Welcome to Planet Winter

December was dry, but the snowpack in the Cascades has caught up in the past week. Yesterday I skied on cold fine beautiful snow to the work site, then switched to snowshoes to wallow around with the polesaw. We cut limbs above the trail. It was snowing hard when we returned to the truck. This morning we went back to the same work site. The temperature was close to freezing, and the snow had warmed beyond powder. It wanted to clump up and stick. Would have been a perfect day to build a snow sasquatch.

Some form of precipitation fell most of the day. Sometimes it was a fine misty snow, almost rain. Then it would turn to feathery flakes. Most of what fell on us was snow from the trees. Conifers bear their seeds in cones, but they are also cone-shaped. The flexible branches collect snow and bend downward without breaking. As the air temperature warms, the crystal structure of the snow changes. The branches release their loads in showers of powder or in clumps that hit the snow below with a thundering sound. The tree bombs actually leave craters. We wear hard hats for the limbing work. The hats also deflect snow and ice that comes out of the trees. We scoot backwards on snowshoes to get out of the way when we hear it coming down. Still, we get caught and all we can do is bow our heads as the ice goes down the necks of our parkas.

Lunch is short. Traveling and working has left us damp with sweat, and the snow slowly soaks through our outerwear. Ice falls from the trees into my thermos of chili. Eat it quick, then get up and move to stay warm.

Warming snow also means increased avalanche danger. A specialized crew uses explosives to trigger avalanches while traffic is stopped on Interstate 90. Then the snowplows go in to clear up, and traffic moves again. We heard three big booms today while working on the trail. Later we headed west, and saw where the slides had crossed the road. Near the summit of Snoqualmie Pass, we entered a dim cloud of moisture as weather moved eastward over the mountains. This view from the windshield is a familiar sight to patrolling snow rangers. We travel this stretch of freeway often.

One of the strangest juxtapositions of my work life is the high speed modern world of the freeway contrasted with the intricacies of the forest. We use the travelway to get to the woods. In this part of the world, a network of roads and powerlines is laid over miles of trees and rivers. It’s nowhere near pristine, having been clearcut and dammed and subdivided for development. This ecosystem has been engineered and managed, but by no means subdued. The climate makes trees grow like crazy, and frequent floods, windstorms, and avalanches have a way of throwing their monkey wrenches into the works of humans. Common and rare animals still live here.

In this man-handled world, I still find wonderment galore. It means I block out the sound of trucks on the freeway and the mooing of snowmobiles hillclimbing under powerlines. It means I pretend the sound of snow hissing on high voltage wires is really a waterfall. I embrace the feel of skis extending my feet, floating me over the snow as if I have been unhitched from gravity. I pause, watching the snow fall in between dark hemlocks knowing I have nothing better to do at this very moment than to pay attention. I kneel to examine lichens on a branch I have just cut out of a Doug-fir.

Color and shape and texture. These particular organisms live in the tree canopy, and we do not see them unless the wind blows them to the ground or we bring down the structure they live on. I’m looking in a field guide this evening, and I see I have more learning to do about lichens. They are fungi specialized to get food from the algae that live on them. The book wonders if this is true symbiosis or some other relationship. A fascinating adaptation of lichens is that they can dry up and go dormant for long periods, then revive in the presence of moisture. They thrive here in the winter, becoming plump and pliable. Snow doesn’t stop them.

If I were my own mistress, I would plop right down in the snow and pull out my Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and stubby pencil. My nose would go as close to the lichens as it could, and I’d look over the tops of my glasses to bring the contours in focus. Letting my eye and pencil follow the shapes and interweavings would help me to see the lichens in greater detail. My fingers would feel the cool rubbery surfaces, and I would begin to understand how they live. It would only be a beginning.

Being a public servant means I stand up and return to my duties. I can gaze at lichens another time. During my work days I hop back and forth between these two facets of Planet Winter–the large and the small, the more “natural”, the less “natural”.

