Vanilla Winter

It’s after 3 pm, and the sun, a pale globe hovering over the wide expanse, looks weary. Globs of fresh snow covered in icy crystals sparkle like tiny diamonds, or maybe disco balls. We stand atop the mountain, the smaller white foothills undulating below, the frosted trees bowing around us.

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For some reason, the quiet, opaline world seems to hold the potential for magic at every turn. We walk the crunchy trails that were groomed by machines and then left for skis and snowshoes to mar the perfect surface. We know our adventure is limited to the short time before the northern hemisphere completely turns a cold shoulder to our nearest star.

These days, darkness is long in these parts, so we must spend time surrounded by the glittering snow to make our world feel brighter. And the light, it is divine. Pale yellow, thin and creamy and barely warm at all. It is soft and unobtrusive, sneaking up late in the morning and leaving at night before we have barely had a chance to notice it. Here on the mountain, nothing obscures it but the trees, some bare and some still green, some hanging onto shriveled red berries, some dressed in olive-green or furry brown lichen, all spread with a layer of snow. We alternate between sunglasses and not, depending on what side of the mountain we stand on and whether we are standing boldly out in the open or sneaking by under the cover of heavy boughs.

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On the backside, where the low sun illuminates the hillside across the valley but not our path, we see a small movement 20 feet in front of us, like a ball with a long string rolling down the hill and across the trail. It disappears. Then, with a flourish and a spray of snow, it leaps up and comes bounding down the path toward us. As it boldly comes nearer, we see what it is: a white long-tailed weasel, its arctic coat blending in with the snow, its black-tipped tail and the large, dark vole in its mouth bouncing as it runs. We see its small, furry face with dark, beady eyes, round ears, long whiskers, and strong jaws gripping dinner. We hurry to get our cameras ready, too late as the small creature leaps off the trail, into the deep snow, and under a hidden bush. Close call, it probably thinks, worried about losing its meal to the humans. Too close, we think, disappointed that we couldn’t capture this special moment in a more permanent form. We round the bend and the low sun beckons through the forest, as though a special discovery lies just ahead in some enchanted new land. 

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Indeed, we find towering evergreens standing proudly upright and facing west into the sun, the sweet vanilla light illuminating the undersides of the branches and the individual needles clustered below the icy crust. It is the afternoon’s last light, and it is glorious. The mountain promises magic, and on this day after Christmas, it delivers.

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Petroglyphs

We walked to the petroglyphs yesterday, a secret spot out in the open, on boulders that long ago were placed here by the lake waters that broke their dam and flooded the river plain. Some 12,000 years ago, people living in this post-flood landscape looked to the sun and the river and the wildlife, and they looked inside themselves, and they carved into the flat, south-facing boulder sides images that held great meaning for them. We never learned what these images meant, one of life’s mysteries we may never decipher. What did their world look like back then, before motorized vehicles rutted out the trails? Before grazing livestock spread cheatgrass and other weeds that modern humans brought from far-away lands? Before hunting rifles and gas-powered boats filled the air with sounds of shots and hums of motors? Before the nearby concrete dam controlled the flow of a river that snakes through a deep and dramatic canyon from the Rocky Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean?

The people who inhabited this place long before European settlement may have climbed down to this spot from the plateau above, or perhaps they lived here in winter, where the canyon briefly widens and holds the warm light. Whatever moved them to carve images in the rocks, they were likely inspired by the same things that filled us with silent joy during our trek to this spot: the cackle of ducks paddling downstream. The graceful, silent winging of a lone heron above the marsh. A herd of deer munching the dry grass, wary of their human neighbors. The contrast of the cloudless pale blue sky, the warm sun radiating off the steep, silent cliffs, and the unmoving land with the ever-meandering, never-stopping river – a reminder that time marches slowly on, even when it feels so still.

As darkness set upon us and the pale sliver of moon began to glow, we stalked our way back to our starting place, dreaming of instead setting up camp in the same spot where our ancient friends once slept. Despite our modern conveniences, like the rubber-soled boots on our feet and the nylon backpacks carrying chocolate, oranges, and salted nuts, we could have been them. We turned our backs to the cold wind, watched the stars emerge one by one, and wondered at the hiding spot of the hooting owl that greeted the night.

