Pliant hemlock branches bend under accumulated ice and snow. The branch tips leave long sweeping tracks in the white surface indicating that strong winds the night before set the forest in motion. The weight of winter is felt in February. The natural stock piling of winter precipitation without the relief of interspersed warm days can have a significant impact on the forest. Branches break, forest floor debris collapses, saplings and shrubs are bent to the ground, old and diseased trees succumb to the cold forces of nature, and amassed snow limits the mobility of larger mammals. It is a grim fact of the winter world.
I am a bit unsteady on my snow shoes. A nagging, seemingly never ending, back injury leaves me a little crooked putting more weight on my left side than my right side. Although it is not my custom I find myself using cross country ski poles for balance. In the woods behind my house there is a trail that is used frequently for Nordic skiing and snow shoeing. Travel here is relatively easy save the fact that the path is narrow and care must be taken to stay on the rough edged trail. After about a half a mile the trail goes to the west and I want to head towards the top of the hill to the south. Off the beaten path the snow is unsteady and deep. My large snowshoes, 36 inches from tip to tip, are designed to keep a large man on top of the snow; or at least near the surface of the deep winter that has accrued on this wild forest floor. At this elevation the snow in the open hardwoods is about three and a half feet deep I know it will become a lot deeper as I travel to the top of this mountain, perhaps another 400 feet in elevation. My shoes sink in about 10 inches and come to rest on a glazed layer of snow, the remnants of an ice storm a week ago. When I lift my leg as I walk the weight of the snow on top of my snow shoes can be felt. By carefully angling my toe in a slight upward direction with each step the snow slides off the top of the snowshoe; a trick I learned since using modern snowshoes outfitted with a composite/plastic deck. The crampons fitted to the snow shoe grip the ice beneath and traction is good even on this steep and challenging terrain. I stop to rest frequently. My bad back needs to be coddled on these snowy journeys.
As I spread my legs slightly and lean against a tree at the edge of a hemlock grove I look up and I can see bent branches on this tall conifer. The snow grips steadfastly to the needles. A temperature rise of only a few degrees will cause the snow to loose its tenacious hold and come crashing down to the surface of these wondrous woods. The snow is not hard or icy but it is still a nuisance to the hiker when it comes down suddenly in large quantities. While I rest against this tree I think about what the winter forest must endure. The dormant forest does not rest as deeply as most believe. Years of solar energy was converted and stored in branches giving them the strength and endurance to withstand heavy loads. Miniscule cells of cellulose bind together, overlap, and intertwine to form a strength that is little understood. The greater the specific gravity of wood the greater the strength and the longer the grain in the wood the more flexible it is. Trees that are strong withstand great loads and trees that are flexible bend but do not break. Oak, in general, has wood with a very high specific gravity. Ash has long grains and is very flexible and bends easily. Conifers, most often, have a long grain in the branches and so these parts are very flexible. They have to be because most are evergreens that hold their needles. The dense needles provide surface area for the snow to build up on. Conifers reduce these loads in several ways. Many conifers, especially spruces, are arrow shaped. They are narrow at the top and wider towards the forest floor. This produces a pitch that sheds snow. The needles of many conifers are coated with a waxy surface making them slippery. The wet snow won’t adhere for very long to waxy needles, especially as the temperature warms up. The needles may have several sides on some species, a trick that allows for more surface area while lessening horizontal surfaces that can act as a platform for snow. These subtle but effective features are the products of millions of years of evolution. In the far north, it is the conifers that rule. Their dark green evergreen leaves collect solar energy and keeps the tree in a state of semi-dormancy in the cold winter. As the sun reaches higher into the sky the tree starts to photosynthesis early. The growing seasons are only a couple of months in the far north. The added few weeks of energy production on either end of the growing season is the difference between success and failure. Root systems remain active below the frost line growing in most months although at a very slow rate. It is clear that our perception of the winter forest being in complete dormancy is a myth. It lives on the edge by living slowly.
While I think about all this my mind wanders back to my childhood. I picture myself playing in the woods. Often I was by myself. The forest was my refuge. I wandered into the woods for security. I found my strength in the woods. There was nothing to fear. There was no need to hide. I was free. All of those hours spent alone would probably seem lonely to someone from the outside. They were not. I learned. I lived. I loved. My specific gravity grew to great proportions. I was strong. The grains in my spirit lengthened. I was flexible and learned to withstand great pain and disappointment. And as a tree is pushed by the strong north wind but stands its own ground, so did I.
Most people in the northern latitudes think of winter as the last season; the end of a year. Spring brings birth, new growth, and new hope. Summer brings life full blown, days seem never ending, night is but a brief interlude between daylight hours. The autumn signals the end of the growing season and brings all bounty of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. And in New England it gives us one last blazing flame when fall colors spread across our hillsides, valleys, and mountains like a fire out of control. And then we come back to winter. Nights are long. All seems quiet. We rest and we reflect on the last year and plan for the next. As I stand here, leaning against this tall hemlock tree, holding these thoughts I am reminded that I am slightly past the autumn of my years. In the clock of life I am most likely approaching the last quarter, the last season. I am a product of all these years and experiences that preceded me. I am amongst the lucky. I have a beautiful wife who loves me. I have two wonderful sons that have hopeful futures. I have had both victories and defeats in my nearly 60 years, but I have only a few regrets. I have long been a student of the wilderness and these wilds will continue to by my teacher. There is still much to learn. From these woods I have learned about balance, patience, and fortitude. There are secrets to be uncovered, mysteries to solve, and hope to be found. Our planet, this place we call earth, is Gestalt-like; it is greater than the sum of its parts.
Like the February forest in the northern climates I can withstand the weight of winter. I am strong and remain somewhat flexible. I am prepared for what harsh climates can throw my way. As long as I have love and life and a wild place to hold my soul I will remain.
And now I must continue my journey to the top of this cold mountain. The snow will be deep and formidable.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in February 2011.