Tonight on the drying rack by the stove are two hats, four pairs of gloves, gaiters, a parka, a fleece jacket, and a pack cover.

The Haiku Challenge

This got started when Arlene in Maine found my blog and started reading. She commented on many posts with friendly warmth and her own engaging way of turning a phrase. So I started writing back, and we have been corresponding ever since. It was she who dropped the first haiku into an email, and sent me back to investigate this poetic form that I have always loved.

According to poet Robert Hass, who wrote The Essential Haiku, the form flourished in Japan from the mid-seventeenth century into the nineteenth century. It evolved from more complex poetry into plain simple speech. Traditionally, all haikai contain a kigo, a reference to a season of the year, whether stated outright or captured in an image. The poems are composed of three lines—the first having five syllables, the second seven syllables, and the third five syllables. The insistence on the exact number of syllables depends. You can read translations of Japanese poetry into English that don’t adhere to this pattern, and some contemporary haikai are free-form. What attracts me is the juxtaposition of images and the particular flavor of an individual’s language. Much can be packed into seventeen syllables.

My haiku challenge is to write one haiku each day until the end of January. Maybe I will carry on longer than that. Another part of my challenge is that I will watch for one moment of wonderment each day, and that will spark the poem. Wonderment can be defined as the emotion of wonder, surprise; a marvel. After just a few days, I eagerly anticipate the wonderment—when will it come, and what will it be? Will it burst upon the scene, or will it sneak up on me? If it’s not obvious, can I look back into my day and pull out one gleaming image? This practice is waking me up. Not only am I noticing more in my every day life, but I am honing my language and seeking to choose the right words. I’m considering punctuation and phrasing and arrangement. There’s a refreshing clarity to haiku.

Here is one of Yosa Buson’s:

Blow of an ax,
pine scent,
the winter woods.

Here is one of Arlene’s:

glass storm door
separating blue-white falling snow
from blazing fireplace

And one of mine:

Raven in hemlock—
fine cold snow falling straight down,
a hoarse song floats up.

Learn more about haiku at the Haiku Society of America.

Join the January haiku challenge right here. Look for the Haiku tab at the top of this page, and post your own…just type into the comment box.

Overlays

Most New Year’s Eves find me in bed, hibernating. I was raised by sensible country folk who had to get up and milk cows in the morning no matter what year it was. Bedtime is bedtime, especially for kids. So I never got it about the parties. Still don’t, and if I may indulge in a curmudgeonly diatribe…

Clocks and calendars do not adequately describe the notion of time for me. I understand that they evolved as tools to assist in the planting of crops in Babylonian times, and guide the timing of other events. There is a subset of humans who delight in measuring things, and in constructing a conceptual framework that explains why things are the way they are. This is why we have mathematics. If these people are in charge, their way of looking at the world becomes accepted as “reality”. So clocks and calendars measure time in a linear fashion. The passage of days and nights, seasons and years is stuffed into square boxes and sliced into segments of a circle. All very geometric. But is it how we truly experience time?

I can only speak for myself. This tidy abstraction lays over my peregrinations and comes into conflict with my animal body and brain which rarely move in a straight line. The experience I have of the turning seasons feels much more powerful and “real” than what the calendar tells me. In our culture, we use a calendar developed by a bunch of old Romans (who purloined it from those they conquered). It was later modified by a long-dead pope, and we are still sticking to it. Hebrews and Chinese use an older, lunar calendar which is a bit more flexible. Calendars help us be on the “same page” as groups, communities and societies.

If left to my own devices, I would observe the passage of another year at the winter solstice. Or in spring when green life returns to this hemisphere. That would feel more congruent to me. So I was going to let New Year’s Eve pass unnoticed except for being awakened at midnight by ruckus.

The offer to ride shotgun in a snow cat over Table Mountain came up, and I thought “Why not?” I’d never done it before.

