I love the climb down into winter as much as the climb up into spring. Winter is a magical time in the country. The white carpet of snow quilts the air of most sound except for distant crows call from remote woodsides and the occasional yips and howls of coyotes on the hunt for wild turkeys and young deer in the surround woodlots. The snow day with a blizzard wind closes all in and a fire, a glass of wine and a good book carry the day.
This morning the lake is steaming and rising under the first rays of early November sunlight. It is as if it was being heated from below from a gas burner. Most of the birds have departed for the season except hardy woodpeckers, nuthatches, finches and blue jays and the squirrels are finalizing their winter provisions. I too prepare myself for the time of drawing in and merging with this great movement of nature. It is the ‘shoulder season’, between summer and winter and is full of promise and we close in on the completion of another ellipse around our sun, oblivious to the 12,000 miles per hour we are travelling. Such uniqueness it is to be human!
We hear now of snow approaching from the northwest within a few days. While we know each snowflake is a unique creation to appear for only a brief time and nevermore, we still coalesce them in our thoughts as an aggregate we call winter. Our thicker coats and gloves await their turn. The lake waves to us its final adieus as turtles burrow into the bottom mud on the shallow eastern beaches and dream of spring. The mornings are become farther apart.
I awoke before the birds. There is the slightest sliver of deep red in the east, distinct against the sharp edges of the low clouds, but now fading to softer pastels. A storm is forming over the mountains to our west that will bring us uncertain weather. It is a season of jarring anticipation. The approach of the season’s first snow is a crossing of our emotional Rubicon. It is crossed without us taking a step. It is nature’s way of cleansing her palette.
The day before the rains. I am forced to squint as I look at the sun reflecting off the wave tops with a golden intensity. We all swim in the same lake of energy. Lucretius’ indestructible atoms destruct into yet smaller particles – there seeming no end to the divisions. The seedless cottonwoods are finally beginning to undress. All is in motion. There are no things, only events.
I hear a clacking commotion coming from a distance. I look up to the treetops to see what it could be. Louder still now. I look up and there – two large strings of sandhill cranes in V formation heading southwest. It is an odd guttural metallic sound that scrapes across the sky – receding in intensity until they are well out of sight. Conquerors of the sky from the far North, like invading Vikings.
A battleship gray morning breaks. Molecules are in motion. The fields now sport whitecaps much like the lakes who await their winter scales. The birds of the deeper forest come closer to civilization looking for handouts. Like water turning to ice, the season changes phase and solidifies – a rare beauty too easily dismissed. In winter one must pay attention.
Grey, the middle tone between pure white and pure black, devoid of color and subtlety – a fitting motif for the arriving season. The air is emptied of summer's sweet aromas and most sounds of the air. The sun now casts long shadows even at midday. It is the season for cleansing of the slate of nature and our souls. A time of transition from the summer life of human doing to the winter life of human being.
The early snow, first hoped to be a transient event, appears now to remain a constant presence. From the north it arrived with a whipping-post wind and powder coated the landscape, outlining the geometry of the plow. Not yet deep enough to cover the tops of the furrows, it imparts a look of whitecaps on the fields. The skeletons of corn remain – a testament to their momentary existence. The lake still waves to me each morning, but I can tell it is tired and wishing a slumber. Our sap returns to our roots to retain its heat. We await the equinox. Time slows. All is as it should be.
The winds blow again today – rising up like howling coyotes on the hunt and the house quivers during the gusts. A fine snow begins – a light salting from the heavens – heavier now with sideways flakes hurled about at the mercy of the wind. The rivers and creeks still flow while a white carpet covers their banks. The birds stay to the lee side of the trees and tuck in their heads closer to their breasts for warmth. Squirrels chase each other around the trunks of trees in their play, seeming not to mind the gale. I enter the scene and merge with it. Today will not happen again in all of time and I honor its impermanent beauty.
It is the sound of the wind that compresses our senses. The gusts arise with a howl, and we look up to what what its plans are. White noise from the scraping against our world – countless molecules in transit – driven into motion by burning hydrogen 93 million miles distant. Our awareness is the last link in a chain of unfathomable connections. We are congealed wind and there is no separation between us and our sun
The ponds have now just begun to skim over while the lakes and rivers remain open. Trumpeter swans announce their arrival with a sonority that echoes from the pines surrounding the bay. It is the sound of communion of kindred spirits, loud and joyful. They appear out of the sky like a ghostly squadron of long-lost fighter pilots running low on fuel. Gliding in They gather in the shallows refueling. Soon they will depart and disappear again into their own mysteries.
