Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Winter Breaks

As I crossed the bridge on my way home from running errands in town, I noticed the Elk River had broken open. In late winter, when the sun strengthens and high pressure builds, the air warms and the snow pack weakens, the ice gives up its grip, and the water beneath glimpses spring's first light.

Warmer days like these usually arrive later in March: our driveway softens, rots out, and our tires meet mud instead of snow pack; the meadows set up so securely you can glide across them on cross country skis; and the roof begins its late winter slide. At that moment the black roof has warmed the insulating snow enough to give it a push, the pieces falling like shedding ice floes from a glacier. The house shudders under the crack at the point of release, and then seems to breathe freely once its burden has broken away.

In town while picking out potatoes, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in while and I inquired, “How are things at your place?”

“Well, we’ve got our first calf.” She laughs, “It’s a mistake, but it doesn’t hurt to think spring’s on its way, does it?”

I tell her, “No, it’s starting to feel that way. Everything’s starting to feel early.”

Once home, I put Emma’s coat on and step into my snowshoes. I had been bemoaning the fact that my favorite days of snowshoeing may be over, the days of pristine fresh powder on the trail and snowstorms sharpening my sense of the physical world. But out we went.

As I followed, Emma trotted ahead, the snow settled and firm. When I work mid-winter to break through fresh powder, my head’s down in a meditation rooted in physical exertion. Today, I’m upright, the packed out trail making my trudging more of a casual hike. Now in a rhythm, I look up high on the hillside and see a group of elk in the oak brush. At first, six, then eight, and then finally I count nine head. They see me and stay still. I move and they move a bit further up and away, judging my distance and direction before determining a path for retreat.

Emma and I went on to the top and once there, I decided we’d go down the back side of the mountain and extend our afternoon adventure. In mid-winter that side of the mountain sequesters a wonderful cache of powder which is too deep for Emma to negotiate. But today Emma and I stride over the surface, meandering through the aspen grove and oak brush forest reminiscent of fairy tales and she can’t believe her good fortune. She follows fox tracks and once near the hillside where I spotted the elk, Emma sees them quietly moving away from us below.

At the same time I see the grip of ice soften and the river begin its spring time rise; I regret winter's retreat. I wrestle with the shift. Through explorations with Emma today and casual conversations though, I will cross that divide. The UPS man tells me his mother has daffodils peaking out in a milder locale and I look over to my garden beds beneath the kitchen and know mine too are on their way, perhaps earlier this year than other years. Pete and I talked about the day on the calendar when the meadows will be completely clear, perhaps as early as March 26th this year.

I know my grip will soften on my love of winter’s solitude and quiet just as the ice and snow on the Elk have let go: I will move from winter’s depth to the rising energy of spring’s renewal and warmth knowing life comes to us both from within and from without, both from retreat and rebirth.

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