It almost seemed like a sultry evening in late September.

If you didn’t know better, you could have convinced yourself for a few moments in the mid-January late afternoon that the Maine landscape slipping by the windshield was the immediate aftermath of late summer’s harvest.

The light was right – a soft, almost liquid glow under a hazy sun that looked more like an August sun dawdling in humidity at the day’s end. There was no drifting fog or steam rising from the fields, but the snow had leveled almost everything, as though harvesters had just cut through and cleared the ground for as far off as the horizon.

The dog and I were wheeling by, the finally cleared roadway secure under the tires, no alarm about black ice or unexpected patches of pack to throw us off. Only winterkill that looked like desert spike plant and Navajo sedge out in what was left of furrows and fallow, hard-frozen ground.

A sudden wash of quiet and peace swept through me, as though I had driven the car into another dimension. All the weighty chores of surviving a tedious month of snow and ice, and then more snow and more ice, fell away and I could pretend – for more than just an instant – that winter was over and spring had passed and even summer was slipping away again – a compression of a year of seasons into seconds.

It wasn’t so much what was there, out in the meadows beyond the barns off the back roads; it was the absences that turned the human calendar inside out and upside down and for a time delivered us from the dead of winter. Not a house in sight had a fireplace or wood stove lifting smoke like incense into the air. No one was knocking icicles from the eaves or dragging a rake through a shag of snow on a pitched roof.


In fact, there was something oddly empty about the landscape, as though a marauding army had marched through weeks earlier and left behind little evidence of its siege. In the quiet of the graying hour, I saw only one image to remind me that the farms were still occupied with living creatures: Three hefty, muddy dairy cows stood, patient as Job, in a small pen, not moving, not chewing, not jostling – just holding there, almost as still as specters.

They stayed where they had been penned, and the dog and I stayed on track, too, moving along on our journey, which involved the transfer of coins and the purchase of gasoline and food, pharmaceuticals and a few newspapers. We passed a few mom-and-pop stores where no one seemed to be shopping, throttled by prim country churches where no preparations were under way for ham and bean dinners or mid-week Bible study.

For about three minutes – which can seem an eternity on a January afternoon thawing into dusk – it felt as if time and motion were suspended, stopped and everything in the landscape was stilled, except for the car drawn along the road like a lure trawling from the stern of a fishing boat.

In a lazy summer frame of mind (rather than the ragged alert of winter driving) I found myself imagining us from above, the one obviously moving thing below, following the curves and straightaways of the road, as though pulled along by a force greater than a combustion engine, something more like gravity or inertia, a power invisible, with elemental influence.

And then it was gone, the apocryphal moment, the fiction that little histories had come to an end. Right then it was January again, and I knew the cold waited just outside the moving steel box we inhabited during the migration from the grocery store to a humble cabin in the woods.

Arriving home, we returned to a cleared space that was as icy as a rink, except for the spots where the neighbor had spread sand and good will to keep us going. I got the dog out of the mini-SUV, and she opted immediately for skating on all fours with a puppy’s instinct for scrambling and splayed legs, tumbling and a thrashing recovery of upright posture.


I walked as though negotiating a moonscape, my boots scraping along without ever lifting from the ground. But I am still waiting for a new knee to be installed, so I was trying hard not to let the unpredictable weather and its impact strip any of my other still-operative gears.

The sky was still gray as slate, but the blush of the beginning of a deep red sunset rose amid the stripped trees, a few beech leaves aloft on their branches, yellow and erect as candle flames, the conifers dense as woolen coats for a Inuit winter.

All that still lies ahead, I’m sure – mounds and mountains more of plowed snow, cross-country ski tracks the closest thing to a walking path in the woods, the deer’s browse reminding us that brokenness is part of becoming whole.

We’ll make it to the hour of the anemone, when the ticking of nature opens the rare trillium like a pocket watch timed for spring. We just have to keep our snow-sodden eyes open, let our cold hearts thaw, and believe.

Enduring the winter: It’s just another rendition on survival and regeneration, working out, under challenges that seem too overpowering to conquer, what it means to sculpt from harsh existence the shape of a worthy life.

North Cairn can be reached at 207-274-0792 or at:

[email protected]

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