It is not the dead of winter, but it is the shortest day. Night bleeds into it at both ends, allowing the sun its briefest appearance from its most southerly traverse of the sky. Like the Milky Way that I photograph in early spring when it hugs the horizon, our nearest star scribes so low an arc that even at high noon its light is soft and devoid of warmth. Still, where rays cut through the limbs of a dying fir to paint the ground, I change course to walk through these beams. In them, I feel a summer gone. Dim recollections of wildflowers and thunderstorms. Distant memories of the erratic flight of orange sulfur butterflies unable to choose which blossom to land on next. The visions come like half-remembered dreams, and yet they are nearer than any notion of spring.
The stream I’m following, tumbling down a narrow cut in the Spanish Peaks of Southwest Montana, is equal parts flowing water and frozen ice. In the fifty feet ahead of me, it is both exuberant, child-like in its eagerness, and something fast asleep, existing in a state of suspended animation. Somehow, the two complement each other - a pair of sisters with unique personalities whose sororal bond is always stronger than their differences.
I’m here with my 200mm macro and also a wide-angle zoom, though I’m here at least as much for exercise as I am in search of photographs. My rubber hip waders have more gashes in them than they did a year ago, rents patched with Duct tape and silicone, an artist’s alternative to buying new boots during a pandemic. I’m carefully picking my way over deadfall, gentling along on top of fallen spruce whose trunks are lined with snow and squirrel tracks, moving slowly upstream. It's the winter solstice, and I have no plan beyond spending the day in the woods.
“That’s hardcore!” A hiker on the trail above my creek calls down to me a few minutes later as I lean low to the flow in the middle of the stream to photograph ice hanging from a granite outcrop. “Braver than I am,” he says as I wave without looking up from my camera.
Like most young boys, a thousand years ago and a thousand years from now, when I was growing up, I was obsessed with being brave. There wasn’t anything worse, or quicker way to start a fight, than to call another boy “chicken.” It was a title easy enough to earn, too. Decline your turn careening down the steep hill behind the Irasburg Elementary School inside the tractor tire we would spend days rolling to the top, cave to common sense and refuse to surf down the same hill from a standing position on a sled during winter, or think better of freeing a jar full of bumblebees during reading class, and the moniker was fully yours to wear.
My friends and I would challenge each other’s bravery, always beginning the same way. “You ain’t a man if you don’t…..” The requirements for manhood would grow more difficult, pitting the repercussions of notes sent home to our fathers against clawing up another rung in the pecking order.
In truth, I think most of us understood that the completion of these dares had more to do with bravado than with real bravery. The things that truly frightened us we didn’t talk about. For me, with an overactive imagination, there were particular places that scared me. Locations that exuded terrifying energy that manifested itself in palpable dread during the day and night terrors when I slept. The unseen room behind a broken, second-story window in an abandoned house. A dense stand of white pine that cows and horses in my neighbor’s pasture always avoided. A particular bend in a stream my father and I fished. And at the top of the list, a single gravestone set more than a hundred feet away from the others in Irasburg’s catholic cemetery.
I was six years old when I first noticed it, on a walk through the cemetery with my mother one April day when we searched for coltsfoot flowers, among the first to bloom in Northern Vermont. She explained that the stone was a begrudging memorial to a woman who had died in childbirth out of wedlock, shaking her head when I asked why it was so far from the others. Almost immediately, I pictured an awful spirit under that leaning grave marker. A ghost not entirely rid of human form, bent on exacting vengeance for such an eternal sequester.
My fear of this gravestone, and what I was certain lay beneath it, was, until more than five years later on a lead-gray day in December 1983, uncontrollable. I would avert my eyes from the cemetery when I rode past on my 10-speed bike, refuse to glance in its direction if I fished on the nearby Black River, and would time my cross country ski outings to end well before dark if they took me along the snowmobile trail on the west side of this final resting place. On that day, however, when I was eleven years old, I was determined to face a true fear. Determined to commit an act of bravery – one so personal that I would not speak of it for more than 30 years. In the middle of the afternoon, I carried my skis out the backdoor of my home, encouraged by a flock of chickadees in the big cedar where we hung feeders. They weren’t always there, and I took their appearance – life in a wintry, often-empty world – as a good sign.
Today, there are no chickadees, but a water ouzel, one of John Muir’s favorite birds, known for its refusal to migrate to warmer climes, preferring a tough existence on mountain streams, lands close enough for me to snap a few photos. It looks like it’s surfing, quickwater swirling around the sliver of ice it stands on. As I watch, it hops into the flow as naturally as I might dive into a July swimming pool, emerging with some type of nymph, swallowing it whole before flying away, low to the water, out of sight behind me downstream.
