Posts Tagged ‘winter’

Solstice. Just before Christmas and our tree is up, shining with lights in the darkness which is profound, this shortest day of the year.

I arose in the darkness and sat with it this morning, kept a close eye on it as it gave way to dawn. I plan to bundle up and walk in the woods today. The day may be overcast—but it will be far from gloomy in there. Close, dim perhaps; but not depressing. The woods at the darkest time of the year feel majestic, full of secrets.

Later I’ll listen to music, maybe even get out my guitar and play. I should bake something too, in the longstanding tradition of my people at Christmas, a rite that I’m certain goes back much further than I can see, beyond my mother and my grandmothers, beyond the women whose names are on the recipes handed down to me: Martha, Diatha, Leah, Opal.

It’s still a mystery, my descent from my ancestors, how my life is linked to so many generations before me, as life itself is a mystery, how the light comes back every year, finds us again and the new year begins. It’s just the Christian calendar, a Chinese-American friend said to me once. She was referring to the millennium, as I recall, and dismissing it as a purely Christian invention, and of course she was right—at least, about the year 2000. But the Christian calendar is overlaid on something more ancient, the Gregorian on the Julian, both of them working from the sun and starting the new year soon after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice—observed and celebrated in pre-Christian times. I think of the standing pillars of Stonehenge, arranged to frame the arc of the sun on its shortest journey of the year and constructed at least 4,000 years ago. During the middle ages many western European countries actually started the new year on December 25th, marking the birth of Christ and closer to winter solstice. (When reforming the calendar and lopping off days to get back into alignment with the sun, Pope Gregory held onto the Roman convention of the New Year beginning on January 1.)

Like the calendar many of the holiday festivities, the decorations and the carols are older than Christianity. Now and then I peek behind the “Christmas” veneer and see my pagan ancestors. Celebrating Yule, for instance—it’s not a Christian festival, but the word’s been co-opted as if it means Christmas. I listen to the carols and ancient voices call out to me, singing about the greenwood as if it’s a very real, specific place; singing of dawn breaking and deer running. They had a lot to say and to sing about, it seems, at this shortest day of the year, even without the addition of a prophet from the middle east.

Some of the Christian lyrics build on the happy spirit of revelry (in fact carols were originally dances) and call out for beneficence, and for understanding among people, and who can argue with or complain of that? Other lyrics simply recount the Christmas story: the star, the kings, the birth of Christ; and often each bit of story is tied to something still green and growing, like holly, that one might find on a winter ramble in the wood.

And I come back to where I began: Today I want to walk in the woods, whether dim or shot through with the rays of the low-sailing sun, where people for thousands of years have felt close to the mystery, the unknowable. The trees that outlive us, the ground we will return to, the bits of green that always survive the frost. The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer.

Our roots are long, long as the shadows this time of year.


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Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.

As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.

Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.

Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.

Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.

She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.

My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.

On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.

I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.

Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.

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Through a Window

I had a dream last night. I was at a gym or a rec center, trying to sort out my gear which seemed to be spread all over the place when a custodian cautioned me to mind what I was doing, he wouldn’t want to have to call my parents. My parents? I shot back at him. My parents?! I’m fifty! I yelled.

Actually, I’m over fifty—but anyway, I made the point. Just recently I’ve begun to think that I now have the years on me to have experienced some things, and even chew them over for a while. It turns out a lot of stuff happens in fifty years, even in a fairly ordinary life like mine. In fact, everyone’s life, including mine, has remarkable moments. I think I had to get to fifty, almost, before I could even recognize this, or see them—the remarkable moments—for what they are.

Yesterday I stood at the big window over the staircase at the library, a wall of windows really, looking out on the garden under a thin blanket of snow: beds with huddled stalks and clumps of old plants draped in white, the sculpture (of a boy, balancing on a ball) and the benches anchoring the paths, the big spruce trees towering over all, lending scale. Beyond the garden I saw the ravine where the Paint Creek runs by, the far side rising steeply, all snow and a tangle of dark branches. The sky above the pointy tops of the spruces was gray but still light was flooding the immense window this cloudy November day.

I stood there just looking. In fact I’d only run in for a minute and I had no business on the second floor but I’d climbed the steps to the landing anyway, just to stand at the window and look out. Two boys half-ran, half-stumbled through the garden, scooping up snow and throwing it at each other in barely formed missiles. I could see they were laughing as they disappeared beyond the corner of the building. I went back to gazing at the sky, the spruce trees, the far bank of the ravine so dramatic in snow. Last winter while sitting at a table by a window upstairs I saw deer over there.