Nature sculpts her works from available materials and puts them on public display daily. We live within the walls of her gallery yet most of her creations remain unheralded. What a gentle touch she must have to form the tops of snowdrifts into graceful arcs that mimic shape of the tops of mountain ranges from the air – casting her beauty across vastly different scales. While our roads and city blocks are straight and our corners square, her mountains range and her rivers meander. We would do well to reminder there are no straight lines in nature.
It is the sound of the wind that compresses our senses. The gusts arise with a howl, and we look up to see what its plans are. White noise from the scraping against our world – countless molecules in transit – driven into motion by a ball of burning hydrogen 93 million miles distant. Our awareness is the last link in a long chain of unfathomable connections. We are congealed wind and there is no separation between us and the sun.
Darkness now comes sooner. The mornings are further apart and we look inward more than outward. Yet now I see the smallest sliver of dawn outlining the distant hills across the water. It is as If the sun is rising for me rather than me turning beneath it. The birds have not yet awakened and my coffee is my best company. At this hour it matters not if all was created by a planful Maker or arrived through the machinations of processes devoid of will – I am here and grateful for it – whatever the case may be. Is not gratitude the greatest prayer, beyond any belief?
It is almost December and while the ponds have skinned over, the lake remains largely free of ice, surprising us. An otter rolls up onto the thinnest sliver of ice and languidly eats his fresh caught perch under the warming sun. A bald eagle approaches for attack from above but suddenly glides off after gauging the size of the meal. The world is a hungry place, and it confronts our sensibilities that life must eat life to survive. We are reminded we were not placed in this world but came out of it – the earth ‘peopled’ – and we have kinship with even the smallest grain of sand on the longest beach.
We look at a tree but don’t really see the entire tree because we can’t see its roots. So, we think the tree is only what is above ground. It is the same with men, we only see what above ground is and never see their roots, being either deep or shallow.
6:30 AM. It is still dark as midnight. Mercury vapor excited by movements in distant power plants outline the farms. Again, we await a winter storm, yet the day has begun with a light rain, so very rare in December. Wonder, and anticipation merge. It is all fog and drizzle now, but soon it will turn. It is a day made for the likes of me.
The winters now arrive and depart faster than in my youth. It is fashionable to complain about the cold, yet I will not cheapen the day and wish it pass. Each season must be lived fully, and it is now the season to gather the acorns of thought we laid up in the fall – it is the season of the life of mind. I step outside and hear the single caw of a crow faintly echoing in the distance – a lonesome yet joyous sound. He releases his strain just for me. Weightless telescopes telescopes reach the heavens and soon the circling stars above may tell us of what they know.
The caw of a crow cuts through this blizzard wind and reaches my ear. I see him now, on a branch high above the drifts on the shore, not far off. They are self-aware creatures – they know that they know – and in that, we share more with them than many other species. The Norse gods have decreed yet another day for fire and book. Let the snow and wind rage outside and our thoughts linger sweetly inward.
The snow underfoot crackles like a woodfire as sundogs chase the dawn through the frigid air. The atoms have slowed their frenetic pace, and we perceive the change as cold. Below ground the council of roots consider their plans for the distant spring. The lake finally surrendered and slipped quietly into its winter coat. We near the nadir of this season of repose and await the solstice. The evening star never looks so pristine as through the windows of home on a December eve.
It is now fully winter, and the skies belong to the raptors. Geese and swans have departed and the chickadee’s lisp and flit amongst the bare branches. Snow beckons to our south and the sky is appropriately darkened there. Soon we will swing around on our elliptic arc and the sun will begin to linger longer in the western twilight. It is this annual cycle of light and dark, warm and cold, that reconstitutes our souls. Nature is a gold pendulum which marks its own time. She will not be rushed.
We are a curious species – forever curious about what’s around the bend, over the hill and beyond the stars. Nature too seeks to expand her horizons, to send her roots deeper into the earth to explore fertile soil, to spread her seeds to the wind, to cast herself far and wide to the unknown. Where there is no curiosity there is boredom. To wonder is to live humbly. Life asks us only to be present.