Field Notes #13 : Spider in the hand of a goodly snow

800px-Crab_spider by RedRue

Polar fleece. One of the best.  Inventions. Ever.

My admiration for this virtuous fabric prompted me to do a bit of research on it. On Wikipedia, I came across this: “Aaron Feuerstein [inventor] intentionally declined to patent polar fleece, allowing the material to be produced cheaply and widely by many vendors, leading to the material’s quick and wide acceptance.”

What a lovely man for doing this for us.

Until recently, my polar fleece jacket has been out of commission, in need of repair. I’ve been wearing an uncomfortable coat—the shell, actually, from my husband’s coat—made of polyester. The coat is much bigger, heavier, and longer than my fleece jacket but nowhere near as warm.

A little while back, my daughter got out her sewing machine and sealed the loose drawstring back into the fleece jacket’s bottom hem. Now I can pull on the fleece, not golden but slate blue, and go out walking almost any day, no matter how chilly. Once I had my fleece back, I wore beneath it the same layers of shirts, a sweater, and a vest that I had piled beneath the polyester coat but that all together hadn’t been enough to cut the cold. But a week ago, out walking in my newly restored fleece jacket, same layers beneath, I felt nice and cozy. I put them on again two this past weekend to walk out into the snow. But while these same layers worked well when temperatures hovered in the high teens and low twenties, two days ago they proved too much. As I walked, I had to open my jacket and vest to keep from overheating.

This time of year, the desert is often deeply quiet. A four-inch plush carpet of dry snow, fallen days ago but preserved in the stubbornly frigid weather, muffled sounds near and far. I listened with pleasure to the soft “ish, ish, ish” of snow compressing beneath my boots. I felt comfortable in the fresh cold and took pleasure in the visual simplification of the landscape where the snowfall masked the earth. Junipers lined my path, their trunks and branches individually twisted and bent in those fascinating, contorted expressions of growth that these trees show in their wood, but their needles were nearly a uniform, matte grey-green tone, shaggy with thin shadows. Most other foliage had gone stick bare, so there was a kind of simple clarity to the view in every direction. Snow on the rooftops of distant houses brought them into conformity with the colors and contours of the rest of the desert, giving them softer, more earthy shapes. Animal tracks had flowered in the snow, but with little variation in their patterns. Rabbit stops. Rabbit sits up on hind legs a moment, maybe sampling a scent in the air. Rabbit ambles a few more steps, hops, sprints. Deer steps along established paths, maybe heading for water or grazing the next canyon over. Deer hooves slip a little in snow as deer walks. Deer bounds. Coyote trots. And trots. And trots.

Besides the tracks, I saw, when I walked toward the sun, the surface of the snow flashing with party glitter—red, blue, and green sparks where ice crystals broke the sunlight down into its vibrant, colory syllables. Getting to see these pinpoints of color against the whitetop, and sometimes in flashes of deepened color just inside the blue shadows of juniper trees, made getting my feet wet more than worth it.

When I started up a short hill I usually climb with no trouble I ran into one of those common problems that comes of hiking in snow sans snowshoes: I slid backwards two or three inches with every step. This slight slippage magnifies by a couple of powers the strenuousness of going uphill. You can partly compensate for backsliding by duck-walking up the slope. Duck-walking works but the outward splay of your feet requires shifting movement to muscles you don’t usually put into play in that same way you do when you walk normally. I reached the top of the hill winded and laboring hard. I turned south onto the two-track and walked only a short distance before I found another person’s footprints in the snow. A broken trail! Planting my feet in those tracks and walking against them, I gained better traction and freedom to move more quickly.

Belle ran back and forth across the trail, following her nose. We pursued the two-track and the footprints up another, slighter rise. At the top of that rise, the tracks turned another way from the one I meant to go. That is, since I was walking against them, they came onto the road from another direction than the one I had in mind to travel. So I left them behind and started down a steep slope, using my willow walking stick to provide a little more stability lest I slip on hidden ice or be thrown off balance by stepping on and dislodging stones sleeping in their earthen cradles beneath the snow blanket.

Around the neighborhood’s developed or cleared ground, including in my yard, rabbit and deer tracks peppered the snow everywhere as hungry animals went weed to weed and bush to bush looking for something edible. Further out in the pinion-juniper forest, I found longer stretches of unbroken snow. I read the tracks I came across in the way I skim the headlines of a newspaper or news website looking for something noteworthy. Except for one string of large, out of the ordinary prints I couldn’t read because snow had blown into them, I saw nothing aside from what I’ve already noted. I looped around and headed back up the slope, where my footprints acted as stair steps, providing me a much easier climb than had my earlier duck walking. Walking in my own footprints—my own recent history, as I sometimes think of my tracks—I mused upon the vitality of the concept of the broken trail, one I think has fallen into disuse as less people spend time outside, especially in winter.

