The Monochrome Wood

The Monochrome Wood

It had been snowing for hours when we finally ventured out to the woods. Taking a walk, as was my habit; the dog going out, as was her necessity. The daily walks give me a chance to spend about an hour like Thoreau. And this winter day was rewarding in its infinite detail.

We set out into a world of reduced colors that morning, like walking through an old black and white Polaroid photo. Ignoring for a moment, the tree trunks and their dark vertical lines of wet bark, all else was a muted range of shadowed hues from near white to pale gray that reflected off the snow and the still air and the flakes and the clouds.

A foot or more of snow showed the lightest color on every horizontal surface. Heavy and wet, it draped the branches, the brim of my hat and the shoulders of the dog as she bounded through the deep. It flattened contours throughout the woods, smothering details in the rolling hills of the glacial moraine dumped here 200 centuries ago.

Above it a pointillist field of millions of rushing snowflakes descended, urgent to add to the thickening layer. So many flakes rushed earthward that the storm could absorb every sound except the nearly silent hiss of all those crystalline shapes colliding with the earlier accumulation.

These flakes were not perfectly white. They refracted a light dissipated by the heavy boundary of cloud above. And so the neutral gray of the air imparted its color to the moving spots that filled that space between the blanket of snow and the quilting of the clouds.

Those clouds were thick and heavy with their precipitation. Pulling moisture out of the Atlantic and bringing some of the jagged slate color of the waves on Long Island Sound, they filtered the bright light of our distant sun into a dusk that hid the accustomed glow of mid-morning. Looking up gave no clue to where in the vault of the heavens the sun might properly be. The overburden of storm clouds blocked enough light so that all points of the compass wore similar shades of off-white. While the snow continued to fall, the clouds themselves pressed downward, ready to envelop the low colors with darker streaks of ocean fog.

With nothing but these pale colors seen in all directions and on all surfaces—broken only by the dark brushstrokes of the tree trunks—I realized that this could become completely disorienting. But I knew the trail well. And the dog is a hunter by nature, so she never put a foot wrong. Looking for the familiar, I saw an old relic of a fallen tree exactly where I knew it should be. A couple of feet in diameter, it lay where I expected it, alongside the path. And through the cover of snow, a few weatherworn broken-branch stubs bristled the trunk.

And here I saw a new color. A spot of red. About the size of a silver dollar, this mark sat in a low spot in the snow covering that old tree. The snow had been compressed, one of the few places the uniform contour was interrupted, as if someone had placed a loaf of bread there without leaving footprints.

A stab of mystery stopped me. What pushed down and left the mark? Was it a mark of pain, panic, demise? It had arrived without footprints. Did it drip from a tree? Nothing in the mighty hickory above it looked odd as it stretched snow-laden branches into the cloud cover. Had something thrown it there? The uninterrupted snow offered no evidence of any creatures’ footprints, save the knee-deep canyon of my meandering wake. The dog plopped down to gnaw at the snow pack clinging between her foot pads unaware that I was frozen in place, staring at the high contrast of this misplaced Kabuki makeup and fighting to make sense of why it was here.

Two steps closer and the elliptical crimson shape showed a three dimensional quality. As it seeped into the snow, melting water softened the color at the edges. It chilled me to know that it had been warm. At this distance though, the mystery lessened. Subtle marks showed on either side of this indent, thin streaks in the snow. An artist’s paintbrush could have dusted these light streaks in the powder, as long as a cigarette and twice as wide. I smiled. The stiff wingtip feathers of a raptor taking flight had engraved a light impression of his departure from that fallen tree.

That realization completed a winter’s tale in my mind. In the safe and silent world of the monochrome wood, a mouse foraging in the morning had been the only contrast to be seen. A predator glided through the trees and suddenly wheeled towards earth as silent as the snowfall. The intrepid forager, that usually burrows across the two-color boundary between forest floor and the bottom of the snow must have clamored up a fallen branch and sniffed the air. And in that moment his glossy coat and coal black eyes were the difference in color that the hawk had been scanning for.

Scooped up in a precise arc, the two would have been airborne for only a moment. The broad log of the downed tree presented just enough space to land, dine and launch again. And in that short interlude the bird stained the day leaving a small red spot in the hollowed snow where his body had briefly paused.

Airborne again, he resumed a silent survey from the canopy above. Gliding, as was his habit; scanning for contrast, as was his necessity. The slight evidence of his earlier break would slowly fade as flakes filled and covered that place on the log. An afternoon hiker would never know the story as the snow would erase in the woods as the tide erases at the shore.

I pressed on, a mile to go, having learned that nature will tell rich stories willingly so long as we don’t observe reluctantly. I remembered Thoreau’s counsel “It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you see.”