Fox tracks crisscross my yard. Down the trail to the lake, along the lakeshore, across the hill in one direction (stopping at a tiny pine tree to mark his territory), and then back across the hill on the diagonal (making that poor little pine tree the center of the X). The strings of tracks remind me that I’m not the only one who lives here. These woods are alive, even under the blanket of snow and the low-slung stars. I try to read the fox’s nocturnal adventures in the tracks, to guess at his life in the forest, but so much of nature, especially at night, is still a mystery.
We have just experienced the longest night of the year, and for six months now, the nights will shorten again, giving way to the day. Winter solstice has always been a time to rejoice in the returning of the light. People from all over the Earth and throughout the span of human time have celebrated with food, fire, and forgiveness. Though the longest nights have passed for this year, we still have many more long winter nights before the light and dark find balance at the equinox.
Have you ever wondered what happens out there, under the heavens, while you sleep? I went to bed last night with a crystal-clear sky, stars sparkling like diamonds in the plummeting cold. This morning I woke to a blanket of clouds, a dusting of snow on my windshield. When did the clouds roll in? What did the snow look like as it fell? Who was out there to see it? Was the fox trotting along thinking, as poet Mary Oliver infers, “It is music to wander the black back roads/outside of town -- no one awake or wondering/if anything/miraculous is ever going to/happen, totally dumb to the fact of every/moment's miracle…”
The sparkle of hoar frost (from the Norse hārr, “gray with age”) on the trees this morning certainly makes it seem like something extraordinary transpired last night while no one was awake and wondering. Extraordinary, but still explained by chemistry and physics. As the temperature dropped below the dew point, water was squeezed out of the air. In this case, the dew point just happened to be below freezing (therefore it is technically called the frost point), so water precipitated as ice on cold objects instead of condensing as dew. The frost crystals often form intricate patterns that scatter light, making them appear like a white frosting on all the trees, as if the world is made of glitter.
Down the trail to the lake, along the lakeshore, I make my own tracks. Two parallel ribbons stream out behind me as I ski on the frozen lake. Hoar frost carpets the thin snowpack, and miniature forests of crystals glitter on patches of wind-swept ice. Fox tracks are everywhere. A loud pop and eerie wail sound from the ice. As the temperature drops, the ice expands and fractures. I can trace the path of the crack with my ears.
Thin ice acts as huge membrane across which the crackling and popping sounds spread. One website, devoted to recording these ice songs, (Search “silent listening ice recordings” to find it) explains that: “The high frequencies of the popping and cracking noises are transmitted faster by the ice than the deeper frequencies, which reach the listener with a time lag as glissandi (a glide from one pitch to another)” Science explains even the marvel of ice singing.
Tonight I am feeling the music of wandering the back ways outside of town. Moonlight glitters, ice sings, our planet spins toward the light. Though science can explain them all, there is still room for wonder. For example, science cannot reveal the thoughts of a fox. We leave that up to the poets.
Tonight I, and maybe you, and maybe even the fox, are awake and wondering.
What is this moment’s miracle?
For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.