Winter’s favorite game is the painter’s, covering surfaces, funneling the light, dividing things from their shadows.
He paints with awfully broad strokes, that’s true, but he knows what he’s up to. The apple tree out my window, under new snow, does its best to hold a pose while the artist works. He’s got his theme, he’s got his style—still lifes, mostly, very sparing in the use of color—and he’s dogged, you have to give him that: Study in White, Study in Gray & White, Study in Mostly White. (Evening is his blue period.) The critic is tempted to dismiss them as “repetitive,” “lacking in expressive power,” or just “cold,” but it’s easy to see that each canvas is only a small part of one massive oeuvre, as yet unfinished, for which the Louvre will need to add a new wing one of these days.
But unlike the painter’s, winter’s game is one you can walk into, and around—a piece of architecture with no fixed entrance or exit, no sharp divisions between one room and the next. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a good house, or at least a mouse-ridden cabin, which the wind blows through with gusto, as through a favorite, moth-eaten sweater. I’m half outdoors already. But, like any cave, whatever pictures a person scratches onto the walls, a house has its limits. A person ends up saying, “I’ve got to turn this place inside out, and myself with it!” (A person also ends up speaking to himself this way.)
Inside out: here are living quarters, here is real habitation! The whole woods—red maple, white ash, paper birch, beech, hemlock—is a mazy warren of pillars and collonades, one gallery after another, like a museum that broke loose and ran off from the city. Here and there a huge, white-pine caryatid breaks the canopy, hoists the ceiling even higher. Scramble up a hill to the east or west: here are your terraces, your balconies, and below you, the far-and-wide. Your eyes go trotting off into it as if they owned the
[Apple Tree, Midday & Evening] place.
If so, it’s not theirs alone. The snow up here, just a few hours old, already reads like a well-thumbed map of tracks and traces: here is the porcupine’s pigeon-toed waddle, the coyote’s jogging meander, the red squirrel’s bound, hind feet leading the front. The freshest tracks show every last detail of toe and claw, while those from last night are already somewhat rounded and blurred. Evidence of snowshoe hares is here, the huge pads of the back feet angled out from each other like ears, as if its ears had left their shadows behind in the snow. The whole surface of the planet, turned to a blueprint. What would a draftsman say? (So many tenants, so many winding hallways, so many hidden corridors...) The painter steps back to consider his subject: too late! He too has put his own feet smack in the middle of it.
[Still Life with Moving Woods]
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.