Thank God the snow finally came. And with it the cold, sealing the season, fixing the land with an impression of finality.
The wind stings now, at last. The trees have turned to brittle skeletons. When a sharp gust takes a limb, it falls with death's graceless thud.
In summer's storms, branches sail to the earth, the rush of leaves a reminder of survival. The leaves, after all, continue to live as they sweep downward. The winter branches simply crack and drop.
The season arrived haltingly this year, wih absurd lapses into a sort of false spring. Nevertheless, the signs of the cycle unfailingly appeared and we noted them with appropriate pleasure: a pleasure, I suppose, of habit but also sureness, for how many enterprises in our time carry such a promise against failure? The winter, however late, however, ultimately, bleak, at least signals its coming and then comes.
We watched the leaves fall. We saw the sunsets take on their harder beauty, tints of orange and yellow, with a purity that befits the cold. We began to smell wood stoves at night. We cleaned and lit our own stove.
We planted bulbs. We watched the geese flapping south. Strange ground fogs came, bathing us in a sudden damp cold that felt almost unnatural but thrilled the skin, the way pockets of chilly water can surprise you in a summer pond.
There are certain sensations that turn the season within you, rousing memory to a sweet ache of recognition. Even the most lingering autumn reaches that point, past rain, frosts, renewed warmth and more rain, when you begin to smell the rotting of leaves. This sensation, never forgotten, seizes you once every fall, very powerfully, before it loses its force.
In the same way, there comes a point when you notice that the forest has taken on its permanent winter gray. It is not just a question of the leaves being gone. It has to do with the cold and the light, with the days being short but no longer growing shorter. Suddenly, a finality enters the land: the land is there in a way unlike at any other time.
This is the best time to walk in the forest. The terrain lies utterly open, bared of foliage, not yet masked by snow. The stillness at this time comes from an absence of process. The autumn has entirely ended. The winter has not begun.
About five days before the snow came, my wife and I took a walk through the forest. We live on a side road that slips off the highway, snakes around in a big, irregular horseshoe, and then slips back in about a mile down.
The roadside fringe of this loop makes a neighborhood of sorts: homes, a farm, stretches of meadow and wood. But the interior is all forest, marked by nothing except some old logging roads.
One family owns most of this land, I'm told. They cut some wood from it and do some hunting there. It is like a number of tracts in St. Mary's County, once farmed, perhaps, but then left to return to forest, casually exploited but largely ignored, and sleeping now, inland seas behind the thin strip of houses.
We like to think of this wood as our neighborhood wilderness, an unexplored but circumscribed world where we might get lost and wander, but from which we will always emerge onto a road we know. Over time, through many expeditions, we might discover and commit to memory certain favorite trees or hollows, certain clearings, certain paths.
Entering the forest from our yard, we passed our back boundary, following a logging road a short way, and then climbed through a thicket of mountain laurel.
We had crossed the woods once before and knew that the dense laurel gave way to open forest and easy walking. The way to the other side led over a series of ridges, down into small vales where streams ran and then, if we could find it, out on another logging road.
Very soon, though, we came upon an unforeseen landmark: the fresh tracks of some machine that had gouged a rough trail in the laurels. It twisted erratically, muddling our sense of direction, but in time we discovered an explanation. There were ribbons hanging from twigs, the unmistakable blue ribbon of the surveyor.
At uneven intervals, moreover, we found places where the earth had been upturned. It was hard to be sure, but the sites had the look of percolation tests. Someone apparently was wondering whether this soil would handle a septic system.
We moved away and came, soon enough, to the open woods, the ridges and vales. The leaves lay thick on the ground. From each ridge top the bare leaf-blanketed forest fell away and climbed an opposite slope, giving us a view of its entirety and at the same time its every detail.
The terrain lay bared to us, revealed to us its folds and contours, the path of its streams, the individual trunks and branches of trees. It was as if we were walking in the skeleton of the forest, among its assembled bones.
Yet a tension and wariness clung to us -- not the usual pleasure-edged fear of getting lost -- but the distress of the surveyor's marks. For as we continued, we discovered more ribbon, an occasional orange spray-painted pole hammered into the earth, and long straight alleys that had been slashed through the sapling thickets. Boundaries.
The logging road we hit turned out to be the one we had remembered, the one that led us out to the pavement. But shortly before emerging we saw, on a tree, a freshly posted sign warning trespassers to keep out.
We walked home by the traveled, legal route. There is a stretch of woods along the road where a group of turkey vultures roost and today the entire group, dozens of birds, were out in the wind, circling and soaring, gazing down at the forest, surveying, perhaps, the whole vast interior tract we had just crossed, looking, through that stillness of season's end, for things newly dead.