Winter Has Charms, Not Just Hardships


January 16, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

The playful creatures appeared as if from out of a cloud, scampering across the bare woods, spraying up the frozen crusted snow with their ecstatic leaps, their magnificent bushy tails flying behind them like furry kites.

Two foxes, one red-coated and one silver, romped with unchecked abandon and chased each other over the sun-sheen of wintry landscape. The protective family dog, herself a close relative of the vulpine intruders, barked loudly but to little avail with the line holding her in check by the house. Then they were gone, scurrying down the embankment, a kinetic postcard scene disappearing into the bleached landscape.

The rewards of icy winter are often like that, fleeting and dreamlike but leaving an eidetic vision etched in the mind. Welcome consolations for the burdens and frustrations under the frozen mantle. The satisfying bowl of steaming soup and the comfort of the hearth before a redolent blazing fire, pleasures savored best in the knowledge that we have retreated from a gusty, gelid outdoors that awaits our return.

This early, unrelenting winter played havoc with holiday travel and trapped us in our cocoons.

Duty pressured us to test the slick, snow-humped uncertain roads, to fulfill the demands of employment and provisioning (and Christmas gift returns?). But the heart and mind were inexorably pulled back home, to exult in the joys of winter in the warming respite of the nest.

We were the fortunate, of course.

The homeless and those whose shelter was unheated did not delight in this cruel assault of nature. For most of a day, about 24,000 Harford homes and businesses were without power because of ice storms.

Calls to offices frequently found the requested party was absendue to weather, or weather-linked illness. Harford schools have failed to hold a full day of classes for well over half of the past two weeks, the state's mandatory kindergarten law in apparent abeyance here. The county's salt, sand and scrape fund for the entire winter is already depleted and in the red.

So we repair to the home and take in the treacherous beauty of the season. Thoughts of Whittier's "Snowbound" and the exquisite snow scenes from the movie of "Dr. Zhivago" trip through our memory.

The glistening icy fingers of bowed trees, naked against the vivid glare of winter sun, conjure up visions of fairy tale enchantment. Frosted faithful evergreens and the stoic pin oaks, their slender trunks looking like some feathered Indian lance, still shimmering with the tenacious brown leaves that will not fall, assure us that the swaying bare trees are not dead but pass the frigid months in wait for vernal renewal. It's a magical backdrop, the arboreal ice sifting the solar ray's colors as a prism, gleaming with vibrant reds and oranges and blues.

The animal kingdom provides us with much of the entertainment. Birds of all feather, mostly invisible in the leaf-clad forest, flit around the feeder, swiftly grabbing seed and racing back to their wild perches on limbs and trunks exposed to the cutting winds. Cardinals and blue jays, woodpeckers and titmouse, chickadees and finches and mockingbird. Only the intense ground-feeding juncos, a daring mother nuthatch and the unflappable squirrels trust the human handout without apparent wariness.

Deer may glide through the open woods, exposed to human view but always moving, seldom yielding to the temptation to stop and stare back at man. Their beige coats stand out in the pure snow, offering little camouflage in this winter setting. But their appearance is invariably scheduled when the hunters have gone home, the primal survival instinct adapted to the predator's calendar.

The snows that capture the effort of our trudging footfalls also fix the footprints of unseen animals scurrying along their transecting paths: raccoon and rabbit, field mouse and fox, vole and squirrel and the crumbled pads of other creatures we can't identify. Heavy crows, too, leave their distinctive marks in the white field. It's a frozen repository of nature's elusive activity that finally lends credibility to the inked sketches of animal footprints in the wildlife books.

The snowscape creates a wonderland alike for dogs and children. Snow angels blossom in the yard from giggling youngsters flaying their arms and legs through the crumbling white cover, an exuberance of youth that infects and teases older spirits to delight in the bracing zest of the hyperborean white powder. Their sled trails soon erase some of the animal markings, the runners leaving further imprints of a wintry celebration. The snowman smiles with silent visage, a monument to the cold, but his future is tenuous even in the enduring frigid weather.

Nothing is really indelible in winter, the fragile snowscape changes regularly even as the depleted thermometer stubbornly refuses to climb above freezing. Paw prints and frozen boughs are eroded and broken by the wind and covered over with new precipitation. So the backyard arctic expeditions always uncover some new signs of life and activity. And the beckoning warmth of home reminds us anew of our blessings.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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