On the deck, just outside the sliding-glass door, there are red specks in the snow, either cayenne pepper flakes or blood my younger brother Eric says. Mom puts pepper in the bird seed to keep away the squirrels, and it works. Our cat Jasper caught a dark-eyed junco from the feeders yesterday, played with it on the deck just outside the door. I wish I was strong enough to have gone out and ended its misery. But I’m not.
Northern Cardinals, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches
In my ski jacket, knit hat, scarf, mittens, wool socks and boots, I’m sufficiently bundled to take this walk. It’s 26°F outside. Cold, with a subtly biting breeze. I wish it was snowing. The sky is a bright muted gray, a shade brighter than depressing. I’ve left the dog, an elderly yellow Labrador retriever named Bogie, sleeping on my bed upstairs. I head out alone.
When I first step out of the garage, I hear birds. Close by, I hear the chirrup cheeping of house finches in the brambles, the tapping of a downy woodpecker on a hickory tree, a white-breasted nuthatch deeper in the woods, calling. In the distance there is a crow, brittle cawing muffled by the snowy trees. I hear black-capped chickadees, a cheery dee-dee-dee-dee in the higher branches, maybe 12 feet off the ground. A tufted titmouse flies from the birdfeeder on the deck to a nearby tree, watching me. I see three blue jays, higher up than the chickadees, in the bare branches of an oak. There are woodpeckers, I don’t know what species but probably downys, tapping on trees in three different directions around me. My legs are getting cold, so I keep walking. Haven’t made it past the driveway yet. The snow makes a crisp muffled sound underfoot. I walk towards our barn, which is just in front of the woods behind the house.
In the big pine tree just in front of the barn, maybe 200 feet from the house, I find a family of black-capped chickadees, four birds hopping from branch to branch, just off the ground and then up, higher, midway up the tree, 20 feet up, and then back down, down to where I could reach, five feet off the ground. I walk in the tracks Mom, Eric, and I made with our cross-country skis three days ago. The track edges are soft from the most recent snowfall, just yesterday.
As I walk pass the barn, I look through the tree line to the Medzuich’s yard. They have a horse now, wearing a blanket coat, grazing in a small paddock in their front yard, which is in line with our backyard. Between their yard and the road is a stand of tall pines, easily 70 feet tall. Barred owls regularly show up in these pines, sometimes waking us in the night asking ‘whoo-cooks-for-you, whoo-cooks-for-you-all?’ In high school, I was late for my evening dance class more than once because I was mesmerized by a staring barred owl, sitting midway up a pine on the edge of the stand. I remember when their property was a field, where corn and wheat grew. I remember before there was a horse, a house, a driveway. Eight years ago? Nine? It doesn’t matter.
Behind our barn, colored the classic red of all barns, there are stacks of logs covered in snow, waiting to be split into firewood for next year. The summer after my senior year of high school, when I couldn’t find a job, my dad paid me to paint the barn. It was miserably hot, and the paint would dry on the brush and in the tray before I could get it on the walls. Dad and Eric will use the home-made Frankenstein-looking log splitter, which they bought from the former neighbor across the street, Mr. Barth, to turn the huge log rounds into kindling and pieces suitable for the furnace and wood stove. There are holes in the siding of the barn, where a northern flicker tried to make a cavity or look for insects in the treated wood. Dad wasn’t happy about that. Below the holes, the siding on the back corner of the barn is cracked from where Eric ran into it with the tractor. Dad wasn’t happy about that, either.
I hear a noise and look up to see tundra swans, flying overhead in a check-shape formation; one leg of the V is longer than the other. I count 28. Before this year, I’d never seen flyover tundra swans, not here in the backyard. They spend the summer in the Arctic, and these overhead are heading to the East Coast for the winter. The pond behind our house isn’t big enough to tempt them to land. I wonder if they can even see it, surrounded by the tall hickories, oaks, ash, tulip poplars, and maples that make up the woods.
I take a few more steps and leave the yard, striding onto the path that goes through the woods behind the barn to our small pond. There are sprays of dirt here and there, where squirrels have been digging for buried caches of hickory nuts. In the woods are shorter oaks with pale, shriveled leaves that shiver in the wind.
