The Weight of Winter

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.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    There are so many metaphors, aren’t there? I teach a mythology class, and it’s always amazing to me to go back to the earliest stories known to man and find that ancient people were looking at the world and finding meaning in it in much the same way I do. The outer trappings of modern life keep changing, but what comes up from the earth seems to me ageless and perfect and full of all the wisdom we will ever need. Thanks for this, Bill. Your insights are grounding.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emily. Yes, the modern world has lost a lot of the connection to our foundation. Metaphorically speaking a building cannot stand without a good foundation, wouldn’t you agree? Reconnecting with the principles of natural law would greatly remedy our poor outlook. It is up to the human race. I have hope that we will realize the error of our ways.

  • Emma Springfield

    I am so touched by your beautiful tale. I guess no more words are needed.

  • Sandy

    You write so eloquently and with such knowledge of the northern woods. Thanks again, for adding to what I know of trees and seasons. I always come away for here feeling good.

    My siblings and I roamed a different kind of forest, one of hickory, oak, and other hardwoods. In the spring, redbud and dogwood burst into bloom, a sight and smell I still miss. Reading your essays always make me think of those days.

    The best to you and your wife,
    Sandy

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Emma. I’m so pleased that you liked this piece. It’s not too hard to write about mother nature, especially when you love this planet as I do.

  • Wild_Bill

    Oak/hickory forests are majestic! Redbud and dogwood? Were you from somewhere south and west of New England? I’ve seen lots of redbuds and dogwood trees in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and yes they are a sight to behold when in bloom.

    Thanks for reading, I really appreciate it.

  • http://teresaevangeline.blogspot.com Teresa Evangeline

    “A wild place to hold my soul.” Beautiful. I can so relate to this story of your deep appreciation for all you learned and are learning from the land. It gave me goosebumps as I read the last sentences. I love everything about this piece of literature – nature writing at its finest.

  • http://writingsfromwildsoul.wordpress.com/ Wendy

    Captivating piece, Wild Bill. Spoken from the poet-soul of you as well as from the ecologist-scientist of you. I love the explanation of the various woods and how they have evolved to survive the cold, snowy climate. My hemlocks were nearly bent in half by the last big snow. Now upright and waving again. One of my teachers, Bill Plotkin who has written extensively on the subject of our relationship with wildness and soul (Soulcraft, and Nature and the Human Soul), suggests seeing our lives on a wheel and the North as the place of our elderhood. You bring such wise and loving attention as you move into your Elder years there on your land in the north. You write so beautifully of your deep familiarity with your land, the trees, the mountain, the seasons. I would love to wander along behind you as you visit the place that holds your soul. Thank you for drawing us such a clear picture with words and images

  • Wild_Bill

    Interesting fellow, Bill Plotkin, very in tune with the interrelationships between all that are part of this planet. I’d like to meet him someday, he and I, have some similar thoughts and ideas. Hemlocks, both eastern and western, are resilient trees. They know how to compromise e.g. “they bend but do not break”. Thank you for the wonderful compliments. I really appreciate you visiting and reading at my website http://www.wildramblings.com.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you so much Teresa. My writing intentions are to connect with the other people out there “who get it”, and you are amongst the wonderful people I have found that understands the connection between humans and this planet. I enjoy your comments and hope they continue.

    Good luck with your travels, be safe and please be happy. These are wonderful days.

  • Montucky

    This is a very enjoyable read Bill! I enjoy your stories so much and always learn something from them even though (and probably because) I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests myself. It’s also a great feeling to read accounts from someone who loves the forests and outdoors as much as I do and has your knowledge of them. I’m a decade older than you, but I can still get out pretty well and do so every chance I get. I’ve noticed so often that those of us who are in the bracket of “older” seem to love the outdoors and back country even more than those who are younger. I hope that can be attributed to the wisdom that comes with age.

  • http://primarilypets.blogspot.com Barbara

    You have the most uncanny ability to take us along with you into the forest. I feel like I’m beside you, struggling with my snowshoes as you kindly point out how to use them more effectively. I can feel the bark of the tree you’re leaning on and the sun on my face, hear the little rustle as snow drops from a tree branch and the occasional bird song.

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful forest with us Bill, it is pure joy to read about your visits, your love for all nature particularly the forest, your knowledge and your musings.

  • Tracy

    Bill,
    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. I haven’t been able to stop by since I’ve been under the weather but I am so glad I did…I loved reading today’s entry and you know, I often found myself playing alone yet thinking I could conquer the world in those days :) ahh to be young again, yes?

    If you don’t mind, I think I’ll be back to visit ~

  • Wild_Bill

    One of my biggest worries is that younger folks focus so much on the electronic world that they completely miss the awes of the natural world and the lessons that it has to teach us. In my view humans rose from the natural world and we need to stay in touch with our foundation so that we can fully appreciate who we are and what we were meant to do.

    This planet had been heavily impacted by human beings. We need to come to grips with what this means if we intend to be here for a while. There is no doubt that the planet can heal itself and continue without us but wouldn’t it be nice for the human race to hang around for the rest of the journey?

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you for joining me. I love having virtual partners in my travels through the woods. There is much to see and a lot of gifts to behold. The world is a big wonderful place and we all need to take time to enjoy it, don’t you think?

  • Wild_Bill

    Tracy,

    Youth has its advantages, no doubt. But with age I feel that I can see more clearly not just the whole scene, but the individual parts that make it so fabulous. I’m not quite sure why that is. Perhaps our brains start working differently, maybe we become wiser. But this new vision really is pretty wonderful.

