Frost on windowpane. Chicago, January 1994.

Tree of light

Some things you can’t pencil into your agenda.

I stood in a forest at night under a quarter Moon so smudged by a sheet of altostratus that Luna herself looked like a cloud. The place was Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, a month past Christmas of ’94; the mercury was a marrow-numbing 20 below zero. But these were factors I’d penciled into my agenda.

The most memorable moments on the trail are things I hadn’t penciled in: a tag-team of coyotes pursuing a pair of black-tailed deer on Mt. Diablo’s North Peak; crepuscular rays streaming through gaps in a massive oak on Mt. Tamalpais; marine fog at dawn whipped though Highland Ridge on a stiff southwest wind. Such moments aren’t boxes to check off on a to-do list; they’re gifts, not achievements.

As the quarter moon broke the horizon on that minus-20 day in ’94, I decided to hit the trail and push the envelope’s frigid edge. I packed the essentials: a pastrami sandwich, Armagnac and a thermos of blistering coffee. I slipped layers over my torso and slid spectacles over my nose, hoping the frames wouldn’t freeze to my bridge. Yes, this hike was idiotic enough to be really appealing.

In the Upper Midwest, you assault winter with recreation or cower indoors. I chose assault, but that winter had been quirky: too little snow for cross-country skiing; too much for hiking. I’d contracted an acute case of cabin fever and needed trail time. Never mind the mercury.

I hopped into my car and got the first good news of the evening: the engine started. Eighty minutes later I rolled to a stop at the Scuppernong trailhead north of Eagle. I stepped out and immediately felt the skin on my face tighten in the bitter air.

The trail had been dusted with a quarter inch of snow. Had it been a foot deep, my boots wouldn’t have noticed. Not much melts at minus 20 F. After 10 minutes on the trail I pressed a gloved finger to chin and nose. No sensation. I pulled my turtleneck over the bridge of my nose, losing the faint scent of pine needles but gaining feeling in my epidermis.

An hour later I rounded the northern arc of the trail through a grove of oaks and entered a prairie undulating south in shallow waves. Having escaped the forest’s sheltering friction, I felt the first hint of wind from the northwest graze my right cheek. I picked up my pace to get the blood churning.

Above, Capella, Rigel and Sirius pierced a sky washed pale by moonlight and streaked by altostratus gaining density. The other stars strained to break through. It was hard to look away from that sky, but something far down the trail, maybe 500 yards distant, caught my attention: a small orb of light.

I descended the prairie’s next trough and lost sight of the orb. When I reached the next crest the picture wasn’t much clearer, except that the orb’s shape was more oval than circular and its light wasn’t solid and steady. Down the next swale I went, this time at a trot. At the top, 200 yards from the light, I found I’d only created more questions than I’d answered. I could make out a tree, not more than 10 feet tall – a tree emanating the softest of shimmering light.

I was stumped. The closer I drew, the dimmer the light fell, as if I were hurtling toward a galaxy that betrayed its true emptiness, the immense darkness between its stars, with greater vividness the nearer I approached.

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The light disappeared below the final crest and I found myself running down the slope, a slope just steep enough to send me flying. I reined back the pace and climbed the final incline with impatient strides. When the light peeked above the crest, just 50 yards away, my puzzlement turned to anxiety. The tree was sparkling.

It was a perfectly ordinary scraggly young pin oak, but for one detail: from its bare branches a thousand slivers of light flared like meteors. I closed the distance, my heart pounding in my ears. Epiphanies are nice, I suppose, but I didn’t come out here to meet the Almighty in the form of a burning bush.

Finally, at a distance of 10 feet, the tree revealed its secret – something I’d never have thought to pencil into my agenda. Someone had been out here in December, I guessed, and draped the branches with tinsel. In the middle of nowhere. As the strands twisted in the breeze, splintered moonlight danced and vanished and danced again.

If a tree glitters on the prairie and no one sees it, does it radiate light? Yes, whether we’ve penciled it in or not. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them,” wrote Annie Dillard. “The least we can do is try to be there.” So I stood there, straining to grasp the improbability of the convergence of moonlight and the silvery fire of tinsel warming that perilous air with beauty and grace, my belated Christmas gift from the universe.

May you be graced by the unexpected mystery made manifest this Christmas season. May the Father, whose intricacies of love glisten like the snowflake, cause you to shine with the brightness of the winter Sun. May the Christ Child, the small but growing light of solstice, bring you hope. And may the Spirit, like a current of wind across a frigid landscape, breathe steadily on the coals of your heart.