By Roger Barbee
On a recent cold Sunday morning, I was warming up the car. A heavy frost covered the ground, bare branches, and the winter-killed mums and begonias in their pots. The white daisy that not long ago had bloomed massive petals now lay in its large iron kettle beneath the maple tree holding the white swing full of dead leaves. As I waited for the engine to gain enough heat to warm the interior of the van, I glanced up to Powell Mountain.
The eastern sunlight shone behind the bare trees sitting on the ridge, causing them to appear as silhouettes. Like soldiers in formation, they were rigid, unmoving shapes following the contour of the ridge line. Exposed rock formations, hidden by heavy foliage before the cold, sat exposed on the side of Powell, some a solid mass, others a loose jumble of what appeared to have been a slide. In spots, the barren landscape was broken by the bright green of a lonesome pine tree. In the cold of morning, a mist rose from the unseen North Fork, giving a hint of warmth to come. Yet at this moment, the morning was cold, bare, full of winter, and empty of life.
A movement caused me to look to my left. The fountain made from an old cistern played its soft melody as the bird feeders were being emptied by the hungry. I realized that it was the motion of a female cardinal in the dead hackberry leaves that had drawn my attention away from Powell Mountain. Watching, I saw her mate, dressed in his brightest winter red, scratching dead grasses under one of the feeders, and a nuthatch, in an almost comical manner, walked down the nearest hackberry headfirst on his way to the suet. Both feeders were crowded with black-capped chickadees in a feeding frenzy, and below them were the newly arrived gray juncos that scratched and strutted all over. Between the small feeder and the gravel were close to a dozen warblers that must have been on their way south, but had stopped for a convenient refueling. Like the juncos, they scratched and strutted on the ground, and occasionally one would flit to a feeder or the fountain. Suddenly the morning has changed.
In "Arabian Sands," Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer, writes of his five years with the Bedu living in the Empty Quarter, the 250,000-square-mile desert that is located mostly in Saudia Arabia. He writes of dunes that rise to seven hundred feet and extend a hundred miles. He tells of enduring incessant hunger and thirst when he and his Bedu friends would drink only a pint of water a day. He describes the desolation in miles of sand and rock with no shelter from heat or cold. He shares how he, a product of Eton and Oxford, knew that he could not match the physical endurance of the Bedu, but felt that he would easily win in a test of civilized behavior. However, the "empty" desert proved quite full of life as he watched his comrades share their meager rations with chance-met strangers and insisting that it was "a blessed day" when they would urge the stranger to eat and drink what little they had. In that seemingly empty landscape, Thesiger found abundant and rich life in one of the earth's most hostile environments.
The valley is far from a desert like the Empty Quarter, but I had been looking without seeing. However, because of a female cardinal, I was given a chance to see at what I was looking. Like Thesiger, when I spent the time, I discovered much about my surroundings and myself. The world at Red Hill was not winter empty, but full of winter life waiting for my eyes to see.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.