It snowed last night—not much, perhaps a half-inch or so of fluffy white. Just enough to partially fill in the various tracks of birds, cats, squirrels, dogs and people who, over time, had all contributed to make such a messy hodgepodge in the several inches of snow that fell a few days ago. Now, everything is softened, sharp edges are once again rounded.
Some might refer to this snow as a "dusting." But in my growing-up household, a distinction would have been made—my mother and father, and my Grandpa Williams, would have thought it too much snow to use the term "dusting," and instead declared it a "skift." Skift is an old word of Scottish-Irish usage. It's exact etymology is uncertain, sometimes debated; many lesser dictionaries don't even list it, while modern spellcheckers flag it as incorrect. But the word has been in usage in this country since our earliest days, and long before that in what is now the United Kingdom. Some folks say skift while others say skiff—though I use the term skiff to mean a fairly small boat. The usually definitive Oxford English Dictionary says either is correct, but adds that skiff may be a specialized use of skift—which indicates to me that skift is the older term. I do know that among people who know and use these words, the distinction is always made: skiff, boat; skift, snow.
As I said, the amount of snow which fell wasn't much—a skift—though if you were a hunter, it be would be good news because it would prove an excellent tracking snow…all you needed to locate or trail rabbits, pheasants, grouse, foxes, or deer. To a hunter, a "tracking snow" is like an otherwise blank sheet of paper containing a highly visible record—a timeline map—of animal activity over the most recent hours. Of course you don't have to carry a gun to hunt—you can also carry a camera or binoculars—and spend half a morning or half an hour afield.
But in even a short time, you can learn a great deal of what went on—who was out and about doing what—while you slept. Here is the delicate tracery of a mouse or vole looking for seeds. There's where the local whitetail trio passed through the corner of the yard, and the one which detoured slightly from the group to nibble a few tips off the neighbor's apple tree. This track might be a dog, or possibly a coyote—though the straighter in-line trail indicate the latter; not a fox, though, due to size and more pronounced rear pads. And here's a squirrel, sharp-edged, obviously recent; made post-dawn. There were rabbits meandering everywhere and—uh, oh…looks like one meandered into the talons of a great-horned owl; the tracks simply end, with a sort of sweeping pattern on either side where the owl's wingtips brushed aside the new snow.
Death simply swooped silently from the darkness and snatched up the luckless bunny. So says the skift of snow.