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Book Excerpt: 'Letters From Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods'

A Winter's Tale

Finally, I have molted into my winter skin. I have my tea and hot cider-making chops back; I've dug my fleece slippers out of the ancient shoe deposits in my closet. I no longer sigh and grimace when I raise the blinds on another layer of gray morning clouds. It's winter, and I am bound to squeeze the beauty and life out of every day, to appreciate what is wonderful about it, and to stop my pointless yearning for the mellow days of autumn past or — perish the thought — the distant warmth of spring.

We're on the edge of the Carolina wren's wintering range. It's a wonderful thing in itself to be in the company of Carolina wrens. Some winters they vanish. An ice storm will knock them back, and their cheerful whistles are heard no more for the next few years. But a pair that's determined to beat the odds is living with us on Indigo Hill this year. We see them frequently at the peanut and suet feeders or prospecting for sunflower bits in the seed litter. And, early on in the winter, every time we went into our garage, a wren spooked out of the shelving and fluttered against the window. We'd hurry to open the garage door and it would always fly out. We'd worry about its getting trapped in there while we weren't around to let it out.

This happened so often that I began to suspect that the wrens knew very well how to get in and out of the garage, and the only reason they fluttered against the window was because we were startling them. This was confirmed when I saw a wren fly from its perch on our old tractor and quietly slip out under the garage door. Now, every time we go in, one or two wrens go through this routine.

They're living in there, and better than that, they're sleeping in a new bluebird box that's lying on its side on a high shelf. They've found my mealworm colony and have been rifling through it for the last larvae. They're combing the garage for spiders and crickets, roaches and who knows what else. Clever birds, those Carolina wrens. On snowy nights when the wind is moaning around the house, I like to think of them snuggled together in their house within a house, making it through the winter with all the accoutrements of man at their disposal.

Depending on your point of view, early November in southern Ohio is wonderful or dreadful. If you enjoy the hunt for deer, it must be wonderful. For me, the best thing about gun season is when it stops. I no longer have to wonder if I look too much like a trophy buck when I trudge to the mailbox, no longer have to drape myself in blaze orange to hang out the clothes. I can resume the little winter rambles that keep cabin fever, with its itchy fingers, at bay. From a high of fourteen deer around the yard last year, we've only three this season. My daughter Phoebe, at four, named the doe Rainbow. She's got twin fawns, a buck and a doe.

Over the summer, I was privileged to see the two fawns at play in the orchard, using my little birch grove outside the studio as a kind of home base. They'd come scatting up the orchard, stop briefly, tongues hanging, at the birch grove, then, with wild leaps and sunfishing, go scalding back down the path. Rainbow would feed, watching idly, as the fawns burned off her good milk in wild play. Gradually, their spots faded, and they took on the mien of grown-up deer, with only occasional frisks and flourishes.

As the sun slanted across the meadow on the evening of the last day of gun season, I was delighted to see Rainbow and her two fawns coming up the path. Odd that they'd be abroad in daylight, especially during hunting season, but it was the last day after all. And they had made it through and would live to see another spring. A good omen.

Suddenly one fawn reared, punched the other with its forefeet, and took off in wild abandon. It rounded the meadow path twice, ears laid back, tail up, bounding and springing like a March hare. As it went by, its mother reared and lashed out with her forelegs, as if to quell its exuberance, but its sibling gave chase. Around and around they frisked, tossing their heads and even play-bowing like pups. The buck folded his front legs, rolled over on his side, and threw his head back as his sister danced up to him, and the chase resumed. Both lapsed into the odd gait called single-footing, when the deer trots, but hops twice on each hoof instead of once. It's as close to skipping as a bovid can come.

Did the three deer know it was the end of the last day of gun season? (They certainly seem to know when it starts! We start seeing bucks in the orchard just a few days before gun season opens.) Was this a celebration, a party? Undoubtedly. Whether or whatever the deer were celebrating, only they knew. But their joy in simply being alive, whether for the moment or for one more season, was infectious.

This afternoon, as the snow drifted down, Phoebe and I pulled our boots and mittens, hats and coats on and readied ourselves for the quarter-mile walk to the mailbox. Binoculars? Check. Letters? Check. Money for priority mail? Check. Jellybeans (in case we get hungry)? Check. I opened the door and Phoebe gasped. "Mommy, it looks just like a coloring book that hasn't been colored on yet!" How perfectly she'd captured the pristine beauty of untrammeled snow. We stood and caught the flakes on our sleeves, looking for a daisy, a star, a double wagon wheel. A Carolina wren mounted the coppery green heron weathervane atop the garage. It bobbed like a little toy, then its clear, happy whistle rang out in the falling snow. Winter? We'll make it through, with a little help from our friends.

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Julie Zickefoose