ONE OF THE BEST WAYS to see nature for me was from the back of a horse. A horse was a friend and a source of warmth in winter plus the essence of freedom. Our horses were kept in the barn in winter and turned out during the day to stretch their legs and get a drink out of the creek. The dry cold air caused static electricity in their thick winter coats and they would go racing and bucking around together in play. Once they settled down, they were in a more congenial mood for a ride and I would get mine ready to go out.
I rode nearly every day, even in storms. As children, we wore flannel-lined jeans and lots of wool clothing for warmth, and if you rode bareback there was heat from the horse. Hands could go under a mane and into a furry neck. Out from the barnyard we eagerly headed down the lane between two fenced fields and to the creek. The ten-to fifteen-foot-wide fast water bubbled around rocks and air slid under the ice along the edges. Tree roots hovered over the water and iced into amazing forms often bouncing off the water’s surface. Four hoofs squeaked and crunched in the cold snow and carefully drummed over the strong wooden bridge.
The lane led between two more fields, and a disturbed red-tailed hawk often flew off a tree perch with a loud “kerreeee” of protest. The final field gate was kept open and water seeped under the snow to form sheets of ice along the hedgerow, making it tricky to go up the hill to the giant oak tree. This venerable source of summer shade provided lots of winter acorns for hungry deer and a beautiful branched form against the sky. A wood road went about another quarter of a mile to our dense hemlock ridge.
If I didn’t have a saddle I could slide off and later remount from a stump or rock ledge. Under the snow were the tough, bright green Christmas ferns, which made a winter bouquet. If lucky, there might be tiny dark, shiny green leaved teaberry plants, or American wintergreen. The red berries remain under the snow until spring and are better than candy.
Another wintergreen source was a black birch tree along a stonewall. Good for a twig to chew on. On the way back we followed the field edge bordered by gray birch, and the lengthening February days of rich yellow sun melted the base of a few trees. Those rides were a wealth of learning and adventure and got many smiles from mom remembering her youth.