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PERIPHERY: Life at the Edge of Eternity

The woods are dark and deep . . .
Snow Moon Over South Ridge

The moon has just begun to wane. For the last three nights, she’s been shining down on the woods behind the cabin, painting with quivering fingers of pearl between the looming sentinel spruces. The thought of throwing on my snowshoes and parka for a moonlit tramp hasn’t materialized into action; there is some indefinable force resisting the urge for expansion of the soul. Maybe it’s fear.

 Jeb is away. It was 12 months ago that he took me down the hill for the first time, and utterly enchanted me. The full moon was casting a glowing parabola over the forest, beckoning us into a mystery of shadowy branches and tangled black brush; no path to follow but his tracks in the snow.

I was only a visitor then, a refugee from the neon of town. There, the night is lit by streetlights, advertisements, and the cold flicker of a million television sets; morning is heralded by the roar of snowblowers, garbage trucks, and traffic. Here on South Ridge, winter quiet is punctuated by the wind through the trees, the yipping of foxes, the dulcet hoot of the Saw-whet Owl. The absence of industrial roar has the curious effect of making sounds seem more intimate and distinct; Jeb tells me it's due to the noise-baffling effect of deep snow. Perhaps; but it seems to me that the space to contemplate and digest what is heard has more to do with it.

We entered dark embrace of the tree line, the ground before us a shifting chiaroscuro of harlequin shapes. Disappearing into that fortress of towering trees my sense of direction vanished altogether, but his gait was steady and sure as I struggled to keep up, awkward in borrowed snowshoes. The air was crisp in my nostrils, every intake a blast of tang punctuated by ghostly exhalations swirling up toward the stars. Every few moments he’d stop to check on me, pointing out the tracks of marten and hare, the gleam of ice on a frozen branch, the curve of snowdrift against the buried earth. He had a destination in mind, and I trusted him completely; he’s been roaming these woods for twenty years.


Finally the canopy overhead opened to a small clearing, awash in iridescence. “You’ll find wild blueberries here in summer,” he said. Would I? The sculptural crust of white surrounding us seemed unchangeable; it was hard to imagine how green could emerge from it. Yet, there was a time when I thought I would never see him again.


We stared upward at that glowing orb, at she who has been hidden behind the pollution of convenience for most of my adult life. She was witness nonetheless to all the mistakes I made - the ones that took me away from him, so long ago. Whenever I did see her, she reminded me of what I’d lost and asked me where I was going. All regret, hesitancy and fear were forgotten as we stood there in the stark clarity of her light. He asked if I could picture myself living here at South Ridge.


Of course I could.


He’s been gone for half a month now, teaching a wilderness survival course in Northern Manitoba. He and his students are camping in -30 weather, while I sit snug by the woodstove. It’s the first time we’ve been separated since last May, when he drove West to help me pack up my stuff. By the time the blueberries arrived, so had I: forty minutes from the nearest town, surrounded by the gentle peaks and valleys of the Northern Appalachian Mountains. He told me then that I might miss the conveniences of town. I doubted it. I used to pay to have my snow removed, and all I had to do for more heat was turn up a dial; but the rhythms of life here follow the seasons, rather than the calendar, slowing my circuits and embedding me in a timeless present. This is how to make the most of every moment I have left.


Back on the prairies, winter was always a time for navigating the distance between the door and the car as swiftly as possible. But here, in the shelter of the trees, I feel the land at rest. As the drifts grow higher outside the window, I cook and craft and write, venturing out to tramp the woods daily. As Jeb says, there is no bad weather, only bad clothes; he’s outfitted me with everything I need to stay warm, and I no longer dash from the door to the car. I no longer dash anywhere.


I had my trial by fire the day after he left, though, when the pipes froze, the truck battery died and the washing machine went on the fritz, all within the space of twelve hours. Fortunately, he was within cell phone range, but he and his students had a good laugh at my expense as it took several calls to help me navigate these essential survival challenges. My hands feel strong curled around the shaft of an axe, and the path I’ve shoveled to the woodpile is testament to my own self-sufficiency. With every log I place in the woodstove, it is growing.

And spring is coming. If I don’t take advantage of this cloudless night, I may have to wait another year for a moonlit snowshoe tramp. I only wish he was here to share it with me. I strap on my gear, whistling for Piper Dog. She is surprised, and apparently overjoyed, when I direct her down the hill instead of out to the road, where we usually walk at night. I’ve brought a flashlight with me, a couple of lighters and my phone, as I’ve been taught; you never know what can happen when you enter the wild kingdom. I’m guessing I won’t need them.


A tingle of mischief, of anticipation, of adventure is blooming in my solar plexus. I know my way around down there after a year of exploring – this tree, that rise, the curves and bends of the creek that flows toward the river. All the same I’m glad I have Piper with me as guide and protector. I’ve made a mistake; the moon is still hanging below the tree line, casting just enough light across the eastern sky to travel by. Beneath the dark branches, snow itself seems the only true source of illumination. I can barely make out the trail I’ve broken over the past few months; a rough loop traversing the circumference of our land. But I know it well.

First, the steep descent through 100-year-old spruce and Eastern hemlock, then the cedar grove, then the creek to cross before heading through a stand of fir toward the riparian zone along the river. By the time I cross the frozen creek I’ve had to use my flashlight a couple of times. The cedars grow close and the canopy, with its fans of fragrant foliage, is dense. It’s here that I question the wisdom of pushing onward. I don’t fear bears, as I know they are all sleeping; but we did see lynx tracks a couple of weeks ago. Would one attack a human? That’s a question I forgot to ask Jeb. If the moon was higher, I’d feel less nervous. Maybe we should head back to the cabin.


