Traces in the Snow

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
After it first falls, thick and smooth, deep enough to cover gravel and ground and all traces of autumn, I go out hesitantly into the new snow and leave the first blemishes in the unbroken white. In the beginning, there are just the boot tracks to the woodpile and the signs of the dog’s quick trips out and back. For a time during the storm, these trampings will fill with the sediments of the next wave of snow, leaving smooth undulations in the surface. But life goes on, and one can do only so much admiring from the windows. By yesterday, there were tracks–our own and others–that showed what a busy place our seemingly-deserted valley really is in winter.

Over there is where the dog and I went down to wade across the creek, to rummage through the barn for the snow shovel that we needed for the first time this season. And there, past the garden, I’d remembered too late to retrieve my maul, and you can see where I rooted around with the toe of my boot to find it buried under six inches of snow next to a rounded mound of split cherry I could smell even through the snow. And those human tracks going back into the valley are not mine; they belong to the friend who called this morning and asked if he could hunt our land. He left a while ago, carrying out only his deer rifle.

Turkey tracks loop back and forth in the pasture between Nameless Creek and the opposite ridge along the old pasture road. Grasses that stick up from the snow have been nipped along the turkey trots. Here and there, the snow has been scratched away and the frozen earth bothered by prehistoric scaled feet, grubbing up a meal. At times their three-toed tracks suddenly disappear half way up the steep bank, and I know they took wing, ponderously, and only because the bank was too slick with snow for their heavy bodies to climb. Maybe they were startled to flight as the dog and I took our first walk along the creek this morning. They will roost in the tall pines up top of the ridge and be back making more tracks down here tomorrow.

Deer tracks are everywhere in the morning, each hoof mark a sharp pair of converging crescents the shape of praying hands; they are creatures of the night. In the daytime, against the snow, their gray-brown disguise is laughable. Only when they run up the hill away from us does the white flag of their tail match their winter hiding place. It is in the snow during hunting season that they are most vulnerable. And about that, I have mixed feelings.
Excerpt from “Traces” in Fred’s book, Slow Road Home

Nature Imitates Art

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
I rushed frantically to reach the high clearing for a shot of the late afternoon light through a blue fog that lift out of the valley. That, I thought, was my reason to be there.

With great purpose and focus, I rushed from my car at a favorite Parkway overlook, and while stumbling through the windswept forest with tripod and camera bag headed toward the open pasture views of a fog-pale distant landscape, I was struck by the beauty of the autumn woods that I was hurrying through.

But it struck me: if it was the magic of light I was after, why, here it was, just at my feet.

I stopped and spent a precious few minutes there before rushing to the last of the light at the clearing. And in the end, it was these shots of windblown ferns in their last grand display of fall that pleased me most from that afternoon excursion.

Here again at the end of their season of life as at their beginnings, these hayscented ferns have taken on a pleasing translucence. Tattered by the wind, cinnamon and pale green against the dark shadows of gnarled, windpruned treetrunks, there was a kind of magic in the light.

And once home, yes, I’ve added to the fantasy story-book magic by applying my brushes–Photoshop–because this reminds me of the art in the nature we would otherwise rush past. This is the way I remember the moment; this is what I want others to feel when they share it with me.

But the true art comes, as it has for centuries, from those who use real pens, pencils and brushes and palettes to create solely by their imaginations those “effects” I can only bring about by clicking the right buttons. Those artists saw the same magic, and made it real by the power of their eye, heart and hand.

So I consider it the sincerest form of flattery that I imitate artists, as artists draw their vision from landscapes that wait for us to notice.

China Hot Dish

“Skating has been banned on the melting ice of Beijing lakes, trees are blossoming early and people are shedding their heavy clothes as China experiences its warmest winter on record. Magnolias are blooming in Beijing as if it were April.” seedmagazine

Yep. It’s global warming, say Chinese officials. Officials who are as proud of their cognitive dissonance as Americans in the same role, knowing that…

“China is one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas blamed for global warming, which is released into the atmosphere through the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

About 70 percent of China’s energy comes from burning coal, and there are plans to dramatically increase production as the energy demands of the nation’s fast-modernising population of 1.3 billion people continue to soar.”

