We are only a day from the winter solstice, the day during which night encroaches further than any other, making deep inroads at both ends of the sun. All around me I feel the tangible tiredness of a world largely asleep, the quiet lull of a slumbering Nature. There are reminders of seasons passed - a corn husk skittering across packed snow on top of a stubble field, a hardy goose standing defiant on the shores of a frozen pond, and a mullein plant whose seeds top out at four feet high, confidently proclaiming that they will remain above any winter snows. I see these things, signs that perhaps someday this world will spin close enough to the sun to be reborn, but this afternoon they seem merely circumstantial evidence that at one time, long ago, the Earth might have been different. Like the bears of Southwest Montana in the mountains cloaked in snow clouds, what I’d really like is to sleep.
And then I hear the spirit of the New England poet, Robert Frost, never one to coddle another artist, say wryly, “Miles to go, you lazy bastard.” I point to my speedometer, hovering near the limit, but Frost is unmoved. Evidently, the confines of a modern vehicle confirm his suspicion of sloth.
“You haven’t taken a single picture in two weeks,” he says. “I hope you like eating snow.”
Plenty for the feast, I think as I pull off the highway onto a narrow, two-track that parallels the Gallatin River for a couple of hundred yards before ending in a snowy parking lot at the base of steep mountains. I’ve come to photograph a resting stream, tucked in under covers of ice, her flow a shadow of the June torrent I saw when I was here last. I’ve come to spend a short day in these empty woods, in part paying homage to winter, in part begging for its mercy and the arrival of an early spring. I’ve also come to remember past winters and, having lived the majority of my life in the North Country, have no shortage of memories.
“I’ll be spending my time alone,” I say firmly to Frost who waves me off and heads toward the Gallatin with a bamboo rod in his hands.
My earliest memories of winter in Northern Vermont meld together into colors and emotions, both predominantly gray and blue. I remember wiping cold condensation off a windowpane, steadying myself with a hand gripped tight to its ledge where chipped enamel was as thick as sedimentary rock, my chin even with the sill, peering out at a world which overnight had transformed to white. Earlier that fall, as I sat strapped into a highchair in our kitchen, I’d seen a weasel peek up from a hole in the floorboards. A “stoat” my father had called it, before explaining that it would turn white in the winter. Looking outside at fresh snow, I wasn’t sure whether the change in weather was the weasel’s doing or if, like the magic spell cast over the land while I slept, it too now appeared the same, changed instantly from brown to white overnight.
What I did know was that I didn’t much care for this new set of clothes the Earth was wearing. I didn’t care for my own - the bulky snowsuit my mother zipped me into before I was allowed outside - either. I didn’t care for its hood, pulled so tight that its sides eliminated any peripheral vision, rendering the world in those directions a distorted scene of itchy, faux fur. I didn’t like the way dry burdocks, the only “plants” that I could find, clung to my knit mittens, and worse was the way they pricked my lips when I bit them off the yarn, using my mouth like a turkey plucking their seeds. I didn’t like the way my toes, inside the boots with the polar bear logo on their tongues, grew as cold and hard as the frozen ground I would kick at.
I remember staring down our Brownington driveway to the wood line west of the house, naked hardwoods the color of cobwebs guarding more distant expanses of softwoods whose blueish tint transcended simple color and became, in a word, cold. On the horizon was Jay Peak, the first mountain whose name I learned, its craggy tip looking out over the Northeast Kingdom. I didn’t figure it liked what it saw any more than I did.
By my third winter, I’d seen enough to understand that it was not only my least favorite season but also the longest. Peeling clumps of snow from the tops of my boots and setting them on our woodstove, watching them dance and hiss, was all I could think to do to hasten spring’s arrival, but even then my young mind knew that eliminating a few handfuls of ice wouldn’t exactly have the robins showing up tomorrow.
There were few events between the end of Vermont’s deer season after Thanksgiving – an electric time of year whose urgency and nervous energy I could sense many years before I was old enough to carry a gun myself – and that day in early March when water trickled down our driveway and steam from sugarhouses rose like pillars into the sky, that I looked forward to. Cutting a Christmas tree with my dad was one of them, watching it shed a mist of snow as it shivered from the blows of the axe, then riding back to the car among its branches while he dragged it from the woods. Almost as fun was decorating it with my mother, opening boxes of glass ornaments whose varied colors and shapes I’d forgotten, so that under each lid lay new surprises.
It is similar with this Montana stream, so different this morning than it was six months ago that I feel as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I’m wearing hip waders over wool pants, hoping that by walking up the middle of the brook I can capture both the flow of water and the stillness of ice, particularly where it has gathered on fallen trees above the current, frozen spray turned sapphire-blue.