This area is a destination for winter recreation. Our winters are filled with more snow than rain, and thanks to Interstate 90 it’s easy for a large urban population to get here. Take your pick–the place where I work offers 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, 40 miles of groomed crosscountry ski trails, and more miles of marked trails for skiing and snowshoeing. The most intrepid make their way into the backcountry by finding their own routes using any mode of over-the-snow travel.

Those 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails require frequent grooming to keep the routes visible and smooth. Ungroomed trails are rough and bumpy with moguls. New snowfall can make them disappear. Wind can pile drifts that swallow a snowmachine.

Tim was grooming over the top of Table Mountain. It was the first run this season, and I was along to help in case there were trees across the trail. We would have to shovel snow away from them in order to reach with the chainsaw. It’s heavy work logging out in the snow. And in the dark. Trails are groomed at night so that the cooler temperatures help the snow to firm up. We left the shed right at dark and were on the trail. Tim explained what he was doing–using the blade on the front of the cat to cut the width of the route and shear off bumps. A tiller is attached to the back of the cat which churns the snow like a 14 foot wide rototiller. On top of that, rubber skirting is dragged, smoothing it all to a perfect corduroy texture. All of these things require constant adjustment, and he was focused on the snow curling in front of the blade, his hands on the controls.

I was free to bask in the heat of the cab and look out the big windows. The diesel engine was steady, and I could hear the tracks clacking under my seat. The snow cat has some seriously bright lights that illuminated the trail and the forest around us. It had snowed the night before. I leaned my head against the window to look up and out into the dark and became…

a little kid. The present moment overlaid with memory. Memories of riding in the back seat of the car, looking out at the landscape passing by. This has always made me very happy because I am a visual creature. I can stop thinking in words and just sense. Doing this slows time waaaay down.

Gazing up into the snow subalpine firs was magical. The symmetry of them left me nearly breathless, and I finally understood how perfectly they are designed for snow at high elevation. Tall and narrow, their stiff branches circle the bole in whorls. Except now those branches flex gracefully downward under a load of white powder. The are skinny umbrellas. They are elegant spires. They are straight out of Dr. Seuss. They are lacy confections rising into the deep blue night.

As usual, I am wondering how to translate what I see into drawing or painting. But then conclude that would be entirely inadequate because I don’t know how to convey the sense of space on a flat surface. The air around the trees is deep, and the light shows how round they are, jutting into the darkness. They exist in three dimensions, and I give up thinking about flat art. Photography is no good either. My photos look like X-rays, and the subtlety of the color has been lost in the flash. This night is not black. It’s the deepest blue. Palpably dark and opaque, nearly purple. I sense the mountains breathing around me. When the cat goes by, the snow sparkles–just small glints of red and green and blue and pink and silver and gold. Like the northern lights. Like the stars. All the heavens captured in snow.

There were no logs to cut. None at all. I had the saw ready, but it rode on the back of the cat getting covered with rime. We stopped from time to time to stretch our legs and pee. Good to move, and feel the cold. Then get back in and keep going.

The final overlay that occurred to me is winter. I am intimately familiar with the road we traveled. I have known it for 20 years, from the first spring snow melt and emergence of wildflowers to summer drought and golden autumns. I have worked on all the trails many times, explored the forests and meadows on my own time, and camped here and there. Rain, shine, thunderstorm, wildfire. Solo and with colleagues, friends, family. So I know the lodgepole plantation on the corner. The place near the basalt rim where the trees are shaped by the wind. The meadows and crossroads. I know them in summer and now I know them in winter at night.

I confess I dozed off on the way back. It was getting monotonous; deadly for the passenger, says Tim. I would pop awake and see him attentive to the roll of snow tumbling in front of the blade and the feel of the tiller in the trail behind us. Then I would stare at the roll, hypnotized by the coming together and letting go of snow. It’s incredible stuff.

