To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.
Feb. 19, 2020
If the heart of winter can be measured by ice, we are there. After a season of rain, snow, melting, freezing and slushing, a few days ago, arctic air blew in and the earth seized.
The 10 feet from the front door to the car required crampons and two poles. To travel around the back of the car to the driver’s side meant opening the passenger doors to grope along the car frame, grabbing the back bumper with both hands and sliding crabwise, then grabbing the driver’s side rear door handle, then the driver door handle, and then hauling oneself rump first onto the seat through the opening door.
Why not stay indoors, you ask? Because the family is coming for the holiday weekend. We bought treats to fill the basket in the back cabin. The beds need to be checked and the thermostat adjusted. So off we go, up the road to the cabin driveway. The road is fine. The driveway is sheer ice. Even with four-wheel drive, we feel the car slip under us and then skid down the slope toward the cabin, stopping short of a steep embankment.
Carefully, we step out of the car. I immediately fall. We are stuck and stranded. We crawl and skid slowly to the snow bank at the edge of the drive and then follow the snow edge around the back of the cabin to link with the path, still thick with snow, that takes us back to the house. Safely inside, we call for help. Our loyal friend Dave comes with a pickup full of sand, and though hardly younger than we are, shovels sand down 200 feet of drive.
This is winter in the Berkshires. But there’s another side to ice.
After the family arrives and settles in, my daughter, son-in-law and I take a favorite walk to a beaver pond in the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. We look for branches sticking out of the frozen ice near the lodge, a sign that there are beavers within. During the shortening days of fall, beavers plant long branches in the mud under the shallow water surrounding their lodges. In winter, when their ponds are frozen, they swim under the ice from their lodge’s basement exit and eat the woody willow bark. We don’t see those telltale signs around this lodge, so maybe those beavers and their offspring have found new homes in the ponds that scallop downward through the sanctuary and beyond.
Continuing our walk, we come to a bridge spanning a watery paddy between one beaver pond and the next. On each railing a thick ribbon of ice runs from end to end. Below the bridge the water is frozen into mirrors of shiny slickness. My daughter pries a chunk of ice from the railing and tosses it over the edge. It bounces off the ice and then shatters, sending ice shards skittering and sliding over the surface like space dust — no resistance, pure velocity. She pulls off another piece and then another, correcting the angle of her throw, minimizing the breakage, maximizing the speed and distance.
With a whoop, I join her. We’re a mother-daughter team, striving for ever-longer slides with ever-bigger unbroken pieces of ice. Even my dignified son-in-law joins in. We’re a bunch of 10-year-olds, throwing, smashing, cheering, laughing until the railings are nearly bare and the frozen pool is littered with skitter tracks and clusters of shattered ice.
I’m reminded of a favorite short story, “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros.* In the story, Rachel is in school on her 11th birthday. But she doesn’t feel 11, and thinks:
“…the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.”
During this day of her 11th birthday, Rachel’s teacher finds a worn old red sweater in the classroom and asks, “Whose is this?” A classmate says it’s Rachel’s. Even though Rachel protests that it’s not, the teacher insists that it must be hers and makes her put it on. It smells like cottage cheese. Rachel feels the years spin backward: 10 and nine and eight, and all the years back to babyhood as she breaks down and cries. Finally another child claims the sweater.
Rachel’s story is a sad one, but last Sunday morning, I could feel the years inside me in a happy way, unwinding back over more than two-thirds of a century as I gleefully pried ice pieces from the frozen railing, angled my arm just so, and sent them flying over the glossy ice, no resistance, just velocity, until they disappeared over the far edge into the still flowing watery margins.
*Cisneros, Sandra, “Eleven,” in “Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories,” Vintage Contemporaries, 1992