I just got off the phone with Wade Barnett, maintenance supervisor at Mt. Mitchell State Park, the highest peak east of the Dakotas. Wade confirmed what I had heard on national news: that Mt. Mitchell had received a storm total of sixty-six inches last week, accumulating from Wednesday January 20 through Saturday the 23rd. In one twenty-four hour period, forty-one inches fell. Due to its elevation, the climate on the crest of the Black Mountains is very similar to that of southern Canada, a thousand miles to the north.
From my nature journal, January 25, 3 a.m., 14 degrees: I wake in the night to a tall winter moon shining on my face through a slat in the window blind. The powerful storm has finally blown itself out, as all storms do. I listen into the pale darkness, and no longer hear north wind roaring through the big trees. Even indoors I feel the chill of a deep winter night. Wanting to see the snow-quilted land under a high moon, I get dressed and walk downstairs in the sleeping house. The quiet rooms are blue with snow-moon shadows. In the den the woodstove window glows with a bed of coals. I stoke it with a stick of seasoned wood. The humidifier bubbles a low comfortable gurgling. I feel grateful that we have not lost electric power. Storms with this much force and duration often reveal how fragile the electric grid truly is. The dog sighs in her bed. I know she doesn’t want to go outside, so I let her sleep.
Opening the door I step out of the warm dark room into the shimmering frozen night. Before walking out into the snow I look up to the high moon gleaming in the thin black limbs of the birch. The deep pewter sky is completely clear. Every last trace of cloud has blown away, leaving an intensely quiet, profound stillness. Just above my head a jagged row of icicles hangs from the gutter’s edge. The black spears of ice are burning with the dark fire of a buried sun, reflected off the bright round moon. The dooryard is a white page sketched with sharp blue tree shadows. Most dazzling of all is the surface of the snow itself—countless individual crystals glittering millions of minute reflections of the moon. The prismatic light mirrors and refracts its component colors, giving the wondrous effect of scattered tiny emeralds, rubies, sapphires and topaz, sparkling the vast and silent emptiness of winter night. Nothing in summer compares with such stark pure beauty.
Out across the ragged quilt of snowy fields and black forest, the sloping land lies frozen in moonlight. In this radiance I could have seen a coyote walking across the open meadow three hundred yards away. Above the land the sky glows with such brightness that allows only the more brilliant stars to be visible. High overhead, from under the belly of the big Lion, Jupiter shines his beam of white light. In the west the winter Hunter, Orion, and his dogs, Sirius and Procyon, have followed their sky-trail down low into the oaks. Glowing in the east, the yellow spring star Arcturus has risen over the trees. A thread of woodsmoke drifts up from the chimney, disappearing into the Great Bear of the north.