I could say it’s the lesser light, and more brief, since the shorter days, with dropping temperatures, are cues for plants and animals to turn toward winter. But here in the forest, winter is in the wind, carried on the smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
That scent of wood stoves, fired up with fuel, has become for me an almost atavistic prompt for winter. This year, having delayed buying firewood, I almost overlooked it. But I was not sure whether I would still be living in the cabin north of Gray, so the purchase of a cord never came up.
Summer, and then fall, came and went, but I never really got serious about relocating to another lair, and by mid-October I could tell my heart was set on staying put.
Still, during the last three months, many plans for change and the completion of household projects have fallen by the wayside. I never tilled or tended a garden, nor did I manage to finish unpacking crates that came with me from Massachusetts or box up items not being used here in Maine.
I even failed to arrange for firewood – a foolhardy oversight with the northern New England winter coming on. At the last moment I relied on the generosity of a neighbor who hauled over a half cord, and promised to split and stack the pile.
I have had one fire in the wood stove already this fall, a test run conducted when the landlord came down from up north to construct a new deck on the back of the rental house. He arrived, and jotted down on the back of an envelope all necessary repairs and timely chores to accomplish during his visit. Checking on the stove was simply one mental note among many during his spontaneous two-day project with the deck.
The stove had been stuffed with newspaper and kindling all summer, seemingly a sign of unusual forethought and preparedness for cold weather on my part. But I had merely run out of the need for heat before I exhausted the pile of last year’s kindling. One day in late spring, I had taken the time to fill the stove with alternating horizontal and vertical layers of crumpled newsprint, a few bits of downed limbs and ends of molding strips, figuring a day would come in early summer when I would still want to take the chill off an early morning.
But that day never came. A whole season and then a second expired, before I needed heat in the house at twilight. All summer the stove remained unused and cold, and even the advent of some chilly nights had not sent me scrambling for a rolled up section of newspaper and the strike-anywhere tip matches.
Then the other evening something unanticipated happened when I took the dog out into the deepening night. The moon was nearly full, its unfinished sliver appearing almost like liquid or steam along the edge. I was studying the sky and the dog was surveilling the yard when suddenly I sensed for the first time this winter that the neighbors – many of them – had turned to their wood stoves for heat that night.
The air was heavy with the scent of wood smoke and conifers, a kind of dusky pine fragrance that is as suggestive to me of winter as a few notes of music can be of lost innocence or love conveyed. For a few seconds, everything else in my world dimmed in my senses, the dark night dissolving into invisible landscape, stripping away what could be seen and amplifying only the kind and character of smoke in the night wind.
I felt suddenly, sublimely, completely happy – a feeling of homecoming, a familiarity with surroundings that have been almost memorized by long residence there.
We all define our sense of belonging in different ways, I think, often with family, many times within certain settings charged with memory perhaps or a feeling of peace. Odd, perhaps, to recover the same recognition in the ephemeral nature of smoke and cold night wind.
But there it was, a perfect convergence of place and time, person and mood. I swear in that moment I could have discerned the difference between smoke from an open fire, a stone hearth or a cast-iron stove, even if all I had to work with was the bite of winter and a dark night prickling with stars.
You might think it a small thing, this routine characteristic of the season, spelled out like Braille on the nights of late November. But for me it generates an atmosphere that is simultaneously serene and energizing, evoking an inner prompting of season and change, memory and migration, as sure as temperature or light for the animals pacing out their private destinies on the rim of my confined world.
Before the smoke dissipates, the snow will be upon us, and we will do what we can to make the cabin tight and insulated from cold and critters.
Many birds and animals will flee as they are able, crossing continents if necessary to reach warmth and food enough to bring a new generation into the world.
Meanwhile I will light a fire alone and fiddle with the flue to sustain the flame. I, too, will find a way into – and through – another winter. I will arrive in a new, familiar season, remembering the way back to the circle of fire and the cycle of the year. I will recall, then, the pungent fragrance of the home fires and all it means to survive.
North Cairn can be reached at 791-6325 or at: