Incantations of the Vigiljoch
Laura Johanna Braverman
1. A CLEARING 11:15 / 22. February
Snow crunches underfoot as we walk up the path past the chair lift; it is the only sound stitched into the backdrop of quiet, along with the whir and clink of moving chairs passing over the small rubber-lined wheels of the supporting towers. We pass the wooden sign marked 13, Oberer Quellenweg / Bärenbad Alm.
Beyond the darkened pinewood fences lining the edge of the path stands a scattering of Tyrolean mountain houses with traditionally carved balcony balustrades, painted wooden shutters, and weathered wood-shingled walls. Closed for the winter, the houses sit quietly, huddled under white. I imagine what it would be like to live in one of these houses, even if just for a while—this close to the chants of trees and mountains.
At the end of the fence, past the houses, we enter into the deeper quiet of the forest. The rhythmic clink of the chair lift fades out into the distance. I listen to the various calls of birds: trills, longer notes drawn out in arches and swoops, some squeaks and squawks.
Then R. says, “Stop. Listen.”
So I do, standing still in the middle of the path.
We listen to the knocking of a woodpecker—a low, quick, percussive sound that reverberates through the bodies of trees; it feels like a wondrous gift.
After a moment, we continue walking along the ever-narrowing path of packed snow. Small heaps of white powder fall at intervals from the branches of trees, making silver dust showers. Some pines are clothed in needles. Others stand bare and spindly, delicate brown branches exposed. We reach a locked wooden fence gate.
Climbing over one end of the closed fence, we see a clearing that stretches out below a short descent. I sit down on an exposed tree stump and look out to the view—on one side, the valley; and, on the other, mountainside covered in rows of snow-dusted pines. In the far distance rise the majestic, jagged grey and white Dolomite mountain peaks, circled by wispy clouds with patches of bright blue behind. The pale sunlight makes shadows of the trees on the untouched slopes of snow. Suddenly, from the valley below, church bells begin ringing: a heartening, confident herald of the midday hour, reminding me of so many childhood days in Salzburg.
2. WOODPECKER 10:15 / 23. February
It’s a little warmer out today. Bits of pebbled gravel peak out from the snow on the ascent leading up to the chair lift, which stands idle, a fact that deepens the quiet. Bird songs and sounds are coming at us from all corners of the forest. We hear the loud low knocks of the woodpecker again. Then the sound hits a higher treble note.
R. says, “He found a hollow spot in the tree.”
The bird is close, somewhere just above us, and we stop for a moment, looking up.
My legs feel heavy today, slow; I need to pull them along behind me, stopping often to take deep breaths. I feel the altitude; it seems like no one else up here does. But the heavy feeling gets better as we continue walking, and we get to the clearing faster today. Less cloud-covered than yesterday, the sky’s expanse offers a sight of the sharp peaks in the distance, and more blue behind them.
I sit down again to listen to the birdcalls—the pips and squeaks, the notes soaring and dipping, and then I hear a bird that sounds like a typewriter.
When I draw R.’s attention to it, he says, “A very fast typewriter.”
I laugh, and listen to the bird’s communication, which clicks along rapidly, line by line.
Today, we decide to keep walking beyond the point where we turned around yesterday. The path leads down and then along a wooden fence—and then enters the forest again, back into the shadowed covering of feathered trees. I stop along the path to put my arms around the coarse skin rounding the long neck of a pine. The ridges feel rough against my cheek. As I close my eyes, I ask the tree to beat its living heart into me.
3. WANDERSTOCK 11:40 / 24. February
We take Path 1 today. R. likes to change and explore. The snow feels fresh and powdery. It snowed a little this morning as we were sitting at breakfast—slow, lazy flakes coming down for a while. R. finds a stick for walking. It looks too narrow at the end, but he shows me that it’s flexible when he puts his weight on it: it bends, but it does not break.
The rhythmic sound of the stick hitting the ground reminds me of my father’s Wanderstock. He never went wandern without it. I remember walking to the beat of that sound when I was little—the point of it scraping against earth or twigs, the sound ricocheting off the tall columns of the forest. When I think about my father’s walking stick—the top pierced through with a hole for a wrist-loop of rope for his broad hand—it seems a totem of him. It seems he has come back for a moment now, his spirit channeled through that sound.
