Monday, January 21, 2013

Freeze and Thaw

Water and ice

In the depths of winter, the height of the season, the weather often follows a rollercoaster cycle: freeze, thaw, and freeze again. The January thaw is a recognized meteorological phenomenon around here. This year we’ve had several thaws, with stretches of single-digit nights between them.

The climate here in the middle of the continent depends on the weaving of cycles thousands of miles away. Mild air from the Pacific rolls in regularly. Sometimes it brings rain or wet snow. It also traps Arctic air in the north, building up until it looms over Canada like a glacier. Outbreaks of polar cold come roaring down across the plains. Road crews and TV weather forecasters shift into high gear.

Moss and snow
After snow, the warming air melts the earth into mud. When the deep freeze starts again, dirt turns solid. Deer tracks are set in stone. With the next thaw, the soil becomes powdery earthbound dust. This is the pattern that transforms rock into topsoil, crack by tiny crack. Gaia recreates herself each winter, with each grain of earth.

I walk in the woods every chance I get. The rare 60-degree days are gifts from spring, but I walk farther on cloudy days that never get above 40. My world is transparent in winter. I can see through the trees to the road at the foot of the hill, a neighbor’s barn, the bright surface of a lake in the valley.

Hickory bud
Hickory and oak trees make gray buds. Red twigs brighten at the tips of dogwood trees. Black clusters form where seedpods attach to redbud branches. This year the first snowdrops bloomed on Twelfth Night. The woods are getting ready.

A Scottish legend says that the Goddess Brighid grows old and bent and gray as the rocky hills with the season. At the start of February she strikes a stone with her staff and releases a flowing spring. She drinks the living water and becomes young again, as lambs begin to be born and flowers spring from the ground.

In the next thaw, I will dig a little hard soil from my garden and put it in a pot. I will water it and set it beside my wood stove. As it warms with the year, we will move toward spring.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Snow Labyrinth

The stones marking the paths of the labyrinth vanish under as little as two inches of snow. Trails I’ve laid down all year are gone as if they never existed. The landmarks I thought I knew throw me off course. Let’s see: if I stay to the left of the thornless locust, I should pass on which side of the entwined elms?

Rabbit, I think
The first tracks in the snow are usually rabbits. Two paws together, showing toes, are the bunnies. The deeper split print with a longer stride is probably a deer. None of them follow the paths I’ve laid out; our intentions are too different. They’re making a living in the cold. I’m wandering around in circles.

There’s an Irish legend about the straying sod, an innocent-looking spot where faeries have crossed the track. An unsuspecting traveler returning home from the pub late at night may be detoured into a bog when he steps there. This strikes me as a creative excuse that might not fly when the traveler finally staggers home.

Deer, probably
The labyrinth in winter is one large straying sod. It tricks me into breaking my patterns. It shows me other ways, decoying me deeper into the woods. Soon I’m up to my knees in buckbrush and greenbriar. Just beyond the thorns, though, another set of deer tracks leads me on down the hillside.

Definitely cat
Following tracks in snow is compelling. I keep expecting to stumble upon deep secrets, magic groves, mysteries. And even within a stone’s throw of the road, the mysteries appear: a young oak still wearing its golden leaves, cedars surrounding the sky pond, the path leading back to the house. I’ve come full circle, wandering like a rabbit, twisting through an uncharted labyrinth, turning like the year.