With the blistering cold, the skeletons of weed shatter and what remains of the soft tissue bursts apart.
If the landscape were not a shroud of gray and white, the widowed oaks, their tattered veils clattering in the mourn-shocked cold, I would almost think these exploded flares of cattails had been spent some distant time ago. Long gone past brown into some emptied, lighter shade approaching more nearly the dried reeds and the creeks’ sedge, they are slipping into the uniformity of shapeless death. They are the epitome of decline, of ruin, their insides spilling out, the very form of them drifting off in tufts, carried into the fields, the meadows, the moors.
As long as I do not have to fear for myself in the frozen landscape, tracing the back roads toward town, or for the safety of the dog, alone all day, in a windy cold house, I imagine the winter world an isolate haven, a whole realm in which I – or we, with the dog alongside – can move as though all time stood still, holding its breath against the piercing, icy glare of a day come to nothing.
If I could possibly stand it, endure the frozen, hardened heart of the winter, indefinitely, and be out walking amid the staunch trees and the tracks of animals that cannot come in from the cold except for burrows and basements and leaf nests, I might stay out all season, gathering fistfuls and armloads of dried weeds, wild carrot and cattail, to insulate my indoor imagination and keep me dreaming of the fire, the heat of high summer, the green fields and white fences running on forever.
But as it is, I must load myself down like everyone else, haul heavy canvas saddlebags of wood from the stack in the lean-to indoors, nearer the wood stove, and make a real blaze to stoke with the ends of my dreams and the scant forms of wishes still to come true.
Winter, some say, is the time of contemplation, and that’s true here as far as it goes, where the little A-frame cabin rises from the earth like an arrowhead, as if to send the vision skyward, up, to aspiration and hopes and the heavens.
But it does not go far enough for me, in the low light of a day of clouds, when the afternoon ebbs like a running tide. Those who say such things – that the stilled landscape fills them with the longing for something more from their lives – imagine themselves, I think, pondering existence at the edge of a frozen lake or ice-ribbed bay, the gibbous moon overhead, the shimmer of something like clarity or cold calculation, under a full moon or a sky trickling stars.
Sometimes the dead of winter offers up the high mass of precise vision or simplicity pared to perfection, unencumbered by all the extravagances and indulgences of seed time or harvest. I see with greater insight and outlook now that the leaves have fallen away and the only cover comes with the dissipating light of mid-afternoon and a forest still so crowded with trunks and skinned branches that a human or a deer, unmoving, becomes as obscure as a birch or broad as a boulder in the landscape.
Everything blends and fits. And disappears.
Give me this landscape to get lost in, I pray, murmuring my little petitions to the arching indifferent sky, turning a cold shoulder on the day. Here, where color has ebbed away, and the hillsides seem Siberian with cold, I can drain myself of extraneous thought and fretful worry. I can forget myself, think my life is just this faithful dog and me – more than enough fidelity and love for a stranger in an unfamiliar land.
There is nothing else to need or desire. This is what completion must be, the knowledge that everything you once had has been finished and time for more has left without you, like a slow-moving train bound neither for migration’s end stop or a welcome home.
I am as soft as the heart of the cattail now and prefer it this way, breaking into a thousand tomorrows, seeds with no sense of beginning or fear of the end.
Let it go, they say, wafting away, their substance lighter than the nudging of the wind, departing like forgotten wishes or clinging regret. Let it all go.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: