The Rural Life
A Track in the Snow
A couple of weeks ago, when the snow was at its deepest, I walked up the hill in the middle pasture after chores. By that time in the afternoon, I am often trudging through my thoughts, barely noticing anything around me. Part of the pleasure of chores is that they happen in the same light every day, though the hour changes as the days lengthen and contract. No matter what I’m doing, I am propelled outside by the falling light, which means that I’m often doing chores mid-paragraph. I imagine that the animals are mid-paragraph too, for we are all just going about our business together.
Coming back down the hill, plunging knee-deep through the snow, I stopped. There was the print of a bird’s wings. From their angle and size, I guessed it was a barn owl. I looked across the pasture and saw a squirrel’s track, which ended at the wing-print — no sign of a struggle, just an abrupt vanishing. Going up the hill, I had walked past these marks without even noticing them.
A week later, all the snow had melted, which left me thinking about a question of ephemerality. That wing-print was a solid fact, the remains of a bone-jarring collision between two animals. One life ended there, and another was extended, but the only trace is in my mind. If I had come down the hill in the fog of thought that surrounded me while I was doing the chores, I would never have seen the print of those powerful wings and they would have left no mark in me.
I have grown used to the idea that nearly everything around me in nature happens unobserved and unrecorded. A snowy winter sometimes retains a transcript, but even those are rare. The bills of animal mortality are almost completely invisible otherwise. Who thrives, who dies, there is no accounting at all, only the fact of thriving and dying.
That wing-print allowed me to glimpse the uncompromising discipline of nature. But it will stand in my mind as the model of an almost perfect ephemerality, a vision of life itself. The snow has melted away, taking with it the squirrel’s track and the arc of those wings and my own track up the hill and the burnished spots where the horses rolled in the snow.