Daffodils cut in Ireland are blooming in the supermarket, aisle five, and now, from many a vase on many a windowsill, they look out into an unfamiliar country—midwinter, seemingly without a crack. What would these daffodils say, could they speak?
(I listen, but hear only a faint, muffled groaning from the pond ice, as it heaves under its load of snow.) Bless them, these daffodils don’t so much as blink! They train their yellow spyglasses on the eastern sun, their one likeness and love, whose lilting speech they recognize, and bear their exile like wide-eyed prophets foretelling what’s to come.
You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.
(Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction”)
As for cracks in the snow, there are a few, if you look hard enough. Red squirrels have dug a system of labyrinthine tunnels, all of which intersect directly beneath the birdfeeder. Black-capped chickadees, charitable to a fault, toss down sunflower seeds into the mouths of the tunnels, like manna from heaven. In the red maple above the feeder, a barred owl has taken to watching over the scene, day and night, in all weathers. The red squirrels sound the warning at once, chattering up a storm and making themselves scarce, but less wary meadow voles continue to scavenge. Time after time, the owl throws open silent wings and drops down upon them. How can one postage-stamp of ground holds so many voles? The thought makes a person stop on his snowshoes, three feet above the earth. Who knows what crouches beneath? Who knows what his crunching feet are drowning out? He proceeds on tiptoe, like a tenant trying not to wake a downstairs landlord.
Other cracks are showing up in the trees themselves. Quick oscillations in temperature cause wood to swell and shrink from one hour to the next. A paper birch expands through and through as the day warms, but if the air cools suddenly, the outer layer of bark and sap-wood contracts too fast for the inner heart-wood, and the whole tree can burst open, like a glove caught on too big a hand. You can hear it happen, always when the woods is in full hush: a crack like a rifle report, raising the hair on one’s scalp. The whole woods seems to catch its breath.
And the dark of the mind—that’s a crack, too. Even at midnight, even with your eyes closed, the owl is perched there, a hovering image. He hunts there round the clock, patient as the maple on which he sits. If the sap is running high in either one, you wouldn’t know it by the way they wear the falling snow. It gathers in clumps on the bird’s head and back as if on a vertical knot on the branch, and rounds the edges of them both. He shakes it off from time to time, closing his feathered lashes as he does so, and in this he looks quite human. Then he goes back to watching the tunnels. He is listening, as much as looking—his ears are asymmetrically placed, so that he can pinpoint the origin of a sound in three dimensions. From time to time his head whips around, as if on a swivel. You’d think he’d heard an explosion—the scurrying of some tiny thing in its corridor. How softly does snow crunch under a vole’s foot? Does it make an echo?
A moment before he drops, the feathers on the back of his neck rise up like hackles, like flowers slowly rising to the light. If there’s any in this scene, it’s not the sun’s. It’s the shadowy light of a thing’s intentions and its hungers: the owl’s, and also yours, watching there, listening there, ignorant in only half-knowing what will happen next.
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. A book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, will be published in the fall of 2014.