We got back to the shed and had to scrape the ice off the cat before parking it. I was longing for my warm bed, and stomping around in knee-deep powder woke me up. Finally our work was done and we headed home on the deserted highway. Bottle rockets flew and popped over Swauk Creek. Reaching the lowlands and the valley where our town lies, we saw flashes reflecting off the bottoms of the clouds. More fireworks. It was not yet midnight, but revelry was proceeding. I staggered into my house to bed, wondering at my rough tough Henry cat who has taken against fireworks. He’ll chase a dog five times his size out of the garden, but loud noises are not his cup of tea. We curled up and went to sleep, rousing a little for the big booms. Then it was quiet.

I woke in the light to find a thin blanket of new snow. The morning has passed without me paying much attention to the clock. I realize–damn!–I’ve got to get a new calendar.

For what it’s worth, Happy New Year, 2012. May it be a better one for this little blue planet and all the beings upon it.

Crisp

A part of me is feeling wistful for summer. Missing the longer days and the burgeoning green life. Wishing for long days on the trail, in motion for miles and miles. Ears full of thrush and warbler song, eyes full of flowers. And don’t forget bugs…

Well, the truth is that it’s almost December. These mountains look pretty good with snow on them. And the brightness of the light is a gift after rain. Work is humdrum, mundane, close to the road. So it’s my quest to keep the sense of wonder alive, to look more closely for the wild. To find the moment that shines in my mind long after I’ve come home in the dark.

Oh, The Glamour!

Thing to remember about working outside in the winter:

1. Everything takes longer. Snow and cold cause all processes to slow down. Allow extra time.

2. Dress in layers so you can regulate your temperature. Wool and synthetic wicking fibers are best.

3. Good windshield wipers and a full tank of washer fluid are worth their weight in gold. Snow tires as well.

4. Always pee when you have a good opportunity, or you may find yourself in hip-deep snow with an uncomfortably full bladder and no place to hide.

5. Do whatever it takes to keep snow from going in your boot tops or down your neck.

6. Be prepared for anything. Don’t forget your bandana (for the constantly dripping nose).

7. Have an assortment of hats to match your ranger uniform, and carefully consider which one to wear before you head out the door. Or take more than one–they don’t take up much space in the pack.

8. Abandoning the mission is always an option, especially when driving conditions are horrible and the avalanche danger is “considerable” or above.

9. No ranger left behind! Every crew member must be accounted for at the end of the day, or you go looking for them. They would come after you if you needed them to.

10. Restrain your astonished smirk when people tell you that you must have the best job in the world. Think up a snappy but gracious reply.

Winter

The magic happened today.

Previous snowfalls this season have been wet or unpleasant or insignificant. This morning I looked out the window at the pine trees as white flakes swirled down. It seemed magical, perhaps because I was in my warm house with a cat on my lap and didn’t have to go anywhere. The house and garden are buttoned up, and I’ve almost finished assembling my storm kit: camp stove and fuel, water, batteries, cash, gas in the tank. The oil lamps are always ready to be lit. The sweaters and hats have been in use for some time now. The winter boots are near at hand, and it’s almost time to get out the big green parka for snowmobiling.

I had a fine day baking two kinds of rolls for the Thanksgiving feast. There are flannel sheets on the bed. Birds are coming to the feeder. A stack of library books awaits. A candle is lit. Four weeks until the winter solstice.

Not Spring

It was not spring today at 6000 feet in elevation. The temperature was in the 20s, and fine powdery snow sifted down. At first I thought it was just blowing out of the trees, but it was new and fresh. It landed on my dark green parka, and I could see the spiky little points of crystals.

You know you’re alive when you’re cold. Toes ache inside boots, fingers are exquisitely stiff and sore inside two pairs of gloves, face is so cold it feels clumsy to talk. Life gets a lot better when you get back to the truck, load the snowmobiles on the trailer, pull off the helmet and head for home. Get out of the wind, crank the heat, pour a cup of tea from the thermos. You know you’re alive when you start to warm up.