Our winter wonderland
We play as the plants rest
In the same patch of woods we spend our summer season foraging, in winter we play. For miles in all directions out our back door, from our home and the restaurant, there is now nothing but snow covered trees and hillside, the trails we have carved out in sweat, the odd skidoo or dogsled trails in the openings, and lots of animal tracks everywhere. We are out there cross country skiing or snowshoeing, with not another soul in sight, be it in the maple plantation across the street (where we were picking greens in the Chef’s domain), or across and along the river and around the table champêtre on private property for hundreds of acres - several feet above the crinkleroot, the wild ginger and the mushrooms that keep us so busy all spring, summer and fall. With nothing to pick or put up, all there is to do is ski, snowshoe and maintain our trails. We can take a 2 minute, 30 minute or 1 hour trip to work by ski depending on which route we choose. Under the shining sun, or by moonlight, we are out there regularly taking advantage of the short slow season we have that is January, the month everyone else curses, our month of bliss. February brings Valentine’s day, our duck festival, not many days off, so now it is..
Winter wonderland yes, but it’s not a complete free for all. Oh no, there are strict rules that François has set out for this city girl: No skating on the river without him. No crossing the river except where he has carefully marked, he knows his river. No skiing off the trails after dark (headlight or not) without him. He says I’m dangerous because I’m not afraid enough. He thinks I’m a space cadet, that I’m not very ‘wood smart’(his version of ‘street smart’). It’s true that I can be incredibly unobservant in general in real life (ie. when not in the juice). Ask my girlfriends who have redecorated.
So it is; as we glide through the woods, while I’m completely at peace but caught up in my thoughts (or focusing on my ski performance and how fast I’m going), he is looking outward, in tune with nature, taking note of every shrub, tree and animal track, piecing together or re-enacting a wildlife drama from the tangle of paw prints and broken branches. He stops to show me the difference between the prints of a bobcat, fox, coyote, hare, deer and squirrel, the droppings too. Not unlike on a drive through the country or a trip out in the summer season, a trek through the woods with François des Bois is a string of stops and starts. You never know when he will stop dead in his tracks because he heard or saw or sniffed something. Unaware, I regularly ram into him from behind on my skis. It also reminds me of rollerblading with him on the Lachine Canal (once my version of nature) on one of our first dates. We could never pick up any speed because he kept stopping to marvel at or analyse some curious weed or flower along the way. At the time I thought it was cute. I like flowers and weeds, but I do like to go fast. In our trails amidst the deep snow, unlike on a rollerblade path, I have no choice but to follow suit. I’m not complaining really, more like chuckling, it ain’t so bad. Lots of fresh air and exercise, and now I know a fox trot from that of a lynx. I think.
All that time outside in a slow, Zen-like state, coasting, the adrenalin flowing at a steady stream, allows for good clear thinking too; I can’t help but brainstorm like crazy, so many menu ideas, so many moments of clarity, so much fun.. Just when I’m about to solve all the world’s problems and Eureka!, sure enough he breaks it all with a halt - time for another ‘nature capsule’ with François des Bois. After learning about another type of tree bark, bird species or critter hole, any prior moment of annoyance quickly evaporates and a good buzz regains hold of me as I calmly look up at the moon, basking in the pink light I now all of a sudden notice. Good thing he stopped me goddamnit. Wow. But then, instead of solving the world’s problems, I’m fixated on the abundance of fox and hare tracks he’s shown me, I’m a hunter and gatherer, I can’t help but wonder about a trap or two, c’mon, just one itty bitty hare for my pot.. I could ski out and collect dinner. Apparently squirrel is good too, but hard to skin, hmm.. Could I do it?
Same woods, a new world.. So much I never saw, never knew, never smelled, never felt. Even ‘us’ in ‘our woods’ with no pressure seems like a first. In my time out alone too (when I broke lightning speed I swear), I was bewitched - I felt watched over, but loose, carefree (like I used to feel blading down the middle of Sherbrooke St. at 2am), but now in a forest that is starting to feel like home.. The woods in winter are incredibly blank and tranquil in comparison to the mesmerizing cacophony of teeming life in summer. You can hear the trees, the wind, the snow, and occasional signs of the few brave souls still living there.. It’s almost more powerful, , a tangible source of raw energy, a sure grounding; a new host of ideas and a fresh perspective naturally spring forth..
I know I sound like a flake, but I really can’t believe how much I’m moved by nature season after season, especially now that I’m paying attention. With every season, nature’s kiss is as sweet, only different. This winter, I am happy to be there for it and open to it. It will only bring better things to my kitchen; maybe no hare, but who knows how wild I’ll get with all this fresh air coursing through my veins..