  • Nature-Drunk

    Beautiful piece, Bill. It reminds me of my childhood when I would endlessly roam the banks of Cottonwood Creek. The fragrances that blew on the wind, the feel of the sand between my toes, the sight of a Great Blue Heron flying overhead and the sound of the rushing water are with me to this day. I have raised my son to appreciate nature (in fact, he is out exploring a creek near our house now) and hope that when he is an adult, he easily recalls all that he has experienced in the wild. Thank you for the memory.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, early childhood memories and experiences can chart our life. That you have given this gift to your son certainly means a job well done, it will stay with him for the rest of his days. It’s interesting that you mention fragrances from your childhood. As we know, smells can stay in our memories for years. For some reason I remember the musty smell of disturbed oak leaves that had been decomposing on the forest floor. Powerful memory, so vivid!

  • http://occasionalscotland.blogspot.com/ Linda

    Have just discovered your blog through blog-hopping, and am transfixed. I spent many childhood hours wandering alone in the woods and moors around my home in the north of Scotland. So much was different from your New England woods, but the essence was the same.

  • Wild_Bill

    Ah, we have a connection. I have spent time in north Scotland, north of Inverness and on the Orkney Islands, also some on the west coast. What a grand and wonderful place. You are right, there are many differences, but even more similarities in our ecological systems. As you point out, the essence is the same. Thank you for visiting http://www.wildramblings.com. I will do the same to your blog.

  • Lbiederstadt

    Thank you for the wintertime color: In your pix and in your words. (And I am a Scotland-lover, too!) Your work here is a gift to my days. Thank you!!
    -Lynn @ skydiaries.wordpress.com

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks, glad I can make your day a little brighter. That’s what it is all about, right?

  • http://liveandlearngrammy.blogspot.com barb

    Hi Bill, I’ve enjoyed this ramble with you. I am also in the winter of my life, but as you say, still have much to learn. Like you, I take most of my lessons from Nature – a patient, though exacting, teacher. I have several pairs of snowshoes but normally choose a compact, lightweight pair made for running – unless the snow is too deep, and I need more of a platform so I don’t sink. We have mostly lodgepole pines at my elevation and many of them are succumbing to pine beetles. I echo this sentiment of yours: “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.”

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Barb. There is no end to learning from the natural world. It has achieved perfection over billions of years of development. Humans do their best when we mimic the natural world rather than try to reorganize it. I’m hoping these winter years will yield, at least, the sensation of spring as time goes on. We’ll see.

  • http://findanoutlet.wordpress.com/ Find an Outlet

    You’ve lived your life off the beaten path and you have peace with it. I both envy and take comfort in that. I’m committed to living a life of learning too, sometimes I think that’s all there is. It’s encouraging to come here and see folks who care about learning what you’re teaching, because there are an awful lot of vacant stares out there.

    Re your reply to Montucky below, the kids I’ve come into contact with in the past ten years don’t want to go outside. I hope others have a different view.

  • http://vanillaseven.com/ VanillaSeven

    Even when the snow are deep and formidable, you are still managed to conquered them.

  • Wild_Bill

    I know what you are saying, but not conquering, perhaps overcoming and withstanding. The trick to survival in the natural world is to blend in. Survival of the fittest most often involves filling a niche, filling a void to complete the circle. That is the plight of humanity, finding that niche in a way so as to not completely upset the apple cart. Thank you for reading!

  • Wild_Bill

    I love the dialogue that happens on http://www.wildramblings.com. I am inspired by the many different readers like yourself who have so much to share about our planet. It is with great hesitance that I must completely agree with you. The majority of kids are not in touch with our planet and do not experience the miracles that abound throughout Gaia. That is our biggest challenge. If future generations do not care about natural systems than the human race will not continue. The good news is that the planet will, although it may have to recover from our mess.

    My real hope is that we can prevent this ghastly thought and learn to live within the confines of a nearly perfect system. Will humans have the wisdom to correct their ways. I am still hopeful.

  • http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com Crafty Green Poet

    I enjoyed reading this post. We’ve had two snowy winters in a row, after many years with only minimal snow if any. The trees in the woods and parks have really suffered from the unaccustomed snow loads on their branches.

  • Wild_Bill

    Deep, snowy winters make for a good (and valuable) natural pruning process. I suspect the trees will, on some level, benefit from this cleansing. Thank you for reading.

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    What a beautiful mid-winter meditation – deep as the snow!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you. Winter has much to teach us, doesn’t it!

  • http://colorofsand.wordpress.com Cirrelda

    Have not heard nor read before this discussion of tree grain make-up. Have heard about the scale/needle and branch adaptations to snow. We have the Rocky Mountain Juniper whose branches are much floppier than our One Seed Juniper, here in the desert Southwest, and thus better adapted for snow. I will ask here about the character of the wood grain of these trees, now that I have heard your discussion.
    Thanks for opening the mind again with your words!

  • Wild_Bill

    The physics of wood is a well studied topic, especially because knowledge is necessary and utilized relative to all construction using wood. The Rocky Mountain Juniper, like other conifers, has elongated grain making the branches pliable; a necessary adaptation given the heavy snow loads in the Rocky Mountains. Thanks for reading!

  • Out on the Prairie

    I still rememer my first snowshoes that after a long trek your legs were lead.They were huge, but then it was nice to be on top of deep snow. I love to explore in the winter, places that become overgrown in the summer are accessible.The snow is melting and I start to miss it already, yet crave for spring.

  • Wild_Bill

    Snowshoes are lighter and faster than the used to be. It’s still the best way to get into deep woods during times of deep snow. Great exercise and it gets you where you are going.

    Snow has been melting here for 2 days but back to cold tomorrow. Hurrah! More snow Sunday night! Six more weeks of winter!

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