My tiredness feels overwhelming today. It’s my old battle, this fatigue; I navigate its changing moods everyday. It feels like I can barely hoist my heavy, sore legs up and down in the snow, but I want to breathe this precious air in; I want to be amidst the trees and mountains that make up part of my blood’s blueprint. So I walk.
We take the path that winds down along the front of the mountain lodge, past some mountain houses, and then curves down towards the forest. On this side of the forest, the trail’s path widens. The views descend all the way to the valley. I tell R. that I smell goats. He says there must be a village beneath us nearby.
A rounded dollop of snow falls through the branches just then, and I think about how I would describe the sound of it falling—a little tinny, like the big, slow raindrops at the end of a storm on a metallic roof gutter. At the same time, it seems the auditory equivalent of the word shimmer.
I walk along slowly, with R. ahead, who takes solid, assured steps in the snow. I feel the tingling of anxiety in my chest: will I have the energy to make it back to the hotel all right? I focus on the trees and the snow to distract myself from my thoughts. I tell R. I’m feeling worried.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s easy.”
His relaxed confidence reassures me. And I make it back just fine. As we take the gradual ascent back up the path leading towards the hotel, we pass a smooth snow bank. R. writes a message in the snow with his walking stick. I love the message, and tell him so.
4. DEER 15:30 / 25. February
Today we start out later in the day. I have a good feeling; different forces come together to create an ideal moment for a walk. My legs feel lighter, my energy better and brighter. The afternoon light shines a rose-gold tint on the snow. The shadows of the trees on the white powder leave soft, blurred edges.
Along the way, I hug a tree again. While I’m standing there with my eyes closed, R. whispers something that I don’t understand, but with urgency to it that gets my attention. I open my eyes and look in the direction towards which he points.
Down below us, along the steep incline among the rows of trees stands a deer, its’ ears pricked, watching us. We are frozen. I don’t want to make the slightest move to scare this graceful creature away. It feels like everything freezes, as if the whole forest waits with us.
In this moment filled with expectancy and hope, the wind suddenly rises along the incline of the mountain. It rushes through branches and needles with a loud sigh. We see, then, there’s another deer behind the first one. We stand and watch, four sets of eyes locked. The moment stretches out—stretches out like the sky above us.
A deep peace pervades the forest today, and we are a part of it. I listen to the birds as we walk; one makes a caw-caw kind of sound. When we reach the clearing, we walk along the fence-lined path, and look out to the distant view. We hear the piercing call of a falcon echoing across the valley, and see its dark wings overhead.
As we continue, I think about an essay I read recently, of how walking can create a special kind of trance. I breathe. I place one foot, and then another. I think about the last time we came to the Vigiljoch, three months after my father left this earth. Two and a half years ago now. We drove from here to Salzburg, over the heights of the Brenner Pass, to place his ashes in the ground—with Oma, with Tante Hannerl, and with Opa in the Friedhof. It seemed then that the Vigiljoch trees and mountains whispered stories about him on the winds.
5. WIND 15:25 / 26. February
Our last day for walking—and it snowed last night and into the day, making it no exaggeration to use the words Winter Wonderland. The birds sing out, through and above the white blanketing, as if their lungs and hearts have opened up—the trills, swoops and ascending curves of sound amplified amidst the congregation of trees. Some trees along the beginning of the path look as if they come out of Japanese prints: cherry trees, but instead of pink blossoms, cottony tufts of white powder snow decorate the ends of the fine branches.
Today, wind blows stronger than it has so far this week. Wind through pine needles resonates differently than the wind through deciduous trees. I try to think of a word to describe the sound, but it’s not easy finding the right one: a whooshing? Or humming? The sky sighing —or the earth breathing? The sound that makes me want to bow. I want to bow to the forest and the mountains—touch my head to the ground in an offering to the sacred that converges here in this place. I am prostrate in my heart.