Horace Trenerry, Winter landscape, late afternoon light. c1945
Art Gallery of South Australia
All years are exceptional years, but this one has been more exceptional than most. Even the weather has joined in, so that we have had, not the usual dull progression of grey, spent anticyclones, but instead a run of almost continuous snow and cold from Advent onwards. A white Christmas, and a seemingly endless succession of sledging and skating days, has made this winter the stuff of childhood myth.
Naturally, everyone is complaining. Trains are delayed, roads unploughed, heating bills up; and the snow itself too cold, too white, too wet, too deep: too much – altogether too much. I annoy as many as I can by smiling Cheshire-like through the spindrift, cheerfully piling up the latest deposits with my trusty snow shovel, and laughing out loud when the sheer weight of encrusted glop finally defeats my attempts to cycle on hub-deep virgin pathways.
Others may moan, but snow brings out my inner puppy. It makes for a world that is clean, bright, legible, and malleable. Inconsequential creativity and destruction accompany every step, and the snowpack’s current surface and structure contain a detailed log of the previous weeks’ human, animal and meteorological activity. Photographically, it is usually regarded as a problem to be solved: the root cause of untamed contrast and heart warming stylistic clichés, but to me, seeing snow as a problem is formally equivalent to the idiot killjoys who claim to yearn for our more usual climate of steady rain and omnipresent mud. Photographing in the cold does have its technical issues – most urgently, how to stop fingers from freezing – but I love snow for the way it divides figure from ground; decorates and enhances detail; abstracts and purifies terrain; and perpetually adjusts its own shape, density, colour and texture.
Teazles and cow parsley
So it is odd then, that I’ve not been out much with my camera of late. It’s partly the bicycle thing: a round trip of my favourite patches has expanded from an hour to two and a half, or more, depending on the state of the tracks and the viciousness of the wind. Swedish has a wonderful word, ‘modd’, for the odd pastry-dough snow that results when a path has been ploughed and salted, but not quite enough. On modd, a thin-wheeled bike like mine explores all the allowed degrees of freedom of its relative parts before jettisoning its ice-clogged chain and folding itself into the nearest ditch. Getting off and pushing is the only cure, which extends the tour beyond even my generous definition of a lunch break.
Liu Guosong, Untitled 1976
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
All the same, cabin fever boiled over last week, and I abandoned my desk for a prolonged slog around a nominally familiar loop. I found my haunts in a curious twilight zone, with the temperature-sensitive plants and trees all still dormant, but the wildlife, who count hours of daylight, doing their best to initiate spring.
Of all the classes of the animal kingdom, it was the birds who were making the most effort to drive out winter by brute force. In one mad five minute rush I was buzzed by three species of woodpecker, an impossibly cute family of long-tailed tits, several singleton nuthatches, five red kites, two common buzzards, and a pair of ravens aggressively driving off everything larger than a pigeon from what they had obviously decided was to be their wood alone. A sudden silence, usually my clodhopping fault, turned out to be caused by a juvenile golden eagle grumpily settling on an outskirting branch. There was even, off in the distance, an odd strangled gurgle that gave me hope that at least one capercallie has decided to ignore the conventional wisdom as to its preferred range and habitat, and settle down among my local broadleaves.
It is hard not to take such a profusion of riches personally: as a prodigal’s return, and as confirmation of the inspired rightness of occasional absenteeism. Even for an anti-romantic like me there is a peace to be had from catching up with old friends like the unphotographable overstood lime coppice, or the interestingly disintegrating hazel log where the path forks round a sump. The unusual presence of a long-lived snow layer only adds to the charm, and greatly helps the forensic task of teasing out all the missed out on news and gossip.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Winter Landscape
With no knowledgeable partner to challenge me, tracks in the snow become like far off mountain tops – nameable without fear of contradiction. The wing-spread imprint and hopping twofer track could be a magpie or a crow, but either will fit the day and the imagination well enough. Deer could be roe, fallow or (unlikely) red, and although hunters will snigger at my inability to tell them apart, exact categorisation is not the point of my journey. It is the humans who are unmistakable: kids’ wellies taking the path of maximum deviation, businesslike woodmen’s boots between stands of recently thinned trees, the tracks of daft fools wheeling bicycles through the middle of forests, and, at the entrance to my ultimate Thule, no less than four polished sets of bogged-down tyre holes where unwary drivers had ignored common sense and the scraping of ice on their underbodies and had to be dragged out backwards by tractor.
One animal track I have learned to distinguish is that of the hare. Our back garden is part of the domestic world, and if not visited too often by the neighbours’ cats, is quickly colonised by settler rabbits. The front is a wilder, more primeval place, and appropriately enough is grazed by their fey relatives, supermodel elfin animals with long limbs, exaggerated bone structure, and a gaze which frankly warns against any notions of sentimental closeness.
Bruno Liljefors, Winter hare
The three-one-three-one-three-one rabbit hops are clearly different from the two-two ‘T’-shapes left by the hares, and although both coexist in places the rabbits give way to the hares as you leave the safe civilisation of the town and head out into the open fields of what with only a slight trace of bathos is known as the Lund Steppe. When the days are longer, and the crops still short, it is easy to find large groups of hares boxing their way across the germinating rapeseed and wheat. For now though, they are most obvious by their tracks. Individual footpads can be made out here and there, but wherever any distance is to be covered they merge into well-defined hareways which run like Roman roads clear to the horizon and beyond. In the woods, where the snow is deeper and softer, the sunken tracks form an intersecting net, spanning all of space without obviously going anywhere.
Our hares rarely wait as long as March before turning mad, and sure enough there were a few lines of sex-obsessed males hopping along in the wake of exasperated-looking females, the dance slowed to a more than usually comic act by the difficulty a thirty centimetre animal necessarily faces when attempting to run in fifty centimetres of loose snow. It is now over twenty years since careful observation demolished the view held since antiquity that boxing hares are males indulging in a rut, or that they only behave this way in March, but whatever the particulars, it is a rare humbling to be surrounded by twenty to thirty animals who normally would bolt from your presence at extremely high speed, but who now studiously ignore you as they complete a ritual whose purpose is at once totally obvious and wholly opaque.
It is no surprise that hares figure in so many genuinely ancient folk tales and foundation myths: the experience of the acutely uncanny without any trace of the sublime predates modern novelistic storytelling by millennia. That the experience is available to anyone who can be bothered to hop on a bike at lunchtime strikes me as a minor miracle, and provides a deep reassurance in a public world dominated by prepackaged, commercialised notions of what is worth feeling. I am not about to become a wildlife photographer, but the ease with which the ordinary can shock me if only I take the trouble to attend to it is a theme worth pursuing.