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Footfalls in a Blue Ridge Winter
Annie Dillard
February 04, 1974
She had to be crazy as a coot, some might have said, to be abroad in this frozen land. But it was the best of times along a Virginia creek
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February 04, 1974

Footfalls In A Blue Ridge Winter

She had to be crazy as a coot, some might have said, to be abroad in this frozen land. But it was the best of times along a Virginia creek

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It's getting to be winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. For me the first sign of winter is always the same: it is the jolt I get when I look at the sky, remembering all other winter skies and realizing with shock that I'd forgotten this one fine thing about winter once again.

Today a gibbous moon marked the eastern sky like a smudge of chalk. The shadows of its features had the same blue tone and light value as the sky itself, so it looked transparent in its depths, or softly frayed, like the heel of a sock. Not too long ago, Edwin Way Teale says, the people of Europe believed that geese and swans wintered there, on the moon's pale seas. Now it is sunset. The mountains warm in tone as the day chills, and a hot blush deepens over the land. "Observe," said da Vinci, "observe in the streets at twilight, when the day is cloudy, the loveliness and tenderness spread on the faces of men and women." I have seen those faces when the day is cloudy, and I have seen at sunset on a clear winter day houses, ordinary houses, whose bricks were coals and windows flame.

At dusk every evening an extended flock of starlings appears out of the northern sky and winds toward the setting sun. It is the winter day's major event. Late yesterday I climbed across Tinker Creek, through the steers' pasture, beyond the grassy island and up a high hill. Curiously, the best vantage point on the hill was occupied by a pile of burnt books. I opened some of them carefully: they were good cloth-and leather-bound novels, a complete, charred set of encyclopedias decades old, and old, watercolor-illustrated children's books. They flaked in my hands like pieces of piecrust. Today I learned that the owners of the house behind the books had suffered a fire. But I didn't know that then; I thought they'd suffered a terrible fit of pique. Anyway, I crouched beside the books and looked over the valley.

On my right a woods thickly over-grown with creeper descended to the creek. To my left was a planting of large shade trees on the ridge. Before me the grassy hill pitched abruptly and gave way to a level field fringed in trees where it bordered the creek. Beyond I could see with effort the vertical sliced rock where men had long ago quarried the mountain under the forest. Beyond that I saw Hollins Pond and its surrounding woods and pastures; then I saw in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains.

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed toward me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn't move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. The flight extended like a fluttering banner, a furled oriflamme, in either direction as far as I could see. Each bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that's how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Over my head I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind. After half an hour the last of the stragglers had vanished into the trees. I stood with difficulty, unscathed, except that of course I couldn't move my neck, and can't today.

Starlings came to this country on a passenger liner from Europe. One hundred were deliberately released in Central Park, and from them descended our countless millions of starlings today. According to Naturalist Teale, "Their coming was the result of one man's fancy. That man was Eugene Schieffelin, a wealthy New York drug manufacturer. His curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare." The birds adapted to their new country splendidly.

When John Cowper Powys lived in the United States, he wrote about chickadees stealing crumbs from his favorite flock of starlings. Around here they're not so popular. People go to great lengths to avoid feeding them. Starlings are early to bed and late to rise, so people sneak out with grain and suet before dawn, for early-rising birds, and whisk it away at the first whiff of a starling. After sunset, when the starlings are safely to roost, they spread out the suet and grain once again. I don't care what eats the stuff.

Some weather's coming; you can taste on the sides of your tongue a quince tang in the air. This fall everyone looked to the bands on the woolly bear and predicted as usual the direst of dire winters. This routine always calls to mind an Alaskan story about the trappers in the far north. They approached an Indian whose ancestors had dwelled from time immemorial in those fir forests and asked him about the severity of the approaching winter. The Indian cast a canny eye over the landscape and pronounced, "Bad winter." The others asked him how he knew. The Indian replied, "White man makes big woodpile." Here the woodpile is an exercise doggedly, exhaustedly maintained despite what must be great temptation. The other day I saw a store displaying a neatly stacked quarter cord of fireplace logs manufactured of rolled, pressed paper. On the wrapper of each "log" was printed in huge letters the beguiling slogan: THE ROMANCE WITHOUT THE HEARTACHE.

I lay a cherry-log fire and settle in. I'm getting used to this planet and to this curious human culture that is as cheerfully enthusiastic as it is cheerfully cruel. I never cease to marvel at the newspapers. In my life I've seen one million pictures of a duck that has adopted a kitten, or a cat that has adopted a duckling, or a sow and a puppy, a mare and a muskrat, etc. And for the one millionth time I'm fascinated. I wish I lived near them, in Corpus Christi or Damariscotta; I wish I had the wonderful pair before me, mooning about the yard. It's all beginning to smack of home. The winter pictures that come in over the wire from every spot on the continent are getting to be as familiar as my own hearth. I wait for the annual aerial photograph of an enterprising fellow who has stamped in the snow a giant Valentine for his girl. Here's the annual chickadee-trying-to-drink-from-a-frozen-birdbath picture, captioned, "Sorry, Wait Till Spring," and the shot of an utterly bundled child crying piteously on a sled at the top of a snowy hill, labeled, "Needs A Push." How can an old world be so innocent?

Finally I see tonight a picture of a friendly member of the forest service in Wisconsin, who is freeing a duck frozen onto the ice by chopping out its feet with a hand ax. It calls to mind the spare, cruel story a novelist, Thomas McGonigle, told me about gulls frozen on ice. When his father was young, he used to walk out on a dreary sound that had frozen over, and frozen the gulls to it. Some of the gulls were already dead. He would take a hunk of driftwood and bash the living gulls; then, with a steel knife he hacked them free below the body and rammed them into a burlap sack. The family ate gull soup all winter, close around a lighted table in a steamy room. Out on the sound, the ice was studded with paired, red stumps.

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