February 1, 2000





Gathering wool in a winter storm


Watching the steady downfall of Sunday's snow, I considered what I would do with the opportunity I had falling around me. Outside was the stuff dreams are made of because I had been given time I didn't expect. Bliss just doesn't touch the feeling of knowing my expected schedule had shifted, in a positive way, and goodness, I just had to live with it -- at home.

For a few moments, I fell back into a solitary game I played as a child when snow poured out of the sky. I looked outward and upward through the window, trying to set my sights on one snowflake and follow it all the way to the ground. Before you laugh, give it a shot. Concentration isn't the key. Relaxation is. If you try too hard, you lose it.

A few antsy chickadees broke my thoughts with their flurries around the feeder just a few feet from our backdoor. They were close to chirping out "Empty again!" by the time I had slipped on my coat and boots, grabbed the bucket of mixed seeds that would replenish their supply, and made it out into the backyard.

Their quick fluttering over to the bare branches of the forsythia hedge -- to wait for my all-too-slow efforts -- brought up a vivid memory. Years ago, my family and I visited a beautiful nature park near Rochester, N.Y., that was known for its "Chickadee Trail." It was a gorgeous old, abandoned carriage road where patient, unhurried walkers could stop at any point, lift palms offering birdseed, and have these savvy little birds perch on fingers for a quick nibble of the gift. Remembering my then three-year old raising her small, chubby fingers and giggling at the touch and sight of her feathery guest causes me to keep the dream alive that one day I'll have them eating out of my hand in my own backyard. But that takes time and the pace of spring usually wins out over the thought of sitting perfectly still for many minutes each evening to lure these little creatures over for a bite. For now, I'm going to have to be content with watching these favorites of mine from the window or my garden swing.

Standing out in the gentler pace the snowfall had taken by mid-afternoon on Sunday, I couldn't help but linger and look over my garden spots, wondering if I had mulched well enough in late fall for the rosemary to survive and the lemon thyme to make it through to spring. I certainly couldn't complain about the weather. Up until just days ago, I could still snip fresh oregano and sage along with a few sprigs of the thyme and rosemary I hadn't cut for drying. Small tufts of parsley also had peeped underneath a lighter layer of mulch and tasted great cut up in a mixed-salad. But that treat is finished for now.

With the bird feeder filled, I looked in our side yard where deer tracks dotted the previous week's white covering. Not even dimples in the snow were left now, but had been erased from sight through Saturday night's and Sunday morning's addition. We have yet to catch sight of these four-footed wanderers, but their prints and other leavings tell us they frequent both our place and several neighbors around. I think they like the pickings from our compost spots -- especially when we leave vegetable and fruit peelings at easy access. Some of the neighbors tell us we should be careful. We might attract creatures we don't care for -- like a possum or two -- but for now I'll take the risk. Besides, by morning whatever has been there is gone and my compost pile isn't hurting for the lack of a few peelings.

As I walked back over toward the vegetable/herb garden, I thought about what may be there in the spring. With the first garden catalogs arriving just a few days before Christmas and a steady show of them continuing until now, I have a nice stack where spring dreams can stir. I can't help it.

My thoughts run with visions of all the possibilities, especially when I see the varieties geared toward small home gardens like mine. And just the other evening, rumblings of another pumpkin-growing contest met my ears as we shared a birthday celebration with friends. I'm ready -- mulch and all! This year, I muse, I'll get an earlier start, have more compost, and give that huge plant a bit more room. With the continuing snow, I dream of what the vine -- or maybe two vines -- will look like as they wander the yard with long tendrils and gigantic leaves.

Of course, one person's dream can easily be another's nightmare. My husband isn't a fan of garden catalogs, insisting that they give me too many ideas. He knows the inevitable moment will come when I begin to talk my "notions" into place, edging closer and closer to the work-demanding goal of turning garden space into raised beds across our backyard. With the solid blanket of snow as an open canvas for images, placing these compact garden plots takes on clearer vision. My husband would shutter at the thought.

But oh, the vegetables we could grow! I can see rich leaves of spinach and mesclun. One catalog has several varieties of each of these enticing greens -- ready for the picking, with red-leaf lettuce growing close by. They'd be planted just about where that blue jay sits now, waiting for me to move a little farther away from the feeder. A quick check around the other side of the house revealed my four little struggling blueberry bushes are almost completely covered with the snow. Along one corner of the bed they're in, lily-of-the-valley lies in wait for the thaw not too many weeks away. I know I'll remind myself of the coming-presence of these graceful plants when, about the first of March, it seems winter will never let go.

By mid-March, this frozen earth-icing will be replaced with what most everyone around here calls "sheep rains," early spring downpours that are cold and seemingly endless. Their name comes, I'm told, from the fact that they wash out the wool on the sheep just before shearing. Not many sheep waiting around here for that pleasure anymore, but there are a few up around Rich Patch and more out along Route 42 where a couple of small farms still operate.

I've gathered my own wool in the short walk around my snowy backyard, and as the steady, soft blanketing continues, I'm glad I watched one falling snowflake come to rest, listened to the chickadees fuss for dinner, and let my mind drift with the moments. What sweet paradox I've stood in: a winter storm bringing stillness that spins dreams for me, weaving both past and future together under a cover of promise.

Tondalaya VanLear

I've lived in Clifton Forge proper since 1975.
I'm married (for -- oh my goodness -- 27 years) to Richard VanLear, a most patient, born and bred Alleghany County man.
I have three absolutely wonderful daughters, 14, 18, and 21, who
are surviving their mother's slow adaptation to having to release "iron apron strings."
I graduated from Hollins and teach English composition at Dabney S. Lancaster Community
And, I'm a volunteer,
chauffeur, organizer, homemaker, quilter, chief home-animal caretaker.