“Summer conceals, winter reveals.”– Annie Dillard
A few short months ago, the forest trails were but a thread through the lush green tunnel. Without a trail, in fact, travel through the woods in summer would prove nearly impossible. After a rain, the crowding branches leave you drenched. At times the undergrowth is so thick, your view of the ground is cut off, leaving your feet to navigate the rocks and rocks on their own. In the early morning light, your mind imagines how many creatures – porcupines, deer, wolves, or especially bears – might be minding their own business, invisible mere inches from the trail.
But now, in the heart of winter, the forest has transformed.
Where once you felt lost in the woods, the main road now lies in plain view, only a few bare tree trunks separating the trail from the sparse but rushing cars. Once well-concealed nests stand out awkwardly, exposed in the branches. The rolling hills, all the “secret ceases of the earth,” as Wendell Berry called them, once hidden under the dense forest, are revealed.
Annie Dillard poetically describes winter in her Virginia backyard in Pilgrim at Tinder Creek:
“The woods are acres of sticks; I could walk to the Gulf of Mexico in a straight line. When the leaves fall the striptease is over; things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open.”
Another striking contrast: silence. Wind blows hollowly through the bare trees. The sound of a chickadee or woodpecker join with the deer tracks to remind us of animal life quietly enduring this silent season.
In winter, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that any other season ever existed. While listening to the wind in the trees, you might think, as in Narnia, winter is how it will always be (but never Christmas).
Dillard reflects on a first human’s experience of this phenomenon:
“How long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?”
Maybe knowing winter as temporary is what makes it special. We can endure the cold, the short days and long nights, precisely because we know it won’t last.
Before long, the sun will exert its force, the snow will melt, and the forest will fill up with life to the brim.
But until then, we listen to snow falling gently through the trees, our warm breath rising to meet the crisp winter air.