Reprinted with permission by PineStraw Magazine.
By the time we reached the empty parking lot, the snow was really coming down, coating the forest in a mantle of white.
It was just after dawn and my wife was away for the weekend. On a Sabbath lark, the dogs and I had come for an early walk in the woods of the battleground. The snow — the first of a hither to snowless winter — was a genuine surprise, a lovely bonus.
I knew these ancient pathways well, or did once upon a time, because I roamed the park’s bridle paths and historic killing fields as a boy on foot or on my bicycle. I was probably more at ease in the woods than anywhere else, speaking the language of old trees and hidden creeks, judging them to be magical places inhabited by watchful spirits and kindly revenants, my own imagination running free and wild. I suppose this may have been the product of a fairly solitary childhood fueled by my father’s newspaper odyssey across the deep South and the classic adventure books I was drawn to from the moment I learned to read. Old forests always hold secrets and are fertile ground for the young hero’s transformation.
Snow is also magical, especially here in the middle South where it is so blessedly rare, principally because it mutes the affairs of the world and draws most things to a respectful halt, often shifting one’s perspectives inward.
As a kid roaming on a bike in the 1960s, I remember snowfalls that shut down Greensboro and other parts of the state for days, even weeks at a time. Once, anticipating just such a storm, Mrs. Mills, my sixth-grade teacher, asked us to memorize a snow poem. I chose Longfellow’s “Snow-flakes” and can still summon a few key stanzas by heart:
Out of the bosom of the air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow
In a way, she cleverly set me up for good old Elizabeth Smith in my junior year of high school, who gave me a surprising gift after I shocked my buddies by winning a city writing contest: The collected works of Robert Frost, America’s snowy laureate, which only fueled my fascination with the winter landscape, paths diverging in bare or yellowing wood and choices that make all the difference.
Truthfully, even before I fully realized this fact, snowy woods have always been a comfort and cure for whatever is ailing me, unquestionably one reason I happily resided on a forested hilltop near the coast of Maine for nearly two decades. That place still shows up in my winter dreams.
As the dogs excitedly dragged me past General Greene on his white-caped steed deeper into the ancient hardwoods, I thought it might simply be the strange winter weather — or telltale absence of it — that had me seeking the cold comfort of a Sunday walk in the woods. The balmy holiday season just past was more fitting for Key West than old Catawba, alarming in its long-range forecast, confirming 2015 to be the warmest year on record, a planet growing hotter and more socially volatile every year, altering everything from the lives of indigenous plants to the migrations of birds and nations, many with disastrous consequences.
On a happier note this winter morn, I gave myself the task of seeing if I could find the “screaming brothers,” as I once called a trio of remarkable old trees in a row — hickories, I believe — that presented large oval mouths (home to critters) beneath bulging “eye” knots and bare outstretched limbs that made them look like terrified soldiers fleeing the battlefield. They stood, I vaguely recalled, somewhere off a footpath near an open meadow where hundreds of Colonials and British soldiers died and twice their number were wounded in less than ninety minutes of action one cold mid-March afternoon.
In the news this morning 235 years later, I learned that English actor Alan Rickman and rock legend David Bowie had died within hours of each other, both gents in their 60s. Rickman was one of my favorite actors long before he brought the mysterious potion master Severus Snape to life in the Harry Potter canon, and though I wasn’t the biggest fan of David Bowie’s music, it was touching to hear him say in a recent radio interview that he didn’t fear dying anymore — just grieved that there was less time to do things he’d learned were really important, to see those around him come to flower.
As the dogs joyously sniffed fallen logs and yanked me along, I realized something along the same lines was weighing on my wintery thoughts.
In our close, blended family, only one of our four children remains an actual teenager, and not for very long; my two are now young adults in their mid-20s, living and working in New York City. My wife’s two are finishing college in Boston and New Jersey. They all have their own demanding lives and loves and don’t really appear to need my wife and me the way they did just five minutes ago. The good news is they each seem prepared and confident to venture over the horizon and make a contribution to a world growing more complex and warmer by the year, a comfort that their moms and I did our jobs pretty well. The bad news is, I’m just not sure I’m prepared to let them all go so soon, to depart from Daddyland.
“Children are our crop, our fields, our earth,” wrote the late James Salter in his exquisite novel, Light Years. “They are birds let loose into darkness. They are errors renewed. Still, they are the only source from which may be drawn a life more successful, more knowing than our own. Somehow they will do one thing, take one step further, they will see the summit. We believe in it, the radiance that streams from the future, from days we will not see. Children must live, must triumph. Children must die; that is an idea we cannot accept.”
Trying to let your grown children go, once and for all, birds into darkness, is a task made more challenging by an age that’s moving at dizzying speed. Social scientists point out that there’s been more change in the half century since I found the Screaming Brothers in a revolutionary forest than at any time in human history, a truth as inspiring as it is terrifying. We stand on the cusp of breathtaking cures, they point out, unimagined discoveries, and technological mega-wonders. Yet we live in a world where polar ice caps are melting faster than they are forming and medieval savageries are reducing the symbols of Western civilization to dust.
For me and my kind who are passing from the Earth, it feels a little like losing your way in a beautiful snowy woodland without thinking much of where you are headed.
That’s when I realized I might be lost, if that’s the right word for it.
The woods were lovely, dark and deep — and I was panting like a panicked sheep, to woefully paraphrase Frost. Suddenly on my mind were two colleagues who’d recently suffered heart attacks. The one who failed to make it was also walking his dogs, a gentle giant in his early 40s; the other was a friend and editor just ten years my junior. If I keeled over right then and there, it occurred to me, the snow would lightly cover me up and Mulligan, my beloved alpha female, I was fairly sure, would wait loyally by my side. Would Ajax, my wife’s young and ridiculously spoiled Golden Retriever, do the same? If one croaks in an ancient wood, does anyone but God or your dogs bother to notice? For the record, my companions didn’t appear the least bit concerned about this possibility.
Through a curtain of snow, I saw what The Mull was so intent upon. A familiar obelisk stood in the clearing yonder and a family of deer, what appeared to be a doe and two yearlings in search of breakfast, were guardedly watching us as they moved toward safety in the far woodland.
A few moments later, as we were moving on down the path and across the stream and up the hill, the Screaming Brothers suddenly appeared, only there are just two now and they didn’t look nearly so alarmed, more like old men yawning.
It took us only a little while to get back to the car.
By that time, others were arriving with their dogs and the snow was easing up.
A woman dressed for the Iditarod was being pulled along by her twin black Labs, making for the bridle path we’d just left.
As our dogs swapped vital information about their owners, she remarked with a big Sunday smile that snow made her feel like a kid again. I told I her I knew exactly what she meant.