all were hidden beneath a quilt of fresh white and only the hymns of the wind were played there. The tallest of the grave markers were visible above the snow and after an inspection of all I could read, I headed down the hill and onto the road for home.

Since I was alone and on the road on such a cold day, a few neighbors who drove by stopped to ask if I needed a lift. When I told them I was just taking some fresh air, I could see they were too polite to tell me that cabin fever had left me unhinged. I walked toward home across a ridgeline that is one of the highest in the county, stepping off into the woods more than once to look out across the fields below me, all the while watching a solitary hawk hang suspended in the cold air as if attached to invisible wires.

There was much to see at walking speed that I miss in the blur of a moving car. I could see the tracks of the deer we watch at twilight as they root through the tundra of the fields searching for the corn the combines missed in the fall, and I could see that even before the roads thawed they’d be a mess of potholes and crumbling pavement. I idled past a farmer friend’s equipment sheds and grain bins, his empty hopper wagons waiting for the harvest of crops yet unplanted. It was a balmy 11 degrees when I walked up my own drive, a chorus of blue jays reminding me that they’d already emptied the feeders and were expecting a second course.

The poet David Budbill reminds us that winter is “the best time” to discover who we are. In the “Quiet, contemplation time/away from the rushing world …” we can find our “inner landscape.” I don’t know if that was true in my case for these few hours; I thought of nothing in particular except how beautiful it was to be out and about on a cold, clear day.

It was all a part of my long goodbye to the winter.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit mikelunsford.com. Look for the final installment of his “New England Journal” in the Tribune-Star on March 16 and his regular column the next day.

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