Out of the Cold

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
Well, not quite. Ann left to spend yet another night at the workplace so she’d be sure and be able to open up the pharmacy at 6:00 this morning. We’ve had just enough accumulating snow showers and strong winds to make driving–especially in the dark–something to be avoided.

But this week’s weather promises the possibilities of a return, perhaps briefly, to some low 50’s temps, which will fell positively balmy.

And how happy I am that I took the time to stop for these frozen creek pictures, because the warm rain before the last ice storm sent muddy water onto the white surface of the creek, and its transient beauty was lost. Once again, as if I needed it, I’m reminded of how fleeting each moment’s light truly is. Note to self: be inclined to stop and smell the roses–or capture the moment to digital film; and indelible memory.

How Cold Was It?

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
You know it’s cold when the rhododendron leaves go tubular.

As one of the few broadleaved plants still in leaf over winter, extra precautions are needed.

On the plus side, this evergreen mountain shrub can remain metabolically active all winter long. But that involves water needs (from frozen ground) and water production in photosynthesis (with the risk of cells burst by freezing.)

So rolling the leaves reduces surface area, creating a higher humidity field around the leaf’s lower surface; the top surface is lacquered in a kind of waterproof coating, the cuticle. The substances in rhododendron’s sap (the equivalent of resin in conifers) acts as a kind of antifreeze.

And the tight rolls offer little for snow to settle on, though we have ample evidence in our woods that wet snows have been heavy winter burdens on the gnarled and spindly shoulders of our mountain heaths, creating low tangles that have long been called “laurel hells”. Just try to get through one, especially with a backpack on!

NOTE: Today will be the warmest day in weeks, only to be followed by an ice storm coming our way tomorrow. Doh!

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.