The silence of a frozen swamp at dusk deep in snow is close to the moment of pure being, when one breath is exhaled before another is drawn in. This is the time when the land is in deep meditation on itself.
The shards of dead trees stand stark as abstract sculptures against the white. Though this is the dreaming time of plants, many animals are active.
As I move with complete freedom where I would have sunk in deep muck in clouds of mosquitoes a few months ago, I realize there is plenty of sex and violence in the seeming peace of the winter woods. Tracks in the snow tell tales of desperate dramas. The sedate catlike tread of a fox, each delicate footfall placed directly behind the next, runs wide and then close together as the animal speeds and slows. The climax of this story written in the snow is a mass of blood and feathers.
Safe in lodges sealed into their pond by the ice, beavers nuzzle together as their January mating season approaches. They rest on a sleeping platform built into the interior walls of their stick and mud home. A passage leads from inside into the water where the beavers store sticks covered with bark to chew for food, but the air hole in the roof is the only point of contact with the outside world. I imagine this must be like spending the night in a motel with teenage children because the offspring from last years’ mating won’t be leaving until the spring.
If you see a beaver lodge on a frozen bog, peer over the top. A small hole ringed with ice crystals means that beavers are inside warming the air with their breath. There may be plenty of coyote tracks and claw marks from bobcat or lynx around the outside, but the lodge is usually solid enough to protect the beavers all winter.
The mating season of many northern predators seems spread throughout the winter. Foxes begin to rub on trees, bushes and clumps of grass in early winter, but don’t mate until January or February. On a clear February with a full moon, step outside and listen for owls calling to their mates. Coyotes conceive in late winter so their young will be born when food is more plentiful.
When you explore frozen marshy areas watch the ice with care and common sense. Watch for areas of open water and stay as close to shore as you can. Even when it is very cold, cracks can open in ponds and lakes.
Exploring the Dark
For decades I have struggled with depressions that plagued me during late winter. Was it the darkness, the cold, the endless illnesses or even the fuel bills? Finally I realized that if I lived in a culture where a period of retreat and meditation were considered the norm, my inward time would be considered a normal phase.
A little research soon showed me that human ingenuity had been inventing rituals to heal the anguish of the dark time for centuries. Until recent times, all throughout Lent — the forty days from late February and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) until Easter — straw effigies symbolizing death were burned or thrown in rivers all across Europe. In India, a fast vigil honoring Shiva as god of destruction and renewal takes place in late February. Native people of the American arctic dramatize the conflict between winter and summer with a tug of war between tribal members born in winter and summer. Late winter was seen as a time of rebirth of the new year with painful birth pangs.
My own ritual of rebirth for this time of year was created one winter when we took down the Christmas tree, and the house felt empty. We cut a slim birch sapling at the level of the snow and placed it in the living room in a bucket of water. With the base supported by rocks and draped with a dark cloth, it looked like a tree in the house even if it was a bare one. The plan was to add colored eggs when Easter came.
But in March tiny green leaves began to unfold upon the branches. The spring equinox now brought enough light, but the New Hampshire cold kept a thick layer of snow on the ground. It was still winter outside, but my son and his friends enjoyed a birthday picnic under a fresh green tree.
Tara Marvel is a writer, poet and illustrator whose works have been published in periodicals nationally for thirty years. She has been collaborating with Penobscot elder Fred Ranco on his memoirs for over ten years. Muskrat Stew (named after his favorite dish) will be published by University of Maine Folklife Center in 2008. Contact Tara at firstname.lastname@example.org.