I went for a walk this morning. It was -6° Fahrenheit. As I’ve stated before, I like the cold. Even so, I couldn’t help but think back longingly to summer as I hurried down State Street, my fingers turning a rather pretty shade of blue. Summer was just a few months ago, but it seems as though it was a different world. We dressed differently, we spent our time differently, we saw entirely different scenes outside our doors. I took the photograph above on August 31. The pretty scene disguises a greater adventure, for to get that shot I had to hike a few miles, climb some tall rocks, and balance awkwardly with one foot on a steep slope, holding my camera overhead at just the right angle to cut past the weeds towards the lovely Asters you see. I realized later that these flowers were everywhere, and that I could have just taken a picture of them in someone’s flowerbed — but summer wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if I’d just stayed home.
The same thought applies to winter. It is easy on these frigid days of January to think back fondly to August, but I can’t honestly say that winter is any less beautiful. Indeed, some places that are rather ugly in summer become quite aesthetic under a freshly fallen layer of snow. I could never spend winter hiding indoors waiting for the warm weather to return, because I would miss too much. Going through winter without admiring the ice and frost would be like passing the summer without appreciating flowers or thunderstorms. The joy of living in a place like Wisconsin is that we get to pass through all these remarkable worlds just by staying put.
I don’t usually have an issue with not being able to see the forest for the trees. This afternoon, though, even trees seemed hard to find—I was far too preoccupied with the branches. As I walked into the valley, little things, little ordinary things, kept stealing my attention. Here are a few big pictures of the little things I encountered.
I. Young Pears Still Growing on the Tree
It’ll be a fruitful harvest, in every sense of the word. And what could be better to accompany my favorite artisan cheeses?
II. Green Acorns at the Foot of an Oak Tree
I wonder if they fell here during one of the storms we had this week?
III. Yellow Mushrooms in the Moss
I think these are Cantharellus minor—meaning they’re edible—but I don’t trust my mushroom-identifying skills well enough to taste.
Zooming in on the small stuff was a refreshing change from the panoramas that surround me at my home atop the ridge, and when I did make my way back up the hill, I realized that upon drawing back from these close-ups, the big view seems even larger. Every grand vista from the top of my hill is made up of a million little scenes like these.
I had my first wildflower sighting of the season today, just before Easter. It’s good old Caltha palustris, better known as the Marsh Marigold.
As their name implies, these plants thrive in wet places. These ones were nestled against rocks and logs at the trickling beginnings of a stream on the family farm. Every year I am amazed to find these flowers blossoming almost as soon as the last snow melts, flowering while the trees are still bare, and shedding their petals for the season before the other plants have gotten two inches from the ground. I think I can understand their impatience. As it is I’m bogged down with books and papers for school, but I wish I could join these marigolds in rising out of the muck and catching some early sunshine. Alas—I’ll just have to wait for May, like all the ordinary flowers.
March is the most hideous month of the year in Wisconsin. When the snow melts, it reveals Winter’s dirty secrets. Everything that Winter had killed, frozen, and buried now reappears; it thaws and rots in the first warmth of spring like a corpse unearthed and set before the sun. The grass on every hillside turns a dull and sickly yellow, the branches reach out as bare as bones, and every footstep is mired in mud. It is all for the sake of a coming resurrection, and soon the fields and forests will live again in splendor. It just takes time. Spring will not be hurried in making its miracles. Meanwhile, even March conceals a trace of beauty for those curious enough to look. As evidence…
I. Snow shrinks before a blue sky near the forest’s edge, where grass will soon be greening:
II. Last year’s apples still hang in their leafless branches, shriveled and rotting. These might not put Snow White to sleep, but they would probably give her a stomachache:
III. Sunlight pierces the woods, undaunted by as-yet leafless tree-limbs, and maple trunks stand like the pillars of an ancient ruin:
IV. Moss grows at the foot of an old stump while melting snow glimmers in the sunlight:
V. Boulders stand by while a stream of meltwater sweeps beneath sheets of thawing ice:
There is something unavoidably alluring to me about the cold. I don’t know what it is. For some reason, though, I’ve just always been more apt to build a snow fort than a sand castle. The heat makes my spirit melt, I have the soul of a wax man, but the cold is different. I find it at once refreshing, piercing, unbearable, intense, and thrilling. I sport with the cold. With almost masochistic pleasure, I subject my toes and fingers to its sting and brave its challenge, giddy to survive its might. Cold is power! It is the power to invigorate or to destroy, the power to transform the world into something alien and uninhabitable, but something still simultaneously beautiful. I cannot help but be transfixed.
