Friday, November 7, 2014

Five things that improve after a hard freeze:

1. Sparkling rubies nestle in emerald green moss, illuminated by the weak glow of a headlamp. Dampness oozes from the deep layers of peat soil, and from the fresh layers of sphagnum that climb the scaffolding of twiggy leatherleaf bushes. And my boots. The dampness also oozes around my boots.

Reaching, stretching, I search almost manically for the little bog jewels. Ignoring back aches, ignoring the way that damp moss and damp breeze suck the warmth from fingertips, ignoring a friend who is not ignoring those things and wants to go home. The one quart yogurt tub in my left hand has almost been filled with cranberries by my right hand. Almost. Not quite, and look, there’s another patch by that hummock.  And another over there. That one is pale and firm--not yet frosted and sweetened. Look! Three perfect jewels dangle among dry threads of grass.

The first (or second?) wet snowstorm of fall had pushed marble-size berries deep into the moss. Then it melted. More snow is forecast, so we must pick everything we want now, under the cloudy darkness, listening to the rush of city traffic not far beyond the soggy bog and tangled forest.

A cherry red gem gleams from its cozy bed. I pluck it with numb fingers; listen to it plunk onto its comrades. In its hole, I spy more red. I scoop that one up too, only to see a third fruit shining from even deeper. This one is so perfectly ripe that I place it on my tongue, gently pressing it against the roof of my mouth until it bursts. No one sees my pucker face in the dark. Nor do they hear the involuntary hum of satisfaction as the frost-softened, cold-sweetened, pungently wild flavor of the bog fills my night.

2. The hard edge of my library card peels elegant curls of frost off the windshield. A quick peek under the garden cold frame reveals a small grove of deep green spinach–frozen solid. Oh well; next year I’ll eat them sooner. But hard frosts require a clear sky, and the day soon warms. Later, I find my spinach cheerful, thawed, sprightly and intact. Into the salad bowl, quick, before it’s too late! Unlike the wilted and bitter salads of summer, these leaves are sturdy and sweet, requiring much grateful mastication in my sunny kitchen.

3. A friend tells me that his delivery guy drove through a sideways storm. It’s gone now, but the northwest sides of the tree trunks are white—skunk striped with damp, driven flakes. Our hiking boots make sculpted designs in the snow. The woods are silent and still. We see only red squirrels and one hairy woodpecker. But others have been here recently. Otters, fishers, foxes, voles, and shrews crossed our path. The snow holds the record of their presence and their passing. Otherwise, how would I know? Snow makes the forest feel alive.

4. In the sunny opening created by a fallen sugar maple, little tan moths flutter feebly. Moths? But it can’t be more than forty degrees. Quick! Get a photo! Here, I caught one. Delicate fringes outline their wings, while darker brown, fuzzy, scalloped lines fill them in. They are everywhere. On the snow. Deeper in the woods. Drifting in front of our noses.

Bruce spanworms are pesky little green and yellow inchworms that turn unfurling spring leaves into lacy green skeletons. They prefer sugar maple, aspen, elm, and apple. In June, they pupate, and wait until cold drives away hungry bats, birds, and predacious insects. In the relative safety of the late-fall woods, the adults emerge. Wingless females, full of eggs instead of flight muscles, simply crawl up the nearest tree to waft pheromones into the breeze. They wait. Meanwhile, the males give thanks for antifreeze, and shiver large flight muscles up to temperature. The cold dictates relatively slow wing beats, but those wings are broad enough to carry a lightweight body through the air. Females lay pale green eggs into the grooves of bark. Neither adult eats. Over winter, the eggs turn orange. Unfazed by the cold, the caterpillars hatch in May.

5. Mosquitoes. My deepest gratitude to whichever source of infinite wisdom reserved the power of winter flight for soft-winged moths, and not mosquitoes. Praise be to the hard freeze. Praise be to the delicacy of their little, buzzing lives.

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