I stood looking out as people went up and down the stairs behind me and I was overwhelmed with the thought: all of this is so beautiful and often we give it the merest glance, going back and forth, on our way to and from. I’ve admired the view from the library stairs before but still it seemed a rare occurrence, to feel so strongly about it. I had the thought that maybe I was feeling something similar to what people who have had a reprieve feel, after their cancer has disappeared or their heart stopped and was re-started or they survived the plane crash.

I haven’t lived through any such dramatic turn of events, but I know this: I’m over fifty. To and from?

This is to, and from. This is where I was going. This is where I begin.

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Farewell to Winter

Like most everyone I know, there are aspects of this winter that I won’t miss. The bitter cold that stung my face nearly every time, it seems, I walked outside. The ice patches on driveways and parking lots, lying in wait, requiring such vigilance that I had to watch every step. Events canceled, flights delayed, traffic snarls. Energy bills—it’s been a cold, cold winter. Even today, in early March, the temperature started out in the teens.

Yesterday was even colder. But I bundled up and went out anyway. And as I walked about (and yes, when the wind hit me, it stung my face), I realized as I usually do that I will miss winter, in some ways.

On snowshoes I crested a small hill and looked over the nine-hole golf course next to our development. Standing in the quiet, I realized I had it all to myself. Striding along a row of trees I followed in the footprints of deer, cleft hooves showing at the bottom of the wells their legs make in the drifts. The stream that drains the pond was running, and at my approach a cloud of ducks rose and honked away. I hoped they would return soon, descending again like a curtain pulled behind me.

Still there were no people. And I thought of spring: golfers, and golf carts; I will be banished from the cart paths. There is a narrow strip of woods abutting the golf course, and I left the path, winding between trees and deadfalls, walking in my snowshoes atop the drifts. I thought: Only in winter is this possible, to wander in the woods with such ease, the snowflakes lifting me above the forest floor, the undergrowth sparse, the insects gone.

There were more tracks, and mysterious tunnelings in the snow; places where squirrels had been eating something (pine cones? bark?) and left flakes of it behind. We’ve not had fresh snow for a few days now, and the wind had sprinkled the pure white with flecks of brown, fallen from the trees. As I came to the edge of the woods I saw that the gusts had shaken the rest of last year’s leaves from the old oak that stands there. They were spread around it on the snow, brown and withered, as if the last of winter, spent, can now let go.

Let go, and spring will come, and spring will be welcome. Still, as I stood in the open park and looked back, I was struck by the beauty of the sky in winter overcast, a wash of yellowish, pearly gray along the horizon, easing to darker clouds above.

Spring will be welcome. But winter too has had its moments.

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This is a repost from a couple of years ago, in honor of today’s snow.

I know a lot of people would say I’m crazy – but I feel a little sad, that winter’s almost over and the snow is melting fast.

What could be more magical than gazing out the window, aimlessly, when suddenly you become aware that the tiniest of white flakes is drifting down from the sky? Slowly, elegantly; and then you see another – but “see” is a word that feels too directed. It’s more like another flake appears, registers on your visual field. It’s so subtle an experience that if you were actually focusing your attention out the window, you might not see the snow falling, at all.

Again, I know that most people think I’m crazy, to feel that little pang at goodbye. The blanket of snow on the lawn has been there for days now, days that have seen the thermometer stuck below 20 degrees. I know the cold can be tiresome. But even after months of cold weather I’m entranced by this sight: the slow drift and float of the solitary snowflake to earth.

In a few weeks I won’t see it again, until next winter. Next winter, when we’ve just battened down the hatches against the cold, when we’re deep in the longest dark of the year; and we look out to see that for the first time in eight or nine months, snow is falling.

Snow is mysterious. It’s frozen water – but it’s nothing like ice. It’s a complicated process, the formation of snow from water vapor, up in the clouds; and the more complex the individual snowflake, the more stages involved in its evolution – a snowflake quite literally “grows.” The delicate structure with which we’re familiar – the lacy snowflake that’s emblazoned on everything from Christmas ornaments to ski sweaters – has been duplicated in the laboratory, using special equipment. However, snow in large quantities is hard to make. The snow-making “cannons” used at ski resorts can’t make snow crystals, but only frozen droplets that look nothing like even simple snowflakes, under a magnifier. (And are a weak substitute to ski on, or so I’m told).

