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Into the eye of one of many storms this winter

February 19, 2014

Cedar waxwings have played hide-and-seek all winter - sometimes visible, especially in the thickets by the millpond; sometimes elsewhere. This beautiful bird obligingly came out for a portrait before retreating from the weather.

Last week, as deep cold settled over the ridge and several snowstorms blanketed us in white, the prognostication accuracy of a certain Pennsylvania groundhog—that infernal rodent, as some anguished people have started calling Punxsutawney Phil—continued to dazzle observers. But even as folks voiced admiration, however grudging, there was worry starting to creep in. “Six more weeks of winter?” asked more than one person, then replied rhetorically. “Shoot, it’s beginning to look like we might be in for six more years of winter.”

I’d started to have similar thoughts myself, particularly as I eyed the wood pile, which didn’t appear full enough to last though March, let alone 2020, without some serious replenishment—a tricky, to say nothing of uncomfortable, business without a break in the weather. Still, as I hiked, skied, and snowshoed into the teeth of yet another gale, I had to admit that this intemperate weather felt great. I am, no doubt, in the minority here—maybe, by now, in a minority of one—but more than once, when I’d gotten to the end of several hours of shoveling, I looked out over the snowy landscape and said, to no one in particular, “It really doesn’t get any better than this.”

No one voiced disagreement. Of course, there was no one outside.

All the sane folks were indoors, grumbling and plotting escapes to southern destinations.

So I had the winter world more or less to myself, and while I lacked human company, I was hardly alone. The morning of the storm that paid us a visit last Saturday, I’d no sooner started to gather, split, and haul stove wood inside than I heard the loud and sharp “ick, ick, ick” calls of a Pileated Woodpecker. Pileateds are crow-sized birds adorned with a stand-out red head crest, and their rapping, in search of carpenter ant colonies, has an unmistakably slow rhythm. This one was beginning to excavate the base of a dead limb on one of our oaks, and the activity, to keep his metabolic furnace going, was a sign that, no matter how gray the sky or challenging the weather, life does have to go on. I wished him “bon appetit,” and went back to my work of keeping my home furnaces going. We were, in that sense, kindred spirits.

There were other woodpeckers at work, and each species, using dead wood, was playing drum rolls appropriate to their kind. The Robins in the holly, the Cedar Waxwings in the barberry hedges, the Winter Wrens in the brush pile, and the chickadees, titmice, juncos, and nuthatches working the suet sack—all were adding their voices to the day’s chorus. Every so often, the agitated honks of Canada geese, uttered between gobbling mouthfuls of winter rye gleaned from the nearby farm fields, would join the symphony. And for emphasis, the staccato crack of a seiche—a wave under the ice that was set in rhythmic motion by changes in atmospheric pressure from the impending storm—would rattle the ridge from time to time.

Then, not long after I’d finished getting ready for the gale, the wind rose, the birds sought shelter, and the snow began, first as a fine powder and later, as a blinding, stinging, white assault. Of course, in the thick of it, I went for a walk. This was crazy, but if John Muir could scale a 100-foot-high Douglas fir in the middle of a titanic California gale to experience, first-hand, what he called “so noble an exhilaration of motion,” then I, as a kindred naturalist, could venture forth into the semi-blizzard for my own taste of “wild ecstasy.” I would, however, stay on the ground. It wouldn’t be quite the full-Muir, but it would have to do. (The essay, “A Wind-Storm in the Forests,” is Chapter 10 of Muir’s book, The Mountains of California, which can be read at pweb.jps.net/~prichins/w-storm.htm.)

Our trees, more oaks than conifers, were certainly in wind-whipped motion, and except for the growl of the occasional snowplow, the gale swallowed almost every other natural sound. When I got close to the millpond cataracts, the upper and lower ones, I could hear the roar of moving water, but otherwise, it was just the Naturalist, his ragged breathing, and the wind. It felt primeval, as if I’d been rafted back in time to an ancient era.

In this “wild exuberance of light and motion,” I could drink in what Muir described as “the profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf—all this was heard in easy analysis when the attention was calmly bent.”

I was paying close attention, and though the species were different, the impact was similar. But soon enough, a plow broke the reverie, and I had to jump out of the way to avoid joining the fabled naturalist in another realm of the natural world, one I wasn’t quite ready to experience.

The storm roared on, but I was getting cold and wet, and the wood stove beckoned. A bit later, when the snow slackened, I’d be back out after dark to shovel. The next day, there’d be cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on the agenda: woods-work to see how the citizenry of the ridge was faring during a winter that many have called off the charts but is, in truth, just normal. Well, what used to be normal.

At the height of the storm, I walked by a stop sign that was especially bright against the gray and white backdrop. Somewhere, just over the wind, I heard voices that pleaded, “Yes, please stop.”

My voice was not among them, but you know who you are. And you know that the weather listened and responded with a thaw. The groundhog—the real groundhog—felt a stirring in his underground burrow.

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