Cold Rain and Snow
It was a cold rain. Not the kind that splashes off a jaunty baseball cap and onto a summer cattail. This was a chilling rain, a damp that seeped under my collar, trickled down my back; a rain that melted the snow into fog that rolled up from the hollow, into the upper meadow, and then up toward my hunting cabin on the mountaintop. The 100-mile view of overlapping ranges turned into a whiteout; even the stand of trees at the bottom of the meadow faded to gauzy white and was swallowed as if I were observing through a sinking porthole.
If you asked me what I was up to on that November Sunday, I would have said hunting, but I was wondering what was over the far ridge to the southeast, past the pine-strewn ledges where big bucks are known to bed down during the day, past the stand of dead chestnut trees on the steep sidehill over and down toward Chunks Brook Road. I had been turned around more than once on top of that ridge, looking out west when I thought it was east. When unsure of location, I sit and do nothing except observe one gray squirrel chasing another over a matter of nuts. Civilization retreats and nature has its moment. Bears, deer, rabbits, and bobcats live in these woods through the winter, making their way through deep snowfall, eating bark and digging up greens from under drifts. There’s a thought for modern man.
Some of us—there is a name for it, I’m sure—awake in the fall, when the gunmetal November skies return, the cold rain falls, and an icy swirl forms on the insides of storm windows in the old farmhouse. The frost is on the pumpkin and the mud freezes to ruts. The soft cushion of fall leaves turns to a stiff crunch underfoot, layered with a top frosting of first snowfall. The woods quiet down, the helter-skelter of noisy summer heads south, and we are left with what- ever sound rings true—the rush of a brook, the squeak and skid of strong oak limbs in an upsurge of wind, and the hoot of an owl, or perhaps it was actually a bear call- ing out across the ridgelines. I wait for the response.
There are times in these dark woods when you imagine that cities have never been built, that the era of humans has come and gone. You notice the direction of the wind—a southerly blow means a change of weather—and you know just how much daylight is left after what weakly passes for the sun drops down below the western ridgeline.
At first, I thought that the winter woods were about nothing—an antidote to a world stuffed with everything. The winter makes you work for it, makes you reach out and grab whatever truth is buried in the hills and swales like verse from T. S. Eliot: “There will be time to murder and create, ⁄ And time for all the works and days of hands ⁄ That lift and drop a question on your plate.” Summer offers itself glibly, like some garishly suited hawker of entertainment. The winter work is worth it for those who can sift through the stanzas of triple meaning, how a leaden sky offers release from quotidian burdens.
You think, as the poet did, of disturbing the universe with a new thought. Maybe all that has come before has no meaning, or perhaps there is no meaning at all. The signs of human ignorance are everywhere: a dead fox decomposing into an upper pasture, bear tracks in soft snow, a great horned owl gliding silently through a thickly wooded hollow. I sift through clues to observe what lies behind the dark curtain of forest.
Just before sleep, this ocean of cold rain and snow offers lovelorn visions, like the mermaids of J. Alfred Prufrock.
I have seen [the mermaids] riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I fall asleep, dreaming of November woods, with no fear of waking. Let others drown in what might have been.