It’s slow going over slippery rocks, their crowns above water coated in clear ice, their bulk below the surface as sleek as polished glass. I creep along taking slow, small steps, fully aware of the difference between a water-resistant camera like my Nikon and something entirely waterproof, and right away begin finding what I’ve come here for. With myriad trees stacked across the brook, discovering my ice stalactites is no more difficult than examining the underside of a fallen pine. Hanging in shapes ranging from stilettos to bulbous teardrops, they shine all up the creek, water trapped in its solid form, waiting like the rest of the world around it for spring.
I pick my way along for half an hour before climbing out of the water, forced onto the bank by a logjam ten feet high. On the downstream side, a deep pool has formed between boulders, the most likely spot I’ve seen so far for a trout. There’s one in there, I think, tucked against a slab of granite, hardly moving, a silver shadow under black water. Subconsciously, I choose a spot a few feet upstream where I’d drop a worm, imagining it disappearing into the depths, feeling the thrilling pull of something unseen on the line.
“I’d expect you to be a worm fisherman,” Frost says from the top of the logjam where he’s materialized. “Too much work for you to cast a fly. It’s a sad sight watching you wallow along, seeing you nearly lose your footing at least five times, and in water no deeper than your calves. Best stick to drowning worms.”
Before I can think of a proper retort, he’s gone, vanished into the fissured bark of a lone cottonwood. It’s a huge tree with roots taking 800 gallons of water a day in the summer, its leaves thick on the south-facing bank where sun has shrunk the snow. I switch to my macro lens to take a quick picture of a single leaf suspended in ice – the world in miniature as it awaits the next season. My shutter clicks and I remember the cottonwoods in our neighbor’s yard, chains hanging year-round from their lowest limbs, waiting to hoist deer each November with the patience of this leaf.
There were no deer hanging from the chains on the January night my parents dropped me off there when I was eleven. They’d been butchered six weeks earlier, their rib cages now poking from front-yard snow, the arching bones picked entirely clean by blue jays and feral cats.
“Good day for a five-pound trout tomorrow, Jake,” John Curtiss said by way of greeting. Orleans County’s most seasoned and successful hunter and fisherman was taking me ice fishing in the morning, bringing me out onto Willoughby, the deepest lake in Northern Vermont, where we’d use live smelt run down more than a hundred feet below the ice, trying for lake trout.
4:30am was never further away than it was when I lay down on a small couch that night, watching the glow of a wood-fired kitchen stove fade, listening to the sounds of an old house settling in the cold, straining to see the hands on a small clock radio on the other side of the room.
I’d wanted to catch a lake trout from the moment I first learned that they lived in the frigid waters of that glacial lake, the cut between Mount Pisgah and Hoar above as much a landmark of the Northeast Kingdom as Jay Peak. There were local legends about divers who’d gone into the water off Route 5A, swimming down beside underwater cliffs, clicking on their headlamps only to be so traumatized by the size of the fish they saw that they’d vowed never to scuba dive again.
There was a tale of a team of horses that broke through the ice one spring night during the Depression and how a fisherman eight miles away on Crystal Lake had dredged up their harness two years later, proof of some subterranean passage.
I’d heard of men who’d been towed around Willoughby by fish they’d hooked from boats and, after seeing more than one black and white front-cover photo of prodigious lake trout appear in our weekly paper, was convinced everything I’d heard was true. I was going fishing for a legend with a legend, and there was no way in hell I was going to get a wink of sleep.
And then, after hours awake, certain I’d never drift off, I woke to the clock radio blaring Alabama’s “Roll On 18 Wheeler.” I’ll never forget it, or much else about that winter day. The boom of ice under wheels of a heavy pickup truck, the rising snow devils that spun across the frozen surface at sun-up, the taste of black coffee spiked with exactly one capful of Jack Daniels, and the sheer joy that only a boy doing something he loves with men can feel. We didn’t get a five-pound trout, but we caught a few over four, by far the largest fish I’d ever caught, and hauling them up on heavy handlines remains one of the best memories from my childhood, as good a way as I ever found to break the monotony of winter.
Above the logjam, the creek falls through a series of steeper pitches, pockets of deep, foamy water between banks of shelf ice and leaning trees. I collect photos of the current over colorful stones, water blurring smooth during a long exposure, find places under the ice where clusters of lavender icicles crowd together, and try a few shots looking up through narrow gaps in boulders that don’t quite work for me.
Where the terrain flattens out again, I spend twenty minutes photographing a wilderness scene of light and shadow perfectly bisected by a dead pine lying a couple of feet above the water. A curtain of blue ice drapes from it, reaching toward the current below, and winter sun, low in the sky, lights it well. It’s beautiful, but so quiet that there is also a sense of loneliness here. A feeling that everything I see exists in some sort of suspended animation, a circuit breaker for life tripped until April.
As water flows around the legs of my tripod, I tip the screen on the back of my camera up to examine the photo I’ve taken, a reasonable representation of what my mind sees here.
“It appears as though your camera does the lion’s share of the work,” Frost says, peering over my shoulder. “A good thing for you, too, as I have every confidence you’d handle film as poorly as a fly rod.”