A dead squirrel is on the path. There are bits of fur in piles, scattered in a foot radius around the body. The tail has been ripped off and the body is twisted into a ball. At first inspection, I though the head was gone, but it’s just curled into the stomach, as if the dead squirrel was trying to sleep. The cold wind blows, making the oak leaves rustle. Crows, two or three, call from the direction of the pond, further off in the gray trees. There is urgent woodpecker tapping behind me, Morse code I don’t understand. The body is frozen hard; I nudged it with my boot. It is a large squirrel, with brown and gray fur, probably a fox squirrel. Any tracks around the body are hidden in the trampled snow of the path, so I have no idea what did this squirrel in. Hawk? Or mammal? And why was it left, not finished off? A squirrel tail can’t be filling. In the cold, you need all the food you can get. It can’t be easy to be a predator in the winter. I get cold again, and move on down the path, further in the woods towards the pond.
My footprints from yesterday contain fresh deer tracks. There are deer tracks everywhere, in paths leading off into the trees, straight lines winding on unknown business. Yesterday I saw two deer bounding away, deeper into the woods behind the pond. Eventually, if you keep going in that direction, you reach the highway. Miles away from our property, but not as endless as I once thought.
I stop and place my bare hand on an oak tree. The bark is soft and corky, and not as cold as I thought it would be. If I push hard enough, in just the right way, I feel I could press my hand inside. Is it warm in the center of a tree? A blue jay calls, once, twice, three, four times. Where are the others? If a tree had a mind, what would it think about?
Even though I am in the woods behind our house, yard, and barn, I can still hear cars as they pass on the road in front of the house, which is only about 3/4ths of a mile away. No matter how hard they try, the birds can’t drown out the sounds of the traffic. I keep walking along the snowy path in the woods, past a deer stand nailed up in a tree. It belongs to the Reininger’s, the neighbors that live behind us, back in the woods. There are inches of snow on top, and it hasn’t been used in years. The deer don’t even try to pretend to be frightened too much anymore.
I continue along, following the path through the trees. There are squirrel tracks in the snow, bounding from tree to tree. The snow is shallower in the woods than it was in the yard, here only a few inches deep, ankle deep. I stare out at the trees, and I hear birds calling. White-breasted nuthatches, crows, black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos. Without meaning too, I note the species, direction, distance. My bones are getting cold. My mind is spread flat on the ground, surrounding the trees like snow cover. Each inhale makes the rims of my nostrils ache. My cheeks feel rosy, red, and raw.
I cross over a trickle of water, a streamlet draining from the lower ground behind the pond to the ravine deeper in the woods, and there are grains of hoarfrost in frozen footprints. The path takes a slight incline up to the pond from here, a mountain if you’re Eric on cross-country skis, five steps to the top. For anyone else, the elevation change of roughly three feet is barely noticeable. Looking up, a black-capped chickadee does aerobatics in the tiny thin bare branches of a nearby ash tree. Three of its friends and family are nearby, watching. I can hear the scrape of the snowplow on bare pavement as it drives by on the road.
The pond is finally frozen solid, with an opaque under-layer to the ice, hoar-crystals on top, looking white and deceptively stable. Once, when we were little, at least a couple feet shorter than we are now, Eric and I fell through the ice by the dock. The ice was solid, but not strong enough to hold our combined weight when we stood next to each other. I pulled him out. I might have been in elementary school, and he’s four years younger. I remember it being cold. The water was dark, black, I couldn’t see my feet hit the bottom.
Leaving the pond behind, I take the path back through the woods, towards the barn, yard, and house, towards the warmth. I’ve never counted how many steps it takes, but I’ve been this way thousands of times. My body knows how long it feels to walk from the pond to the yard, to the house. I measure the distance in body-time, in heartbeats and breaths. Now there are blue jays in the big pine in front of the barn, which fly away once I see them. The feeders on the deck are empty but swaying, something scared the birds off. Me? They’ll return soon enough to eat their cayenne pepper-laced seed. In the garage, I stomp the snow from my boots and head inside.
Bogie looking out across his domain