Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writings on winter

Last week at our monthly evening lecture series at the Audubon Center, the flames of my passion for nature writing were fanned during a presentation by Dr. Bernie Quetchenbach, professor of English and writing at MSU-B. Afterward, I revisited some of my old journal entries, and am posting one here that I previously shared on the Teton Science Schools graduate school blog in 2008.

I feel nostalgic reading it because it seems we have missed out on winter this year. Yes, we had a few days of snow and some intense cold, but it was nothing like a real Montana winter. We did not experience the length and intensity of cold that makes us feel hardy and strong as we brave the outdoors to shovel walkways, ski down powdery slopes, or simply get from home to the office to the grocery store. Surrounded by brown lawns and warm air, there was no reason to feel extra cozy and snug, no reason to take refuge in warm homes with hearty meals of stew. Without the toughening exposure of winter, spring feels unearned and less joyous. So, for the sake of a love of writing and a love of winter, I share with you the following.

Solitude. It creeps into the spaces between stillness and silence, framed by snow-covered branches in aspen groves. It seeps into my cells with each step that I take deeper into the forest, away from cabin warmth and human merriment.

The trees are slumbering, in a state of semi-frozen rest, which allows them to tolerate winter in Wyoming. The conifers with their evergreen needles, and aspens with their chlorophyll-laden bark, will jump at the first chance to photosynthesize in the spring. For now, all available water is frozen hard, and the trees have fortified their defenses against the biting wind and cold of winter.

I ski east toward the Gros Ventres under an ever-changing canopy of falling flakes. Stellar shapes dance earthward around me. I am seeking quietude this afternoon prior to my flight to join my family for the holidays. Over the last few weeks between Thanksgiving and winter breaks, the landscape around Kelly has changed remarkably. We are now entering the heart of winter, an especially quiet time of year. I have long been an avid fan of winter. Its harshness feeds the drive to survive and exposes the innermost nature of its inhabitants. All is laid bare, at the mercy of nature’s chilly grasp.

I stop short in my kick-glides as I enter the bottom of Coyote Gulch. The silence is overwhelming in contrast to the scrape and creak of my skis. My breath pools up in thick clouds of condensation in front of my face. On the hillside to the north above me a sizeable herd of elk have gathered. Standing motionless, I wait. Listening. Admiring the elk. Their strong limbs guide them through sage thickets and snowdrifts in search of the edible bitterbrush and willows. Several conjoined circular beds of matted grass dot the hill, evidence of a night spent huddling close together for warmth. A high bugle breaks the calm. I have startled the elk, and they are watching me with tense muscles, voicing their alarm and discontent with my presence. As if in agreement, a raven pair caws loudly as they swoop by directly overhead. Turning my head skyward, I glimpse the sun’s rays beaming from low on the western horizon. Pink, violet, and vibrant orange color the clouds that layer the sky.

I am witness to a truly wild scene. The power of this moment sends me into a reverie. I exist in a timeless trance, rooted firmly in place. Throughout the fall months I have become increasingly at home here in Kelly. I have delved into ecology, geology, and the development of my sense of place. Winter now brings a new perspective to my appreciation of these woods and meadows.

I realize I have stood here long enough in -12 degree Celsius ambient temperatures. The heat my body had generated while skiing has been rapidly lost through conduction in the frigid, calm air. I start moving again, blazing a ski trail that follows the fence-line along the boundary of the US Forest Service lands and Grand Teton National Park. I shiver deeply as the cooled blood in my extremities is re-circulated to my core with my motion. I am propelled forward faster by the drive to keep warm.

Rounding the bend to the north I realize that I am mid-way down the infamous After Work Bowl. There appears to be just enough snow to put my cross-country ski gear to the test with some telemark turns. I guide my ski tips downhill until gravity gently pulls me onto the slope. I weave through sage and exultantly yip-howl with joy. The freedom and grace of skiing is unparalleled. As I glide onto the flats, I turn to admire the scene once more.

I know I will be back soon to explore the enchanted world of winter. These afternoons spent alone in the woods transport me into a state of powerfully centering solitude. For now, it is time to return to my cabin. I whisper my thanks, and slip down the trail between lengthening shadows towards home.

Photo credits: mountain and stream shots by Pippi Fisher and Jill Fineis, elk by n fiore (creative commons)