[Table of Contents]
February 9, 1993. Two degrees Fahrenheit. A mile from the nearest road
on the western fringe of New York's Finger Lakes region. Elevation: 1,834
feet. Latitude: 42 degrees, 38 minutes. Longitude: 77 degrees, 49 minutes.
I like the frozen crunch of fact underfoot
when I set out for a winter walk at midnight. With just a wedge of moon,
I will walk for miles in the woods. If that seems intimidating, consider
that Nunda, New York (where I live), orbits the sun at 67,000 miles per
hour, and the Milky Way rockets through untracked space at speeds scientists
cannot determine. All while we think we're well located at our lighted
addresses. So when a winter itch creeps up the back of my legs, I know
it's time to walk in the dark. If I wait until spring, I won't be within
a billion miles of where I am now.
Two days of snow and ripping winds have
dragged drifts into hollows and rippled dune patterns across the field.
Tonight the wind died and the moon shines. The wooden porch steps crack
under my weight like branches splitting in an ice storm. The sound echoes
from the woods.
Cold assaults my nostrilsthe ether
cold of a windless night that radiates heat into space. My body heat drains
through my sweater and coat. My ears know where the pores in my knitted
hat are. On a night like this I realize how cold the universe is, how
few are the stars, and how little heat those nuclear candles give us.
Twenty times as many cells warm each of us.
The pore between our sun and the nearest
star is 25 trillion miles wide. Into that gap radiates heat from anything
on earth with heat to give: maple buds, crevices of car engines run hours
ago, steam in kitchens, and the fluffed-out owl. Simple physicsheat
moves to cold. If all life, all stars, all fuel were consumed in supernovasif
we spread all known heat like butter over the cold platter of the universecould
it warm space's absolute zero by even one degree?
Maybe it is the fear of being absorbed
by such cold that keeps us indoors on winter nights. Yet most people can
walk more securely in the dark than they suspect. With the moon and reflecting
snow cover, I can see the red barn and brown grass across the valley.
On the trail here, prints from deer, fox, coyote and turkey show clearly.
Tonight's brilliant moon flies above scattered, hazy clouds. The landscape
glows in a pale, watery luminescence. Moonlight should be cold; yet when
I step from under the trees, I can feel a wisp of heat as the light touches
my face. I may be kidding myself, of course. It's just a sigh, a dream
of heat from the cold sky. Certainly an illusion, but I do feel a few
degrees of warmth.
The dry snow squeaks with each step, and
the flakes glitter in the moon's glow, so it feels as though I'm walking
through a field of stars. Thousands of them sparkle in the flakes underfoot
as the planet spins through those overhead.
Walking in the night reminds me of an elderly
blind woman named Eva who lived in my house when I was a child. She had
been blind for 20 years and often didn't know her stockings sagged like
elephant's skin around her ankles or that she sometimes misbuttoned her
sweaters. But she taught me to read by identifying birds from an old encyclopedia.
Although the years have closed over her and that lost book, I still recall
the glossy pages with the exotic, brilliant birds. "Describe it to
me," she'd say. And when I did, she might sigh, "Ah, that must
be the oriole," and have me read the name under it. I'd stare at
the flaming orange-and-black bird and then at the glint of light in her
dead eyes. So we felt our way toward sight, each a moon for the other's
I head for the gully trail, dropping 200
feet in a quarter mile. As I tramp under the trees, the sparkling stars
at my feet disappear. My teeth and lungs sting. I spot fresh bobcat prints
in the snow. This week we heard their mating screams, resembling wailing
babies. There are stories of bobcat ambushing deer from trees. Branches
hang thickly over me, and I hope the bobcat sees well and lacks ambition.
At the bottom, the creek is stiffening into ice, gurgling halfheartedly
as it grinds to a halt. Rocks that are awash already wear slick caps.
It's darker down here with the grey walls rising on either side, but a
few shards of silvery moon still glitter on the water.
Here at the deepest, farthest edge of my
property, I mark my territory, a pathetic wisp of steam vanishing upward.
It's a joke I share with the night. This is mine! Here is my boundary
line, I say, as our planet races through unsurveyed voids. Climbing back
up from the ravine, my thighs, ears and cheeks pay for walking in such
intense cold. The burning numbness means my body has begun shutting off
its heat hoard to save its brain and heart.
The cold-cracking tree limbs sound as if
they could start a split through the earth, as though the brittle air
could shatter like glass. As I pass the frozen pond, I spot the goose
that camps on our propertywhite feathers against the white, snowed-over
pond. She stands on one leg, silent, waiting for the water to return.
A yellow light from the house blinks through the trees and the cold moon
glows above. The bass lie on the bottom of the pond, the ice above them
inching down. What would we do if the darkness and cold should really
take hold? I slap my numb thighs and tramp home.
"Moon Walking" originally
appeared in the Jan./Feb. 1994 issue of Sierra Magazine.
M. Garrett Bauman has
always inhabited places with cold winters. He was raised across the street
from infamous Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ (portrayed in Lean
on Me), and now lives in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York
on 75 acres of land a mile from the nearest road. His essays and fiction
have been in Yankee, The New York Times, Sierra, The Chronicle of Higher
Education, and many other publications. He's the author of two books
on writing: Ideas and Details (Harcourt, now Heinle, 2001) and
The Shape of Ideas (Heinle, 1996). One of his essays recently won
the New Letters prize for creative nonfiction, selected by Philip