Wonders of nature survive long, cold winter

March 7, 2010


Four dogs raced over the hilltop like frenzied waves breaking on a shoal. One slowed and began prancing, his nose held high, sniffing the stratums of air for the information he sought. Suddenly, he located the scent, peeled off and locked on point. The others wheeled and froze, honoring him.

Gray clouds covered a patch of blue sky, obscuring the sun. The field grew dark. Gusts blew volleys of snow like spindrift across the field. Otherwise, all was soundless, except for the shrill whistle of a hawk and the subway roar of the wind. For the hunters and the dogs, the world beyond the hill was hidden behind a curtain of fog.

The eight figures, men and dogs, focused like a single mind on a patch of cover just upwind of the lead dog. The hunters walked briskly to the spot, talking lowly to the dogs. The dogs trembled with anticipation. Their faces were grave masks of singular purpose, ancient and wolf-like. As the hunters drew close, three quail flushed wildly. The wind caught them and flung them eastward out of range. The sky opened again for a moment, letting in a shaft of light. Then the gray canopy sealed up the sky and all was dark and quiet again. A rush of pride rose up in the hunters for the prowess of their dogs.

Gray sky, gray hill, gray field. A wintry tableau. Cedars dusted with snow. Gnarled branches of hedge trees sheathed with ice. The wind raking the tall grasses. The pond half open, half frozen, gray ice against black water, like the symbol for yin and yang. All color leached from the world. The season changing from moment to moment, spring pushing against winter, February to March and back again as if nature had chosen that day to show off its shape-shifting tricks.

One soul was missing who would have made our group complete. Of course, in some sense he was there, just beyond our vision, watching his son, grandson and son-in-law keeping alive the skills he’d taught them. And it was hard not to believe that in some way, he felt a thrill when his dog went on point. How hard it must have been not to speak and praise her for a good retrieve. Good dog, Caney. Good dog, girl. What secrets would he reveal to us if he could?

“Beasts in their major freedom, slumber in peace tonight,” wrote Richard Wilbur. What is “major” freedom? Maybe freedom from guilt, freedom from the illusions of success and failure, freedom from the yearning for meaning. The freedom of no rights, no significance, no purpose except to propagate the species…a system in which the individual scarcely exists. Of course, we half belong to this system, we werewolves with celestial brains.

On another day, a friend and I skied across the same field over the fine dry snow and rested on the hilltop surrounded by battered sunflowers and goldenrod. Deer tracks were everywhere, but no living thing in sight. We found frozen rats and moles, rabbit tracks ending in tufts of fur and the perfect image of wing feathers in the snow, the tale of a pheasant caught by a hawk, the crowning event in the dead bird’s life captured like a fossil that would be gone on the first thaw.

Hard to give credence in that desolate landscape to the idea that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. There, extinction seems random and anonymous, and death is nature’s caretaker. The message of winter isn’t that nature is “cruel.” It’s that nature is unknowable, doesn’t have a mind like ours, doesn’t punish us or serve us either. “Cruel” or “kind” are not in the vocabulary of its domain.

“The ripped mouse, safe in the owl’s talon, cries Concordance,” wrote Wilbur. For an hour we partook of that inhuman freedom and concordance. I hope you did too, my friend.

A few weeks later, on the first nuance of warmth, the sky filled with waves of geese migrating to their nesting grounds. Chickadees and sparrows, mute all winter long, made their first tentative peeps outside the kitchen window. On the pond, a Canada goose showed off his mating displays. Beneath the ice, runnels of water flowed like living creatures, seeking paths of escape. Under the frozen earth a giant slept, his mind working on green dreams.


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