Early Winter Delights

by Lee Edgren

She wrote, “I love Brown County most in November and December…late fall, early winter, when you can see the ridges and the contours of the land, and the first snows.”

From my west-facing windows, I watch the light from the rising sun behind me wash down the high ridge behind my house, lighting first the leafless tree tops, then the branches and then the strong, dark trunks. The world flames orange, peach, and silver for a few minutes only. Then as the earth and sun continue to dance their eternal circular dance, the morning light flattens and the colors fade.

Ground fog hovers along Salt Creek, twisting up and away in misty pillars, giving a platinum shimmer to the morning. On those windless, sunny, frosty days, the long needles of the crystals catch the light, winking and shimmering like diamonds. All of Brown County is a Tiffany’s of the natural world, no blue box needed.

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem in which he condemned the timidity in the love of “half colors of quarter things.” But looking at what I now think of as the half colors of quarter things is a deep, early winter delight for me. Grasses go red and gold-brown, cinnamon, and the color of blanched almonds. Beech trees retain champaign colored leaves that flutter like oval prayer flags all winter long. The deer look like moving gray-brown clods of earth in the gray-brown soybean field across the road. The pewter sky is pebbled and hard. The landscape seems to glow with its own inner light.

While the wild is receding from us, Brown County is still wild enough to offer the possibility of magic sightings. One late November night, I was awakened by the brightness of the full moon and went outside. It was one of those totally silent frosty nights, shimmering sky, strong shadows, the moonlight and the reflected light from the skiff of snow washing out most of the stars.

I looked up through the branches of the old silver maple tree across the driveway, just to admire their tracery over the face of the moon. And there was the silhouette of the largest owl I’d ever seen, silently perched just a few feet from where I was standing. Maybe I startled the owl as much as it startled me, or maybe it was just time for the owl to go. Into the silence came the eeriely loud “whuff whuff” of the huge wings. The owl vanished in the nearby woods. And then it was moon, tree, cold, silence again. Flowing through the beauty of this experience, giving it its power, was the stark awareness that I had interrupted the owl’s hunting.

Brown County wasn’t easy to get to in the early days. The artists came by train to Helmsburg and then walked or hired wagons to make the trip to Nashville. Now, we are an easy car trip from Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, even Chicago, not to mention all the smaller towns dotted all around.

Slowing down, walking without purpose in the woods, taking in the colors that drew the artists in the first place, looking for evidence of that parallel universe, the animal world, the natural world, secretive and powerful, should be, I think, part of the entire Brown County experience. Even here in Brown County, where much seems unchanging much of the time, it is clear that nothing is ever still.
You might think of “layering” your visit, just as you would your clothes. The outer layer might be all the delights of the shops and restaurants, the mid-layer, all the galleries that give you an opportunity to see Brown County through the artists’ eye: the TC Steele State Historic Site; the in-town History Museum operated by the Brown County Historical Society. Don’t miss the Hohenberger photographs on the lower level of the Brown County Public Library. Add in those active recreational pursuits. Zip the zip lines, ride your bike. Participate in the Nature Center walks at the Brown County State Park.

But then, for the layer closest to your skin, spend time and then some more time alone, in silent appreciation for and communion with the earth in November and December. Don’t rush it.

As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list.” After all this is the season of Thanksgiving and renewal. Step away from all the familiar delights, steep the mind in simply being awake to the world around you, and allow it to open to the mysteries that can be experienced only in silent presence. Yes. If you haven’t already, do see Brown County this year.