W.A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake, in 1884. I have a book of his photos – my dad bought it years ago. Titled Snow Crystals, the first edition was published in 1931.  It contains 2,453 photographs of snowflakes (and a few frost patterns).  The intricacy of the patterns on its pages is a marvel – and as you might expect, no two are exactly alike.

Thumbing through the book the other day, it occurred to me that until the science of optics created magnifying lenses, people had no concept of the structure of the individual snowflake.  We didn’t know it existed, this infinite world of beauty.

Mr. Bentley, I discovered, was driven by a similar thought.  A teenager on a Vermont farm when he began his lifelong obsession, he had to first beg his parents to invest in an expensive camera.  Then, through a frustrating process of trial and error, he taught himself how to capture the image of a single snowflake. It took him two seasons to succeed.  He continued to photograph snowflakes, with very little reward or recognition, for the next 47 years.  (He died just weeks after the initial publication of Snow Crystals.)

His motivation was not only scientific curiosity, but a passionate reverence for the beauty of snow.  “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,” he told an interviewer in 1925.  “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.  When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

So he resolved to be the guardian of that beauty, and its champion. He took over 5,000 photographs, laboring winter after winter in an unheated room in his farmhouse. For most of his life, the public paid very little attention. (In fact, at the first local showing of his photographic slides, he had only six attendees.)

But the lack of recognition didn’t stop him. He truly loved snow – and he had to show it to the world, in a way that they had never seen it before. Surrounded by neighbors who thought of winter as a condition simply to be endured, he had to share with them what he had found – the mysterious, incomparable beauty of snow.

I think like me he must have felt just a tinge of sadness, as spring drew near and the snow began to melt.

Quoted material from interview with W.A. Bentley, The American Magazine, February, 1925.

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It was cold, colder than even old Hans – the oldest person in the village – could remember. Pieter said it was so cold that the wings of the birds froze and they fell from the air like stones, but we knew it wasn’t true. We saw their black shapes flapping across the dull sky, and standing like iron statues in the bare branches of the trees.

That story was just Pieter trying to explain coming back empty-handed. Anna and I saw him return, with the other hunters, walking stiff-legged in the deep snow. The dogs followed behind, tails down, too cold to nip at each other, even the biggest of them loping along as if exhausted. The hunters hadn’t much to show. Only one of them had a long, skinny fox slung over his shoulder – just one, not much for the stewpot. The animals were all hiding somewhere, trying to keep warm. “Porridge for supper tonight,” I said, as we stood looking out the window.

“I wish we could have turkey,” Anna said, standing on the bench so she could see out, her small hands balled in fists, resting on her apron.

Her disappointment pained me. I eyed the huddled magpies perched in the ice-rimed trees along the lane. Not enough flesh there to tease an arrow.

As cold as it was, the hunters didn’t linger together, didn’t pull out pipes and light them while deciding whether to go home, or into Veykert’s tap room. They dispersed, and Pieter came in with a great bustle, stomping his feet at the door before sitting down to pull off his shoes.

“Are you cold Pieter?” Anna asked. She didn’t say anything to him about wanting a turkey dinner. For a small child Anna is perceptive. An old soul, Mama says.

“Just my fingers and my nose,” Pieter said, and touched an icy finger to Anna’s neck so that she shrieked and laughed. “It’s so cold out the foxes are hiding,” he told us, and then the tall tale about the birds falling, frozen, from the sky.

While Pieter was gone we had swept the floor with clean sand and scrubbed the table and the cooking pots. We had no work left to do, so Anna and I returned to the window while Pieter sat on a stool in front of the fire, smoking his pipe. Out in front of the tap room, the Veykerts were building a fire to singe the hair off the last of their pigs. Would that we had a pig to roast!

Down in the valley we saw a woman cross the snowy white of the bridge, carrying a bundle of wood on her back – an anonymous woman, dressed like anyone in our village, a white apron, and headcloth; the edge of a dark skirt above dark stockings. Not until she was halfway up the hill did we recognize her. “It’s Mama!” Anna called out, and jumped down. A few minutes later our mother came through the door.

“The mill wheel’s frozen,” she announced. I wondered what old Hans would say about that. I helped her unsling the bundle of branches from her back – none any thicker than my arm. “Not a stick to waste,” she said, as she tossed a piece on the dwindling fire. Pieter had jumped up too, when she came in. “How was the hunt Pieter?” she asked. He just shook his head. She put out a hand, rubbed his arm. After a moment she said, “Well, spring’s not so far off now,” and turned to us to see about the porridge.

