At the Skowhegan Summer Art School I met a young artist whose oeuvre was comic. He went to their costume party as negative space: having cut and discarded a bunny out of a four-by-eight sheet of plywood, he carried around what was left all night, the bunny's outline. For another project he cast moose prints in bronze, then attached them to his Nikes. Everywhere he went it seemed a moose had been.
Everywhere I go around here it seems a moose has been, too, but that's because a moose has. I love the winters in Farmington, and not only for the tracks of animals otherwise mysterious. Generally, we get lots of snow, and then, when it's not snowing, lots of sunshine. It's a different world from the coast, weather wise, without the moderation of the ocean. Big storms in Portland are often insignificant here; what falls as rain and ice down there is often just plain, pretty snow here. I love a morning at zero degrees-we've had many lately-just cold enough to give the snow a squeak, not too cold for efficient breathing. If it's been twenty below overnight, what shows of Temple Stream steams, and there's the delight of hoarfrost limning all the trees and shrubs along its banks. Which are indistinct now, after a heavy rain in December brought the flow up and pushed enormous plates and pans of ice up onto shore. Weeks of cold have reified the results, and piles of new snow have made them treacherous-all those joints are crevasses now, ice caves: where's a skier supposed to cross?
I love looking out from the big window upstairs on a moonlighty night and seeing my ski track, the way it curves doubly into the forest through a slot in the stone wall, the way it's a foot deep in three feet of recent snow. Your poles sink to knee height if you don't watch out-the ground's way down. Branches you walk under in summer poke you in the chest, stick you in the face.
Winter has a reputation as dead, but of course it's not: the forest is full of creatures making their ways, their tracks crossing mine or making use of mine all along my morning ski way, lately a moose. Or maybe it's some young artist escaped from Skowhegan. Deer particularly like my trail for its improved walking, leave splay-toes in deep blue recesses, urine tunnels, too. Squirrel prints atop the snow, little tail-dragging mice, clumsy-plunging coyote troughs, mincing foxes leaving holes where they've stuck their heads searching for subnivean voles, or leaving apple skins under the wild trees streamside. Every foot of snow makes a new layer of apples available.
But it's the birds that bring winter fully alive, and in broad daylight.
I stop feeding the house birds around August, not because there's any worry at all of keeping them from migrating (that's an old husband's tale), but because there's just so much natural food available, every seed pod popping, every berry bursting. Also, the commercial seed's expensive, gives squirrels ideas about where to nest for winter: my house.
I start in feeding again at first snow. I like to see who turns up and when. Chickadee nearly always wins, seeming to have a memory and a habit of checking back. White-breasted nuthatch, ditto. But sometimes a blue jay, other times a sparrow wins the gold. The blue jays beak-flick the seed slot seeking certain favorites, empty the big feeder onto the ground quart by quart, but that brings the cardinal pairs back and then the mourning doves, even the rock doves from the old barn next door. The woodpeckers (hairy and downy) don't mind a feeder so long as it's filled with sunflower seed, knock at the plastic tubes just for show. Goldfinches, green for winter, turn up in small flocks, but take their time-there's still thistle seed aplenty, lofted above the snow by one of the tallest of weeds. Juncos, redpolls, pine and yellow grosbeaks, anyone hardy might turn up. Crows like the compost pile. I love seeing one fly off all front heavy with a stale half bagel. How's he gonna explain that? See what you're missing, you bobolinks down there in Brazil? It's all a good show, especially before snow or in cold snaps, when every bird in town comes by to stock up on calories.
This morning my pileated woodpecker pair was back, one of them chiseling a hole in an all-but-dead black cherry tree at the hedgerow, knock-knock, like a carpenter setting a door. I spot him as I'm careening along downhill on skis made for chugging, get several stolen glimpses, plow and pull up at a spot where I can see through branches to the red repetition of his head. Down by the stream I stand and stare a long time at the small window of open water-more life-then make a kick-turn. This startles some huge bird that startles me in turn-a big Tom turkey as it turns out, alone, it seems, probably getting a drink of water when I came along. He flaps up into the air and chugs off with deep beats. I'd been staring at him several minutes without seeing him, I realized.
And into the neighbor's fields through huge drifts and to the uncrossable Temple. But the brook that feeds it-Desi and Wally Brook I call it, for dead, beloved dogs-has found a coat of ice over night, a plate-glass window of ice maybe thick enough to support a big person on skis, myself, 202 pounds in these days after Christmas. Or maybe not strong enough. Elaborate drowning scenarios accost me as I sidestep down the steep bank, Jack London winter deaths, me with my face in the water and unable to extricate, all tangled in skis and poles. Will I laugh as I drown like the crazy brother in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion? The thought makes me laugh, at least.
The brook's bed has frozen, so the flow is on top of ice and beneath ice both. If the top piece breaks, I'll be standing ankle deep. That'll just mean turning around early, bustling to keep warm while stopping to clear snow stuck to wet skis, no big deal, material for a 'blog, not a novel.
I make it across the flexing plate glass and into the next field, Joe Pye Weed stalks dried and brittle and buried to their waists, fun to break. That's when I hear the many-voiced trilling of waxwings. An enormous flock is winging overhead, a full minute passing from first bird to last, one silver maple filling rapidly, while all the while another at the far side of the field empties. Sub-flocks break off, make forays. Total of something like a thousand birds, estimated by counting to one hundred. You could mistake them for starlings, but it's the wrong time of year for such a great flock, and more important, there's a general impression of slate blue, slate grey as they blow by above. A few views of brightly rusty undertail coverts cements the ID: the bohemians are back! It's been years! I stand on my skis and wait and eventually a group lands in a tree close overhead. I love the yellow band at the tail tips, the spots of red sealing wax on each wing, the rakish masks. They're bigger, chestier than the familiar cedar waxwings of summer, and they're here from much further north, visiting the extreme southern edge of their territory, stripping berries from trees and shrubs in their path, snarfing dried concord grapes, plucking tender buds.
Later in the afternoon I'm in the dooryard roof-raking great mountains of snow off the porch troughs when I hear the trilling, and here come the thousand bohemians in a jazzy mass to fill our old looming elm tree. It's a toilet break, as it turns out, and the snow blooms in grape-purple flowers, decorated here and there with the orange of bittersweet, the red of winterberry.
Later still I'm driving to town for birdseed, and in the road ahead I spot them, my thousand waxwings picking up crop gravel or maybe even tasting the road salt, anyway, multitudinous birds busy in the road, wings all aflap in competition and excitement over whatever it is they're finding. I slow down as I would for anyone in the road, but (thinking of crows, of mourning doves, of crossbills, of goldfinches, or all the other nimble birds you see on the yellow line constantly), I don't stop altogether-they'll flee and fly, right? And of course they do, scattering every direction including at me, coursing over the windscreen of my trusty Subaru, their reaction time way too slow, denizens of a land without cars or roads. I look in the rearview and see that I've hit two birds! Two birds are in extremis behind me! My heart sinks as I roll to a stop, climb out, run back.
One of the injured old Bohemians half-wings it into the woods. He won't make it, and I doubt I could help even if I could get to him-that's how high the drifts are. The second old Bohemian has expired. I take the guilty opportunity to handle him, examine those colors close as my hand, feel his warm body, stretch his wings out. He's good in the hand. I can still feel the flight in him. In the end I toss him over the snow bank with a good word, but not quite yet forgiveness for myself.
But the flock's still in the neighborhood, still going strong. That's the point of flocks.Bill Roorbach lives in Western Maine and is the author of Temple Stream, among others.