Up, up high on the winter barrenlands, and the low grey overcast is lit in a thin strip almost lemon-yellow along the horizon.
In the town down behind and below you, a column of thin grey smoke rises almost straight up — the smoke you’d see if someone was burning spruce boughs in their yard — and then, as if it was passing through a layer of light wind, the column smears left, hitch-hiking south. The ocean behind, a flat grey-blue like painted cement.
On the barrens, the heavy old snow has flattened all the brush. Even the alders have their branch-points pinned to the ground and held by ice. Here and there, the wild roses have found a way through, only to have their scarlet hips pulled apart by the small birds, the leathery outside strewn on the snow like orange peels left on the field at half-time in a children’s soccer game.
There are pine siskins and juncos and chickadees back in the trees. You can hear their hide-and-seek cheeps and chirps, but they are devilishly hard to spot. Not so the one grouse, lumbering large and dark through the underbrush, stopping because he is convinced that, if he remains motionless, you will never spot him. Raise an arm, as if pointing a gun, and still he does not move. Kinglets wing into the air in formation, peeping and jinking.
The rabbits are confused — no, the rabbits are confusing. There’s enough light snow on top of the hardpack for their tracks to be clear. Big rabbits, small ones, circling ones — some with tracks close enough together to be hardly moving, others set further and further apart as lope becomes headlong run. Their trails run riot, so scattered that there would be no clear runs for setting a successful snare line. They meander from forage to forage; it’s easy to stop and see the toothmarks on the soft bud-ends of branches, the small confetti of detached bark dusted on the snow.
Further up, a lone buck rabbit sits in the lee of a spruce tree, one black marble eye fixed on you unblinking and, like the grouse, he is equally convinced of the magic of his disguise.
A snowmobile has been here, high on the hill where the trees back off to brush, and you can see the indentations of its track where it stopped and stood before heading back down, and the clovered prints of the paws of the dog that ran beside it, the boots of the man — larger than mine, distinct, new soles — who got off it and put on snowshoes, and the line of those snowshoes heading down the path towards a boggy pond that almost no one ever reaches.
It’s clear from the tracks that the man and his dog wound their way into the woods, the dog taking every opportunity to scent and move sideways into the brush, and there’s a lone 12-gauge shotgun shell, purple plastic tube and bright brass base, standing straight up and melted into the snow where, spent, it was ejected from the gun.
There is no sign that the hunter hit anything. But then again, there is no sign of spring or summer, no sign of a wind today. Sometimes, it’s just wonderful to be in a spot the way it is right now, with nothing else to intrude. The glower of the sky, the temperature high enough for the air to smell of melt, the crunch of the ice underfoot, the sound of the winter woods.
Were you expecting something on Trump, and the general decay of goodwill in North American humanity? Of hatred and the need to find a better way for all of us to talk? Sorry — not today. Sometimes, you have to stop and take a breath.