This morning much of the country was supposed to be in the grip of what CNN.com was styling a “deadly blizzard”; the accompanying photograph showed a firefighter in turnout gear struggling against wind-driven snow in front of a fire engine. Most of the time it’s hard to take this kind of coverage seriously, but I had reason to pay attention: yesterday, A. packed her camping gear and her other baggage and a five-pound bag of Gummi bears into the Toyota and departed for Montana, and I knew that she would eventually be driving through some of the states mentioned right up at the top of the CNN article next to phrases like “blowing drifts” and “fourth horseman of the apocalypse.” In fact, the very reason I had turned on my computer while waiting for the coffee to brew was to look up the weather between Pittsburgh and Chicago, A.’s route for the day. I was pleased to learn, upon closer examination, that this particular part of the country wasn’t going to see the worst of it, and of course the actual storm will be over by the time she reaches states that will have borne more of its brunt, like South Dakota. I called her with this news and to say good morning and we talked for a few minutes while she maneuvered out of Pittsburgh. I looked up the weather forecast for Baltimore, saw mention of some “wintry precipitation” with no predicted accumulation, and promptly buried myself in figuring out some of the features of my new computer.
When I surfaced again, at around 2 p.m., the world outside my window wore a coat of white. In just a few hours, over two inches of fluffy-looking snow had fallen, smoothing over the leftover ice from last week’s storm; the sky and the snow shimmered with diamond-gray light. I took some pictures from the office window and the sun porch and then suited up for a walk. Two neighbors were already shoveling but there was no one else around and the snow looked fresh and mostly undisturbed. I walked north up Ellerslie and cut east on 36th, diverting up along the little hillock that stands just inside the old Memorial Stadium grounds. The grass on the little hillock is overgrown and clumpy. The uncertain footing, the icy needlelike snow on my face, and the dramatic wintry view all had me feeling for a moment like I was walking on some English moor.
I turned north into the gingerbread houses of Ednor Gardens, where lights already burned in tiny windows and snow slid from the steeply pitched roofs and dormers with a gentle whispering sound. Underfoot, the snow was crunchy and airy but wet enough to pack together into perfect, medium-weight snowballs. I threw one at a tree across the street from where I was walking and watched it miss, skidding to a stop in the snow on someone’s lawn. The street was still mostly white and I walked right down the middle. Spiky black tree branches arched toward the sky above my head. Itinerant professional snow-shovelers seemed to be the only other foot traffic, slouching past in great long t-shirts over waffle-knit long johns, flimsy-looking shovels over one shoulder.
I decided to check on the crows. I had first noticed the crows on a morning run sometime around Christmas, although it might have been closer to Thanksgiving. At first, I had thought that the large number of crows I had spotted in a half dozen trees near the t-intersection of an alley near Loch Raven Boulevard was the kind of gathering that precedes flying south. But A. told me that crows, and also ravens, don’t leave for the winter and instead tough it out in a group roost. On a snowy Sunday evening a few weeks ago, A. and I walked out to look at the crows, which she had so far only seen from the car. We found the first ones just east of 36th and Loch Raven and followed them for blocks. Crows filled tree after tree, inky spots against the grey sky. A man hanging around near Loch Raven and the Alameda noticed us craning our necks and looking around. “Can I help you folks find anything?” he asked. “We’re just looking at the crows,” I told him, pointing out the thousands of birds in the trees around us, stretching out of sight in all four directions. The focus in his face shifted a little and he staggered, as if with the weight of his new knowledge of the complicated natural web that surrounds us all, or maybe he was just drunk. Inspired, A. and I walked home and made ourselves some Bailey’s-laced hot chocolate.
But the crows were gone today, moved on to a new roost, and I turned back toward home. Trudging uphill along 36th again, but this time headed west, I came upon a fire engine stopped in front of a house. Two firemen stood on the sidewalk, one of them kicking his rubber boot idly into a small pile of snow next to where someone had cleared the sidewalk. I thought of the fire cadet who died in the training exercise recently. The strange thought occurred to me to express some kind of solidarity to the two firemen, but I had no idea what form this might take. I couldn’t even remember her name (it’s Racheal M. Wilson). I walked past in silence. On the front steps next door, a man stood talking into a cell phone.
“Accidents happen,” he said. “Accidents happen.”
One house further along, a man shoveled snow from the front walk, working steadily, the shovel scraping along the concrete again and again.