The first person plowing through snow opens the way for others who follow, easing their passage. It’s a meaningful practice both for physical journeys and for mental ones. On this day, after months of reduced activity as work demands kept me seated and sunken in, finding a path that someone else had already stamped into the snow came as a welcome relief. Veering off the beaten path serves up its own pleasures, of course, including the mental business of choosing steps, the kind of primal roar in the blood of increased physical activity, the brain-and-body work of balancing on two legs and flipper-like feet, and the nutritional value of deep breathing. But I was glad coming back up the pitched slope that I could leverage the footprints I deposited going down and didn’t have to duck walk again. Not that there’s anything wrong with walking like a duck when you aren’t a duck. As mentioned, it has its virtues. Today, however, I liked getting the leg up.

As I moved along familiar stretches of the two-track I remembered previous snow-plowing efforts I’d made through deeper snow in those very spots. In past years I’d hiked year round and routinely walked out into winter in just my hiking boots, pushing against the resistance of ten inches of snow—sometimes more on the lee slopes where the show grains had blown over an edge and formed a sinuous drift. Every once in a while I ventured into even greater depths. The first time I step into recent snowfall, I punch in each footstep, sometimes through a frozen pie crust of melted then refrozen ice, an arduous task. I did this knowing that the pathway I built would be much easier to negotiate my next time through.

Later when I went out and found my trail, I often discovered that it had become a highway. Deer, rabbit and coyote tracks had been scrimshawed into my boot prints. Whatever doubts these animals may harbor about my species in general and perhaps about me in particular, they used the advantage of my having spent energy wildly to reduce their own energy expenses. I was glad to be of such obvious service. It seemed a fair trade for the times I’d worked my way through trees and brush on an unknown canyon slope and found a deer trail that led me safely along the path of least resistance down, down to steadier ground.

I had to ish ish ish my way up the rise to the gravel pit, but once there, I found a set of broad truck tire tracks and followed them the length of the pit until I reached another trail going down a winding and very steep slope. No one else had been this way. I know that beneath the snow in this spot sits a stratum of deep grey clay. If it’s the least bit wet, my movement down its surface could change from a cheery jaunt into a mudslide. Fortunately, temperatures near zero the night had hardened the clay hardened and rendered it stable, and with only a few sideways slips I make it down to where the trail branched. I took the right branch, adding an additional 15-20 minutes to my wander. I crossed another clayey stretch, noting that deer had cut a single file track through the snow overlaying the slip-slide clay, more melted in that spot, one following the other, with the leader dutifully breaking the trail. You might think that getting through four inches of snow wouldn’t be that big of a deal for leggy, fluid-bodied creatures like deer. However, when you’re a forager and pickings are lean, every ounce of life force you can conserve as you strike out in search of what little might be available adds to your chances of surviving another wintry day.

As I looped down along the canyon rim near the head of the trail into Crossfire then turned toward the prairie dog town I cross on the way home, I came upon a stunning micro-scene. On top of a stretch of unbroken snow lay a tan crab spider, perfectly still, its eight delicate legs splayed out in spidery arcs. Its full crab spider morphology shone in clear-cut lines as if someone had penciled a realistic drawing on a sheet of white sketch paper, or as if the spider were a delicate stone inlay in a silver Navajo bracelet. Sunlight flickered in the snow crystals surrounding it. So oddly, unexpectedly beautiful!

I looked up to see where Belle had gone. I wanted to stand a moment observing the spider-on-snow without her trotting back to see what I was up to, possibly disturbing the scene. She was well ahead, inspecting scents left on brush to the side of the trail. My gaze dropped back to the spider. I wondered what kind of sight I was enjoying: was this one of nature’s strange and beautiful moments when two seemingly unlikely objects come together, forming a mind-stirring sight, a kind of circumstantial metaphor, or was it one of tragedy? Had the spider wandered onto the snow and frozen there?

Earlier in the walk I had taken off my gloves. Carefully, carefully, I reached down and dipped two fingers into the snow beneath the spider and lifted spider and all. The creature rolled up into a ball and slipped down the melting snow running in the groove between my fingers. Oh, it was alive! Balancing the spider so that it didn’t fall off my hand, I looked for somewhere to put it where it might feel a little warmer and found the sunny side of a pinion pine just two steps away. The spider unrolled and began to scrabble for a hold on my wet skin. I laid fingers and spider alongside the two-pronged needles of the pine branch and coaxed the creature onto the needles. It gripped them and climbed off my hand onto the green prongs. After making sure the spider was secure, I continued on my way, my mind turning the sight of the spider splayed on snow over and over, absorbing it, liking the feel of it.

More trail breaking up the hill through the prairie dog town and then out onto the clear pavement. Happy with my snow day, I headed home, feeling my shoe-loads of fluffy crystals melting and the dampness seep though my shoes, which had lost their water-proofing some time ago, into the spongy socks beneath. One day I’ll probably get myself some snowshoes, but I think I’ll use them only when there’s no possibility of breaking a deeper trail. After all, snowshoes float you along, conserving your energy but providing the local animals no meaningful help. With snowshoes, you don’t see the relationship you have with other animals written into your own footprints. I walked with my polar fleece jacket and vest still open, that fine, simple, unpatented fabric swaying with each step, and my breathing felt… well, happy.