Get ready for this little factoid:

China built 117 government-approved coal-fired power plants in 2005–a rate of roughly one every three days, according to official figures.

They blame existing conditions on the developed world. True enough. But to knowingly invest so heavily in more of the same gives some indication of how well the global community is going to cooperate on this most serious environmental issue of our times. In the end, a solution will come, and the atmosphere will return to pre-industrial levels.

Our species might not be here in significant numbers to see it.

Wounded Wood

Walnut Wood / Floyd County / Southwest Virginia
Back when we first moved to Goose Creek, I was chatting excitedly with a woodworking friend about my idea to grow walnuts on our land as an investment crop for our children’s future. Walnuts make exceptionally beautiful pieces of handcrafted furniture.

“I wouldn’t bother” she discouraged me. “Walnuts growing in Floyd County are often gnarled and misshappen. They can be used for some interesting small pieces, given their distorted grains, but they don’t do much as saw lumber.”

And since then, we’ve burned a good bit of walnut as firewood (culled from the edges of the wannabe-garden). A half dozen cast shadows on (and grew their roots into) where we wanted veggies to grow, and we’re burning them this winter for heat. And they have without exception have had warty-gnarly trunks with little clear grain for more than a foot or two. And my presumption now is that this might be due to genetics: our local walnuts have inherited poor wound healing genes.

You can see in this picture what I found when I unloaded the truck one day recently. I had been cutting up a walnut dropped up the valley along the old postal road that follows alongside our pasture. This tree is only about 45 years old, so the lead bullet slug I cut in half with my chain saw earlier that day couldn’t have come from Daniel Boone’s black power rifle. Shucks. I can’t say when it was shot, but long enough ago that you can see the tree has grown “scar tissue” down over the entry point; you can almost visualize the turbulence created in the layers of spring and summer wood as the bullet arked its way to a stop deep in the trunk.

And it is just this kind of swollen hump that are found so commonly on our walnuts–even those that haven’t been filled full of lead. It may be something as simple as normal limb self-pruning that leads to this unsightly wounding in our genetic population of walnuts, while others elsewhere make nice clean scars that don’t damage the quality of the beautiful purple-brown wood.

On this single-digit winter morning, I have one other observation about walnut: as firewood, it makes more light and ash than heat, and I hope not much more of it goes through the woodstove doors. My kingdom for some oak! Brrrrr! (More on tree genetics and wound healing here for the one person out of a thousand who would care to know.)

HELP! Has my sidebar disappeared in MSIE? Just checked it from work and it’s gone! If it is missing, has it been missing for days? Anybody noticed? – FF

4 PM Tuesday: Home now, and MSIE from here shows the sidebar. AND the Google Ads are more relevant in MSIE than in FireFox, which among others at this minute shows PASCO COUNTY–Florida? Common Google. RELEVANT! Surely you can do better!

Whole Foods, Whole Planet

“An Enviga website says that the drink’s blend of green tea and caffeine burns more calories than it contains and can help drinkers maintain an ideal weight. According to a Nestle study, young people who drank three of the 12-ounce drinks a day burned an average of 106 calories.” link

I thought it was a joke when I heard about this new soft drink on NPR tonight. Targeted at overweight teenagers, it burns calories, they say. But wait a minute: you have to drink 36 ounces of the stuff, including the artificial sweeteners, caffeine and theophylline plus lord only knows what else–to burn a hundred calories?

This especially striking example of “nutritionism” loomed large after recently reading Michael Pollan’s piece, Unhappy Meals in the NY Times. How have we become so far removed from WHOLE FOODS and so wrapped up in their reductionist dissection into “nutrients” about which we still understand so little? Whatever our modern western notions are about eating, they’re not working. They’re killing us and the planet.

“The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

In the end, Pollan’s simple but well-reasoned advice (in the long NYT article–clip and save it): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Consider avoiding anything that wasn’t around when your great grand-parents were having their meals. Eat as few industrialized, refined food-like substances as possible. And don’t listen to food labels, or most food or diet fads.

Why are we in America the most “well-fed” while our diet is killing us? I highly recommend you read this piece, and like me, send it to your kids. They need to hear it again: eat your vegetables! Our health future–and the world’s–may depend on it.