December 2, 2013
LIVING IN THE DARK OF MIDWINTER
MONTPELIER – Now that the winter solstice is all but upon us, we’re obliged to accomplish in the dark a lot of things that, in brighter times, we do by daylight. Rising before dawn, I’m gratified to know the location of everything I need to get dressed for the day. Without turning on a light, I can select any shirt by location and find the trousers I want. Trouble sometimes arises when I exercise inadequate care in taking down a pair of shoes from their top shelf. They’re arranged in pairs, of course, and I know where each pair sits up there. I grab the desired pair in one hand, sit down in the dark, and put them on. But a few times now I’ve shown up – for breakfast with the boys on Friday, for example – with shoes from adjoining pairs, and on the wrong feet.
It’s like the time I emptied my Winchester at a bear running in a circle whose perimeter included me, and as far as I know, never hit him. I sat in the snow afterward wondering whether to tell on myself a story that would never fade, or say nothing about it and avoid the embarrassment of being such a lousy and excitable shot. Just as then, I can’t resist; I point out the weird-looking feet attached to my legs. I hope for my family’s sake that nobody mentions it at my funeral.
Ascending the driveway late Thanksgiving afternoon, I noticed a veritable parade of footprints entering the the yard. “Ah, the deer are back!” I thought; but crossing from the barn to the house, I could see each deer apparently had three long, skinny toes in front and one in back. The wild turkeys had returned. Could their arrival on Thanksgiving evening have been only a coincidence?
Probably not. More likely, it was that we’d had our first ground-covering snow the day before – the snow that will no doubt be with us now till April. The turkeys’ usual feeding spots were newly buried. Then one of the bright lights in the flock said, :”Hey, remember that place up on the edge of the pine woods where they put out cracked corn all last winter? Let’s check that out. If there isn’t any, at least they’ll see our tracks and be reminded to start it up again.” We saw the tracks, and the corn is now scattered on the snow. Very soon the view from my office window will get a lot livelier, and the lives of the turkeys a bit less difficult.
There are other tracks out there, too, in the fresh new snow. There’s the neighborhood phantom, a gray, probably feral, feline that looks like a Maine coon cat. It circles the house each night. We’ve seen it once or twice, as it dove for cover in the junipers. I should leave a garage door open about six inches at night; there’s quite a colony of mice in there somewhere, and they sometimes build nests in the air cleaner of Mother’s Prius. And of course the deer are everywhere. Invisible all summer back in the old beaver swamp, they don’t seem to mind much being seen in the winter. They just step out of the way when the truck comes up the driveway at night.
It’s a time for intimacy between warm-blooded creatures. Gray jays that are also nearly invisible in summertime come flitting silently for hand-held treats in the winter. The birds at the feeder – chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, woodpeckers, doves – don’t seem to mind us watching them through the window only three feet away. Human creatures – the ones that either can’t or don’t want to get away South – sit closer together in the evenings, facing the stove with a lamp at their shoulders and the darkness at their backs. And afterward, with the bedroom heat turned off and a window open, a verse from the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes describes it beautifully: “...if two lie together, then they have heat; but how can one be warm alone?” This is a powerful argument for settling domestic disputes before bedtime in midwinter.
A week or so ago a powerful wind- and snowstorm blew through northern New Hampshire during one of our nights at hunting camp. The trees thrashed and howled, and sleety snow beat at the windows. Out on the porch an hour or so after midnight, holding onto a post to keep from being blown off, I remember thinking what an awful night it was to be a deer: not enough snow to make a proper bed; cold rain soaking through to their skin; trees threatening to crash down anywhere. But it’s the deep cold of January and the deep snow of February that most gets them.
It’s the deep darkness that seems to get to human beings the most. We can handle cold pretty well, but there’s no escaping the dark. At this writing, sunrise still has about 20 minutes to lose before it begins to rebound, though the days will begin to lengthen in only three weeks. If it weren’t for the snow on the ground, it’d take me forever to find the garage in the early morning.
Just to check out who’s got it worse, I e-mailed my friend Larry in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, on the Arctic coast of Canada at 68º08’ north, and asked how his daylight is doing. His response: "Officially the sun is rising at 11:11 and setting at 13:48. That’s at the airport. Here at the house the sun disappeared on November 25 and will be gone until the middle of January.” I remember standing on Larry’s back deck once on an endless summer day. He pointed to the town’s oil tanks just up the hill. “The sun first appears for a couple of minutes between those two tanks up there.” That’s Larry’s first sign of spring. The river breaks up about six months later. No wonder he goes south for winter vacations in Alberta, where you can have a great time in the West Edmonton Mall, the largest in North America: swim in the second-largest indoor pool in the world, ride an incredible roller coaster, shop at Victoria’s Secret, stay in a hotel, and never go outdoors.
I wonder if I could talk Mother into a week in the Edmonton Mall in late winter, board surfing in the world’s largest wave pool, instead of a week in Georgia or Arkansas. But I have a feeling the suggestion might cause her to embrace her inner darkness.