Tuesday, February 12, 2013

NOT QUITE BLACK & WHITE – The Subtle Art of Winter

One recent morning I took our miniature schnauzer, Abby, outside for her morning toilette in the back yard. The sparkling blanket of fresh snow was pristine, but for the occasional trail of tiny paw prints. I could tell the squirrel path by its much bigger prints and the broad indentations the animal had made as it alternately hopped and sank into the snow.

The delicate impressions led across an unspoiled patch of snow and then simply stopped.

One very delicate set of prints caught my eye—likely those of a field mouse or vole. The impressions led across an unspoiled patch of snow and then simply stopped. No obstacle, no escape tunnel…just stopped.

Looking more closely, I noticed that the last few tracks were flanked symmetrically by two subtle, fan-shaped depressions in the snow. Then—this is when the chill went up my spine—I discovered that each of the marks had quite a distinct leading edge; the trailing edge, more delicately drawn, as if by a series of very soft brushes…or feathers!

It was then I knew for sure that the last thing the poor little devil had seen in this life was the swooping shadow of an owl!

It’s for this ability to record such comings and goings that snow is such an asset to hunters, detectives, anyone who needs to track another creature. Besides the obvious information like the number, size and direction of your quarry, snow tracks can reveal to the trained eye things like the animal’s weight, age, or even if it walked with a limp.

These accounts might seem a snapshot of just a carefree moment in a tiny being’s day, or...

To the curious empath, these accounts might seem a snapshot of just a carefree moment in a tiny being’s day, or they might document why there is no such thing for one so low on the food chain.

My wife, Sally, and I were cross-country skiing in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness when we came across a set of fresh wolf tracks crossing the ski trail at right angles. When I stopped to look around, I noticed there was another set of tracks about ten yards ahead of me. I edged along and came across five more equally spaced, parallel sets of wolf tracks.

ILLUSTRATION: Wolf Pack in Moonlight – Robert Bateman

I’d heard that these skilled hunters often spread out like this when tracking their prey—an effective way to comb a large area for sights and scents. I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad when I discovered, between the last two “teeth” of the “comb,” the tracks of a medium-sized deer. I was tempted to follow them to see if I could find signs of either prey’s or predators’ success. Sally nipped that idea in the bud.

Esthetically, it might seem that winters here in Minnesota are to those in warmer places as oatmeal is to a rich, spicy paella. For someone like me who draws nourishment from color, that can prove a pretty bland diet. It seems that, when all our buildings were designed, there must have been a shortage of materials—even paint—in any colors but shades of white, brown and gray.

Compound this dreary palette with our low winter sun’s feeble output and daylight that’s snuffed by 4:30, and you have a recipe for what we call “cabin fever.” As Garrison Keeler captures so hilariously in his reports from Lake Wobegon, we stoically accept what is and make the best of it.

Isn’t it the pigment we bring to the mix that ultimately determines the color we see?

But is winter really so drab, or is the gray just a reflection of our constrained spirits? To be fair, when you put your mind to it, there is, indeed, color to be found in a Minnesota winter. You catch it in drops of vivid nylon running down a ski slope. It rises in the roaring flamboyance of a hot air balloon.

Indoors, it might wrap you in a bright, cozy throw or beguile you with the sizzling yellow and orange dance of a fire. It’s in a ruddy cheek, a warm smile and the resilient spirits of the folks you get to know so well when you’re housebound together for a while.

And, for those of us unsatisfied with man-made color, even Nature teases us with her reluctant hues. Unlike those of summer that nearly accost you, these shades tend to lay low, obscure to all but the most determined, most appreciative eye.

They’re the raw umber and burnt sienna cloaks the oak trees refused to give up last autumn; the golden, burgundy, crimson, even chartreuse stems of dogwood and other shrubs; the gilded glow of sun setting over virgin snow; the arresting, pure red check mark of a cardinal alighting for just an instant.

The color of winter is, at its best, a collaboration. Nature does her part, albeit begrudgingly. The rest is up to us. After all, isn’t it the pigment we bring to the mix—in our openness, our creativity, our zest for life, our rejection of cynicism —that ultimately determines the color we see?

Yes, you may have to look a little harder, perhaps open your heart and soul a bit further, but, as with anything in short supply, you learn to appreciate winter’s little wonders all the more for their subtlety. The alternative? Well, believe me, it can be an awfully long time between October and March.


Susan Blake said...

That was a beautiful post! You should be a writer! :)

I believe you are right when you insist that having an open heart will allow you to see the colors. Having an open heart allows us to see everything in life much fuller and greater on every level.

Stay warm under that cozy afghan - Mother Nature is cozily planning the colors of spring for us right now.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Yes, Susan, I should be a writer -- if only I weren't so caught up in looking at the things I should be writing about!!
As much as I try to appreciate the subtle joys of winter, it's that anticipation of spring you mention that really keeps me going about now -- and a few weeks in Mexico coming up!
Enjoyed you recent post on "phude" choices!

Traci said...

I read this post and thought the same thing. It is wonderfully written. Slowing down and walking up close in nature one sees more. Thanks for sharing!

Jeffrey Willius said...

So nice to see you here, Traci! Many thanks for your kind words. I love your Walk Simply blog and have subscribed to your RSS feed. Let's stay in touch...

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