Ahead, a jungle of fallen trees forces me up the bank where I skirt a jagged rock wall, following the melted footsteps of a mountain lion to where its territorial patrol turns at ninety degrees and heads up a steep mountain. The tracks pass a young lodgepole pine raked by an elk’s antlers in September, needles now brown, one life lost to another’s urge to create more. I have no interest in climbing a mountain in hip boots, so I leave the old lion track and fight my way back to the stream, where I shoot a panorama of ice hanging from the limbs of another lodgepole, minerals in the frozen water glowing a soft blue in the pale light of this darkest day.
As I’m completing the series of photos, I catch movement on the far bank. With thoughts of the mountain lion still fresh in my mind, I turn my head faster than I might otherwise, spooking an ermine – the white, winter weasel I’ve never managed to get a good photograph of. It leaps to the water’s edge and shoots into a hole beneath the overhanging bank, the black tip of its tail zipping out of sight long before I can focus my lens. I wait half an hour, hoping it will emerge, but time is of no consequence to a frightened animal, and it remains hidden while I continue hiking upstream. Somewhere along the foot of the mountain the lion turned toward, I hear wind in the upper limbs of big fir. A cold melody for a cold day.
The wind on that afternoon in Vermont when I decided to visit the gravestone blew steadily into my face as I poled across the Little League field in the center of Irasburg. There had been recent, heavy snow, filling the diamond, leaving the wooden bleachers and wire backstop the only signs that a baseball had ever gone ‘round the horn. Evening games of whiffle ball with my friends, Little League matchups against neighboring villages, and men’s fast-pitch softball tournaments all seemed as far away as the smell of fresh-mowed grass.
From the infield, I clacked across Rt. 14, stomping the salty sand from the road off my skis before beginning the long downhill behind Irasburg’s general store, burying my face into my coat as I picked up speed on the groomed snowmobile trail. There was a spit of open water where I crossed the Black River on a suspension bridge, a dark arrow unyielding to winter, but the mergansers I’d seen fishing there a week earlier were gone. On the far bank, through the spider-like branches of a soft maple, I could see the white cross of the cemetery silhouetted against distant mountains, and with faltering resolve I inched closer.
For a moment, through the narrow, upstream cut of this Montana stream, I can see far off mountains here. They rise over an alpine lake that I cannot see but know lies beneath them. The view stirs memories of a pika leaping between shoreline boulders, its mouth full of late-July fireweed flowers. It’s a vision that I see clearly but feel happened a very long time ago. I step forward into the water, and as my shadow moves across the surface a tiny cutthroat leaps into a miniature waterfall, suspended for a split second before being driven backward. Like the pika that I saw months earlier, it’s a moment in nature that I wish I could immortalize with my camera, but I could spend a lifetime on this winter creek and never see it again. Today, I’ll be content with the image in my mind, an orange-sided fish falling toward black water rimmed with ice.
It would be easier wading through the pool where this cutthroat lives, but I decide he’s been frightened enough and instead bull my way onto the bank, ripping another small hole near the top of my right wader. Eventually, I’ll have more Duct tape on these than rubber.
I leave the stream for more than an hour, walking beneath mature fir whose fissured bark is coated in different types of moss, each variety another shade of green. Near a lightning-shattered tree, I step over a pile of cone husks and the round entrance to a squirrel’s burrow, but the tracks I see nearby are from a mink, its bounding gait angling for the water. I wonder if the cutthroat that I saw will survive until spring, and while I recognize that I am more like the mink than the trout, my sympathies today are with the fish. I clap my hands and whistle, perhaps encouraging this sleek fisherman to seek pools further upstream.
Where I rejoin the brook, I’m greeted by a gorgeous scene of blue ice, cascading water, and a young spruce basking for a moment in what will be the brightest light of this day. The scene lasts long enough for me to photograph it, the sun obliging until my shutter closes. And now, in deep shade and the memory of sunshine gone, it feels like both winter and evening.
It felt like evening when I side-stepped over the small fence encircling the cemetery on the outskirts of Irasburg. A wind born in the taiga of Quebec had drifted snow around the stones, fins of packed powder extending a foot or two beyond their leeward sides, leaving hollows like tree wells where sometimes names and dates were exposed. Soldiers from the Civil War lay next to families lost to diphtheria, slate inscribed with “Father,” “Mother,” “Baby.” As I picked my way through the markers, the quiet shush of my skis and the rumble of a snowplow on Route 58 the only sounds, I recognized many of the last names that I read. The gravity of my hometown has long exceeded its size.
The stones thinned where the land rolled to the west, the knoll that had beckoned to the first settlers of Irasburg as the perfect site for their cemetery, easing toward the river. I could see it then, the single, lonely stone that had frightened me since I first laid eyes it. I stood for a long time trying to decide if I’d come close enough to be brave. I looked down to the stone, across forty yards of clean snow, and then behind me toward the village, its church steeples and giant white pine on the common piercing the winter sky. And then slowly, the tips of my skis pointing inward to slow my descent, I began covering ground.
