Before trekking to the compost pile and ash pit the other day, a round-trip distance of less than 100 yards, I suited up as if for a month-long polar expedition – mountaineering parka, balaclava, overmitts and studded boot grippers to ward off a sub-zero wind chill and provide traction on a path that relentless snow and ice have turned into a luge run.
So far this winter I've shoveled away tons of snow and spread nearly 500 pounds of sand on these paths, as well as on the gravel driveway and stone steps leading to the front door and the woodsheds. The ice simply refuses to melt, but I don't like using salt or other chemicals that could leach into the garden, evergreens and rhododendrons.
If and when spring ever arrives I'll spread most of the ashes onto the garden and use the rest to fill in potholes in my path network. At least once a week this winter I've had to shovel the residue of nonstop wood stove combustion into a 5-gallon galvanized bucket and dump the dusty mess to the pit, creating a mushroom cloud that looks exactly like a miniature image of the first hydrogen bomb tested at the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1952. I stay upwind.
I usually couple this miserable ash-hauling chore with the equally unpleasant task of lugging a bucket filled with coffee grounds, pineapple rinds, apple cores, banana peels, broccoli stalks and other fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen to the compost heap, which is basically a fenced enclosure next to a 30-gallon drum filled with sawdust, crushed leaves and horse manure. I shovel this mixture on top of the food scraps and eventually the whole concoction turns magically into rich topsoil.
Anyway, the compost pile, like everything else, is now heaped with snow, but I’ve noticed that a critter, possibly a raccoon, has surreptitiously bent up a corner of the fence and burrowed into the frozen heap in order to feast on discarded scraps. I hope I never get that hungry. I also thought twice about sticking my hand in the hole – nothing worse than startling a hungry raccoon.
Elsewhere on the paths countless paw prints and hoof tracks crisscrossed the snow-covered forest floor: squirrels, mice and the ubiquitous deer.
These frozen impressions revealed that for the most part animals sensibly stuck to the cleared, well-maintained trails, but the deer often meandered, constantly foraging among the pines and spruce, seemingly oblivious to deep drifts and jagged crust. What a life.
We humans think we have it tough driving once or twice a week to the supermarket over icy roads – imagine having to trudge through snow every day just to nibble on frozen laurel leaves, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for coyotes and hunters.
While traipsing through the woods not long ago I followed a set of thin cross-patterned tracks and soon saw what made them: a flock of wild turkeys. Spotting me they scurried ahead, single file and soon disappeared into the underbrush.
If you squinted they looked just like tiny velociraptors from “Jurassic Park.”
The wind picked up, I pulled up the hood on my parka and headed back to the house.
Soon I would be perched next to the wood stove with a cup of tea and a book.
The turkeys, deer, squirrels and other creatures would still be out in the tundra, scrounging for nuts and seeds.
All in all, I’m not complaining.