Outdoor Moments: Contemplating snow fleas, spring and the sounds of silence

Alan Charles
Friday, March 22, 2019
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PHOTO by ALAN CHARLES
An ice fisher waits and contemplates on a frozen Montana Lake.

For many of us living in these northern latitudes, by March, we are craving sunshine, warmer temperatures, and some way just to shed all the frustration of being cooped up indoors. A bit of solitary contemplation, somewhere outdoors, can be just the ticket.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, writing almost 2,500 years ago in 330 B.C., opined that to be most happy, a wise man was one who contemplated life and truth in a solitary manner, without any goal of solving a problem, but rather just to reflect.

Now, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether or not a guy sitting on a frozen pond staring at a hole in the ice is a “wise” man. But, I’ll wager that the ice fisherman is probably a happy fellow, and might even be contemplating life or truth or whatever else comes to mind.

We should all do more of that, occasionally stealing some time just to sit quietly somewhere outdoors and listen to the sounds of silence. No matter who we are or what our lifestyle, occupation, or schedule — we should all gift ourselves with some small bit of quality quiet time to escape some of the distractions that complicate our lives.

Wally McRae, a well-known rancher and cowboy poet from Rosebud Creek near Colstrip, caught a piece of this in a poem titled “Little Things,” from which I quote: “I’ve laid upon my back just looking at the sky, at clouds, or if the sky was clear, the motes within my eye. Didja ever spend an hour or more, just staring at the crick … ”

I thought about that poem a while back, when I took a walk and found the snow banks covered with what looked like scattered flakes of pepper, except the black specks hopped and bounced around. I called my friend who ranches down the creek and asked him if he knew anything about what I have always called “snow fleas.”

He told me he knew what I was talking about, because he had seen them, too, but that he did not know anything about them. Three minutes after we hung up, the phone rang. Turns out, his wife and granddaughter were listening, and with a quick query to Google, they could report that “snow fleas are actually called springtails, and are a form of hexapod, a 6-legged creature.”

Little things, of no great importance, should be the focus of solitary contemplation. All it takes is a resolve to make the time, turn off the gadgets, and escape from whatever pollutes or complicates your life, at least for a moment, to revel in some quiet outdoor moments. I sometimes build a little warming fire, just because.

As we do this, especially now in this time of March, we may find ourselves feeling a bit like Boone, an oldtime mountain man character in a book called The Big Sky, written by A.B. Guthrie, an author from Choteau who also wrote the screenplay for the movie “Shane.”

According to Boone, “Spring made a man feel good and sad, too, and wild sometimes, wanting to howl with the wolves or strike north with the ducks or fork a horse and ride along over the rim of the world into new country, into a fresh life … Come a soft night, and he could sit under the sky and watch the stars or moon and listen to running water ... and he would feel a reaching out ... for the quietness a man never seemed to have until he looked back and saw he had passed it by, never knowing…”

Snow fleas, the flickering flames of a tiny warming fire, the heartbreak hues of a fading sunset, or the crisp chrome of a night sky studded with diamond dust stars and a new moon — outdoor moments with a bit of solitary contemplation can soothe our souls and help us all rejoice as we welcome another springtime into Montana’s big sky country.

( Alan Charles lives and writes in the Pine Hills.)

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