I awoke this morning to the sound of the wind beating against my bedroom wall. The weatherman had said yesterday that it could start gusting up to twenty-five miles an hour. My bed was cold, and the blankets wrapped around me felt papery thin. When the fog of sleep finally cleared from my eyes I could see three foot snowdrifts outside my window. It was the kind of morning that would make anybody want to stay in bed. Anybody, that is, except for people like me. Enlightened or deranged, I decided to go hiking.
No matter that the wind was so fierce, the snow so deep, or the temperature so cold — the thermometer in my kitchen window read ten degrees below zero, Fahrenheit — I wanted to celebrate the winter solstice by heading straight out into Wisconsin’s deep December freeze. So, I quickly donned my winter gear and stepped outside into the snow. Now my adventure could begin, and I made to awe myself with winter’s power and beauty for as long as I could stand it.
It’s amazing how much bigger the world seems when the snow and wind impede every step between one place and another. Though I stayed outside for more than an hour, I only managed to trudge over a few of the hills and valleys that make up my family’s farm. Still, I discovered some lovely things. In the wooded glen, sheltered from the wind, a defiantly unfrozen stream still flowed gently between the snowbanks. On the barren ridgetop above, the wind whipped enough snow into the air to stain the blue sky gray, and the sun struggled to illuminate the bleak, frozen world spread out beneath it. Luckily, I found that I could still use a camera while wearing gloves, and the few scenes that I captured with my numb fingers will finish this story far more effectively than my amateur prose.
The first fifteen photos here were taken on the morning of the December 21, the 2008 Winter Solstice — it was a very chilly hike. The last twelve shots were taken a few days later on Christmas Eve. You may copy and reuse these photographs for free under a Creative Commons license (see terms below).
These photos were taken in August 2008 at a variety of locations, including at my family’s farm, at Madeline Island in far northern Wisconsin, at Prairie du Chien, and looking over the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi River from Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa. You may copy and reuse these photographs for free under a Creative Commons license (see terms below).
The blackberry season in my part of the world is mostly over by now, but I thought I would take a moment to extol upon the delights of blackberry picking, and to a lesser extent, blackberry eating. I don’t mean to state that blackberries aren’t positively scrumptious when devoured, for they are, but there is something about actually picking them that satisfies more than just one’s appetite. It is simply bliss to stumble upon a patch of berries somewhere in the woods and stroll lazily through the shade staining your fingers purple with handfuls (and mouthfuls) of the juicy little things. Not everything is perfect about them, of course. Now and then there is occasion to recoil at a berry that’s been taken by the bugs, and the berries are guarded by thorns that I’ve had the misfortune to tear my skin upon more than once. On the whole, however, even these mishaps make up part of a marvelous experience. It is one of the few things that, at least for a little while, can truly make me forget about the rest of the world. Politics and microwaves and automobiles and blogging and the internet fade from my mind, and I am simply there, picking berries, and nothing else need have ever existed.
As I return home, of course, my modern concerns come rushing back to my mind, and among other things I realize what a wonderful blog entry I could make of this berry-picking. I rush back another day with a digital camera to snap a picture, and finally I endeavor to do as I am doing now, sharing this experience with my friends over the internet. It seems almost sacrilegious to transform such a simple and solitary pleasure into a fleeting bit of hi-tech socialization, but at the same time, it seems too glorious an experience to keep it all to myself.
Humanity has come a long way to get to where it is today, but sometimes I wonder, as I suppose we all do, has it come in the right direction? Are we even free to choose what direction progress takes? I don’t mean to lambaste innovation, I love it. At the same time, however, I’ve found that picking blackberries has made me a little envious of the early humans, those who came before supermarkets, before cities, before even farms: the hunters and gatherers who represent the bulk of our species’ past. They took all they needed from nature, picking their livelihood from the land just as I picked my berries from the brambles. During times of abundance, when their desserts were ready and waiting in the woods just like my berries, they undoubtedly found time, likely more than we do, for simple pleasures. There is, however, no room to romanticize their lives. I’m positive I would be unable to live as they did. For every easy summer, they had to contend with a frigid winter of scarcity, one without walls or central heat. Our earliest ancestors didn’t need to worry about gas prices or traffic jams, commercial breaks or senate campaigns, but they did, to far a greater extent than we do today, face a struggle simply to survive. And yet, if we must even today be constantly worrying about something, then why must it now be about what is superficial rather than what is truly important? If we are to live, then why not really live, instead of merely extending our lifespans by hiding within our walls?
These are simply questions, to which I have no immediate answer. It is something to ponder on.