The serenity of a walk in the snow

February 8, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(Getty/File)
Chicago residents navigate through the snow after last weeks record-breaking blizzard.

It was by foot and not car that most of us made our way through last week’s blizzard. Writer Tom Montgomery Fate revels in those moments of motion.


I walk along the edge of the woods on a cold sunny day, until I arrive at one of the poetry boxes.  There are six such boxes placed along different walking trails here on our farm. They always remind me to slow down and to attend—to all the words waiting in the woods amid the frozen tomb of winter.  

Each 16 by 20 inch wooden box is mounted on a small post a few feet from a split log bench.  The boxes look like lecture podiums and have hinged lids that flip open to hold one book of poetry, a journal, and a pen.  We put the books and journals into Tupperware containers, because it turns out that bugs like poetry too.  Some spiders are spending the winter nestled with Pablo Neruda in the poetry box near the river.  A caterpillar I know, however, prefers Carl Sandburg and the box beneath the apple tree.

But when I flip up the lid of the meadow box I remember: The paper wasps love Mary Oliver.  Last summer when I opened this box a dozen of her devotees tried to scare me away from their literary queen, and one stung me.  Today, however, there are only two wasps, and they’re in cold weather stupor.  They stay in their cracks while I pull out the book: Why I Wake Early. I’ve read it before, yet am always drawn to one poem: “Where does the Temple Begin, Where does it end?”

Given Oliver’s Temple image, I suddenly imagine the poetry box as a little pulpit.  So I walk up, stand behind it and read her poem aloud to the captive community––to the barren, creaking oak trees, and the icy buckthorn and blackberry canes.

No one responds to my reading of scripture.  No nodding or swaying.  No one drops an affirming leaf or a confetti of seeds.  So next I try a silent prayer—the kind that can go on forever.  Perhaps if I wait long enough the pastor and the rest of the congregation will arrive.

They don’t.  But the liturgy continues:  a honking Canada goose rises in the silence, along with the hollow mechanical rapping of a woodpecker, and the wind whooshing up through the soft whorls of the white pines.  Then comes confession: the hard, grinding whir of a chainsaw, and the sad drone of the semi trucks roaring down the distant interstate.  Overhead a jet slowly draws a white line across the blue grey bowl of the sky, as it carries 200 people to some place they need to arrive very soon.   I wonder where they’re all going.

Then the latecomers arrive.  Two bluejays drop in nearby and peck around for seeds.  Then, finally, the pastor shows up:  A wild turkey, which I must have startled, comes sprinting out of the woods all bothered and anxious like a character from an old Disney cartoon.  He pauses on the edge of the meadow looking crazy—like he’s both terrified and wants to scold me––then tears back into the trees without giving his sermon. 

Twenty minutes later comes the offering, or maybe it’s communion:  A red-tailed hawk appears soaring high above our odd little church.  Four feet of wing, three pounds of  blood and muscle, and with binoculars for eyes––a red tail can spot a mouse from a mile away.   And he can tell right now whether my eyes are closed or opened.  Though when I look up at him I can’t see anything clearly––except the wind, which he makes visible.

Soon the sun dips under a cloud and the hawk’s slow gliding shadow disappears from the weeds. Then the hawk breaks his circle and drifts away.  His beak becomes the curved tip of a wide, strong-winged arrow pointing toward home.  And this is our benediction. 


Tom Montgomery Fate teaches creative writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, and is the author of Cabin Fever, a nature memoir forthcoming from Beacon Press.

Music Button: Leo Kottke, "Accordian Bells", from the CD One Guitar No Vocals, (RCA Victor)