Breaking Trail

If the function of a writer is to write, which it is, I haven’t been very functional lately.  Feast and famine cycles aren’t new to me, but at least over the course of this latest dry spell I enjoyed the company of my son Graham who had been working with me while on his winter break from college.

We were preparing for a snowshoe event coming up in Eagle River.  Breaking trail, cutting and splitting wood for campfires, hauling straw bales for folks to sit on.  Being together in the January northwoods.  IMG_0995It was a joy to have him up here with me, especially in the evenings.  He’s a good cook, a good companion, and as this time together reinforced, a good man.

It’s been a real January in the north woods.  Working off a long list of tasks with a deadline, we allowed the weather to arrange their completion, or at least the time of day when they might be done.  Sometimes breakfast would take a little longer than needed while the temperature was allowed to rise a bit, and the indoor tasks generally took a morning slot, chains to be sharpened, signs to be built.

And then it was a dad and a son and a dog in the woods and they don’t make weather bad enough to spoil that.

The snowbound woods were silent but for snowshoed feet making our way.  One of us stopped now and again to point at some scene as beautiful as another we’d just passed, or to identify a good spot for a trail marker.  Words weren’t needed but sometimes we’d string a couple together as if we were supposed to.  Together we enjoyed the IMG_1008woodland solitude.  The Germans, ever efficient in their vernacular, call it waldeinsamkeit, and with similar efficiency we placed one foot in front of the other leaving marks in both the snow and our memories.  Arlo scoffed altogether at the concept of efficiency and crossed our trail repeatedly, coming from places we may never lay eyes on.

With another set of tasks checked off we gather our chill and our tools and bring them back to the farmhouse for some warmth and a meal.  Out of the woods the words flow more freely.  A recap of the day between mouthfuls and some thoughts on what tomorrow might hold with the weather checked.  An evaluation of what worked and what didn’t with how we were dressed and what might be changed tomorrow.  Glances down at Arlo who will be licking his paws well into the evening.

On one particular evening conversation went well past when the old man typically retired.  The younger was enthusiastic in his want to discuss all things celestial, the physical universe and the confounding notion that it bears an edge.  Time and space and spacetime, God and physics and questions without answers.  A father and son and waldeinsamkeit.  A dog licking its paws.  A different kind of trail was broken that evening, winding unmarked through mysteries and circling back upon itself.  Each of us stopping at different points suggesting that here might be a good spot for a trail marker.  The bed was soft that night.

Then another January morning and a breakfast that took  a little longer than needed.

Plus or Minus

As I write this in the predawn hours it is -29F in Eagle River, WI and +24 in Eagle River, AK.  So the temperature in Eagle River is -3F, plus or minus roughly 27 degrees.  I am in Wisconsin.

From the window I see the smoke from the wood furnace rising perfectly vertical and new pope white against the black morning sky.  Waiting a few hours to stoke the furnace would mean only a negligible increase in temperature and an opportunity missed.  There is something about the early morning sky, in the darkest hours before the dawn, that draws me in.  It dons a mystical aura when the air is very still and very cold.

So while the coffee brews and with wool socks already on my feet, I slip on tall boots and a few layers of fleece.  Arlo is standing by the door looking up at the handle waiting for a gloved hand to do what he can’t, and is the first to bolt out into the cold morning air. IMG_0366_2 He will dash off into the balsams in an attempt to flush out an unsuspecting rabbit, will take care of his morning business and then eventually join me by the woodpile.  He lives for mornings like this, and for any other kind of morning for that matter.

But on cold still mornings like this while he wanders the area with his nose, I like to stand still for a bit and just listen to the absolute nothing that surrounds us.  Every now and then these very cold morning vigils are rewarded by a loud crack from the ice on the creek below me or from a living tree freezing.  Short of that, the clear black morning sky, the same cloudless sky that allowed the temperature to plummet, offers a tapestry of morning planets and constellations that only the earliest of risers witness.

There was a January morning a few years back, similar to this morning in time and temperature, when I noticed Arlo sitting near me in the snow gazing at the stars.  I had never before witnessed a dog doing this and it confirmed for me that we were born of the same exploding star.

But as with that morning, my reverie is broken by the growing pain of sharp cold on my exposed face.  I open the wood furnace door, rake the night coals forward, and charge it with a tier of fresh logs sufficient to get through the day.  Near dusk I will do the same, a bit more generously and with wood more carefully chosen, to ensure a good coal bed in the morning.  Then back inside to a warm meal, an evening read and a resting dog.  And on the eastern horizon constellations will be rising to begin their night path across the sky, knowing that I will greet them in the morning.

Still Standing

Late yesterday afternoon we had occasion to travel for a few hours through the lower mid section of Wisconsin.  In between the small villages and towns stretched rural spans of dairyland.  A strong and strangely southern January wind blew a low foil of snow from fields on the left, across the highway, to fields on the right and the late day sun snuck an angled glare between the field’s crusted surface and the blowing sheet.   The state highway we travelled followed a curved route carved with deference to glacial remnants and the clout of some long ago landowners.   As is often the case along these long rural routes, prosperous and well kept farms were interspersed with those that were less so, and every now and then, like periods in a Faulkner novel, abandoned homesteads appeared.

These places have stories.  farm

My eyes are drawn to these unsigned historical markers as I drive by, but I always settle for a passing glance and the thought “that place has a story.”  What if I were to stop and actually take the steps and time needed to learn that story?

If I did I might learn that the quarter section it sits on was originally claimed and cleared and plowed by somebody named Fredrik or Karl or maybe Ernst.  I might learn that with the exception of the bottomland on the northeast forty, the land was fertile and the harvests  were generally good, God willing.  And that the stone foundation over there was to a smokehouse built under US Grant and used through most of FDR.  I would learn the names of the children and draught horses and the make of the first tractor on the farm.  Which daughter went to the State Normal School and came back to teach.  I would learn that the drought years were bad but the war years were worse, that Johnny didn’t always come marching home.

It might be learned that the GI Bill and opportunities elsewhere pulled the boys away from the farm and that grandpa moved into town to live with Bill and Marie two years after grandma died.  That he sold the farm but couldn’t attend the equipment auction.  That he wasn’t cut out for town life, much less being a burden to his son’s family, and that the reaper took him the first harvest season after he left the farm.

Then again the real story might be different on all counts.  How would I know?  We had places to be and the way that snow was blowing there’s slim chance I would have found the smokehouse.  Even if it had been there in the first place.  What I can say with certainty is that history casts shadows and the house still stands.  And there’s a story in there.

Photo: First Snow, by Swainboat, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0