December 9, 2012

North Cairn: Winter's not just about the cold

You have to appreciate nuance if you would worship the winter.

True, bitter cold and hard storms are not the stuff of subtlety, but even there a certain joy in the stillness and ice of an almost wholly white landscape will carry you. You have to entertain a willingness to see beauty in a burden of snow, naturally, or notice how the sharp surgical cut of a -10 degree wind chill can energize you, all the while threatening to take off the tips of your ears.

But if you can get your whole self into the season, and see it for what it is -- rich and myriad in form and suggestions, muted color and the slightest of changes -- you will belong to the incomparable landscape that so many see as monochromatic and drab, though full of drama it might be for you.

Wallace Stevens put it much more eloquently, of course, in his poem, "The Snow Man," verse as minimalist and stripped to the bone as an oak bough rattling its last few brown-brittled leaves in the cold. He writes: 

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter 

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves, 

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. 

I thought about Stevens last weekend, when first a light snow dusted the yard behind the cabin, and later, as the weather warmed the world enough to turn the powder to a glaze of ice, so sheer and gray that for hours it seemed the forest was made of glass.

Finally, all the subtleties began to dampen and by the next morning, the land had given itself over to dream, an ethereal fog that stayed all day long, like smoke almost, from a distant fire. There was so much you couldn't see out there, the pines and hemlocks lurking like a battalion in the woods, their peaks as steady and threatening as the lances of an enemy prepared to fight.

But, in fact, I felt no foe as I went about my work alone, except for the dog -- a big companion, really, and in every way. We huddled in the car and drove off to the town maintenance barn, where a mound of sand had been left for residents to use on slick stairs and porches polished with cold. We filled a bucket and lugged it home.

There was still less than a half hour of light left in the day, after our chores were done, so I steered over toward Yarmouth,. I had been tipped off to a free stack of kindling available from a woodworker's discards, and we went in search of the bark-thin slips of molding, tossed aside from one purpose and gathered with a different intention -- in any case, a good, cold circle completed by the time I loaded a couple of armfuls into the trunk.

I felt like nothing out there, navigating in the fog, taking in only the vaguest lacy edges of fields and meadows, woods and farmland. The dog, I suppose, also felt that liberating sense of nothing to do, nothing not to do. She lay sprawled on the back seat, snoring, her red fur rustling in a slight billowing from the window, while I followed the white line on the pavement that led, at last, back home.

(Continued on page 2)

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