We are having a strong winter storm at last! It is Sunday and I climb the tree as Claire and I head back to the house after a hike through the storm along the Cross-Town Trail to Whitcomb Hill. We weren’t wearing snowshoes, just slogging along through six or eight inches of loose snow and occasionally punching through the undercrust if we stepped off the path. It is snowing heavily but windlessly in the woods, until now and again a gust of wind hits the tree tops and giant clouds of snow billow down like sifted flour around us. The hemlocks are heavily frosted, and even fine deciduous twigs are marked white with a line of snow.
Every real lover of the woods knows that the true heart of walking in the woods is sitting in the woods. And this is what we do. We walk for a while, or until we are tired, and then—five or six times over the course of the hike—we head off the trail a short distance into the woods, looking for a spot that calls out to us. We find trees to lean against, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, sometimes a little ways apart; sometimes individual trees, other times a sheltering congregation of hemlocks or a miniature grove of beech trees. And we settle ourselves down into the snow and we just sit.
As magnificent as walking through the woods is—striding through the forest and the falling snow—it is when you sit down and and become still that the woods really gather around. The silence is absolute, and you can hear the sifting of snow through branches and onto dried beech leaves. You are pleasantly warm from walking and everything is impossibly still and beautiful and it feels like you could sit there forever. Time stretches out and it feels like this is the way the world should be, always.
Later, as we grow thirsty and over-warm from walking, we eat snow from our gloves as we sit watching the woods. In one of our sitting places a hairy woodpecker is working busily at a dead tree trunk about twenty feet off, rat-a-tat-tatting away, apparently the only other living creature out and about in the storm besides us. I say as much, and an enormous pileated woodpecker shoots through the neighboring trees like a spear, and then, moments later, as we marvel, arrows back again and vanishes into the woods.
As we forge on and up the final ascent to the top of the hill, the wind blasts up the ridge from our left, freezing the snowmelt on our faces; we turn our heads to the woods on the right and walk half-sideways the rest of the way up, trying to shelter our faces. At the top, the snow drives horizontally over the open field with such violence from the valley below that this modest snowstorm on this modest hill feels like a maelstrom. We stand on the stone bench in the center of it all facing away from the storm—we can’t turn into it for more than a moment or two, ice driving into our eyes and faces—and look out over gray treetops towards hills and mountains gone invisible behind roiling clouds of white.
I don’t know how it started, but somehow, possessed by the exhilaration of it all, we end up calling shape-note songs—including the aptly named “Windy Ridge”—exuberantly and hoarsely into the wild wind, trying to recall and piece together the bass and alto parts from our last session of community chorus as the storm whips the sound from our throats, and laughing at the haphazard results. We sing two or three songs, then stand there leaning against the wind as long as we can bear its needles driving into the back of our skulls through our hats–then run for the shelter of the trees. At first we leap and slide down the steep part of the trail, trying to resurrect old bits of Shakespeare from memory—and I declaim Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” a bit breathlessly as we bound madly along—and then as the trail levels out and the wind is gone and the snow falls quietly through the quiet woods, we just walk, stopping once halfway back to sit again and quench our thirst with glovefuls of snow.
And now Claire has gone into the house and I am in the tree. It is late afternoon, not far from dark, and here the snow is falling steadily and diagonally, the wind stronger than in the woods but nowhere near as violent as it was on the top of the hill. And I reflect that I climb the tree every day partly as a stand in for the walk we have just taken—which is why I offer it here. Climbing the tree is that walk in the woods in miniature.
Everything about this walk—the quiet, the falling snow, the smell of the cold air, the violence of the wind on the hilltop, the singing and the reciting, the exhilaration of slip-sliding madly down, the sacred stillness of just sitting—shows up in the tree in miniature, in glimpses, scattered here and there among the days. It is in this spirit that I climb. It is a way at least to taste these things–at the very least to remember or imagine them—for a few minutes each day in the midst of lives so otherwise busy.
And then I go into the house too.