The Ripple: Gifts Under the Hemlock

Gift to Receive by Being Present

Our hills are gemmed with gifts—receive them by being present!For the next few months, the deep chills of winter will freeze our higher elevation watercourses—and invite us to wander in a winter wonderland.

Few places are more “Christmas-y” than our snow-laden hemlock forests; and since hemlocks love shallow wet soils and grow near bouldery brooks and streams, they beckon us, who yearn to be present when and where our biome most clearly expresses its unique vivacity. Snow settles on their dark green needles, very “zen” if you see it that way, and Currier and Ives, if that’s what you’re looking for. Snow settles on needles anyway it wants, of course—and being with those we love when the crow lands and shakes the hemlock and spills the sprinkles that glisten in sun above the brook is magical. Most of the holiday advertising we are deluged by tries to convey what is freely offered by our own hills—receive the gift, by wrapping up and presenting yourself to the hemlocks and their hidden icy grottoes…

(Once again, I urge you to use “Oliver,” the Massachusetts DEP mapping system to find open spaces to explore. Have your kids pretend it’s a video game; challenge them to find places to hike.).

Being quiet in a snow-laden hemlock forest when it’s below freezing and there’s no wind, you might hear the mountains breathe. Notice the snow is not so deep beneath the hemlocks, which prevent it from reaching the ground. Mammals, especially deer, seek hemlocks for shelter when it’s snowing, so look for their footprints; and go ahead, follow the prints if you can, because they will invariably lead you to other wonderful places. These paths will also teach you how to see the woods from the more sensitive perspective of the deer, which always looks for browse (food) and the most efficient way of scaling the heights.

Click here to download MassWildlife pocket guide to animal tracks (pdf).Once you’re tracking the brook the hemlocks have drawn you to, and are walking upstream, be on the lookout for other tracks besides those of the deer (Here’s the MassWildlife pocket guide to animal tracks; print it out and put it up on the refrigerator). Last week, for example, I had the pleasure of following otter and bobcat tracks, printed in the snow, up a tributary of the Westfield River. I’m guessing the otter came first, to hunt the fish and crayfish wintering in the pools that shrink in size as the ice expands. The bobcat followed the otter’s scent, and hungrily probed the same pools, with more frustration (?) (Or maybe it was hunting the otter?). Turn from the brook and look around; there are few other places that harbor, and concentrate, so much food. In the motionless frozen white that surrounds, the flowing water vibrates with activity and life.

Reach a cascade, now bulging from the hillside with icicle pipes like a grand cathedral organ. Listen to its happy music, slappy water fingers on crystalline keys, dozens of hands playing “bach” (the German word for brook). Spend quality time focusing closely on the spontaneous Guadi-esque architecture of water immobilized. Is ice a mineral? Imagine it is—for it would be if the temperature on Earth never rose above freezing. Discern the subtle color differences between types of ice, from the coconutty foampuffs aside the constant splash, to the nitrogen-blue that appears in the cracks of tiny bergs, to the chartreuse of ice forming underwater like sea-sponges. Look into a swirling pool and see if you can spot a fish; they are there, darting out from under rocks to grab grub delivered by the currents. While you’re down there close to the surface, breathe deep and savor the trace vapors that carry the essence of this living place. It is a scent that always awakens and refreshes—and that cannot otherwise be captured and savored.

To visit snow-laden hemlock groves and their hidden icy grottoes, you ought to be prepared, for they are not the safest or most comfortable places to be. Avoid wearing cotton, because the moment it gets wet it will steal your heat. “Cotton kills” say experienced backwoods wanderers. Wear wool, silk, nylon, fleece, and if you have rain gear (jacket and pants), wear them because they prevent the snow from melting into your clothes. Hiking boots might suffice, but if you can strap on showshoes, you’ll be so much happier, especially in snow over four inches. Bring a light pack, and carry your favorite light snacks and drinks—along with a camera, which you’ll find much use for when you have arrived at your winter wonderland. Our hills are gemmed with gifts—receive them by being present!


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credits:  Stream (cc) TJMcManus; Tracking (c) Sienna Wildfield]

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