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IN SNOWIEST OF WINTERS, SOME THOUGHTS WHILE THAWING OUT AND GETTING AROUND

Old Man Winter is a moody old guy. A week ago we were struggling through thigh-deep snow, and today we were watching the white tide recede under a 50-degree temperature. But it wasn't just the temperature that was different. Things generally had eased up. Chores were routine again. The driveway was passable without a tractor's efforts.

Snow is content to stay on a hillside. Water feels compelled to run downhill. The mild Sunday made me want to move around too. So I donned a pair of knee boots and ventured forth into the newly soggy world. My faithful four-legged companion trotted along unbooted.

How many inches of water fell in the form of snow in the recent storms? I guessed about four and confirmed this by observing the contents of the cow tub, which was sitting in the lower field with that depth of water in it. It had been dry at the beginning of the month.

The snow is grimy, with specks of soil and flakes of leaves and bark. Without snow cover, we might never know what a dirty place the world is. Nature gets away with scattering her debris around most of the year, but, like all white carpets, snow shows dirt.

Snow also is testimony to the far traveling of seeds, for here are winged seed of the green ash trees that are on a ridge 600 feet away. They skate over the smooth surface of the snow with the wind, free of the clutches of the grass below.

I step back a couple of paces to gain a head start and make an awkward but successful airborne passage over Barry's Brook. The stream was a foot wide a day ago, but overnight it has grown with enthusiasm. It is running fast and hard around some tight bends that rouse the current to a chorus of babble. The brook has been silenced by drought since April and now apparently has a lot to say.

The footing is not good. My boots crunch through the melting crust of snow and slip on the layer of ice below it.

Climbing Willow Hill is slow going, even for Gretchen, who has the advantage of claws. As usual, it's windy at the top. Every time I stand here I wish we had a windmill up here putting the air to work.

Gretch is studying small mounds of dirt where the foxes have been digging mice. It would be interesting to know what her nose is telling her. She probably knows if the hunt was successful -- and maybe the fox's middle name.

A small voice in my pocket asks, "Where are you now?" For Christmas the family got a pair of small walkie-talkies. They provide some peace of mind while working in the woods or with farm equipment, but today they are just for fun.

I push the button but am not sure what to answer, for we have never given this overgrown 20-acre triangle a name. "Over in the brush," I reply, knowing that isn't very exact.

There are three steep little hills here that are so determined to go back to woods that it is difficult to keep a trail open. Running between the poplars and birches are brittle remains of fence wire stapled to rotting posts. The dog and I trudge through a derelict gateway, bound for the pine grove at the far corner of the farm.

The snow beneath the pines is carpeted green with fallen clumps of needles. I look around for signs of turkeys that might have taken shelter here during the deep snow but don't find any evidence of them.

There are more than a few ways to lose yourself. One way is to stand in a pine grove and do nothing for a long time, without knowing it. Maybe it is the place itself which brings such idle moments. It is an unusual spot -- a couple of acres of evergreens growing in a perfect grid surrounded by the random clutter of a natural woods. Everything is rows and diagonals.

Some build castles in the air. I build log cabins in the air. Standing in the pine plantation, I calculate how many of these pines it would take to raise a small cabin here. I guess 20.

I try to decide which notching pattern to use at the corners of the cabin. Inside there will enough room for a bed, a table and small wood stove. If the roof was set steep enough, there could be a sleeping loft, for grandchildren. I don't have any grandchildren now, but I don't have the cabin, either. Both in time.

Gretch and I turn toward home, plodding along the fence at the north end of our property. When we encounter fences, I have to pick her up and drop her over and discover she isn't as heavy as I thought she would be.

We didn't find where the turkeys rode out the storms, but we did come upon a deer's refuge under some sheltering willows surrounded by a thicket. A good spot.

We skirt the creek, struggling through a mess of wild roses. When we get back to the crossing, I'm surprised to see that the water level has dropped in the hour since I jumped across it. All it takes now is a simple step. Maybe the peak of the thaw has passed, or maybe it is just that hour on a Sunday afternoon made for not doing much.

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