The blizzard blew up from the sand country, howling northward with a threat: this winter has yet to be tamed. Through the night the river, the big lake, the snake-shaped valley and all of its inhabitants hunkered under whatever protection each could find, breathing the surrounding, still darkness with swallow, swift breaths, waiting.
When the sky lightened with the first hints of dawn, I heard the restless music of the wind chimes but when I tried to check the weather outside, the view from the window was inexplicably blurred. Behind the cheerful, metallic chimes lurked a more ominous sound: the low roar of the wind attacking the trees. It was still too dark to make out details -- I thought that the railing around the deck held maybe an inch of new snow -- but the mysterious muddiness on the windows was what pried me out from between the covers and into the threat of a new day.
Once up, I realized that the bedroom windows were speckled with moisture as if a hard rain had blown against them. I went into the living room, the spare room, the kitchen: on every side of the house the windows were wet. The swirling wind had tossed snowflakes -- much lighter than raindrops -- in every direction, and with temperatures barely below freezing the flakes melted on contact with the glass.
In that early, new snow, nothing moved except my dog Trooper and me. No, that's not true: the wind blew snow off the roof en masse so that it swooped like a flock of winter finches, banking down from the slope above the house and then turning back onto itself before it finally settled in knife-edged ridges whose boundaries were as precisely drawn as the contour lines of a topo map. The branches of fir trees, already drooping under the weight of that first, virgin inch, nodded and worried like racehorses at a starting gate. The line of our footprints etched sharp in the unbroken new snow.
Four hours later, without electricity in the house, we again braved the wind and falling snow. Ten inches had obscured our morning tracks. The fir trees stood as straight and pale as nuns at prayer, branches drawn down and inward by the weight of the accumulated mass. On the east side of ash tree trunks, every crack, every cranny, every lichen has sprouted a layer of white until now the tree wore a solid cloak against the wind.
On the hills, the forest provided some protection from the weather, but down along the river the wind bellowed through the valley like a runaway freight. Head down, the hood of my waxed cotton Filson parka snugged tight around my face, I battled against the keening wind with every move. Lower to the ground, the dogs ploughed snow the consistency of partially set concrete, their motions almost identical to swimming. Between my knee-high gaiters and the hem of my parka, my pants were soaked. I looked down at my struggling dogs, blinked away a tear of melted snow, and decided to head home.
With the wind at our backs along an already broken trail, the going was much easier but still I hiked head down, oblivious to the world around me. The snow reduced visibility to almost nothing, and no animal in its right mind would be mucking around in this blizzard: they're all huddled somewhere protected.
Or so I thought. When we came to the willow tree with three trunks that hang almost horizontal to the river, Trooper the dog abruptly snapped to attention and barked once. I followed his line of sight across the snow-covered surface of the frozen river. I saw a gray head protrude from the knee-deep snow -- a muskrat? -- but then a gray body humped behind the head in that undulating gait peculiar to members of the weasel clan. And this was the biggest weasel of them all: an otter.
The otter headed through the snow -- half tunneling, half bounding -- across the river and then up the opposite shore, scaling the nearly vertical bank of slippery snow and half-frozen mud in two seemingly effortless strides. And then it was gone, disappearing into the wilderness of dead grasses, snow, and wind.
A breath: that was how long the sighting lasted. An inhale held in my lungs like a prayer, a benediction. And when the otter had been swallowed into the anonymity of the world beyond my sight, an exhaled sigh with a murmur of thanks, for in that one brief moment of a blizzard-shrouded afternoon, I had broken free of the human world of computers and electricity and artificiality and safety. For the span of that one breath, I had become one of them.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources