Also from this bank at this spot in summer I can often see turtles by crouching low to catch the triangular poke of their heads out of water. Now snow smothered the ice; if it stays cold, I thought, and the neighborhood kids get busy with brooms, they can skate. Meanwhile, a turtle in the creek under the ice is getting oxygen by an almost incredible arrangement. It sucks water posteriorly into its cloacal opening, where sensitive tissues filter the oxygen directly into the blood, as a gill does. Then the turtle discharges the water and gives another suck. The neighborhood kids can skate right over this curious rush of small waters.
Under the ice the bluegills and carp are still alive. Everything else is dead, killed by the cold, or mutely alive in any of various still forms: egg, seed, pupa, spore. Water snakes are hibernating as dense balls, water striders hibernate as adults along the bank, and mourning cloak butterflies secret themselves in the bark of trees: all of these emerge groggily during winter thaws, to slink, skitter and flit about in one afternoon's sunshine, and then at dusk to seek shelter, chill, fold and forget.
The muskrats are out; they can feed under the ice, where the silver trail of bubbles that rises from their fur catches and freezes in streaming, glittering globes. What else? The birds, of course, are fine. Cold is no problem for warm-blooded animals, so long as they have food for fuel. Birds migrate for food, I think, not for warmth as such. That is why, when so many people across the country started feeding stations. Southern birds like the mockingbird easily extended their ranges north. Some of our local birds go South, like the robin; other birds, like the coot, consider this South. Mountain birds come down to the valley in a vertical migration; some of them, like the chickadees, eat not only seeds but such tiny fare as aphid eggs hidden near winter buds and the ends of twigs. This afternoon not far from the creek I watched a chickadee swooping and dangling high in a tulip tree. It seemed astonishingly heated and congealed, as though a giant pair of hands had scooped a skyful of molecules and squeezed it like a snowball to produce this fireball, this feeding, flying, warm solid bit.
Other interesting things are going on wherever there is shelter. The bumblebees and paper wasps are dead except the queens, who sleep a fat, numbed sleep, unless a mouse finds one and eats her alive. Ladybugs hibernate under shelter in huge orange clusters sometimes the size of basketballs. Out West people hunt for these overwintering masses in the mountains. They take them down to warehouses in the valleys, which pay handsomely. Then the mail-order houses ship them to people who want them to cat garden aphids. They are mailed in the cool of night in boxes of old pine cones. It's a clever device: how do you pack a hundred living ladybugs? The insects naturally crawl into the depths of the pine cones; the sturdy "branches" of the opened cones protect them through the bumpings of transit.
I crossed the bridge and came to a favorite spot. It is the spit of land enclosed in the oxbow of Tinker Creek. A few years ago I called these acres the weed field; they grew mostly sassafras, ivy and poke. Now I call them the woods by the creek; young tulip grows there, and locust and oak. The snow on the wide path through the woods was unbroken. I stood in a little clearing beside the dry ditch that the creek cuts, bisecting the land in high water. Here I ate a late lunch of ham sandwiches and wished I'd brought water and left more fat on the ham.
There was something new in the woods today—a bunch of sodden, hand-lettered signs tied to the trees all along the winding path. They said SLOW, SLIPPERY WHEN WET, STOP, PIT ROW, ESSO, and BUMP! These signs indicated an awful lot of excitement over a little snow. When I saw the first one, SLOW, I thought, sure, I'll go slow; I won't screech around on the unbroken path in the woods by the creek. What was going on here? The other signs made it clear. Under BUMP! lay, sure enough, a bump. I scraped away the smooth snow. Hand-fashioned of red clay, and now frozen, the bump was about six inches high and 18 inches across. The slope, such as it was, was gentle; tread marks stitched the clay. On the way out I saw that I'd missed the key sign, which had fallen: WELCOME TO THE MARTINSVILLE SPEEDWAY. So my "woods by the creek" was a motorbike trail to the local boys, their " Martinsville Speedway." I had always wondered why they bothered to take a tractor-mower to these woods all summer long, keeping the many paths open; it was a great convenience to me.
Now the speedway was a stillnessway. Next to me in a sapling, a bird's nest cradled aloft a newborn burden of snow. From a crab-apple tree hung a single frozen apple with blistered and shiny skin; it was heavy and hard as a stone. Everywhere through the trees I saw the creek run blue under the ledge of ice from the banks: the stream made a thin, metallic sound like foil beating foil.
When I left the woods I stepped into a yellow light. The sun behind a uniform layer of gray had the diffuse shine of a very much rubbed and burnished metal boss. On the mountains the wan light slanted over the snow and gouged out shallow depressions and intricacies in the mountains' sides I never knew were there. I walked home. No school today. The motorbike boys were nowhere in sight; they were probably skidding on sleds down the very steep hill and out onto the road.
Here my neighbor's small children were rolling a snowman. The noon sun had dampened the snow; it caught in slabs, leaving green, irregular tracks on the yard. I just now discovered the most extraordinary essay, a treatise on making a snowman. "...By all means use what is ready to hand. In a fuel-oil burning area, for instance, it is inconceivable that fathers should sacrifice their days hunting downtown for lumps of coal for their children's snowmen's eyes. Charcoal briquettes from the barbecue are an unwieldy substitute, and fuel oil itself is of course out of the question. Use pieces of rock, brick or dark sticks; use bits of tire tread or even dark fallen leaves rolled tightly, cigarwise, and deeply inserted into sockets formed by a finger." Why, why in the blue-green world write this sort of thing? Funny written culture, I guess; we pass things on.
There are seven or eight categories of phenomena in the world that are worth talking about, and one of them is the weather. Any time you care to get in your car and drive across the country and over the mountains, come into our valley, cross Tinker Creek, drive up the road to the house, walk across the yard, knock on the door and ask to come in and talk about the weather, you'd be welcome. If you came tonight from up north, you'd have a terrific tail wind; between Tinker and Dead Man mountains you'd chute through the orchardy pass like an iceboat. When I let you in, we might not be able to close the door. The wind shrieks and hisses down the valley, sonant and surd, drying the puddles and dismantling the nests from the trees.