December 3, 2007
He appeared with the first flakes of snow, swooping in low out of the woods and into the field. He took up sentinel duty on an 8-foot tall fence post by the garden. From a distance he looked like a huge ball of yarn, or a post with a shawl on top. He shifted from foot to foot, his head swiveling in its fuzzy gimbals to stare at the man in the house with the binoculars—me.
I think he had been waiting knowingly on the verge of this day since last night, when his hoots from up on the knoll spooked the dogs. He knew what was in the wind. And the little birds at the feeder seemed to sense his presence, haunting the field. As we filtered Sunday’s weather reports and watched the pictures from the Midwest storm track, he was no doubt biding his time on some mizzen hackmatack spar. Now he sits thinking—in no rush to leave; settled, solitary, and focused—just like we are, with this surprise pause.
The mice must be thankful for a few inches of snow, with an owl’s gaze beating down on their mown metropolis. It is tunnel time, and the deeper the snow the more owl-proof their passages from seed stores to burrows, though I know from past winters that I will eventually see a wing-flutter imprint on the snow just at the surprise terminus of a path of very small footprints. The owl is not here to make snow angels.
The first snow day I remember—when I was in 4th grade—we waited for what seemed an eternity to know if school was cancelled, though it seemed obvious from the power of the storm. Snow days arrived by radio, and our town began with W, putting us at the end of a very long list. “Weston”…finally! Jubilee. Hosannas and praise. Snow angels for sure. And digging.
As soon as the plows had made two passes down our road, my brother and I had all the mountains necessary for serious tunneling. The deeper the snow, the greater the challenge. How long a burrow could we engineer without cave-ins? How large an igloo—enough for the whole gang? How many minutes could we endure, on our bellies, in the icy depths? Would mom ever let us sleep out here in our arctic lair—with flashlights? Would she even find us?
Get the trowels, buckets, and shovels. On with the snow pants and boots, mittens and hats, for a preliminary shift of burrowing, following the fence line along the driveway to the road, then a left turn into the cavern within the massif central by the mailbox, where we could lie in sodden exhaustion and listen to the beating of our hearts—muffled as mice
Eventually snow days meant profit. Once we had shoveled our own driveway, lucrative neighborhood jobs awaited. Once, Mrs. Gibson paid me $10.00, when we had twelve inches of snow and her husband was laid up. And our driveway was twice as long as hers. Think of what our conscription saved dad! But the lure of money wore thin, compared with the lure of the gift of a day of leisure swooping down on us out of the sky, with time drifting up in unexpected corners and the call of neglected books and the authorized complacency in a weekday afternoon nap by the fire.
Yes, a snow day is an owl, descending noiselessly from the treetops on extended woolen wings, inviting us to burrow into memory, silence, and secret mines.