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A Yankee Notebook

February 6, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – We went to our daughter and son-in-law’s home for snacks and football Sunday evening, and nothing seemed to go right except the visit. I thought The Game was supposed to start at six; instead, we endured another half-hour of wisdom from old football experts trying to get us more eager than we already were. Then, in spite of my shouted instructions, the Patriots foolishly tried to pass from their own end zone on their first play from scrimmage and discovered (big surprise!) every receiver was covered. Brady threw it away. Safety. Geez!

Then Madonna, again in spite of my repeated imprecations, sang unintelligible lyrics for far longer than I had thought it possible anybody could stand. Were those stomping soldiers in her act Greek, Spartan, Roman, or Egyptian? She went on till about 8:20. Mother and I had to leave for home at 8:30 to catch the next installment of [it] Downton Abbey [it] on PBS. At the end of it – Mrs. Bates dead on the floor, murdered; Lord Crawley gazing with appraising eyes upon the new housemaid, while I screamed, “No, no, Robert! Take a cold shower!”; and The butler, Carson, about to depart for a new situation that could end only in calamity – I switched back to NBC just in time to see a mob of exhilarated football players in white uniforms running across the field toward their locker room. I didn’t need the details. I switched off the television and drowned my sorrows in [it[ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [it] till bedtime. There was no joy in Mudville. The only immediate consolation was Bill Littlefield’s weekly refrain on NPR: It’s only a game.

Then, as if to show us he felt our pain and was downright sorry about our defeated warriors, Thor sent us a beautiful Monday morning. The sun, rising above the ridge to our east, threw shadows of the east window mullions across the living room floor. The house faces solar south, so the shadows slanted northward; but the angle was much less extreme than it was only a few weeks ago. Soon it will be straight across the floor, and as May slides into June, the rays of sunlight will come in through the north windows. As I write this, we’re already enjoying 69 minutes more of sunlight than we did just before Christmas.

Out in the turnaround behind the house, normally a death-defying shuffle to the garage, the sun was strong enough to melt the ice, even though the ambient temperature was below freezing. There was no water running away; the ice was sublimating: changing from a solid to a gas without first melting. I opened the garage door so the sun could attack the sheet of ice inside that was clamping my trash cans to the floor like Super Glue.

It was hard to escape the notion that Nature and circumstances were conspiring to relieve our self-induced grief. A syrup-making friend e-mailed to tell me that his taps were already in, and he expected to hear any day now that wonderful doink-doink sound of sap hitting the bottom of the buckets. The largest trees in the sugar bush are already beginning to develop what geologists call, in a different context, a fosse around each: The term comes from its resemblance to medieval defensive works. The dark tree bark, absorbing the sun’s heat, radiates it onto the snow around the tree, melting it back in a circular ditch. On a glacier or a snow field, it occurs around dark rocks or between the snow field and the mountain itself.

On the snow itself, there are snow fleas everywhere, looking for love. Springtails, they’re called by bugologists; but their resemblance to fleas is enough to make you itch as you pass.

We’ve finally passed meteorological midwinter, halfway between fall and spring weather. It’s called Groundhog Day, and probably came here from Germany with the Pennsylvania Dutch, who ascribed prophetic powers to marmots or badgers and transferred them to the humble American woodchuck. Before that, it was Candlemas Day, when all the candles to be used in the church the coming year would be blessed. Even before that, it was the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary, having completed the required 40 days after the birth of her child, appeared at the Temple with her son and some offerings, to be ritually purified by the priests, and to have the son blessed. Patriarchy, it appears, is a historical-cultural thing, enshrined in religion.

Be that as it may, the background gloom of Monday morning was lifted measurably when my wife announced that over half our winter’s oil allotment was left. I checked my woodpile. Yep! more than half of that is left, too. “Half your wood and half your hay should still be left on Candlemas Day” is the old New England adage, propounded long ago by early rustic sages and reinforced by hundreds of years of experience. We were going to make it. With the strengthening sun in the south windows and on the solar hot water panels on the roof, and the fuel still left, we’d probably be crouching over snowdrops and crocuses before anything important gave out.

Even with evidence of a warming climate all around us, it would be foolish to dare to think that the winter’s weather so far will continue. That same old Norse god who gave us the beautiful morning-after, hates to be taken for granted. Tonight, as I look up at a moon one night from the full, I can also look at the week’s weather forecast and see icy weather sweeping down from Manitoba. I know it’s going to be a really cold weekend because (1) I’m going camping with some Boy Scouts, and (2) hundreds of my fellow Yankees are headed north for the fabled Canadian Ski Marathon, a two-day bash through the frozen bushes of the Ottawa Valley. By then I’ll no longer be ripping articles about The Game from newspapers and magazines without reading them, and walks in the park can start almost half an hour later than they could a month ago. It’ll be strictly ice creepers down below, but warm sun on the face up top. It was only a game.

Photo by Willem lange