Snowshoeing at night, I am glad for the full moon. As clouds float past, moonlight roams over snowbanks and pours blue light on trees half-buried in snow. There is no sound but the hush of my snowshoes. Where the snow has drifted deep and soft, I stop to listen.
The quiet is so intense, I can almost hear moonlight rustling through the flakes of snow. The rustling deepens to a rumble I feel in my back, as a train keens through its tunnel under the mountain. With a loud crack, a branch gives way under its burden of snow and both limb and burden thud into the drift. Bent under snow, trees lean over the trail.
Each tree bears its burden in its own way. The drooping leader of a mountain hemlock curls under the weight of snow. As more snow piles on its back, it bends even more, so the tree looks like an old woman under a heavy shawl. The Douglas firs collect mounds of snow on each spreading branch. This deep into winter, the heaps of snow have become a burden almost too heavy to bear. I think of the Douglas fir as a tree that flings its arms wide, but now it holds itself tight, as if it were frightened, or cold. I remind myself to be careful. I do not want to get lost.
Here is an open slope through a burn. Black spars emerge from the snow. I look behind to be sure I can find my way back to the shelter after my hike. From the burn, I can see the silhouette of the little three-sided log lean-to in the distance. My friends will be talking quietly there, warmed by the wood stove. A beam of light flashes from the lean-to, a headlamp probably, and sparks rise suddenly from the stovepipe.
In winter camp, we often write blessings on pieces of paper and place them on the coals to send them into the night. Each paper convulses, browns, shrinks into itself, but even then, the blessing remains, the track of the pencil still legible in raised ridges on the ash. Finally the wish catches fire and lifts away on an updraft. After only a moment in the cold air, the spark winks out and the ash drifts down again, a black fleck on the snow. For a son, peace. For a daughter, a day without pain. For our friends, hope. Or if not hope, then courage.
Our friends’ son-in-law is desperately sick, and what we had talked about in the lean-to before I walked out into the night were treatments, prognoses, doctors’ appointments, the sullen battle between the schedule desk and the growing disease, a battle waged against time and pain and digital voices on the phone. Every sentence of our conversation had been tight with hope. Only the silences despaired, and so we filled them with talk and plans.
I turn back to the trail, flipping on my headlamp. This frightens me, how completely the narrow beam deepens the darkness. I switch off the light and the blue night reappears. What am I doing out here, where I’m not quite sure of the way? The moon lights the snow that kicks up with each step, a white puff ahead, a plume behind. I flap along the trail between rows of trees with their cold burdens, bent and robed like monks at prayer.
“Prayer is when the night falls over thought,” said the French philosopher Alain, and maybe the forest is a prayer tonight, bent under the weight of all that winter, the whole world on its knees. Hush. My snowshoes move through the drifts. Hush: one snowshoe, then another. There is no other sound. Down the trail through the trees, I see the cabin’s light, closer now. There is the glow of the lantern behind the pile of snow, shadows of people moving, and a candle stuck into the snowbank to guide me in.
Sparks fly from the stovepipe, and the hopes they carry swirl on a rising wind. The same gust dislodges snow from the crown of a Douglas fir just down the trail. The limb springs up, tossing off its load of snow. The weight of that snow dislodges the drift on the next limb. That limb lifts as if it would take flight and, one after another, branches crouch in a sudden downward movement, then fly wildly up, flinging snow into the moonlight.
The limbs bounce — bobbing, birdlike wings — and come to rest, barely visible through lightly falling snow. There is a long silence. Then one more limb flies up, flinging snow, startling into flight a chickadee that had taken shelter for the night.
Kathleen Dean Moore is professor of environmental philosophy at Oregon State University. Her most recent books are Riverwalking, Holdfast, and The Pine Island Paradox, winner of the Oregon Book Award.