Winter notes

January 5. Medium altitude clouds cruise by under a crystalline January evening sky whose glacial blue holds but doesn’t quite hide a honey glow. The clouds move as clouds do in time-lapse, tethered by an elastic mooring to the eyes; set on traveling east but pulled round to the south as they pass. Once free they proceed east. I’m traveling upwind on skis along the northern edge of a big field, my track following a survey-straight line of old sugar maples woven with old barbed wire. In there you’ll no longer find a fence, but the story of a fence. My ski tracks trace a line about as straight as one drawn freehand on planed wood. It hasn’t snowed since yesterday, so I am able to follow the tracks I laid down then – themselves a tracing of a ski run on the afternoon of New Year’s Day. All the runs I have taken this season sit below, forming two smooth tracks for my old second-hand skis to glide over. These tracks are at once a record and a template, telling and foretelling my movements; a ritual.

The snow is good today; the thermometer has sat at thirty degrees since its nod into the single digits last night. Packed snow sighs like burnished drawer-runners under the skis. Progress is steady on the flats and fast on the downslopes.

On my return east along the maples, I pause atop the highest rise and look out over the field. Dusk has spread from the forest over the snow to render the rolling topography smooth and miniaturized, like a frozen image of small standing waves in a basin – as if the sags and swells rose from a formerly flat surface and were cast in resin.

January 7. The thermometer climbed into the high thirties today and the snow began to melt away as it does in April, exposing the dark, moist ground. When the thaw comes in spring, it is the late autumn ground we see; the exhumation of a grave sealed since the first snows by drifts cross-bedded with layers of ice. But this January thaw, just two weeks after the first real snow, is no exhumation at all – an illusion. The damp ground exposed by the warmth was covered only briefly by a shroud, as during a wake. The burial will come.

January 20. The broad bay was calm this afternoon, with a gentle swell coming in from the north. Out past the sheer-line of the point to the northwest, the wind had pulled the open lake into a serration of big waves chewing east. Low cumulus hovered over the bay in orderly rows, hardly seeming to move, their bellies lit up by the low sun to the southwest. Turquoise winter afternoon sky resonated from between the clouds, and these bright places were reflected in vertical bars of light down the bay, intersecting the horizontal lines of the small swell coming to shore. I walked north along the frozen margin of pebbles.

Where the creek flows out from among the cedars and white pines, the black water from the land joins the lake. The liquid surface of the stream was taut and arched like fractured obsidian, the margins frozen into thin white shelves fading to a slaty gray toward the slipping current before ending in a slick black rail of ice. In places, the shelf had sunk slightly and a thin sheet of water was pooled on the surface, forming a mirror backed by sterling ice which warmly reflected the delicate late afternoon sky. It was an unlikely setting for such warmth; a tender place for the eye amid so much ice and cold water. I imagine it now as I sit inside, the sun long since set: half an inch of water atop a plane of ice, slowly freezing in the dark.

February 2. The sun passes below the horizon, invisible behind dense gray cloud. Dusk congeals. In the afternoon a fine, dense snow had begun to fall after a week of melt. The air had just settled below freezing, and solid objects were just cold enough to hold snow, which piled up quickly on every surface. Now, each branch and twig of the maples holds a spine of snow, tapering to the dormant buds. The snow whirls by. Against the skin, it feels less like snowfall than a suspension of soft crystals in air.

Out on skis: down the hill between barn and spruce, over the white-packed county road, up the snowmobile trail quiet under heavy fall. Over one more swell and the sounds of the village are gone. The sodium lights blur into orange coronae. In the woods to the south, the eastern faces of the maple trunks have been whitewashed by the gently leaning snowfall. The black bark alternates with the tall white jackets to form a striking warp in stark contrast. My previous tracks have been buried, but I follow them easily: skirt juniper, straddle sapling, thread maple arbor. Out into the big field. Dusk and thick snowfall shrinks space around me, and the field becomes the undulating floor of Lake Michigan in deep water. I can only see a few hundred yards, but the rolling lakebed dreams for miles in every direction.

February 5. Cold air is pooled in the kettle valley atop snow, atop rotten ice, atop the saucer of black cold water below. Big light flakes drift down stirred by eddies of their own making, pulling the cold air down with them. The valley is quiet, the only sounds those of settling: layers accumulating, sintering – ticking like a cooling woodstove. Thin spots between the low cumulus align with the sun at intervals, turning the frozen lake to a plane of shorn quartzite. The light overwhelms the eyes.

Two crows begin calling out of sight over the lake to the east. Call and response, interruption, coordination. The birds come into view over a row of cedar, making moves at one another in the open lattice-work of the maple canopy. Their calls change to a long croak, repeated, like slow steps in cold snow. Crank, crank. A raven flies north over the edge of the lake and the crows return to their ejectives. Low resonant cronking from the raven. A small troop of snow buntings, perhaps thirty birds, eddies around the northern arc of the lake. Their movement together is like a cloud of willful snowflakes, black against the sky and circling one another, pulling air along with them. As they pass, just the briefest impression of their shape sticks; the notion of fingerlike primaries and tight fan-tails. The troop blusters to the west and disappears in the flurry.

Snowfall increases and soon the air is dense with flakes. The eyes must pick a plane to focus on; there’s an infinite number of points between here and the forested hillside to the south. Traveling by focus out across the lake, the eyes reveal their mechanics: sliding search followed by harmonic moment of focus, planes moved in relation to one another, steps through space. The dense suspension of flakes over the lake gives purchase to the eyes there. Without the flakes, the eyes could only pause upon reaching the hillside.