For an instant, his reflection in the water at my feet appears to smile before he says, “Now, take Bentley. A true Vermont artist there. All those beautiful snowflake photographs and without the aid of a color television built into his camera. What vision that photographer had.”
“Keep it up, old man, and you’re apt to get a bath,” I say, though I’m not completely capable of holding a straight face either. I turn slowly downstream to face him, but he’s gone again, vanished just as the sun dips behind a tall mountain, casting the creek into deep shade.
I press on, wading up an increasingly-narrow channel, the stream diminished now by a handful of tributaries I’ve passed. In places, snow bridges the water from bank to bank, the faint gurgle of its flow the only indication of its passage, but in others, where it drops more sharply, it’s still visible, the same ice the drew me here beginning to glow the way everything cold in nature will do during a winter afternoon.
One more photo, I tell myself. Something that says winter on this small brook. Perhaps up ahead where the rush of water speaks of an open stream. I remind myself to move slowly, my feet beginning to feel the cold on the other side of their alpaca socks and rubber boots.
I’m not sure whether it’s the drop in light – the first shift from this world into one of dreams - or the fact that throughout this walk my mind has been split between the task at hand and thoughts of winters long ago, but when a pair of chickadees flits across my path I see redpolls in a Vermont chokecherry so clearly that I rub my eyes.
A flock of more than a dozen redpolls arrived on a January day when I was six, landing in the bare limbs of a chokecherry near our Irasburg garage, puffing their feathers against an Arctic blast that they were no strangers to. Drawn to anything with color, particularly during the long months of winter when its absence is so noticeable, I bundled up and went outside, determined to hand feed these ruby-crowned visitors from the far north.
My first order of business was corralling my twenty-pound, semi-wild cat, Lynx, who was at least as interested in the redpolls' appearance as I was. He sat motionless beneath the chokecherry, a stiff wind rippling the long, gray hair under his chin, yellow eyes fixed on the branches above. When I knelt a few feet away and called, he came reluctantly, submitting as much as a cat ever does to a trip indoors draped over my shoulder and a spot in front of the wood stove where the rest of my family wisely gave him a wide berth.
With the predator locked away and my jacket pockets full of seed, I returned to the chokecherry tree and found a spot on the ground partially sheltered from the wind by a sheet of tin that had blown off the top of our woodpile. I tossed a handful of cracked corn and sunflower seeds onto the snow a few feet from me and waited, willing myself to stillness. After ten minutes, a large male redpoll began working his way down the tree, hopping from limb to limb, making choppy progress toward the ground like a pinball falling through obstacles. On the lowest branch, he cocked his head to look at me and when I didn't move he fluttered to the ground, chose a whole sunflower kernel, and quickly flapped back into the tree. Before he was finished cracking open the seed on a slender limb, others had followed suit, flying down together, some landing less than two feet from me, close enough to see the small scales on their legs. When I pulled my hands from my pockets, they were gone in a whir of pink and gray wings, but returned quickly to the ground, and soon had cleaned it of anything worth eating.
I sometimes wonder now, more than 40 years later, if everything I remember from my childhood happened as I see it. The images are vivid enough so that I believe it's so, but it's still difficult to fully embrace the idea that for half an hour a flock of wild birds really did hop all over me, landing on my hat, perching on my legs, eating with the confidence of domestic chickens fed everyday. I can see them doing it - squabbling over the choicest morsels, breaking seeds open on the toes of my boots, landing in my open hands where I marveled at how little they weighed.
I can see them flying away together when my father banged open our side door a little while later and asked if I'd help him carry wood from the pile to the porch. He would take four or five pieces, cradling them in his left arm, while I insisted he find the largest single chunk for me to wrestle in. I remember the first piece that I carried that afternoon was yellow birch, its tattered paper brushing my cheek as gently as the wings of a redpoll.
The light is fading quickly now as I set up for my final photo, a panorama of woods and water and snow before it is too dark. I'm still wondering about the redpolls when my shutter opens for the final time, and, seeing them more clearly than I can imagine a warm day in May just a few months from now, I decide it happened exactly the way I remember. Perhaps we are closest to nature when we are children, before we have become cynical enough to believe that there are things that shouldn't happen. In our innocence, uncluttered by scientific explanations, why couldn't there be a little magic left in the world? Why couldn't a redpoll's wing touch a boy's cheek and their eyes not meet over a meal of seeds on a cold, winter day?
"Sounds like the start of a poem," Frost says. "Not a very good one, but everyone must begin somewhere."
"I think I'll stick to photos," I say.
"Ah, a thousand words," he responds.
"Ten thousand of yours," I tell him as we both crack a smile. And then I'm alone in evening woods, a couple of miles from from my truck, on nearly the longest night of the year.
You can see some of these images, plus others, in my New Releases section here.