Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “February Traces”

This short piece, from the Opinion page of The New York Times (2/2/09), is unpretentious, evocative writing. Read it aloud…slowly.

Up here in the country, the world gets a used-up look a day or two after a February snowfall. Dust drifts over the fields from the dry roads, the corn stubble begins to poke through, and the plows have left a margin of gritty slush and knocked down a mailbox or two. All the more reason to look for those moments just after a snowfall, when the snow is not yet public, when it has only been tracked by an animal or two out on the ice and in the fields.

I never see a truly straight track. There is always a bend in it, as if curiosity was a kind of lateral gravity, always pulling the creature off course. But then I remember that “off course” is a human conceit. Judging by the tracks I see, there is no going so hard that one has to go straight. I can’t begin to guess what was gathered in the meander of a “foxprint” along the river ice. The fox knows, and that’s enough.

I don’t know why the sight of fresh tracks in the snow elates me. Perhaps it’s just the reminder that, minus the human footprint, this is still a world of animal trails. Over the fields, the hawks are laboring in an absence of updrafts. Is that how the year divides for them? A season of thermals rising over the dark earth, and a season when the snow seems to capture the wind and hold it down? Out on the lake-ice, the anglers are sitting on upturned buckets, the bold ones having snowmobiled to their holes. And yet they tested the ice with no more sophistication than the deer I saw walking across Piney Creek in Wyoming a week ago. You ease out onto the surface and see what gives.

I’ve grown used to the sullen light at last, and I find myself hoping for another storm, another chapter in a private winter. But the south-facing slopes are starting to melt quickly, and the skunks are almost certainly starting to think about breeding. Soon the male skunks will be out on the roads, and February will have come in earnest.

John Updike, 1932-2009

Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the NYT editorial board, observes and describes the rural, the unusual, and the overlooked. Subjects of some of his recent pieces include herons, the Peruvian chullo hat, mechanical noises, and Jim Morrison’s father. Klinkenborg finds beauty and character in the commonplace and transient, much like John Updike, whose work Klinkenborg described in a short NYT obituary published 1/28/09. Klinkenborg’s paean to Updike ends with…

[Updike] was, above all, a maker of sentences, one of the very best. You can read him for his books, but it’s better to read him for his sentences, any one of which — anywhere — can rise up to startle you with its wry perfection.

…which well describes Klinkenborg’s own writing.

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