A couple of days ago the snow returned, reminding us that spring isn’t quite here. Until then, we had begun to feel the warmer touches to the air; the bushes had thought about a bud and some birds began gathering twigs. Too soon, it seems. Recently thawed ground once again lies under a thick cover; pines that had shed their heavy loads are once again blanketed; snow clearing equipment put away until next season is hauled out again.
I am keen to walk – in the forest. My route takes me eastward from my lodgings in Herrnhut, down the hill along a well-known path – Galloping Tuberculosis (the alternative to Langsamer Tod, the Slow Death) – which is the age-old track for villagers between Ruppersdorf and Herrnhut. Along the Petersbach brook it trails through the forest to Oily Crotch (Eulchratsham), before turning northwest and up again through the forest. The last stretch is through open fields, over the Hutberg and to the village of Strahwalde.
For much of the trek, my footsteps are first in the snow. Drifting up to half a metre, it is deep enough so my foot sinks in past my ankle, shallow enough so it is not my whole leg. With temperatures no more than minus 10, it is perfect weather and quite mild. Progress is slow, occasionally slippery, but steady. Beneath the layer of snow lie icy ridges, strange angles, holes – all ready to catch an unwary ankle, to test and tone muscles used to slack walking on the flats. A thorough workout for gluts, thighs, calves and the multiple muscles of my feet and ankles.
In the midst of it all, I am thoroughly absorbed with three things:
First, the silence of the forest. I have experienced the quiet after a snow storm in the city, in Montreal where it was wonderful to be out after a storm with the noise absorber of a white blanket everywhere. But here in the forest, the usual sounds of animals, wind, trees, have disappeared; or rather they are absorbed by the interlocked flakes.
Second, the animal tracks are everywhere. They may be small, dainty steps, perhaps of a bird prancing about on the snow; they may be slightly longer hops, perhaps a squirrel; they may be the pointed toes and sweep of a tail that I guess is a fox; they may be what appear to be rabbit prints, two at a time in neat pairs; or dog tracks, out with an ‘owner’, following their own olfactory path rather than the visual one humans follow. But the triple prints in a triangle are a puzzle, until some deer bound across the track, startled, and I note their tracks. Many other tracks contribute to the intricate tracery, made by animals I cannot not even guess. It may be easy to hide in a snowy landscape at some level, if one knows how (I see very few animals), but well-nigh impossible to cover one’s tracks unless you follow exactly in the footsteps that have gone before – if there are any like one’s own.
Third, the extraordinary effect of snow on trees. On bare branches, a line of snow renders a stark outline, throwing into relief the line of the branch itself. By contrast, conifers seem to set themselves to catch snow on their webs of needles. Whole trees seem to compete with one another to see who can collect the most snow.
Eventually, the forest and its silence, with laden trees and animal tracery in the snow, come to an end. My path takes me out of the forest and over the open fields past the Hutberg. Now I trail someone’s cross-country skis – of which there are many tracks this late winter. I stride up the hill and skid lightly down, a solitary figure in the expanse of white. The sun appears and glistens on the snow; villages and their houses huddle beneath heavy white brows, puffing smoke. Then a magical moment: a brief snow storm, with myriad large fluffy flakes swirling down and cutting down visibility. A low sun peaks beneath the clouds and I am captured – again.
Yet I am also captured by the lowness of the sun, or rather, almost trapped. I am so absorbed by the storm and its light that dusk comes to an end before I know it. Visibility runs down quickly and I am still far from my lodgings. Fortunately even the smallest amount of light is enhanced by the snow. I make for the glow of warm yellow lights in the village windows.