The fragrant breath of light returning

There’s something to be said for the silence. In the spaces between slushy drive-bys, you can hear the apical buds on the trees and the tender new blades of grass stretching toward the lengthening light. The robins chirp as if whatever they’re doing is the best thing ever. The swollen river bounds between banks carrying fresh, frigid snowmelt, which the ducks endure proudly. The groundhog saw his shadow today in Boise, so winter will stay for 6 more weeks, but we’re getting somewhere. The land is starting to remember what it’s like to support life. And now we dream of gardens: plans for old bathtubs repurposed as planters, overflowing with greens and flowers and joy. The hope of great bounties brought on by the first sprouts of vegetable plants. The anticipation of bees swimming among stamens, awash in pollen.

We’re not there yet. The sun isn’t yet strong enough to break away the layer of cold air that clings close to the earth. The trees can tell that something is a little different, but the bulbs that hide in the soil haven’t yet gotten the message that winter’s hold is losing its grip. But the vanilla sky has given way to powder blue, sunset visits the northwestern window again, and we can again walk in the afternoon light with coats unzipped and gloves left lying on the car seat. Before we know it, spring’s perfume will permeate the stagnant winter air. It never comes soon enough, but when it does, we can relax our shoulders and head into the breeze, knowing that we made it through another year.

A visit to the mountain

The mountains loom large ahead. Wee ants, we scurry across meadow and stream, hoping to get close enough to glimpse glory. The eyes of the rocks look past us, down over the valleys carved by snow and water, watching over the dominion we have somehow been granted permission to tread across. By our smallness, we are reminded that this world was not made for us. It was simply made, and then we appeared, perhaps by accident, or perhaps to give some meaning to these surroundings.

Just as the birds don’t sing for the benefit of us humans, this majesty wasn’t molded to brighten our lives. Yet its beauty is unsurpassed by anything we could create. How did our eyes evolve to see the drama of the sharp peaks against the impossibly blue sky? How did our ears open to recognize the songs of the sparrows in the trees as something more than birdspeak? How did our minds expand to value such resplendence, to see it as not just our habitat but our sublime fortune to live among? It is a wonder that we are allowed to wander through something we still can’t quite understand, but as long as we are kind, we avoid being swept away by the wind that made us for yet another day.

Bird feeder dynamics

The house finches, with their red heads or streaked feathers and flirty chirps, flit among the branches of the trees around the porch. They are the rulers of the feeder. Two or three at a time, they descend upon the feeders. They cling to the cylindrical wire, picking out one seed at a time, cracking it to get at the oily meat inside, dropping the shell parts all around, then picking out another seed. One or two of them come to the gazebo-shaped feeder, sitting comfortably in the seed tray, calling to the others between snacks. The young ones don’t know yet how to crack through the tough sunflower shells, they just turn the seeds around in their beaks, eventually dropping them on the ground and eyeing the adults for pointers. The goldfinches come to the feeder in pairs. The male takes a couple of seeds while the female sits on a branch nearby, then he hops down to the porch railing or floor to pick through shells while the female takes her turn at the feeder.

Occasionally a mourning dove comes to pick through the shells as well. A nuthatch takes one seed at a time and flies to a nearby branch to eat it, then darts back to the feeder, as long as the finches haven’t taken over. Lazuli buntings used to visit the feeder as well, earlier in spring, but either they return unnoticed, they’ve moved on to a different locale, or they’ve been scared away by the pushier birds.  Meanwhile, the squirrels take their turn as the others watch warily. The furry flightless visitors grab onto the wire rungs with their back feet and pick seeds out with their front paws. The birds dare not disturb. Among the scurry and bustle at the seed feeder, the hummingbirds, those real-life fairies of the wooded neighborhood, dart about, peeping and chasing each other. When the seed feeder is empty, the hummers buzz by, hovering at the plastic yellow flower, sipping the sweet water through needle-thin beaks with long tongues. The finches are the busy-bodied common-folk, the mourning doves  the wallflowers, the squirrels the pushy interlopers, the hummingbirds the magical sprites.