More than a century of weather had tilted the rock, and unlike many in the cemetery, no descendants had made any effort to shore it up. I stared until the cold made me blink, the woman’s name lost to deep snow below the crest of the hill where the wind didn't blow as hard. I extended one hand, a red mitten reaching across a white background, and, forcing the tremble from it, touched the stone. I figured that's when it would happen – that either my fear would leave as quickly as the passing shadow of a raven, or the source of my terror would spring from the Earth and do away with me. When neither occurred, when I still felt afraid but no spirit presented itself, I looked over my shoulder at my ski tracks coming down from the cluster of other headstones. They seemed a very long way away.
As moments passed and the ground did not open under my feet, I thought about the storage closet in the back of the classroom where I’d spent first and second grade. There was a chair inside where students were forced to sit by themselves, with the lights off and the door closed, for infractions as innocent as failing to properly annunciate when reading out loud. I particularly remembered a small boy who struggled with a learning disability before those afflictions were properly diagnosed and understood. Unable to connect with the teacher by successfully completing tasks, he would tell jokes, a toothy grin spreading across a face that appeared unwashed as often as not. For his levity, he was sentenced to the storage closet, a punishment he couldn’t bear, his feet clawing for purchase on the rug as he sought to prevent being dragged into the confines of this room. I could hear his voice cracking as over and over he begged, “Please.” He would cry in the room, his wailing muffled by the wall between us, wails eventually subsiding to whimpers like winter wind down an old chimney.
More than once, I had wanted to stand up from my desk and go open the door. Take my place inside in his stead. I doubt that I was alone in this desire, or the fear of what would happen had any of us questioned the absolute authority of a teacher who seemed to hate children.
As I brushed icy grains of snow from the top of the gravestone, I decided two things. Last names weren’t the only thing around here that didn’t change, but this time I would act. There had to be something that I could do for this woman. Some small gesture to assuage her exile.
We are a gregarious creature I think while gingerly testing shelf ice to see if it will hold my tripod and camera. Even someone like myself, always happy to spend time alone in big country, wouldn’t choose an existence forever beyond the voice of another human being. While we are not unique in our need to be among our own kind, we can lay claim to the only species who prescribes a punishment that forbids it. A prisoner placed in solitary confinement. A boy pulled into a storage closet. A woman buried as far from her peers as space allows. Her crime? A love out of bounds.
We might, with as much success, instruct this stream not to flow as pen laws governing that emotion, and yet we have done so throughout time, leveling the most severe punishment upon those breaking the rules. It’s fear, I suppose. Perhaps not terribly different in its root form than the sense of trepidation I felt as a boy in certain places. Fear and a desire to control – to limit another inherent aspect of humanity, our individuality.
As I wait for a breeze filling the air with snow freed from limbs above me to subside before taking a photograph, I know it is more than this. It’s cruelty. Another trait all our own that may have served some evolutionary point in the infancy of our race but has long since become contrary to our survival. Still, we embrace it to the point where acts of kindness often require bravery.
The air stills, and I capture a scene of ice curling around an open hole in the stream, the flow a steely blue in the dwindling light of this day. I look downstream where I’ve come from, wondering if the cutthroat has found quiet water behind a rock, where in this wilderness the mountain lion will hunt tonight, and if the ermine has emerged. I’ll walk a little further upstream I think, in these long shadows, the tentacles of coming darkness.
It was nearly dark in the cemetery when, by using my ski poles to explore the snow around some of the more modern memorials, I found a single silk flower. It was missing two of its petals and all of the green plastic that once adhered to its wire stem, but I skied it down the hill and left it next to the solitary stone. I stood there a few moments watching headlights inch down Lowell Mountain, and then, as frightened as I’d been all day, pushed with every ounce of strength in my arms toward the snowmobile trail and the village. I was too scared to look over my shoulder until I crossed the Little League field, and when I did, I saw the faintest hint of silver light in the west, a day’s farewell kiss to a night sweeping in over the other horizon.
I won’t see any headlights here, though the day is hurtling toward the time during which they would shine. I’m kneeling on a stony bank, focusing my camera on a frozen drop of water hanging from a bridge of ice, formations inside like the sulfide animals in antique, German marbles, but my thoughts are elsewhere. I’m thinking that at some point our species will reach a tipping point. We will either be brave enough to embrace kindness or follow another road to our own destruction. I believe the choice will be that simple with consequences that profound. I believe that the fork in the road is drawing closer.
Before I take my photograph, I close my eyes. It has been a relatively open winter in Montana so far, the stream bank behind me covered in less than a foot of snow. Two thousand miles to my east, I wonder how much has fallen around a woman’s grave? I wonder, with little more expectation than I have that we will about-face our drive to division, if any part of her knows that a boy once left a flower beside her headstone?
It takes a full second of open shutter to record the small scene before me. It’s enough time for a bead of water to fall from the icicle and land in the stream below, distorting the refection. I look at the photo and, while the shortest day of this year says goodbye, realize that the reflection looks for all the world…..like a rose.