I had an unexpected holiday present this year, one that brought great joy. I was up in the foothills of the Catskills one late afternoon this week with a friend of the community who was here for a couple of days. He had really wanted to see the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, especially their Meditation Hall, which is quite amazing. But they were in the midst of their annual New Years Retreat, and it was doubtful that we were going to be able to get in. However, when I thought about what we would do, I knew another place that I thought would fill the bill.
So we went into the hills above Woodstock to Cooper Lake, which is a hidden place, off the beaten path, and one of the loveliest places around. I've gotten used to the little gasps of pleasure that I get when I take people there. "Oh..." people usually say. "how beautiful". Peter was no exception. I heard an intake of breath wen he first caught sight of the lake through the trees. And as always I also marveled at what a wonderful sight it is.
There are a couple of ways up to the lake but the way I usually choose gives people a first glimpse of the Lake nestled in a bowl in the mountains. It's a medium sized body of water and the shore line is covered with trees and little inlets. It's not a recreational lake and there are only two houses on it, so it looks pretty pristine.
Across the lake are the Catskill Mountains, looking almost as though they had risen out of the Lake. They are typical Adirondack mountains, with weathered peaks and forested heights. There are lots of sites much like this in the Catskills, but there is something about the shape of Cooper Lake and the way the mountains frame the view of it that is especially lovely. The people I have taken there testify to that. In the summer there are often people there, just strolling along the road that circles the shore or in one of the coves painting or stretched out sleeping. I'm not the only one who appreciates the special beauty of Cooper Lake. But on this winter evening we had it all to ourselves.
When we first got out of the car there was an extraordinary sunset taking place across the lake. The clouds were very thin and whispy, and they had caught the light of the setting sun and were producing a purple/violet color that I can't recall ever having seen in a sunset. Sunrise and sunset at this time of the year often produces colors that we don't see at other times - rich pastels, usually in pinks and peach and sometimes shading almost to green. But I've never seen this deep violet before, and the thin cirrus clouds that were producing it made it look gauzy, almost like we were seeing it through a sheer curtain (which I guess we were, actually).
It lasted only a few moments and then it was gone. If we had paused down in Woodstock as we went through, even for the briefest time, we would have missed it. That heightened the marvel of it. How many sunsets have there been that I missed because I was looking the other way? How much beauty is perceived as an accident of time and place? Interestingly I didn't want to stop time, and I wasn't anxious to keep the sunset from fading. I was content to let time do its work and the fleeting nature of those minutes only heightened my appreciation of what we were seeing.
And it was so still. The Lake was frozen over, so there was no sound of water or waves, and there wasn't any wind. Aside from the sound of an occasional passing vehicle on the road across the lake there wasn't a sound. It was a deep, deep stillness, the kind that makes me think of the eons of time that the lake has been cradled there in those mountains, and of how those mountains have slowly weathered during those centuries and of how their pace is so different from ours.
But it wasn't, in fact, entirely silent. As we settled into the quiet of the lake shore we realized that the Cooper Lake was speaking - making sounds. There must have been some stresses in the ice. Maybe it was the cooling of the air as night came on that was causing some contractions. Because the sounds increased in frequency as we stood there and then walked around the shore, I tend to think that was probably it. But who knows - a little heat from springs on the bottom of the lake perhaps or other causes that I don't know anything about; whatever the cause, the Lake spoke.
"Grumph" it said. "Grinnnk". "Spueak". Grooooor". "Aaaaaaaam". Each little noise was just a second or so long, and the sounds were each in a different pitch. Then just about the time that darkness was becoming established there was a sharp "Crack" as somewhere out on the lake a sheet of ice fractured. And then the small noises continued as the lake reflected for us the coming of the night. Peter said that he had heard of this phenomenon, but had never heard it for himself. I had never known of it. For both of us it was an introduction to a new part of our world. No wonder that people of old spoke of the forces and presences that lived deep in bodies of water.
It wasn't at all loud. If the surroundings hadn't been so still we might have missed it altogether, even the sound of a significant breeze might have covered it. But everything conspired to let us eavesdrop on the Lake's "conversation" with the mountains. We're used to the voice of the Hudson river - the tinkling sound of thousands of ice pieces being broken up by the tides and scraping against each other is a constant companion in our winter months, and can sometimes, on still mornings, be heard even up at the monastery. This was different, more private, just a whisper or the slightest groan.
Peter is a musician and a composer, and he spoke about silences like this being times when he can just receive music as it comes to him, almost like dictation. I reflected on meditation and the way that deep silences make it possible for things to emerge and be recognized. We both realized that what had come to us was a revelation, one of those rare moments when the curtain is pulled aside and we see something we normally miss. Winter's gift.
Then, when it was becoming too dark to see much more we went down the hill to Woodstock and The Little Bear, which I usually refer to as The World's Best Chinese Restaurant. It has large plate glass windows that look out on the Beaverkill, which was also frozen over, and had the treat of that great view and their wonderful food.
A great evening. A real gift. A Christmas present. One of the thousands of nice things about living at the edge of those mountains.