But Piper isn’t afraid. She is diving off and onto the trail, encircling me within a rough perimeter of doggy solicitude. She’s got her face in the snow, joyfully snuffling through a trail of fox tracks. A silvery stand of birch, paper trunks dimly alight, heralds the last stretch of my journey. Just a few dozen yards ahead is the clearing where Jeb and I stood last year, planning our future. If I take it slow, by the time I reach it, moonlight will be pouring across the expanse.


A long corridor of fir closes in on both sides, the trail ahead a faint, dusky glow. I hear my snowshoes crunching rhythmically, and further out, the soft thumps of Piper’s footfalls through the crust. Then dawns on me: I’m hearing something else, too.


It’s a low, ominous rumble, so deep that it’s almost subconscious. But it’s not. Now that I focus, it becomes so loud and intrusive I can’t believe I missed it - swelling, rising, and overwhelming my senses. A sick soup of unease begins percolating in my belly. A feline growl? No. It’s the unmistakable drone of machinery.




Across the river is a swath of forest leased by the biggest logging company in New Brunswick. Working through the night to meet some unknown quota, they have arrived. Driven only by the logic of rapacious industry, they offer no quarter for the sanctity of moonlight, the hideous juxtaposition of their purpose and this context an utterly impersonal imposition. Within the feller bunchers, those robotic, hungry transformers now chewing the forest into matchsticks, between headphones to block the sound, are humans pulling the levers on this pristine and perfect night. It’s astonishing, but only to me; I may be the only person within earshot to notice the sound. If a tree falls in a forest, does anybody else hear?


I trudge onward towards our clearing, no longer present where I walk. The magic and mystery of the night are now tainted with my own selfish accounting: well, we still have our fifteen acres of trees, which will hide the devastation from our eyes; we can pretend it’s not there, like city people do. The woods on each side of our property were logged ten years ago and will be safe for many more to come. The riparian zone along the river, sacrosanct even to loggers, will be spared. And I suppose there is some comfort in knowing we will no longer have to dread the arrival of the feller bunchers. The damage done, what’s left of the land will cover itself with whatever opportunistic species is fastest at replacing the original Acadian Forest. Perhaps they will replant, and the land will recover its beauty someday.


But what about the animals now disturbed from their sleep, the ones that survive this unthinkable apocalypse, their winter stores decimated, their burrows, nests and dens collapsed? How will they struggle through the deep snow to safety? Most of them won’t. This winter will bring their final sleep by the thousands.


I’m tired now. My legs are sore from lifting my ice-encrusted snowshoes, and I’m growing short of breath. I wish almost that we hadn’t come; that I was curled up by the woodstove, writing or reading, music turned up loud enough to drown out that subterranean roar. But I’ve arrived at the clearing, and just as I’d hoped, the moon has poked up over the trees and is flooding its molten silver across the snow.       

Piper dashes from the woods and settles herself quietly at my feet while I stand, her questioning face looking up at me and then at the moon; seemingly answered, she settles, content to wait. Around us is a jagged circle of absolute blackness; whatever is out there, outside our small sphere of influence, waits as we rest, protected, in this cup of light. The dunes of snow around us are speckled with crystal constellations reflecting the perfection of their source. For long moments, I simply stare, forgetting to hear the distant sound of destruction. Instead, the steady thump of my heart beating pulls me someplace deeper. It beats in harmony with all that surrounds us. We are immersed in a sea of eternity that extends far beyond our margins – this clearing, the forest itself, the continent and the world it rests on. This moment is forever.


Jeb and I made our plans and promises here, and we kept them, with more to come. Next fall, we’ll be married in these woods. But for now, there is only this, and it’s enough. More than enough. Only as Piper and I turn to make our way home comes the return of conscious thought, along with the low roar of logging machinery. Our escape was as temporary as tracks in the snow; to find it again, we will have to retrace the steps that took us there, however elusive.

Up the hill, the porch light gleams through the darkness. The windows of the cabin are glowing golden rectangles, beckoning with the promise of warmth and comfort. The last few yards are always the hardest; as always, when I reach the top, I stop and take in the view before going inside. The moon is sailing over the tree line, the hillside shining bright as daylight. Above it, a lone satellite races eastward across a tapestry of stars. There is always a reason to interrupt these moments of perfection; I think of Jeb, dialing his cell phone beneath the same moon, thinking of me.


I shuck off my snowshoes with frozen fingers and we enter, gratefully trading the chill for warmth of the woodstove. I pour a cup of tea and turn on some music, waiting for his nightly call. Through the wonders of technology, we can connect, even when he’s a thousand miles away. And inside, I can’t hear the feller bunchers at all.


Jeb and I have tried to escape the glare and right angles of civilization by placing ourselves at its periphery, and with that privilege there are plentiful consolations. But I realize that our splendid isolation is an illusion. By powerlines, satellites, and supply chains, we are still enmeshed in the web of technology, industry, and commerce that has ensnared us all. The price for the conveniences we enjoy is intrusion when we are expecting it least, and an uneasy sense of collusion.

Down in the woods, beneath the snow, the blueberries are sleeping.


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Leslie , what a magical moonlight walk . Thank you for take us along . I can hear the crunch of your snowshoes on the sparkling snow . You and your dog - so aware and alive .xo Donna


riparian ... are we? on many levels.

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