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Letter From Skunk Hollow: Walking and watching the woods fill up with snow

Walking in the trees with an old rifle, a new log-hauling rig and a welcome presence from the past.

The crusty snow and sleet mixture that fell Dec. 5 has had me muttering as I struggled to remove it from windshields and walkways, but it has also frosted the woods with a windproof and so far warm-proof layer so thick it looks as if a blizzard just passed by. And then Monday's snow fell in feathery clumps.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Right from the morning coffee, Monday presented itself as a dilemma — the one E.B. White so memorably described as an internal struggle between a desire to save the world and an urge to simply savor it.

I was in my study, reading through a pile of materials on copper mining and the risks it poses to some especially beautiful portions of Minnesota’s north woods.

But the snow was falling in big, feathery clumps, and I kept looking out the window.

A plaintive, feline yowling started somewhere in the house. It came steadily closer and then one of the cats — Phoebe, the younger and fatter of our pair, who usually snoozes through her winter mornings — came striding in.

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Standing by my chair and staring me in the face, she folded back her ears and kept wailing with an urgency suggesting Timmy had fallen in the well.

There being no Timmy on the premises, I invited her to shut up. Maybe you know how that goes with cats.

So, OK. I laid my maps and tables aside and followed Phoebe, wailing still, up the stairs to the kitchen and then over to the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the backyard and woods beyond. Ten feet away, a dozen turkeys were cleaning up birdseed that had fallen from our feeders.  

Usually any sign of movement from the humans’ side of the glass will scatter these birds, but not this time. Some seemed to register my presence and ignore it; others seemed unaware.

I thought at first they might be focused on the steady rain of seed that a swarm of goldfinches was creating. Now I think it must have been the snow, so heavy as to drape a gauzy curtain over the house.

From inside, Phoebe seemed to be watching the big flakes, too, and maybe that’s what alarmed her, because turkeys are virtually an everyday sight in winter from those windows, and so on many days is falling snow.

But not snow like this. So I pulled on some mukluks and went outside for a closer look.

Scenes from a Japanese woodblock

The crusty, snow and sleet mixture that fell Dec. 5 has had me muttering as I struggled to remove it from windshields and walkways.

But it has also frosted the woods with a windproof and so far warm-proof layer so thick it looks as if a blizzard just passed by. Strolling amid the evergreens and bare hardwoods reminded me in places of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of 19th-century Japan in snow.

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Strolling amid the evergreens and bare hardwoods reminded me in places of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of 19th-century Japan in snow.

It is an awesome sight, and it may be here till April.

I walked down to check on the gut pile one of my neighbors had left after getting his deer on Thanksgiving morning and found the entrails nearly gone, which would explain why the crows have moved their gatherings elsewhere.

I was carrying a rifle, not for crows but in case I should happen upon a rabbit, or maybe a couple of the fat squirrels I’ve watched plumping up on the acorns that seemed especially abundant this year. (Don’t tell Sallie about this, please.)

Where this interest in small game comes from I can’t quite explain, except to say its sources are probably similar to those that drove Michael Pollan to shoot that wild pig some years ago, after his own internal conversation about the subject:

What first got me out there, in the oak chaparral of northern Sonoma County that morning last spring, hoping to shoot a wild pig, was a conceit. I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted to prepare a meal I had hunted, gathered and grown myself. Why? To see if I could do it.

I was also curious to experience the food chain — which has grown so long and complex as to no longer even feel anything like a food chain — at its shortest and most elemental. And I had long felt that, as a meat eater, I should, at least once, take responsibility for the killing that eating meat entails. I wanted, for once in my life, to pay the full karmic price of a meal.

An heirloom firearm

The origins of the rifle, on the other hand, I know in some detail. It was made by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., a Model .06, and if the serial-number reference I consulted is reliable, it came off the line in New Haven in 1926. It belonged at one point to my father’s uncle Clyde, who scratched the initials “CM” in the stock, upside down.

Clyde grew up in West Virginia, as my father did, and in his youth is said to have engaged in an enterprise that today might be described as small-batch distilling, using the Winchester to acquire rabbits and squirrels for his midday meals. Later in life he made his fortune, which I think may have been considerable, in the insurance business.

Visiting there as boy, I would go walking with my dad on roads made of crushed rock and clinker from coal operations and we would plink away at beer cans and such with this gun, so small and light that an 8-year-old can carry it all day without a sling. I’ve been pretty accurate with it from the start.

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Game was scarce on yesterday’s walk, as it happened, but I had for a while the feeling of walking with my father again, which was nice, and then wishing he were still alive to see where I live now, and to hear what I’m learning from this place.

Sometimes when I’m working on a carpentry project or mechanical repair I can hear his voice, coaching me again — “tighten those bolts in rotation, a little bit at a time, so you don’t warp the disc” — and the advice is always useful.

Hauling firewood in winter

I’ve listened carefully over the last few years for any suggestions he might have about the best way of hauling firewood over our steep terrain for stacking near the house, which we try to heat with wood as much as is practical, but he has been silent on the matter.

Not surprising — he had spent his entire life in towns, and his boyhood reflected the relatively privileged circumstances that fell to households carried by railroad employment through the Depression. Wonder what he’d make of the mukluks.

As for hauling the logs I’ve cut, I’ve tried wheelbarrows. I’ve tried small wagons. I’ve tried bundling the stuff with rope and carrying on my back. Torture all the way, and each method worse than the others.

But a few weeks ago, as deer season approached, it came to me that the kind of rig you might use to drag a buck out of the woods could be adapted to firewood.

Somewhat amazingly, this has proved to be the case. Combining a polyethylene deer sled with a special drag harness enables me to pull well over 100 pounds of logs at a time behind me as I hike around our place. Maybe 150.

The harness is blaze orange, never a bad idea in a place where people might be looking to shoot small game, and the sled just floats along over bumpy trails and fallen limbs, even without a layer of snow over the leaves and brush of the forest floor.

The new crust, freshly powdered, makes it all seem to go twice as fast, and according to an armband heart monitor I sometimes wear out of curiosity, dragging the wood this way is as good a workout as racking up the miles on a road bike.

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I realize these discoveries may not be exactly riveting for each and every Earth Journal reader. But I wanted to tell someone.