Later that evening – we were in bed early and under a pile of quilts, to save the firewood – Mama told us that while gathering wood she’d watched some boys playing at stones on the river. I could imagine the whisper of the big stones as they slid over the ice, bound for the target. On a warmer day we might have gone down ourselves, to watch, or to skate around the pool at the river’s bend. Anna cannot skate yet, but sometimes Pieter puts her on the lid of Mama’s largest basket and tows her behind him. Pieter is a good skater, as was our father. I am not – a sad affliction, for a young person in our village, but there it is.

When Mama was done talking, I thought Pieter might tell us something about the hunt. I waited, but he was quiet. Probably because he didn’t bring back anything for us to eat, I thought, and I felt bad for him, so disappointed in himself. Still, I envied him.

I imagined trudging through the dark, quiet closeness of the woods, where the foxes make their lairs, safe from the biting wind. Then coming out from the trees, and the sudden white of the wide, frozen fields spread before me, bright even beneath the hushed, grey-green sky, about to drop its burden of snow. I pictured the village sprinkled along the valley, the edges of the thatched roofs peeking out from under a frosting of white, everything so tiny from a distance: a cart like a toy moving slowly along the road, the game players Mama had been watching just specks moving on the glass of the frozen river.

I imagined standing in the sharp cold, the air frosty in my throat, when a big shaggy hound bounded up to lean against me. Waiting for me to show him where we would go next. I imagined all the world spread out before me under a blanket of white; and a thin wisp of smoke, coming up from the village, reaching my nose and reminding me I would be going home, in a while.

I envied him.

Pieter Brueghel, Hunters in the Snow

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Stranger in the Snow

I love this time of day: the sunset glowing pink on the snow, light lingering in the sky while the backs of the condos across the courtyard are falling into shadow.

Yesterday comes back to me, when we walked in the overcast in the falling snow. “Look,” Sally said on the bridge, “paw prints all alone, without a person’s.” I looked down and saw them – small but spaced apart, suggesting a loping kind of gait, keeping to the edge of the bridge. They were so fresh they had not yet begun to fill up with snow.

We followed them, down off the span over the river, along the trail and then, into the field. It was harder to see the tracks there, broken and lost in tufts of grass, but we managed; saw where you investigated a jumble of dead wood, followed your meandering path this way and that. We tracked you through a grove of bushes and Sally, watching in the distance, called out “Look!” I lifted my head and saw a hunched, dark shape, moving fast among the bare trees at the bottom of the hill. “It looks almost like a cat,” Sally said. But we knew you were not a cat – even from a distance, we could see you were larger, heavier than a cat.

You disappeared from sight. Sally started to turn away, wanting to leave you be; but I argued for another glimpse. We pushed forward, crossing the field, and rejoined your prints where they circled a big hollow tree. Had you gone up inside? There was such a muddle of prints, it was hard to say. Maybe you did, we thought; or maybe you vanished into a burrow waiting for you on the hillside.

We went back to our planned route: up the hill and onto the mountain bike path, looping and twining its way along the wooded hillside. A squirrel jabbered at us from high in a tree; I spotted five deer moving in the field below and pointed to them as they raced out of sight. Later it was Sally’s turn to point out a herd of deer that faded silently into the brown and gray of winter thicket.

Along the river a small bird flew out from under the dry grass on the bank, then sailed right back in, disappearing. Ice had formed on downed logs; it spiraled out from the trunks of trees and made chutes in all the spills and falls. The river chuckled through, unconcerned, flowing under the ice where it spread in sheets and hurrying out the other side. Around the bend where the river widens and picks up speed, I could see chunks of slush racing toward us, and where a willow trailed its fingers in the water they were coated in white, bobbing in heavy suits of ice. I thought of the sugar crystals we grew on strings hanging in syrup, in elementary school. We stopped for a moment and looked down; at our feet, the water was roiling and thickening like some kind of ice soup. We could hear it slipping along the white-edged banks, whispering and shushing as it went.

The world was mysterious: the snow slowly coming to earth; the gray, muted light; the rushing water whispering with ice; the deer that kept their distance and seeing us, slipped silently into the trees. But nothing was as mysterious as you, stranger, who walked just before us across the steel and timber bridge and trotted, steps ahead, into the yellow straw of the winter field; disappearing when we spooked you, leaving only small footprints filling with snow.


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