Last Sunday, when I decided to go for a walk in the nearby woods, I had no idea what lay in store for me. It had been a while – a couple of months, perhaps – since I’d walked there. That afternoon, cold but sunny, I felt an urge to explore the woods in winter.
It has been a severe winter, with day temperatures staying around minus 10 degrees Celsius for a few weeks. On Sunday, as I drove to the edge of the woods, the car dashboard indicated minus 5 degrees. There is a small car-park at the end of the road where the woods begin, and it was, to my surprise, full. As I stepped into the wooded area, a large group of people walked past; I gathered in their faces and manners an excitement I normally do not see in people who walk in the woods. (A calm, reflective smile or a small nod is what I get from anyone I cross on my way).
I’m not sure why this happens, but the moment I enter these woods I feel I’ve entered a world that has no connection to the one I’ve just left. The transformation is instant, and the effect of this is an altered state of consciousness that makes you sensitive to everything around. If there’s any truth to the phrase “be one with nature”, it is to be found here.
The light reflected by the snow made the woods appear shallower than usual, and the trees, which in summer seem fattened by layers of creepers around them, now looked like thin, dark candles sticking out of a cake.
I crossed many people on my path, much more than I’d seen on any previous occasion. The Germans seem to love walking in the cold, I thought to myself. But I was wrong: it wasn’t the walk they had come to the woods for, it was something else. I was to discover the reason soon.
There’s a large pond somewhere in the middle of the woods. (The Germans call it a “lake”. It reminds of the movie ‘The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain’ about a village in England whose inhabitants couldn’t bear the “insult” of the nearby mountain being officially re-classified as a “hill”. After much debate they decide to haul huge loads of earth to the top so that it could gain a few meters in height and qualify in the “mountain” category). The pond is a distinctive landmark in an otherwise uniform landscape. Once, many years ago when I was still unfamiliar with the paths, I’d lost my way, and it was only after I reached the pond that I could find my way back. During summers I sometimes spend the afternoon on one the benches near the pond’s edge, staring at the soft ripples on the surface. It is a place ideal for reading and reflection.
I hardly gave the pond any thought as I kept walking: the woods in snow was still a novelty, and I was absorbed in my immediate surroundings. So when I reached the small clearing near the edge of the pond and looked ahead, I gasped. The pond was frozen, and there were dozens of people right in the middle!
“This is amazing!!” I found myself saying aloud.
The picture in front of me was a modern version of Bruegel’s Hunters in the snow. Little figures were all over the icy landscape, playing, walking, skating, clearing the snow, or simply standing. I hurried forward, still unable to believe that the entire pond was frozen. At the edge, the first few steps I took were hesitant, but how long could I be restrained when there was so much excitement around?
The initial minutes were exhilarating – I cannot recollect being in such a state of elation in the recent years. I then calmed down and spent the next hour and half walking all over the pond and then on the path that runs along its perimeter. People seemed to be making full use of winter’s gift. Skating, sledging, ice-hockey were the main activities. Some were clearing the snow to carve a patch for others to skate on or to play ice-hockey.
At one corner someone had set up a “Gluh-Wine” stall. (When people discover a new place, commerce isn’t far behind.)
In another small corner, where a thin layer of water had survived the effects of weather, I found the ducks I usually find swimming in the pond.
As I completed my circle and started on my way back, more people were entering the pond. I saw the same initial hesitant steps, followed by confidence, then joy.
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More photos are here: Photo album – Winter’s Gift
To get a glimpse of how the woods look in other seasons: Photo album – Woods