Here, in the North Cascades of Washington, we were the deep winter of January with thick, long icicles hanging from the cabin roof to the ground. Next to the back door one of the pieces covered the porch light giving a bright glow to the icicle. From the cabin snow covered the floor of the woods making it almost impossible to get to the river. The trees were decorated with clumps of white. The front yard and hay field sparkled with diamond chips when the curtain of clouds parted for the sun.
The quiet around the cabin and in the woods is deceptive. The sounds are different from in the city where quiet can be the absence of traffic noise, the sirens of emergency vehicles or the thumping of a life flight helicopter. Of course one can’t hear those sounds in the woods, so at first it seems silent.
It takes time for the ear to acclimate to the difference between the constant mechanical racket of the urban scene and the more comforting voices of nature in winter.
The first thing I hear is my own breathing as I stumble through the deep snow, a sound usually masked by street noise at home. I am amazed at how loud the bellows of my lungs can be as I explore the woods.
Next I notice the crunching of my steps as my boots break through the ice layer on top of the snow. Then I hear the scrunching sound of the snow as it is compressed by my weight. That noise brings back a childhood memory of being so cold as I did my chores in the winter on the farm. My feet were numb and the scrunch of the snow made me more miserable with each step.
Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Puff, puff, puff.
In the woods behind the cabin I am not cold with my insulated boots, long underwear and a thick parka. In fact I am overdressed and start to sweat under the many layers of clothing as I trudge through the deep snow on my way on a deer trail that might eventually lead me to the Methow River.
After stopping to rest and let my breathing return to normal, my hearing starts to tune into the world around me. My ear changes stations, retunes to a different sort of music as I decide if it is possible follow the increasingly narrow path left by the white tails.
A raven laughs at me as it flies from tree to tree, maybe not music, but the rough croak of the black clown makes me smile.
A flutter of tiny wings draws my attention as the raven gets bored and looks for something more entertaining than an old man floundering around in the snow. Out of the corner of my eye I detect a tiny body flitting from branch to bush. The song of the little bird is not a snide laughter but more of a giggle. The call of the black capped chickadee. Chicka-dee-dee-dee.
A nervous chatter attracts my attention and I see a black squirrel dash across the snow and up the side of a Douglas fir. From its safe station far above me, the furry critter scolds at me, telling me to move along, mind my own business,
I take the advice and continue to puff and grunt as I again advance a little farther. After a few yards I stop again. It isn’t easy going.
The raven returns to mock my progress.
Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Puff, puff, puff. Another twenty meters and my body asks to stop for another few minutes.
The river is close enough now that even with my shoe leather ear drums I can hear the song of the moving water. A stream is a chorus of drips, splashes, babbles, shushes, bubbles, roars and even a few yelps. It is an opera, dramatic with a grand story of transformation that never ends. The aria is without words, but the story reaches deep inside to those who listen carefully. It is a tale that started with the first drop of rain and will continue long past human ears.
My breathing is back to normal, time to move on.
Scrunch, scrunch scrunch. Puff, puff, puff. The firs become thicker, the shade has sheltered the snow, and the slight trail becomes even more difficult to discern. I only make a bit of progress, maybe ten meters, when my labored breath masks the sound of the river. With some reluctance I stop and reconsider. The sun will soon set, but perhaps I can reach the river if I put in a bit more effort.
I don’t move. I am still a bit out of breath and I won’t get far unless I am more rested. Maybe I am just lazy. Still, as I start to breathe a bit slower and easier, another sense presents itself other than sight and sound. A damp fragrance comes to my notice as air moves through my nasal passages. It is an ancient smell, one that my coarse haired, cave dwelling antecedents would have found immeasurably important—the smell of water.
Of course, water, by itself has no odor. However, I am convinced that the nose is able to distinguish between dry and damp air. It is this forgotten ability to detect humidity that allowed my progenitors to find water during their wandering through arid plains, mountains and valleys. This hypothesis, of course, is my own and remains untested.
Humidity in the dry air of winter isn’t the only hint of water that tickles my nose. There are subtle bouquets that enhance the sense of the nearby stream. There is an organic touch to the slight humid ventilation through my nostrils, one of decaying leaves and another of fish. I also smell mud. These are not unpleasant odors, but add a vibrancy to the air, one that gives life to the water and the rocky bed of the stream.
In the dead of winter the smell and sound of the river harmonize to sing of life and the promise of spring.
I am encouraged to continue.
Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Puff, puff, puff. The snow gets deeper and the path that the deer have packed down becomes more narrow and veers off under some low fir branches hanging heavy with snow. Dipping down low to cross beneath, the wind gets playful and dumps a load of snow on my back. Unfortunately the parka that would protects my neck and head has slipped down, and cold icy water trickles down my neck. The track beyond is barely visible. The desire to reach the river’s edge is being replaced by a wish to avoid the deep drifts that now form a formidable barrier.
The raven fires away in disgust and the chickadee is long gone as the sun starts to disappear behind Lucky Jim. With some reluctance, I turn around and abandon my effort. As darkness rapidly approaches, the temperature drops, and the sweat around my neck starts to feel like an ice necklace.
The thought of a warm stove and a book hijacks my desire to reach the river, and begin my trudging journey back toward the cabin. Perhaps I will try again another day.