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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Anne Arundel 100

Winner of the 2010 Nature Writing Contest

Written by Luke Huffman '11

Photo by Lee Capristo

Snow Prints Tell the Wintry Tale

Footprints are stories, evidence of shared ground. Snow makes obvious the hidden heartbeat of pattering feet, the literal closeness of beings just missing each other.

Twenty minutes past the bramble of dead brush skirting the edge of the North Woods, I stood silent before an assembly of perfect fox prints pushed into the snow. Dappled light through the pine danced around. My friend Joe got on all fours, trying to recreate what might have played out before us had we been there at dawn. "Looks like he went to jump this stick . . .stopped . ..stepped right. . . then ran that way." I imagined the small fox, gray and brown, trying to catch the scent of a mouse through the snow, quietly pouncing through the brush with more grace than we could ever hope for. For a moment there is magic. The drama sparks to life, and then falls away like unfurling smoke. We move on.

The early months of 2010 had hurled Southern Maryland into a procession of severe and unusual snowstorms. Every weekend, it seemed I'd wake up and look out my window, imagining that some primordial Titan had picked up the land and shaken it like a snow globe. Winds gusted at 30 miles an hour, and the windchill dipped to 11 degrees one Sunday. For a week the world was powder. Between the stormy weekends, the skies calmed and the snow settled. Harder layers arrived as the snow came and went, playing with the water. The snow stiffened enough to support human weight for a second or two before gobbling up shins wholesale. With cabin fever setting in, Joe could hardly stop babbling on about this new clearing he'd found in the North Woods where the beech and sycamore opened up to the sky, two tributaries came together, and it was like the Garden of Eden. I put on my toughest boots, a couple dozen layers, snowpants, and parka before waddling out to look for the sublime.

We ducked through and around the labyrinth of mountain laurel, holly tugging at our clothes. In the kneehigh snow we edged our way around the rising and falling land, gingerly toeing through the soggier places. All about, signs of the neighborhood of native creatures - deer, turkey vulture, vole, swamp fox.

Eventually, the two of us came to a creek, lazily dragging past. Five feet wide, two feet deep, Joe waded across with ease, loping on to the opposite bank before remembering that my boots only reach just above the ankle. I found a downed tree close enough and so went about the slow business of crossing the snowy beam when, exactly halfway across, my right foot shot through the icy slop. Snow had hidden the void where two limbs had split, and it seemed the summer before, green pricker vine had grown in to fill the space. Reeling back, my panic brought my hand into the thorns and my other foot into the creek. There was nothing to do but trudge out, fall on our behinds and laugh on the snowy bank.

By the time we shook off the humor, I looked up and found that we had arrived in the clearing surrounded by hills - the garden. Nine male bluebirds perched 10 yards ahead, luminous sapphires in the bleak sun. Geese honked in the distance. Celadon green fungi hung like beards from the river laurel. At the edge of a tributary, more tracks. Joe and I convened and quickly agreed that it was deer, stopping for a drink. I imagined their graceful bodies dancing across the clearing, pausing for an anxious moment, eyes watching the periphery as they extended their lean necks low to lap up the cool water. Another spark rises and slips away. I revel.

Only a few steps away, another story printed beneath. The steps began and ended mysteriously. Five or six steps here, a few over there, and . . . there . . . and there . . . . Must have been a bird, we finally conclude. Judging by the size and the long dragging gait, we assume turkey vulture - they are a common sight on this side of the forest. The two of us stumble past a few more tracks - rabbit, squirrel, sparrow - before looking up to see the white sun sinking into the gray tangle of woods on the hill. Time for dinner.

We walked back more quietly than we came in, only the sound of snow crunching and my boots smooshing out muddy creek water. I imagined the ghosts of deer, fox, and wren slipping through the hollies. Every frigid step I took left a trail of muck, and I imagined a couple wandering through the woods laughing at my tracks, my clumsy mistake playing out before their eyes. Footprints are stories, evidence of shared ground. Snow makes obvious the hidden heartbeat of pattering feet, the literal closeness of beings just missing each other. I came in to find paradise but never needed to look up. Holy moments sprinkled on the ground.

This article is the winner of the St. Mary's College Nature Writing Contest sponsored by the College's Writing Center and the Department of Environmental Studies. Author Luke Huffman, of Cummings, Georgia, will graduate next year and is majoring in English and minoring in Environmental Studies. He spent a semester at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Oxford, England. Huffman and the authors of other top nature essays gave a public reading of their works April 22, Earth Day.