As I drive, snow stretches from the road across an open space to dense balsams. Beyond the road’s grey crust, strong white spreads over bogs, hillocks, rocks and little frozen creeks to the black-green woods. Nothing moves.
The shadows in the dark balsam boughs look deep enough to lose a family. From tree to tree, branches make a cruel thicket that scratches your face and cuts your arms, and the rocks under the snow trip you.
This isn’t an easy forest where Hansel and Gretel could wander. Evergreens and bushes push back hard. Everyone here knows stories of veteran hikers who got lost a few feet off the trail. People have to know what they’re doing. There are men and women here who know how to live far off the electric grid, who hike miles alone with no GPS and paddle canoes miles into the wilderness.
Even close to town, the road is empty. Northerners have been driving in snow since they were young, and there’s often snow six months of the year. In the city when a snowstorm hits, you wonder if the car next to you will be able to stop. Here you wonder if there’s hidden ice on a curve and how long it would take a tow truck to arrive.
Ahead on the right, big black birds bend and hop by a carcass at the side of the road. It’s a fresh kill, a young deer’s body next to tire tracks that run off the road where the car hit him. As I draw close, a bald eagle tugs the deer’s flesh while the ravens stand in a circle, coming as close as they dare. Further ahead, a snowmobile’s headlight shines as it crosses an open spot.
In deep winter we wake up to darkness in a cold house. I smell coffee while I build a morning fire. The forecasters were off by quite a bit—It’s -20 F and windy. The huge moon feels low enough to bend the trees. At night, pine martens often steal suet from the feeders, but the chickadees, woodpeckers, snowshoe hares and deer won’t come looking for food until it’s light.
All night long we heard the wind. This morning the house is at 52 degrees. The fire’s hot, and by the time I finish meditating, the sky is a light lavender blue.
This morning I have cookies and bread to bake. The butter’s been on the countertop all night, but the house is so chilly that I have to warm the butter to cream it. The bread can rise on the warm stovetop while the cookies bake.
I smell the brown sugar, butter and vanilla. Around me there’s the breath of magic. This moment in this kitchen holds my whole life, hundreds of times in many places but always this silence and joy. I’m making noodles and white sauce as a young girl in the fifties, holding my little girl while she learns to stir a pan on the stove, watching my grandmother separate eggs for angel food cake, making pie crust with my grandson, rolling out the dough for naan while my Indian husband smokes as he watches.
Time pauses. A holy moment. God draws in a breath and never lets go. I touch home, and God breathes out forever.
I found charms in these woods. Enchantment. A raven bigger than a cat watches me from the maple next to the house. It’s so cold that the snow is crunchy. My partner comes in with a big basket of kindling he split. He laughs that the wood’s so cold that it just pops apart when he taps it with the axe. He put hay on the snow this morning. A buck bends to eat and then lifts his head. Behind him are two does and some yearlings, their faces and backs white with frost. The buck watches the house, his elaborate antlers brown against the black-green woods, like the old drawings of stags in medieval England. I think of enchantment, of men and women dancing by a fire in the greenwood, of the wild hunt.
There’s a presence here. When the wind is high, snow beats the windows like a quick drum and the aspens’ high bare boughs bend like wild hips. But usually nothing moves. The silence stands immense and solemn, offering peace and power so huge and ancient that I smile like a child.
Late in the afternoon I stand by the window playing the violin. Three deer lift their heads and look toward me. In the wood stove, a big log flares up, and I start another scale. The room smells of wood fire and fish. My partner is cooking dinner. Darkness falls and the cold closes in. For me, the enchantments in these woods are real, and this night is kind and deep.
–by Jean Gendreau