Warm Home in a Cold World

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains / by Fred First
My mother rubs my face in snows when I lament our winter woes.

“You should never have left Alabama” she scolds me, never having quite gotten over the fact that we were meant to live among mountains and not in the deep, sultry south.

But there was never any doubt about it. My first hint of my calling was at a wildflower event in the Great Smoky Mountains back in grad school at Auburn. There was something in the air–a pheromone of ancient granite, perhaps–that pulled us north.

And it is the Blue Ridge Mountains more than the Ridge and Valley (the setting of nearby Wytheville where we spent 12 years) that seems offer the strongest pull to home.

In winter, the weather is both hostile and beautiful. And we feel very much at home surrounded by it all.

(Do click on the image above for a larger look. Landscapes like this lose so much in a teeny view.)

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.

Study in Winter #1

Country Scenics from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
The way ice grows in Goose Creek fascinates me, and I’m sorry I haven’t chronicled the process over the past month. Still, where we live gets too much southern exposure. It isn’t nearly as good an ice garden as down the road a mile or so where the perpetual shade of the hills spawns crop after crop of ice every night.

And I’d have missed the opportunity to show you three shots from yesterday if I hadn’t agreed to carry one of Ann’s care packages to the kids over to the Check post office. I waited until there was at least a little light striking the valley flanks before leaving, and on the way home, risked limb and equipment and slid my boots down into the creek bed and onto the ice for views east and west along Goose Creek in its winter garb.

You can just see the road in the distance.

Meanwhile, today, an ice storm looms west just off the radar, just far enough away that I’m not going to know what to do about trying to get to the clinic this morning. Getting there, I can do. Getting home as conditions worsen over the day, not so sure. Gonna be one of those days.

Winter Lights

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
My hope was to get to the back of the valley (the “Nameless Creek Gorge” I call it) before the sun disappeared behind the steep west ridge. I didn’t make it in time.

By the time I reached my destination at 3:00, the lighting along the creek was already flat shadow. But walking back home–sad to have waited too long to get the shot I had in mind–I turned around and saw this dazzling last light behind me, a single shaft reaching the valley floor just seconds before the sun dropped away from our holler for another day.

This is another example of light looking for a subject to draw the eye. For me, the sparkle of the pines and the way the light of the snow draws the eye into the mysterious darkness is enough. The image embodies the feel of the moment, and such pictures are more for the photographer than for his audience.

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