Winter is defined by suffocating darkness. The sun rises hours after me and sets long before my work is done. The haze of dawn seems barely brushed from the sky before the long shadows of dusk push back the sunlight. But, despite short days, Vermont winters are beautiful and perhaps one of its key features.
When you enter the woods they are silent, not like a tomb, but like someone holding her breath. Frozen until spring comes. The snow crunches under your feet and the trees crackle, almost frozen. Sometimes the trees freeze, and when that happens their limbs splinter as whole colonies of cells explode.
On days when it snows, the daylight softens to the gray of twilight. Sometimes the wind drives the snow sideways like pellets, and other times the air is so still you can hear the snowflakes alight on your coat. The mist of snowflakes spreads a feeling of sleepiness. The animals find cover under the evergreens, and I settle by the fire when my hat and boots are soaked through from walking in the snow.
Sometimes it is too cold to snow. On those crystal days the air is so clear you can see the distant rounded mountaintops acutely, figures outlined harshly by the sky. The air freezes your nose hairs with each inhale. The wind gives you brain-freeze when it collides with the small patch of skin between your scarf and your hat. It is unbearable to take off your mittens because of the burning and numbness the air causes, so you simply learn how to navigate outdoor life with padded hands. On the coldest days, it’s a fight to stay warm. I must sleep under a pile of blankets. But, frozen days are good days.
The cold protects and preserves Vermont. The threat of harsh winters prevents people from moving here and therefore it ensures there is space for the streams that meander through expansive forests. The heavy frost and ice storms keep the mossy hollows and fern-blanketed forests safe from bulldozers, houses, pavement, grass, and hoards of people and their pets.
Other places have launched themselves into a more modern era with blind enthusiasm and as if shot by a catapult. But the cold makes one lethargic. Vermont is undoubtedly part of the modern world. But, we Vermonters enjoy new technology without thinking it necessary to replace the woods. We are happy to embrace the innovations of lifestyle and thinking that come, and yet we hesitate. And I think our tendency to pause comes from having weathered so many winters. We know what true silence is—it’s the forest on the coldest day of the year when the gray of morning almost shakes hands with the gray of evening.
Once you’ve encountered a truly silent place it stays with you. Unforgettable. No matter where you go the vividness of the place where you found complete silence comes to mind from time to time. And you realize that silence is invaluable and scarce. And you find yourself taking a moment to stop because you know deep-down that anything that would destroy the places where there is silence is terrible.