Winter Walk


Excerpt from Winter Walk, from Slow Road Home ~ a blue ridge book of days by Fred First 2006

…When winter comes, our morning walks don’t end, but they are no longer a casual tiptoe through the woods. 

Winter walks are a deep-sea dive into cold and dark, in a submersible of wool and down.

Peeking out from stocking hats like diving helmets, we trudge heavily against the stern and biting currents of polar air that wash over us like waves. Without our swaddling spacesuits, our frail pink flesh would turn blue and brittle as December leaves, and our expedition would never be heard from again.

A summer breath, outdoors or in, is little different. But with the first breathing in of winter air outdoors, you know that you have stepped out into a world that is remarkable for things missing.

Winter outdoors is a play on a stage vaguely familiar, from which most of the props have been temporarily removed. Heat is only one of the absent characters. Diminished too are color, smell and the sounds and motion of living nature. Even molecules move with lethargy.

Come the play of winter, all the best lines have been spoken by autumn; and, except for the wind, there are no words.

Summer is soft, yielding and supple. Winter is hard, unyielding and brittle. You feel winter through your feet and hear it in your steps.

Cold dry air has its own smell, and there is a sound that belongs to the cold of winter. It is the sound of breathing, ears muffled, holding the beat of your own heart in wool like an echo in an empty shell. No birds call; insects sleep frozen solid under bark and sod.

Winter smells of wool and of wrapped humanity inside. From beyond the thick shroud of winter clothes there is only the near-fragrance of frost. No motes of aroma escape on warm currents from spicebush, sassafras, white pine, from dank soft creek mud or pasture clover.

There should be an olfactory adjective, like monochrome, to describe the lunar-stark aromasphere of winter. [Here’s why winter air smells different]

A few more winter wanders: Pennyroyal: the Smell of Winter   One More Winter, Warm    A Nose for Winter: Podcast by Fred 

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. We are fair weather neighbors of Doug Thompson, living on our Hicks Mountain Fruit Farm on Poor Farm Rd. in Floyd County from spring until fall and in Anderson, SC, from fall into spring. We so enjoyed your pieces about winter. You have a gift. After teaching creative writing for many years, I (Jan) can say that your piece is one of the best portrayals of winter I have ever read. We would love to meet you and Ann sometime.