What do they think of each other? Do the other birds find the hummers so mystical? Do they pay attention to each other, or are they concerned only with others of their species? Can they understand each others’ languages? What do the robins, those insect- and fruit-eaters who have no use for the swaying feeders, think of the chaos on the porch? These feathered and furred residents share a whole wide world, making use of different levels of the forest, crossing paths with few close encounters. When they all come together to share food from the same source, do they take notice? When they’re used to scavenging for food, relying on their wits and instincts to find tasty morsels, how  do things change when they find a reliable source, seemingly unending? Do they still feel a competitive twinge? Or does this all happen without effort, seamlessly adapting to new lunch counters and different faces, as they have for millions of years?

Golden

It’s late, and not yet dark. Night has been delayed. On the road since morning, still hours from home. A lot has happened in this day. Soulful songs play on repeat as the golden light washes everything a shade of brilliance. The sun hovers over the cliffs that look down upon the river plain, for now a late spring hue of green, soon to be golden in its own right. A snake indeed, this river, slithering past the sagebrush and the dry grasses. The world I came from seems a faint memory already, and I’ve only just left. I have returned this way before, hurrying to beat back the cold wind and the night sky, this place still foreign and strange. But on this golden day, the land sings along with the soulful song. I have been seduced. It feels good to be home.

This wondrous place, our solar system

We know the other planets are out there. They shine like the brightest stars in our night sky, and occasionally our advanced space technology photographs them in all their glory, revealing to our eyes what we cannot see. Venus is our brightest non-sun star, and because it orbits between the Earth and the sun, we see its phases plainly, a rounded bump when on the far side of the sun and a glowing corona of atmosphere when it stands between Earth and the star we share. We feel a kinship with Venus, a planet nearly our size, though the similarities end there. Smothered in an atmosphere 93 times as massive as ours, it lacks our dynamism, with no plate tectonics to rearrange its visage. Venus is the hell we dream of.

Venus transected the sun yesterday. With the right equipment and a clear sky, Earth’s twin could be seen floating as a small pinprick in front of the hulking sun, the speck of dust a seeming accidental blip in the projector shining light on our canvas. This stirred our imaginations. Usually, we zoom along through space, aware that there are other planets out there somewhere, but they don’t seem quite real, even when seen through a telescope. It’s as if someone placed a dramatic rendering of the planet right over the end of the scope at the precise moment we look through it. We have to trust that it’s really there. But when Venus crosses the sun, we have confirmation that we are not alone. Like when wandering in the forest, we know that there are other hikers out there somewhere – we saw their cars at the trailhead – but we haven’t seen them, so we hum a tune and talk to the birds, turning round and round to take in the view. We think we have the place to ourselves, until we hear a crunch behind us and turn to see one of those elusive hikers coming up from behind, so we move to the side of the trail, pretend to fiddle with our camera or water bottle, then wait until the hiker has gained sufficient ground before heading onward, alone again to enjoy our surroundings. It will be 105 years before we see another hiker, and it will be Venus again. Mercury can be seen from Earth as a star, but its diminutive stature and close proximity to our star ensure that although it crosses the sun every seven years, we will never have Transit of Mercury parties. The planet’s trek is simply unnoticeable to our naked eyes.

Little Mercury…and yet, we are so small. In 4 billion years, when our Milky Way galaxy, in which we are but a tiny speck, finally collides with the Andromeda galaxy next door, our inflated sense of self-importance will be scarcely a blip in time. Nearly that long ago, Earth was just an infant, our own tectonics just beginning to churn. With single-celled organisms just emerging, we were only one step ahead in the evolutionary process of where Venus is now. And somehow we got here, to this wondrous place, which we threaten to destroy long before that intergalactic corporate merge. So we must celebrate the little things like planetary transits, to remind us of our size and the company we keep, for when Milky Way and Andromeda come to dance together for a good long while, we want to have someone around to tell their children all about it.