There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.
– Linda K. Hogan (b. 1947), Native American poet, storyteller, writer, environmentalist
Hush! At dawn’s first light after a two-day, mid-February snowstorm, the winter spirits of the North Country demanded that I be still – or at least unobtrusive. And I tried to be, imitating all the other woodland creatures beginning to stir in the soft blue light under this low overcast morning sky.
But on snowshoes, bundled in too many layers of clothes, my hike through the woods on the face of our west-facing bluff was more of a trudge-and-stumble than a stride-and-glide. I doubt I was noisier than a near-sighted, lame buffalo bull, but I was probably not much quieter either. If I were charged with “disturbing the peace” of this serene hour (or perhaps more appositely “ruining the tranquility”) I would have to plead guilty.
The ancient god peering over my shoulder in silent rebuke may have been Februus, that Roman deity for whom February is named and who ruled over the rites of corporeal and spiritual purification. Also riches – money and gold – as I understand it, but he has clearly neglected his role in tending to my more earthly needs and desires.
Februus was first worshipped by the Sabines, a pagan tribe that dwelt in the mountainous Apennine region north of Rome, a people more in tune with harsh wintry weather than their more Mediterranean contemporaries. The day after an Arctic storm is the right time to connect with the pagan side of my being, so I was doing my best to abide by the winter god’s caution to “hush.”
This was my first snowshoe trek this winter without the dogs. Leaving Sasha and Abbey behind in their kennel runs was selfish of me, I know, but the company of a couple frolicking bird dogs does not improve my chances of seeing wildlife in the snow-filled woods. In fact, it almost assures that I will see nothing except the dozen or so species of song birds that I could just as well view as they flock around the bird feeder outside the kitchen window. And I could do that in shirtsleeves with a hot cup of coffee in hand.
Having decided to brave the elements and bear the agonies of forcing my body to slog across the farm’s refreshed winter landscape, I wanted to encounter something more exciting this morning – a fox, coyote, turkey, at least a few deer – and I was not disappointed. Of course I had to “pay my dues” first.
Already leg weary from shoeing over a half-mile of five-foot drifts to reach the west side bluff, I should have heeded Februus’ suggestion to rest, sit quietly, and purify for a spell before going on. Instead I chose to follow a steep, precarious deer trail below the top edge of the bluff, and within a half hour I fell twice and had to back-track once.
Back-tracking was just slow and tedious, not perilous, and the first fall was a routine catch-one-shoe-and-down affair that resulted in nothing more than snow-packed sleeves and gloves. But a moment’s inattention allowed the ice-covered trunk of a fallen tree, hiding under the powdery new snow, to send me on a fast and unbalanced tumble, back bowed and one snowshoe held aloft as I looked about for the best place to crash.
The immediate result was a trickle of blood running down my chin from landing face-first on a slab of limestone. The longer term effect was an aching neck and shoulder that required a couple days of ibuprofen therapy. With ale.
I was not this clumsy when I was a younger man. But on the other hand I was not this appreciative of the glory of a winter day, so I will accept the exchange of one small curse for one great blessing.
Having regained my footing and my composure, I opted for the tortoise’s slow-but-steady pace. The reward was seeing dozens of sets of tracks on the tree trails along the face of the bluff: deer, coyote, fox, coon, one pheasant, squirrel, rabbit, but oddly no turkey. The multiple sets of deer tracks were obviously fresh, as were a half dozen piles of the shiny black deer droppings we call “goat berries” and the yellow, circular urine stains in the snow. I saw movement a hundred yards ahead, the twitch of an ear, and dropped low to stalk (I use that term loosely) to within 50 yards of five deer browsing along the trail.
A drift of wind took my scent in their direction, all turned their heads in unison to face me, and first one and then the rest went bounding down the steep bluff, graceful and reckless as Olympic downhill skiers. A final crack of a breaking tree limb far downhill, and this small part of the winter-bound world was silent and tranquil again, a silence made more stark by the slow, rhythmic hammering of a pileated woodpecker on the trunk of a dead ironwood tree.
A pocket camera was in my vest; I had not given a moment’s thought to fishing it out to take a photo. The picture of those deer is locked in my memory, though, five sets of huge brown eyes, drops of moisture from their breath clinging to the fringe of hairs around their faces and freezing into a mane of silver spikes – the ceremonial masks of deer portraying an ancient tribal lesson about the bond between man and nature in a Sabine morality play. Trembling statues, tense and alert and suddenly gone.
I was breathless but reenergized for the long walk home.
Some days the beauty of this North Country, the Driftless Region of the upper Midwest, is beyond describing, beyond imaging.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.