Paths outdoors are filled with ice hereabouts, so we are sticking to the quiet, clear, dead end road that runs alongside the lake near where we live. We see little difference to see from day to day. The lake is frozen, and snow fills the yards alongside the road, insulating the ground of my neighbors’ properties. Except for days when fresh-fallen snow provides a fresh bright coating, our world offers a rather monochrome view.
Trees alongside the lake and in the woods behind our house appear unchanged. Bare branches shake in the winter wind that cuts across the expanse of frozen water. We head outside at lunchtime. Although these trees are leafless throughout the winter, hidden in their depths secret forces are at work. In early winter plants of all kind rest, having shed the leaves of the previous summer. Sap settles in roots buried in the earth. After each storm, snow-covered branches soon shake off their white coverings to return to their winter starkness. Blankets of white offer a protective ground covering, moderating the cold temperatures that occur on cloudless nights. Snow is a buffer against the elements that would kill the roots that hold life within each plant. This protective, yet cold covering stores needed water as well.
Throughout the winter, neighbors are more visible through the woods, their lights shining through the woods in the darkness. By daylight we spy visitors down below our hill through the woods, as neighbors follow the track of the old trolley line. All that’s left from this important form of transport from yesteryear is the broad, flat, raised path. No more trolleys glide on the rails, no regular tourists return to the lake each summer. No metal rails or ballast are left to remind us of this essential form of transportation during the days when few had cars at their disposal.
When on wooded trails we are able to better understand the lay of the land, usually hidden by overgrown brush, thickets, and woodland. Stone walls, nearly obscured in summer’s lush greenery, are revealed in winter, offering a hint of how these fields appeared in the days when the land was actively farmed.
As we step outside for one more “close to home” walk along the lake, I pause. By outward appearances, these trees have survived yet another winter, and seem much the same as they have since late October. And yet, although outwardly unchanged, those who know the rhythm of the seasons are already preparing to tap certain special trees to steal their sap. Sugar Maples are prized—the lifeblood of these trees will be boiled down into maple syrup, a treat on many of our breakfast tables. Warm days in late winter and bright sunshine trigger changes that will soon enough bring outward signs of spring. All this is happening deep inside, hidden from view.
Tapping maple trees and expecting to get free-flowing sap is a step of faith. Every year it happens. Will the trees once again follow nature’s pattern and begin preparing for spring? Most likely, yes. Outward appearances notwithstanding, even as snow lays thick on the ground, with no apparent outward sign of spring, days are lengthening, and change has already begun.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Finding the Sacred in everyday (and some very strange) Places.