Matt Dickerson: Gliding through a snowy wood

There is something about evergreens bent and laden under a thick quilt of fresh snow. Especially spruces and firs and hemlocks. To say it was a feeling of waiting would not be quite right. Waiting so often implies impatience. But the woods were not impatient. Rather it was a feeling of tranquility.
My wife and I have stood beneath the great redwoods of the California coast: trees two millennia old or more, whose girth could swallow our whole family. The woods — not just the trees, but the dirt, the decaying needles, the ferns, and everything about the place — feel holy. A Vermont evergreen forest blanketed in fresh snow may not have quite the majesty of those towering Western trees, but there is the same sense of holiness.
When I glided out eastward on Saturday morning along the Battell Trail at Middlebury College’s Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton, on freshly fallen and freshly groomed snow, and I disappeared into this deep tranquility, I knew at once what I had been missing all of this winter of little snow — and little cross-country skiing. The peace of this snowy woods settled into my bones almost at once. It was palpable.
There is a certain hustle and bustle at the Rikert touring center on a busy weekend, but it is a very different feeling from the frantic busy-ness of a big downhill ski resort. It is like the difference between Carol’s Hungry Mind on a weekday morning and some big city nameless chain coffee factory. At the latter of these, the point for most of the patrons is to get in and out with your coffee as quickly as possible. The anonymous faces in front of you are an annoyance: a delay separating you from your fix. By contrast, there may be a person or two ahead of you in line at the local café, but there is no rush. You recognize half of the faces in the room. They acknowledge you with a friendly nod. You may exchange greetings by name, but even if you don’t the greeting is implicit. The point isn’t just to get the jolt of caffeine. Indeed, the point is quite the opposite. Being there is the point.
Even on a busy weekend, the noise and energy of the cross-country ski center is more like the local café. And as soon as you are out in the woods, half a kilometer from the center, you can ski for an hour and not see more than a half dozen other faces. Fewer — perhaps none at all — on a weekday. When you do see someone, there is always a friendly exchange. You don’t need to stop if you don’t want to, but you can. It is probably somebody you know from town, if not a familiar face from the ski trails.
And then there are the trees. Even the younger ones have been there since before I was born. They are not in a rush. They are not anxious. If they are waiting for something, they are content to keep waiting. Spring will come, sooner or later. And another winter. More snows. More thaws. And ice storms, too. And wind and fire. Not every individual tree survives it all. But the woods themselves do.
We stop and stick our poles in the snow, and take a sip from the hot chocolate in our thermos. Perhaps share a bit of dark chocolate. Words aren’t necessary. Whatever anxiety we have been feeling has been drawn down through our legs, into the soil, into the roots of the trees, and there it has become nothing in that great tranquility. And I know why I go cross-country skiing.

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