In the mornings now, I strap on my snowshoes and go down to the river. This is the first time I’ve ever snowshoed, and when I began a few weeks ago I anticipated moving silently and gracefully (as opposed to floundering like a pregnant hippopotamus) through the landscape, seeing the animals that make the tracks rather than just the tracks themselves.
It was a lovely vision.
The reality is that cycles of snow, sun, rain and subzero weather do not create a fluffy blanket on the ground, but a crusty, layered mix of wind-hardened drifts, thick, lumpy ice and bitter frozen ground. Walking on it, I feel exactly like Sasquatch, lurching and loud. CRUNCH, crunch, crunch, and then CRUNCH and wallow, wallow, wallow and giggle, swear, giggle. If one fails to lift the tip of a snowshoe up far enough, it catches under the top crust and down one goes on hands and knees, thrashing in several inches of cold, grainy powder to regain a standing position and some kind of solidity underfoot. The only wildlife I see is a squirrel or a pileated woodpecker observing me from a high perch, alternately laughing scornfully and scolding.
So much for romance.
My partner and I walk gingerly out to the mailbox or car on the glassy ice in the driveway, taking tiny, tentative steps and testing each before going on. Somewhere, under all that ice, is a sleeping world of earth, grass, clover and the inhabitants of the soil. I wonder, do they know this very minute more snow is falling on the layer of ice above them? Do they hear our footsteps slipping and sliding, or the click of the crampons we use on our boots or on the bottom of the snowshoes? Do the delicate weights of the juncos eating sunflower seeds off the ground or the footprints of the squirrels as they race from tree to tree, foraging and playing, reach the world beneath the winter skin of ice?
When I arrived at the pool to swim yesterday, an exuberant group of adolescent boys was in the water, shooting balls through a hoop. In a nearby lap lane, I settled down into my usual steady Zen freestyle, letting my mind drift from this week’s blog to the day’s writing and all points in between. The sun was shining in a row of windows alongside the pool, so I swam through alternating bars of shade and light.
Above the skin of water, the boys shouted, yelled, laughed and talked, jumping and splashing, filling the air with the echoing noise characteristic of indoor pools, along with the slap and slosh of agitated water and the sound of balls bouncing off the rim of the hoop or the tiled floor around the pool.
Under the water, I entered a different world, a silent world of rippled turquoise light and blue water. As I swam through intermittent sunlight, my shadow reached its arm toward my fleshy arm as I stroked, the two sets of fingers trying to touch. The agitated water rocked me so that I had to turn my head farther when I breathed in order to avoid a mouthful of chlorinated pool, but the noise from the world above sounded far-off and muted, nothing but a background for my own thoughts. I didn’t notice when the boys exited the pool and I was alone with the ripples of light and the steady stretch, pull, breathe and kick of my body.
Under the snow lying over the meadows and fields on this land is a world of field mice, shrews and other small creatures. They run through tunnels of last season’s decaying growth, foraging, sleeping, mating, fighting and living their lives. What do they think as I pass over them, a giant in snowshoes on sharp teeth? Do they crouch and cower in terror, or do they feel secure under the thick skin of snow? They surely must mark my passage, but their presence escapes me entirely. Does my weight cave in their tunnels and storerooms? When I fall through the crust am I laying waste to whole communities hidden beneath the snow? Do my footprints provide hunters from worlds above easier access to prey living in the layers below?
In the old tales, heros and fools, youngest sons and tricksters descend. They fall into dreams and oceans, enter wells and caves, go through trapdoors in the floor, climb down beanstalks and step down stairs. They crawl down chimneys or disappear in the red maw of a wolf or the cavernous insides of a whale. They brave cellars and tunnels and dungeons. They find worlds of magic, of mystery, of intuition and wisdom and hidden treasure.
In a lifetime, we travel from the darkness of the womb into the light and back into darkness again. Our experience is layer upon layer of minutes, hours and years. Beneath our skin, hidden in the folds of our exquisite and mysterious brains, are all the things we’ve seen and heard and felt, all the events that have shaped us. Beneath the membrane of our cells is our genetic code, the building blocks from which we are made.
Beneath, and beneath, and beneath.
The worlds beneath support the worlds above. If the soil does not contain the right mix of microbes, minerals and nutrients, trees will not grow. If the rodents leave our fields for quieter places where Sasquatch is not roaming over their heads, the fox cannot survive here. Without both healthy trees and rodents, the owls hidden in plain sight in the tops of the winter trees will starve.
Yesterday I wrote a scene in which I wanted hedgehogs. I paused my writing and turned to the Internet to research. For two hours, I read about hedgehogs, looked at images, listened to audio recordings of their sounds. Now the section is written, the hedgehogs only a small part of the whole, and the vast majority of facts and observations I collected will never appear in the book. No matter. That research, my delight in these small creatures and their private lives, will enliven and enrich the story, even if invisible to the reader.
What lies beneath my skin and yours? What’s concealed beneath the skin of ice, of water, of rock, of soil, of forest and meadow and swamp? What can we learn from those who know how to travel from one layer, one world, to another? How far might we descend, or, for that matter, ascend?
Peering beneath the skin. My daily crime.
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