Four a.m. and I step out into the winter still-dark, ask the rhododendron leaves to teach me. Faithful student of the eye, morning by morning I observe as they slowly reveal their precision of curl and droop—the woody shrub’s mirror to the mercury’s rise and fall. Seen by the light spilling out of a window, at 3° above zero the leaves have lost their gloss, furl into packs of cigarillos, taper to a point directed at the ground; in pointed opposition, the tear-shaped fall-set buds stand straight up, each a lone sentry to the bitter cold. I reach, tentatively touch a leaf tip; a single drop of water escapes the green icicle of plant.

inside, a fire
in every room

At 14° above zero, the leathery leaves release their intensity of curl, begin their slow rise, defy gravity one degree at a time. In silhouette, the whorled leaves droop loose from their petioles, oddly the same angle and shape as praying mantis wings. In pre-dawn shadow, a single bud shapeshifts into an insect head and the leaf-mantis perches, frozen in its devotion. At 31° the ring of leaves flatten out and up like a fan, can almost flutter but have no flex. How like my midwinter spirits—they could use such a lift.

white wing-crescents
undulating flight
the pileated calls

At exactly zero degrees, the tightest rolled leaves I’ve seen hang straight down—at each end, the leaf’s pale inside peeks out, a sharpened tip, each cluster of leaves like so many pencils suspended without a holder. Brittle to touch, they feel like paper but contain no script—the way, in my dry winter brain, thought gets caught between idea and fruition. Then, after the ice storm and three days at 5° encased in winter’s glass, the leaves belie the true outside: they all lay open, shine broad and flat, caught in the memory of a warmer time.

tree trunks rub and creak
the big dipper drops
out of the clouds

Today, as dawn sheds a hint of light, the snow-covered shrub tells me it is 28°. Each ovoid leaf is barely cupped, hangs at ease from the juncture of bud. There is some softening in the world. Small hummocks of fluffy powder rest on every green curve, delicate and still.

red cardinal
white avalanche