Despite temperatures in the teens and a five-degree wind chill, the sun is shining brightly in a startlingly blue sky so I bundle up and head off to Topsmead for a brisk afternoon winter walkabout. How exciting: the drive up Chase Road to the parking lot is plowed (thanks DEEP), and the dirt is frozen so no getting splattered with mud or stuck in soft ruts. Even more exciting: my red Subaru Outback is the only car in the parking lot. Poodle Gloria and I can romp at will.
Off across the field we go, tromping and romping on the firm crust of the snow. A thin layer of snow has blown across the surface of the crust, not only providing traction but also creating a blank page for recording the stories written on it. The narrative starts with writing that I recognize—tiny thin, pointy, tracks of birds resembling delicate letter y’s, mostly clustered beneath the pine trees. Their story is about searching for seeds in safety. The next tracks are a bit bigger with sets of two small round impressions paired with two longer ones. Based on my animal track chart, I am guessing it is a rabbit. This hopping critter’s story is about bravely venturing a bit farther from the security of the pine trees on a mission.
The next snow writing that catches my eye appears from a distance to be the result of humans drawing in the snow. I head for it and am puzzled as I try to make sense of the image. I finally decide that it is a drawing of an angel blowing a horn. Satisfied, Gloria and I continue our romp along the edge of the field below the cottage and encounter cross country ski tracks and multi-patterned boot prints—more evidence of human stories. We even find a message written in the snow at the base of a pine tree—“THANK YOU.”
As we work our way back up to the cottage, we come across two more drawings in the snow. Trying to attach meaning to their images, I think, “The second one looks a bit like Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Sheesh! Who are these snow artists...?” But wait...! Looking around, I realize that none of these three drawings have any human footprints near them. Puzzled again but looking more closely, I notice some faded critter prints and little hole entrances at several points in these two new drawings. Hmmm....
After arriving home with glowing cheeks, tingling fingers, and a yearning for hot chocolate, I google “animal trails under the snow.” Thanks to the Michigan State University Extension Service, I learn about the subnivean zone. According to the website, “the word ‘subnivean’ comes from the Latin words for under (‘sub’) and snow (‘nives’) and refers to the open, shallow layer that usually forms under deep, layered snow.” Small mammals, mostly mice and voles, create a network of tunnels under the snow to make winter travel easier.
Armed with this new knowledge about the subnivean zone, I re-vise my story of these snow drawings. I imagine that these little critters, needing to escape the claustrophobia of their life in the subnivean zone, occasionally pop up through the snow to have a look around. Sometimes they stretch their legs and carouse madly through the snow or even do a wee bit of sunbathing. Always on the alert, they dive back into their tunnels when danger appears (perhaps in the form of a marauding hawk or a roaming coyote or a dog-walking human).
In a way, our human story during this now-more-than-two-year pandemic zone might not be so different from the story of these little critters in their subnivean zone. When given the chance, we both burst out of our confinement full of energy and eager for action. So thank you once again, Miss Edith, for giving us Topsmead, the perfect way to restore ourselves and carouse in the winter sun!